Author’s Preface to Review:
In every critical analysis, there is a decided upon numerical assignation given, and however arbitrary although such numerical assessments may be, they are often (fairly or unfairly) judged in and of themselves, based on others’ agreement or disagreement with said numbers assigned.
Furthermore, upon deeper inspection (and often, given simply the increased comprehension that comes with the passing of time), occasionally there can be a greater understanding of something when viewed from a farther distance.
Such may be the case with the 2013 film, Man of Steel [the original review may be found by clicking here]. At its release, there was such hyperbolic vitriol rained down upon it for one reason or another, and in my own hasty rush to defend my favorite of all superheroes, I may have over-ranked the film in such a designation of a perfect five stars. The film has its faults, which I outlined in the body of my review, but perhaps did not factor into the star rating given. I would, upon deeper reflection, amend my rating to a three and one-half out of five stars. (The extent of that brutal, nearly-unbearable, very long battle sequence ending between Superman and Zod really should have been re-evaluated by all involved).
These things matter only insofar as they are comparatively used vis-à-vis other movies reviewed and star ratings given, thus, it is essentially a flawed system from the get-go. A movie doesn’t exist within a vacuum; nor does its goodness or badness fully depend on that of other films’ strengths and weaknesses. It correlates to the surrounding world of entertainment before and after it was created, as well as existing as its own art too. However, it also is unique in its genre, its content, and its purpose, and comparing certain kinds of movies to others is off the bat, unfair. All that said…in viewing the follow up sequel to Man of Steel, that being 2016’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, it cannot in good conscious be given an equal rating to its predecessor. Although imperfect in itself, it is inherently a superior film to Man of Steel, and shall herein be given four and one-half stars. Given the Examiner’s star rating system only to be depicted in whole, rather than halves, this shall be shown as five (but written in print at the end, in its actuality of 4.5).
This explanation is being given not out of necessity, for at the end of the day, it is no one’s decision but my own. Moreover, I stand by the actual content of all that is written in that original Man of Steel review. But rather, I felt it was worthy nonetheless of the telling, for if anyone went back in the archives to see my star rating disparity between Man of Steel and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, he or she may feel the discrepancy warranted such an explanation, and I decided to give it thusly.
Now…onward with the review. Oh…and yes, there ARE some spoilers, so see the film before reading.
When dealing with a character as well known and archetypal as Superman, it can be difficult to know where to begin. His origin story was rehashed well in Man of Steel, a film which tonally brought a different shade of thinking about the man, the alien, the hero known as Kal-El/Clark Kent/Superman (Henry Cavill).
Zack Snyder was given the directorial role of deciding upon this new iteration of Superman with which our world now has been presented, and it’s one that deeply ponders the philosophical coming to grips with even the idea of such a godlike being.
In Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, Mr. Snyder reckons with what he had wrought in Man of Steel, which was a veritable cavalcade of destruction. Picking up where that film left off, BvS opens with a very distraught Bruce Wayne/Batman (Ben Affleck) driving through Metropolis, seeing the epic fight to the death between Superman and Zod (Michael Shannon), and angered to his very core by this alien being who, (if his nature were contrary to what it actually is, i.e., good), could destroy all of humankind with little to no effort involved.
Months later, Mr. Wayne is so convinced of this possibility that he is driven throughout much of the film, (leading up to a faceoff battle with Superman), to prove himself right, and show the world that Superman needs to be stopped. The question is…from what? It is true that there was much demolition in the wake of Superman’s conquests, but at the very core of all his actions, goodness is ever his mission.
He cannot possibly be seen to have purposefully wreaked havoc upon the world, or wished for any deaths of innocent people, or done anything in his power but act out of a general sense of moral certitude that at the end of the day, he was and always is, only ever acting for the greater good of servicing humanity and helping those in need, in danger, or under the threat of others who may wish to do them harm. Moreover, it is not solely that his mind is made up for good (for gravely terrible actions have befallen the world by men wrongly convinced their actions are right), but collectively as a people it is seen and decided upon that his actions are at their core, good. This is tested in the film, and he is even brought into a court of law over a framed setup that aims to bring down his shiny image, and paint him as the villain. Is it any surprise that the real enemy at the heart of this sinister mission is none other than Clark’s age old rival, Lex Luther?
Side bar: Lex was played well by Gene Hackman in Superman and Superman II, but perhaps best onscreen by Michael Rosenbaum in Smallville; he (sometimes gravely, often humorously) exquisitely trod the line between zany and insane in that series. Adding to the cinematic lexicon of Lexes, in this rendition of the classic villain, is Jesse Eisenberg, whose intrinsically irritating nature makes for a readily hateable baddie; truly, it’s otherworldly the disdain Mr. Eisenberg’s twitchy, sniveling Mr. Luther inspires in the viewer. One can hardly tell if it is in fact talent or simply a preternaturally abhorrent personality so often seen from the actor, but in any case, Mr. Eisenberg is certainly at his utmost maniacally annoying.
Anyway, regarding the story’s setup, the whole conceit of this particular film is, in a way, faulty. From the beginning, there is a sense all the way up ‘til the moment it happens that—spoiler alert—Superman and Batman will inevitably realize that they are on the same team and join forces. Fighting each other is essentially pointless, especially in the face of inherent evil such as what rises to power at the hands of Lex Luther: the mammoth, larger than life arch-enemy, Doomsday.
Doomsday is created by Lex as a part-reincarnated-version-of-the-dead-and-defeated- Zod, and part-undead/undefeatable-by-any-earthly-means-mega-being, whose only weakness (akin to Superman) is in fact kryptonite. Energy from human-made weapons fired at it only increases its strength. Well, how does the one being who can fight Doomsday—i.e, Superman—wield a kryptonite weapon, when all the while it is the one material in the world that will weaken/kill him? Therein lies the struggle of this film’s final battle, which finds Superman, Batman, and—surprise!—Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) teaming up to bring down this supernatural force so great that, true to its name, it may threaten the very existence of every living thing—even Superman.
But nevertheless, here we are. The idea that (at first) these larger than life characters of Superman and Batman may in fact be pitted against each other is presented to us, only to find that together they ought to stand, in order to face off with the real evil. And all the fanciful surroundings are put in place in order to establish a good enough case for watching how it will all play out.
As stated near the outset, no film exists entirely in a vacuum. Never more apparent is this than in movies about superheroes. BvS is clearly not merely a sequel to Man of Steel; in fact, more than anything, it is the setup for the onslaught to be expected over the next several years of DC films surrounding the many characters of The Justice League (*hint, hint*: “Dawn of Justice” is right there in the title).
Over the last decade or so, Marvel has ruled the box office, and frankly, to an overloaded fever pitch. Audiences cannot seem to get enough of Spider-man, the Avengers, X-Men, and the seemingly countless other characters of the Marvel universe and continue to flock to theatres in droves. DC, Marvel’s main comic book competitor, will be answering in kind over the coming years. But it’s not as though they’ve been out of the game thus far. Batman is a well-established franchise, with his many iterations over the years, and Superman is of course the father of all superheroes. In many ways, superhero overload has drowned out the box office potential of independent cinema, but that is a whole different issue for another day.
The incarnations of these characters presented here are weatherworn. Mr. Wayne, nearing what seems like the end of his long crime-fighting career, is older, jaded, and cynical (but indeed no less muscular; Ben Affleck is in the absolute finest shape of his life). Mr. Affleck plays Batman with a heavy-handed weightiness, in line with Mr. Snyder’s overall vision of a world where the place of superheroes in society is questioned, and their interior moral conflicts are a constant sense of angst and vacillation over decisions made, action taken, or inaction decided upon.
Henry Cavill embodies a Clark Kent who is uncertain of how to deal with the heavy criticism being waged against him. He is brooding, intense, and serious; the weight of his duty and work has darkened his demeanor and sense of self. He even utters a line to his lifelong love Lois Lane (Amy Adams): “No one stays good in this world,” as he soars off to battle Batman, in the prime setup arranged by the evil mastermind Lex Luther. It’s a troubling line, especially coming from the beacon of moral conscience to which—no matter what—Superman inherently adheres.
Anything other than that character trait would be a betrayal of his character. It’s why he doesn’t lose control and destroy the world, which he could easily do in the blink of an eye (as Bruce Wayne mentions to his ever-trusted butler Alfred (Jeremy Irons)). It’s why the direct act of killing Zod was so troubling in Man of Steel. It’s why the thought of misled intentions is out of the question. Superman simply does not break his moral code; that’s simply the nature of the character. So as much as Mr. Snyder seems to desire pushing that envelope, it cannot really ever be actually broken. If it were, then what would be depicted would not even in fact be Superman, not at least, the same character created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster back in 1938. It is true that of course he has evolved over the years, but that inherently good nature of his core values and goodness must remain in place for him to truly be who he is, otherwise…he is not Superman.
All of this pondering shows on Mr. Cavill’s sultry, perfectly chiseled face—honestly, has there ever in the history of the world been a more classically handsome human man? There can be absolutely no doubt whatsoever that his casting as the Kryptonian we all know and love was the letter perfect choice—particularly in a scene where he leaves on a soul-searching mission, and sees a vision of his late earthly father, Jonathan Kent (Kevin Costner). Again he is in anguish when he visits his mother on their Kansas farm, Martha Kent (Diane Lane), who later plays a pivotal role to the action of the film. “People hate what they don’t understand. Be their hero, Clark. Be their angel. Be their monument. Be anything they need you to be, or be none of it. You don’t owe this world a thing; you never did,” Martha tells her son. He is as (or even more) conflicted over his own nature, willingness to act in service of humanity, and his place in the world as everyone else concerned around him is.
One such person musing over the question of his place in society is Senator Finch (Holly Hunter), a politician Mr. Luther hopes to bend over to his will in bringing down Superman. Ms. Finch is at the center of the trial over Superman’s setup in an occurrence that took place in the Middle-east, whereby Superman flew in to save Lois Lane from a shooting that broke out there under mysterious circumstances, which Ms. Lane spends a large part of the film investigating.
It is something of a strange setup, as anyone who looks broadly at the situation from the outset would know that Superman does not fight with guns…so it’s hard to tell how exactly he was being held responsible for the shooting of innocents. But people are fickle and gullible, a wounded veteran is involved, and details are just shady enough to progress the investigative storyline forward.
The storytelling of the movie overall has been questioned in its flow and often multi-directional momentum. There is a bizarre dream sequence as well that throws the viewer for quite the loop. In its effort to be that launching point for future feature films, it can at times feel like it’s being pulled in multiple directions. But this is not always bad; it is quite exciting indeed to have Diana Prince/Wonder Woman introduced as a character.
Over the years there have been multiple attempts to bring that character to life onscreen, and this one feels like the real thing, for which many have been waiting. Gal Gadot is not only sublimely beautiful, but she also embodies a terrific sense as the character. Wonder Woman is strong, cunning, interesting, enigmatic, and she is thrust onto the scene, building great excitement for seeing more of her, both in her own films and along with her fellow Justice League crime fighters.
Mr. Snyder, along with cinematographer Larry Fong and screenwriters Chris Terrio and David S. Goyer, have built this current darker Gotham City-esque version of Metropolis, and it appears for now we’re to live in it with these characters (as all the actors are signed on for more films embodying their roles in coming years). But even as a standalone film, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice does stand apart from others of its kind. It’s visually quite the spectacle, best viewed on the largest IMAX screen possible, to fully experience its massive scale. A visual tableau near the story’s ending, akin to yet another Christ-like image at one point, makes for a very powerful image that really delivers a profound emotional impact in a climactic moment of the film (not to be spoiled here).
Mr. Snyder is nothing if not obsessed with spectacular visual artistry. At its worst, this trait can be merely inane spectacle, (i.e., Sucker Punch). However, with his Superman movies, Mr. Snyder has brought something more than just bombast, but rather what could be described as a dreadful kind of beauty. There is a lot going on in many of the shots, and sometimes it’s almost as though the viewer is simply to pause the screen and visually drink in all that’s filling it.
Wherein the atrocious and incoherent sequel Avengers: Age of Ultron, there are so many characters and so much going on that no logical through line can be located, herein BvS the characters are fleshed out, detailed, and able to be identified with in a focused manner. Here’s hoping the coming Justice League films don’t fall prey to the “Avengers affect” of having way too many characters to the point that the audience no longer cares about what happens to any of them, as so much effort is spent trying to figure out who’s who.
It’s a blockbuster in every sense, and it’s a thoroughly excellent follow-up tale to Man of Steel. The breathtaking soundtrack by the inexplicably talented Hans Zimmer, which he has said will be his last created for superhero films, is a gem of a score to behold. It evocatively enhances the breadth and vision of the film tremendously. What’s next for Superman onscreen is unknown, but what is for sure is that combining forces of the two biggest superheroes of the Justice League was a smart decision, and it makes for a thrilling ride to revisit with multiple viewings. Having made $856 million worldwide so far since its release and counting, it’s undeniably a hit—no matter what the vicious hater critics say. This is one series to which can be said: more, please!
4.5 out of 5 stars.