It may only be March, but 2016 has already brought us an exciting yet sophisticated movie about two characters who, despite public consensus that they shouldn’t get along, are able to set aside their differences and join forces to defeat a terrible evil in their city.
But enough about Zootopia.
Early on in the oddly titled Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, Lex Luthor has arranged a meeting with the no-nonsense Senator Finch in order to flatter his way into a partnership with her to create a weapon capable of destroying Superman. But Finch, despite being the most public critic against the Man of Steel, can tell that Luthor’s motives are less than pure, saying that what he’s pitching to her is essentially a certain bodily fluid in a jar. He can call it whatever he likes, but that won’t be enough to make her drink it. Now, this is not to make the rather crude allegory that Dawn of Justice is the cinematic equivalent of a cup of urine–let’s save that metaphor for movies like Josh Trank’s Fantastic 4 which are actually deserving of it–but it is to say that it’s been sold as one thing when it delivers something else entirely. Batman v Superman has been marketed as an action-packed superhero epic for the ages, featuring perhaps the two most iconic comic book characters of all time duking it out before teaming up to defeat the film’s main villain. Instead, it more or less ends up being a glorified trailer for the upcoming two-part Justice League extravaganza. Almost all of the movie is set-up, without nearly enough payoff to justify its two and a half hour running time.
Of course, a difficulty that comes when bringing such famous characters to the screen is that audiences have very specific ideas in their heads as to who they are and what they should be. It would perhaps be a bit a stretch to say they are viewed like religious figures by certain people, but for many, Superman is almost the living definition of what it means to be “good,” and Batman, while not quite held in the same “reverence,” represents what it means to be a defender of justice. If the two of them are going to have a showdown–and, let’s face it, most of us want to see them do just that–then they’d better have at least a somewhat good reason for doing so. And while Superman is pretty much blackmailed into the fight and has no desire to actually kill his opponent, Batman’s motives for the battle end up seeming…more questionable. Despite being aware that the Man of Steel is “not the enemy,” he becomes obsessed with destroying him anyway, with his “reasons” being that there’s a slight chance that Superman might go off against the planet someday. And for someone who’s supposed to be the world’s greatest detective, he sure seems oblivious to the fact that Lex Luthor is rather obviously manipulating everything around him that leads up to the fight.
And, let’s be clear, it takes a very long time to get to their smackdown, as Batman v Superman proves to be a surprisingly talky affair, with very few action sequences until the last act. But the notable lack of spectacle doesn’t mean any shortage of violence. Now, to clarify, I have nothing against “serious” superhero films (I consider The Dark Knight to be one of my favorite movies of all time), but if they are going to have on-screen carnage, it must serve some sort of purpose. Here, we have a Batman who brands his enemies, not because it makes him stronger as a character, but because it makes everything more “gritty.” It’s as though Warner Bros. decided that if they are going to separate their comic book movies from the “funny and lighthearted” ones that Disney and Marvel are releasing on a regular basis, then they must do the exact opposite as a result. That’s terrible logic, but given how their more “family friendly” Green Lantern was received a few years ago, perhaps one can see where they’re coming from.
But the real frustration with the film is that it comes so close to being good–all of the elements were there for it to be able to work–that it’s heartbreaking that the final product isn’t better than it is. Some people may be quick to lay all the blame on director Zack Snyder, but it becomes pretty clear after a certain point that this was probably the work of studio meddling. If we think of the film’s script as a jigsaw puzzle, it’s as though someone took away several of its pieces once it was completed, then attempted to replace those pieces with ones that weren’t even from the same puzzle. Somewhere in here, there was a satisfying Batman and Superman story–complete with a Wonder Woman cameo–but its been lost the name of “setting up” future franchise installments (hope you enjoy Aquaman’s grand total of seven seconds of screen time!). It all might be a bit more excusable if the Easter Eggs were planted well, but regrettably, they dominate the last fifteen minutes of the film, culminating in a needlessly bleak “cliffhanger” that anyone even remotely familiar with comic book history is going to know the outcome of.
This is especially saddening when you consider that Snyder has assembled a pretty terrific cast, with Henry Cavill once again proving to be a great Superman. Poor Brandon Routh may have tried his darndest in 2006’s Superman Returns, but he was stuck with doing a Christopher Reeve impression. Fortunately, Cavill is able to make the role his own, bringing a vulnerable honesty to the character, although it’s a shame the film doesn’t give him more opportunities to smile, as last year’s underrated The Man from U.N.C.L.E. showed that he is more than capable of being both funny and charming. As for Ben Affleck, in spite of all of the “outrage” that hit the internet after his casting was announced, naysayers will be relieved (or disappointed) to find out that he’s a perfectly fine Bruce Wayne, even if he doesn’t bring anything “unique” per se to his performance. One of the real stars of the movie, though, is Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman, who literally explodes onto the screen during the final reel. With the grace of a ferocious ballerina, Gadot certainly looks the part, and manages to make quite an impact despite being in the film for only about five minutes. Similarly, Jeremy Irons ends up being very enjoyable as Alfred, giving the movie a much needed dose of dry humor.
But the actor who’s clearly having the best time–and the one who is most likely to divide fans–is Jesse Eisenberg as Lex Luthor. Almost playing him as an evil (and much more erratic) version of Mark Zuckerberg from The Social Network, Eisenberg portrays Luthor as someone who is not just truly demented, but also socially awkward, prone to babbling, and genuinely uncomfortable to be around. It’s a testament to Eisenberg’s performance that he’s able to make the character both intimidating and strangely funny, whether he’s almost seductively placing a gummy bear into an employee’s mouth or sitting himself down into a wheelchair before making a proposition to a handicapped man. During his only scene with Superman, Eisenberg comes across as someone who hates him on a passionate level, as though the Man of Steel’s existence violates his belief that those who wield strength can not be pure. “If God is all powerful, then he can not be all good,” he tells him. “If he is all good, then he can not be all powerful.” Granted, it’s a controversial way to depict a villain who’s normally characterized as extremely self-confident, and I suspect that audiences are going to be fighting for a while about whether it works or just ends up being irritating. But, at the very least, it’s different.
It’s also a sign of what the movie might’ve been if it had been more focused. One of the main reasons that Man of Steel–which this entry functions as only a sort-of sequel to–was so entertaining was because it was a superhero film on an operatic scale. Everything about it was huge, from the rousing opening sequence on Planet Krypton to the breathtaking fight scenes, which makes it a bit perplexing that Batman v Superman doesn’t feel…bigger. There is an undeniable sense of exhilaration that comes when the heroes do finally lock heads with each other, but ultimately their clash doesn’t feel massive enough and is over way too soon. The marketing has been very misleading in this regard–a few of the most talked-about shots from the trailers turn out to be from a dream sequence–with the two leads figuratively kissing and making up literally immediately after their conflict is resolved. The same goes for the climatic attack from Doomsday, as most of the “big moments” from the sequence have already been given away in the previews.
Batman v Superman is not without its gratifications–there are just enough cool scenes spread throughout to make it worth at least one viewing–but it’s also way too crowded as a film, with so many plot points and characters vying for attention that none of them are able to make their desired impact individually. It’s far from being the mess that The Amazing Spider-Man 2 was (at least the movies that this film is teasing are actually going to get made), but it’s still bat-exasperating on many levels and not quite super enough. I haven’t lost faith in a DC Extended Universe (by all accounts, Suicide Squad looks like a blast), although if it’s really going to work, the studio would be wise to take a page from Marvel’s playbook: lighten up a little.
Animated Classic or Back To The Drawing Board?
Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice
Warner Bros. Pictures
March 25th, 2016
Directed by Zack Snyder