The first half of this movie review is largely spoiler-free. The second half is basically ALL spoilers. Please note the designation below so you can easily avoid!
There’s no arguing it: Batman v Superman is divisive. It’s right there in the title, in all the trailers, and now in the critics and audience reviews. There’s Day vs. Night, Man vs. God, Clark vs. Bruce. The movie is combative on a macro level as well, with a battle between wanting so badly for this first entry in the DC Expanded Universe to succeed, and the depressing final product.
Comic Book Fan v Comic Book Movie Fan
I’m torn between these two states of mind. On the comic book fan side, I’m tremendously excited about the opening of the DCU toolbox, with genuinely thrilling character introductions, and one imaginative moment of sheer bliss straight from the pages of DC Comics. There’s a wave of satisfaction seeing Henry Cavill’s Superman, Ben Affleck’s Batman, and Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman occupying the same space. The DC Universe is finally whole!
On the critical moviegoer side, though, I’m just disappointed. Batman v Superman is a dour, grim, joyless mess of a movie. For every kernel of a good idea, there’s jumbled pacing and a deeply flawed execution. Removing the fan in me, and the fact that I’m actively rooting for this movie to be great, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is not a very good movie. I would not in good conscience recommend this to the “normals,” or want this to be seen as a reflection of the possibilities of the comic book move genre, although plenty of people will enjoy the special effects spectacular.
Again, this isn’t to say there aren’t good ideas here. I’ll expand on this list in the spoiler-zone, but the non-spoiler conceptual highlights:
- Older, haunted Batman meets a young Superman for the first time. This is a fresh take on their origins and relationship
- Wonder Woman
- Lex Luthor as the DCU villain who would get under the skin of each member of DC’s Trinity
- Wonder Woman a second time
- Superman being held accountable for the tragedy of Metropolis in Man of Steel
The Modern Comic Book Movie Trap
In a lot of ways, there are clear parallels between Avengers 2: Age of Ultron and Dawn of Justice. It’s a team-up movie, with no ulterior genre coating other than Comic Book Movie, and the directors and writers are tasked with an absurd number of moving parts. Giving every piece of story enough screen time is an unenviable challenge, and leads to messy plot jumps such as Thor and the Infinity Well, or any number of Batman’s many dream sequences.
Likewise, a frequent criticism of Age of Ultron is how transparently transitory the whole affair feels. Obviously we all know Marvel is moving us along from movie to movie, always building and getting bigger, but cinema demands closure. Such a visible “on to the next one” ethos can be understandably off-putting, especially if you aren’t used to the never-ending story of comics.
Batman v Superman is very much a between states movie, simultaneously a response to Man of Steel (and the public backlash), and a hardcore set-up of Justice League and the DCEU to come. While this is exciting if you’re a Justice League fan, it’s also a case of deriving your excitement from “what could be!” rather than the in-the-moment story right in front of your eyes.
Then there’s the degree to which Batman v Superman is a direct response to Man of Steel, and more specifically, to the outrage over the wanton destruction of Metropolis in a Superman movie when he could have heroically done better to protect. It’s astonishing how much this rallying cry got into the movie maker’s heads, like watching late period LOST knowing Damon Lindelof can’t help but react to some fans lengthy criticisms online.
The reaction to Man of Steel begins as a very good, even necessary idea, placing Bruce Wayne among the horrifying, hard-to-watch, ground level wreckage. Unfortunately, it becomes increasingly clear throughout the film that no one involved really understands why those Man of Steel scenes bother so many Superman fans. Nothing is really atoned, and if anything, Superman’s reaction to the reaction is woefully underwhelming. Henry Cavill sure looks and sounds the part, but this Kal-El fails to inspire anyone. So yes, the filmmakers go out of their way to clarify the final act destruction is occurring in isolated areas, but it’s still wanton, mindless destruction. Rinse and repeat, let’s blow stuff up!
End of The Day
It’s disappointing that Batman v Superman isn’t better. There’s so much potential, and again, there are a lot of interesting ideas in play. Since The Dark Knight, DC movies (sans Green Lantern, may we all sleep well and forget) have doubled down on Super Serious, joyless atmospheres. The guiding principle is a bad early 90’s Watchmen imitation, 25 years too late.
I’m all for taking comic book movies seriously, but in a movie with both Superman and Batman, it’s telling that the only inspiring hero is Wonder Woman, given far too little to do, far too late in the movie. The best I can say about Batman v Superman is that it’s director Zack Snyder’s best DC work, and certainly more rewatchable than Man of Steel. Here’s to hoping by the time Justice League hits theaters, DC will course correct and find balance, reminding us all what we talk about when we talk about heroes.
Spoilers Follow Below!!!
10 Takeaways From Batman v Superman : Dawn of Justice
1 — We Should Talk About Batman
If we’re being honest, this entire review could be a discussion of how egregiously misinterpreted Batman is throughout Dawn of Justice.
I really don’t want to be the nerd yelling “That’s not my Batman!” but we can’t ignore this. If you run screaming from the theater appalled at this rendition of Batman, I can’t blame you. Batman vs. Superman breaks two core character rules over and over: 1) Batman doesn’t use guns and 2) Batman doesn’t kill.
You’ll find exceptions in comics (the character’s nearly 80 years old, of course you will), but they are exceptions. Even in Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, the purported inspiration for Ben Affleck’s Batman, the Caped Crusader is really clear about guns being the weapon of the enemy. Yet here Batman is using all manner of firearms, to the point that his Trinity pose is with a gun in hand.
The harder pill to swallow is the fact that… uh, guys, I think Batman killed a guy. Actually quite a few. I’m all for a beaten-down, “oh crap he’s really lost it” version of Batman because that’s not something we’ve seen in film before. Even the heavy-handed Bat-branding torture is palatable. Corny, but sure, that’s the sort of thing this broken Bat would do.
But mowing down criminals with Bat-plane machine guns? That’s not Batman anymore. If that’s a Batman you like, you might not really be looking for Batman. In fact, there’s this great little Punisher I know over on the corner of Netflix and Daredevil.
Honestly, given his methods, I don’t think Snyder, Goyer, and the lot took Ben Affleck’s fall from grace nearly far enough. We are shown brief allusions to the Bat’s tortured history – destroyed Wayne Manor, another dead Robin at the hands of the Joker, devastated GCPD – but are given almost zero detail. It’s like we’re missing a “See Detective Comics #700 – #740” caption in the lower right corner of the movie. If Batman’s going to be a killer, than give me a truly crazy Batman, and don’t try to pretend Ben Affleck’s still a hero in this movie.
I’m left performing some mental gymnastics to make this Flashpoint/Alternate Earth/Dark Knight Returns Batman, but it is barely palatable, and I have to think, if this Batman is so willing to murder, how in the name of Bill Finger can the Joker be running around in Suicide Squad?
2 — When in doubt, Kill the louts
Two Superman movies directed by Zack Snyder, two movies in which Superman kills the big bad in order to save the day. Let that percolate for a minute.
3 — Blue Balls of the Heart
In a lot of ways, Batman vs. Superman reminds me of True Detective Season Two. You have creative talent looking at a past success, and doubling down on the elements they THINK are what gives it such serious critical gravitas. Except instead of characters, and relationships, they double down on machismo and talking about the world being a dark place. The writers and director clearly think the art is a success because nihilism is cool, and shades of grey make for realism. As a result, we’re trapped in an a world where nobody wins, and nobody inspires, and nobody cares.
4 — Maximum Effort
Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is the literal opposite of Deadpool. In every conceivable way. Deadpool remains #1 on the 2016 comic book movie power rankings.
5 — Between the Gutters
The pacing on Batman vs Superman is off the charts muddled. I initially couldn’t believe how restless and helter-skelter the direction was, but then I realized it actually felt a lot like reading a Grant Morrison comic book. Your sense of time and place is constantly challenged, warping between reality and dream, present and future at the slightest hint of a panel change. Batman vs. Superman uses a befuddling number of dream sequences, with a mid-film sequence finding Batman/Midnighter seeking a kryponite weapon on either Apokolips, or an Apokolips razed Earth.
This oddity leads to the most interesting moment of the movie, and the one burst of imagination that woke me up. We see either Flash, or some other time traveler burst into the Bat Cave, cryptically warning Bruce of terrible things to come. Now that’s using the DC Universe!
6 — Sexy Lexy
Jesse Eisenberg’s Lex Luthor performance is an interesting take on the character as evil Mark Zuckerberg, but it falls HARD on its face as the movie progresses. Eisenberg is gunning for the quirks and unimagined crevices of Heath Ledger’s Joker, but his twitchy eyebrows become more unintentionally humorous than menacing.
Again, there’s a kernel of a good idea in this Lex villain role – Lex gaining access to a Kryptonion warship and using Superman’s home planet technology against him is very true to the character. Likewise, Lex is at the heart of the most horrible things that happen to Superman, including the Capitol trial bombing, and of course Doomsday. These are all appropriate to Lex Luthor, but the Machiavellian genius never seems to have much of an end game in sight. Like most of the movie, too, his disgust with Superman is far from developed, as is his sudden turn towards pawn of Darkseid.
There’s a wildly missed opportunity to turn this performance from Eisenberg into a different villain. Most obviously, Eisenberg would have made a PERFECT Riddler. I can’t be the only one who sees this.
7 — Rewatchable?
Having said all of this, there’s a nagging feeling I can’t shake that I actually want to see this movie again! Maybe I’m just a sadomasochist, but the moments of opening the DC toolbox are extremely exciting, and not something we’ve seen in a Batman or Superman movie before. I don’t think Warner Bros came anywhere near sticking the landing, but guess what, the DC Expanded Universe is open! Aquaman! Wonder Woman! Cyborg! The Flash (non-CW)!
The good news is Batman vs. Superman isn’t a train wreck on the level of Green Lantern. Sure I’m setting the bar actually subterranean, but that’s a start. Although you’d think after Parallax, we’d slow our roll with all powerful villains with zero personality. Doomsday is just a big grey rage monster (hey, that sounds familiar…) thrown into the plot for the sake of punching things. To be fair, that’s not all that different than The Death of Superman comic event.
8 — Smile Once in a While
DC refuses to learn the lessons of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and smile once in a while. The absolutism is admirable, and worthy of Bruce “The World Only Makes Sense if You Force It To” Wayne, but it is the most damaging possible path for comic book movies. It’s one thing to take your source material seriously – I’m all for it – it’s another to take it way too damn seriously. Simply put, DC making bad Batman and Superman movies signals a death knell for the industry that is otherwise capable of excellence like Deadpool. The backlash against comic book movies owning the cinema has been in place for years, but it’s movies like this that give the shout credibility.
9 — The Best Superman
Equal parts silver lining, and let down, Supergirl on CBS remains the best Superman viewing you’ll find in 2016.
10 — Injustice For All
Batman’s dream/future suggests DC may approach Injustice as their anti-Superman source material for future installments. Despite his end in this movie, at this point? Go for it! Triple down on the desecration of America’s first superhero icon!
Injustice for all!
What did you think of Batman v Superman? Good, bad, meh? Do what feels right to you in the comments.