It’s an odd and somewhat illogical position I find myself in to be considering Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, a $250 million dollar, studio tent-pole movie to be some kind of underdog, yet that’s where we are. This is, of course, due to the immense, unprecedented success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Marvel studios began pursuing the notion of a shared universe for their characters on film at around the same time DC/Warner Brothers were producing wildly differing superhero stories; Bryan Singer’s seventies throwback Superman Returns, and Christopher Nolan’s dark, modern, Batman Begins and its sequels. Now, Marvel are 12 (almost 13) films in and have the highest grossing film franchise of all time, and DC, having moved on from their mid-2000s approach, are left playing a game of catch-up they can’t possibly win.
I’ve never been someone who took sides on the DC/Marvel rivalry, but I feel like I’m going to begin this review by re-iterating some of the points I made when I first saw Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel three years ago. Whatever we’re hearing now, I don’t believe that Man of Steel was originally conceived to be a shared-universe initiator the way Iron Man was, I think it was intended to be a new take on the Superman mythos in a similar vein to Batman Begins. The now-stereotypical “grim-dark” approach to comic-book movies works for Batman, but not so much for Superman or really any other obviously fantastical characters, but DC has put themselves in a position of starting from there, which just seems kind of wrong-headed.
(As a slight aside, a point I’d like to make to counter the absurd wave of negativity I encountered online toward this film and DC before release is that DC did actually try the bright, optimistic, more humour-based approach with Green Lantern in 2011, which is tonally just like a Marvel movie. That people talk about that film as some kind of disaster while giving Marvel a pass for their weakest films is a notion I just cannot get behind.)
I’ve seen Man of Steel a few times now, and my opinion on it has really strengthened in both directions, I do like a great deal of the film’s first two acts, but really dislike where it goes in the third with it’s gigantic, city-destroying battle. I can’t point at exactly why, but I’ve always liked the character of Superman in principle, and I just want there to be more good stories about him. I like a lot of the DC characters, I want to see them work on screen. I want Marvel to have a serious competitor to stop them churning out derivative disappointments like Avengers: Age of Ultron again. Please believe me when I say that I truly wanted Batman v Superman to be a great and successful movie.
Well it’s not I’m afraid.
As much as I might like both Batman and Superman, I have never harboured any particular desire to see them fight one-another. I get that it’s an interesting thought experiment, how conceivably could the non-super-powered Batman use his intelligence and technology to defeat Superman? It’s ultimately rather silly though, the whole premise relies on Superman restraining himself at the start, he could destroy Batman within seconds without touching the ground if he so desired. The fact that this film has opted to make their battle its centre-piece (and selling point) was the early warning sign for this movie that has, to me anyway, been proven correct.
I’m not inherently adverse to the idea of making superhero stories that aren’t for children, I think Snyder did a pretty good job at adapting the seminal comic Watchmen back in 2009, I’m fine with the violence of the Dark Knight Trilogy and the Daredevil TV show, but honestly, leave Superman out of it. I know news has already broken that there’s going to be an extended R-rated version of Batman v Superman released later in the year, but after seeing this, I’m even surprised the theatrical version got through without one.
One of my biggest problems with this film is actually the same as one I had with Snyder’s take on Watchmen; that he decided to actually increase the level of violence from the source material. What is his thinking here? Is it some sort of counter-argument against films like The Hunger Games that use studio mandated rules to water-down their source material to gain younger audiences? Snyder, in all seriousness, does not need to do this. Like him or not, he is no studio hack, he’s a highly talented visual stylist who’s films, whatever their overall degree of success, always have their moments (think the glorious flying sequence in Man of Steel, or the Doctor Manhattan flashback in Watchmen). Batman v Superman is again, very clearly a Zack Snyder film. It continues DC’s tradition of allowing filmmakers to put their own stamp on their characters, rather than Marvel’s of requiring them all to conform to an anonymous, established tone. It’s an approach that we’ll just have to wait and see how well pays off for the DC Extended Universe.
This film though, is simply far too violent for its own good. The title fight sequence itself is probably the film’s weakest set-piece anyway, with a heavily-armoured Batman slugging it out against Supes. The two repeatedly throw each-other through walls, roofs and whatever other construction is nearby. It’s actually quite reminiscent of the similarly poor, CG-filled ‘Hulkbuster’ fight in Age of Ultron. This is the main problem though; in order to fight Batman at all, Superman needs to be weakened in some way, which he is. However he still maintains a significant level of his power, thus, Batman can repeatedly and brutally batter him around in a manner that would kill a human being twenty times over. We know he’s going to survive the fight okay, he is Superman after all, but what we’re seeing on screen is a human actor receiving such a horrific level of punishment that it becomes quite unpleasant to watch. I would struggle to recommend that children see this film at all, and it just shouldn’t be this way with Superman. Oh this film also has a proper horror movie jump scare in it at one point, it’s effective, but what’s it doing here?
The whole film’s attitude to Superman is rather interesting in itself. The fact that this isn’t a Man of Steel sequel, and that Batman receives the first credit betrays the studios (unjustified) lack of confidence in the character, a feeling reflected by the on-screen characters. This is not a Superman who inspires humanity, he is one they are suspicious and fearful of. Treating a superhero character in this way is something that could result in a good story, but it’s maybe one that should be explored separately with some new Superman analogue rather than the iconic character himself. At the very least, give us a decent movie about Superman being Superman beforehand. The DCEU Superman movie should be their Captain America: The First Avenger (Marvel’s best movie). That’s the Superman movie I want, you can modernise the character while still maintaining his defining attributes. This film leaves me feeling pretty confident that Snyder is not the man to make that movie, and if DC do make another solo Superman film (there’s not one on their current slate), they should probably hand the reigns to a director with a different approach to the character.
Why are they even fighting in the first place though? Well that’s a bit convoluted. The film begins with a quick re-cap of Batman’s origin during the opening title sequence, easily getting it over-and-done within a couple of minutes to save us yet another needless re-tread. It then gives us a fascinating sequence of the kind I can’t recall seeing in a blockbuster before. We witness moments of Man of Steel’s controversial, destruction-filled finale from a totally different perspective. Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) is on the ground in Metropolis, seeing buildings topple around him and civilians perish, he looks up to Superman as the one to blame. It is undoubtedly decent for the film to address that destruction’s aftermath in this film, though it’s a scene that shouldn’t have been there in the first place.
Many people are suspicious and distrusting of Superman, and his first appearances in this film see him being accused of killing more people during a rescue in Africa. People are concerned as to the potential threat he poses, and Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg) has recently acquired a Kryptonite rock from the Indian Ocean, with which he will initiate his plan to wreak havoc on Superman. The ‘anti-Superman sentiment ‘ culminates in a sequence when Superman is invited to appear in a tribunal by a United States Senator (Holly Hunter) to address the damage he’s caused.
Only a brief montage in the first hour shows Superman saving people, and I really did want more of that. Even since I saw the 1978 Superman movie I’ve felt that I could very happily watch a whole movie of Superman flying around performing daring rescues. I will give the film this though, its first half does contain the single most shockingly unpredictable moment I’ve seen in a modern superhero movie. In fact the main reason I’d want to soon re-watch it is to see if there were any hints to this that I’d failed to pick up on first time around, I’m in no great hurry though.
More of the first half belongs to Ben Affleck’s Bruce Wayne/Batman. He’s an older Batman than we’ve seen before on screen, but he seems to be based on the famous Frank Miller interpretation, a violent sociopath who’s been worn down by his years of crime fighting. This Batman is one who brands criminals he captures; essentially guaranteeing them a prison death sentence.
Affleck is fine in the role though, giving us a new take on Bruce Wayne that conveys his detective and physical abilities well. He’s overall arc in the film is decent, but he gets let down by the film’s pacing at times. I imagine there were a number of sequences that got cut, resulting in a few pacing issues throughout the film. For instance Batman goes from wanting to murder Superman to calling him a “friend” in maybe 2 minutes.
The film is generally coherent despite these apparent missing pieces, but there are still a few moments of confusion. One of the film’s most memorable scenes is an extended dream sequence involving Batman in a post-apocalyptic setting. Even speaking as someone reasonably familiar with the most famous Batman/Superman stories, I still needed parts of this explained to me. I can imagine those who only have a passing knowledge of the characters finding this sequence completely baffling.
There are a number of other characters to enjoy in the film too though. Jesse Eisenberg’s take on Lex Luthor is not an iteration we’ve seen before. It will likely prove divisive, but I liked him a great deal. He’s a young, smarmy businessman who conveys a general sense of petty arrogance while still possessing a level of real danger beneath. Jeremy Irons also gives us a fresh take on Alfred the butler, as a highly capable ex-military type that works well in context here and provides essential assistance to Batman.
Henry Cavill is still solid as Superman, he gets a few more Clark Kent scenes, but it’s clear that the script (credited to Chris Terrio and David S. Goyer) has more interest in Batman. Cavill is left feeling that he still hasn’t fully had the chance to play the classic Superman.
His co-workers at the Daily Planet, Laurence Fishburne’s Perry White and Amy Adams’ Lois Lane both somehow manage to feel like that have more screen time than they did in Man of Steel, yet still feel underserved by the script too. Lois is present for a number of key sequences, giving the impression that they were trying to give her more to do, but it doesn’t quite pay off. Conversely, one of my favourite moments in the film involves a brief, inspiring cameo by a different Superman character that I won’t reveal here as I was grateful for the surprise.
Of course, what won’t be a surprise is the appearance of a certain other iconic DC character; Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot). She has a smaller role than the title characters, but is not just some glorified cameo either. She encounters Bruce Wayne several times before her identity is revealed in the final act. It’s a satisfactory moment, and there’s an undeniable pleasure in seeing DC’s three biggest stars on screen together for the first time. While Wonder Woman isn’t exactly some show-stealing third act saviour, I think even those who strongly dislike this film will find little to criticise about her. I have to admit though, that there was one act that Batman performs here that I feel would have been far better if given to Wonder Woman. Her appearance serves as an effective introduction, but leaves room for her solo movie (coming next year from Monster director Patty Jenkins) to define her.
Unfortunately, the moment that brings all three characters together is the final battle against famed superman villain Doomsday. The film segues into this almost immediately following the Batman/Superman fight. Doomsday is a big ugly mess of CGI who most obviously resembles a Lord of the Rings cave troll. The ensuing battle is a thudding, nearly constant CGI-fest that quickly wears you down. The film does, in yet another comparison to Age of Ultron (I feel like these films bear a lot of similarities), try to go out of its way to suggest the areas the fights take place in are not inhabited, but that doesn’t prevent them from resembling every other big superhero movie final battle. I’ll give it a little credit however; it goes in a direction towards the end that, despite my dislike of the fight scenes, I found surprisingly affecting.
A couple of other positives about the film, the cinematography by Larry Fong is consistently excellent, with a few individual frames that could be isolated from the film as stand-outs. The score, credited to both Hans Zimmer and Tom Holkenborg (Junkie XL) is fantastic. I don’t know who’s responsible for what exactly, but I was happy to hear each time it incorporated motifs from Zimmer’s Man of Steel score (perhaps the aspect of that film that’s hardest to dislike), but the film features several new cues as well. The opening sequence is scored to a slow-building, piano, then choral and string piece which is very good. Wonder Woman’s theme is in a totally different style, with pounding drums and an electric guitar lead. It works well in the fighting scenes here, but I also hope she gets a more melodic cue for her own movie.
Batman v Superman’s purpose is also to establish the DC Universe, and we get brief flashes of its other key characters, but aside from Wonder Woman they’re really just teases. I guess the best thing I can say about this movie is that, while it’s not very good, it doesn’t leave me pessimistic about the future of the DC films. There’s enough here to build on, if they take the right lessons from what does and doesn’t work (something Marvel did), and the talent they’ve hired so far suggests that we’ll hopefully get a number of distinctive DC movies in the next few years. Whether we’ll ever get the modern Superman movie I want, sadly seems more unlikely.