Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice has all the problems we feared it would. This is Iron Man 2 on steroids. It’s a stepping stone, a get-rich-quick scheme by by a desperate studio Warner Bros. to ape the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Zack Snyder makes a macho-as-hell film that turns the titular characters into solipsistic Ubermensch. Meanwhile, the immense pressure to redeem Man of Steel, introduce Batman and the entire D.C. universe while actually telling a story proves too much for this single film to bear.
(SPOILERS FROM THE FILM BELOW)
Opening with a retellings of the murder of Bruce’s parents (cameos by Jeffrey Dean Morgan and Lauren Cohan) and Man of Steel‘s climax from Bruce Wayne’s (Ben Affleck) perspective, it quickly establishes itself as a movie with a lot on its plate and little in the way of momentum. Two years after the last film, Superman (Henry Cavill) has become the world’s savior but remains controversial and even hated in some circles. The film’s events drive Batman to see him as a global threat and confront him while Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg) manipulates both sides from behind the scenes.
A lot of stuff happens in between, none of it clear or linear. And none of this mentions the sprawling supporting cast featuring returnees Amy Adams, Diane Lane and Laurence Fishburne, newcomers like Jeremy Irons and Gal Gadot as the very first big screen Wonder Woman and the cameos by three future Justice Leaguers – The Flash (Ezra Miller), Aquaman (Jason Momoa) and Cyborg (Ray Fisher). And that’s even not including Doomsday, the Superman villain-turned-Orc ripoff. This movie is huge.
The film’s weaknesses intertwine corporate interests with aggressive Snyder-ism. This isn’t a movie but a morass. The first act’s editing is objectively terrible, a mess of scenes with little sense of flow between them. It feels pieced-together, a patchwork and hodgepodge of scenarios and ideas, some interesting some not but none given time to breath in between nonsense plot threads. No one is introduced in ways that properly set up their characters because of this. It feels very rearranged.
The film gets a shot-in-the-arm in the second act when it introduces Gal Gadot’s Diana Prince, otherwise known as Wonder Woman. Hey playfulness is sorely missed when she is not on-screen; the middle part of the film where she and Bruce attempt to steal from Luthor could have been a fun Thomas Crown Affair-like caper. Instead, the film barely notices before moving on.
The film is as dark as has been said. In Snyder’s conception, these “heroes” are ultimately fascistic figures who impose their will on the world instead of representations of ideals. The film mocks the idea of “justice” and gives almost no quarter to idealism. This is a blockbuster superhero movie with human trafficking, mass murder and torture. Were any of these things necessary to make the film “realistic?”
Snyder (and the film) argues that the D.C. superheroes are akin to the Greek gods, the cultural idols of our time. However, he also makes them as petulant, vengeful and angry as the Greek pantheon was. They were power-hungry and acted without quarter; that is exactly how the film portrays Batman and Superman.
Each character’s struggle, ostensibly the heart of the film and what drives them to fight, is opaque and dour. Occasionally, I would relate to Bruce’s feeling of helplessness or Clark’s damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t situation. But these windows are brief.
We are told Superman is adored for the good he’s done. But we see little of either. Happiness is nonexistent in this D.C. universe and, per the actual definition of superheroes, they don’t exist in it either yet. In fact, the movie goes out of its way to tell us that Superman, as we know him, is 1930s bullshit and we’d better get used to this “real” Superman.
Batman displays uncharacteristic recklessness with the lives of others. While previous big-screen Batmen were hardly saints, it’s rarely been this blatant about his lack of concern for loss of life. And it stands even more starkly after three fucking years of people bitching about Superman killing Zod. You think they would have learned.
Maybe the saddest part is that there are rich ideas at play but the filmmakers are constrained by so many factors that they drown out whatever insights the film could’ve offered. And by God does the Fridge Logic of this movie suck. Nothing makes sense in hindsight. It barely passes muster in the theater.
Jesse Eisenberg’s Lex Luthor is failed by either the script or the actor, both of which never convince the audience that Luthor is anything other than a twitchy, obviously-evil psychopath. There could have been a contrast to Bruce’s own dual identities. You can see parts where the tone of the scene changes based on Luthor’s persona cracking and his darkness shows through. But he is never particularly charismatic or persuasive. In fact, the opposite. Even when supposedly “sweet-talking” a senator (Holly Hunter), he always comes off as mustache-twirling villain.
What is the audience supposed to walk away with from this film? There’s very little sense of completion; the only character who comes close in Affleck, who takes Batman from a raging Superman hater to honoring him by founding the Justice League. It’s the only arc that remotely works. Gadot isn’t given enough to do and Cavill remains a subpar Clark Kent / Superman. I wish I could say he’s grown with the character, but he’s mopey and aimless in this film.
This problem is encapsulated by an early scene set in Africa. Lois Lane is there on assignment because it makes her look “tough” as a character. But we all know it’s a set-up for something Superman-related. However, once this is revealed, a bunch of goons kill everyone. Superman doesn’t show up till the end and even then, he’s focused solely on saving his girlfriend. This Superman is not optimistic. This Superman was not raised to believe in the best of humanity but the worst. But, at the same time, the film wants Superman to be Superman, saving people and doing selfless deeds. It’s in-congruent and Cavill and the script can never sell the dilemma or even spell out the dilemma with clear stakes.
Batman has a dream/vision without explanation (dubbed the “Knightmare”) in the midst of the film depicting Earth as the domain of Darkseid with Superman as the leader of Nazi-looking stormtroopers and Batman as a desert revolutionary. It’s a blatant copy of the worst part of Marvel movies (i.e. whenever Thanos has popped up the last four years) to tease events several years and films away. It’s meant to double as an illustration of Batman’s stakes and Lois’ role as Superman’s tether to humanity but like the rest of the film it’s muddled and quickly forgotten in the cacophony. It’s as bad as Thor’s infamous cave scene in Avengers: Age of Ultron.
Now what is the film telling us by showing us the Africa scene and dictator Superman? We already know Superman can’t save everyone; every conversation about Man of Steel over the past three years has concerned the destruction of Metropolis. This point needs no reiteration yet the film opens with the same question, repeated. And then, it doesn’t even illustrate an improved Superman. He doesn’t, for example, stop the murders before they happen. He only shows up too late. The film undermines the very idea of heroes so, by the end, when they have to do heroic things and Bruce delivers a closing monologue, it feels false and cheap.
What is a superhero, in its most basic form? If you ask most people, the answer will probably involve “powers” and a drive to do good with them. Really, those are the two most defining characteristics of traditional superheroes. Wish-fulfillment is elemental to all these characters. They are who we wish we could be, what we wish we could do. But when the “heroes” are devoid of joy, self-pitying and vicious because it’s “realistic?” They are no longer the characters that have captivated for decades. That’s the biggest failure of the film.