Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice Review
By Stefano Terry
Studio: Warner Bros
Written By: Chris Terrio and David S. Goyer
Starring: Henry Cavill, Ben Affleck, Amy Adams, Jesse Eisenberg
Directed By: Zack Snyder
Batman. Superman. Inarguably two of the most recognized, beloved, and iconic superheroes in the world. For decades, fans of both characters have wanted to see the two titans grace the big screen, duking it out in epic fashion. Now, here we are, in 2016, and Warner Bros. and director Zack Snyder have done just that, in an attempt to not only finally bring the two heroes together on film, but to springboard their new cinematic universe and lead-in to 2017’s Justice League Part 1. How did their gamble pay off? Read on to find out.
NOTE: This review will go in depth with the plot points of Batman v Superman, so I am marking this as a SPOILER REVIEW.
I’ve been a fan of DC comics since I was a little boy. From Superfriends to the comics, I’ve always had a love for the iconic, larger than life heroes and villains that graced the pages and screen. While I was more of a Flash fan, the Richard Donner films starring Christopher Reeves as the titular “Superman” was when I fell in love with the character. His pursuit of “Truth, Justice, and the American Way,” as well as his innate sense of good and hopefulness, always resonated with me as a child. His godlike powers were just icing on the cake. Tim Burton’s 1989 classic “Batman” both excited and scared me. While the character had always had a dark air about him in the comics thanks to the work of Denny O’Neil and writers like Alan Moore and Frank Miller, my primary exposure to Batman was indeed from the Superfriends cartoon. Burton’s dark and gritty take on the Caped Crusader was unlike any portrayal I had seen on screen. From that point on, the Batman had supplanted Superman and The Flash as my favorite DC character (although my love of The Flash eventually regained top spot post high school).
I was fascinated by the tormented and driven Bruce Wayne. His quest for justice just a hairline away from being an all out thirst for vengeance against the criminal element that took the lives of his parents, Thomas and Martha Wayne. His sinister Rogue’s Gallery the stuff of nightmares. The Bruce Timm and Paul Dini masterpiece, Batman: The Animated Series, and Superman: The Animated Series, are probably still the definitive versions of the characters, not to mention their stellar work on the animated Justice League, and Justice League: Unlimited series.
So, it goes without saying that the prospect of seeing Batman and Superman together in a feature film was a dream I’ve waited over 30 years to see come true. I am actually a fan of Director Zack Snyder’s adaptations of Frank Miller’s comic book “300,” and Alan Moore’s comic “Watchmen.” The movies certainly took some liberties with the material, but were overall entertaining and well executed. Zack Snyder has a knack for framing scenes as if they were ripped straight from the pages of the comic books, and a kinetic filming style that makes his action scenes pop viscerally off of the big screen. In short, he’s just damn good at making a movie look pretty. He and his cinematographer have a keen eye for composition, lighting, and color. So believe me when I say that news of him rebooting Superman after Bryan Singer’s divisive Superman Returns (another film that I enjoyed, despite some pretty glaring missteps), I wasn’t as resistant to the idea of him in the director’s chair of the new Superman film as others who disliked 300 and Watchmen.
When the first trailers of Snyder’s “Man of Steel” released, I was impressed by how atmospheric, evocative, and, well, beautiful the imagery on screen was. It appeared that we were not only going to get a Superman movie dripping with visual style, but something of an evolution beyond Snyder’s usual fast paced, hectic, almost music video style story telling. Well, I was wrong. While this isn’t a Man of Steel review, I will say that I was incredibly disappointed with his somber, almost cynical take on Superman. I’m not beholden to the Richard Donner take on the character, but those films had an understanding of who Clark Kent was, as much as Superman. The two characters aren’t actually separate entities even though Christopher Reeves did a fantastic job of selling the deception that Clark Kent could no way be Superman. Man of Steel introduced us to the most alien version of The Last Son of Krypton as we had ever seen. Very little about Snyder’s Superman inspired hope. From the muted color palette, to a Superman that appeared to be disinterested in the well being of the planet that saved his life, and the people that raised him.
Jonathan and Martha Kent themselves were a far cry from the humble, affable, almost grandfatherly Kents that would instill in baby Kal El, now Clark Kent, the values that would carry him towards his destiny as a light of the world. Instead, we see a colder, pessimistic Jonathan Kent, that would rather his son let a school bus full of children drown, than reveal his secret to the world. The near destruction of Metropolis, and deaths of thousands of innocent civilians during the climactic battle in Man of Steel didn’t upset me nearly as much as the complete removal of the Kents, and by extension, Clark’s, humanity. His characterization made his ultimate killing of General Zod by snapping his neck the least unbelievable part of the movie. As you may have surmised already, Man of Steel was quite the disappointment for me.
And this finally brings me to Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, a movie that is really five movies crammed into 2 hours and 30 minutes of screen time. It is Man of Steel 2. It is Batman 1. It is Dawn of Justice. It is The Dark Knight Returns (sort of), and it is even, SPOILER ALERT, The Death of Superman. Unfortunately, unlike the rather singularly focused Man of Steel, the resulting movie is incredibly disjointed and sloppily paced and edited. But the worst of the movies offenses beyond a complete misunderstanding of the core of the Batman and Superman characters, is that it’s boring. Despite my dislike of Man of Steel, I had hopes that DC, Warner Bros, and Zack Snyder, knowing how absolutely monumental the big screen meeting of Batman and Superman is in the eyes of fans, would completely stick the landing of this film. There was no way they would let such an important film fall on its face.
Yet here we are. The movie is long, as mentioned above. The scene transitions are poor. The film jumps from location to location, in such quick succession that it comes off as schizophrenic. From yet another version of the deaths of Thomas and Martha Wayne, to Bruce Wayne’s perspective of the finale of Man of Steel, to random divers finding Kryptonite in the ocean, to Lois Lane once again being a damsel in distress needing to be saved by Superman, the movie begins with an almost slideshow of disparate elements that could be forgiven if they all coalesced into something resembling order by the time the two titular characters actually face off.
The movie wants to follow the aftermath of Superman and Zod’s actions in Man of Steel. The people of the world are afraid. Untold lives were lost during that battle, yet Superman is not held accountable. Some people view him as a savior. Some view him as a monster. That in itself is a rather compelling plot line that could have carried an entire movie: Does the world need Superman? When a god is walking among the mortals, how do they co-exist? Bruce Wayne, aka, Batman, has a vested interest in this very question, and its answer, so I can actually see how he could be realistically included in this film. He was there, in Metropolis, when the battle and subsequent death and destruction rained down upon the city. He lost people very close to him. Out of all of the characters in the movie, Bruce Wayne has the clearest and most understandable motivation to want to punch Superman’s lights out: That the kind of power Superman wields should not go un-checked.
The other characters, however, feel like they are slotted into place just so that our heroes can fight each other. Lex Luthor, played by Jesse Eisenberg, has no clear reasoning stated as to why he is hatching his complex plan to get Batman and Superman to kill one another. Why does he hate Superman? Why does he hate Batman? Why does he want General Zod’s body? Why is he dogging Holly Hunter’s Senator Finch? Why does he create Doomsday? Sure, his end game is to rid the world of Superman, but why? Oh, because Lex Luthor hates Superman in the comics. Ok. Not good enough. The movie itself needs to have an understanding of its character’s reasoning and logic and motivitations. If often does not, with the exception of Bruce Wayne.
As for Superman, he kind of takes a back seat to his own movie. There are, surprisingly enough, very few scenes with just Clark Kent, or just Superman, that aren’t reactionary sad faces of him responding, poorly, to the whirlwind of shit that is surrounding him. That exists because of him. Henry Cavill continues to give a rather stiff, bland performance as Clark Kent and Superman. There doesn’t seem to be any character behind the eyes of either. He comes off as a man reading a script, that has not given an inkling of thought as to who this character is behind the lines. A bit of an aside, but Eisenberg’s Lex Luthor is terrible. He is obnoxious, annoying, manic, and completely over the top. His characterization is also schizophrenic, as if there was a version of the movie in which both Lex Luthor and The Joker were present, but at some point during the scriptwriting process, The Joker was cut out of the movie, so his scenes were given to Lex Luthor, but without actually altering the dialogue and direction of the scene to make him more Lex than Joker. As a result, Lex is all over the place. He is manic, jerky, and prone to outbursts in which his voice elevates a view octaves, forcing him to pause, clear his throat, and continue with more self control.
He’s clearly inspired by geniuses and young business moguls like Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg, but ultimately, his portrayal is the worst part of the movie. You understand wholly why Batman, even Superman, would want to punch him in the face. In fact, every actor who has a scene with Eisenberg in this movie looks like they want to kick him in the nuts until he stops moving. With that said, I can see, at the least, what Eisenberg was trying to do with Lex Luthor. There was a character underneath that he was trying to portray, to varying degrees of success/annoyance. That’s more than can be said of Henry Cavill’s Clark Kent/Superman. He is a Clark/Supes devoid of charm and charisma. His line delivery flat and often toneless (unless he’s threatening to kill Batman or claiming that he is showing him “mercy,” before flying off in a huff).
The script itself doesn’t seem to know what to do with either character. Clark’s whole world is in upheaval, but we never get to see him respond to this beyond moping, and saying that “he doesn’t care” what the world thinks, like an angsty teenager. Superman decides to pout and sulk because people are mad at him. Very heroic. While Batman is driven with his own sense of agency to confront Superman, Superman has no reason what-so-ever to confront Batman. The event that finally gets them to come to blows is so hamfistedly handled and lazy, that I had to chuckle at how weak it was (in short, Lex Luthor kidnaps Martha Kent, and threatens to kill her unless Superman kills Batman for him). The movie also, for reasons unexplained, has Clark Kent obsessed with covering a news story about the “Bat Vigilante in Gotham.” I guess to give Perry White, played as well as can be given the material, by Lawrence Fishburne, something to do because the Daily Planet has to be in a Superman movie. Clark hypocritically takes issue with Batman’s vigilantism, despite he, himself, acting outside of the law as a vigilante while flying around the world as Superman.
Speaking of The Daily Planet, Amy Adams is back as Lois Lane, and much like in Man of Steel, she exists solely to be the love interest of Clark Kent, and the damsel that can’t seem to do anything right, and must be saved by her hulked out beau. If written properly, I’m sure Adams could do a wonderful version of Lois Lane. As is, she really doesn’t have much of an interesting storyline. It’s what happens when a movie is so concerned with laying the foundations of a cinematic universe than telling a cohesive story about the events actually happening in the here and now. I wish I could tell you more about Lois’ adventures in the movie, but to be honest, it’s wholly forgettable and inconsequential to the main plot of Batman v Superman.
In yet another area of bloat in an already stuffed movie, we have Gal Gadot’s Diana Prince, aka, Wonder Woman. She just kind of appears, as Diana, about an hour into the movie. The audience isn’t told why she’s in Metropolis, or even told her name. Bruce Wayne sees her during some gala that Lex Luthor has invited him too, and decides that he must get to know this stunning brunette. She evades his stalking, but later on in the movie, they have a face to face, and decide for reasons that they will help each other obtain a flash drive that contains some important information to Diana. To be completely honest, I can’t really judge Gadot’s portrayal of Wonder Woman in this film. She isn’t really given much to work with. She has a handful of scenes, probably 10 minutes of screen time, tops, and doesn’t have a lot of dialogue. Her accent is lovely, if sometimes difficult to understand, and she is certainly very pretty. Her presence as Wonder Woman, when she finally appears at a pivotal moment in the film, is strong. I’m very much looking forward to seeing her stand alone Wonder Woman film, if anything so I can judge her performance properly. Her line readings in this movie were…decent. I can’t say if they were good or bad. I loved seeing Wonder Woman in the movie, as she is one of my favorite superheroes, I just wish she fit more organically into the plot (like they managed to do with Batman), beyond, “Well, we really need to set up Justice League, like, right now, so let’s just plop her down here.”
So, we have this movie that is trying to do a dozen things in a 2 hour, 30 minute package. A simple movie that should have been the clashing of two character’s ideologies is weighed down by too many subplots. The set ups for future films is also handled very sloppily. Bruce Wayne is inundated with dream sequences and visions (that are given no explanation or comment by Bruce at all), prophesying some future catastrophe that will befall the Earth if the heroes don’t come together and stop it. And the much anticipated cameos of future Justice League members, The Flash, Cyborg, and Aquaman are literally relegated to some video footage of them that Wonder Woman watches towards the climax of the film. There were a ton of organic ways that these heroes could have been worked into the overall narrative of the world questioning the methods of Superman (for example, there could have been a scene of Aquaman confronting Superman over that whole Oil Rig explosion that happened in Man of Steel, polluting the ocean and killing countless sea life).
Lex Luthor ultimately creates Doomsday using the corpse of General Zod because, I guess we need to have the Death of Superman story mixed in with our Dark Knight Returns, Man of Steel sequel, Justice League set up movie? Because we needed the movie to end on one last epic fight scene with our three superheroes, since the whole Batman v Superman fight takes up all of 10 minutes, and wraps up 30 minutes before the credits roll. The point is that the movie is rushed, in so many areas. The pressure that DC has placed on itself to fast track a cinematic universe before the superhero bubble possibly bursts has lead them to burden this film with so much unnecessary bloat that it comes stumbling out of the gate. Flat performances and questionable characterization (Superman and Batman both kill, multiple times, throughout the movie), and a plot that doesn’t know if it wants to be a Batman movie, A Superman movie, a Justice League movie, or a deconstruction of what it means to be a hero in a post 9/11 world.
Now, a few more odds and ends before I wrap up this thing: Hans Zimmer’s score was both hit and miss. I love Hans Zimmer, so I have to say I was surprised at how sparsely his score was used, but even moreso, how out of place it felt in some scenes. There would often be no music at all during scenes (not a problem, truth told, as sometimes, the lack of a score can be a powerful underline to an emotional moment, but in the case of this film, when many emotional beats fall flat, a solid score could boost it), but there were also times when the score is bombastic and rousing…as a helicopter flies overhead and lands on the tarmac. Very oddly placed throughout the movie, even if it was overall a quality score. The Wonder Woman theme that plays when she makes her debut is damn good, and punctuated her arrival very nicely.
BIG SPOILER DISCUSSION BELOW!
Now that the warning is out of the way, I wanted to talk a bit briefly about the finale of the film. It should be no surprise for anyone familiar with comics that the arrival of Doomsday to cap off the film brings with it one of the most mainstream and memorable storylines in Superman’s comic history: The Death of Superman. I almost feel loathe to call this spoiler talk, as Warner Bros. marketing felt that it would be a bright idea to slap Doomsday at the very end of the last theatrical trailer. Overall, that trailer broke down, beat for beat, the entire movie. Very little is kept out of that trailer, and for anyone trying to go into the film as blindly as possible, they were in for a rude awakening with that final trailer. So, yes, Superman heroically sacrifices himself to defeat Doomsday in this film. He’s gone. Or is he? I’ll touch on that in a moment.
The problem that I have with the inclusion of Doomsday and the Death of Superman isn’t that Doomsday is present in the movie, or that Superman dies in the movie. It’s that that storyline doesn’t feel earned. Superman’s death in the comics was a monumental event not just because he died, but because of what he meant to so many fans and even casual mainstream observers of the character, who absorbed his importance through cultural osmosis or through the Christopher Reeves movies (hell, there are people who have never seen a Star Wars movie that knows the significance of Darth Vader and Luke’s relationship, or those that don’t know what a Citizen Kane is, but understand a reference to Rosebud). In the case of Batman v Superman, the death of one of the titular characters is met with a question mark, not a gasp, or even a flood of tears.
A question mark, because, one of the biggest questions the film presents at the start of the film; “Does the world need a Superman? And is the Superman the world has been given really a hero?” is not answered by the time he falls at the hands of Doomsday. Because the very characters in the movie not named Lois Lane, Batman, and Wonder Woman, have no idea what they feel about Superman, by extension, the audience doesn’t know what to feel either. Is Superman worthy of mourning? Was his death due to courageous self sacrifice for the good of mankind, and if so, how do the people of Earth feel now that this hero (?) has given up the ghost for them? During the lengthy epilogue of the movie, we are treated to some self important visual imagery of caskets being lowered into the ground, slow motion cannon fire (replete with slow motion shell casing poignantly falling to the ground), as well as a few shots of people looking solemn, mainly our principal actors and actresses, as Superman and Clark Kent are laid to rest. We’re supposed to feel sad too. But I can’t say that I did.
During the course of the movie, Superman rarely if ever interacted with the humans he was seemingly grudgingly rescuing (a little girl from a fire in Mexico during the oh so original Hollywood trope of Day of the Dead; yup, if it’s Mexico in a Hollywood flick, you better damn well bet it’s going to be Day of the Dead; or a group of people huddled atop a house during a raging flood, Superman hovering above them, backlit by beautiful sunlight as they reach their hands up towards him in supplication and desperation to be saved; the religious imagery and parallels are layered upon the audience with the subtlety of a sledgehammer). He never seemed to smile when performing these feats of wonder. Every action performed in the service of mankind was met with a grimace and a world weary sigh. Superman never seemed to view humanity as more than a kind of irritant, punctuated by the whopper of all bad advice given to him by his mother, Martha; “You don’t owe this world a damn thing. You never did.” Unspoken words being: “but you better damn well make sure that you face off against Batman to rescue me by the movies end! You owe me that, just not the rest of the world!”
So, the audience doesn’t connect with Superman, because the very characters in the movie don’t connect to Superman. He is just as foreign and alien to them as he was in Man of Steel, as he was at the start of the movie, as he was at the end. He is still presented as this unrelatable man-god. Do we feel bad when he dies at the end? Maybe, but that’s more due to the fact that he is the hero of the movie (well, one of three), and the death of the hero is generally supposed to be a tragic, heart-breaking moment, but it certainly isn’t because the movie managed to make us connect with the character in any meaningful, human way. In Zack Snyder’s desire to maintain a sort of “mythical” status to Superman, he kept him at arms length from the characters in the film, and the audience. One of Superman’s most endearing qualities is that despite his god-like powers, he was as human and grounded as you and me. His time with the Kents is what allowed him to connect to humanity, but in Man of Steel and BvS, that connection only seems to extend to those that he personally loves, ie, his lover, Lois Lane, and his mother, Martha Kent.
As I mentioned before, the Death of Superman just isn’t earned in this film, so its inclusion felt hollow. Not to mention that Zack Snyder reverses course on what would have been a rather ballsy decision, and have the last frames of the movie implying, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that the Man of Steel hasn’t shuffled off this mortal coil after all, and will no doubt return in 2017 during The Justice League (a plot point for that film that either must be addressed, or clumsily ignored in service of balancing the introductions of the other Justice League members, as well as antagonist, Darkseid). Overall, the ending of the film sums up my thoughts on the film itself: it felt unresolved. A dozen dangling plot threads left hanging as the credits rolled, with a few plot points (mainly Lex Luthor being sent to jail, ranting and raving about the arrival of some unknown, yet dangerous threat), resolved. My reaction when the screen cut to black wasn’t “Wow, I can’t wait to see what happens next!” It was, “That was it? That’s the film that is going to launch DC into the connected cinematic universe playground?” Superman is dead, Lex Luthor is locked up, and Batman and Wonder Woman have decided to try and locate the other metahumans because Batman has a “feeling,” that they’ll join their cause. Ok.
Let me be clear: Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, is not a bad movie. It’s not Sucker Punch or Fantastic Four (all three) levels of mediocre to awful. Not every movie falls into the categories of “Greatest of All Time,” or “Dog shit.” There are many layers of quality, and Dawn of Justice does not tread anywhere near “Dog shit.” Nor does it soars to the heights of “GOAT.”
The acting is solid. Visual effects are nice. Action scenes are Snyder doing what he does, and doing it well. My issues primarily stem with the bloated, unfocused, and sloppily edited plot/pacing, and some questionable choices as far as characterization goes (ie, the ease at which Superman and Batman kill others without comment or regret). Is it a trainwreck? No. But it’s not a very good movie. Nor is it bad. The most damning criticism I can level at it is that it’s sadly, boring. Two hours and thirty minutes of screentime, yet it could have easily been pared down to two hours or less, and been a much tighter paced, satisfying film.
At the very least, it is worth a Rent when it become available on Blu Ray and Video on Demand services. I can’t recommend spending money on the film in the theater unless you can get good priced tickets (the theater by my home is anywhere between $18-$24 per ticket, and I go with my wife, so, $50+ for a trip to a movie I may not like wasn’t the most appealing prospect, but I digress). If you really want to see the film in all of its big screen spectacle (and I admit Snyder does spectacle very well), by all means, treat yourself. For everyone else, a solid rental, on your comfy couch and maybe a few drinks could help the movie go down easier.