Another Review: Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (dir. Zack Snyder, 2016)
This one by me.
Not as bad as you have been led to believe, but not the greatest film ever. A Batman focused film that serves to make you hate Superman even more, launches the DC cinematic universe, and make you wish that they had just made a Wonder Woman film and left the men in tights at home. It looks pretty though.
If online reviews and reports are to be believed Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is one of the worst films ever made, is a travesty of modern film making, superhero films, and storytelling, and that the entire cast and crew would have been better staying in bed and drinking Mai Tais. Nerds, geeks, comic fans, and film critics have been bizarrely united in their hatred and vitriol concerning this film. Let me be among the first to say that I am shocked, shocked I tell you, to find out that sometimes things on the internet are exaggerated and that their reportage can lean toward hyperbole. BvS will never be my favourite superhero film, but it wasn’t that bad and I have definitely seen far worse (Ghost Rider/Green Lantern/Batman and Robin/Man of Steel). I know that I have already posted my friend’s review of the film, but clearly I think that my opinion is far more important.
Not so long ago I wrote a blog post about the Batman v Superman trailers and how they revealed a lot of the film detail giving away too much of the plot. Looking back at it now, I will (grudgingly) admit I got a couple of things wrong. However, I actually guessed a lot of it right (cue self-satisfied smugness), if not necessarily in quite the order I thought (still smug, only slightly less so). So if you want a rundown of what is in the film just check it out.
If you just want a general view of the film then in my opinion BvS is better than MoS, but still suffers from style over substance, a confusion over whether or not we are meant to like any of the characters, some fundamental issues in the screenplay, and once again has a fetish for 9/11 style imagery and destruction. Oh, and could someone please explain emotion to Hollywood, as it appears that they have been trading in faux-motion for so long they have forgotten what real feelings and relationships actually look and sound like. On the more positive front, some of the action sequences (so about half the film) are visually impressive and only have a couple of chorographical missteps, there are some beautiful tableaux shots and iconic moments, and there were some interesting and engaging takes on some popular characters that I think worked really well. So, as to be expected, Zack Snyder has directed a film that is visually impressive, has some over blown actions sequences that are entertaining enough, over-uses slow motion, seems to have no awareness of underlying emotion, consistent character motivation, or of how powerful narrative actually works, and criminally under-uses female characters. Par for the course in Hollywood I fear.
The first aspect I want to really discuss is Ben Affleck’s Batman and Bruce Wayne. I thought his portrayal of the iconic character was great and that the version he brought to the screen was new enough to be interesting and engaging, and recognisable enough that it was still discernibly Batman. Affleck’s Batman is far more physically imposing than any of the previous screen incarnations and is Miller’s dark vision of the hero made manifest. He positively radiates physical danger and makes the previous Batmen look weak and ineffectual. There is a dark brutality in this version that is married to Affleck’s portrayal of Bruce Wayne’s psychosis. So often we excuse Bruce Wayne’s behaviour and don’t really consider that if he was real we would have locked him up in a psyche ward and thrown away the key. Affleck brings us a character who is barely holding on and channelling his pain, his fear, his insanity, and his genius, into a focused violent assault on external threats as he cannot, and will not, address his own internal daemons. This Batman is a man on the edge, and for the first time I get why criminals actually fear Batman. Affleck brings the fear, he makes Batman scary. He also got to portray Batman’s renowned strategic sense and often overlooked detective aspects. This is a Batman who analyses an enemy, researches them, strategises and maps out contingencies, and then trains specifically in ways to maximise his chances of taking them down (for those making fun of the training montage, watch it again and compare it to the fight with Supes). Basically, he is the first to be a proactive Batman, rather than a reactive Batman. Of all the Batmen ever portrayed, this is the first that I thought actually stood a chance taking down someone like Superman because he seems to be the only one that ever thinks ahead.
On the subject of Superman it is hard to tell how many of my issues have to do with Cavill’s portrayal and how much is down to what Cavill had to work with. If it was Cavill’s intention that Superman be viewed as an arrogant, egotistical, selfish, hypocritical, self-righteous, wooden, emotionless, hate-inducing, bullying prick then he has done an amazing job. If Cavill thought that he was portraying a hero that we could love, or that we could identify with, then he didn’t succeed… at least in my view. His face is generally expressionless throughout the film. Actually that isn’t true, he winces… a lot. In fact apart from stony, stoic expressionless deadpans both as Clark and Superman, the majority of his emoting is limited to wincing, be it in pain, surprise, anger, hurt, shock and whatever other fleeting emotion that we desperately try to project onto such a wooden portrayal. But so much of an actor’s portrayal hinges on what the script delivers to them. So I don’t really think it is his fault that his Superman is so far from heroic, is so annoyingly arrogant, and is so smugly self-righteous, that I was surprisingly exhilarated when watching the character get his face punched in. Not since Hulk smashed up Loki have I so thoroughly enjoyed watching someone take a beating in a film, but unlike that silly light hearted moment, there was no ‘fun’ in watching this violence. It is a measure of how much I despise this version of Superman that I actively wanted him to suffer, and that was not a nice experience.
But stepping around my personal dislike for this version of Superman we all have the evidence that he is unstable, uncaring, and an asshole. Metropolis and Gotham are so close together that you can see one from the other, and yet Perry White quips that there is always a crime wave in Gotham to Clark. So Superman, who clearly demonstrates his ability to fly around the world at the drop of a notepad to rescue Lois every time she inexplicably finds herself about to die again, has no time whatsoever to fly to Gotham and maybe clean up some of the crime? Not only that, but he takes time out of his busy day criticising Batman for trying to clean up crime, by actually stopping Batman from trying to foil a crime. And has the audacity to call it ‘mercy’. He also has a clear hallucination of his adoptive father Pa Kent, interacts with it, and yet seems to find his memories of this xenophobic, paranoid, psychotic farmer comforting and reassuring instead of disturbing. If the Justice League film was basically each member of the Justice League beating up Henry Cavill’s Superman in various character appropriate ways for two and half hours, I would probably enjoy watching it. I can’t believe that Zack Snyder has made me despise one of the most iconic heroes ever created. On the other hand, it has made this version memorable.
The last of the ‘main’ characters is the villainous Lex Luthor channelled by Jesse Eisenberg. I say channelled because what started off as the portrayal of a brilliant but slightly mad tech genius rapidly becomes the frothing at the mouth, demonic insanity of a ridiculous, over-the-top cartoon villain. Not content with any of the previous incarnations as a starting point Eisenberg seemed to have gone the tech/software giant route of the young troubled genius. This would have worked well if the next few scenes he was in hadn’t clearly showed that the wheels had come off the cart and he wasn’t so much ‘eccentric’ as fully fledged, bat-shit, off the rails, insane. And no one calls him on it.
Perhaps due to my limited imagination and intelligence, but I honestly can’t come up with a rationale or line of reason for how Lex’s plan was meant to work and what he would end up gaining from it. Luthor is meant to be one of the smartest villains in the comics, basically to give him a fighting chance against one of the most powerful heroes, and yet once again the cinematic version went for deranged and spittle inflected madman. While I didn’t despise him as much as I did that cape wearing asshole, I really felt it was an opportunity lost as the interesting character disappeared down the insanity rabbit hole instead of shaping up as just as much a mirror of Bruce Wayne as Supergit is of Batman. I will say that Eisenberg’s exaggerated madness was at least entertaining and an actual improvement from Kevin Spacey trying to out-Hackman Gene Hackman, although I did wish for Michael Rosenbaum to come in and save the day with his version of Lex. Netflix’s tv shows Daredevil and jessica Jones have both proven that villains can be menacing, scary and dramatically riveting without resorting to insane, nonsensical plans. Can we get some of those screen writers involved in the next DC films please?
Of the supporting characters, Lois Lane played by Amy Adams, Wonder Woman played by Gal Gadot, and Alfred Pennyworth played by Jeremy Irons, Alfred steals the show. Adams’ Lois is once again a non-entity, simply there to further some Superarse-aspected storyline. We all know that Adams can act, so it must be the director and script that leaves her character feeling extraneous and worthless. In her defence, there is a moment of near chemistry between herself and Cavill. This is step up from Man of Steel where the love story felt forced, here it merely feels coerced. Reducing Lois Lane to plot contrivance and plot object does no service to the character and is an active disservice to the actor. I couldn’t help but feel that Super-idiot’s life would be a lot simpler and happier without the disaster attracting, danger-lode that is Lois Lane. But none of this addresses the issue that she is basically superfluous to all that is going on. I would have even preferred a line that she was in the deepest, darkest arse end of nowhere pursuing a story as a fig leaf explaining her absence, and leave her entirely out of the film, than the half-assed, non-inclusion she got. What a waste of a character.
As the second underused female character in the film, Gal Gadot was great as Wonder Woman, but was not really given the chance to do anything more than fight, so it is harder to tell how her Diana Prince will be. Most of her limited screen time as Diana was as the enigmatic femme fatale, so it is hard to get a real impression of the character. Admittedly she really looked the part of the warrior goddess and demonstrated a distinct style and tactical awareness in the fighty-bits that Super-idiot blithely fumbled around in. I sincerely hope that the Wonder Woman film deals with her in the modern day and resists the temptation to Agent Carter her, but I fear her film will be yet another period piece and will be DC’s attempt at Thor. It seems a curse of superhero films that the dreaded origin story has to be done and redone as many times as possible. But I suppose that is the way it has to be because it would be impossible to start a superhero story in the middle because were that possible someone would have thought of a Latin phrase that neatly encapsulates the concept. But for my money Alfred was worth every penny… ok that was a torturous attempt at a pun, but I loved Irons’ portrayal of Alfred. He plays the uber-competent butler effortlessly and his sense of duty to the Wayne family, as well as his genuine affection for Bruce are clearly evident. But it is in his snarky asides and casual criticism of ‘Master Bruce’ that you get a real sense of his character. If Irons and Affleck team up for a trilogy of Batman movies I would be overjoyed. Even if it were a film about one of Bruce Wayne’s failed relationships told in the style of a romantic comedy, I would watch it as long as Irons is allowed to drily quip and snark his way through every scene.
But most of my problems with this film had little to do with the actors and everything to do with the script and screenplay, and some curious choices in the direction. You may have already figured out from my oh so subtle hints that I didn’t particularly like this version of Superman, but what I really dislike is the fact that I think that my impression of Superman is not what was intended. I am confused as to whether or not the choice to portray Superman as an asshole was deliberate, or if I was meant to like him. While the focalisation of much of the storytelling on Batman’s perspective would certainly cast Superman in the negative for those sequences, it was surprising that even in the Superman focused scenes he came across as a git. His callous disregard for human life continues in this film. His self-aggrandising acceptance of the hero worship continues in this film. His lack of empathy for anyone apart from his sainted mother and his disaster-prone lover, his veneration of the deeply flawed and borderline psychotic father, and his continual assumption that only he has the right to decide what is right, once again runs rampant. Added to this were the voluminous plot holes, and the leaps in logic and intuition that are never explained or even hinted at. So much of this story is left for the viewer to try and invent after the fact to justify the actions and rationalise the aberrant behaviour.
On the other hand, I didn’t seem to have the same issues with pacing that others had. While I felt that Snyder’s other major caped crusader film, Watchmen, had major issues with pacing, causing several scenes to drag and my ass grow numb, this film tripped along fairly well. If anything, I could have used more of the quieter, character focused moments and far fewer of the violent, explosive, action set pieces. Particularly as the band-aid lines telling the viewer that such and such area is uninhabited were unconvincing attempts to persuade us that the massive devastation caused would not result in thousands of civilian deaths. It was as if Snyder didn’t learn the lesson from Man of Steel that people were fed up watching entire cities crumble in an orgy of violence… again… and thought that the major problem was that people were upset with innocent civilians dying. Ok, so the innocent deaths were an issue, but I am tired of seeing directors and film-makers clinically evoke 9/11 imagery again and again. We have become desensitised to it because most of the time it is over-used without any sense of the personal, emotional, and the devastating tragedy. At least in this instance, Batman’s perspective gave it an immediacy and sense of personal loss, although even that felt like a cynical exploitation rather than a genuine attempt to engage with the tragedy and horror of 9/11.
Ask yourself, would the action have been less impressive if it were to happen in a wasteland, in a desert region, in an empty tundra? While the sequence of Batman fighting Superman was well shot in an area picked out by Batman to allow him cover, free from potential collateral damage, the fight with Doomsday (not a spoiler, it is in the trailer), happens in another urban environment that is rendered unrecognisable as such seconds into the fight. I thought the important aspect was going to be watching three ‘heroes’ work together to fight an immensely powerful villain (yet again), but apparently we need to be shown buildings blowing up in order to realise the stakes. I would like to think that audiences are smarter than that.
Which brings me on to the disturbing trend to use films as the launch vehicles to advertise the next film in the franchise. After credits scenes, trailers, tv spots, and deliberately unresolved plot threads are all acceptable techniques to use to advertise future films, engage fan speculation with what is coming next, and none of them interfere with the story you are actually meant to be telling. So can someone please explain why increasingly we are seeing whole scenes and sequences rammed into the middle of films just to advertise a later film that is years away from being screened? If you make the current film good, people will go see the next one too. If you tie in aspects of the following film to something that happened in the first (as Snyder does with Bruce’s version of the fight between Zod and Superman) the audience can follow the connection. You don’t need to add an entire dream/prophecy sequence that makes you question whether the character has become psychic or psychotic, in order to tie the films together. Please, for the love of stories and films everywhere, stop trying to shoehorn in future plot developments and just focus on the story you are telling. Front-loading narrative is annoying and it is a terrible habit.
Also, making an entire plot hinge on a character’s bizarre tendency to refer to his mother by name instead of calling her Mom, Mum, Mummy or my Mother, after unsubtly bludgeoning the audience over the head with the connection between the heroes’ mothers’ names, is not good storytelling. The plot point was a great one. It reveals a point of connection between the two heroes that they were unaware of. It humanises both of them. It gives both of them insight into the other. But it was handled so poorly that I almost threw my hands up in disgust in the middle of the cinema. Are you seriously telling me that a team of professional moviemakers couldn’t come up with a more natural way to work that into the story? It made the whole scene feel lazy and contrived, and robbed it of the majority of its power. Even having Lois find out what was happening and have her deliver the line that ‘Martha’ needed to be saved would have been better. It would have given her some relevance to the story at the very least. Ugh.
Ultimately, this is a better film than Man of Steel. It seems to have learned a couple of lessons from that film’s mistakes, even if it made new ones in their place. Batman v Superman gives us a brilliant new iteration of Batman, promises us a fantastic character in Wonder Woman, and lays solid foundations for the a whole host of new DC films… if only they ease up on the po-faced, dour, overly-serious tone, stop trying to demolish cities to create visual clutter in lieu of actual peril and action, and try to give villains more rational plans and characterisations instead of insane assholes whose plans make no sense. I also hope those fans who loudly complained about Affleck’s casting as Batman will just as publically admit their mistake.