“This is my world. You are my world.”
I wanted to believe in Batman v Superman. Zack Snyder is a capable director, and Ben Affleck brought in Chris Terrio to rewrite David Goyer’s script. The budget was there, and fans have been waiting for a big-screen showdown between Superman and The Bat for decades. Man of Steel had its problems, but it wasn’t an awful film, despite what the more passionate haters may insist. In my 2013 review of that film, I said that it had some good ideas and deserved to be improved upon. Unfortunately, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is not an improvement, and in fact fails to reach even the moderately low bar set by Man of Steel.
Much like its predecessor, Batman v Superman is filled to the brim with ideas and unique concepts, but only follows through on very few of these thematic breadcrumbs. This time around, the conflict ostensibly focuses on whether or not Superman bears responsibility for the deaths which inevitably occur at sites where he fights. Lip service is paid to the idea of accountability and Superman being beholden to the will of his government, but the whole arc, while it has its engaging moments, is so obviously a ploy by Lex Luthor, that the actual narrative conflict is never fully explored in earnest. Lex is played by Jessie Eisenberg, embodying one mental/psychological disorder or another. He’s not a particularly intimidating figure, and his schtick occasionally wears thin, though he has some genuinely menacing moments. His motivations are never really explored though, with no real reason given for why he hates Superman so much.
Similarly, the ultimate showdown between Batman and Superman doesn’t come down to a fundamental difference in philosophy, but to a rather silly misunderstanding. If only Superman could have gotten a chance to speak before the fight, they never would have had to waste our time with a superfluous, if crowd-pleasing, slugfest.
Speaking of superfluous action, the film is dragged to a screeching halt with an admittedly spectacular dream sequence (or perhaps a vision from the future) which serves no purpose but to foreshadow further Justice League films which may never come to pass and showcase Ben Affleck’s Batman fighting for several minutes without context. Perhaps fans of particular comic book stories have some idea what is happening in this scene, but I, despite my moderate geek credentials, was completely in the dark, as will be most audiences.
Wonder Woman is portrayed as a mysterious stranger and has enough of a build-up to make her eventual appearance in full costume (as shown in trailers) a very exciting moment, but with Batman, it often feels like we’re supposed to know more about his character than the movie tells us. For people with no exposure to any version of the Bat-mythos, Batman’s history can only be guessed at, as much of his backstory is only faintly implied, with inferences possible only for bona fide comic book scholars. The opening credits sequence is set over young Bruce Wayne and his parents and their fateful encounter with a mugger. It’s an important scene for Batman fans, but it’s also one which has been covered a multitude of times. The film makes many references to Batman’s 20-year crime-fighting career, so I was, in hindsight, disappointed that the opening credits didn’t mimic Zack Snyder’s earlier film, Watchmen, and try to tell the history of Batman over a five minute music video. We’re ultimately left with a version of the character halfway between The Dark Knight Returns and Michael Keaton, who will be familiar to some fans, but a complete stranger to others. Affleck also spends too much time staring blankly, rather than acting, and is constantly upstaged by Alfred the butler, played here by an entertaining Jeremy Irons. I didn’t hate Affleck in the role, but he fails to bring anything meaningful to the character. Perhaps Warner Brothers should have gone full Dark Knight Returns and cast a more aged actor than the 43-year-old Affleck.
The action in the film is spectacular, but, like Man of Steel before it, BvS throws out its plot in favor of wall-to-wall action in the final act, leaving the entire film off-balance. The final battle consists of multiple (at least three) fight scenes which play out one after another, with very little breathing room, until the screen-devouring explosions are no longer interesting, the cardinal sin in any film with screen-devouring explosions. Earlier in the movie, the Batmobile makes what is supposed to be its triumphant return, though its use in combat at that particular juncture is incredibly out-of-character. Without spoiling anything, Batman has no reason to attack his enemies, as his mission at this point is dependent on stealth and not revealing his presence. It’s another completely unnecessary action sequence, and it comes at the cost of a plot hole big enough to drive the Batmobile through. Sure, the car/tank is really cool, but its appearance needs to matter to viewers, and not be a forced obligation. However, there is one scene late in the film in which Batman takes on a room full of bad guys which really sparkles as a memorable brawl. Some of his combat moves are ripped straight from the Batman Arkham games (Batclaw Takedown, anyone?) and a couple of beats are right out of The Dark Knight Returns… Though I imagine some fans will take serious umbrage with Batman’s noticeable lack of a “no-kill rule.”
Wonder Woman is not a particularly realized character, but Gal Gadot shines with the material she is given and really sells her character’s strength and wisdom. Diana Prince aside, the presence of Justice League members in the film is relegated to extremely minor cameos which function more as commercials for their own upcoming films than meaningful parts of this one. On the other hand, Amy Adams shines as brightly as she did in Man of Steel, and her romance with Kent/Superman is a calming respite from the otherwise overly grim proceedings. Holly Hunter’s character, a US Senator who goes toe-to-toe with Luthor adds a modern realism to the story. But it is Laurence Fishburne’s Perry White who stands out among the ensemble, calling to mind a more foul-mouthed version of the character from the classic 1950s Adventures of Superman television series. Henry Cavill’s Clark Kent/Superman, however, is strangely dour throughout the film. The pressure of the conflict must surely take its toll, but he often yells in a much more menacing tone than we’d expect from even this version of the Man of Steel, and his character arc is considerably shorter than it ought to be.
At least the film finds strength in its magnificent score by Hans Zimmer and Junkie XL, which has a lot more variety than its Man of Steel counterpart. There are traces of Danny Elfman’s DNA in Batman’s theme, and the whole score is very dynamic, with a noticeably wide range of instrumentation. The costume designs will come down to a matter of taste, but I liked Wonder Woman’s armored look, as well as the minor changes to Superman’s costume. Batman’s main outfit is a bit too deeply textured, coming across like wool. It’s only just off the mark, though,as I enjoyed the general design.
The biggest problem with the film is that, in an effort to play catch-up with that other comic book company’s shared cinematic universe, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice tries to fit three movies worth of content into one film. It wants to be a Man of Steel sequel, a Batman reboot, and a Superman vs Batman story, all in addition to laying the foundation for The Justice League, as well as solo films for its other members. The film buckles under the pressure, but it’s really trying, and there are glimmers of a great film at its core, armed with some striking imagery and emotionally riveting sequences, courtesy of Zack Snyder’s keen eye for capturing such moments. Ultimately, however, these patches of brilliance are fleeting, as Dawn of Justice casts too broad of a net to be a meaningful film on its own merits, and comes across as a schizophrenic mess. It’s too much of a burden for this one movie to bear, despite the efforts of Snyder and the well-meaning cast.
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