Editor’s Notes: Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice opens in wide theatrical release March 25th.
If there’s a titanic battle more seismic than the one staged in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, it’s the battle among critics debating the film’s quality level. There are a variety of notorious critical red flags at play here – the fact that Man of Steel was a total dud (if you need a refresher, refer to my 2013 review), a general loathing for Zack Snyder’s oeuvre, the already-infamous audacity to reboot the Batman character in the wake of Christopher Nolan’s untouchable franchise, and the unquestionable dominance of Marvel Studios, the empire which DC is clearly chasing after as they embark upon on their own bit of comic-adaptation world building.
Time and again, Snyder and his screenwriters strike upon interesting ideas but then spend the rest of the film patting themselves on the back, as if the ideas alone are enough without following them through.
With all those contributing factors at play, perhaps it’s a bit of a letdown that this particular brand-building, landscape-destroying spectacle doesn’t easily fall into a “good” or “bad” box. It’s more of an ambitious mediocrity, in turns buoyed by the visceral blockbuster zeal of its hits and dragged down by the lumbering failure of its misses…and that switch is flipped all too often throughout the film’s 151-minute running time. That’s bound to happen when your screenplay attempts to cull four narratives into one – each one perfectly valid on its own, infused with fascinating comic-based themes, but resulting in an ungainly mess when jammed together in order to expedite the character-crossing tie-in phase of the DC cinematic universe (after all, DC arrived way late to this party, left in the dust of Marvel’s multi-phase planning). As such, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is a problematic enterprise of its own doing – its ambitions surge through the roof of the multiplex, but the weight of said ambitions precipitate its ultimate collapse.
The Bat’s entrance into this pageant comes via some savvy self-reflexive plotting on the part of screenwriters Chris Terrio and David S. Goyer. Since much of the reaction against Man of Steel resulted from the sheer acreage of on-screen destruction peddled by the titular character’s would-be super-heroic exploits, Batman v Superman pits Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) as a victim of said devastation. An early sequence shows a Wayne Enterprises skyscraper being demolished during one of Superman’s (Henry Cavill) battles, struggling against futility to save a few stray employees from the fallout. This and other incidents of the Man of Steel wreaking unintended havoc leaves Wayne more than disgruntled, giving the famously tormented Dark Knight a different kind of machine to rage against.
A portion of society is also angry at Superman for this seemingly reckless demolition of people and property, prompting U.S. Senator Finch (Holly Hunter) to call for Supes to stand trial in an attempt to check his powers within the limits of law and civility. Meanwhile, boisterous young megalomaniac Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg, playing to the back row amid a sea of inward brooders) also wants to curtail Superman’s power…permanently, with the use of kryptonite. Luthor isn’t given much motivation for his villainy or for his flamboyant theatricality, a stunningly discordant stroke from a great actor in an otherwise consistently dreary tonal enterprise. He’s there because the franchise requires its iconic villainous lynchpin.
As such, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is a problematic enterprise of its own doing – its ambitions surge through the roof of the multiplex, but the weight of said ambitions precipitate its ultimate collapse.
“Iconic” is this film’s stock-in-trade. There’s certainly no shortage of icons in Batman v Superman, starting with the two titular titans, trickling down to Luthor, and it’s no spoiler that Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) turns up as well…along with Supes’ mortal foe, Doomsday. With all these characters and their disparate storylines, as well as carefully placed hint-dropping for the forthcoming Justice League films, Dawn of Justice is all about the icons and very little about the actual characters beneath those icons. Hell, for most of the film’s first half, Superman is relegated to being the narrative’s object, viewed solely through the other characters’ gaze as opposed to existing as a character unto himself. The screenplay makes up for that by turning the entire third act (which is essentially the last half of the film, since the climactic battles occupy at least an hour of screen time) into Man of Steel 2, wedging a full character arc into epic battle sequences as if this was the closing chapter in Superman’s trilogy, even though this version of Supes has only commandeered one-and-a-half movies.
Bottom line: the movie’s a total mess, good intentions nothwithstanding. And the intentions are good, sometimes even bold. The performances are solid – Cavill is attempting to embody nothing short of the most significantly human Superman portrayal ever conceived, and Affleck’s Batman is an intriguing exploration of blind rage with a misguided sense of justice. But because there are so many disparate threads being woven in the screenplay, each character is only permitted one note. In Affleck’s case it’s emo righteousness, in Cavill’s weighty self-reflection. Thematically, the film suffers from a similar one-note strategy with a contradictory kicker. Questioning Superman’s purpose in the wake of his unintended destruction is valid, but proceeding to permit both Superman and Batman to conduct themselves with reckless, violent abandon throws that bit of self-reflection out the window. Amy Adams’ Lois Lane is offered more active participation in the on-screen heroism, but any progress in terms of gender power is lost when she invariably fails in said participation, resulting in savior scenarios for Superman at least four different times throughout the film.
Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is littered with those kinds of half-assed thematic leaps. Time and again, Snyder and his screenwriters strike upon interesting ideas but then spend the rest of the film patting themselves on the back, as if the ideas alone are enough without following them through. The action is sufficiently exhausting in terms of gloom-and-doom spectacle, and certain sequences are actually quite visually impressive (Snyder is ever-fond of visual overkill, which works in his favor here), but it’s all in service to a narrative that’s simultaneously chasing after the successes of the MCU and attempting to form its own universe of stories, forgetting that this one is the most important.
Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is more of an ambitious mediocrity, in turns buoyed by the visceral blockbuster zeal of its hits and dragged down by the lumbering failure of its misses…and that switch is flipped all too often throughout the film’s 151-minute running time.