Review: Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice
I went into Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice with an almost foolish amount of enthusiasm. Although decades of old fanboy cynicism had done much to mitigate my expectations in a general sense, I couldn’t help but be overcome by a real feeling of hope. This was Batman v. Superman after all – the big bang of the DC cinematic universe. I had done my best to avoid any reviews, but I knew time was not on my side. I endeavored to catch the earliest showing possible, lest my propensity for surfing the web crush my burgeoning faith. Luckily, the missus was kind enough to score a pair of opening night tickets for us. I was committed to do everything in my power to walk in untainted. For the most part, I think I succeeded, so believe me when I say that what follows is an honest and relatively impartial assessment of what I watched. Of course, as is true of any review, it is still a subjective appraisal. I did give myself a couple of days to cool off before putting pen to paper so, hopefully, you will accept that as a gesture of good will. Here goes…
My overall impression of Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice (Bvs:DoJ) was a negative one. This was not a particularly good movie, but we’ll get to that in a moment. Let’s talk about what worked. First and foremost, Ben Affleck did a pretty bang-up job as a very violent (criminally so, even) Batman. While he wasn’t quite the world’s greatest detective, he’s certainly provided the most cerebral and physically imposing live-action version of the character to date. His Bruce Wayne was charming and boozy, his Batman was terrifying and single-minded. Never before has one actor portrayed both sides of this character so competently. He did particularly well when it came to conveying the insanity of donning the cape and cowl. When he put on the costume you truly believed that it was a type of self-defeating catharsis. So, internet, be at ease. Batffleck was a-okay.
Similarly, Gal Gadot delivered an intriguing and powerful Wonder Woman. Though her scenes were limited, her presence injected some much needed life into the film (which was a nice respite from the heaviness of it all). To be fair, I think part what made her performance so welcome relates to the general dearth of Wonder Woman on the big screen, but it is no less true that her inclusion was a real treat. I was hungry to know more about this incarnation of the character. Was she birthed from clay? Was she cast out of Themyscira? In a world where the Waynes have been been murdered on screen more times than the Highlander, the mystery of Wonder Woman, of the cinematic version, is a welcome one.
Batman v. Superman also features some pretty engaging action sequences. While less salient or frequent than I would have imagined, they are bombastic affairs that break the otherwise solemn cadence of the movie. And that’s a pity, because we really don’t see much of anything until the last third of the film. Here too, Batman largely steals the show. His movements are kinetic and brutal – perhaps almost unrealistically so. Even the most calloused critic will likely find it hard not to get a little jazzed about watching the Bat clear out an entire room of thugs with a combination of gadgetry and martial arts. This fluidity and savagery feels like a kind of redemption for Hollywood. For years this character has been hindered by both the physicality of his progenitors and the limits of special effects. No longer. When it comes to the visual effects and set-pieces, the movie succeeds. That, however, is the limit of my praise.
It would be disingenuous of me to recommend this movie to anyone but the most ardent fan. Even then, this would require such a person to divorce themselves from the plethora of source material that exists. There are definitely some nods to long time fans, however, particularly in the closing moments of the film. Still, anyone with a strong inclination to dislike a superhero movie because it’s “not like the comics” should probably avoid BvS:DoJ altogether. Those that saw Man of Steel and were appalled to see that Superman killed Zod (he does do this in the comics, btw) are probably going to go into a frantic rage with some of the liberties the writers took. Batman drinks and murders, Superman pouts and fails to inspire just about anyone and Lex Luthor is an uncharismatic, petulant man-child. I’ll stop here for just a moment, because it is worth mentioning that I was on-board with most of the cast, but Jesse Eisenberg’s Lex was just god-awful. I don’t know if he was trying to pay homage to Gene Hackman’s campier version, but this Lex was complete mess. The same quality assurance process that let Christian Bale’s Batvoice slip through the cracks has failed us again. I digress.
For those among you not bogged down by reasonable departures from the source material, this film will likely seem like a train wreck composed of disjointed and largely contrived scenarios. And that is really the point I’d like to get across here. The movie is not necessarily a bad representation of the characters. It is simply just a poorly constructed tale. It does not seem like writers Chris Terrio and David S. Goyer, to say nothing of director Zack Snyder, really put too much thought into tying together the various scenes that made-up their narrative. Our heroes and villains seem to do things for absolutely no discernible reason. In fact, they often act in opposition to their best interests. For instance, early into the film, Superman (Henry Cavill) is framed for a series of deaths that result from rescuing Lois Lane (Amy Adams). The audience, however, is aware that much of the killing is the direct result of suspicious-looking paramilitary contractors. The film is not subtle about their true nature. Yet, with no one but Lois to say otherwise, it seems like big blue is on the hook for another string of murders. Or so he would be if, for some inexplicable reason, Lex Luthor had not supplied said PMC’s with proprietary LexCorp bullets and implicated himself as the orchestrator of the massacre. Why does he do this? I suppose to give Lois Lane something to do for the better part of three hours. And lest you be fooled into thinking this at least shows some kind of forethought, the result of this connect has little consequence on the proceeding events.
The most egregious example of this disinterest revolves around the “central conflict” of the film. The titular bout between Batman and Superman is resolved so carelessly that it will seem like an afterthought – which should be offensive to anyone who sat through two-and-half hours of a movie. Please understand, the film establishes that Batman has spent the last year-and-a-half plotting to completely murder Superman in cold-blood. He retrofits an abandoned city block with anti-Superman armaments, kills scores of criminals and potentially innocent office workers to steal a chunk of radioactive rock and builds a very expensive suit of armor to make this happen. Yet, when he discovers that both his mother and Superman’s mother share a common first name he decides that this super-powered alien may not be such a bad guy after all.
The feeling of incredulity is hard to convey without expletives. Is that really all it took? For a character so obsessed, it is frankly laughable that the situation could have been resolved with a simple trip to the Public Records Office. Hell, he might have saved just about everyone in Gotham and Metropolis a lot of trouble and a whole bunch of funeral expenses had he just checked the DC Universe’s equivalent of Facebook. I could go on, but it’s enough to know that this kind of thing is par for the course. Between that and a swath of bloated dream sequences and harsh cinematic transitions, it is extremely difficult to justify the price of admission beyond saying: “You just gotta see it.” And while I don’t recall ever being bored (perhaps with the exception of some mild disinterest during last major fight scene and the proceeding denouement), I can attest to at least two movie goers passing out at 10 and 11 p.m .during my showing. Was it a consequence of the late hour? Possibly, but it seemed like a financially reckless move for anyone who spent $15 on a movie ticket just the same.
So here’s the real question: Will this movie be for you? I can’t say. It certainly wasn’t what I had hoped for. It had its moments, to be sure, but it was mostly a joyless and incoherent mess that failed me on just about every level. I’m also pretty sure Warner Brothers had some idea as to the quality of what they were unleashing well beforehand. It’s unlikely that the film’s March release date was a coincidence. By entering the stage during this no-man’s land of movie dates, it smartly avoided contending with winter juggernauts like Star Wars and will miss having to hold its own against the legion of summer block busters on the horizon. It seems like a tremendous vote of no-confidence by the studio.
Despite this, I would argue that with a movie that has as much build-up behind it as BvS: DoJ does, you really owe it to yourself to watch the thing and formulate your own opinion. I actually happen to know many people who thought the movie made for fine entertainment. To those of you who watch it and fall into that camp, I say, “Good on you.” I hope it is a fulfilling experience for as many people as possible. I am an enormous fan of the characters showcased in the film and I would love to see what can be done with them given a good story and better editing. This outing was a loss, surely, but “the never-ending battle” presses on.
Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice
Release Date: March 25, 2016
Director: Zack Snyder
Writers: Chris Terrio and David S. Goyer
Distributed BY: Warner Brothers Pictures
Run Time: 2hrs 33 min
All images courtesy of Warner Brothers Studios.