A Rocky, Unfocused Start to a Franchise
After years of watching competitor Marvel Comics run wild on the big screen with numerous franchises creating a mega-popular cinematic universe, DC Comics has finally planted their flag in the sand with Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice – a superhero film that seeks to thrill audiences with a clash between its two most iconic characters and create a film world to be explored within dozens of upcoming movies. But while the team behind Batman v Superman has saddled themselves with the burden of introducing numerous new characters and birthing an entire cinematic world, this is a film that can’t even tell a cohesive story, let alone launch new franchises.
Picking up two years after the cataclysmic events of Man of Steel, we find Superman (Henry Cavill) as a controversial figure due to his immense power and unregulated acts of intervention in the world. Meanwhile, the vigilante known as Batman (Ben Affleck) has committed himself to stopping Superman permanently, as he sees the hero as an extreme danger to the planet. Meanwhile, other figures like Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg) and Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) find their plans intersecting with the looming battle of these two titanic figures.
As marketing ramped up in the months preceding BvS, it became clear that this was a film with a massive agenda. Not only would fans finally get to see two of their favorite heroes on screen together, but they would be shown a complex world populated by dozens of beloved characters from throughout the history of comics. And that’s absolutely true. BvS delivers on those expectations, except that by doing so, the film works less as a film and more as a preview of coming attractions slapped together by corporate management. In retrospect, that clunky, overly long title is perfect for this film as it as a movie with many minds, each battling each other for title space and screen time, only to result in a loss for everyone involved.
There are so many crucial and non-nonsensical elements to tackle here, so let’s start with the central conflict and its key players. Thankfully, both Cavill and Affleck put in strong performances as their embattled icons. While Cavill was given an entire film to flesh out Superman, it’s really here in BvS that you see a fully formed and heroic Man of Steel. However, he’s shortchanged on screentime within his own film and has surprisingly little to say. What Cavill does do is project that iconic and powerful air of who Superman truly is, often saying more with a glance than with anything that comes out of his mouth. But like his previous film, most of Superman’s time is spent brooding. It’s clear that this is meant to be a troubled and conflicted Superman evaluating his place in the world, but director Zack Snyder cannot handle more than one or two emotions from a single character throughout his films. Instead, he lets an overbearing and bipolar score by Hans Zimmer and Junkie XL do the work for him, which threatens to drown out even the explosions with its ever-present drums, screaming choir, and misplaced electric guitar.
As Batman, Ben Affleck creates a vivid and dynamic new version of the hero, both in and out of costume. This is clearly an older and grimmer version of the character, a man who has experienced much loss and has long since thrown away any idea of a life outside of crime fighting. He bounces off both Cavill’s Superman and Gadot’s Wonder Woman well, and also shares some wonderful scenes with Jeremy Irons’ Alfred – a marvelous choice for the role. Decked out with the best Batman costume ever put on screen, given the film’s best fight scenes by far, and provided with the only true character arc in the movie, Affleck and anything related to him is almost always the best part of BvS. Almost.
Without delving into spoilers, Batman’s reasoning behind wanting to fight Superman is childish and nonsensical. Still haunted by the devastation that occurred during the climactic fight of Man of Steel, Batman sees Superman as a threat and through a series of minor misunderstandings, decides he wants to murder him. Likewise, Superman sees Batman as a danger, but no real reason is given. Getting to the titular fight of BvS is likewise a slog, with boring political hearings and many slow motion walks to graves filling up the hour and a half path to fight night. But when there is no real reason behind the battle, should it really take so long to get there? In the end, both combatants come off as idiotic for wanting to fight one another.
Why is this film two and a half hours long? Because so much of it deals with everything outside of the main plot. It is as if Snyder and company shot four different stories – Batman, Superman, the formation of the Justice League, and Lex Luthor – then scrambled in the editing room to cut them together as some sort of cohesive film. Surprise, surprise, they failed miserably. The first two acts of BvS are comprised of largely unconnected scenes chopped up and spliced together without anything truly tying them together. The film jumps from character to character, scene to scene, story to story, without any true sense of transition or storytelling flow. It’s all done to progress each storyline on a consistent basis until they finally tie together, but it doesn’t work. And while the final hour of the film finally coalesces into a singular film centered on an epic battle, the narrative that leads into it hurts the climax because there is no emotional investment at all.
Included in that narrative is a bevy of supporting characters, most successful of whom is Gadot as Wonder Woman, who, while acting as little more than a mysterious guest appearance, is both powerful and capable in the role. There’s very little to the character here due to a lack of explanation concerning who she is and why she is there, but her badass fighting in the finale is filled with enough nuance and great moments to make Wonder Woman’s long overdue live action debut a success. On the opposite end of the spectrum is Eisenberg as Lex Luthor, who threatens to sink this leaky vessel of a film with every moment he is on screen. Throwing every little tick and hiccup he can into the character, Luthor is meant to come off as psychotic, but ultimately feels laughably overacted in every possible way. This isn’t just an interpretation that fails to do justice to the character; it’s an actor who is actively hurting the movie at every moment.
Say what you will about the interpretations of characters, but the true failing of BvS is that it has no narrative flow, which becomes both confoundingly strange and excruciatingly boring, often in back to back scenes. Visions of apocalyptic futures are given complete storyarcs that are neither explained nor ultimately given purpose within the greater narrative, rendering them silly, unnecessary, and confusing to even the most hardcore comic book fan. The inclusion of cameos for future Justice League members comes in the form of videos watched in succession on a laptop via an email. It’s as if writers Chris Terrio and David Goyer couldn’t come up with a way to shoehorn these appearances into the actual narrative, so they just gave up and decided to cram them in through the laziest way possible.
Where this film does excel is in both action and cinematography. Snyder has always had a keen eye for iconic imagery and that’s put to full use in bringing so many DC Comics characters to life. While his washed-out color palette keeps the film from feeling as vibrant as it probably should, Superman’s godlike presence and Batman’s gothic menace really come to life on the big screen. But Snyder has no idea how to craft human and fully formed characters. Rather, he casts them as single-minded machines, constantly driven to reach an end goal until another machine comes to knock them off course. Any emotional nuance or humanity is ultimately the product of an actor breaking through the mold, not the grim and emotionally flat film that surrounds him or her.
As expected, BvS is spectacular when it comes to action, with Batman in particular benefiting from the heightened and brutal fights that are put on screen. However, the titular fight is a massive letdown. While it centers on an interesting premise as to how Batman could actually beat Superman, the fight itself is clunky, slow, awkward, and brief. Not to mention the eye roll-inducing, ham-fisted manner in which it is resolved. Honestly, it has to be the most nonsensical way they could have possibly resolved this fight.
Contrastingly, Batman’s battles with criminals, including a spectacular fist fight with a group of thugs, are far more visceral and exciting. Even the CGI-laden final fight against Doomsday is better than the Batman/Superman slap fest, and that centers on a rehashed, dumbed-down embodiment of a plot point that looks and sounds like a cave troll and jumps around like The Hulk.
If DC and Warner Bros. had not been so intent on getting their cinematic universe rolling, Batman v Superman could have had a much better shot at being a well-made and ultimately pleasing film. Instead, no character is given proper justice on screen due to the movie’s fractured attention, and there is ultimately no work done on making a comprehensible narrative, falling into the same traps that have ensnared the worst of the Marvel Studios movies. Should there have been more attention given to crafting an exciting and focused story rather than how many cameos and references could be fit into the film, someone might have noticed that the film being made was a complete mess.