Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice Review! For Real This Time, Why So Serious?

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.

Batman fights Superman

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!

Wonder Woman is a highlight

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.

 

7 Replies to “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice Review! For Real This Time, Why So Serious?”

  1. Just saw it, and I don’t see what everyone hates so much. I understand everything you said here and pretty much agree, but maybe it’s preference? I didn’t like the Nolan batman movies, but did like man of steel. I should mention here that I have been a huge fan of Nolan since he did “following” (not to be confused by any degrees of Kevin bacon) and I was really exited back when I heard he was doing batman. I love the prestige, and even Christian bale as well. The first two (begins and dk) were so hyped. And I don’t like Heath Ledger. Sorry, I know he’s dead, but he just wasn’t that great of an actor. That joker visually was a huge “crow” ripoff, combined with some criminal profile non comic book style crap, and as you put it – FOR the normals. Sorry, I know I am a minority here. Actually, I have never even seen the third one. I could’t take any more. IMO Ben affleck was the best batman since batman returns (which is my fave batman). I do agree about the gun stuff, a little out of character, but this is a “had enough” version of batman, and the dream was blatantly – SPOILER- a darkseid/final crisis thing which he did use a gun in.

    I think that the pacing was a little weird, but it worked for the most part. As far as supermans redemption, and all that…. I guess I just don’t care about him being the hero he is supposed to be. I feel like I wanna see a good movie. If we are going to shred apart what is different from the comics then all of these movies are at fault.

    This movie does parallel age of ultron, but I feel like empire strikes back was kinda one of those movies too. Empire: The ending is really just setting up the next movie, with little closure, in the comic vein of keeping it going to the bigger and better.

    As an actor I place Christian bale above Ben affleck, but not as batman. And while Christopher reeves was awesome, his type of superman doesn’t work in modern times.

    They should have used Donald trump for lex luthor.

    Wonder Woman music was a little cheesy…… But I watch supergirl, flash, and recently binged firefly. So I can handle some cheese. I love the score from man of steel and hated zimmers batman music.

    On the music note- did you know that in batman: mask of the phantasm (animated series feature film) the music is based on the elfman theme, just like how the show used it in the opening title and randomly throughout. However, if you watch the credits Hans zimmer is listed as “synthesizers”. Funny how he has been cleaning up after elfman all this time. Also recently mark mothersbaugh delivered an underwhelming pee wee score compared to elfmans awesome original. My friends and I have always considered devo a rip off of kraftwerk and oingo boingo, so IMO Danny elfman is constantly kicking ass. Elfman through out those early years just hummed all those melodies and had someone else transcribe them. He didn’t even know theory! And here are all these trained composers and performers who have degrees and whatever rugrats/Kent state Wes Anderson alumni doctorates can’t touch elfman. Total rant, sorry. Haha, I do love your reviews tho, this is the only place I have posted stuff like this in years.

    Hope everyone reading this had a great spring break!

    1. Hey, if you’re going to disagree, doing so w/ an Oingo Boingo reference is definitely the way I’d prefer 🙂

      I think you make plenty of good points, and when I strip away the Batman problems I had, there’s actually a lot of great Batman on display here. He’s fast, he grapples away from Doomsday like he’s been here before, and he reflects the Arkham video game Batman I’ve come to love. For all my concerns, I’m very excited about an Affleck Batman solo movie. I think that could be one of the best we’ve seen.

      Generally speaking I’d have to say I agree we can’t hold movies to replicating the comics. Ironically, Batman v Superman actually copies scenes from Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns note for note, with subtle (telling) differences. Batman drives a tank the size of a small nation in that comic, and shoots down mutant gang members. While doing so, though, there’s the blink and you’ll miss it “Rubber bullets. Honest.” It’s a nod, wink and smirk, and even if it’s BS (he’s still shooting criminals in a TANK), it’s important. We just don’t get any of that nuance, or sense of humor, in this movie.

      My issues with Superman are more on a conceptual level. It’s not just that Superman isn’t wearing red underwear outside his pants, it’s that Zack Snyder and company don’t seem to really even like Superman at all. And they’re not alone! That’s not an uncommon take, but it makes for a really disappointing starting place for the guy DC’s given control of Superman. I probably wrote this in the review, but I’d prefer they just full out made him absolute power corrupted absolutely. Wishy-washy mopey lame Superman is just a waste of an icon.

      A Trump / Luthor… just when you think this movie couldn’t get any darker.

      Thanks for the thoughts!

  2. Just wanna make it clear I don’t like all of elfman’s music and I am a huge mothersbaugh fan. I’m just using several analogies that are always hard for me to put in words haha.

  3. “In a lot of ways, Batman vs. Superman reminds me of True Detective Season Two.”

    This comparison is just so spot on. Your whole review was great but this really stood out for me 🙂

  4. I enjoyed the movie, though there are definitely flaws (coming from a non-comicbookish view). It was hard keeping track of everything going on without already having a solid grasp of the source material. I will say, watching it a second time definitely helps… I only recently got into comics so I didn’t know all the backstory and references, so I kept leaning over to my friends asking “Is this real?”, “Was that a dream?”, “WTF did that mean?”, and so on lol The second time around I already got some of that out of the way so it was much easier to follow. That being said, if it’s that hard to follow a movie the first go around then maybe there are some flaws… I’m excited to see the Ultimate edition they’re releasing with the DVD though, apparently they’re adding another 30 minutes of footage. That could be interesting and maybe it will help with the pacing.

    Also, thanks for the honest review Dave! Your work is super helpful, I started reading Batman: The Golden Age Vol 1 after reading your reading order article for the DCU 🙂

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *