Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice
I think from the moment that this film was announced – around June/July 2013 – it has been one of the most pre-judged in history, at least from the “hardcore”, the “nerd community” for lack of a better term. There hasn’t been a single announcement or trailer that wasn’t met with waves of derision and scorn from the usual suspects. Watching the development and promotion of the Man Of Steel sequel has been unrelenting negative experience for me, the most large-scale example of the dreaded “I guess I’ll see it anyway” sentiment I have ever seen. Even as the same crowd prepare to joyfully give Captain America: Civil War an A+ because Spiderman happens to be in it, they already dismissed Batman V Superman as a critical failure before it was released.
And the actual film criticism community has backed them up for the most part. However much money Batman V Superman is going to make – and, whether the people who hate it so much they were worried it would turn out to be good like it or not, it’s already well into pure profit territory – it was slammed in the media, on a level that made it sound more like Fantastic Four than The Dark Knight. I caught a few days after release, and so found my expectations pulled in two: being a huge fan of what Snyder pulled in Man Of Steel, and of Affleck generally, but aware that the film was being painted as some kind of comic-book Titanic that was headed straight for the iceberg. Was Batman V Superman everything I hoped it would be, or everything I feared it would be?
18 months on from his city destroying showdown with General Zod, Clark Kent/Superman (Henry Cavill) remains a figure of immense controversy, between those who see him as a saviour, and those who fear his power. Among the latter is Gotham City billionaire Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) who holds a grudge after seeing his employees in Metropolis suffer the consequences of the Kryptonian beatdown. As “the Bat”, Wayne seeks a means to take Superman down, which includes trying to get his hands on a strange green element, dug up from a Kryptonian ship by somewhat crazed genius Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg). As Lois Lane (Amy Adams) tries to get to the bottom of a burgeoning conspiracy, and the mysterious Diana Prince (Gal Gadot) tracks Luthor, Superman and Batman are put on a collision course.
Ultimately, I was satisfied with Batman V Superman. It isn’t on the level of Nolan, or most MCU films, but if I was prone to giving scores to movies, this would be a solid 7/10 experience. A story of Gods, men, the relationships between the two and the strained morality of either, Batman V Superman is in no way deserving, in my opinion, of the critical body slam it has been obliged to take over the past week. There are issues aplenty, as with any movie, but I did not find much to really denigrate the film to the point where I viewed it in an overall negative light.
The film is obviously tent-poled by the respective journeys of its titular characters, one of which is quite good and the other much more debatable. In the first instance, Henry Cavill’s second run as the big blue boy scout is a good one, even an improvement on his initial outing. Cavill embodies the blue suit as well as he did before, but the conflict that runs through the film – about how his responsibility to the world meshes with its growing alarm in relation to him – makes for some good story-telling. In Man Of Steel Kent had to learn to accept his powers and what they made him capable of doing, but here there are consequences to deal with.
The difference between being a God and being a man is stark. In the former, Superman zips around the world saving people (happy fans?), accepting the near-worship of some people (a nice Dia de los Muertes sequence makes the point well enough) and the scorn of others, but as the man he’s grounded by his relationship with Lois Lane – a remarkably improved Amy Adams, maybe because she doesn’t have a heavy responsibility of humanising things like she did in Man Of Steel. In a world where Donald Trump is a genuine Presidential candidate based on an intense xenophobia, you can well imagine a figure as saintly as Superman being twisted in perceptions from devil to angel and back again.
The contrast is effective, as is Superman’s quest to figure out just whether he really is the man – or God – to be Earth’s primary protector. In a film where so much comes back to parental influence, it won’t be much a surprise to see Kevin Costner return briefly as the elder Kent, or Diane Lane as Martha, and the scenes with them, when Snyder slows things down properly and allows his Superman to just breathe a little, are some of the films best.
The ultimate finale for Superman’s arc won’t be the kind of thing that is terribly surprising to most – elements of it certainly approach “twist” territory I suppose, but the film is built on firm comic-book foundations for that – but that doesn’t mean that it wasn’t worth doing. From the carnage of Man Of Steel a better Superman, one more willing to ask questions of himself and his actions, has been borne, and I hope we see a continued progression in films to come.
It’s with Batman that things stand to shudder, shake and trip towards narrative collapse. The film frames itself around Wayne right from the start, with a thankfully not belaboured look at his tragic origin mixed in with some disturbing dreams, with Affleck’s dusky narration leading us into the nightmare that was the Battle of Metropolis as viewed from the perspective of us insignificant mortals. From there, it’s into a version of Batman that is more disputed myth than city endorsed protector, with Affleck’s Wayne the kind of man tired of decades of fighting with very little to show for it. Affleck is a delight in most respects, with the actor grasping the gravitas and authority required for the brooding billionaire, a far more important task than filling out the batsuit properly. From the moment he tries to save his employees in Metropolis – a brilliant 9/11-esque sequence – to the titular confrontation, Affleck is doing the business with his performance, as anyone with half a brain knew he would.
Wayne, a man obsessed with his parents in a way very different to Superman, is very much about his legacy here, in a style inspired wholesale by Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns. He’s a person who has spent so much time on his crusade – the results of which are hinted at darkly by a vandalised Robin suit on display in the Batcave – that he’s started to lose his way, becoming too violent and too non-caring about the consequences of his actions, not unlike Superman in the last film. Kent has Lane, and Wayne has Pennyworth to keep him grounded and relatable, Jeremy Irons giving an understated but effective performance as the loyal butler.
But where the narrative tries to frame itself as a journey for Batman to realise his fault and go back to being the more responsible, saving people obsessed man that he used to be, what we actually see on screen is anything but. In one of two serious flaws, Batman goes around killing people at a constant rate, with only a few incidents being excusable as “collateral damage” or being lifted straight from The Dark Knight Returns. Snyder’s Batman is happy to crush and blow up criminals as opposed to bringing them in, and even when he does that he’s branding them with his symbol. The violence and death toll was so baffling in regards the caped crusader I was more confused than irritated.
As I’ve stated before, I have no serious issue with people giving different portrayals of characters, changing things from the norm for the sake of creating something new and unique. When Superman wad forced to kill Zod in Man Of Steel, I scorned the outraged reaction, because it was showcasing something new with the Superman character while also retaining his innate desire to protect the world from terrible threats. But, when it comes to Batman, his aversion to killing, and with guns, is such an innate part of the character, that removing it from him changes him so much you might as well not call him Batman anymore. It would be like if Superman didn’t fly, wear the suit, or had to fight a giant spider in the third act.
I was able to move beyond it, enjoying the rest of the film as I did, but it was a serious detriment, that speaks ill of Snyder’s understanding of these characters. But worse was the treatment of the films nominal villain, Eisenberg’s much anticipated role as Luthor. If there was one bit of casting I was banking on, it was Eisenberg, who practically played the same character in The Social Network in many respects. But here, with Luthor erring more towards the “mad” in “mad genius”, the brilliance of the character as portrayed by Hackman or Spacey is lost. Eisenberg plays Luthor as genuinely crazy throughout, and his deeper motivations for his antipathy towards Superman are lost in the maelstrom of his zany “The red capes are coming” dialogue. Every time Luthor was on-screen, I kept thinking “OK, maybe they’ll give him some reasoning this time”, but it never really came, beyond Luthor going all Blackadder Goes Forth and saying “bibble”. Making Luthor crazy isn’t a dealbreaker for me, but too much is left clouded by the time the credits roll.
Sure, some late in the game inferences of an abusive childhood, an aversion to Gods and a darker power at work come up, but literally in the last few minutes, and by then the chance to make Eisenberg work better as the character have been totally lost. This isn’t the most terrible comic-book movie villain I’ve ever seen – Hell, I can name five MCU bad guys off the top of my head who make a worse impression with me – but I have most certainly seen better Luthor’s onscreen. If only Clancy Brown looked the part…
Those three are the primary players in a film that is groaning under its 151 minute running time – with a half hour of ads/trailers, cheers Vue Cinemas – with a first act, and an epilogue section that don’t seem to be edited to the point that it could have been. And Snyder’s worst flaw, in terms of narrative pacing, is his decision to once again backload the action sequences. Sure, there’s a certain amount of restraint employed that wasn’t in Man Of Steel. Snyder appears to have learned his lesson there, and much of what drives the film is answering the consequences of Metropolis’ destruction. But the titular fight and what comes after, liberally spoiled by bad trailers, takes up too much time at the conclusion, when things should have been spaced out more evenly to make things more entertaining. If I may use the dreaded word often misused in my experience, more “fun”. While the action of Batman V Superman is fine when it does pop up, bar the Batman murder of course, I wish Snyder and his production team would be a bit more discerning in its placement.
One thing adding to the running time significantly is the backdoor introduction to the coming roster of the Justice League movie(s), via Jason Mamoa’s Aquaman, Ezra Miller’s Flash and Ray Fisher’s Cyborg. Snyder and Batman V Superman feels the need to let them all have a moment in the spotlight, all set-up for their own movies and the Justice League two-parter to come, and while it’s not as terrible a drag on the film as it could have been – I note that Age Of Ultron pretty much did the same thing for Thor: Ragnarock, but get less of the critical sneers for it – it still feels a bit out of place, DC’s effort to catch-up on Marvel fast.
And the Justice League introductions are part and parcel of numerous dream sequences that infest the film, some better than others. Wayne is a man plagued by nightmares, but it’s when one of the dreams become something more that the eyebrows will shoot up. The Red Son-inspired post-apocalyptic wasteland that Wayne falls into is an interesting little diversion, and a glimpse into his tortured psyche, but then Snyder pulls a strange curve ball by making it more of a premonition, complete with time-travelling warnings. We’ll see what Justice League makes of it all I suppose.
The other introduction worth noting is Gal Gadot of course. Her screentime is limited, but she makes good use of what time she does get: in quasi-flirtatious interactions with Wayne or in that final battle against REDACTED. She comes off as a mysterious, but potentially very intriguing character, and that’s before the corset, shield and sword come out. But this isn’t her movie really, just a story she happens to drop into on the way to her own, long overdue, feature film.
Batman V Superman winds itself eventually to a finale where the emotional stakes can seem a bit muddled, but that is ultimately a much better ending than Man Of Steel came up with. The inevitable resolution of the Batman/Superman combat – an effective adaptation of the kinetic, brutal contest depicted so well by Frank Miller in the closing pages of The Dark Knight Returns – is one that is certain to engender mockery from the crowd that hated this movie the moment it was announced, but I enjoyed it: without spoiling (see below), Batman’s deeper understanding of Superman’s humanity comes from an utterly appropriate cipher, considering the contrasting and comparable backgrounds of the two characters. What occurs after does feel a bit cobbled together in the quest to find a foe worthy of the DC Trinity, but still manages to find an emotional heart in its resolution.
Snyder’s visual direction, going back to his usual cinematographer Larry Fong over Man Of Steel’s Amir Mokri (busy with Pixels…), is pretty much what you would expect of the man so thoughtlessly referred to as a “visionary” for his first outing in this universe. It’s overly-dramatic and sensationalised at moments, with Snyder’s constant favouring of artistic slow motion and tight-up shots filling in many of the emotional moments. And, of course, it’s darkly shaded, a direct contrast, or maybe a response, to the brighter climes of the MCU. The darkness fits the story – it is Batman after all – and Snyder does play around with some hues at some moments, with his titular opposing forces characterised by grey and red colouring. The moments when brightness interjects, not least the opening trip back to Man Of Steel’s finale and that apocalyptic dream/vision sequence, stand-out in major way, but the cool darker shades, along with the fine costuming work for both super powered and civilian clothing, works really well.
Action wise, Snyder is up to his usual. There are explosions and things flipping over aplenty, while lots of masonry goes flying. But Superman does get to save people, and an entire city doesn’t get wiped out at the conclusion – indeed, ala Age Of Ultron, there are a few moments when Batman V Superman is at pains to point out that areas featuring superpowered battles are absent civilians – and the finale fight is a slobberknocker to match that of Man Of Steel albeit without a villain as interesting as Michael Shannon’s Zod. In all the action, there’s a hint of Nolan at times, like a car chase sequence that takes a few ques from a similar scene in The Dark Knight, but things are invariably Snyder-ish. Whether you are happy with that will be purely a personal taste issue: there’s nothing here to mark Snyder out as having made significant changes to his status quo in visual terms.
The Terrio/Goyer script is a functional device, that goes dark and serious instead of the Marvel-esque quipsplosion that seems to be the direct contrast. There are occasional flashes of brilliance in the wordplay, like Lex’s thoughts on the seeming paradox of having knowledge without power (or having power and innocence) or Wayne’s commentary on his own genesis, portrayed in his visions as a “beautiful dream” that has now been lost to him. A monologue from Kevin Costner on the nature of responsibility hits home hard, as does Alfred’s pondering on his master’s recent mood changes, a cruelty based on a sense of powerlessness in the face of titans.
Characters are written just fine – Wayne’s constant theme of the innate (or not) goodness of “man”, ie himself, springs to mind or Kent’s exploration of what he owes the world – but it’s just in the delivery that things don’t work out all that well sometimes, like with Luthor, or in some of the other scenes towards the end that are bound to divide opinion. This isn’t really a stand-out quotable film all that much, but the script does the necessaries, and maybe only really soars when quoting Frank Miller: A simple “I believe you” near the conclusion is a potent example.
Hanz Zimmer teams up with Junkie XL for the soundtrack, the latter fresh off the success of Mad Max: Fury Road. The combination of the drum-driven composers is, astonishingly, a drum-driven soundtrack, that does what is required without ever threatening to break out into the kind of John Williams score that will resonate in the popular consciousness. Retaining the central theme of Man Of Steel for the quieter moments and going back to the Dark Knight trilogy for Batman inspiration, Zimmer and Junkie Xl craft something toe-tapping and exhilarating for the most part, with Wonder Woman’s theme, a sort of thumping motif mixed with some quiet, but screeching guitars, being the real shining example of their work.
Some brief spoiler discussion follows.
-In regards the Batmurder, there are moments that could be tolerated, like when Batman grabs a goons gun and it just happens to go off and kill some other goons, or the aforemtioned “I believe you” moment when Callan Mulvey’s KGBeast gets taken out. But then there is Batman driving his car onto other cars and blowing up the bad guys with abandon. It’s very, very strange.
-In connection to that, I’d bet good money that a director like Affleck will be a bit more restrained when it comes to his turn to craft a Batman story.
-Somewhat connected, the Red Son sequence showed a Batman who maybe just wants to let loose and do things Punisher-style, and I think it’s OK to relegate such things to dream sequences. But ultimately Batman is defined as being different to those he fights because he won’t take lives.
-When those parademons showed up in the dream/vision, my eyebrows certainly shot up. A certain “Justice Lords” feel to things as well.
-The Darkseid hints only firmly come up towards the end. That must be the “He’s coming” that an imprisoned Luthor is referring to, in line with the parademon appearances, and that gothic painting in Lex’s mansion. The film could have done with inserting that foreshadowing in the narrative at an earlier point, to give Luthor some fresher motivations for his actions.
-And on that, there’s a confluence of them, that simply don’t mesh all that well. Luthor was abused by his father, has an antipathy towards the idea of God, is mentally unbalanced, and the end result is a hatred for Superman and an inferred desire to do the will of Darkseid by taking him out. It just doesn’t fit together properly for me. Though at least there wasn’t a new land scheme.
-Though, that deleted scene going around would seem to indicate that Luthor only encountered the New Gods after creating Doomsday. Why was he out to kill Superman again?
-I’ll admit, I laughed at the “Grandma’s Peach Juice” joke. That seemed like a really spiteful Lex Luthor thing to do, and right before he just kills everyone too.
-Including poor Mercy Graves, who is barely in the film at all.
-When it comes to manipulating people, Lex is still the master. “You let your family die”. How perfect a statement to tip Bruce Wayne over the edge? It calls to mind another moment from Red Son: “Why don’t you just put the whole world in a bottle, Superman?”
-The God themes come up over and over again, and not just for the obvious candidate of Superman. Luthor’s desire to create his own life – the “Blood of my blood” – is like a Biblical tale of discovery gone wrong, and the mix of Zod and Lex making Doomsday is the end result.
-Doomsday looked fine and all, but was just a big strong lump at the end of the day. Part of me wonders if Lex in the mechsuit would have been a better fit. Or at least let Doomsday talk a little bit.
-A plot-hole that bothered me: How does Lex know that Bruce Wayne is Batman? I’m certain they don’t explain this.
-The Joker references are pure set-up for Suicide Squad of course – weirdly, it didn’t have a trailer ahead of Batman V Superman where I saw it – and I’ll admit I’m intrigued by the fan theory that Jared Leto’s Clown Prince Of Crime might be a former Robin. As a friend reminded me, Wayne does remark “Twenty years in Gotham. How many good guys are left? How many stay that way?”
-Aside from the general tone, there were three clear Dark Knight Returns nods/references that I spotted: The “I believe you” moment, Alfred’s remorseful musings on the Wayne family not inheriting an empty wine cellar, and the emaciated Superman after being hit by a nuke.
-OK, so, the “Martha” moment. It’s easily mocked of course, but I really loved it. Having set-up Wayne’s origin again, this time by emphasising his mother (instead of his father, like Nolan did), Snyder/Goyer/Terrio find their resolution to the titular combat by using it as a cipher, whereby Wayne realises that Superman is not the reckless, dangerous God that needs to be destroyed for the benefit of humanity, but instead just some mother’s son, a son who fears his mother might die and wants to try and save her with his dying breath. Batman never could save his, though the thought tortures him, and seeing Superman with that suddenly blinding insight, as someone more human than Wayne was willing to give him credit for, is what snaps Batman out of his own reckless anger, by reminding him of what he lost. The film’s look at Wayne opens with him comforting a young girl orphaned. Of course he’ll connect with someone trying to save their parent.
-I remarked to a friend that the mockery of this moment, largely due to the admittedly not as great scriptwork for it as there could have been, is deflected for me because I was enjoying the rest of the movie. I suppose it’s akin to my Inception Test: you get swept up in these things more if you are actually enjoying yourself. And I was.
-From there it was the “Death of Superman” story. I didn’t think Snyder would go that way, but he did hit the Christ-allegory hard in Man Of Steel, so I suppose I should have seen it as inevitable (this film was released at Easter too). It’s handled well, and it was cool to see Doomsday’s final end being a team effort as much as a self-sacrifice on the part of Superman. Superman’s death meant something, and provided a nice cap to his own exploration of whether Earth was worth protecting or not. Even if he sees it through just one person – Lois – it is.
-While Batman’s journey back to being the character he should have been – that is, not killing people willy nilly – was botched, Snyder at least did better with the last appearance of the brand, that the Dark Knight refrains from using on Luthor. “We’ve always been criminals” Wayne tells Alfred early on in response to the violence, but by the end he appears to have learned something important. I hope.
-Where to from here? Justice League, Part One, will presumably be an Apokolips invasion of Earth that the titular team must assemble to combat, with Superman’s resurrection providing the cliff-hanger. Or so it seems to me. Think the cartoons “Secret Origins” opening mixed with “Hereafter”.
I’ve thought a bit about why so many people seemed to hate their films very existence before it was even released, and I’ve come up with the perfect storm of a few key factors:
-The decreasing, ever since Sucker-Punch, critical patience/breathing room for Zach Snyder as a director which has now reached Michael Bay levels of dismissiveness.
– A completely unfounded and irrational dislike of Ben Affleck as an actor, that I continually find difficult to fathom.
-A tribal-esque motivation to denigrate DC in favour of Marvel and their movies, which are nerd community darlings and look like they always will be.
-The dark tone, which in combination with the above point makes the knives come out for a film that is seen as “joyless”, a slog”, “too serious” and “not fun”.
That last point is one I find particularly galling when reading the critical dogpile. I thought the film was great fun. The kids in the theatre I saw it in thought so too, from what I overheard on the way out. I love Batman, I love Superman, and I loved seeming them on-screen together. Does every superhero film have to follow the Marvel formula of fun, that seems to consist mostly non-stop jokes as numerous writers and directors try to be Joss Whedon? Should we really be insisting that DC do the exact same thing that Marvel is doing? Or should we instead be satisfied, indeed happy, that DC and Warner Brothers are moving forward with their own style and tone, to differentiate themselves and provide something that we can contrast? Yeah, it’s grimdark, but you know what? I like grimdark sometimes. And I’m tired of feeling like that’s some kind of sin.
All that being said, for the simple sake of directorial variety if nothing else, I think it would have been for the best if Snyder departed from the scene after Batman V Superman. Even Whedon only limited himself to two MCU movies, as did Jon Favreau, who might be a getter comparison as the guy who started it off. While I still enjoy Snyder’s work for the most part, I think that a certain malaise will be inevitable in Justice League and its two parts, that could only be confronted with a replacement in the top chair. I don’t think that’s a harsh thing to say either: Snyder’s had five hours of these characters to play around with, and I’d like to see what someone else could do. I can say that I might be looking forward more to the likes of Wonder Woman and Aquaman partly because they’ll be a fresh perspective from a new director. Replacing Snyder wouldn’t hurt the promotion side of things either, so disliked is he by the nerd community. Who would they like no matter what he made? Is Guillermo Del Toro busy? I’m only slightly kidding.
In conclusion, I find myself firmly on the smaller side of the critical divide here. I think the rough ride that Batman V Superman has gotten is unjustified for the most part, and I will maintain my belief that certain quarters were ready to slam this film literal years before it was released to theatres. For what it is worth, the film has its problems, not least a sub-par villain and a misunderstanding of one of its main characters, but, if you’re anything like me, you’ll be able to get over these things. The cast is (mostly) good, the script is good, the music is good. The story is better than what you have heard, and Snyder does his usually proficient directing job. If you liked Man Of Steel, you should love this. If you like comic books, I think you should love this too, but I know that many will disagree with me. This is not my favourite film of the year, and may not be my favourite comic book film of the year (still several competing contenders there), but it’s a good movie. For my part, I say roll on the rest of the DECU. Recommended.
(All images are copyright of Warner Bros Pictures).