In a Facebook conversation I had just before entering the theater I mentioned to a friend that if Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is as bad as early screenings had reported then this would be an easy review. Now, an hour after leaving the theater, I can see exactly why BvS is as bad as reported, but this still isn’t an easy review.
The easy review is to dismiss all two-and-a-half hours as rubbish, bash the filmmakers, the editing, the lack of coherent story, the trailers, the over-reliance on computer graphics and “cool” moments which make no sense, call director Zack Snyder a hack and declare the DC cinematic universe over before it even begins. There is definitely a case for this. However, the honest review, in my opinion, is to acknowledge that Dawn of Justice is a mess and should end Snyder’s tenure with DC, but also state that the film isn’t the disaster early viewers have claimed. As with all messes, there are good things to be found, you just have to dig for them. No, the disaster is what comes later, if no one cleans the mess.
Batman v Superman‘s troubles begin with its very first scene: yet another recreation of the iconic Wayne family death sequence most famously portrayed in Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns. The image of Martha Wayne’s necklace snapping and raining pearls upon her body as little Bruce stares on is undoubtedly striking, and that’s exactly why it’s been done and redone half a dozen times in every imaginable medium. We know it, we’ve known it for years, get on with the story. Of course, in a film where almost all the biggest surprises were given away in the trailers, there isn’t a lot we don’t already know.
The film’s absolute best moment follows immediately after the cliched origin sequence. In revisiting Man of Steel‘s Kryptonian attack on Metropolis we are not only reminded of the fictional events of the previous film but also of the real world backlash (and the pounding headaches) which that film’s depiction of Superman caused. Following Bruce Wayne as he rushes through the falling debris and dust clouds in an attempt to save as many of his employees as possible gives us not only a glimpse of what the fictional citizens experience but also a visual representation of moviegoer criticism. Wayne is established as a hero by charging into the billowing concrete mist which all others flee from. This sequence, in which we see the level of Superman’s power through of the eyes of those who suffer its unintended consequence, is frightening and brilliantly portrayed right up until we find another cliche of the little girl who doesn’t have enough sense to move away from the concrete slab hanging directly above her. For those few minutes Batman v Superman feels like the movie it aspired to be. Once those minutes are over what remains is the jumbled mess it is.
With a few exceptions the film does look absolutely stunning. The sonic booms at take off, the spectacle of swooping in, the horror of glowing eyes hovering above the ground, this is how Superman should be portrayed. Snyder has never lacked for great visual composition. There is also a welcome intensity to the action, much in the way that X-Men: The Last Stand had a dreadful excitement (there are several parallels between Dawn of Justice and Last Stand… make of that what you will). Yet, everything else from dialog to characters to unnecessary dream sequences are wildly inconsistent. Henry Cavill handles the role better here than in Man of Steel but is still an empty void leaving Amy Adams to once again be the film’s heart. Ben Affleck is fine considering how little he has to work with, likewise Gal Gadot although she essentially has no reason to be in the film other than to set up the Justice League (in fact, Affleck doesn’t need to be here either, but more on that later). Holly Hunter, Lawrence Fishburne and Diane Lane are talented actors completely wasted. The true scene-stealer is Jesse Eisenberg, in the sense that every scene he’s in is either cringe-worthy or begrudgingly enjoyable. Unfortunately the latter comes so late in the film that his twitchy, obsessive, pop-culture referencing psychopath comes off as a very, very poor imitation of Heath Ledger’s Joker. The inconsistency of Eisenberg’s performance perfectly encapsulates the film as a whole: a bunch of obvious, in-your-face nonsense, a moment of amazement, more nonsense.
Perhaps the biggest problem with the Synder-verse so far has been its overwhelming sense of grandiose self-importance. Everything in Dawn of Justice is portrayed as the most important thing ever. Every action is framed in the gloomiest, most dramatic way possible. Every collision ends with an explosion (seriously, what are the odds that a gas truck would pull onto the street right during a midnight car chase and that Superman would then make the Batmobile careen into a pair of abandoned pumps?). Every scene is accompanied by an overbearing score and punctuated with obvious, often ludicrous foreshadowing of the titular fight. Yet that titular fight is probably the least over-the-top element of the entire movie.
In being an important movie, Batman v Superman therefore must take on important themes. Themes of roles which fathers play in their sons’ lives, the limits of power and who should have it, the responsibility of those who can do good to do good, how we as humanity deal with evil and cruelty, perceptions of god, the fall of journalism, and, of course, proper bathtub etiquette. Snyder and writers Chris Terrio and David S. Goyer seem to think that tossing a bunch of big ideas into a film will give it substance. Trouble is, not one of these big, interesting themes is ever developed into a complete idea.
This is where I can’t honestly call Dawn of Justice a complete disaster. There is the base of a great film here about humanity’s reaction to a god-like being descending from the sky. How do we respond to the knowledge that there is in fact other life out there, and it is vastly more powerful than we are? How do the faithful who spent centuries praying for a second coming feel when a greater power arrives and it isn’t what they expect? How do those in power, be they public or private, try to maintain order when there is something else which could crush them with a snap of his fingers? The opening sequence of Kryptonian destruction from the ground up demonstrates just how good such a film could be. Bruce Wayne develops this story quite well, but his presence means the story is never the focus, the fight is. There could still be a Batman vs. Superman fight, but that would be a different movie, allowing that plot to more fully develop as well. In this hypothetical Man of Steel sequel, Superman continues his efforts to save innocents despite a growing backlash against him. We would still see the governmental hearings and Luthor’s eventual plan, however we would do deeper into the controversy and contradictions which Dawn of Justice never develops. Superman would be a stand-in for a greater power, be it God or government or any other figure bent on helping humanity even as he unwittingly harms it. This is also were Cavill’s emotionless performance would actually help. Yet this is not the film which was made.
Dawn of Justice clearly began with the intention of trying to get DC’s Justice League to catch up with Marvel’s Avengers. The films seems to have started at the concept of “Wouldn’t it be cool if we made a movie where Superman fights Batman?” and then wrapped everything else around that one moment. The story, the characters, any sense of reason, and even what should have been the big, inciting incident (albeit wholly predictable) are completely forgotten once the first punch is thrown. Instead of what could have been a solid, interesting take on the Superman mythos, with all the requisite action and sequel-friendly estsablishment, we got an underdeveloped, rushed, obvious attempt at building a Justice League movie on top of rumble. Batman v Superman is such a mess that by the time other heroes are mentioned we’re less excited with prospect of more than begging for it all to just stop.
With Man of Steel and now Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, DC would do well to end its connection to Zack Snyder. Suicide Squad might still be good (although its affiliation with Snyder doesn’t bode well at this point). Affleck can have his Batman movie, Wonder Woman is more than welcome, but, DC and Warner Bros, please, please, no more Zack Snyder. Pleeeeease. You have all the building blocks of several great franchises, just get someone who actually knows how to put those blocks together instead of knocking them all down.
As is, DC looks like the little girl in BvS‘s opening sequence: completely oblivious to the disaster we can all see coming.