I’m not going to lie. I saw this coming from a mile away. The problem is that it was easy to see coming a mile away. From the moment that the first trailer was released to all of the little bits of information that trickled out, everything seemed to be going in the wrong direction. Warner Bros. and DC Comics had mammoth success with Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy. It had brought the franchise back to respectability, even producing arguably the best superhero movie of all time in The Dark Knight. They had less success with other franchises, including the mid-2000’s attempt to revive the Superman franchise, and completely missed on the Green Lantern film. Meanwhile, Marvel built an empire, and cultivated its own Marvel Cinematic Universe, and achieved worldwide success with The Avengers. DC wanted a cinematic universe of their own to compete with Marvel’s and set about trying to do it without copying the Marvel blueprint. All of it is supposed to culminate in The Justice League, already set as a two-part movie. They handed the keys to the kingdom, so to speak, to Zack Snyder, who made the uneven Man of Steel in 2013, and is back here with Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. All of the trailers hinted that they were trying to do too much with this film, and watching it reveals this to be true. It also revealed that Snyder is the exact wrong person to be shepherding these projects, and if DC wants to salvage things then they need to make a change at the top.
The film’s plot is very convoluted and full of twists and turns, and frankly, every time I tried to write a simple summary, it turned into a giant paragraph twice as long as my opening. In short, Batman (Ben Affleck) views Superman (Henry Cavill) as a global threat in the aftermath of his fight with General Zod. Other people question whether he is good or a danger, both privately behind in the scenes in someone like Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg), owner of a massive conglomerate with questionable intentions, and publicly by people like Senator Finch (Holly Hunter). Superman, himself, views Batman as a dangerous and violent vigilante who needs to be stopped. Lois Lane (Amy Adams) investigates who is manipulating certain events to turn the public sentiment against Superman. And there is a mysterious antiques dealer, Diana Prince (Gal Gadot) that crosses the path of Bruce Wayne. Essentially, the film boils down to Superman and others wondering about his place in this world and how he fits in it, while things eventually come to a boiling point between Batman and Superman, with an even greater threat lurking as Lex Luthor pulls puppet strings.
It would be unfair of me to merely trash this movie, as there are some good aspects. Ben Affleck is totally adequate-to-fine as Batman. His Bruce Wayne is an older, more cynical Bruce Wayne who has seen good people turn bad, heroes fall, and believes that eliminating the threat posed by Superman may be the only good thing he does in life. He is blinded by his grief. Loss is the great motivating factor in his life. It’s hard to follow, but his character does take a journey over the course of the movie, ending up in a place where he has a proper context for the events that occurred and a renewed purpose going forward. Likewise, Gal Gadot appears to be a good casting choice as Wonder Woman, who despite her slender frame, looks like she belongs in the suit and is believable enough fighting alongside these two guys who have bulked up for their roles.
Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, and most of the returning cast from Man of Steel are also fine. I actually think Cavill is very good as Superman. He certainly has the physicality for the role, and is able to convey Superman’s struggle to find a place and purpose and whether the responsibility he takes on to save lives is of his own choices or some feeling of satisfying the perceived expectations of fathers, biological and adoptive, who have passed on. Also, the relationship between Clark and Lois is the grounding element of this film.
A lot of the action is also quite impressive, even if a lot of it is at night and doused in rain, which is an annoying movie trope at this point. The concluding fight between Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman against Doomsday is well done. And they have definitely perfected the sight of Superman flying, levitating, and any other kind of ability, aerial or otherwise, that he has. There are even hints in the script of a compelling, thought provoking story, about our fascination with superheroes, dating back to the mythology of ancient civilizations up through the present, and what we ascribe to these figures and narratives. There’s also a few images that seem like they could have been lifted right out of comic books.
However, the bad far outweighs the good, in my opinion. To say that the plot is convoluted is an understatement. Not only is there the conflict and growing resentment between Batman and Superman, but there is the relationship between Clark Kent and Lois Lane, Alfred (Jeremy Irons) trying to talk reason to Bruce Wayne as he prepares for war, Lex Luthor’s various machinations against several people, Lois doing investigative reporting, Batman doing his own detective work, Batman trying to figure out who exactly Diana Prince is, and Clark Kent butting heads with Perry White (Laurence Fishburne) at the Daily Planet. There are just too many interpersonal story threads to maintain effectively.
In addition to of all of that, there is an abundance of dream sequences, quasi-dreams, and even one dream within a dream sequence that become largely unnecessary. It’s possible that these are visions, one very clearly is, and I’m sure a lot of it is meant to tie to the larger Justice League tapestry they are weaving, but they felt lazy and tacked on and I didn’t invest in them. And because they occur so regularly and without anything to distinguish them from reality that I had a hard time investing in other parts of the movie as well.
On top of this, the film makes some bizarre scene decisions that kill the momentum of the plot. At a very important time, at the beginning of what is essentially the reveal of the 3rd act, Superman leaves Metropolis to go confront Batman, while a ticking clock scenario has been introduced. At this key moment, the film suddenly decides to take a departure from that to focus on Wonder Woman reading files and watching videos on her laptop for five minutes, just to further set the stage for the Justice League movies. It’s flat out bad filmmaking. Especially when we then cut to Superman arriving to face Batman in Gotham, which is in a San Francisco-Oakland kind of proximity with Metropolis, which has taken all this time, while earlier in the film Superman is shown zipping down to Mexico City to save someone in no time at all from a burning building. This along with several other small but noticeable inconsistencies show a lack of general narrative logic with the film. For instance, why, when skyscrapers mere blocks away are being destroyed, are employees in the Wayne building in Metropolis just standing there watching it happen rather than evacuating the building? Too many things occur to merely serve the machinations of the script writers rather than logic.
The problem with naming the film Batman v Superman is that despite (supposedly) everyone wanting to see Batman and Superman fight each another, everyone knows what the outcome is really going to be, as everything is building toward a Justice League movie, and Superman and Batman are essential parts of that group. Because of this, it’s almost impossible to make the “versus” in the title not feel contrived. To their credit, the way they use Lex Luthor as a puppeteer almost pulls it off, until the plot device the film has planned for the resolving of their differences ended up causing me to giggle at the silliness of it when it was intended to be for dramatic effect.
Speaking of Lex, I said almost all of the casting decisions in this and Man of Steel were fine. However, Jesse Eisenberg as Lex Luthor is a massive misstep. He is not the right actor for this role. Michael Keaton and Heath Ledger were famously questionable casting decisions in superhero movies that turned out to be the right call, something people referenced when Eisenberg was announced. He will not be joining that list. He plays Luthor as something like Mark Zuckerberg crossed with the Joker; someone who is clearly closer to deranged and than evil genius. And he brings all of his typical Jesse Eisenberg acting ticks to the character too. It just doesn’t work. It’s as bad a performance as Tommy Lee Jones in Batman Forever or Nick Nolte in Hulk.
The real failure of this film, though, is everything surrounding the actors, and just as all of the evidence in the movie points to Lex Luthor, all of the evidence here points to Zack Snyder. Look, I get that he is an easy punching bag, and criticism of him and his movies can be chalked up to people not liking his aesthetic. But everything that Zack Snyder is as a director is on display in this movie, unnecessary slow motion and all. And it results in a severely flawed end product. Everything he does in terms of dialogue or action is heavy-handed and obvious. Subtlety and nuance is not something that exists in this man’s vocabulary. It shines through when Lex Luthor meets Clark Kent and Bruce Wayne at a party and says “I love bringing people together,” and then when he shakes Kent’s hand a remarks at his strong grip. You can feel the intended irony later, when Clark will not let go on his fixation with wanting to write about Batman, Perry remarks, “Nobody cares about Clark Kent taking on the Batman.” And lastly, when Batman, the master of stealth, goes to save someone he arrives in the Batwing, loudly announcing his presence, and then exploding up through the floor. And of course, the bad guys with the hostage do not just immediately kill the hostage, because the movie operates on its own internal logic.
The film does a poor job integrating the Justice League elements too. There was no excitement in the theater I was in for the reveals of The Flash, Aquaman, or Cyborg; no enthusiasm whatsoever. Also, the biggest charges lobbed against Man of Steel was the fetishizing of mass destruction in the heart of a city, culminating in a massive crater in the center of Metropolis and unknown casualties. This film makes feeble attempts to address this, with a monument to the victims, but also in very deliberate lines of dialogue as comments are made by military officials and others that areas being destroyed are either abandoned or not heavily populated because people aren’t in the downtown business district at night. And while the ending to Man of Steel featured a massive crater and clouds of smoke, this final fight is surrounded by fire and smoldering rubble. It all ends up being a cacophony of CGI and bombast. And the serious, grim tone of it all is suffocating.
It’s no spoiler to say that Doomsday is in the movie, as that was advertised in the trailers (Also, congratulations, Zack Snyder, you have a cave troll.). At one point, he is called “a deformity so hateful to sight and memory, the desecration without name.” Unbeknownst to Snyder, this description serves as an apt metaphor of what he has created here. DC and Warner Bros. have a problem on their hands. They have given the keys to the wrong person and his limitations as a director are threatening to derail any chances they have of being a legitimate equal to Marvel in the movie department. They also seem to lack a Kevin Feige-like person at the top of their studio to cast an overarching vision for all of this. They have cast their lot and they have Suicide Squad already in the can, and Wonder Woman being released next year ahead of Justice League: Part One. There is very little time to right the ship and salvage the situation for them, and it may already be too late. I’m sure this movie will make a ton of money on its opening weekend, but without good reviews and good word of mouth, the repeat business is not likely to be there. If Warner Bros. is wise, they will find a way to severe ties with Snyder and find a better way to move forward. This is not the movie that is going to get people to buy into a DC Cinematic Universe. Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice asks how Superman fits into this world. Unfortunately, I didn’t find myself caring how he fit in, because the movie itself doesn’t really seem interested in answering that question in any way beyond a superficial manner.
Rating: 2 out of 5 stars