June 2024

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016)

Zack Snyder

CAST: Ben Affleck, Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Jesse Eisenberg, Gal Gadot, Jeremy Irons, Laurence Fishburne, Diane Lane, Holly Hunter


To put it simply, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is a mess: a big, loud, flashy, garish mess that piles on the flaws of Man of Steel while discarding the strengths, with Zack Snyder again showing the most lopsided contrast between a strong visual style and haphazard grasp of narrative of perhaps any high-profile mainstream filmmaker with the arguable exception of the Wachowski siblings (I would argue Snyder surpasses them for narrative sloppiness).  A confusing jumble of oddly-cut abrupt scenes, excessive use of unnecessary dream sequences, superfluous subplots meandering around, and plot developments both facilely simplistic and incoherently convoluted, the movie guaranteed itself a big opening night with the draw of Batman and Superman having a one-on-one throwdown on the big screen (and the trailer’s comic book geek boner-inducing money shot of Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman standing together), but as DC/Warner Bros’ obvious answer to the “Marvel Cinematic Universe”, the overall experience here is a far step down from the orgiastic glee of The Avengers, to whom it comes across as a slapdash wannabe that fumbles what should have been an epic cinematic occasion.  The iconic characters on-hand deserve better than this.

To be fair, it’s not all bad.  In fact, after an obligatory umpteenth onscreen version of the Wayne family murder (and the first of several weird dream sequences, this one involving young Bruce Wayne floating into the sky inside a tornado of swarming bats), we jump into a great opening sequence, showing the climactic Metropolis battle from Man of Steel from the perspective of civilians on the ground, namely Wayne Enterprises CEO and billionaire socialite Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck), who of course secretly moonlights as costumed vigilante Batman, as he sees one of his corporate towers razed to the ground with friends and colleagues inside, fueling the beginning of a bitter resentment of Superman, whom he blames for “bringing the war to us”.  Alas, this strong opening sets expectations the rest of the movie does not live up to.  Eighteen months later, and Bruce and Clark (Henry Cavill) are crossing paths in their civilian identities, with each questioning the legitimacy of the other’s superhero alter ego.  To the consternation of his butler Alfred (Jeremy Irons), Bruce becomes fixated on Superman as a menace, while Clark writes Daily Planet articles criticizing Batman for his “reign of terror” over Gotham City and acting outside of the law.  Meanwhile, Lois Lane (Amy Adams) is snooping around about the mysterious activities of nerdy boy genius and LexCorp CEO Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg), who is pulling strings from behind-the-scenes to manipulate Batman and Superman into a battle, along with getting his hands on some Kryptonite (Superman’s Achille’s Heel) and the body of last movie’s bad guy General Zod, with which he fiddles around in some vaguely-explained DNA splicing experiments and creates Doomsday, a Kryptonian supermonster which may be too powerful for either Batman or Superman to face alone.

The Justice League, featuring an all-star superhero team including Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, The Flash, Aquaman, and Green Lantern, among others, is essentially DC Comics’ equivalent of Marvel’s Avengers, and Batman v Superman is obviously DC and Warner Bros’ attempt to fast-track their own “cinematic universe” to play catch-up with Marvel (which has been cranking out its interconnected installments since 2008).  The problem (or at least, one glaring problem) is that Marvel took the time for set-up, introducing Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, and The Hulk in their own individual solo outings and origin stories first, ensuring each was properly established before throwing them all together in 2012’s The Avengers.  DC’s “cinematic universe” feels like what it is, a rushed game of catch-up that doesn’t bother to give this rebooted Batman his own introduction or properly establish him before shoving him into what should have been a Man of Steel sequel haphazardly turned into a Justice League set-up movie, shoehorning in glorified cameos from Wonder Woman, Aquaman, and The Flash, and seeming more concerned with rushing the Justice League’s establishment ASAP than making a solid stand-alone movie in its own right.  BvS feels rushed and slapdash, and there’s more than a whiff of desperation on DC/Warner’s part to try to accomplish in one movie what Marvel took the time to do in several before we ever saw its superheroes assembled onscreen.

Snyder’s greatest strength is visual style (unsurprisingly, he comes from a background of directing music videos before moving on to films) and he captures some striking isolated images (the shattering of Martha Wayne’s pearl necklace, lots of shots of capes billowing in the wind), but as good as he is at capturing pretty pictures, it’s all superficial lipstick on a pig (it’s probably not coincidence that 300 and Watchmen, generally regarded as Snyder’s most solid movies, were adapted straight from page-to-screen, thus making far more demands on his eye for cool visuals than his haphazard grasp of cohesive narrative).  Snyder’s visual style is more heightened and “comic booky” than the toned-down pseudo-realism of Christopher Nolan, but that wouldn’t be a bad thing if wed to a stronger narrative.  In fact, Ben Affleck’s almost cartoonishly square chin sometimes makes him look almost like a live-action version of Batman from the animated series, especially in the more traditional Batsuit he wears (which is probably the most comic-accurate version we’ve seen in a live-action film so far) before donning a souped-up armored power suit.  Snyder is better at choreographing action than Nolan, and a couple isolated moments are effective and feel like they could have come straight out of the comics, including Batman battling a gang of henchmen in a warehouse.  Batman’s onscreen intro, in which two cops have a fleeting encounter with the Dark Knight in a shadowy building, is effectively atmospheric and makes Batman come off as an ominous presence, although by the time we get to the special effects-laden fight pitting Batman/Superman/Wonder Woman against Doomsday, all the whiz-bang CGI gives the feel of being immersed in a non-interactive video game.  Under normal circumstances, Superman could pulverize Batman, so Kryptonite gets tossed in to serve its usual purpose as a convenient deus ex machina to bring Supes down to Bat’s level so we can get a few minutes of the two pounding on each other.  Batman gets variations of the Batmobile and Batplane, along with the ever-present utility belt, grappling hooks, and bat-shaped ninja stars, and a few Kryptonite-infused booby traps, along with donning an enhanced armored powersuit for his throwdown with Superman.  Snyder also tosses Batman’s “no kill” rule out the window, with Batman here dropping cars on goons, shooting them, throwing ninja stars into them, and breaking necks willy nilly.  It’s a bit jarring to see Batman mowing down criminals as nonchalantly as The Punisher, and it’s another area where Snyder shows his teenage boy levels of reveling in carnage and his lack of understanding (or lack of concern) with what makes the characters who they are.

Batman_v_Superman_Dawn_of_Justice_103197When it comes to the various iconic characters (Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman) onscreen, Snyder fails to bring any of them to life.  Poor character development and flimsy motivations make Bruce/Batman come across as bitter, obsessed, fanatical, and irrational, and Superman as a bland avatar who barely gets anything to say in what at least outwardly is a sequel to his own movie.  This Batman bears no connection to the one played in the Dark Knight trilogy by Christian Bale; Affleck’s Batman is a twenty-year battle-hardened veteran.  The weight of the years and key tragedies only hinted at onscreen (a passing shot of Robin’s costume hanging empty in the Batcave, covered in Joker-style graffiti) have ground down his soul and his moral compass (in one of Snyder’s various excessive “edgy” touches, he brands captured criminals like cattle), setting out on a misguided warpath against Superman, but his poorly-delineated arc of rediscovering how to truly be a hero might have had more impact if it was better-developed or if we didn’t feel like we’ve been dumped unceremoniously into the middle of the story of a Bruce/Batman we don’t really get to know.  And yet, perhaps because Batman’s darker tone meshes better with Snyder’s visual aesthetic, Snyder does a better job with Batman than Superman.  Man of Steel, despite being ostensibly a Superman movie, gave some the unsettling suspicion that Snyder wasn’t actually very interested in Superman as a character (indeed, that he perhaps only did Man of Steel to get to Batman) and his treatment of him in BvS bears that out.  Superman all too often is shuffled aside and treated like an afterthought, and BvS will do little to address the concerns of those who felt Man of Steel‘s downbeat tone and Michael Bay levels of orgiastic destruction were ill-fitting for the unfailingly pure-hearted and noble Superman.  Supes is allowed to display little optimism or heroism here; Snyder’s adolescent view of the “dark and gritty” approach brought into vogue by Christopher Nolan is shallow and simplistic doom and gloom for its own sake, neglecting Nolan’s emphasis on character and narrative.  Wonder Woman is shoehorned in as fan service, and as set-up for the Justice League.  She’s just “there”.  Fleeting cameos from Aquaman (Jason Momoa) and The Flash (Ezra Miller) are shoehorned in as awkwardly as possible.  Lex Luthor’s obsessive hatred of Superman has no motivation whatsoever except some vaguely-defined daddy issues/inferiority complex.  Lois Lane’s subplot is difficult to follow and feels tacked on just to give Amy Adams something to do.  The chain of events that steer Batman and Superman into conflict are contrived and the plot device that facilitates the 11th hour heroic team-up is so facile that it induced snickering among some viewers.  A subplot involving a government committee chaired by a moralizing Senator (Holly Hunter) raising the question of Superman’s accountability for the Metropolis destruction, and whether he should be subject to government regulation, is truncated and shallowly-explored. There’s too much reliance on dream sequences which are confusing and awkwardly integrated.  The climax squanders a “shocking” plot development from the comics by A) using it too soon, and in a movie that hasn’t made us care, and B) backtracking out of it with a closing cheat.

As in Man of Steel, the cast is mostly fine with what they have, albeit ill-served by their material.  Ben Affleck, bulked up and with graying hair, is adequate, albeit a little bland, as Bruce/Batman, although the character is underdeveloped (word has it Affleck only agreed to do BvS on condition that Warner Bros. allow him to both direct and star in a solo Batman movie down the road).  Henry Cavill is shortchanged.  He looks the part spot-on as both Clark Kent and Superman, but gets little to do besides action sequences.  Likewise, Israeli model and actress Gal Gadot looks the part well enough as Wonder Woman, but her glorified cameo here makes it hard to really judge her performance (at least until her upcoming solo movie).  Jeremy Irons gets a few dry one-liners as an exceptionally surly Alfred, but feels an odd fit for the role; maybe I’m just used to seeing Irons as villains.  By far the most grating off-note struck by the cast, though, is Jesse Eisenberg, whose wacko, hyper, boy genius re-imagining of Lex Luthor acts like he gulped about ten cups of coffee before every scene (and/or snorted some cocaine) and comes across something like a bizarre amalgamation of Jim Carrey’s Riddler from Batman Forever (not the best role model for a comic book villain performance) and a deranged Mark Zuckerberg (whom Eisenberg, of course, was nominated for an Oscar for portraying in The Social Network).  Eisenberg goes overboard to the point that he makes Gene Hackman’s fatuous Luthor in the original Superman movie look subdued (why is it so hard for any movie to portray Luthor properly?).  There are walk-on roles for the likes of Laurence Fishburne, Diane Lane, Holly Hunter, and Harry Lennix, and we have cameos from Jason Momoa (as Aquaman) and Ezra Miller (as The Flash), further setting up the Justice League (and their own upcoming solo films), and Jeffrey Dean Morgan and Lauren Cohan (Supernatural‘s John Winchester and Bela Talbot, or The Walking Dead‘s Negan and Maggie) are Thomas and Martha Wayne (thankless roles if there ever were) in the flashback of their murder that’s seemingly obligatory for any movie featuring Batman.  Kevin Costner’s Pa Kent makes a cameo from beyond the grave in one of the movie’s various superfluous dream sequences.

In promotional interviews, Snyder boasts of his “dark and gritty” approach setting BvS apart from (and, in his mind, above) the comparatively lighthearted Marvel installments, but what his shallow understanding fails to grasp is that the darker approach ushered in by Christopher Nolan worked because it was tied in with character development and solid narrative.  Also, the best of Marvel’s installments thus far, Captain America: The Winter Soldierdemonstrated that it is perfectly possible for a “comic book movie” to have balanced quotients of humor, action and derring-do, and darker more serious elements without going to simplistic extremes where “dark” means a dreary, joyless experience where no “superhero” is allowed to do anything heroic, no one cracks a smile, and the sun never seems to shine.  Batman v Superman should have been an epic cinematic landmark experience on par with The Avengers.  Instead, it’s a muddled jumble, and perhaps worse, a slog.

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