Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice
Directed by: Zack Snyder.
Written by: Chris Terrio and David S. Goyer.
Starring: Ben Affleck (Bruce Wayne / Batman), Henry Cavill (Clark Kent / Superman), Amy Adams (Lois), Jesse Eisenberg (Lex Luthor), Diane Lane (Martha Kent), Laurence Fishburne (Perry White), Jeremy Irons (Alfred), Holly Hunter (Senator Finch), Gal Gadot (Diana Prince / Wonder Woman), Scoot McNairy (Wallace Keefe), Callan Mulvey (Anatoli Knyazev), Tao Okamoto (Mercy Graves).
Back in 2012, when The Avengers and The Dark Knight Rises, both came out, I wondered if comic book movies were at a tipping point. While it was possible, I thought, to make a superhero movie bigger than The Avengers or darker than the Nolan Batman movies, had been, I wasn’t sure it was advisable to do either, and I didn’t know where the superhero genre had left to go – especially if they continued to refuse to evolve, and allow directors to take things in different, perhaps more personal directions. In the four years since, the answer has pretty much seemed like the studios have decided to maintain the status quo. The Marvel movies continue to chug along, at a reliable two-movies-per-year pace, and while Avengers: Age of Ultron was too large and bloated, for the most part, they’ve keep up a rather admirable level of quality. Captain Winter: Solider may be the best one they’ve made so far, and Guardians of the Galaxy perhaps the most purely entertaining. They’re not re-inventing the wheel at Marvel, but they know they’re business, and are good at executing it. The same could be said of the folks in charge of the X-Men movies. Sure, Sony messed up Spider-Man (the two Marc Webb movies are far from awful – but they did seem completely unnecessary), and the less said about Fantastic 4, the better. Eventually, like everything else, superhero movies will fade – but until then, for the most part, they deliver an entertaining diversion – a distraction.
Which brings us to Zack Snyder, who seems to think that the way to go with superhero movies is to make them bigger than The Avengers, and more morose than The Dark Knight. Snyder is clearly influenced by Frank Miller – whose two great Dark Knight graphic novel redefined the character in the 1980s, but Snyder takes things even farther. His awful film 300 was also based on Miller graphic novel, and he was the director who was finally able to bring the darkest superhero graphic novel in history, Alan Moore’s brilliant Watchmen, to the screen (as much as people hate on Watchmen – I actually rather like it, problems and all – or at least I did when it first came out – it’s been a while since I revisited it). His Man of Steel was another Superman reboot – after Bryan Singer’s underrated Superman Returns, disappointed many – and launched the DC Comic Universe. Man of Steel is an odd movie – darker, more violent and more morose and more violent at Superman has ever been onscreen before. I was lukewarm on that film – parts I liked included Michael Shannon’s General Zod, although the willful destruction that concluded the movie left a sour taste in my mouth, as it did with many others as well. To give Snyder and company credit, that’s where they begin Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice – with Ben Affleck’s Bruce Wayne angry that Superman’s battle with Zod destroyed much of Metropolis, including his own building, which left some of his employees dead or wounded. It’s enough to make Wayne breakout his old Batman suit – he’s pissed at Superman, and wants to stop him. That is actually a pretty good place to start a movie called Batman v. Superman – because why the hell else would two superheroes battle each other.
The problem really is the rest of the movie that Snyder and company spin out from there. The villain this time is Lex Luthor (Jessie Eisenberg), who has an overly complicated plot to destroy Superman, for reasons that are never really all that clear. His plot doesn’t make all that much sense either – unless you think people would actually believe Superman would shoot people. It doesn’t help that Eisenberg is absolutely awful in the role – he is trying for some kind of heightened, over-the-top, insanity – but he isn’t able to make it scary like Heath Ledger’s Joker, nor over the top funny and enjoyable like Gene Hackman or Kevin Spacey, previous big screen Lex Luthors. Instead, he makes Luther is tick-raddled psycho, with no basis in anything resembling human behavior. He would have been better off just playing Luthor the same way he played Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network.
Yet, as the Marvel movies have proven, you make an effective superhero movie even if you don’t have a good villain (seriously, other than Loki, has any Marvel movie had a truly great villain? Maybe Robert Redford in The Winter Soldier). The bigger problem is Batman and Superman themselves. I don’t blame the much derided casting of Ben Affleck as Bruce Wayne/Batman. He’s fine in the role – at least as written. He’s even more humorless than Christian Bale’s Batman was for Christopher Nolan, and doesn’t have nearly the depth he had there. Now, he’s basically just a humorless asshole. Henry Cavill is stuck with the unenviable role as Superman/Clark Kent, and he doesn’t seem to know what to do with it. On one hand, he seems to be trying to put on the sunnier, happier face and easy charm that previous Superman actors have played the character with, although it’s undercut by Snyder’s insistence to keep everything dark and morose. There’s no joy in this movie, as it takes everything so painfully seriously – which worked for Nolan, but doesn’t work here, because everything in the movie is so ridiculous.
So what really we’re left with is a two and half hour movie that goes back and forth from sullen and morose dramatic scenes, and long, loud, brash fight sequences where huge, hulking men crash into each other again and again and again. Everything is dark and gritty, as if Snyder mistakes that for authenticity, but it doesn’t much work here. He also has to cram so much other crap into the movie – because DC wants to prematurely jumpstart their own version of what Marvel has been doing for nearly a decade now. The highlight is Gal Gadot as Diana Prince/Wonder Woman – although she is clearly shoehorned into the movie, she’s so good it’s hard to complain, and it makes me eager for next summer’s Wonder Woman standalone movie. The film also pauses mid-movie for essentially a series of mini-trailers to setup other members of the Justice League – The Flash, Aquaman and Cyclops.
All of this setting up hurts the movie’s plot even more than it otherwise would be – and really hurts many of the characters. Poor Amy Adams has to play Lois Lane as basically an incompetent reporter, whose only purpose is keep almost getting herself killed so Superman can save her. The great Holly Hunter shows up as a Senator, and is asked to spout silly dialogue before she can be dispatched with. Diane Lane shows back up as Superman’s mom, and gives him advice almost as bad as Kevin Costner’s in the first movie – and then, like Lois Lane, is there just to be rescued. Laurence Fishburne played Perry White as the worst newspaper editor in history. The talented Tao Okamoto – so good on TV’s great, short lived Hannibal – plays Lex Luthor’s assistant, whose only job it seems is to walk around in high heels (which, to be fair, she does remarkably well). Jeremy Irons’ Alfred is reduced to a wisecracking background character. A movie with the runtime of Batman v Superman should have opportunities for supporting characters to do something interesting – this one, does not.
There are moments in the film that are good. I’ve already mentioned Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman, but I’ll do so again (she really is that good). While the multiple dream sequences - including a dream sequence inside a dream sequence (I half expected Leonardo DiCaprio and his top to show up) were ridiculous in the film, the best, non-Wonder Woman sequence in the film may just be one of those dream sequences, with Batman envisioning a dark, sunburnt, dystopian future.
Overall though, Batman v Superman doesn’t give me much to look forward to in the future of the DC Universe it is trying so desperately hard to create. Yes, Wonder Woman looks great, and I think this summer’s Suicide Squad looks like fun (for one thing, it doesn’t look like it’s taking itself as painfully serious as this movie does), so if you want to be optimistic, you can write off Batman v Superman as a necessary, growing pains movies – a two and a half hour trailer, which basically has the unenviable job of setting everything up, that future installments will do better. But you have to really, really see that bright side to get there – and still, we’re left with this dark, brooding, slog of a superhero movie, that has the size of The Avengers and the darkness of The Dark Knight, without the fun of the former and dramatic heft of the later. It’s the worst of both worlds.