Great Caesar’s ghost… what a dump!
Never before, perhaps in the history of the superhero blockbuster genre, has such an incredible overabundance of acting, filmmaking, and visual-effects talent gone so tragically to waste. Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice is a cold, empty rush fest with a jumbled brain and a blackened heart.
This paper-thin, overwhelmingly-dreary Lego structure of a fan film lags like an Oscar drama yet simultaneously sprints like a Part II. It staggers and stumbles through one embarrassing effort after another to earn its epic moments, despite having no meaty hook to its premise or payoff. Batman V Superman fails even on its most visceral terms, and deserves abject relegation to YouTube.
Had I lots of money, I’d buy drinks (and a ring) for she who could explain to me what BVS is actually about, i.e. what purpose it serves and personal or political struggles it seeks to dramatize. There are none, and that’s the first of many spoilers of this review. My appraisal from here will read as a series of increasingly bigger spoilers. Read at your own peril.
To be sure, there are improvements over Man of Steel. Superficially, most in the cast look as good as they did before, with Laurence Fishburne & Harry Lennix more confident, and the new cast (sans Jesse Eisenberg) ensures a new and appropriately standalone movie. The action is more dynamic and the color palette is put to greater use. There is one earnest endeavor to anchor Superman more firmly to the ideal of human good, which is genuinely appreciable before the film buries it under an avalanche of its own adolescent cynicism. And perhaps best of all, BVS remains refreshingly free from overwrought exposition of its mechanics. Batman’s gadgets are his gadgets, his vehicles are his vehicles, kryptonite the substance is given no more than a couple sentences, and the film barely blinks when Wonder Woman shows up with her shield, bracelets, weapons, and warrior garbs.
You’d think that such novel artistry and iconography so vividly breathed into celluloid life by one of Hollywood’s most capable kinetic visualists would enrapture the senses and pack the punch. Instead it highlights the vapidity of the film as its moral compass points towards darkness for darkness’s own sake.
Eighteen months have passed since the events of Man of Steel. Superman has behaved himself, and Metropolis has rebuilt itself clean, but time has otherwise stood still. His presence divides the people, and now Congress wishes to press for answers. The other characters in this picture, however, just want to kill him. They really, really want to kill him.
Let’s start with Lex Luthor. DC has always soared through its exploration of great hero/villain rivalries. Being perhaps the best of them all, volumes have been written delving into the impetus behind Lex’s fascinating hatred for Superman. Jealousy, xenophobia, disillusionment with Superman’s naiveté, genuine beliefs that Superman at best cannot help and at worst stagnates humanity – any one or more of these can power that character through a movie and make a compelling human being, but the films have always cheapened him. He’s either been a power-drunken, opportunistic real estate mogul (Gene Hackman) or a bitter mad scientist (Kevin Spacey). Here, he’s an even more unhinged version of that same ridiculous scheming kooky chemist from Superman Returns, oozing with nihilism. Power and divine goodness are irreconcilable opposites, and therefore Superman cannot be a hero, therefore let’s kill him. There is hardly more thought put into Lex’s motives than that.
This uninspired sophistry disguised as enlightened pessimism on its own makes a lame enough Lex Luthor no matter who the actor is, but Jesse Eisenberg and his endless psychobabble compound that problem. If Eisenberg has ever been annoyed of his being typecast as insufferable, elitist man-children, he need worry no further. He’s a good actor, but watching him strut with that long hair and his yap glued open bears exactly the same kind of diminishing returns as all the punching in Man of Steel. In Red Son (read that, if you haven’t), Lex broke Superman with a pocket note containing only 12 words. Eisenberg is an implausible Lex, but the salvageable solution was to direct him to do the opposite. Less is more, so have him master the thousand-yard stare and make it look like he’s right on the edge of destroying someone with words without ever doing it.
Yet even this would be manageable if the good guy was compelling enough, but Superman smiles maybe twice and apparently is still begrudgingly getting used to the inconvenience of having to save people who aren’t Lois Lane. The first time he shows up in the present, he dispatches a man with a gun to her head, and then only reassures later (in a strange intimate bathtub setting with her) that he didn’t kill him. Later witnesses at that scene testify to the third-world horrors of that setting, and the film is unclear if they’re talking about Superman or the bad guys he took down.
Worse, Henry Cavill, by his own initiative or Zack Snyder’s direction, has melded Superman into the persona of Clark Kent. Clark Kent was either the best or second best (behind Iron Man) secret identity ever – the funny dichotomy of being a famous reporter no one notices because of his perpetual gauche. Not here. There is no Clark Kent; there is only Superman with a pair of glasses, and Cavill still has almost no chemistry with Amy Adams’s Lois. That makes his brooding even less effective than it was in Man of Steel, and his social demeanor almost as bad as Lex’s.
What a thoroughly uncharismatic and flippant shadow of the American Way’s greatest guardian Man of Steel and BVS have presented us. Pa Kent’s penchant towards awful parenting really does run in the family, as Ma Kent has now taken over for him as the advocate for apathetic self-centrism. Her scene with him is exactly as it was in the trailer. Pa can apparently only offer good advice in death; his anecdote in dream is great, but utterly out of place in this film.
Superman being his own depressant and Lex sounding off like his life is another Aaron Sorkin play are enough by themselves to make the film nothing more than an act of sheer violence upon their audience. And while we’re on the subject of violence, there is quite a lot of it here. Not just action, but violence. To the point where I can barely imagine what the R-rated version of this movie does differently. And we’re not just talking about Doomsday, or Superman yet again refusing to pause to see if people are caught in the crossfire. Batman kills people.
Not by accident either. He shoots them at will with his gun or their own, or with the miniguns and grenade launchers on his Batmobile and Batwing. He pancakes cars with people clearly still inside them, or blows them up. And if there is any bastard unlucky enough to survive that, he brands their flesh with a Batarang. For anyone going to jail, that brand is an immediate death sentence, and Batman knows it. This is literally how the film chooses to tell us that Batman kills people. Later on, he likens criminals to weeds – pluck them out and they grow back.
Wow. Okay, fine. BVS isn’t interested in any kind of moral dilemma. Maybe this is just its tactless way of putting us on Superman’s side for their battle. After all, Clark Kent defies orders and goes on a media crusade against the Batman. Nope; the film opens with Thomas & Martha Wayne’s funeral, with yet another slow-motion flashback of their death, which we see again later, (even Tim Burton’s Batman in 1989 was bored with this). Then it flashes forward to the Battle of Metropolis, where Bruce Wayne came to the city to do what Superman neglected to – save people.
I’d be remiss to not note that Ben Affleck and Jeremy Irons are awesome as Batman and Alfred respectively. Their voices boom powerful, and their look and acting live up to the hype promised in the trailer. But the film doesn’t put any of it to good use. Batman thinks Superman is a threat, so he wants to kill him, but he also suspects Lex of being a villain. So he tries to steal the kryptonite Lex is having shipped to him from India. After Batman kills maybe a dozen men in that chase, Superman (who has absolutely no clue of what’s going on) stops him and tells him to get bent. So Lex gets the kryptonite, but then a few scenes later Batman has it for some reason.
Wait, what? Did Bruce partner up with Lex to kill Superman? That doesn’t make sense, given that Bruce was also stealing LexCorp’s data on other meta-humans (Flash, Aquaman, and Cyborg are nothing more than Easter Eggs) as well as Wonder Woman. That or they came with the files he was looking for, in which case LexCorp has a serious data security problem. Okay, whatever. The point is that Batman gets the kryptonite. So he prepares to fight Superman.
Fine. So then what’s Superman’s reason for actually facing Batman? Lex Luthor kidnaps his mom and threatens to burn her alive. No, seriously. His ransom is for Superman to bring back Batman’s head. Why? I have no idea. It might be to make Superman kill, but at this point the world had already believed that he had killed a ton of people (on purpose). Or it could have been because he had given Bruce the kryptonite to make that fight a trap for Superman. But if he did that, then why did Lex also – just before that – drop the corpse of General Zod into the pool in Zod’s ship (this is barely explained) with a blood sacrifice of his own, and siphon off power from countless city blocks to create Doomsday? There is no character motivation to help illuminate any of this.
It really is looking more and more as though the producers wanted a Bruce/Lex team-up against Superman, only for Batman to have an epiphany that Superman really isn’t all that bad, and then that story was dropped without addressing all the threads. Instead what happens here is that at the finishing moment of the fight, Superman begs Bruce to save “Martha.” The name gives Bruce pause because Martha is his mother’s name. Have I stressed enough my wishes that I’ve been kidding this entire time? Batman and Superman become allied because their mothers have the same first name.
So Batman flies off to track down and save Superman’s mother while Superman licks his wounds from their fight. Then Doomsday comes to life, so Superman carries him up into space, where the military launches a nuke at both of them. That accidentally unlocks the rest of his kryptonian powers and morphs him into a more familiar (but still horrendous-looking) Doomsday, so Batman takes him on by luring him away from Metropolis and towards Gotham, where the kryptonite spear he had planned to skewer Superman with is lying around. Doomsday catches up but Wonder Woman saves him.
I guess now is the time I tell you that Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman has about six scenes total. First she beats Bruce Wayne to Lex’s data; then she gives it to him. Then he sends her the information on the other meta-humans. Then she sees the news of Doomsday while on a Turkish airline, so she leaves it to help. How does she get there? Look, I’m exhausted. Stop asking questions the film is too willfully stupid to answer. Yes, it’s awesome to see her leap into action like that. No, the movie doesn’t care about her beyond how she looks in a backless dress and her fighting skills.
All right, now comes the mother of all spoilers. After the sun regenerates Superman in space, he returns to fight Doomsday (and save Lois again from drowning) with Batman and Wonder Woman. He nearly kills himself to get the spear, tells Lois he loves her, and charges at Doomsday with the spear… to his death.
Yes, Superman kills Doomsday, who slices him open upon impact. So Superman “dies.” They have two funerals, one military procession for Superman and the real one for Clark Kent on the Kansas farm, attended by Lois, Ma Kent, Batman, and Wonder Woman. Ma Kent gives Lois the engagement ring Clark intended to give her (as if this means anything given how little the movie has cared for their romance) and Batman agrees with Wonder Woman to find the other meta-humans so they can “fight” and “stand together,” lamenting how he failed Superman in life.
Again, what? There isn’t a single reason to believe that Batman has done anything in this movie to affect the world’s polemic impression of Superman, or that he had anything to do with his death. What are we supposed to take from this? Does Batman blame himself for not believing in Superman earlier? What good would that have done? All they did was fight – a fight that Superman literally could have stopped at any moment to explain what Lex was doing. He didn’t have to hit Batman back, but he chose to.
This, beyond everything above goes straight to what is most irascibly infuriating about this unholy nadir of lore bastardization. BVS’s plotting is only slightly more atrocious than its editing. It’s a movie about two different breeds of jerks that hate each other until they don’t – a movie that refuses to take a side, contextualize their conflicts, or have any opinion of its own about anything that’s going on. It presents a meaningless buildup to the ten-minute fight highlighted by the title, and then acts like it just conquered the world. We are hard pressed to feel anything about anyone, whether they are supposed to be fancifully enjoying themselves or grappling with their sense of ethics and responsibility. We aren’t involved at all.
And once all sense of personal connection is removed from this conflict, we are left wondering the real purpose for it beyond the cynical money grubbing. The real fight in Frank Miller’s classic The Dark Knight Returns was a political and thematic climax, not only of that particular story, but of both characters’ long-form arcs across the Golden, Silver, and Bronze Ages of comics. Yes, they didn’t always love each other, but they went nearly fifty years existing, changing, being heroes, teammates, friends, crossing dimensions, and adapting to the interests of new generations. Only then, during tense new heights of Cold-War escalation, did it make sense to frame the characters as ideological adversaries – with Batman declaring Superman a hapless tool of the Reagan Administration and Superman charging Batman with not recognizing that society no longer tolerates the Caped Crusader, which was a running pattern throughout that story, among so many others.
BVS not only can’t envision a remote sense of itself, it suffers even more from the paradox of its intended audience. Casual goers will walk away wondering what the big deal was supposed to be. Longtime fans and comic geeks (myself included) are surest to appreciate the Easter Eggs and many nuances of the look, feel, and action. Yet just as so many felt betrayed with Man of Steel, they will just as severely decry this film for further betraying the heroic morals of its star characters. These very studious lore-learned individuals will sound the bell of this film’s doom.
If this is to be the trend Warner Bros’ aims to set for its own cash grab of the genre, I desire not to see a single frame more than we have already. And I never thought I’d say that about an adaptation of DC Comics. Such a rich and deep wellspring of creativity, mythology, empowerment, and bold artistic discovery that transcended generations and gave to the world those universal icons deserved better than this. And despite how jaded I have been with humanity of late, we deserved better too.
UPDATE: Sverrir wrote a more personal follow-up piece about his feelings of heartbreak and betrayal by these films as a fan of DC Comics. Read it here.