First, the good news… Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice isn’t a total disaster.
Even as a moderate fan of Man of Steel, every new bit of overshare for this movie cranked out by the Warner Bros. marketing team over the last year caused my expectations to drop lower and lower to the point that even a passable film would be considered a success.
It’s an ambitious movie and there are a number of good parts, but to be perfectly blunt, I’m not sure it even met that bar.
Some positives: Ben Affleck is an excellent Bruce Wayne and a pretty good Batman, and I think his character is (mostly) handled pretty well. He has the most fleshed-out motivation of any character in the film, though that isn’t saying much. The first scene in the film – which of course, you’ve already seen in the trailers – immerses us in Bruce Wayne’s perspective during Superman’s battle with Zod from the end of Man of Steel, and it is that point of view which shapes most of the film. It’s clear why he doesn’t like Superman, and when it comes down to their titular fight, Batman’s ability to hold his own and even defeat Superman is plausible, if largely cribbed from Frank Miller’s “The Dark Knight Returns, Pt II”. This film also contains one of the best Batman fight sequences ever made, so that’s a pretty big win.
Jeremy Irons is also excellent as Alfred Pennyworth, Gal Gadot is a strong choice as Wonder Woman, and Amy Adams continues to make a ballsy Lois Lane. Overall I think the performances and casting in this film are pretty solid. The problems with this film, much like with Man of Steel, really don’t come down to casting and I can genuinely say that I’m interested to see the upcoming solo films featuring Batman & Wonder Woman.
I’m probably in the minority here, but I even like Jesse Eisenberg’s largely unhinged take on Lex Luthor. Apart from the complete mystery that is his motivation for a lot of his specific actions, he is at the very least really good at being a villain.
As I wrote in 2013 in my review of Man of Steel, Superman’s villains have to meet a pretty high bar to be worthwhile:
“Comic book writers at DC have struggled with this problem for years, but given how powerful Superman actually is, having him battle some local thug is usually pointless. He’s an intergalactic powerhouse, not a beat cop. The threats he deals with need to be correspondingly huge if the challenge is to be remotely believable. So for approaching a century, writers have racked their brains trying to find worthy adversaries for the Man of Tomorrow.
Lex Luthor’s ruthless genius and expertise in science, engineering & business make him a good human nemesis. Doomsday’s Kryptonite knuckles and mindless brutality made him a formidable enough foe to actually kill Kal-El… And really, that’s nothing compared to Darkseid’s Omega Force.”
Unlike the inanely stupid and cartoonish versions of the character played previously by Gene Hackman and Kevin Spacey, Eisenberg’s Lex Luthor is not interested in land deals or puffing up his own ego by talking about how smart he is to henchmen with double-digit IQs. Instead, he’s legitimately ten steps ahead of everyone else in the film and enough of a credible “genius” to pose a real threat to someone as powerful as Superman, although he is less “ruthless” in this incarnation and more “crazy”.
Of course, it does help that his nemesis is kind of an idiot… And that brings me to everything wrong with this movie: Superman himself.
Henry Cavill is a warm, charming, and extremely likable actor. I know this, because I’ve seen him be all of those things in other films like “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.”. So I know that it is not his fault that his character in this film is even more sad-sack and brooding than he was in Man of Steel. Unfortunately, this means that Batman v Superman is not a contest between a hope-driven hero to the world who literally derives his power from sunshine and a cynical ninja-detective who bashes (or worse, in this case) criminals in the shadows of night. Instead it’s a brood-off between two people who are so dour and angry all the time that it seems hard to imagine any goodness or hope existing anywhere in this universe at all.
It’s a strange world indeed when Bruce Wayne seems like he might be a happier person than Clark Kent, and hell if that isn’t what this movie presents.
The more I’ve thought about this, the more I’ve come to the conclusion that this version of Superman is simply not even a character at all. He’s basically just a metaphor. A paper cut-out of “god” that lets Zack Snyder play with big existential questions about the nature of man’s ant-like role in the universe without having to flesh out anything about how Clark might actually feel about himself or anyone else.
And look… The film isn’t wrong that a world where Superman existed among mortal men would be a source of fear for many people around the world. This could be an obviously valuable theme to draw on for a story like this. But Snyder’s extreme emphasis on epic slow-motion shots and ultra-stylized imagery completely undercuts any attempt to show the contrast between the reality of who Superman is (ie. good person) and the mistaken perceptions (ie. dangerous god) that drive the narrative conflict. Almost every shot of Superman saving someone or doing something good is depicted in such an overly reverent and dehumanizing way that there’s no way to see him as an actual person.
That’s a damn shame, and it’s probably the worst aspect of this film.
Setting up the idea that other people (ie. Batman, Lex Luthor, politicians, etc.) are afraid of Superman’s power is a perfectly believable way to motivate a film like this, but for the drama to actually make any sense it’s also incredibly important to understand that Clark doesn’t see himself as any kind of a god at all – and in fact, that he isn’t one. Thus we would have two competing world views that need to be reconciled so we can have (in more technical narrative terms) thesis, antithesis, and eventually synthesis.
Clark Kent may possess godlike powers, but at his core, he’s still just a good man from a small town in Kansas. Or at least, that’s what he should be if his status as revered hero is meant to be believable.
Unfortunately, I’m pretty much giving up on the idea that Superman in this universe will ever be the emblem of hope that people in the film keep claiming he is until Zack Snyder starts treating him as – ironically, for lack of a better word – a human being. To do that, he’d actually have to spend some time depicting the world from Clark’s own perspective and from the perspective of people who are having one-on-one interactions with him as Superman – and not voyeuristically through a news broadcast or a lens flare. The fact that this never happens makes it virtually impossible to empathize with Superman or understand why anyone likes him at all. Who would love a supposed hero who doesn’t seem to actually stand for anything?
When it comes down to his battle with Batman, there’s literally no reason to root for Superman to win.
And once that battle comes to its ridiculously anti-climactic end and our “heroes” have to work together to defeat the much bigger enemy whose existence was completely and unforgivably spoiled in the trailers, there’s still no resolution to the central question of whether or not Superman should remain unchecked with all his great power.
We end up right back where we started.
Character development issues aside, the pacing and plot is also highly disjointed as it tries to cram together a number of unrelated story lines that never fully connect and the movie is easily 20-30 minutes too long thanks in part to a series of nightmarish dream sequences that add absolutely no value to the story. This movie establishes a new Batman, Wonder Woman, and Lex Luthor, and pulls out one of the most destructive and powerful DC characters for final act mayhem. But it also hints at bigger, cosmic level threats; it shoehorns in some Flash, Aquaman, and Cyborg trailers in a scene that makes no real sense; and ham-handedly sets up the upcoming Wonder Woman solo movie. It’s no wonder there wasn’t any time left over to show a single scene of Clark Kent being a genuinely good person or doing something kind for anyone not named Lois Lane in his daily life.
Side-note on the much-maligned score: Yes, the music is sometimes too pushy and on-the-nose, but overall I actually like that composer Hans Zimmer seems to be setting up a series of leitmotifs for characters that will undoubtedly carry over into the upcoming solo films and Justice League films later on. It does reinforce the darkness that’s so endemic to the film, but speaking as a composer, given how murky the imagery and tone is otherwise, anything brighter in the score would be comedically mismatched.
Many people, myself included, were concerned that by skipping over a sequel to Man of Steel (which could have dealt with the same themes about power and accountability while also fleshing out Superman’s character) and going right to Batman v Superman, Warner Brothers & DC were moving too quickly in their attempt to compete with Marvel and replicate the success of Avengers. I think it’s fair to say that a lot of these fears have been realized.
It’s a remarkably shaky start for The Justice League cinematic universe.
Watch the trailer: