By Andrew Martin
“Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” is a movie as large as its titular characters. It’s packed full of seriousness, self-importance and brooding characters, but for all its heavy-handed themes and imagery, the movie is an empty mess. The movie lacks any emotional or intellectual impact, despite about an hour of setup before the action scenes and brawls between legendary figures.
Warner Bros. and DC Comics have thrown everything they have into the movie hoping that, by some miracle, a coherent story emerges. And for good reason. An entire franchise is riding on the $250 million movie’s success. But from everything presented so far, Warner Bros. should be rightfully worried about the DC cinematic universe’s future.
Up in the sky, down in the dumps
Unfortunately, the franchise is off to a rough start. The movie takes itself so seriously that it feels afraid to have any fun. That’s not to say that there aren’t fun moments and amazing fights to be seen, but director Zack Snyder has removed much of the joy and sense of wonder inherent in the superhero genre. Instead, the viewer is assaulted with a dark, gritty and mostly grey and blue world even more serious than the Nolan universe.
Snyder is, as usual, all visuals, no substance. The first hour or so of the movie starts well enough that it fools you into thinking there is real conflict between the two titular characters. The writing is both strong and tight as the movie builds up to the climatic fight between the two titans. You can almost feel Snyder ready to explode from having to show some modicum of restraint.
The second half, despite the spectacular fights and choreography, is when it all falls apart. Snyder is more interested in fantastic imagery, provided by cinematographer Larry Fong, than telling a coherent story. Written by Chris Terrio, who won an Oscar for “Argo,” the film is more interested in setting up the sequels and a franchise than finishing strong. There is no real cause and effect present in the movie. Events happen one after the other simply because the plot demands it.
That’s the movie’s biggest problem. There is simply too much packed into a two-and-a-half hour movie for the film to properly establish its world or any new characters. The movie is stretched thin in order to make sure there are plenty of hints and dream sequences to the coming Justice League and spinoff movies.
A serious opera epic can be fun as long as the movie isn’t afraid to have fun, but there is little fun or joy to be had in this movie. DC doesn’t need to be Marvel, with its insistent one-liners and quipping characters, but the movie can have fun moments while taking itself serious without the light-hearted and funny moments Marvel has built itself upon.
Snyder’s “Man of Steel” was heavily criticized for the amount of destruction caused in the climatic fight. “Batman v Superman” opens by addressing these criticisms by showing the fight from the perspective of Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck), Batman’s alter ego. It’s a good start, albeit drawing heavily on emotional connections to the World Trade Center attacks. But instead of learning from the mistakes of the first movie, Snyder doubles down and makes the same mistake again in this movies conclusion.
The World’s Finest
Superman (Henry Cavill) feels both cold and alien in “Batman v Superman.” With a different director this could have been handled correctly, showing how Superman still feels alone on the planet he’s called home for decades. Instead, the coldness is due to Cavill’s poor acting and performance. Superman, who had his own solo movie, feels more distant than ever. Cavill failed to capture any sense of fun that Christopher Reeve did decades ago. In this adaptation, even more so than “Man of Steel,” Superman seems less human than ever, rarely emoting and never smiling.
And then there’s Batman. This iteration of Batman is darker, more cynical and more brutal than we’ve seen before. Affleck perfectly captures both sides of the character: the savage and physically intimidating Batman, as well as the jaded and world-weary Bruce Wayne. Both Affleck’s performance and Batman are, by far, the highlights of the movie, with only one notable exception.
Batman’s a murderer, and so is Superman. There’s no if, ands or buts. Batman kills people in the movie - with both guns and the Batmobile. It would be one thing if there were some established rationale for the darker decision. But there isn’t.
Instead, this decision is one of many in the movie made to reflect the darker tone of the DC cinematic universe without really thinking of the repercussions. Batman’s long-standing moral code has prevented him from killing. Restraint is what’s made Batman such an interesting character for more than seven decades. The decision doesn’t ruin this iteration of Batman, nor does it lower Affleck’s performance, but it certainly sours what could have otherwise been the perfect Batman.
Then there’s Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg), a character so annoying, so wiry and bratty you’ll wish the fight between Superman and Batman would’ve ended sooner only because it would have meant less screen time for Eisenberg. The character’s random tweaks and fidgety personality would have been better suited for a character like the Riddler or, dare I say, the Joker. As it stands, Luthor is one of the weakest parts of an already struggling movie. For all those who were up in arms over the casting choice, you were right to be worried.
The rest of the main supporting cast faired better. Gal Gadot was serviceable as Wonder Woman. She didn’t really bring anything particularly spectacular to the movie, but she certainly wasn’t bad and I look forward to seeing more from Gadot. Amy Adams as Lois Lane was largely underutilized, but when she was in the movie her acting was fine. The real standout here is newcomer Jeremy Irons, who’s Alfred provides both a moral and rational center to Wayne’s increasingly jaded skepticism of Superman and the world.
The film’s music, produced by Hans Zimmer and Junkie XL, is an interesting mix of “Man of Steel” retread and fantastic, soaring original compositions. If you’ve heard a Zimmer score in the past, you know what to expect. It’s a lot of the same, which isn’t necessarily a negative. There’s nothing really innovative here, but the music is still just as solid as any of Zimmer’s prior work.
For all the problems “Batman v Superman” has, and they are plentiful, the movie still has its entertaining moments. Snyder is still a master of visuals and action, so watching two of comic’s founding figures finally exchanging blows on the big screen is almost worth the price of admission alone, despite how short the actual fight is.
However, the movie gets bogged down in the overwhelming desire to make sure the audience knows there is a franchise in the works, as if “Dawn of Justice” didn’t give that away. For all that the movie aspires to do, and for all the heavy themes and seriousness, the movie stumbles under its own weight and need for self-importance.
Perhaps the movie would have been better off as a solo Batman movie, considering Batman is by far the best part of the movie. But given what there is, the movie serves as a flawed springboard to the Justice League and future spinoffs.
Hopefully Snyder can take the criticisms from “Batman v Superman” and apply them to the Justice League, which begins filming in April 2016. The spinoffs remain an oddity. Each has a different director to direct them, an approach that has worked well, on average, so far for Marvel.
Regardless, “Batman v Superman” should be seen on the big screen. It’s the very definition of a “popcorn flick.” It’s fun to watch the amazing fighting and stumbling plot as long as you don’t think too much about the plot.
The long awaited, yet flawed, clash of gods crashes into theaters March 25, 2016.