Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice
Chris Terrio, David S. Goyer
Ben Affleck, Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Jesse Eisenberg, Diane Lane, Laurence Fishburne, Jeremy Irons, Holly Hunter, Gal Gadot, Scoot McNairy, Callan Mullvey, Tao Okamoto
PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action throughout, and some sensuality
Buy on DVD/Blu-ray
Two of the most famous superheroes in the world have been brought together in an effort to provide Warner Bros. with a stable and infinitely reusable comic property akin to Disney-Marvel’s Cinematic Universe. Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice follows the second attempted reboot of the Superman legend, Man of Steel, while attempting to ignite interest in a team-up movie to rival The Avengers.
Having delivered the origin story for Superman (Henry Cavill) in Man of Steel, Oscar winner Chris Terrio teams up with screenwriter David S. Goyer, a frequent adapter of DC properties, to give Batman his due. This marks the umpteenth time a production has seen Batman’s parents die (here’s the supercut on YouTube) and we’ve begun to wonder whether anyone is still unfamiliar with it or if there’s really any artistic need to reinvent the sequence every time. It’s like having Spider-Man being bitten by a radioactive spider each time he’s rebooted. What precisely is the point? Here, we don’t get the answer to that until late in the film when the scene of a mugger killing Thomas and Martha Wayne becomes a key plot point, a pushy one at that.
Ben Affleck is surprisingly effective as Bruce Wayne and Batman, a task only Christopher Nolan and Michael Keaton have capably pulled off. George Clooney was great as Bruce Wayne, but not Batman, and Val Kilmer the opposite. He does need more time to develop the character and a stand-alone film would be appealing. However, delivering a satisfactory performance does not entirely counteract an incident-driven plot where finding the coolest action sequence is more important than a premise that’s out of the ordinary.
Is there something at the heart of this film that speaks to a greater issue? Are we given every opportunity to explore the rich world in which these characters live? Or are we simply provided the bare minimum of information as a prelude to fight sequences and car chases? The answers are: sort of; no; and yes.
One of the greatest elements of the Tim Burton and Christopher Nolan versions of the Batman mythos is that we got to explore the compelling environments in which the film is set. For Burton, his trademark German Expressionist influence mixed with elements of Gothic horror were brilliantly woven into the story we’re presented. Each scene was deliciously orchestrated and laid out to maximize visual appeal. For Nolan, his gritty realism became a key component to the film’s dark, visceral vibe where vast towering edifices dwarfed the inhabitants with an oppressive brilliance.
Snyder once had a stronger expressionistic appeal with his colorful and dynamic designs for 300, Watchmen and Sucker Punch. While each of those films were nothing if not artistically inventive, Snyder continues his modern-realist approach to the series with a film where the set designs are largely perfunctory. Only when we approach the film’s conclusion does anything start to resemble creative balance, but by that point, we’re too distracted by the non-stop action to focus in on the environment and atmosphere.
As for what’s at the heart of the film, the reason I say “sort of” is that the biggest ideas are either dropped like a deflated football or are so oppressively heavy-handed that they’re frustratingly banal. On the subject of journalism versus cheerleading, the film makes a compelling argument that feels like a throw-away segment that could have been jettisoned without impacting the plot. There is no “down with the rich” undercurrent like The Dark Knight Rises, so something more brazen needed to be evoked.
However, all we’re treated to is the idea of god versus man. Snyder goes out of his way to reference the argument frequently throughout the film, even the title speaks to this. It’s as if he doesn’t think the audience will get a simple wink-nudge and must be forcefully reminded at regular intervals that he thinks a lack of faith is a vice while an embrace of faith is a virtue. Like the journalism angle, it’s a pointless distraction to the narrative that needed something more compelling to discuss, but which might have given the film far more meaning than he was willing to give it.
All we are left with is a simple narrative built on the idea that these characters are destined for something bigger, but the studio has to get it there and they don’t know of a better way to do it. This is perfectly embodied in the bare-minimum introduction of three of the six members of the Justice League, the film that will follow this one in the production order. Cyborg, The Flash and Aquaman are so unceremoniously dumped into the film that the biggest question is why bother? No, they couldn’t go The Avengers route and introduce each character in turn and then bring them together. That would force them to allow Wonder Woman to get her own movie and that cannot be done. Though, after this film, is there any question that she shouldn’t have one?
With the substandard plot in place, Snyder must fill the void with scenes that he thinks will please the most members of an action-eager audience. He does this incredibly well. The dockside chase that brings Batman and Superman together for the first time is an often thrilling encounter. It undermines the notion that Batman abhors killing, but it’s certainly exciting to watch. The last confrontation between Batman and Superman, which segues into the epic final confrontation, is exceptionally well staged and if the only reason you put money down to watch the film was to see the titular confrontation, then you won’t be disappointed.
As I opined in my review of Man of Steel, Cavill has the stoic gravitas to carry out the role of Superman. His rugged good looks and structured mien are a perfect fit to the character. That his Clark Kent lacks the warmth that Christopher Reeve brought to the role is a disappointment. More so than the previous film, we’re subjected to a too-frequently humorless Kent. What made the character so distinctive and so charming was that when he wasn’t donning the blue spandex and red cape, he seemed like an ordinary guy, someone you could lounge around and drink beer with. Here, even his romantic scenes with Lois Lane (Amy Adams) feel stilted and uncaring. Are the pair an actual couple or is Superman controlling her mentally, because there’s nothing in this dynamic that suggests a mutually respectful coupling.
Adams has been wonderful in so many things that it’s galling to see her perform so poorly in this role. Unlike Margot Kidder’s version of Lois, Adams is aggressive, severe and seldom likable. This was a character that was supposed to humanize Clark, but instead she inflames the situation and emboldens his abrasive demeanor.
Once again, Diane Lane appears to be performing in a completely different film. The most down-to-earth of the characters is honest, genuine and realistic, the perfect embodiment of what the film needed to be, but increasingly she’s on the periphery of the events and left watching the festivities from inside the Actors Studio.
Joining Affleck as Bruce Wayne’s faithful butler Alfred, Jeremy Irons doesn’t quite erase the myriad bad films he’s made the last two decades, but this version of Alfred is among the strongest characterizations. Not that he can ever top Michael Gough, but for this particular film and this particular iteration of the story, Irons is perfectly cast. He’s an every man that can stand beside Batman and provide able assistance with a dollop of careful admonition.
There was an outcry when unknown actress Gal Gadot was hired to play the legendary Wonder Woman, one of the many superhero women who have been denied their rightful place as the lead of a stand-alone movie (even Scarlett Johansson’s incredibly popular Black Widow character hasn’t managed to secure one yet). Gadot is certainly no Lynda Carter, but damned if she doesn’t have a spectacular debut. She is poorly served by the early scenes of the film where her character is treated as if she had crawled out of a James Bond film to flirt and toy with Bruce Wayne and given little creatively to do; however, when she finally dons her golden circlet and wields her magic lasso, she easily shows up her male counterparts in terms of sheer physical prowess and incomparable tactical capabilities. She very much should have had a stand-alone introduction rather than being shoe-horned into this narrative, but she definitely has our attention now.
Then there’s the elephant in the room. Jesse Eisenberg as the legendary super villain Lex Luthor. In all of his big screen outings, he’s been more than just a cold, calculating super genius, but unlike the genuinely likable version Gene Hackman gave us in the original film, Eisenberg channels his inner Joker. That wouldn’t be an issue did it not feel so at-odds with the character. Here we have a rich playboy on the level of a young Bruce Wayne, but without the charisma. His charity event breakdown may have played better if it hadn’t felt so out of place and his antics not felt inappropriate for an in-film audience that surprisingly lapped it all up. Eisenberg plays a character type he’s become well known for. Does it fit the film? In a superficial way, perhaps, but as a meaningful and credible villain, not at all. There is no genius in this character and that has every bit to do with the screenplay as it does with the miscasting. Had Oscar Isaac not been bogged down with X-Men: Apocalypse or Star Wars: The Force Awakens, he might have proven the better Lex.
When I said that Snyder seemed to be maturing as a filmmaker (in my review of Man of Steel), it was with the hopes that he would break away from the juvenile action spectacles that characterized his past and become something more along the lines of Steven Spielberg or Ridley Scott rather than Michael Bay. Focusing in on the depth of the story, the significance of the theme and using action in service to the plot rather than as a driving force is what he needed to accopmlish. Man of Steel suggested that was possible. Batman v. Superman suggests that it might not be.
Snyder’s reliance on action spectacle as a method of storytelling undermines the depth of stories possible with characters like Batman, Superman and the rest of the Justice League. Whereas The Avengers films seemed to focus on the lighthearted elements of the genre, the DC properties were zeroed in on the darker, more seedy elements. While the DC Cinematic Universe that this film represents has lightened the material up a bit from the Nolan efforts, the dour nature is still present. That’s not a bad thing, but it needs to be given some laser-like precision, not be treated like a careless mishmash.
Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice is a deeply flawed, horribly structured action film. The movie goes to great lengths to cause maximum carnage without unrealistically and uncharacteristically allowing Superman to destroy whole swaths of the city with seemingly little concern that he’s done so. While he never quite admits to his culpability and regret at the events of the prior film, giving him an opportunity to act more in line with the original character concept than he had previously is a step in the right direction. Whereas the film is a shift in the wrong direction.
Trying to introduce too many characters is a recipe for disaster. Looking at movies like Batman Forever, Spider-Man 3, The Dark Knight Rises, The Amazing Spider-Man 2, and The Avengers: Age of Ultron, the one unifying factor that made each of these either slightly weaker than prior outings or decidedly lackluster in comparison was the narrative struggling to present so many new characters to the audience. Devoting too much time to giving everyone a satisfactory explanation for being involved is not only difficult to accomplish in terms of screenwriting, it’s too much for even the most alert audience to process entirely. Overloading films with characters is not just distracting, it’s a disservice both to the audience and to the new characters themselves.
There are plenty of elements in Batman v. Superman to enjoy, but there are an equal number of questionable decisions that underline the struggle to make effective films that are also entertaining. If the franchise wants to be more like the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it has a lot of work to do. If it wants to be more like the socio-political ensemble narratives of the X-Men series, it’s going in the wrong direction. However, if they want to do something truly original, they need to drop the artifice of trying to duplicate Disney’s successful strategy and start focusing on ways to develop these characters effectively and not bogging them down with required action beats. If that means letting someone else put their personal stamp on the franchise, so be it.
Potentials: Sound Mixing, Sound Editing, Visual Effects
March 30, 2016