Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, Warner Bros. Pictures, 2016.
In principle, I should have been excited about Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice.
I’ve always loved crossovers in movies, from Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man to King Kong vs. Godzilla to Freddy vs. Jason. And like many comic fans, I fantasized about a Batman/Superman crossover movie way back in the 1980s, when that would have meant Christopher Reeve and Michael Keaton. Of course, Batman/Superman team-ups and battles have been routine in comics for decades. World’s Finest Comics had Superman and Batman teaming up as best friends from 1954 onward, and before that they’d always been shown frolicking together on that series’ covers, even when the adventures inside were separate.
Now, though, it’s hard for me to get worked up about it, because it’s a relentlessly grim, dark Batman matched against an identically grim, dark Superman, which to my mind isn’t Superman at all and doesn’t provide any contrast to Batman at all anymore aside from sheer physical power.
The hype going into Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice has been ridiculous. Even Facebook prompted me to say something about being pumped about the movie yesterday, something FB hasn’t done since it asked me if I was excited about Presidents Day or some bullshit like that.
DC and Warner Bros. have a lot riding on Batman v. Superman. It’s not just a sequel to the 2013 Superman reboot Man of Steel. It’s not just a Superman movie in which Batman gets top billing. It’s the launch of a whole DC Cinematic Universe intended to rival the one that Marvel has had such a success with. Warner plans to follow it up with Suicide Squad, Wonder Woman, a two-part Justice League movie, Aquaman, The Flash, Shazam, Cyborg and Green Lantern Corps.
That’s quite a lot of interlinked projects in the hopper, considering that Man of Steel wasn’t even a good movie. Trying to capitalize on the moody darkness of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, with a screenplay by Batman Begins’ David Goyer, this Zack Snyder flick (300, Watchmen, Sucker Punch) was a Superman movie for people who don’t like Superman—and only for people who don’t like Superman. Everything about it was too dark—not just in tone, but also visually. The bright primary colors of his costume were muted into some kind of black-ops stealth version, and the whole movie was dominated by a dark blue tint to strip as much color from it as possible. And most vitally, it got the core of Superman’s character wrong.
Most famously, Superman totally kills a bad guy—something that’s completely anathema to his character. Fans of the movie are often quick to point out counterexamples. Most of them are from alternate realities, but in the comics any depiction of Superman killing somebody is a huge deal precisely because it’s so completely contrary to his ideal of heroism, whereas in the movie it’s just eh, a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do. Man of Steel fans—who are something very different from Superman fans—are often fond of saying that there was no other way. But that’s exactly what being a superhero is all about: finding another way when there’s supposedly no other way.
Superman’s final battle with Zod in that movie also kills thousands of other people as the two of them wreck the city carelessly. It’s far and away the most reckless, out-of-control and downright unheroic depiction of Superman in screen history—and that’s including “evil” Superman in Superman III.
But what bothers me most in that movie is ostensibly a smaller thing. The core of Superman, what makes him heroic, has never been his extraordinary powers. It’s the strong ethical upbringing he had as a farm boy in Kansas raised by kindly Jonathan and Martha Kent. It was the Kents that taught him that he must have these powers for a reason, and it’s his responsibility to use them to help people. In Man of Steel, what does Kevin Costner teach him as Pa Kent? For god’s sake, don’t use your powers to help people! Just keep them hidden and look out for number one, or else they’re gonna getcha! No wonder the Superman of that movie turned out so badly.
But that’s Man of Steel. Surely Snyder’s follow-up flick would make it all better, right? I mean, for Batman v. Superman, Goyer’s screenplay was rewritten by Chris Terrio, who won an Oscar for Argo!
So let’s get down to it. I’m not going to go blabbing about everything, but there may be some spoilers in here, because everyone has a different threshold for what they consider to be spoilers.
Is Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice a good movie? No. Far from it. But let’s first talk about the few things in the movie that are done well.
One of the most well-known things about the movie is that it contains the first appearance of Wonder Woman in live-action cinema in her 75 years of existence. I would simply say it’s her first time in a movie, but that’s not strictly true. Wonder Woman’s first big-screen appearance of any kind was two years ago in The Lego Movie, but that was only a cameo appearance.
Wonder Woman is easily the best thing in Batman v. Superman, even though she actually has very little screen time in the two-and-a-half-hour movie. Her leaping into battle was the only moment that got applause from the audience when I saw the movie in its first matinee.
It’s not the first time we meet her; she pops up occasionally in the movie as a mysterious woman with an exotic accent that Bruce Wayne keeps running into. Gal Gadot plays Wonder Woman awfully well, exuding tremendous presence matter-of-factly, without making a big show of it. That in itself stands out next to the testosterone explosions that are Henry Cavill’s Superman and Ben Affleck’s Batman. There’s this wonderful smile that Wonder Woman gets on her face when she realizes just how formidable her foe is, and it tells you all you need to know about how much she enjoys a really good fight. The Wonder Woman movie is slated to come out next year, and this does a great job of piquing my interest.
We don’t learn much about Wonder Woman in this movie, but one thing we do know is a fascinating departure from the comics. This Wonder Woman (who’s not ever actually called that in the movie—the only name we ever hear for her is someone calling her “Miss Prince” once) has been around for at least a hundred years. Her movie is set in World War I, which is a fascinating decision considering that she wasn’t even created until World War II. Even though she’s technically immortal as one of the Amazons of Greek mythology, the comics have always avoided taking advantage of that. She’s remained eternally in her twenties the same way Superman and Batman have—by keeping her birth year vague and constantly moving it forward in time. But I’m totally on board with this change—it lends her a gravitas that these younger boys lack.
What else does the movie do well? Well, it’s also the cinematic debut of Aquaman (also after 75 years), the Flash (after 76 years, although this version has been around for 60 years) and Cyborg (after 36 years). When I heard about all that, it seemed like way too much to throw into one movie, so it’s a relief to find that they don’t all come a-running to save the day or something like that. The glimpses we get of them are just as other metahumans of whom someone’s collecting footage for his files. We won’t actually meet them until later.
Let’s see, what else is good? Well, the cast’s not bad in general. There was a lot of online teasing when Ben Affleck was cast as Batman, but he’s fine in the role. That’s not to say that Batman is portrayed well in the movie—not at all—but it’s not the fault of the acting. And hey, his new Alfred is Jeremy Irons, who’s always awesome. Even Cavill is fine as Clark Kent, even if his Superman is pretty wooden, and he looks the part aside from the gloomy suit.
Oh! One other thing that’s almost clever is that it almost makes the appalling destruction that Superman wreaks in Man of Steel seem like it was all part of the filmmakers’ plan. That’s why Batman is so determined to bring Superman down. He saw the whole thing. People he cared about died. At least at first, Batman is every one of us who watched Man of Steel and said, “What the fuck is this shit?”
(It’s also interesting to note that this is a plot point that Batman v. Superman shares with the upcoming Captain America: Civil War: Superheroes end up fighting each other over their responsibility for collateral damage from their super battles.)
I say “at first” because Batman’s motivation soon flies completely over the rails. He becomes more and more obsessed with killing Superman, because that’s totally something that Batman would do. You know Batman. He’s all about killing. Especially with guns. That Batman, he sure loves guns. This Batman thinks nothing of shooting guys with handguns, machine guns, Batmobile and Batplane-mounted guns—whatever’s handy. Now, some of that happens in the movie’s many dream sequences (Batman has a lot of nightmares, which we’re led to believe may not just be dreams but something more), but still, it’s not exactly a good start in getting his character right.
His mounting paranoia is all the weirder because it’s hard to see where it’s coming from. He says to Alfred at one point, “He has the power to wipe out the entire human race, and if we believe there is even a one percent chance that he is our enemy, we have to take it as an absolute certainty. Then we have to destroy him.” These are not the words of a sane person. By the time Superman goes over to try to reason with the guy’s, Batman’s about as reasonable as the Hulk, just roar roar roar, attack attack attack, with every intention of straight out murdering Superman.
Meanwhile, Superman is getting similarly judgmental of Batman, with even less reason. He thinks Batman’s too brutal because he’s started branding criminals—which admittedly is yet another really weird thing in this movie that’s way out of character for Batman—and has been rumored to do much worse.
But here’s where the time frame for this movie gets really weird. The battle in Metropolis that launched Superman into the public eye was only a year and a half ago, but Batman has been fighting crime in Gotham for twenty years in this movie—as a nod to Frank Miller’s classic graphic novel The Dark Knight Returns, which featured an elderly Batman fighting a never-aging Superman in a dystopian future. Batman’s weirdly bulky costume in this movie, with a bat symbol that’s not even a different shade from the rest of his costume, is also a nod to Miller’s Dark Knight.
The motives in Miller’s version were entirely different, mind you, which is to say that there actually were some motives. Here Batman should be a known quantity. He’s not some upstart that Superman has any reason to feel he should have to slap down. Batman is the pro and Superman’s the newbie.
But the movie can’t even be consistent about that. On the one hand, Snyder wants the world to fear Superman because of his godlike power—the metaphor of Superman as a false god is pounded into the ground over and over and over again, including some super patronizing imagery of thousands of Mexicans reaching out to Superman as if his merest touch would bless them. One plot point involves a congressional investigation into whether Superman needs to be put on a tighter leash, or something.
On the other hand, Lex Luthor’s whole agenda in this movie seems to be tarnishing Superman’s spotless reputation—which with any other version of Superman would make perfect sense. But the Man of Steel Superman was never the bright and shiny, perfectly upright idol of millions, and it’s just bizarre to talk as if he was. The fact that there are huge statues of Superman in this movie’s Metropolis such a short time after his arrival is in itself very, very strange, especially because the largest of those statues looms over a Vietnam Memorial-style monument to the thousands of people who died because of Superman’s carelessness. Metropolis has some seriously fucked up civic planning.
And okay, let’s talk about Luthor. I like Jesse Eisenberg for the most part, but his Luthor is far and away the worst depiction of Lex Luthor I’ve ever seen. Zack Snyder’s Luthor is a hyperactive, inanely chattering young tech bro who’s always the most irritating person in any room. And he’s setting Superman against Batman why? Well, because Superman’s not a god. Okayy, but why does he want Superman to kill Batman? What does Batman have to do with anything? Because shut up, that’s why.
Everything that anyone does in this movie is dumb dumb dumb—not in a learning-experience way, but just to move the story along without getting bogged down in things like people having reasons to do stuff.
There’s way too much crammed into this movie. It’s not just the Supes vs. Bats battle, something that we’ve seen many times in the comics over the decades but is their first crossover in live-action movies. There’s another notable Superman storyline that’s crammed in as well, featuring the mindless rampaging monster Doomsday, who famously “killed” him in the comics. Doomsday is a familiar roaring powerhouse with more than a little Hulk and King Kong in him (there’s even a scene with him climbing a tower and being attacked by planes), but with the twist of being totally indestructible. I’ve never had any interest in Doomsday and had even less interest in seeing him show up in this movie, but he’s handled reasonably well for a late-breaking complication in a movie that’s already dragging on too long.
Superman remains very, very bad at being a hero. There’s a scene in which an entire building full of people are killed while Superman’s standing right there in the room with a suicide bomber. Never mind his super-senses that should have spotted the bomb and his super-speed that should have given him ample time to save pretty much everyone. Instead he doesn’t save even one person from the explosion. He just stands there and lets everyone die around him. Like Batman, he doesn’t even have the excuse of being mind-altered or in some way hampered, except by the fact that he’s got a lot on his mind.
Snyder has Gotham and Metropolis crammed right across a bay from each other rather than in completely different parts of the country, which is convenient for jumping into battle and all but raises more questions that it answers. Why has Superman let Gotham remain such a crime-ridden hellhole when it’s a split-second’s flight from his apartment? How can they rationalize him and Batman having remained unacquainted even this long?
Other things such as the sequel-bait stuff toward the end are done incredibly clumsily. Batman says he just has a feeling that they’re gonna need all the heroes soon, and Luthor rants and raves about some new threat, saying “he’s coming.” Both of these things come completely out of nowhere, and there’s no reason to believe what they’re saying is based on anything at all.
I normally love Amy Adams, and Lois Lane is one of my favorite characters in comics, an utterly fearless reporter who runs toward danger because that’s where the story is. But there’s no time in this story for any of what makes Lois Lane who she is—she’s reduced to the cliche of the damsel in distress who also happens to be a reporter and Superman’s girlfriend. He has to save her life over and over and over again. And she helps out too, a little, but mostly she just frets after Superman. Diane Lane is similarly wasted as Ma Kent, showing up mostly to give Superman even more terrible advice. Basically, she tells him to be a hero if he wants, but “You don’t owe this world a thing. You never did.”
It’s hard to capture just how terrible the script is. It’s all macho posturing and portentous declarations, but it’s at its worst when the writers try to be clever. One of the things that didn’t bode well for this movie was its alleged no-jokes policy, and to be sure, there’s hardly any humor in the thing. It’s possible that Luthor’s constant stream of chatter is supposed to be funny, but it’s hard to tell. Laurence Fishburne does the best he can with Perry White’s curmudgeonly shtick, but the material he’s given to work with is horribly clunky. There’s one identifiable joke in the movie, and it sticks out like a sore thumb—a moment of light banter between Batman and Ma Kent that seems to come out of nowhere, especially for him. It’s probably a blessing that this team didn’t try its hand at wit very often. After all, this movie shows a beloved Superman supporting cast member slaughtered execution-style—not as a plot point, just as a little sight gag. You know, humor.
The rest of the script is stuff like Superman saying, “Next time they shine your light in the sky, don’t answer it. The Bat is dead!” And Batman replying, “Tell me, do you bleed? You will.” Seriously, this is the dialogue that they thought would resonate. And the thing is, all the dialogue is like that. Lois tells Clark, “I just don’t know if it’s possible…for you to love me and be you.” Everyone speaks in these grand maxims and thesis statements all the time, as if anything they say might wind up in the trailer. And I swear to god, there’s actually a version of this exchange played completely straight:
This movie is so over the top in its aggressive dumbness that it’s bizarre to see the parade of cameos in it as if it were some kind of prestige project. Anderson Cooper, Soledad O’Brien, Charlie Rose, Nancy Grace, Senator Patrick Leahy, even Neil deGrasse Tyson show up in it, weighing in yet again on whether Superman is a god or what.
As a director, Snyder is not just fond of the aforementioned literal darkness giving every shot a gloomy cast, but he really, really likes slow motion. Not just for battle scenes, which is expected at this point, and not just for heavy-handed flashbacks to the murder of Bruce Wayne’s parents, but also for scenes as simple as walking to put flowers on grave. Also, horses come up surprisingly often–wandering through the wreckage of Metropolis, bolting from other disasters, and of course leading the many, many funeral processions. Pa Kent even tells a story that involves him drowning a whole lot of horses. Did I mention that Snyders’ Kents are the actual worst?
If what you want is big dumb grunting action and dick-measuring machismo, you’re in luck because Batman v. Superman has pretty much nothing but that for two and a half hours. It doesn’t bode well for the Justice League movies, which are also supposed to be directed by Snyder and written by Terrio. But it does at least give me hope for the Wonder Woman movie, which is the one I care most about anyway. I’m not sure hope is a good thing here, because if they let us down again it’ll be crushing, no matter how true to form it might be for DC movies. Somehow they keep making us think that maybe next time it’ll be different. Maybe next time it’ll be good.