When I went into work last Monday morning everyone asked me about Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. Seeing it on opening night was all I could talk about for a week so naturally they asked, “How was the movie?” Followed by, “It didn’t get very good reviews.” And every time this was my response: No, it wasn’t a good movie, but it was fun.
I want to start with four items:
- I love Wonder Woman.
- I really, really like Batman.
- I am ambivalent towards Superman.
- I hate the work of Zack Snyder.
Naturally, these three characters are important to me, but it’s the last point where I want to start. Because of his beginnings as a music video director, his films always look great. His tableaus and montages are beautiful, but they’re tools he uses to hide his flaws as a writer/director.
I’m not here to rag on Snyder’s work, though (I’ll save that for another day.) I share a little of my opinion about his work because I didn’t expect to like Batman v Superman. Like many other people, I felt betrayed by Man of Steel (again, thoughts/feelings for another day) and was extremely pissed off when I learned how involved he would be with the DC film universe. So imagine my surprise when the first BvS trailer was released and I decided to see it.
Now, imagine that the four points I made above are like mathematical theorems. If #4 is always true, then a poorly reviewed film is the expected outcome. Hence I wasn’t surprised by the bad reviews. That didn’t mean I wasn’t nervous. We were finally going to see DC superheroes beyond Batman and Superman; they deserve to have the best introductions possible. I prayed to the movie gods that my $20+ would be worth it.
I think they were.
Here’s what worked in the film: the casting; most of the production value; and the refreshingly unique Batman story arc.
In fact, of the several plots running through the film – and, trust me, I will address that headache – Batman’s was the most coherent. It helps that this Batman isn’t one we’ve seen before. While Batman/Bruce Wayne has always been angry, here he is positively hateful. In his YouTube review (https://youtu.be/rKRmMQaLZz8) Brett Culp points out something many of the reviews and reactions missed: Wayne’s helplessness at witnessing his parents murder with the deaths during the Battle of Metropolis. The first made him a vigilante; the second made him ready to kill.
Now, several reviewers have compared Batman/Bruce Wayne’s language about Superman to Donald Trump’s language about documented or undocumented immigrants. And they’re right. Ben Affleck’s Batman/Bruce Wayne speaks of Superman with a tinge of hatred usually heard by neo-con hawks. But his Trump-like dialogue only makes the film accidentally prescient. Remember, there would be no film if Batman trusted Superman. Batman has been fighting crime for twenty years (as we are repeatedly reminded). Remnants of the past surround him, from the burned out shell of Wayne Manor to a message from the Joker on Robin’s suit. The past has made him distrustful. At one point he says to Alfred, “How many good guys have we seen in the last twenty years? How many have stayed that way?”
And Ben Affleck acts his ass off. Initially dubious of his casting, I was surprised at how much care he brought to the role. Sculpted to look more like the comic/animated Batman, Affleck is beefed up and top heavy. His physicality — movement and posture — is more than strength. When alone he’s weary; when talking to Alfred, he avoids eye contact like a child; and, when performing as Bruce Wayne, he is light and elegant. Other actors have wallowed in the origin story, only portraying Wayne’s pain to drive Batman’s anger. Affleck – a long-time fan of the character – allows his Batman to have more than one emotion, making him the least stiff Batman yet.
Other casting highlights included Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman and Jesse Eisenberg as Lex Luthor. While Gadot was not in the film enough to form a complete picture of her characterization, enough was seen to know that she will do well in her stand-alone film. Eisenberg’s Lex Luthor is a psychotic, sociopathic Mark Zuckerburg, which works better than you’d think it would. Several of his moments are played big when he is given ridiculous, non-sensical lines. While the script leaves you wondering about the motivation behind his maneuvers, Eisenberg’s commitment entertains.
Lastly, the production quality added extra enjoyment of the film. I know many people don’t like how washed out the color is, and I agree that the color in many scenes is drab. It’s apparent, however, how much time the designers spent to create the visual world. Just like in the comic books, Metropolis and Gotham have distinct looks which mirror their superheroes. Gotham looks old, messy, and dark; Metropolis looks new, clean, and bright. The costumes are slyly curated for certain characters: Diana Prince wears Greek-influenced evening gowns with gold accessories, Brice Wayne wears blue or black tailored suits, and Holly Hunter’s senator wears white and beige in her pursuit of the truth.
Does any of this balance the bad? In better hands, yes. In Snyder’s, they do not.
The largest flaw with the film is the lack of story editing. There is just too much plot. By my count there are four plots we’re asked to juggle: 1) Batman hunting Superman, 2) Lex Luthor plotting against Batman and Superman, 3) Lois Lane searching for a story, and 4) Superman doing a little bit of everything.
Sadly, Superman’s the least defined plot. Once the Battle of Metropolis prologue is completed, we’re jumped forward in time by 18 months. It appears that Superman has settled into his hero groove – he comes to the rescue of Lois and the city has a giant freaking statue of him by the harbor! – but we don’t see his altruistism until Bruce Wayne insults him. Before we see any of Superman’s daring do, he’s Clark Kent deciding the “bat vigilante” is bad for Gotham (a city he doesn’t even live in). Why does he feel this way? Does he have any discussions with Lois or Perry White about why a man dressed as a bat is fighting crime? Maybe they could give this small-town kid a primer on how messed up life is in Gotham. Nope, none of this happens. Instead, we’re treated to a montage of Superman saving people around the world and then, when everyone thinks he’s a murderer, we’re treated to another dose of Jack-Kerouac-Clark-Kent. Wasn’t Man of Steel supposed to Superman’s existential journey? Why are getting a second round?
The Lois Lane and Lex Luthor plots are just as confusing. What does Luthor want? His vitriol against Superman is somewhat understandable – he has a monologue about Soviet block parades and bowing to tyrants – but it’s never explained what has against Batman. Does he want to see them battle or does he want to create Doomsday?
Lois’ plot is the most extraneous and non-sensical. After asking the worst first question any journalist can ask, she’s the damsel in distress being saved by her boyfriend. Once she’s back in Metropolis she finds a bullet which was shot into her notebook. Then goes all Bloodhound Gang on the bullet and who made it. Again the audience is asking why this matters. Why is it important for Lois to find out it was made by Lex Corp? Why did they need a new plot to make Superman a sketchy being? Why are Senate hearings about a massacre in Africa underway before Lois is even back from the continent? Why is the majority of Lois’ storyline spent away from Superman? By the end of the film I felt that a pre-negotiated contract – promising a certain amount of screen time – led to an extraneous plot.
Many of the reviews and critiques about Batman v Superman attack the film because neither character is true to the comics. As someone whose entry points to the characters were films and Saturday morning cartoons, the interpretation doesn’t bother me. Superheroes have become modern gods and – like their Greek, Roman, Norse,and Christian* forbears – their myths are told and retold. Good storytellers don’t want to repeat; they want to create. BvS meets the standard of entertainment, but I doubt it will be worthy enough to inspire remakes and retellings fifty years from now.
*I do not know enough about Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Bhuddism, etc. to deem their sacred texts mythology.