Film Review – Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice
Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice
When Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel (2013) came out, I found myself liking it more than some of my colleagues. Yes, it had major problems, but I enjoyed the grandeur, scope, and energy Snyder put into that film. Thinking about it now, my impression remains positive and I will continue to defend it. With Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016), I was appalled. Any good will Snyder had with Man of Steel has disappeared. This is a huge misfire for DC Studios. Everything that people criticize Snyder for is multiplied times ten with this outing. This is a big, bloated, dysfunctional blockbuster that makes no sense in almost every department.
Maybe Snyder simply isn’t the person to continue building the DC cinematic universe. He (with writers Chris Terrio/David S. Goyer) built the confrontation between Superman (Henry Cavill) and Batman (Ben Affleck) with little excitement or joy. These are two morose, moody characters that appear to hate being superheroes. Any few acts of valor are done begrudgingly. Rather, the majority of the plot has them coping with their angsty personal issues and hate towards one another. At no time during the never-ending two and a half hours did they feel heroic.
The disappointment stems from the fact that there was so much potential. Superman and Batman are two of the biggest icons in popular culture, and their first big screen/live action meeting should have been great. But the storytelling awkwardly handles all of the requirements of establishing this iteration of Batman, developing the showdown between the two main characters, introducing new characters such as Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), and setting the foundation for more DC films to come, that it’s all one big sloppy mess.
We pick up two years after Man of Steel. After the battle with General Zod (Michael Shannon) destroyed half of Metropolis, Superman is left with the ramifications. This is one of the few clever corrections after the criticism that was heaped upon Man of Steel’s climax. One of the best scenes happens near the beginning, as we learn that Bruce Wayne was in Metropolis at the time of the battle. His reaction to the chaos fuels his hate for Superman, and as such spends the next two years figuring out a way to bring him down. An opportunity comes with the discovery of Kryptonite, that mysterious alien mineral that is Superman’s one weakness. Interestingly enough, the Kryptonite is also being pursued by the wealthy genius Lex Luther (Jesse Eisenberg) for his own nefarious purposes.
There are contradictions all throughout – whenever the plot gains steam we get a story beat or character development that defies rationality. The prime example is Superman. I don’t know if Snyder doesn’t understand the character, or if he simply hates him. This is not a hero who fights for truth, justice, and the American way. This Superman is a bully, a condescending jerk who doesn’t instill hope but intimidation. He threatens physical harm to anyone that stands in his way. Is it too much to ask that Clark Kent simply be a good person? A character raised by wholesome parents in the Midwest doesn’t need some traumatic event to make him a hero. Yet he is pummeled with contrasting messages. Metropolis doesn’t just give him one, but two statues for saving the city, but then is called to trial by a senator (Holly Hunter) for the destruction. We are never given a moment to understand his feelings. Any time he tries to articulate his thoughts, the editing cuts him off. No wonder this guy is so mixed up. When he visits his mother (Diane Lane) for help, she tells him that he doesn’t owe this world anything. What kind of motherly advice is that?
Ben Affleck is very good as a physical Batman – a brute force of nature. His interactions with Jeremy Irons’ Alfred make for some of the better dialogue scenes. But Bruce Wayne is also a psychopath. Again, we’re given the murder of his parents, spurring his mission against crime, but who’s the real criminal? Snyder removes Bruce Wayne’s well-known stance against murder. This Batman willingly shoots bad guys with fully automatic weapons. During chase sequences, he’ll use the Batmobile or Batwing to launch missiles into enemy vehicles, killing whoever is inside. Fight scenes leave enemies crippled. He drinks and sleeps with women habitually, all while remaining delusional about his righteousness. It’s funny how Bruce Wayne will talk about stopping Superman even if there’s a 1% chance of danger, then will turn around and kill people without a second thought. Above all else, this Batman is a hypocrite.
One promising element is Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman. We are never told what her motivation is, and why she keeps popping up at functions Bruce Wayne attends, but Gadot has a charisma to her that holds our attention. She’s alluring and confident, exuding mystery with little dialogue. When she finally arrives late in the film in full costume, she breathes some fresh air into the proceedings. She appears to be the only one having fun. There are instances where she gives a glance or a turn of her head that tells us that she’s having a blast kicking butt. If there’s any potential left, it’s in seeing Wonder Woman headline her own film next year.
Jesse Eisenberg’s Lex Luthor is one of the worst characters I’ve seen this year. It is an epic miscasting, doing Eisenberg no favors as an actor. His twitchy, cartoonish performance sticks out like a sore thumb. He’s supposed to be an evil genius but comes off as a privileged douche bag, a millennial brat with too much time and money on his hands. His motivations are shaky at best. We understand that Luthor would want to stop Superman because of the risk he could pose to the world, but what’s with his animosity against Batman? If anything, he and Batman want the same thing. Eisenberg can be a convincing actor as his roles in The Social Network (2010) and Adventureland (2009) have proven. However, Snyder does not direct a good performance out of him. His facial tics and vocal yelps were the equivalent of nails on a chalkboard. If Lex Luthor becomes a mainstay of the DC cinematic universe, we’re in real trouble.
Zack Snyder has been called an excellent visual stylist, but I’m not so sure this time. With Larry Fong, the cinematography has a dark and grimy aesthetic. Shots are so under lit that we can’t tell what’s going on. It’s as though a layer of ash covers every inch of the frame. Don’t get me started on the continuing exploitation of 9/11 imagery – didn’t they learn their lesson the first time around? Action scenes are either done through stomach-churning shaky cam or extreme slow motion. It’s a cacophony of muddled visuals accompanied by an unrelenting score. The final battle scene, in which our three heroes finally join forces to take on the monster Doomsday, was a jumble of ear-splitting noise and rapid fire CGI.
I could go on and on, but what would be the point? In Batman v Superman, Zack Snyder has created a story in which each high point exists in a vacuum, with no narrative flow stringing each section together. This was a violent, miserable experience that only got worse the further it went.