Darkness and dread seem to be the words of the day in the DC Comics Extended Universe, in face of stern competition in the overcrowded superhero movie genre and facing other ‘cinematic universes’ from competing studios, DC Comics and Warner Bros. attempt to outplay its rivals by giving their heroes the epic spandex opera treatment. The resultant product is Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.
Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is the second entry of the DC Extended Universe, following 2013’s Man of Steel and the selling point is obviously in the title, it is the Fight Night between Gotham’s brooding vigilante and Metropolis’ big blue boyscout. After the destruction of Metropolis from Man of Steel, Superman (Henry Cavill) becomes a controversial figure, with many seeing him as a messianic figure that has arrived to rid the world of wrongdoing. Not everyone shares this opinion however, one of his critics is billionaire playboy and vigilante Bruce Wayne/Batman (Ben Affleck), who makes it his mission to rid the world of Superman, as he views Superman as absolute power unchecked and a massive threat to global security. As Superman comes to terms with his new role on earth and Batman seeks out the means to defeat the Man of Steel, Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg) has his own schemes aim solely to discredit the work that Superman has done.
The film suffers from a Jekyll and Hyde syndrome, there is a lot of amazing, sublime stuff in the film, but at the same time, when this film hits a low, it goes all the way down the bottom of the barrel, yet as a whole it never feels completely bad or totally good, even appearing to have an even spread of pros and cons. There is one massive, Krypton sized flaw that plagues the film and drags it down though. It is necessary to talk about this flaw first, as it is central to the film and burdens whatever success this film has. The screenplay essentially wants to do two things; it wants to be a film about Superman discovering his purpose on earth and deal with the people who are still cautious of his power, that is its first aim. Secondly, it also wants to be the first brick in setting up the DC Comics cinematic universe, launching the Justice League and a plethora of spin off franchises based on their characters. Both are doable, and this movie manages both with some degrees of success, but this crucial flaw breaks the film, as the screenplay does not place priority or importance of one objective over the other, and while the film is tonal and thematic consistent, due to its narrative indecision, the film’s story is confusing as it is unable to fully commit to either of its aims.
The first objective is gone midway through the film, leaving Superman in a state of limbo for the latter half of the film, only appearing out of nowhere towards the end of the film, attempting to tie up the story rather too neatly. The narrative functions like a tour of a supercar showroom, it drags you from one scene to another showing you one beautiful image after another (more on that later) but due to no character development or dramatic build up, these images does not fully hit the emotional or dramatic notes as high as they could have, it’s not that its bad, it’s just passes by so many missed opportunities that could have taken the film to another level. As many as the missed opportunities are, there are also way too many characters in the film, not all of them serve a purpose other than to establish a pre-existing world.
It is a case of too much world building and too little actual character development, character motivations are lacking and it leaves the audience hanging on a vine, an example of this, is a character arc towards the end of the film that involves a person attempting to retrieve an object that said person initially disposed of, creating a narrative loop that is totally devoid of logic. We also never get a clear sense of who is doing what and why, heck, there isn’t even a clear cut justification for Luthor’s hate for Superman, Luthor just does so because he is Lex Luthor.
Despite the visual accuracy of their costumes, there are a lot of out of character moments, most glaringly, Superman. Superman is shockingly grim in this film, scowling and brooding over his struggles and doing absolutely nothing else, skirting close to being a parody of Batman. Poor writing and too much world building are not excuses, this is Superman we are talking about. Chris Terrio and David S. Goyer should have done much more with a character that has such a strong legacy. As a result of bad characterization, this weakens the performance of Henry Cavill and turns the film from one about Superman to a film with Superman in it. This darker take does beg the question, who thought it was a good idea to give Superman the grim and gritty treatment? Is it because we want him to be relevant to the events of today? If that is the case, whatever happened to the Man of Tomorrow?
It is also a film that wants to be taken seriously, and in that regard, it doesn’t pull its punches. Immediately when the film starts, we witness the 9/11 imagery of Superman’s fight with General Zod in Man of Steel, told from the point of view of Bruce Wayne as he navigates through the chaos and panic down in the streets of Metropolis. Yet while the tone is aptly set by the opening scenes, the film constantly reminds you how serious it is taking itself; we are relentlessly bombarded with scenes and montages that question Superman and his intentions in the first hour and a half, adding nothing to Superman’s actual character development. Editing appears to need a lot more work, there are times in this film where scenes feel like should have not even be in the final cut, only taking up significant running time while doing nothing other than serve as constant reminder that ‘Superman is potentially a threat and we could be in great danger’.
By the time of the third act, which tries to make up for the tepidness of the first two, all hell breaks loose and Snyder gets to do what he does best, action extravaganzas. The third act begins with the Fight of The Century, Batman versus Superman. The fight does not disappoint, it is a battle between two forces of nature, brutal and surprisingly evenly matched. It is well choreograph and makes full use of Snyder’s trademark zero to 60 in 2.5, slow-mo to accelerate visual arsenal that served him so well in the past, a fight of epic Wagnerian proportions.
The final battle against Doomsday, while a slight waste of an iconic DC villain, is apocalyptic in its execution, it fancies itself the Twilight of the Gods. Lightning and smoke crack and simmer as our heroes struggle against the unstoppable beast, we have seen our heroes and heroines tangle with faceless armies of bullet fodder but we never actually seen them in a desperate struggle with a single, unstoppable beast of comic book revelations like this before.
The sense of scale and spectacle is gigantic, this is Wrestlemania, this is the Superbowl. One does get the sense that, the strength of the third act is due to its inclination to straightforward popcorn fun, it gives you what you want and more, Bayhem by way of Batman. A total contrast with the first two acts, it doesn’t waste time with introducing peripheral characters, alternate reality dream sequences or purposeless cameos that add nothing to the plot.
Zack Snyder is primarily known as a visual director and this is where Batman v Superman not only stands out but completely decimates its competition. We have never seen superheroes look like this, we seen superheroes look realistic sure but they don’t look like real, living breathing gods like in this movie. Snyder also serves up several religious and mythological references to cast superheroes in a celestial light. Flooded in mythic blue hues, the cinematography paints our heroes and heroines as divine figures in a harsh realistic world. They are Alex Ross paintings come to life. Aside from Snyder, much credit goes to the cinematographer, Larry Fong, every frame is a beautiful achievement in comic book myth forging and you can’t help but admire how gorgeous and original the film looks.
While slightly hampered by the thin screenplay, the aesthetics still soar. Highlights of Snyder’s mastery of iconic imagery, is watching flood victims look up in the sky as Superman hovers mightily above them, and we also get to stand side by side in a thunderstorm with Batman, as he switches on the Bat Signal to call out Superman to begin their bout, there is nothing Snyder can’t do in terms of visual storytelling, he even successfully makes Superman walking into a courtroom look monumental. We are standing on the shoulders of Gods, and the view up here is gorgeous.
These scenes are beautifully constructed pop culture exhibitions that immerses the viewer in the world. We might not know why we are there but it gives off a sense of wonder. As a result, the film metamorphoses into a majestic visual tour of the DC Universe.
How good the performances are is heavily dependent on the role of the actor, due to, you guessed it, the problematic screenplay. Ben Affleck is Batman, clearly inspired by Frank Miller’s take of the comic character, Affleck succeeds in infusing the caped crusader with a world weariness and grim demeanour that is worthy of the character, but still sets his Bruce Wayne apart from the other actors who came before him. Hands down, Batman is the best character in the movie, he crackles with intensity when he is on screen and when he is in action, he explodes with force and fury that is unmatched, no other movie Batman comes close to the ferocity that Affleck displays. This is the Batman we deserve, and probably need.
Gal Gadot makes a triumphant entrance as Wonder Woman, while her role may simply be an extended cameo and the jury is still out on her dramatic chops, she otherwise holds her own against the two other members of the DC trinity in terms of screen presence. Henry Cavill is unfortunately given the short straw among the trio, Superman’s role is criminally underwritten. Cavill looks lost and out of his element, especially when he shares the screen with Batman. With very little given to do, Cavill’s performance is severely limited and lacks any agency.
Jesse Eisenberg fares the worst out of the principal cast though, his Luthor is an amalgam of Mark Zuckerberg’s eccentricity and a court jester’s manic enthusiasm. An interesting take, one that could definitely be explored in future films but for now, his line delivery falls flat at every single turn, his rapid fire bullet point dialogue clashing with the brooding tone that is set with the film.
Comic book films can work well with comedic villains, they serve very well as the contrasting trickster deities, but in the case of Eisenberg’s Luthor, he does not come across as someone who could outwit both the Man of Steel and The Dark Knight, especially on the same day.
Soundtrack, besides the cinematography, is the other aspect of the film that is universally impressive, Hans Zimmer and Junkie XL lends the film an operatic sweep, each character has their own iconic themes that truly embodies their respective personalities and motivations, Batman and Superman has their own themes that both respect their traditions, while adding to the aural mythology of their characters. Batman’s brawny, almost obnoxious theme is a perfect fit for the character, while Superman’s built on the already solid soundtrack of the Man of Steel movie. Yet, the tracks would give you a severe case of earworm would be Wonder Woman’s frenetic warrior anthem and Lex Luthor’s classically elitist and arrogant motif, both add fresh new sound textures to the DC universe that we never heard until now.
Batman v Superman is a film of extremes; there is a lot to hate and a lot to love. It has familiar faults but original ambition. Its polarizing reviews is very much evidence of this. It is unlike any superhero film that came before. It is interesting to see the reception to Batman v Superman, the film takes the role of a cinematic litmus test of sorts.
It is a reflection of its viewer. After watching the film, you will understand your cinematic taste much better than before you stepped into the theatre. If cinema is all about the story to you, then you’ll hate it, citing the movie’s weak and incoherent narrative, forced world-building as well as its overly long running time as reasons why the film is an abject failure. Yet, if your personal stance on filmmaking is primarily about the visual and aural experience, then you’ll love it, rally around the visuals of the film, how operatic the score is, boasting about its technical superiority and for giving us the opportunity to witness the deification of our pop culture icons. I found myself loving it for its strengths than dismissing it for its flaws, while there is an incoherent mess within this film, the sheer amount of technical beauty and innovative myth creation is simply impossible to ignore.
This isn’t a bad movie, it is actually an impressive one, but one whose strong pillars are built on weak foundations. It really comes down to one thing, the viewer. The greatest gladiator match of all time is a battle within you. Story or imagery?
*** and a half /5
A cinematic paradox. Beautiful to look at and a technical wonder in comic book filmmaking. It is also a poorly written narrative mess. If you love it, you love it by forgiving its flaws. If you hate it, you hate it by forgetting its strengths. I loved it.
Perry Lam is an Associate Editor of Rochford Street Review. He is the director of the documentary short film BLACK RAT has been selected for numerous film festivals both in Sydney and overseas. https://rochfordstreetreview.com/2016/02/02/welcome-perry-lam-rochford-street-review-associate-editor/