WARNING: There are spoilers ahead for Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice.
By: Ryan Hamner (@Ryhamner)
The 2016 blockbuster movie season officially kicked off this past weekend, as the long-awaited Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice finally arrived in theaters. The movie reunites Man of Steel director Zack Snyder with Henry Cavill who reprises the role of Superman while adding Ben Affleck as Batman and Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman to the mix. The behemoth film clocks in at two and a half hours and while costing $250 million to make, and critical reviews haven’t been kind. Having seen it this afternoon I’ve come to the conclusion that this is a decent 90-minute film that unfortunately is drowning in an hour of garbage.
The portrayal of DC’s figurehead Superman remains a problem. I don’t know if this is because Cavill doesn’t possess the acting chops to pull off the character, or if the combination of Snyder’s direction and inadequate writing is to blame. But the guy just hasn’t been able to make me care about the Man of Steel over the course of two movies. Cavill certainly looks the part, but the performance simply comes across as hollow and vacant. And there’s nothing to separate Superman from his alter-ego Clark Kent outside of a pair of hipster glasses as the actor offers no nuances to distinguish between the two. Christoper Reeves’ Clark Kent was clumsy and goofy, the laughingstock of the Daily Planet newsroom. The thought of him being Superman seemed ridiculous to the likes of those films’ Jimmy Olsen and Perry White. In this version, however, I’m left wondering how the hell people that work with Clark can be so stupid that they can’t connect the dots. A late in the game newspaper headline takes this to another level that I won’t spoil here, but it was bad enough to make me feel like the movie was giving my intelligence the middle finger. If DC wants the Justice League to be taken seriously you can’t have the face of your brand coming across as so bland and mediocre; they quickly need to figure out the character of Superman.
But this certainly isn’t the case with Ben Affleck’s Batman/Bruce Wayne. There was a lot of moaning and groaning when it was announced that he would be the follow-up actor to Christian Bale’s beloved take on the iconic character. When the news broke I’ll admit I questioned the decision, but Affleck easily turns in the best performance of this movie. His Batman is a brutal warrior that dives headfirst into conflict, rather than hiding in the shadows and utilizing stealthy tricks to eliminate his enemies. And it’s a blast to watch, the Dark Knight’s fight scene are beautifully-choreographed moments of chaos and consistently left me wanting more once they wrapped up. Affleck’s Bruce Wayne is equally intriguing, providing a much more cynical and grizzled take on the character. While it’s way too early to label this the definitive cinematic Batman, any reservations that Affleck can pull it off need to be thrown in the dumpster. I can’t wait to see what he can do with the role if he manages to escape the shackles of Zack Snyder’s direction.
Along with Affleck Gal Gadot’s contributions to the film, while minimal, are outstanding. Even though her introduction to the film’s climax was spoiled months ago in a questionable marketing move, I still got chills when she appeared in full costume for the first time. There may have been few positive takeaways from Batman v Superman, but the idea of future Wonder Woman films starring Gadot is definitely one of them.
Rounding out the new faces is Jesse Eisenberg, who enters the DC universe as Lex Luthor. He was featured prominently in the trailers, and the early reception to his take on the iconic DC villain was tepid at best. But a couple months prior to release there were rumors of him absolutely killing in this movie, a potential career-defining role for the young actor. Trust me…don’t believe the hype. What you see in the trailers is an accurate sample of what you get in the feature film. Eisenberg has two or three scenes where the material allows him to shine (look for one in particular where he’s standing in a pool of water), but they’re overshadowed by his many low moments. The movie is way too determined to make its audience aware that Lex is mentally unstable. Eisenberg speaks with a sing-song up and down inflection, nervously ticking his way through his scenes all while accompanied by an uncomfortable theme song. Honestly, I’m surprised DC and Snyder were able to restrain themselves from putting Luthor in a straight jacket with a “CRAZY” label on the front. Lex is a great character, unfortunately, Eisenberg’s take on the villain comes across as a Saturday Night Live sketch of Ledger’s Joker and it’s extremely painful to watch.
Storywise, the movie starts off strong with a brief recap of how Bruce Wayne ended up wearing the cape and cowl. Now we’ve seen the tragic demise of Thomas and Martha Wayne in several movies already, but this is one time when Snyder’s over-the-top stylization of everything really suits the situation. But we quickly come back to reality, as the audience is treated to an extended recap of the tragic events that ended Man of Steel. The point of this is to give Bruce motivation for questioning Superman and thus leading to their eventual fistfight, but the whole thing goes on far too long. Man of Steel’s climax rubbed most people the wrong way, and this entire sequence felt more like a combination apology for that film’s ending/Jeep Renegade commercial than a setup for this film’s ultimate conflict. Considering that the scene immediately following it was a survivor talking about how many people perished in the event the whole scene felt like a redundant and unnecessary display of really big computers generating really big special effects.
But that’s what Zack Snyder does best, right? Watching him direct is like having a conversation with an extrovert teenager that won’t let you get a word in edgewise, the big CG action scenes consistently overstay their welcome to the point of exhaustion. And, of course, the ultimate purpose of this movie is to serve as the foundation for DC’s cinematic universe, so naturally the decision was made to cram in as many DC heroes as possible. Well-done fan services don’t feel like fan service at all, it subtly weaves its way into the narrative, and while it will likely go right over the head of non-comic book fans it also doesn’t make them question what they just saw. Snyder is a lot of things, but subtle is certainly not one of them as he jams in appearances by The Flash, Aquaman, and Cyborg at the absolute worst possible moments: right before the epic battle promised in the movie’s title. The film sets our two protagonists up to go to all out war with one another right before it asks it’s audience to take a five-minute break as Wonder Woman watches the aforementioned superheroes on her laptop. Nobody thought that was a bad idea?
The movie teases some interesting points regarding the distinction between viewing Superman as a hero as opposed to worshiping him as a god. And it tries to do something similar with Batman as it questions how far a vigilante should be allowed to go in the pursuit of what he deems is justice. The movie wants us to accept both these ideals as the catalyst for the film’s ultimate showdown, and it would’ve worked if we hadn’t taken so many detours from the main plot along the way. There’s a side story involving a shooting in Africa that that is pointless and confusing, it feels like it exists for the sole purpose of putting Lois Lane in a position where she needs rescuing. Which would’ve been fine if the movie had just left that alone, instead it continues to circle back around to it again and again without ever making it clear how it fits into the Batman v Superman storyline which is what we all paid to see.
While the road we have to take to get to the final conflict is full of plot holes and confusion, watching the two DC A-list superheroes slug it out on camera is a blast. Superman has the powers but Batman has the brains and the budget and seeing how creative Bruce has to get to even stand a chance against Superman is great. You don’t realize how contrasting these two characters really are until you see them at odds with one another, and the fight that ensues is one of the best in comic book movie history. And while it ends with a truce that ranks among the dumbest conflict resolutions ever seen on the silver screen, there’s no denying that the actual fistfight is a ton of fun to watch.
If the movie had wrapped up at this stage I think the critical reception would’ve been much kinder, but Snyder and company had to tack on an even bigger, louder, and longer boss fight onto the film. Doomsday’s appearance in Batman v Superman is no secret, as that was spoiled months ago (like pretty much everything else that’s good in the film) and the big baddie serves as the antagonist for the united front of Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman. Here the movie really jumps off the track as it reaches a new level of soulless, inconsequential CG action so ridiculous that I expected to see a video game health bar in the upper corner of the screen. Anything involving Doomsday is a distraction to this movie and the villain would’ve been better served if they had saved him for a later film.
Dawn of Justice isn’t a terrible movie, but considering how iconic the characters that live within it are shouldn’t we have gotten better than this? If DC seriously wants the Justice League to reach the same heights as Marvel’s The Avengers franchise they need to learn from the mistakes that were made here. Affleck and Gadot showed they have what it takes to generate complex and interesting takes on their respective superheroes, just imagine what they could do with better writing and direction. Cavill…well, I just don’t know. Two movies in I’m not sure how you recast the role of Superman so I think DC needs to make a director change and cross their fingers. This version of Batman and Wonder Woman certainly show promise for the future, but they’re simply not enough to lift Batman v Superman out of a swamp of mediocrity.
Ryan is the founder of game-block.com and co-host of the Johnny Goodtimes Fun Factory podcast.