The release of Warner Brothers’ mega-hyped Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice(henceforth to be shortened to BvS for them majority of this review because pretentious and long enough with your titling Warners?) has certainly brought about plenty of internet controversy. With a dismal 29% critic aggregate score on Rotten Tomatoes, director Zack Snyder’s two and a half hour would-be kickoff for a projected Justice League franchise has served as a punching bag for critics and an object of adulation for an appreciative fanbase who state that the critics just “don’t get it.” Fans point to the film’s huge box office earnings as proof that the critics are wrong or biased in their views on the film.
By that logic the films of Roland Emmerich and Michael Bay are critically misunderstood masterpieces as well, of course. But never mind.
Beginning with the 2013 Superman franchise reboot Man of Steel, director Zack Snyder’s been Warner Brothers’ go to man for getting their long-gestating DC film universe off the ground. A hugely talented visual director with the films 300 and Watchmen on his resume, Snyder would seem a natural to helm projects like this save for the fact that, from Man of Steel forward, the director’s faced plenty of fan criticism for his gritty, morose realization of the DC Universe.
If anything, BvS darkens the tone even further. In Gotham City a middle aged Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) based primarily upon Frank Miller’s treatment of the character in The Dark Knight Returns hatches a plot to take Superman out, fearing that he and other “metahumans” are lethal threats to humanity. To the film’s credit, Affleck is the brightest element of the whole affair in what may be the most effective presentation of Batman onscreen to date though, to be fair, when you’re the vibrantly dour element in a film that’s just flatly dour you’re gonna succeed.
Back in Metropolis Clark Kent seems to spend a lot of time listening to Daily Planet publisher Perry White (Laurence Fishburne) complain about money and the internet when he’s not making out with Lois Lane (Amy Adams) in bathtubs or brooding about self consciously in his Superman duds.
Some sort of international terrorist mafioso group is being lead by Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg) in order to obtain Kryptonite. Maybe. Kinda. It’s never really clear on that. There’s a sort of blackmail element late in proceedings involving them. Anyway, Luthor tries to use twitchy, anti-charismatic speeches to get Congress to let him develop anti-Superman weaponry out of Kryptonite. Wayne figures out Luthor has the kryptonite and makes plans to steal it. Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) wanders in and out of the film on occasion with no clear motivation behind what she’s doing. Luthor gets access to Zod’s ship from Man of Steel and uses its genetic manipulation technology to resurrect Zod’s body into a giant humanoid monster that’s supposed to be equivalent to Doomsday from The Death of Superman. Everybody fights. You know the drill.
As both a film critic and an appreciator of comics, I approached Batman v Superman with casual, guarded optimism. I left it in a state of amazed frustration.
Because, as a film, BvS is an incoherent mess.
The first two or so hours are shockingly inert for a superhero genre film, trying to ram a “Does Superman have the right?” concept down viewers’ throats. Early in Superman saves Lois Lane from a terrorist cell somewhere in “the desert.” We see one of the henchmen we later learn works for Luthor shoot two of the terrorists before riding away. The rest of the film continually tells us that, in this event, an entire town was wiped out and some in Congress suspect Superman’s involvement may have been a contributing factor to the slaughter.
We never see this happen, but it’s referred to. A LOT. Maybe they’re saving that scene for the mega-hyped R rated cut that’ll come out on home video. Who knows. I do know that referring to things that have happened in a film’s timeline without showing them or clearly explaining them is confusing.
Roughly the first two hours of the film are comprised of this sort of stuff. Characters do things and things happen, but the rationale behind why things happen is sketchy at best, if a reason exists at all.
Now, you might be able to get away with something like that if you distracted the viewer every so often with, oh I don’t know, call me kooky, an action sequence involving the superheroes. For the first two thirds of the film there’s almost no such luck, though. It has no idea of anything to do with Superman besides present him as a sad sack unappreciated for his efforts.
Or maybe he is appreciated for his efforts. We can’t be sure. A single congresswoman seems to stand up for him, and someone’s built a statue in his honor in Metropolis, but, for the most part, the film presents a near-nonstop cavalcade of anti-Superman folks with occasional breaks to some worshipful people in Mexico and doe-eyed flood victims standing on top of their houses. The film never tries to deliver on the wonder of the character, his abilities, and his self-given mission on earth. His two biggest rescue moments in the entire thing are him saving his own girlfriend from her latest predicaments.
Eventually Superman and Batman fight. It’s pretty cool. Then, as you’d expect, they team up, welcome Wonder Woman, and battle an enemy greater than any of them. That is, also, pretty cool. The film wakes up! For about thirty minutes you get to see DC’s Trinity take on The Hulk – er, Doomsday, sorry, Doomsday – and you remember why you came in the first place. There’s action, there’s humor, there’s tension, there’s no one digging around in their philosophical navel for overwrought morality fluff.
Then the fight ends, and, as if to punish the viewer for the few brief minutes of joy they’ve had, plunges everything into the deepest, darkest sinkhole of moroseness ever.
Examining the film as a whole, aside from the hideously weak script, there are so many puzzling or just downright terrible elements that one has to wonder if the production was doomed back at the conceptual level when it was initially conceived, one bad idea from the get go multiplying and creating a plethora of other terrible ideas.
The obvious one is the film’s interpretation of Lex Luthor as a twitchy, grating, overintellectualizing millennial. The interpretation was bad long before Eisenberg was cast in the part most likely, though he’s likely to suffer from being seen as the “Jar Jar Binks” of BvS, but the problem isn’t simply one of against type interpretation. The character babbles on and on like a far less interesting version of The Joker in The Dark Knight, but we’re given no clear motivation for his actions whatsoever except for a vague notion that he has something against superhumans. You can at least say The Joker is an anarchist psychotic, but what, exactly is Luthor’s deal?
That’s just one of a pretty substantial list of bizarre misfired ideas or plotholes throughout the whole thing. Here’s a fun, but certainly not all encompassing, list:
- Metropolis and Gotham are apparently only separated from each other by a river. One city comes to an abrupt stop, the other abruptly starts.
- Batman has taken to branding criminals he beats on with a red-hot bat symbol thing, presumably for the sake of cruelty.
- Batman’s been doing his Batman thing for twenty years but apparently no one calls him Batman. Not even “The Batman.”
- Lex Luthor’s big plan for killing Superman – defeating “God,” the more powerful creature – is to create an even more powerful creature to kill him. If he’s got such an issue with “metahumans,” how does it serve his purpose to create an even more powerful one that he himself can’t control or kill? Batman did steal his kryptonite, after all. If he planned for Superman to kill Batman, thus relinquishing control of the kryptonite, Superman would be the only one capable of getting close to the creature but can’t wield the stuff without endangering himself. And Luthor’s supposed to be a genius?
- To create the Doomsday creature, Lex Luthor combines his own genetic structure with that of Zod from Man of Steel. Humans are ridiculously weaker than Kryptonians, so why would creating a hybrid of these two species result in a creature more powerful than Superman?
- Wha… what have they done to The Flash?
- Batman steals Luthor’s kryptonite. Okay, that makes sense… but why would he leave a calling card pointing out he did it?
Then there’s the one underlying the entire central vendetta of the film’s title… Batman wants to take out Superman largely because the Wayne Industries building in Metropolis was destroyed during the battle between the Kryptonians in Man of Steel. BvS has a long early sequence in which we see Wayne hurriedly driving toward the doomed building, watching it fall, saving the few people he can that are in the street. But, if Gotham is just across a river,why in the hell was he puttering about as Bruce Wayne when he could have just suited up and taken the Batjet thing over to do, you know, what Batman is supposed to do in times like this? The film is a massive, bloated, incoherent leviathan built upon an incredibly fragile house of cards.
During the Doomsday battle, there’s a moment where Wonder Woman, after a heavy thrashing, looks up, gives a sly smile suggesting she’s enjoying having a real foe to tangle with. In the next moment we see Batman take on an “Oh no” expression before zip-lining out of the way just before Doomsday mushes him to paste. We get a brief, momentary glimpse of what the film could have been. Five seconds of warmth in a film so cold and depressing that just forcing yourself to continue to endure it to see that end battle becomes a chore.
In the even more morose and dire post-battle finale the rationale behind the Justice League is given as Wayne tells Wonder Woman that they must find all the superhumans and bring them together. The suggestion is he plans to protect or enable them against the elements of humanity that would resent and destroy them just because they’re different.
So, Zack Snyder and cohorts have taken the Justice League and turned them into… the X-Men? And Batman is Magneto-turned-Xavier? Ohhhhhhh boy.
Between the dreary downbeat tone, the terrible script, and the horribly misfired ideas,BvS is just an interminable chore to sit through.