Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice is a superhero film that has been in production for several years, with its controversial cast being announced all the way back in the fall of 2013. Since then, due to the hiring of Chris Terrio to help write the screenplay, the film was pushed back a full year to fully realize the greatness that is America’s two biggest superhero icons duking it out to the death. The film is directed by Zack Snyder (Watchmen, Man of Steel, 300, Sucker Punch), written by Chris Terrio (Argo) and David S. Goyer (Batman Begins, Blade), and stars Ben Affleck as Bruce Wayne/Batman, Henry Cavill as Clark Kent/Superman, Gal Gadot was Wonder Woman, Jeremy Irons as Alfred, Amy Adams as Lois Lane, and Jesse Eisenberg as Lex Luthor. Laurence Fishburne, Diane Lane, and Holly Hunter play other characters. The story centers on the controversy in Metropolis surrounding the man-god Kryptonian savior Superman in the aftermath of the events of 2013’s Man of Steel, a film that was lambasted for compromising its protagonist’s heroic image with his blind destruction of the vast majority of the city in the name of beating up one dude he didn’t like, resulting in thousands of civilian casualties and probably a couple 9/11’s worth of property damage. This was a problem that Batman v. Superman promised to address, as Bruce Wayne/Batman, resident and vigilante protector of the neighboring and similarly crime-ridden Gotham City, sees the destruction firsthand, and thinks Superman is flaunting a lot of unchecked power and posing as a hero without understanding the consequences of his other-worldly power. The United States government seems to agree with Batman on this one, as a Kentucky senator is trying to propose (incredibly vague) restrictions on Superman’s hero activity. Superman has problems with the Bat as well, criticizing his vigilante justice practices. So, they have a little spat. Add a ton of other shit and you have this movie.
Batman v. Superman is an absolute mess. I want to make that clear from the get-go. Let me first, though, say the things that this movie does well (don’t worry, this won’t take long). First of all, the casting of Ben Affleck, which three years ago seemed to some as a sin against humanity, ends up being the most reliably good thing in this movie. Affleck brings his A-game, as does Irons as his assistant Alfred, who provides all two of the amusing parts of the entire movie. The cinematography has Zack Snyder’s signature touch, in that it’s dark and often very pretty, and yes, there is ample slow-mo. The action sequences are hit or miss (more on that later), but a number of them are fairly well-done, curiously all of them having Batman at their center. Not only is Batman an inherently more interesting and malleable character, but also seems to make for much more compelling action. The actual fight with Superman is suitably tense and pretty exciting, as are the scenes, both real and imagined, of Batman throwing down with armored baddies – even if they are a tad excessive in brutality. The score is also decent, even if the choir sections are pretty ridiculous.
The film, probably thanks to having one-half of its writing team be a pretty good screenwriter (Terrio), does have a story that lends itself to some themes that are interesting on paper, and are what primarily got me excited about the movie in the first place. The idea of essentially an indestructible god being among humankind and how mankind would deal with that is inherently intriguing, as is the theme of what limits should be placed on and what litigation should be allowed in regards to the activities of superhumans (although this idea was much better examined already in The Incredibles). Especially in the first half of the movie, these themes are given some light as we get to know the motivations behind Batman and Superman and try to understand their philosophical squabble. This is where the list of the good things about the movie ends. On to the excrement.
Now, like I just said, this movie’s story, when handled well, lends itself to some inherently very thought provoking themes regarding the relation between gods and men, conflicting ideas of justice, and the political implications of a superhero in the modern world. The first 100 minutes or so of this movie are largely action-free and are almost entirely devoted to setting up these ideas. The remaining 50 minutes are mostly allocated toward brainless, poorly put together action sequences underscored by character decisions that not only completely bury any semblance of cohesion or conclusiveness to the themes harped on so aggressively in the first act, but also actively make these themes make no sense at all.
One of the most intriguing things about BvS’s premise was its seeming legitimizing of the mind-numbing pointless cataclysm at the climax of Man of Steel. It almost covered up for one of that movie’s biggest flaws by making it the starting point for the entire plot, seeing as how Batman sees that destruction as reason enough to try and destroy Superman. Unfortunately, the ethical codes of these characters are completely muddled and nonsensical in the last two-thirds of the movie. Batman suddenly becomes a vicious, remorseless murderer despite his claims for superhero accountability for collateral damage, and Superman (with the help of Batman and the two minutes Wonder Woman pretends to matter on screen) causes and/or facilitates arguably even wider destruction and casualties in his “heroic” efforts, yet these are conveniently glossed over. Lex Luthor had the opportunity to have an interesting motivation regarding his borderline atheism and fear of a godlike creature, but it ends up getting lost in Jesse Eisenberg’s weird, twitchy monologues that end up coming off goofy instead of menacing the majority of the time. When your main villain’s haunting final scene gets laughs from the audience, your villain is not working.
All of these motivations and themes are completely devoid of cohesion, and the film instead elects partway through to pull a complete 180 from a tense, dark, outwardly political (not necessarily good) superhero movie to a loud, obnoxious video game. My mind has become completely numb to almost all computer generated imagery, and yet these superhero movies seem to be having a contest to one-up each other with how many virtual fireworks displays they can shoehorn to the film’s climax. The already pretty muddled and empty attempts at depth made in BvS are made even more shallow and pointless as the third act tries scene by scene to best itself by how much shit it can clutter the frame with. The inky Instagram filter lighting, break-neck editing, and smudgy punk rock color palette turn the majority of the latter half’s action sequences into pure sensory overload, and by the end the action had become so tensionless and numbing to me that I was really just waiting for the credits to start because I’d already basically decided how I felt about the movie.
If the irksomely under-realized thematic material wasn’t enough to drag the already thin plot to its knees, there’s also the fact that Snyder’s self-indulgent slow-motion and inclusion of repeats of pretty imagery we saw before bloat the already insultingly huge running time even further, and the one potentially risky story move toward the end (and also the only thing about the entire movie not shown in the trailer) is completely negated in the sequel-guaranteeing final shot. Oh yeah, we also have some sequels to set up for, which results in a number of incredibly rushed, forced, and groan-inducing flash-forwards to the Justice League that honestly felt really hammy. Remember how Age of Ultron was like the middle-point movie for the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and had to kind of move all one thousand of its characters’ stories along by like an inch so they can each have their own movie, and as a result it was kind of a big jumbly mess? Yeah, well the DC Cinematic Universe has already had that movie now and we’re only two movies in, which is not a promising foundation for your dozen-odd-film meta-franchise.
Speaking of the Marvel movies, let’s use them as a means of illustrating what is probably the biggest surface-level problem with this movie – it’s not fun. At the very least, Age of Ultron was quippy, fast-paced, and had some characters we liked. Even if the action grew tiresome, the thought-provoking themes weren’t explored very well, and it was kind of overstuffed and overlong, at the very least I can say it’s a fast, fun movie to sit through. Batman v Superman tries to take a page from the Nolan Batman trilogy and take superhero stories more seriously, but somehow translates that into making the film overly grim, dark, and completely devoid of fun – yes, Batman v Superman makes Christopher Nolan seem subtle by comparison. Besides some small quips by Alfred (which seem super out of place within the rest of the movie), the only fun things are the cool action bits the trailers spoiled for us and unintentionally funny lines by the villain. Especially after seeing a movie like Deadpool, it’s really hard watching a superhero movie that doesn’t just take itself seriously, but is just brooding and dull and dreary. It’s dudes in spandex punching a swamp demon. You’re not directing fucking Hamlet, Zack Snyder. Have some fun with it.
Overall, Batman v Superman raised my expectations in its first act with some clever writing and themes and even some good action sequences, then proceeded to instead deliver exactly what the trailers made me believe beforehand that I would get, and also usurped all fun and advertised future movies in the process, all while completely ditching its potential to be powerful and drowning it in an incoherent, inconclusive 40-minute eyefuck. This movie isn’t complete shit. It’s just a blockbuster that tries to be ambitious, gives up, then tries to go by the numbers, and then gets the numbers wrong. Good thing I’m not a comic book fan so I only see this as a shitty movie and not some kind of act of sacrilege.
On my way out of the theater, I saw a 12-year-old girl walking out next to me that had a Batman shirt on that said, “That was probably the best movie I’ve ever seen.” And that’s a pretty good way to look at it. This movie will probably satiate the hunger of the least demanding of die-hard comic fans, and will probably give Zack Snyder fans a huge boner to add to his trophy room, but if you don’t fit in one of those categories, I don’t think it’s worth the trip to the theater. Just wait for Civil War like I’m doing.