There is no movie in history more primed to fail than Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (opening Friday, this is an early review). This review contains mild spoilers, so you are invited to come back and read this after you’ve seen the film. If you haven’t seen the film yet, you won’t find any major spoilers here, as the film does contain a few shocking surprises. OK, you’ve been warned…proceeding to the review…
Batman v Superman – which is 100% a sequel to 2013’s Man of Steel -was announced shortly after director Zack Snyder’s Superman re-launch, and fans immediately grew skeptical of the franchise’s future. The brooding, serious tone that Snyder went for in the first film was all wrong, being more appropriately suited for an inherently darker character like Batman. When we heard this sequel was going to be a mash-up of these two beloved comic book characters in one movie, fans everywhere collectively gasped. There were rumors that it was going to be more than just a heavy-weight show-down, but that it may also mark the beginnings of a Justice League movie franchise (think of the Justice League as DC’s version of The Avengers). This worrisome premise included stuffing a single film with nearly the entirety of the DC Comic Universe, with hopes to spin-off several characters later into films of their own…a sort of reverse blueprint of Marvel’s recent formula for success, where several stand-alone films build up to major cross-over movies (like The Avengers). When Ben Affleck was cast as Batman, the internet wept. When it was announced that Jesse Eisenberg (huh?) would be playing notorious Superman villain, Lex Luthor, there was serious panic that this highly-anticipated film was going to be a disaster.
Well you can stop bracing yourselves for the worst, my fellow Bat and Super-fans. With an army of haters out there just waiting to hear that Batman v Superman sucked, I’m relieved to report that it doesn’t really. Well not totally. It’s a loud, long, ambitiously fierce and furious film. It isn’t a great film. For me though, it was much better than Man of Steel, and much better than I had expected going in with incredibly low expectations. And for about two-thirds of it, it’s also, surprisingly, focused (a word that is typically Zack Snyder’s kryptonite of film-making). In fact, the framework of this sequel very much matches that of its predecessor Man of Steel: Zack Snyder is able to bottle his ardor and reigns it in for a while, before not being able to help himself and exploding his enthusiasm all over the screen. With the last movie, there was a great deal of characterization that happened early on, before all of that was demolished and thrown to the side much like one of the buildings that were destroyed in that unnecessarily costly battle in the sky between Supes (Henry Cavill) and General Zod (Michael Shannon). Here, we have an interesting – if thin – plot that sends two immovable forces directly at one another like two speeding trains…but in classic Zack Snyder-fashion, everything derails and violently smashes together by the time it’s all over. And instead of leaving with your head filled with wonder, it’ll most likely be spinning.
And that’s a bit of a shame, because in more gentler hands, this could have really been…super. The film has some near-fatal flaws, but none bigger than the horribly miscast Jesse Eisenberg as Lex Luthor (the internet was right about this one). But more on that in a bit.
Ben Affleck answers all of his critics by turning in a very worthy performance, although his Bruce Wayne is leagues better than his fat and clumsy-looking Batman. As the film begins, we see the massive battle in the sky from the last film, from the perspective of those human victims and heroes on the ground. One man – Bruce Wayne – races into the melee only to see one of his buildings obliterated and several of his friends and co-workers killed. Looking up, Wayne decides this is strike one on Superman, an alien being that Batman definitely plans to keep tabs on moving forward.
The world is reeling and America is divided following Superman’s now famous battle over Metropolis. Many – like Lois Lane (Amy Adams) and the reporters at The Daily Planet – see him as a hero sent from heaven to save humanity. The other side see him as a devil and a threat to our species. Which is it? And wasn’t this question asked the first time around?
Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg), is not the bald billionaire we know from the comics, but is instead some punk brat who has inherited his fortune and standing as CEO of LexCorp. Gene Hackman – who portrayed the villain in the Christopher Reeve films – was infinitely better at capturing Lex Luthor’s narcissistic spirit from the comics. Here, Eisenberg gives an instant Razzy-worthy performance, creating his Luthor as a nervous, twitchy and exaggerated heel. It comes across as a bad Heath Ledger impersonation from The Dark Knight, which is just sad and border-line offensive.
Despite Eisenberg ruining every scene he is in, his character gets involved in the plot when a large chunk of kryptonite is discovered from the wreck of the alien ship from the last film. Bruce Wayne and Lex both have an interest in getting their hands on this, as a means to control or defeat Superman.
And don’t think too much harder about anything else in this movie. None of Lex’s motivations have purpose, and even some decisions made by Batman and Superman down the stretch are laughably inconsistent. How or why Lois Lane ends up being involved in any of this is also a stretch, to say it politely, and Adams is once again given nothing more to do than play the damsel-in-distress. At least the film gives us Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), to even out the feminist equation. No, this film can be – dare I say – fun, if glossed over and digested more as a popcorn blockbuster rather than on any intellectual level…but come on, isn’t that the point, and if not, what are you doing looking for depth and/or nuance in a movie called Batman v Superman?
As for being over-stuffed? There is a lot that is shoe-horned in, but frankly, not nearly as much as I was expecting given the pre-film hype. There is the aforementioned Wonder Woman, and she is definitely a bad-ass, although there is no real reason for her inclusion in the movie. And we also get brief teases of future Justice League members and foes, such as Cyborg, The Flash (not the TV version though sadly) and Aquaman. And astute comic-book nerds will also get references to another infamous Super-villain, Darkseid (his omega symbol can be seen briefly in the sky, as can his winged parademons, during a Bruce Wayne nightmare sequence). Oh yeah, and there is more than one reference to The Joker, who doesn’t appear, unless you count Eisenberg’s horrid impersonation (Jared Leto will portray the famous clown in the upcoming Suicide Squad).
Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice couldn’t possibly live up to the hype…could it have? But that doesn’t mean that it’s all bad. There’s a lot that people will latch on to and hate about it, but this time around there was enough cool action and visual stimulation to make it somewhat worth all of the missteps, and there are several let me be clear. The biggest issue I had with Man of Steel was the absolute abandonment of the comic book’s optimistic tone, in favor for what worked in Nolan’s Batman movies. It was too dark, too somber. But now that Superman is inhabiting a world shared by Batman, that didn’t seem to bother me that much anymore. If they had only gotten Lex Luthor right, and could have clarified some of his purpose late in the film, this really could have been the Super-bout many were waiting for.
Speaking of the big battle, it does comes, and it’s not over-whelming. But it actually hits upon a problematic topic that has existed in the comic books for years: Anybody, Batman included, can defeat Superman with kryptonite. Plus, what is interesting about a guy – Superman – who is totally infallible? This is not a spoiler for what happens when he shows-down with Batman, but just a fairly obvious truth if you know the characters. We get it: Batman is smarter than Superman, more crafty than Superman. But sorry bro, of course Superman can kick Batman’s ass with his pinky-finger if kryptonite is not involved. And if kryptonite was involved, of course Batman would have the edge. Heck, my grandma would have the edge. Kryptonite is what it is. On the other hand though, the film defines a commonality between the two heroes that few have probably considered (both are orphans, with a world-view shaped by their experience with what it felt like to be orphaned).
Of course, you can also assume that at some point, the two heroes are going to come together to battle a common enemy, and that enemy ends up being a much more powerful enemy than either of them could have planned for. The movie introduces us late in the film to Doomsday, completely undoing most of his comic book origins but staying true to his unbeatable nature. It’s a colossal, epic fight scene. Remember when I said your head might spin? At about the time Doomsday comes on the scene, it’ll be ready to explode.
In a world of Deadpool and the light, funny Marvel movies, I do think there is a place for dark super-hero movies. Surely there’s a wealth of adult-aimed material to pull from in the comics, which could be the basis for several hundred movies to come. The tone doesn’t fit with a wholesome character like Superman though, but what I realized in watching this film is that it isn’t Superman who has changed…it’s the world around him. It’s become cynical. Pessimistic. Contaminated. Impure. Yeah I’d say in today’s world, it’s no surprise that Batman seems to be a more popular character than Superman. And with Zack Snyder at the helm for two upcoming Justice League movies, I think it’s safe to say that we should get used to seeing our beloved characters in this murky realm…gone are the days of Super-Friends.
Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice starts off with a touch of humanity and by showing us that there were human victims from the mass carnage that was occurring in the sky…it loses sight of anything relatable along the way, and ends with even more mass violence and carnage. The same might be said of Zack Snyder and those behind this franchise: You can tell yourself that this is a story about morality, spirituality and humanity, but don’t pretend for a second that it is anything more than a Boom! Bam! Pow!-comic book adventure. Nobody will be leaving the theater pondering life. Instead, the only question on people’s minds will be: When does the next one come out?
Genre: Action, Adventure, Fantasy
Run Time: 2 hours, 33 minutes, Rated PG-13
Starring: Henry Cavill, Ben Affleck, Amy Adams, Jesse Eisenberg, Diane Lane, Laurence Fishburne, Jeremy Irons, Gal Gadot, Holly Hunter, Lauren Cohan
Directed by Zack Snyder (Man of Steel, Sucker Punch, Watchmen, 300, Dawn of the Dead)
Opens locally on Friday, March 25, 2016 (check for show times).