Following in the footsteps of 2013’s Man of Steel, the decision was made to speed things up in order to finally bring DC’s Justice League to the big screen. Director Zack Snyder along with the Nolan team that brought that movie forward had been given the order to craft a bigger tale. Step one would be not only bringing back Superman, but introducing a new Batman. Along the way, the sequel would also bring characters like Wonder Woman, Aquaman, Lex Luthor and others into this new DC Cinematic Universe. And then, just to top it all off, this sequel would pit the Man of Steel against the Dark Knight in a long-imagined battle royale. Does it work?
Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice tries to tackle a lot of the criticisms levied against Man of Steel’s destruction of Metropolis. It starts there, on the streets of Metropolis, as Wayne Inc’s CEO, Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) drives around. and through and over the destruction His front row seat to the devastation wrought by Kal-El and Zod stoking a fire of distrust and anger against the newly-dubbed Superman (Henry Cavill). The almost-two years of good deeds by Superman don’t erase Wayne’s mistrust. Meanwhile, across the bay, Clark Kent is keeping tabs on the Batman of Gotham – a one-man crusade against crime that seems to have no regard for how he gets its results. These simmering feelings against one another will only grow as they’re stoked by Lexcorp CEO Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg) who seems to have his own reasons for ensuring these two men come to blows at some point. With the Senate hearings of Senator Finch (Holly Hunter) hanging over his head, can Superman prove he’s a force for good? And who’s the mysterious and beautiful Diana (Gal Gadot), who is a step ahead of Bruce Wayne?
While I am going to try and keep this review spoilers free, I will start here by pointing out the first obvious issue I have with this movie. It’s right up there in that paragraph above. This is one plot-heavy movie. I didn’t even have a chance to mention Lois Lane (Amy Adams) or Martha Kent (Diane Lane) or Alfred Pennyworth (Jeremy Irons) or the plot threads that follow Scoot McNairy’s Wallace or Callan Mulvey’s Anatoli – all which eventually fold into the overall plot of this movie. David S Goyer and Chris Terrio have united to write one very long movie with anywhere between three and six different story threads that all try to converge at one point or another, with various degrees of success.
The odd thing about this movie is that feels like two separate movies joined at the hip. There’s a Batman/Wonder Woman movie and there’s a Superman sequel to Man of Steel. And you get the sense that the movie they were really interested in making wasn’t the Man of Steel sequel. Let me step back and speak to what the movie gets right then. It is interesting to see Ben Affleck give us a more mature, veteran Batman/Bruce Wayne. This isn’t the young Bruce that Christian Bale portrayed in Nolan’s trilogy. Instead, he’s a man who’s been at the front lines of the war on crime for 20 years. He’s left his fair share of blood on the floor and continues unabated. His relationship with Jeremy Irons’ Alfred is interesting — retaining that boss/employee nature but also being one of two close friends who’ve got no one else to share this burden with. And I highlight both Bats and Bruce at the same time as the parts with Bruce Wayne are as interesting. Specially when they’re involving Gal Gadot’s Diana Prince.
The once-and-future Wonder Woman is another of the film’s higher points. Though her part is limited, Gadot manages to leave a strong mark by her presence. She’s a person that’s comfortable facing off against billionaire playboys as she is monstrous aliens. I don’t want to speak more of it because her part is small, but hints at the greater world that WB & DC want to build. All I’ll add is that Gadot is great for the role and should be interesting to see how much it expands when Wonder Woman hits next year. Because, if nothing else, this movie creates agency for the other movies that will inevitably follow.
Let me also commend the work that the crew behind the scenes does for this movie. Whether it’s the costumes by Michael Wilkinson or the work by makeup department to create new looks for our heroes and villains or the sets by Carolyn Loucks, who must build two different yet identifiable cities right across from one another, they go at it in building a world that’s real. The Batcave feels real. The slums of Gotham look dark and dingy while the high-rises of Metropolis shine brightly. I’d also mention the work the numerous digital teams from WETA, Double Negative, Scanline VFX and other companies do to make all of the fights and action moments shine. And obviously, a tip to the various stunt teams that made the Batman fight sequences really feel like they hurt. Because when they fight, it’s fast and visceral but exciting.
So what suffers in that split is the Superman side. Saddled with the fallout from Man of Steel, Snyder, Goyer and co. try to resolve the criticisms levied at that movie by having Superman be under investigation by Senator Finch. This creates a condition where Superman hasn’t quite been accepted by everyone as a good guy, which feeds into Clark’s doubts. He tries to save Lois and people die, which feeds his doubts. This means that we get another movie with Henry Cavill portraying a Superman unsure of his place in the world, as one that has embraced being the symbol of hope that Jor-El told him he could be. It also leads Adams’ Lane to seek out who is apparently setting Superman as a threat — which leads her to question Henry Lennix’s Secretary Swanwick and down a rabbit hole that leads to Lex Luthor. (Because it’s obviously Luthor setting up both Superman and Batman).
And I have to save a whole paragraph for Eisenberg’s Luthor because it’s necessary. Put simply, NO ONE knows what he’s doing here. It’s a performance that is all over the place. At times he appears to be a goofy kid or a genius savant. Other times it’s like a murderous version of his Mark Zuckerberg. What is his ultimate goal? Is Luthor supposed to be an unhinged maniac? A dangerous mastermind who cannot process life like normal folk? Is that why he’s sending people jars of his urine? Because he does. Lex Luthor sends someone a jar of his pee in this movie for that person to mistakenly drink.
Read that last sentence again.
It brings up the heaviest criticism I have against this movie: Why? Why is Luthor against Superman? Why does he want Batman and Superman to take out one another? Why is Bruce Wayne running into the chaos of Metropolis at the start of the movie? Why is Perry White not interested in Clark Kent investigating the Batman?
Two and a half hours of pieces moving from left to right and the only answer I can come up with is: because they have to. Bruce Wayne must drive into the destruction of Metropolis so he may fear and hate Superman or there is no movie. Lex Luthor must look to destroy Superman in order for the eponymous fight between Bruce and Clark to take place or there is no movie. Batman brands bad guys with his bat-brand in order to make Clark Kent worry about him — thus giving Superman equal reason to fight. And so on and so forth. In other words, none of the actions of any of these characters feel natural. They’re arrived to or taken because the plot demands they take them. Right before the fight we came to see takes place, there’s even a chance for them to talk it out. To stop from going through with Batman VERSUS Superman, but obviously, it is not taken. It cannot. There’s no movie otherwise.
And because this is two movies shoehorned into one another, there’s no sense of a thorough line running through the plot. We go from moments of levity – Clark jumping into a tub with Lois – to moments of somber reflection – Bruce bringing flowers to his parents’ tombs – at the drop of a hat. It plays similarly to Snyder’s Watchmen adaptation but at least that had the defense of trying to adapt a previous work nearly verbatim. Here there’s no sense of what’s going on. It ends up feeling like snippets of a movie getting spliced together and fitting in some kind of strange way. I mean, is there a character that doesn’t get a dream sequence in this movie?
If it sounds like I’m negative on the movie, it’s because it feels half-baked. There’s lots of ideas in here and some of them work, some of them don’t and the ones that work feel dragged down by what doesn’t. There’s a lot of service being performed by this movie towards the larger DC Cinematic Universe that it forgets about the story it is trying to tell. This is felt most of all on the character whose movie it really is. Two movies and nearly 6 hours in and Snyder, Goyer and Nolan have still not be able to deliver Superman. And that’s not Cavill’s fault per se. In Man of Steel, he wasn’t Superman. He was Clark Kent trying to find his place in the world. In Batman v Superman, he’s still that. There’s only so much self-doubt and confusion that the character can have before he starts being less interesting than the newer ones. Meanwhile they get Batman so effortlessly right and seem to have Wonder Woman lined up appropriately in the course of this one movie.
So overall, what is the verdict on Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice? Is it as bad as most critics have said? I don’t think so. It’s no X-Men 3 or Daredevil or Green Lantern and it’s definitely no Batman & Robin. However, it also falls way behind The Dark Knight or X2 or The Avengers. I’d say it’s a middle-of-the-road movie that has parts that work, parts that don’t and parts that are only here to pay off later on down the line. And what works seems to work well. The actions is exciting. When it gets to the fighting and the superheroing, the movie works well. But it is dragged by so much that doesn’t that I cannot imagine that this movie will be seen with any kindness down the line. It’s a matinee and even then, I cannot see myself rushing to see it like I did Deadpool or Guardians of the Galaxy.
I do plan on having a later post with some more thoughts on the plot and the characters that will dive headlong into spoilers but for now, let’s leave this at this.