Take this as the massive cry for help it probably is. I’ve gone so long without being in a cinema that I’ve decided to revisit an older film that I know I don’t like all that much, purely because I’ve never actually reviewed it and it seemed timely.
What with the long-awaited announcement of Zack Snyder’s Justice League now being official, I thought I’d go back and take a look at the film that preceded it, and not just a regular look either, no, this film is so dense with flaws and things to discuss that I can feel this is going to be more of a post-mortem than a review, a look at the extended version of this divisive (in the same way that Hitler is divisive) film, and look at the n numerous flaws, and even point out some of the bits I like, for I didn’t hate this film, I was disappointed, as there was enough in there to suggest an even better film was lurking beneath the surface, but I digress, let’s hold our noses and dive in.
For those who are a bit more slow on the uptake, and didn’t figure out much about this film from its title; Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (hereon in referred to as BvS) sees the DC’s two biggest characters clash on the big screen for the first time, that’s right we finally get the long awaited battle between Polka-Dot Man and Condiment King! Nah, I’m just kidding, that was a test to see if you’re all still awake.
The big issue hanging over BvS, like a pinata full of rancid luncheon meat, is one of studio interference. An issue that plagued the DCEU throughout its formative years, not only on this film, but also on Justice League and Suicide Squad. The studio behind these films (Warner Bros.) carved up these respective films, on the surface to make them more marketable and profitable, but in reality, they just made them all into incomprehensible piles of cow dung, soiling the reputation of these characters and the franchise.
But never fear, the creative force behind at least two of these movies (Zack Snyder) has found a way to convince Warner Brothers to let him release his intended vision, something that took significantly longer with Justice League, but is nonetheless a topic of much discussion amongst internet fans and critics.
The backlash began in earnest (at least as far as I can remember) with the casting of Ben Affleck as Bruce Wayne/Batman, a backlash that was as inevitable as it was tedious, as the Batman fans never really know what they want until they have it, then they conveniently forget ever having not wanted it (the casting of Heath Ledger springs to mind) and as controversial as this film remains, Ben Affleck’s performance remains one of the aspects of it to be universally acclaimed.
So, I suppose that makes it as good a place as any to start.
For my review of this film, I took the uncharacteristic step of making notes, I can usually operate without needing them, as I write the review as soon as I’ve finished watching the film, and can, as a rule, be trusted to maintain my base opinions on what I saw. On this occasion, however, there was so much I wanted to say about BvS that I thought taking notes would be the only way to make sure I didn’t miss anything, and on the top of my page labelled ‘The Good’ is the name Ben Affleck.
If he’d featured in films that were better received, he could be considered the best live-action Batman ever seen, he’s a perfect fit for this version of the character, one who is established as a force, and has been for a while, and as a result is battle-scarred and jaded. He portrays this as a worn-down Bruce Wayne, looking to pin all the world’s problems on Superman, his usual black-and-white sense of morality is blurred in his single-minded determination to take down this otherworldly being.
The positives to the portrayal of Batman don’t end with the actor though, as BvS is home to some of the best Batman action ever seen on the big-screen, no matter how few and far between these moments are, it serves to remind us that this vision of Batman had the potential to be something truly special. Unfortunately though, as I say these moments are few and far between, there’s one particularly memorable moment where Batman takes down a room of thugs using his ingenuity, and his arsenal of Bat-weaponry, as well as a long-take sequence in a dream that really shows the potential of his iteration of the Dark Knight.
It makes it all the more disappointing then, that this potential is masked under a messy plot, full of contrivances and incredible stretches of logic. This isn’t the only potential wasted in BvS though, as I said in earlier paragraphs, one of the worst things about this film is catching a glimpse of a far-better movie, beneath the layers and layers of moist toilet paper that make up the insulation of this film. That was my ham-fisted attempt to say that this movie is more padded than an American footballer with brittle-bone disease.
Bizarrely though, even for a film with so much padding, some aspects of it are really rushed; the best example of which being the extremely clumsy shoe-horning in of cameos from other members of the Justice League, a blatantly transparent attempt to justify a team-up movie so early in the franchise continuity.
With all that said thought, here are a few more things I liked about BvS:
- The introduction of Wonder Woman
- The score by musical genius Hans Zimmer – in particular, Wonder Woman’s theme
- Jeremy Irons’ portrayal of Alfred
- The consistently good Batman action scenes, and the horror influence on his character
- Some nice moments of cinematography (say what you like about this film, but for the most part, it looks nice)
- The first confrontation between Batman and Superman
- The duality of the Clark Kent/Superman character
I’ve said it before, and it bears repeating here, I don’t think BvS is as bad as some people say, it’s very flawed, and I’ll be getting to those flaws soon, but overall it’s an enjoyable enough watch, more so if you’re watching the Ultimate Edition, with some moments that really would make it stand-out, had it been put together better.
Ultimately, I think there are several different ‘camps’ of thinking when it comes to BvS: The first are the hardcore DC fans who loved it, and Snyder’s input overall, who can at times be blind to the number of issues Snyder has as a filmmaker, then there’s the casual fans of DC who liked The Dark Knight films and were disappointed in this because it wasn’t like the films they liked, the casual movie fan who enjoys the film for what it was, and finally is the hardcore comic book crowd who didn’t like it because it wasn’t Marvel, or they expected something more reminiscent of the MCU, and have spent the last half-decade using the DCEU as a punchline. There are other schools of thought, but these are the main four you come across.
As for me, I skirt around the edges of several of the above categories, I haven’t been above making a dig at the DCEU’s expense, but I’ve also been quick to praise its positives. I don’t think there’s been a ‘bad’ DC film since Justice League, there are some I’ve liked more than others, but none have actively annoyed me like Justice League did.
So, then, about those flaws I mentioned. Well, it won’t surprise you to know that I filled several pages of my little notebook with the films shortcomings, some are, admittedly, more nit-picks than genuine criticisms, so I’ll focus on my main complaints, and list the lesser ones as bullet points at the end.
Right, where to start… well, I might as well start with our primary antagonist, Lex Luthor, played here by Jesse Eisenberg, and I would very much like to know who told Jesse that he was playing The Riddler instead of Luthor, or whether he knew which character he was playing at all, because his performance is enough to make my teeth itch.
Eisenberg in the right part is a great actor, this is not the right part for Jesse Eisenberg. This character is all of his past character traits concentrated into one very annoying person and pumped up to 11. Luthor is cunning, tactical, and a world-class intellect, this movie thinks that the best way of portraying that is by having him say some vague-sounding poetic dialogue, and passing that off as complexity, that’s when he isn’t flapping around overacting like a pantomime villain.
All of this trickles down into Lex’s plan, which is so much of a stretch that Heath Ledger’s Joker would tell him to tone it down a notch. First, we’re just supposed to accept that Luthor knows Superman’s identity, we’re not shown how, he just does, then we’re supposed to just accept that he knows about Kryptonite, and how Kryptonian technology works, it’s all very convenient this isn’t it.
Lex’s plan, in a nutshell, is to force Superman to fight Batman, to do this he has Supes mother, Martha (remember that name) kidnapped (side-note: Superman’s instincts have this incredibly contrived, and convenient for the screenwriters, blind-spot, that means he can tell when Lois is in danger from two continents away, but never tell him anything about his mother being kidnapped) instead of arriving and explaining this to Batman, he engages him in an epic fight, where he is compromised by Kryptonite.
Ah, Kryptonite, that plot-convenient cop-out that screenwriters use when Superman seems too all-powerful, or when they need us to believe that a fight between a mortal man and an actual God is anywhere near feasible.
So far, so far-fetched, but it’s movie logic, so we’re going along with it, the point where the train comes off the rails, speeds through an orphanage and erupts into a giant fireball is at the pivotal moment where Batman decides to become BFFs with Superman, and it’s all because of one word: Martha.
Throughout the film, we see that Bruce is haunted by the memory of his dead parents (hey! Did you know Bruce’s parents were killed? What’s that? You’ve seen it, like, three times before? Oh, well, better show you it once more in slow motion) his mothers’ name is Martha, Superman’s name is Martha. Oh, why didn’t you say so? Let’s become best friends and have a slumber party.
It’s this one scene that drives the stake through the narrative so thoroughly for me, and you can tell me until you’re blue in the face about its symbolic meaning, or whatever, but I really don’t care how deep you, or Snyder thinks it is, because on screen, it just comes across as really dumb. It’s the biggest thing that ultimately kills this movie for me, and at this point, there’s still nearly an hour to go!
You see, pitting Batman and Superman against each other wasn’t the only string to Lex’s bow, oh dear me, no. He’d also figured out that by mixing his blood with the body of a dead Kryptonian general, he could create an unstoppable monster, theoretically capable of killing Superman. How does he know this, you ask? The screenwriters don’t care, and neither should you.
I’d be willing to stomach this development if Doomsday (the monster I alluded to) didn’t look so God-awful or feel like he was arbitrarily stapled onto the plot, just so the new Super Best Friends had something to kill. Truth be told, we see snapshots of Doomsday coming to be throughout the film, but it’s never explained how Lex knew he could make such h a monster, or how he came to know how to use the alien technology.
It could be argued that he is being controlled by Darkseid/Steppenwolf, but seeing as this extremely plot-important scene was cut from the theatrical release, we have to conclude that he isn’t, and that he was acting with his own knowledge, which is absurd.
Then, just to put the cherry on top of this wonderful final act, we have the conclusion, this is the point where those who haven’t seen BvS should close the page, or go to sleep, Superman sacrifices himself to kill Doomsday.
Now this might seem pretty significant, but it’s ultimately a hollow act, and it is a hollow act for two reasons:
A: There was no need for Superman to fly with the Kryptonite spear, he could have thrown it, or swapped places with Wonder Woman.
B: Everyone knew that he was going to be revived for Justice League, therefore making his sacrifice meaningless, and drop-kicking any sense of stakes out the door of a plane.
It is these three key aspects of BvS that damage it more than any other in my opinion. Even the cartoonish portrayal of Lex could have been at least bearable if his plan had made any sense at all, but in these three acts it completely deconstructs any goodwill I had towards it.
Here is a further list of more minor issues I had with the film:
- Metropolis and Gotham City are about a mile apart, not sure why this annoys me, but it does.
- Clumsy dialogue trying to use long words to sound complex.
- Overuse of slow-motion.
- While I’m at it, overuse of dream sequences.
- Bruce seeing the climax of Man of Steel. It’s interesting, but certain parts push credibility.
- Too much Dawn of Justice, not enough Batman v Superman.
- There are too many variable that make the final act push credibility. (see my side-note earlier about Superman’s instincts not saving his Mum).
- The overall messiness of the narrative. (Granted, this is worse in the theatrical cut)
- When the cinematography isn’t being great, it’s looking like it’s shot through a used coffee filter. AKA dark lighting and framing does not equal complexity.
With all of that energy expended on this film, which I have spoken at length about elsewhere, I think I’ve put to bed all my thought on it pretty definitively. No, I don’t think it’s the worst superhero film ever, neither do I think it’s particularly good. If I were to switch my brain off and not try and over-think it, I’m sure it would pass the time sufficiently, but part of my conditioning after nearly four years of writing criticism is to think about films, why choices were made and how they’re constructed, it can enhance my enjoyment of a great film, and destroy my view of a bad film, and the more I look at BvS, the more cracks I notice.
Having said all that, I do have a lot of sympathy for some of the people involved. Ben Affleck was pretty much a broken man by the time Justice League came about, and it can’t be easy for a creative spirit like Zack Snyder’s to see his vision get put through the wringer so thoroughly and so often.
I remain, as ever, open-minded to The Snyder Cut, or whatever they’re calling it now. But I do advise caution when looking towards the future, we must remember the faults of the past.