Movie Review - Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice
So, I know this is a bit late. The movie’s been out for a couple weeks now. But, I’ve only just recently seen it, and to be honest, even in the face of all the hype about this movie and the fact that I’m a huge comic book geek,… for whatever reason, I just wasn’t that excited about it, going in. It’s very obvious that Warner Brothers is playing catch-up with these DC properties. They’re scrambling to compete with Marvel Studios. This is pretty much universally a bad thing, and I don’t think they should be so concerned with matching Marvel, beat for beat. I'm not saying that they shouldn't be trying to compete. Competition is always a good thing. I just don't think they should be trying to "get caught up" to Marvel, so to speak. Even this early on in their struggle, the negative effects of this strategy are showing up in force. But, I’m not going to get too far into all of that in this review. We’ll save that for another time. For now, I just want to stay focused on this specific movie; what it did right, what it did wrong and what this might indicate for where the franchise goes next.
What I Liked About It…
I’m going to start with what I thought the movie did right, because in this case, it’s a really big deal. It’s the absolute last thing I was expecting to be happy with in this film, and it really stepped up and surprised me.
I’ll just say it; Ben Affleck did a spectacular job. His performance was pitch-perfect for the way this movie was using the character of Batman/Bruce Wayne. In fact, in terms of story and character, this was actually my favorite movie-version of the Batman, (with one huge caveat, which I’ll get to later.)
I like the aging version of Batman. Obviously, many elements of Frank Miller’s “The Dark Knight Returns” were influential on the details and design of this movie. This was the graphic novel wherein Batman fought Superman, with the suit of power-armor. However, I don’t believe it had much more of an influence than on some of the visuals and the production design. For example, in the graphic novel in question, Batman is in his seventies. As Warner Bros went forward in the development of this DC Cinematic Universe, they didn’t want to go that old with the character, but they did still want a Batman who would be notably older than the rest of the Justice League, (immortals notwithstanding.) So, a Batman in his late forties fit the bill for the group dynamic they were going for. For the story they’re telling, Batman needs to be a little world-weary, and poised to give his younger and more idealistic companions a (sometimes harsh) lesson in reality. It works.
But, that’s not what really sold me on this version.
Here’s what did. If you’ve read any Batman titles over the years, you know that there are a lot of aspects to this character. He is as multifaceted as a superhero gets. Batman is a barely-seen boogeyman lurking in the shadows, an avenging phantom. He is a peerless martial artist and hand-to-hand combatant, capable of engaging wave after wave of opponents. He is a modern-day super-sleuth detective on par with a Sherlock Holmes or a Hercule Poirot. He is also an experimental, high-tech gadgeteer and inventor. He is a highly-skilled computer hacker and cryptographer. There’s just very little this guy can’t do. Well, prior to this film, every movie-Batman we’ve seen has showcased one or two of these aspects while de-emphasizing the others. This is where Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice differs from every other movie that has featured the character.
It’s understandable why filmmakers have been so gun-shy about taking Batman to that level. There’s an old saying that goes “Jack of all trades, but master of none.” In the mathematics of dramatic-narrative, it’s difficult to tell an engaging story about such a capable persona. How do you believably challenge a character who’s just so damned good at everything? Batman is the guy who spent decades of grueling training to break the rule that the old saying suggests. Imagine James Bond in a cape, and you still won’t have the over-the-top acumen in multiple disciplines that we’re talking about with Batman. Batman can improvise in action, like Bond… but, he can also plan and strategize like Alan Moore’s “V.” It runs the risk of seeming entirely too over the top, even for a superhero, and it ends up being one of those things that works a lot better in the pages of a book, than on the silver screen.
So, why did it work this time?
Well, because this time Batman is sharing the screen with a couple of almost literal gods walking the earth; Superman and Wonder Woman. This changes the challenge from; “We’d better not make Batman seem too great,” to “How can we make him seem equal to the challenge?” None of the prior, cinematic Batmen, from Adam West to Christian Bale would have been either feasible or believable taking on the last son of Krypton in a knock-down, drag-out brawl. For that, a writer needs the full, comic book version of the character. Hence, for all of the numerous representations of the Dark Knight in film over the last 80+ years, this is the first time we’ve seen a complete rendering of the character on the big screen. That’s a milestone. It’s a milestone that comic book fans have been waiting for, for so long that I feel like most of us have forgotten it was even something we were waiting to see… or maybe we just gave up on ever actually seeing it.
Well, someone finally did it, and it worked. It worked because Ben Affleck worked.
Like everyone else in America, I groaned in frustration when I heard that Affleck had been cast as Batman. However, I am willing to admit that I was wrong. Don’t misunderstand me, here. Affleck is not one of my favorite actors and it’s unlikely that he ever will be. He’s a fine director and an even better writer, but when it comes to his acting, you’re flipping a coin.
If the coin comes up “heads”: He’s great. He delivers a powerful and convincing performance that may even move you, (see Gone Girl.)
But, if it comes up “tails”: He is entirely too self-aware and delivers a performance that leaves you feeling like he was almost winking at the camera the whole time, as if to say;… “Hey, this is cool right? I’m in a movie! Check it out!”
Think of Jimmy Fallon back in his SNL days. You know what I’m talking about here. Don’t lie. I know you Love him now, on the Tonight Show. But, think back to SNL. Remember how he just couldn’t ever get through a single sketch without breaking character and laughing? Affleck is like the dramatic-roles version of that. Only, instead of laughing or giggling, it’s the knowing half-smile while delivering a 100% not-funny, serious line. Where Fallon would be turning his head to hide his face from the camera, while chuckling… Affleck will have eyes filled with mirth while the rest of his face is almost painfully forcing a scowl in line with the performance he’s being paid for.
In all fairness to those of us who doubted him, comic book movies are easily the most likely place for someone to come across as too self-aware on screen. In spite of the dramatic nature of the storytelling in superhero properties, the subject matter hits a level of audacity usually reserved for comedy. So, when presented with the actor who’s more guilty of the “What do you want from me? It’s a paycheck.” -pitfall than any other actor in Hollywood, and he’s acting in the genre that is the most ripe for it, our skepticism should have been completely understandable.
Having said all of that, there is a lot wrong with this movie, but Ben Affleck is not one of those things. A lot of reviewers are blaming him for the final product, but they’re mistaken. It’s not his fault. He did a great job. In fact, he is easily the best part of this movie. He’s the only character in the whole thing with an actual arc. He’s the only character that receives insight from the journey. He’s the only character who is a different person by the end of the film. Affleck takes us right along with him on that trip, and we’re completely engaged by his performance from beginning to end.
I’ll say it point blank; He carries this film.
What I didn’t like…
Let’s get this out of the way, right off the bat here; this is not a Justice League movie. This is a Superman movie that features Batman prominently in the story, and also features Wonder Woman in a little series of glorified cameos.
It’s being marketed by Warner Bros as something more than that, but this is just another of those symptoms of the studio playing catch-up, and trying to do things as close to the way Marvel did them, as possible. Again, this is a mistake, and again it’s a tangent I don’t want to go off on, in this review. I’ll get to all of that in a future post.
For right now, suffice it to say that this movie is obviously “Man of Steel 2,” and in order to appraise the film, you’ve got to accept that, right up front. The movie is not what its marketing and title would have you believe. It is a sequel to Man of Steel.
So, what didn’t I like? I’m going to break it down into chunks to avoid rambling too much, because pretty much everything else in the movie, other than Batman, is wrong. So, let me just get to these one at a time.
Gal Gadot comes off as utterly tone-deaf. She has no idea who Wonder Woman is or how to portray her in a performance. She could literally be playing any female action-movie lead. I can’t really blame her because it’s also clear that neither the writers (headed up by Chris Terrio and David Goyer,) nor the director have any idea how to portray the character, either.
She’s gorgeous, sure, but there are lots of gorgeous actresses in Hollywood. I can’t see any reason why they had to have her, for this part. That’s bad. Superheroes are the very definition of singular characters. This is particularly true in the case of the “Big 6” characters at DC, those being Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, The Flash, Aquaman, and Green Lantern. These characters are more icon than person. Many fictional characters can be said to be “larger-than-life” but nowhere is this more true than in the case of DC Comics’ A-List. As such, whomever you cast for one of those six parts, they’d better really “pop,” so to speak. Gal Gadot doesn’t.
Don’t put too much blame on the actress, though. The problems with Wonder Woman in this film began way up the chain from her. This is observable as she spends the entire movie falling victim to the all-too-common,… “had to give the character something to do,” –syndrome. She’s there because having Wonder Woman in the script was on the checklist. They put her in the movie, gave her exactly one little side-job to get done in each of the three acts of the script, and checked “Put Wonder Woman in the movie,” off the list.
She ultimately has no effect on anything happening in the movie. Everything she discovers on the stolen data files from Lexcorp,… Batman had already discovered. In the final fight against Doomsday at the end of the movie, she blocks the heat-vision shot from killing Batman. This was obviously an action beat that was surgically inserted to give her a part to play in the fight. All of the plot-elements required for Doomsday’s defeat were already there. Batman gets the weaponized, kryptonite-gas round and fires it at Doomsday and Superman drives the kryptonite spear into the creature’s heart. Now, you want more action beats in your big, final-battle scene than just that, of course. But, if all Wonder Woman is there for is to be part of the padding of that fight scene, then she doesn’t need to be in this movie. Give that extra time and those extra beats to Batman and Superman and save Wonder Woman for a future film, when her presence could potentially drive the plot, rather than just being along for the ride.
Ironically, when Superman and Batman look at each other in that “I thought she was with you,” –moment, it’s funny for all the wrong reasons. They’re giving voice to what the audience is thinking at that point; “Why is she here?”
I know what they were going for. They brought in Jesse Eisenberg to do a very Zuckerberg-ian take on the Ultra-Rich Industrialist/Criminal Mastermind Lex Luthor. At some point, I assure you, Zack Snyder went to Jesse Eisenberg and said; “I want you to do what you did in ‘The Social Network,’ only bigger!”
I can understand that thought-process, even if I don’t personally agree with it. Honestly, it could have worked. But, it doesn’t in this case. For starters, they fail to ever once define the character’s motivation as something nefarious. We’re supposed to just know his intentions are bad because of who he is. They never actually show us. This is especially misguided considering that this is such a unique new take on the character. You have to show us who, precisely this new Lex Luthor is.
They also fail to impress upon us why anyone else in the film thinks that what Lex is doing is a bad thing. Why would anyone in this story be opposed to having a Kryptonian-deterrent in case things ever go south? Correction: ...in case things ever go south, again! Keep in mind that, just a year prior to the events of this movie, everyone on Earth was looking on in horror as all of downtown Metropolis was reduced to slag and brickdust by a Kryptonian brawl. Think back to 9/11. Now imagine that, instead of three buildings, the entire island of Manhattan had been pancaked by a bunch of rowdy aliens. Now imagine, the next day, everyone just shrugged and said; "Meh. Not like we need to do anything about this."
Even canonically in the mythology of the Justice League, Batman keeps a supply of kryptonite secreted away somewhere with Superman’s full knowledge and blessing, just in case there’s ever a need for it, whether it be against newfound Kryptonian villains or the Man of Steel himself, should he ever cross over to the dark-side. But, Senator Finch (played by Holly Hunter) stands in root-and-branch opposition to this. Why? Apparently because Lex Luthor is a meanie-head. End of story.
You and I know he's up to no good. But, how does she know that? There is likely a good reason, but the filmmakers never so much as hint at what that might be.
Putting aside the plot problems, the biggest issue with Lex Luthor in this film is the performance. He comes across twitchy, sporadic and suffering from a barely controlled case of ADHD. There have been various versions of Luthor over the years, from the silly to the sinister, but this is the first time Superman’s arch-nemesis has ever come across as simply irritating. There is nothing at all redeeming about this version. He’s a rich kid with a magnifying glass sputtering out quips and taunts over the ants as he twitchingly burns them. It’s just a mistake all the way around the board.
For reasons I understand, (again, even though I don’t agree with them,) Warner Bros has decided to render this DC cinematic universe as dark, gritty and at times even somber. The whole world, it seems, is now Gotham City. Meanwhile, Gotham-proper is Gotham-squared.
Henry Cavill is a fine actor and he certainly looks the part of Superman. But, the Superman he’s given us is depressing. I’m not only referring to the fact that he is now willing to kill, (which is a major problem because it is a fundamental shift to perhaps the most iconic character in the history of the genre.) But, he does not embody the hope that we’ve come to know the character for. “This symbol,” he says, gesturing to the crest of the house of El on his chest, “means ‘hope.’” Which is ironic, considering that the guy walking around sporting said symbol, has none.
This Superman is reluctant in the best of times, and occasionally even sullen.
I point all of this out, because he is the embodiment of the tone of the whole story, from Man of Steel through this sequel. One of the really cool dynamics of the founding members of the Justice League is the contrast between Superman and Batman. Hope vs Justice. Light vs Dark. But, even though every single trailer for this film intones this contrast via Jesse Eisenberg voiceover, it doesn't actually exist in this new DC Cinematic Universe. Disposition-wise every Superhero, is now Batman. Brooding is the new "hopeful," ...somehow.
I understand not wanting to mimick Marvel’s light-hearted approach. But, there are lots of ways the DC properties could distinguish themselves. You don't have to turn the DCU into a decade-spanning Nine Inch Nails video.
Now we arrive at the real core of the problem. Everything else wrong with this movie, stems from the failings at the top of the chain. So I don’t blame Gadot, Cavill, or Eisenberg. They were doing exactly what they were directed to do. It’s just that what they were directed to do… was garbage.
I mentioned earlier that this movie plays out like they were just checking items off a list. You can really see this when you consider the editing and progression of the story. The scenes that comprise this movie could literally have been cut together in any order and the movie would still make sense. I don’t know that this is really a condemnation. I would almost believe that it was experimental, if I thought that Zack Snyder were capable of high-concept thinking at that level. But, he’s not. He's really really not.
It speaks to a lack of inspiration as far as story goes. Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure Snyder and company were inspired for all the cool visual effects they were going to set up in this film. But, the story took a backseat. What this movie had, in the writing stage was, as I said before, a bunch of bullet-points. A big list of “Things that Have to Happen.”
Now, keep in mind that every single one of these comic book movies has such a list. However, there’s usually a stage in the writing process, at which those bullet-points are worked into an inspired story. A procession of events takes shape on the page, incorporating the directives of their list organically, if not at least coherently.
That stage was skipped entirely in the composition of this script.
I hate to beat a drum I’ve just about worn through, at this point, but this is what happens when you elevate a gifted special effects designer into the director’s chair. Zack Snyder is the second coming of Michael Bay in this regard. He is on record saying that, while they did borrow visual elements from well-known comic book storylines, most notably Frank Miller’s ‘The Dark Knight Returns,’ the story for this film is one that they came up with, themselves. Well,… I’m sorry but, with Zack Snyder at the helm, that has always been a recipe for disaster.
Snyder’s visuals are not the problem. He has a very distinct visual style that, I admit is perfect for comic book properties. I’ll give him that. But, if you look at his litany of films, and you separate the hits (300, Watchmen,) from the flops, (Sucker Punch, Legend of the Guardians,) you see very clearly that what distinguishes hit from flop in Snyder’s filmography is a simple matter of whether he had a good story in hand, or if he had to compose a story himself. 300 and Watchmen, for example were stories he was basically transcribing directly to film. There was very little to be done on either film in terms of writing. But, when you look at Sucker Punch, where he was trusted with weaving the story from scratch,… the result is an incoherent mess that plays like Action Porn. The story is just a pretext to go from one big action set-piece to the next.
The end result is that you’re left clinging to Batman as the only thing about this movie that carried any kind of meaningful arc from beginning to end. Ironically, this is a Superman sequel that ends up being a better Batman story than a Superman story. Everything else they were trying to do here, the Justice League set-ups, Wonder Woman, etc. was all just filler schlock as they were checking the last few items off the list.
This doesn’t give me a great deal of hope for the future of the DCU in film. While I’ve always been more of a Marvel reader, than a DC reader,… that doesn’t mean I don’t like the DCU. Just because I usually prefer the one over the other, doesn’t mean I really have to pick. What would have been best for all of us ticket-buying fans would be if Warner Brothers could have provided some meaningful competition to drive Marvel to keep pushing and improving. I don’t think WB is going to be presenting much in the way of competition or challenge to the Marvel films, unless there is some kind of major course-correction going forward.
One final note. I mentioned in the beginning that there was one big exception to the mostly great way that Batman was presented in this movie, and it is a big one. It's damning.
Yep. Those are two human beings. One standing next to the truck and one sitting in the bed, right before Batman blows it to hell.
He kills now. Not just one superhuman megalomaniac in a desperate, last-ditch effort to save innocent lives, either. We're talking the wholesale slaughter of those standing between the Dark Knight and his goals. Batman straight-up murders at least a dozen people in this movie. As a corollary to this, he now also apparently has no compunctions about using guns.
This is unforgivable, in my opinion. On the pure level of pathos; he saw his parents murdered with a gun and so has always had an aversion to their use. It's true that the Batmobile has had twin machine-guns mounted on the hood before. But, never before has he used them on live targets. They've only been used as a way to overcome non-living obstacles. I don't mind the gun he was using to fire the kryptonite-gas rounds, either. That made sense. But, we've got Batman, in this film, both with handguns and vehicle mounted turrets, firing round after round into living human targets.
Moreover, we see later on in the same scene depicted in the above .gif, that Batman has devices that can be launched and even scattered in a wide arc that seek out and magnetize themselves to enemy firearms, that he can then detonate to disable said firearms without fatally wounding those holding them. So, it's not a matter of opportunity, either.
I had a major problem with Superman's killing of Zod in Man of Steel. But, even that wasn't nearly as out-of-character as what Batman was getting up to in the third act of this film.
Now, don't get me wrong here, re-imagining a popular character is fine. There's nothing wrong with that. But, if you're going to alter something so fundamental to a long-standing character, then you've got to do something with that change. You've got to use those changes to inform the narrative.
But, they don't. They don't explore these altered aspects to Batman or Superman. They don't even address them. It seems as if Zack Snyder and company don't appreciate, or even realize the gravity of the character choices they're making. They're clearly not making those choices in the interest of crafting a compelling story. Rather these changes seem to only be in service of darkening the particular version of the DC Universe they're presenting. We're going to turn Batman into a mass-murderer just so we can say; "Boom! Edgier than Marvel?" Really?
This stuff is worse than Greedo shooting first, or Jabba being chummy and diplomatic with Han. It suggests that the filmmakers don't even understand the characters they've been entrusted to work with. This is Zack Snyder straight up shredding the essence of two of the most widely beloved characters in the history of fiction, and I don't see how any serious comic book fan is supposed to look past that.
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