Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is one of the most visually beautiful comic book movies you have ever seen. The picture is filled with moments of visual poetry and pure cinema in a way that resembles one glorious splash page after another. If you have any interest in seeing it, I beg of you to see it on the biggest IMAX screen you can find. It is every bit as big and spectacular as you might hope.
The best moments of Dawn of Justice resemble nothing less than a feature length adaptation of a series of Alex Ross paintings in all their naturalistic glory. But amid the visual treats is an utter mess of thinly sketched characters, haphazard plotting, surprisingly jumbled action, and “cut your nose to spite your face” world building. It’s not a success either as a stand-alone Man of Steel sequel or a would-be kick-off to the DC Extended Universe, and the attempts to insert Batman and his Super Friends do real damage to the story and thus the film. And, in my own word, this movie is almost a self-parody on “grimdark.” Grim Dark get it??.... Moving on
The picture opens with an all too familiar visual of little Bruce Wayne’s parents being murdered (side note Comedian from Watchmen plays Bruce’s father in this flashback ha-ha, meta) and then cuts to Man of Steel’s climax with an even greater emphasis on civilians dying and children watching their parents get blown up. And then we get a flurry of brutally violent action sequences (point-blank executions, sex trafficking victims in cages, etc.) and grim testimonials about the collateral damage that Superman allegedly causes.
While it’s not necessarily my job to concern myself with age-appropriateness, and while I wont chastise parents from taking kids to this film as opposed to ala Deadpool, this film goes out of its way to make itself very questionable for young kids, including young girls who might be excited about Wonder Woman’s glorified cameo. If it were a better, more disciplined movie, I wouldn’t care as much, but (like Amazing Spiderman 2, and Age Of Ultron) the movie is just a narrative mess, so the least it could be is a bit more kid-friendly.
It’s not until the first 30 min in when we are introduced to our villain that things lighten up a little. In fact, Jessie Eisenberg’s “Daffy” Lex Luthor is probably the lightest, least relentlessly depressing character in the film. Laurence Fishburne’s snarky (but wise) Perry White also falls into the “won’t make you want to chug Neuro Bliss” category.
Amy Adams’s Lois Lane gets plenty of screen time, even if it’s one of those “parallel investigations that lead to the obvious conclusion just a little too late” situations. The rest of the enormous cast is confined to mostly cameos. Holly Hunter gets a couple of strong moments with Luthor that will potentially inspire “shipper” fiction. Jeremy Irons’ weary Alfred provides the only note of interest in the Bruce Wayne-centric scenes.
Hell Affleck’s best moment in my opinion, is this blink-and-you-miss-it beat where he offers his butler a morning cup of coffee. Gal Gadot does as much as she can with her brief Wonder Woman action beats, but to be quite frankly most of her in-costume moments are more about striking a pose. Her theme music is awesome (as is Lex Luthor’s), and I’d be lying if I said her introductory beat didn’t quicken the pulse accordingly.
Now I’ve followed this movie religiously since it was officially announced at COMIC CON 3 years ago, and it’s been no secret that Warner Bros. allegedly decided almost on a whim to change the would-be Man of Steel sequel to a Batman/Superman team-up movie, which then became a backdoor Justice League pilot. The push-pull is evident in every frame, and definitely not helping at all is a terribly “written” Bruce Wayne/Batman.
Ok look… Now Ben Affleck is a fine if not (underrated?) actor. He’s gone to great lengths to wash the bad taste out of myself and everyone’s mouth about his bad film choices of the past (Daredevil, Pearl Harbor, etc.), and has showed that beneath that chin is a damn fine Director and Actor (The Town, Gone Girl) but I’m dead serious when I say his Batman/Bruce Wayne at least in this film is probably almost the least appealing cinematic incarnation of the character that I’ve ever seen. Now don’t get me wrong he’s nowhere near George Clooney bad. But he’s nowhere near the conversation of Christian Bale/Michael Keaton, hell I’ll put Val Kilmer over Mr. Affleck.
His character gets the majority of screen time, which is littered, with copious beats that do little more than establish that this old and embittered Dark Knight is a hollow shell of a man. Affleck’s arc in the film is to play the angry (and murderous) dupe, to attempt to assassinate a man he believes to be a threat even as we, the audience, are acutely aware of the long con being played. And this inexplicable emphasis on the what is almost the worst Batman story ever told (one where we see little of Batman doing his Batman thing) removes the film’s focus from where it should be, that of Clark Kent/Superman coping with the post-Man of Steel status quo.
But instead I’m stuck with this Bruce Wayne, that for all of his gadgetry and fighting prowess, is supposed to be an abstract thinker, and beyond intelligent. So the idea that he can be so easily manipulated or lack foresight is so out of character, that I almost miss Murderous Michael Keaton ha-ha. This whole thing just well…it begs me to wander what these Warner Executives were smoking when all that stuff leaked out last fall about them praising Affleck’s performance and fast tracking a new Batman Trilogy with him directing.
There are hints of what Man of Steel 2 could have been, something akin to a modern-day remix of “Does the World Need a Superman?” and “the compelling story poorly told “Superman IV: The Quest for Peace. But they all take a backseat to rehashing Batman’s origin story (spoiler alert: Bruce Wayne’s parents are shot and killed by a mugger) and Clark Kent complaining about that dick dastardly bat vigilante.
There are the barest hints of a movie centered on Superman’s place in the world and his moral responsibilities for both his actions and how those actions are perceived in the global arena. But they are confined to moments, montages, and all-too-brief monologues so we can continually revert our focus to the other caped crusader. For all the talk about The Dark Knight Returns as a baseline, there is a lot here from Superman: Peace on Earth, but it remains just outside of our grasp.
The periodic reappearance of Hans Zimmer’s rousing and hopeful Man of Steel theme will make you mourn for what could have been had the Dark Knight not butted in. As narratively flawed as they are, I enjoyed most of the Superman-centric material in the first half of the film. Eisenberg’s Lex Luthor is a quirky delight. He gets some interesting speeches about how Superman plays into myths about religion and godly powers. But he gets less interesting as the story becomes more conventional.
Oh Cavill… Poor Henry Cavill aka the Superman that is stuck under a Red Sun and is stranded without a life raft, his character in what little screen time he is given is nothing more than being made too mope regularly and mourn as the world somewhat turns against him. The film may very much be about the idea of Superman, but there is little to anything regarding who this specific Superman is as a human and/or a god from another world. He’s too busy whining about Batman, and Batman is too busy whining about him.
Again, I can only imagine what a full-blown Superman sequel might have been had Batman not spoiled the fun (can’t believe I just said that) and then taken over the party. The whole “let’s make a movie where Batman and Superman fight each other” gimmick which inspired this not-quite-a-sequel just makes the third act all the more shocking when the big fight scene is (vague spoilers… not really SNYDER already spoiled it for us with that DOOMSDAY trailer) all arranged under a kind of duress which negates the entire FUCKING CONCEPT of a committed Superman and a committed Batman beating each other up.
Regarding how it’s set up, Batman just comes off as a ghoulish bully, and you desperately want the fight to end as soon as possible. And without going into details, Lex Luthor’s end-game plans leave little room for any reasonable exit strategy or avoidance of accountability.
There is a moment of dastardly doings at around the midpoint that deserves copious discussion, or consequences, yet is brushed off with little afterthought. And it is at that moment that the film starts being somewhat of a generic superhero movie, in all the wrong ways. It is also around this point that the film fully commits to being a backdoor pilot for Justice League. This movie has a deluge of stand-alone sequences which serve no purpose beyond (spoiler, spoiler) and (spoiler, spoiler). I think we all owe Amazing Spider-Man 2 and Age of Ultron a big apology in this regard.
I will say that there is an extended dream sequence that A) looks jaw dropping in IMAX and B) is precisely the kind of whacked-out fantasy nuttiness that I want from a Zack Snyder Justice League movie. And this is the part where I stop complaining for a minute even as I admit that the film as a whole was a deeply disappointing experience.
Fuck I wish Batman and the once-and-future Justice League didn’t hijack this screenplay, but regarding sheer spectacle and cinematic oomph, I’m inclined to recommend this movie purely on visual beauty. Be it action beat or character moment, the film feels grand and huge, and cinematically glorious. Larry Fong (cinematographer) knocked this one out of the park, plain and simple. Even though this is technically a negative review, I would have zero problems with Mr. Fong winning a Best Cinematography Oscar next year.
While it is tempting for me to blame director Zack Snyder for all that didn’t go right with the screenplay (which is officially credited to David Goyer and Chris Terrio) and the overall final product (this does feel like “full-Snyder”), this remains a gorgeous motion picture that acts as something of a rebuttal to the current Screening Room controversy. As insane as this may sound in light of the previous 1,300 words, but I still remain a little curious to see a DC Extended Universe delivered to cinemas with this level of visual splendor and cinematic gravitas.
But again I stated earlier “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is not a good movie”. It offers a truly un engaging Batman and then allows that character to dominate the proceedings while providing a painfully mopey and grim Superman-and-Super Friends narrative where the only ray of light comes from its homicidal arch-villain. The action scenes do get better as they go along, but they aren’t as clean and as comprehensible as Man of Steel’s “daylight” smack downs.
But my word is it BIG in all the best ways. Ugh maybe I’m just deluding myself, but I still have an interest in this bat shit crazy DCEU scheme, especially if the rest are going to be as visually dazzling as this one. Maybe Zack Snyder directing a lighter and more disciplined Justice League screenplay will be the one we’ve been waiting for. But I’m still willing to take at least one or two more leaps of faith, especially with Bill Finger finally getting his moment in the sun.
After all, I didn’t love an MCU movie until Captain America: The First Avenger, but that film (and most of Phase 2) was so good that I am forever glad that I stuck around even before it was my job. I grew up on the DC Comics characters. I played with Super Powers action figures, I worshiped Batman (still do), and I adored Batman: The Animated Series, and I now love the current crop of DC television shows. I’m not giving up on this franchise just yet. As far I’m concerned, consider this strike one. Suicide Squad, David Ayer, you guys are up to bat next. Please don’t just have a pretty trailer.