Quick Note: The main body of this review will not contain spoilers, but there will be spoilers in the final paragraphs before my conclusion, they will be in bold so you can know which ones to skip.
Finally, the movie that always seemed like it was just around the corner for the last decade is finally out, a Batman and Superman crossover. Unfortunately, this crossover is following the divisive 2013 film, Man of Steel, where the combo of Christopher Nolan as producer, David Goyer as screenwriter and Zack Snyder as director didn’t pan out as well as Warner Brothers have wanted. So, instead of opting for a Man of Steel 2, we are getting Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, an event movie that’s been in the making for so long, and it has finally come to theaters with the promise of setting up a vast and expansive DC cinematic universe for future films to delve further into. Obviously there’s a lot riding on this film, and it’s been on an uphill battle since the beginning with unenthusiastic reactions to casting choices, the growing dislike of Man of Steel, the reports of things that WB is trying to push into the film and the rather horrendous marketing for the movie.
I actually rewatched Man of Steel a few days ago to freshen my mind on the film. It was also the first time seeing the film with my now negative opinion on the film, since the last time I saw it, the film was still in theaters, and I liked it. Man of Steel is an admirable effort, probably one of the most try-hard movies I’ve ever seen, but it never fleshes out its ideas in a dramatically/thematically satisfying way. Despite this, I was hoping Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (from this point, it shall be referred to as BvS) would be a pleasant surprise. I am a fan of Zack Snyder and often find myself defending his work. Dawn of the Dead is a surprisingly great remake that does its own thing, 300 is a spectacular work of visceral, mythic filmmaking, Watchmen is not only one of my favorite superhero films, but one of my all-time favorite films ever and I even enjoy the director’s cut of Sucker Punch (it’s by no means a home run, but it nails just enough elements to work). That owl movie is kind of whatever, but it’s hardly horrible (I saw that for the first time recently and I think I’m still the only one to have actually seen it). Man of Steel was a misstep, as I’ve grown to learn after realizing just how steeped I was into the hype/fanboy frenzy surrounding it, but that could easily be the result of Snyder essentially being a for-hire director for what is essentially a story driven more by Nolan/Goyer’s vision of Superman.
If you’ve seen the highly controversial second trailer for BvS, then you have basically seen the movie, but if you haven’t here is a quick synopsis. Taking place 18 months after the events of Man of Steel, Superman (Henry Cavill) is, unsurprisingly, a very controversial figure in the world. Some see him as something like a God, others see him as a threat, some are simply trying to make sense of him, what his purpose is and level of authority is. Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) having been in Metropolis during the Zod attack is certain that Superman is bad news, so he plans an attack to take down Superman with a new batsuit. Behind the scenes is Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg) pulling the strings as he sets the stage for a confrontation between Batman and Superman, while also having a backup plan at the ready in case things don’t go his way.
I’m actually surprised I was able to reduce the plot to that simple description because BvS has a lot of moving parts to it, and it is one of the many problems of the film. I’m still curious to see how it differs from the supposed R-rated, three hour version meant to come out on the film’s home release, but as is, the plotting is a complete and utter mess. It’s yet another tentpoles that thinks having a convoluted plot is the same as having a smart and thought provoking story. So many elements are brought in with absolutely none of them getting the necessary attention to fully flesh out the ideas behind them. Whole storylines could easily be cut out without affecting the film as a whole aside from its criminal running time of two and a half hours. After a prologue with Bruce Wayne, the film starts proper with Lois Lane (Amy Adams) and her storyline involves her investigating possible domestic involvement in dealings with Russian terrorists. Bruce Wayne has a whole plot thread where he is trying to get a hold of information from Lex Luthor, which is intercepted by Diana Prince (Gal Gadot), and this whole aspect serves to set up future solo movies and the upcoming Justice League Part 1. Bruce himself occasionally gets interrupted by a barrage of pointless dream sequences (or visions, I guess) that drop major hints as to what might be coming in Justice League. Lex’s plot thread follows him as he puts his “plan” together, as well as his clash with Senator Finch (Holly Hunter), the head of a Superman Committee in Congress. Then there’s poor Superman, who unfortunately continues his habit from Man of Steel, which is basically to just stand around while everyone else talks about who he is, what he means and what the implications of his existence are. Granted, the movie does attempt to connect some of these plot threads. Lois’ investigation connects to Lex, the Russian terrorists working with Lex are also being chased by Batman and Superman gets himself caught in the middle of Lex’s scheme and his eventual confrontation with Batman. Yeah, there is a Batman vee-ing Superman sequence at some point!
It’s not impossible by any means to have a lot going on in a film while still keeping things clear. The problem with BVS is that there’s never a flow from scene to scene. Characters are brought in as if we’ve already seen them before. Scene to scene transitions are jarring and sometimes kill the buildup and momentum of the scene coming before. Given the extra half hour that’s coming to the home release, it’s not hard to believe that maybe WB had to ensure the film gets a PG-13, even at the expense of narrative clarity. This results in the movie being at a weird place where it is simultaneously rushed as well as being too slow, it rushes past certain character/plot beats taking away any effectiveness and because the scenes don’t mesh together at all. But OK, too many characters, too many unnecessary plot beats, fine, does the film at least have some thematic through line? Some theme or idea that blankets the film, offering something for the audience to chew on? Well, yes and no. Like Man of Steel, BVS is all about big ideas. Like, what does it mean to be a hero when your heroics can result in people unintentionally getting hurt? Does the safety of the many outweigh the pain experienced by the few? How should the government treat a God-like being when he could potentially act out our political interest? How does the presence of Superman affect humanity on a basic primal or even spiritual level? These are some meaty ideas, but again, like Man of Steel, all it does is pay lip service to these questions while never delving into them on any deeper level. And not only that, they keep piling on these questions and building it up only to pay it off with a generic, CGI-infested action sequence that goes way longer than it needs to. All previous attempts at depth and theming are dropped for empty spectacle. But boy, oh boy, if you are easily irritated by empty philosophizing by characters that act as a substitute for characterization, you will get a lot of it here. Most of it is from Lex, who continuously spouts off word salad that makes Jaden Smith’s Twitter page seem profound in comparison.
Not only does the film fail in creating a cohesive and engaging story, but it completely drops the ball with their characters, and I don’t just mean from an adaptation standpoint (I’ll get to that later). Whereas Zod in Man of Steel actually felt like the only fully realized character with believable motivations for his actions, no one in BVS really comes to life. Batman is consistently singled out as being the best part, sure, but it’s only for surface level elements (costume, fighting style, etc.). As a character, Batman is a straight up psychopath and also a moron. He kills people left and right, but for some reason the possibility of Superman killing people somehow puts him on the moral high ground? This is a Batman that seemingly gets pleasure out of his extremely brutal takedowns of criminals. When he brands a criminal with the bat symbol, it’s basically a death sentence, as the criminal with the mark will be targeted by people in jail and is guaranteed to be put in, at the bare minimum, critical condition. He constantly makes boneheaded choices that only serves his toxic cycle of violence throughout the film. Superman, as I mentioned before, is not given agency in his own movie. He is not allowed to make his own decisions and when he does the movie practically punishes him for it. All he does is mope about the fact the world doesn’t absolutely love him and when he’s not mopey, he’s an inconsiderate asshat who does things without thinking them through (a shame considering The Man from U.N.C.L.E. proved Cavill can pull off a boyish charm that could totally work for Superman). And considering this takes place almost two years after Man of Steel, the whole “inexperienced” excuse no longer applies here. Lois Lane is incredibly forced into the story and her presence only seems to matter when she needs saving from Superman. At least in Man of Steel, she was actively trying to get involved by investigating Superman and tracking him down to the Kents. Here, her investigation doesn’t add up to anything, the result of her involvement would’ve been the same had she dropped the report. And the film makes the strange decision of keeping her around for the climactic battle where does nothing except make one really dumb decision that forces Superman to save her again.
And then there’s Lex Luthor. You know he’s the worst because I’m giving him his own paragraph. If it weren’t for the abomination that was Dr. Doom in last years’ Fant4stic, BVS’ Lex Luthor might be the worst villain in recent comic book movies (and we’re speaking strictly from mid-2000s onward). This character makes no sense. His motivations are never made clear and all attempts at trying to add depth to his character fall absolutely flat. Philosophical monologues alone do not make a character, and that is basically all that this interpretation offers. He acts differently from scene to scene with no real sense as to who he really he versus what is just a public facade. Sometimes he tries to do the whole “holier than thou” route, but then other points he is a violent sociopath. At no point is he intimidating, and despite his constant monologuing, his point of view is never presented in a way that allows the audience to understand it. You’d think that the film would’ve tried to have Lex take advantage of the Metropolis battle from Man of Steel to turn the world against Superman, but no, I guess that was too obvious. Instead, Lex’s plan comes across as so elaborate and depending on coincidence and chance that it probably rivals the Joker’s plan from The Dark Knight. Also, he is somehow able to use Kryptonian technology to create Doomsday, which is ridiculous, plus I don’t get his reasoning to even create Doomsday. What exactly is his endgame? Take the heroes out, then what? This is the same flat, uninteresting and kill-crazy Doomsday from the comics, so there’s nothing stopping this thing. Nothing about this character works at all. And frankly, as much as it pains me to say it, Jesse Eisenberg is absolutely terrible in it. Everyone else in the movie is fine, but he is the one sour note, the one bad apple, that one dried bird shit stain on an otherwise clean windshield. He is horrendous. His choices for the character make Jim Carrey as the Riddler look nuanced, and he basically is playing that over-the-top, twitchy, crazy villain. However, instead of being campy fun, it comes across as irritating and frustrating because Eisenberg is a good actor. Oddly enough, the one thing I was worried about when he was announced for the role was that he would simply repeat his performance from The Social Network, and now, having seen the movie, I honestly wished he did.
As far as adaptation goes, I really, really, really don’t like it. This is not how Superman should act and it is definitely not how Batman should act. Batman not only kills people, but he keeps using guns or gadgets shaped like them. Everything that makes Batman a unique character is barely explored here, and by having him shooting and killing people, there isn’t a whole lot separating him from any generic action hero. Both of these so-called “heroes” consistently do things that are notably unheroic, they constantly question what they do and they both assume the absolute worst of each other when they learn of one another. None of them ever really have a real, honest to God conversation in the entire movie. There’s no humanity to the way they act and especially in how they act to each other. I’m open to different interpretations of characters, that is not the problem, but this is not an Elseworlds story, this is meant to be the characters that we’re supposed to grow attached through as we experience their journey in a whole DC universe franchise. It’s another example of modern comic book films taking too much inspiration out of source material that was deconstructive and revisionist in nature. The Dark Knight Returns is a major influence on this film, the problem is that TDKR is a story that explores some of the inherent fascist elements in superhero stories by being purposely provocative given the cultural/political/social context of its release. Using a story that amps up the ugly side of these characters hardly seems like the right way to influence the start of a multi-billion dollar franchise. Plus, Zack Snyder has already dealt with these themes before in Watchmen and he does it so much more successfully there (yeah, yeah, I know not everyone shares this opinion). I don’t need him applying that same lens to what is supposed to be a four-quadrant blockbuster.
But on the other hand, I could’ve been fine with the skewed versions of these characters I’ve loved since I was a kid. I could’ve appreciated the film in the same way I appreciate (and love) Tim Burton’s Batman films. Burton’s films, on an adaptation level, are questionable at best, but they are clear works of a singular vision that allows Burton to explore his own ideas/themes of identity, loneliness and being an outsider, all while creating a world steeped in the lavish visual language of gothic melodrama and German expressionism. This reason is also why I have respect for the likes of Ang Lee’s Hulk and Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns, both are films that create strange takes on beloved characters, but they’re built on a thematic ground that reflects on the filmmaker and what they want to explore. These kinds of films are self-reflective works of art that are the work of a specific vision, whether they come together or appease the fanbase, it kind of doesn’t matter. With BVS, we almost get this. If you were to pitch a movie to me that’s basically an exercise of stylized violence and an exploration of American nihilism, tragedy and trauma, but it just happened to feature DC superheroes and it is going to be directed by Zack freakin’ Snyder, well damn, take my whole wallet why don’t ya? This could’ve been one of those kinds of movies for me, but considering all the missteps the film takes in its plotting, characterization and thematic payoff (or lack thereof), and the fact that it is ultimately just another movie that is basically a $250 million trailer for upcoming DC adaptations from Warner Brothers, it just doesn’t work. The corporate stench takes away any sense of vision and artistic singularity and all it does is reveals what a mean and nasty piece of work it really is.
Over two and a half thousand words in and it’s been nothing but negativity, I hope it’s not too rough for you. Now, I will say there are things about the film that I like, the problem is that these things I enjoyed were simply individual moments that would be just as effective watching as clips on YouTube. So, the things I liked! Whenever Batman wasn’t murdering people, he was fun to watch. Yes, the costume is the best yet, the choreography during the fight sequences are great and I like how fast and brutal he is. Wonder Woman is also a big positive for the movie. She is not in it that much, so there’s really not much in terms of actual character depth, but the important thing is that she works on screen and Gal Gadot has solid screen presence. She adds bits of personality when she gets the chance, like at one point when Doomsday throws her to the ground, she lies there for a second and she has this little smirk on her face like, “Oh, so this is how you wanna play? OK, two can play at that game!” There is a certain thrill at finally seeing this character (one of my personal favorites) on the big screen for the first time, and I actually really loved the fact that whenever she shows up there’s this electric guitar theme that starts playing. It’s so cheesy, but it’s so my kind of cheese. I’m also glad to see Zack Snyder working with his regular cinematographer, Larry Fong, who didn’t work on Man of Steel, but is otherwise a regular for Snyder. These two are like a match made in heaven, and they bring their A-game when it comes to the visuals, which is nowhere near as washed out and muted as it was on Man of Steel. Also, the gratuitous slow motion is back, and screw you, I love the gratuitous slow motion. The score by Hans Zimmer and Junkie XL is solid, even if the sound mixing can make it a bit overbearing at some points. There are things to like in this movie, but these things are only enjoyable on the surface level and some can be taken out of context and be equally as effective. I would enjoy the Wonder Woman action at the end about the same as I did in theaters if I just watched the video online. And some other scenes work the same way, out of context, enjoyable and interesting, but they don’t work in the context of the movie (more details on the spoiler section after this).
So, now I’ll go into spoilers, so here’s your warning! Skip to the final (and unbolded) paragraph if you don’t want to know what happens. Though frankly, if you’ve seen that trailer and have any basic knowledge of comic book lore, then you know exactly what will happen. So, Superman dies in this movie. Doomsday kills him. There is no way in hell that the people at WB and Zack Snyder actually think they’ve earned this. We’ve now had two movies with Superman, one of which he dies at the end, and in neither of them do we actually get a well-rounded portrayal of the character. He’s done nothing to earn the emotion that the film is clearly trying to draw from me. And not only that, the worst part about it is that the film isn’t even willing to commit to its act. The last shot of the film is bits of dirt rising from the top of Superman’s coffin. Because of course he’s still alive, you can’t kill Superman, there’s a Justice League two-parter coming up. Obviously, he will come back in some way shape or form, so what exactly is the point of all this? The Death of Superman arc in the comics was always utter garbage to me, so I wasn’t too concerned with the Doomsday outrage. I figured using him as an excuse to bring the Trinity together is probably the most useful thing that the character has ever done. But seeing them go the typical route was extremely disappointing. And that’s despite the fact that the funeral sequence, simply by itself, is actually pretty great, just not in the context of the movie.
Another thing I want to address in the spoiler section here is the whole titular vee-ing between Batman and Superman. It’s over and done with pretty quick. There are some solid action beats, but considering the disjointed buildup (if you even wanna call it “buildup”) of the first two hours, it really wasn’t worth it. What makes it worse is the immediate before and after the fight. Superman confronts Batman because Lex has kidnapped Martha Kent and he wants Superman to kill Batman (I’m honestly not sure why since he previously talked about how much he hated Superman, if I had to guess, when Batman stole the kryptonite from Lex’s building, Lex probably assumed Batman is going to use it against Superman, so he’s trying to make them kill each other – I think). The way the fight ends is that when Batman has Superman pinned down, Superman mentions Martha (why “Martha” and not “mom” is beyond me), and this makes Batman freak the hell out. So, I’m assuming he’s never encountered a person named Martha after his mother died. Lois enters and clarifies that Superman is talking about his mother, and that very second, Batman stops what he’s doing as is now besties with Superman. This is literally just because their mothers have the same first name. Like, what? Is this some elaborate joke? I get that they were going for the idea of Bruce not seeing Superman as human, as just another alien, a monster, so realizing that not only does he have a mother like him, she literally had the same name as her. I get it, I really do, and it’s a cute idea on paper, but seeing Batman all of a sudden throw the spear to the side and go, “I promise to you nothing will happen to Martha,” came off as unintentionally hilarious. If Batman stopped and actually had a conversation with Superman at that moment, maybe it could’ve worked, but because the filmmakers placed an unnecessary ticking-clock, they didn’t have the time to make the character growth feel organic.
So, the last thing I want to talk about in the spoiler section is the Justice League tie-ins. Not since The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (and for anyone who knows me personally, any comparison to this movie is not good news), have I seen such awkward and forced attempts at creating a cinematic universe. It’s to do with the hard drive that Diana Prince intercepts from Bruce Wayne during a visit at Lex’s home (but she later gives it to him anyway). On the hard drive is a series of folders and one of them is labeled “Metahumans,” and in this folder there are files on the Flash, Aquaman, Wonder Woman and Cyborg, each with their own little logos. The scene where we watch their clips literally feels like it could’ve been released as a teaser trailer for any one of these movies (even down to the music, it feels like a trailer). There’s security footage of the Flash stopping a robbery (even if his speed ruins most of the shop in the process). There’s footage of Aquaman very slowly coming out of a whole in a sunken ship and awkwardly staring at the camera before hitting it with his trident and swimming away. And then for Cyborg, we peek into what feels like the video diary that feels like it was guest-directed by David Cronenberg as we see Cyborg being formed in a body-horror-esque fashion. By the way, the Flash does appear in person (sort of) earlier in the film right after the “Knightmare” sequence. After seeing the gloomy post-apocalyptic imagery and nods to Darkseid with the omega symbol and the sudden presence of his minions, the Parademons, we see the Flash suddenly appearing to Bruce out of a rip in the space-time continuum and screaming to Bruce, “Listen to me, it was Lois Lane, she’s the key, you were right all along, find us,” before disappearing. Bruce doesn’t mention this ever again, he never talks to Alfred (Jeremy Irons, he rocked by the way) about it and it doesn’t seem to affect his actions in the movie except at the very end when he sends an e-mail to Diana Prince about getting together and forming a group to protect the world in Superman’s absence. Yes, you heard me right, an e-mail. Also, Batman visits Lex in jail (in a weirdly similar way to Mr. Freeze visiting Poison Ivy in Arkham Asylum at the end of Batman & Robin) and Lex goes on about something coming, which I think is implying that he may have gotten visions similar to Bruce about Darkseid, but honestly I’m not even sure. These moments were so random and strange; if I weren’t already knowledgeable about the comics, I would literally have no clue what I just watched, and that’s a bad way to get people excited.
As a fan of Zack Snyder, watching Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is like a parent watching their kid at the start of a little league game, and not only does he strike out, he accidentally throws his bat, breaks the pitcher’s nose, freaks out and craps his own pants. This movies could have worked for me in a number of ways, it could have been a genuine improvement over Man of Steel that gets the character and starts the DC universe going, it could have been a so-bad-it’s-hilarious romp that it kind of reaches at points but never on the whole, or it could’ve been Zack Snyder doing complete, unabashed and unhinged Zack Snyder. Instead, I’m left with a total disaster of a film that lacks a clear and solid vision. It’s being pulled in different directions by different people, and it feels like no one is on the same page. The storytelling is scatterbrained and jumbled, things simply happen with little to no reason or context and any and all attempts at being the “prestige superhero film” it’s clearly trying to be completely falls apart when given the slightest bit of thought. It is a fundamentally broken film, and this is coming from the guy who hesitated to call Fant4stic a “disaster.” There are things to like, moments to enjoy, but they don’t even come close to redeeming the otherwise repugnant portrayals of childhood heroes. Like the zombie baby from Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead, it’s an ugly and unwanted abomination that deserves nothing more than to be put down. 20/100