You don’t have to feel bad about liking this movie – nor should you let people who didn’t enjoy it colour your opinion if you’re yet to see it. The truth is, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is a good movie – it just isn’t for everyone.
This is a film that rewards you for having both an in-depth knowledge of 70 years plus of DC Comics history and continuity, but at the same time requires you to be patient in getting to a thunderous climax in the last hour that would hold up any tentpole blockbuster movie, even if the previous 90 minutes don’t.
If anything, don’t go into this expecting anything like Christopher Reeve’s Superman, the Batmans of Michael Keaton or even Christian Bale, and certainly nothing like Marvel’s Captain America or Iron Man movies. It is a far different beast. It’s more like the type of movie you make to understand a wider picture and give context to characters you’ll be seeing later on in DC Comics’ massive library of stories they have accrued over the years.
And that’s exactly what director Zack Snyder is trying to achieve. Here, he uses the backdrop of Batman and Superman’s animosity to introduce other members of the Justice League (DC’s answer to the financial juggernaut that is Marvel’s Avengers movies). He also drops in hints of alternate timelines, potential futures and small nuggets of fan service that many a DC reader would find fascinating, but a casual filmgoer would not.
Therein lies the film’s biggest fault: It’s not accessible. Firstly, a knowledge of Snyder’s 2013 Superman reboot Man of Steel is required, as the jumping off point for Batman’s grudge against Clark Kent’s alter ego is the massive destruction of the city of Metropolis that occurred at the end of that picture. That story is retold here, not from the perspective of the military or Superman himself, but from the people caught up in the collateral damage. That partly comes from Snyder answering his critics from Man of Steel, who said that the film indulged in the wanton devastation of people and masonry, when Superman really should have been more concerned about the people being killed. Bruce Wayne’s drive through falling tower blocks to rescue his employees at the start of the movie is perhaps one of the film’s finest and poignant scenes (something that isn’t always recaptured in the latter part of the tale). While it explains Batman’s drive to stop the all-powerful alien that’s appeared in mankind’s midst, it does far more to establish the difference between a man, and a Superman.
That’s essentially what drives Ben Affleck’s very damaged Batman throughout the majority of the running time. This isn’t a heroic Batman, and far less of his origin and backstory is given here than in previous incarnations. The murder of the Waynes, so often the pivotal part of any story, is played out here in the opening titles, and it’s probably done more artistically than before. Interspersed with their funeral, the shooting of Thomas and Martha Wayne is played out more or less exactly how it occurs in Frank Miller’s story The Dark Knight Returns, right down to the string of pearls catching on the hammer of the gun that kills Bruce Wayne’s parents. That, along with a multitude of other losses that are hinted at throughout the film, give reason as to why this version of The Dark Knight is far more sadistic and brutal than before. Batman regards Superman as a threat to humanity, and is willing to go to extremes to stop him. There’s also much made of Batman’s use of firearms in the film, as well as his recklessness when it comes to preserving life – two traits that have defined the Dark Knight since his comic heyday dawned in the late 80’s. Batman doesn’t kill, and Batman doesn’t use guns. Those rules are unceremoniously thrown out the window by Snyder, and Batman makes liberal use of firearms mounted on vehicles and in the arms of other bad guys, willfully blowing away many a henchman with heavy ordinance. This could be a reflection of the more brutal, haunted Batman, who long ago abandoned his no killing rule, but it still comes as a bit of a shock to those schooled in Batman’s non-lethal approach (despite his multiple murders in both Michael Keaton films).
While Batman represents the extreme option, the film does spend the majority of it’s duration examining the rights and wrongs of people acting unilaterally. The line spoken by Holly Hunter’s Senator Finch, “the world has been so caught up with what he (Superman) can do that no one has asked what he should do”, is the movie’s message in a nutshell. This is a Man of Steel plagued by doubt, unsure of what humanity makes of him, and lacking the experience to know what to do next. Henry Cavill is playing a less confident version of the character than Christopher Reeve did, and therefore lacks his assurance – but Reeve’s Superman also existed in a world where the lines of right and wrong were much more clearly defined. Snyder’s attempts to muddy the waters are again intriguing for comic fans, but again could be lost on a far more mainstream audience than he was aiming for. While those of us who have read comic books would be intrigued as to how mankind would respond to a figure as powerful as Superman showing up, which leads to both the diplomatic and aggressive response, it comes as too far a stretch for those who just want to know why Superman and Batman are fighting, and who wins. Snyder sets the scene in laborious detail, flitting backwards and forwards between Wayne’s tortured, solitary lifestyle, and Superman’s new found happiness with Lois Lane (which again stems from Man of Steel).
Part of that scene setting also comes from Warner Bros. need to start fleshing out the universe that they are hoping can catch up with Marvel’s money spinning continuity. As we’ve mentioned above, this movie serves as a jumping off point for the rest of the Justice League. The biggest part of that is the introduction of Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman. The third part of DC’s “Trinity” (you’ll hear that phrase a lot over the next few years), her role here is minimal compared to the other two heroes. Gadot has relatively little acting experience compared to her male counterparts, and while she sets aside fears that she couldn’t physically adapt to the role (Wonder Woman is more, shall we say, “rounded” than Miss Gadot), there isn’t really enough of her to determine whether or not she can lead her own showpiece, which she’s slated to do in 2017. Her lines aren’t great in number, and she spends most of the movie wearing slinky evening gowns before donning her battledress for the final showdown. She isn’t the only one though – brief glimpses of DC characters Aquaman, The Flash and Cyborg are all found within the depth of Lex Luthor’s databases. This is explained early on with references to the “Meta Human Theory”, where it’s claimed extraordinary beings exist already – we just haven’t seen them yet. All the characters above are slated to have their own movies in DC’s colossal list of features to come, all before 2020.
But Snyder also spends a lot of time providing glimpses of the future, the most notable being the “Knightmare” sequence, which borrows heavily from the continuity of Injustice: Gods Among Us (a story where Superman is driven insane by the death of Lois Lane and subjugates the Earth, leaving Batman to stop him), and the stories Final Crisis and The Darkseid War (Intergalactic tyrant Darkseid being the “he” Lex Luthor refers to during his final incarceration). The winged soldiers are Parademons, Darkseid’s cannon fodder of choice. Featuring them so prominently, plus the inclusion of a huge Omega symbol (used by Darkseid) during the vision leads many to believe that the malevolent god is being set up at The Justice League movie’s big villain.
There’s also a scene cut from the theatrical release that shows Jesse Eisenberg’s Lex Luthor speaking with an alien creature while studying the Kryptonian archive he finds in the downed alien ship left over from the end of Man of Steel. That alien is undoubtedly Steppenwolf, one of Darkseid’s lieutenants, adding further credence to the theory.
Eisenberg’s Luthor though, is perhaps one of the key failures of the film. We’ve talked already about the mainstream filmgoer not being familiar with certain characters, but other than Batman and Superman, there’s one character they definitely will know, and that’s Luthor. It makes both the casting of Eisenberg and his interpretation of the role all the more curious. Luthor has traditionally been an older character, and one of calm, collected assurance. While Superman performs feats of physical strength, Luthor is always confident he can outsmart him. Not only that, but his maturity and cynicism is often a counterpoint to Superman’s hope and naivety. Here; Eisenberg turns him from mature businessman to irritating hipster – but again the blame for that can be laid at Snyder and writer Chris Terrio’s door. Losing his hair at the end may make people accept him a little more, but his incessant chirping, and bizarre mannerisms through the picture take something away from the character. Ironically, the comic book audience the movie was undoubtedly aimed at, have responded apathetically to Luthor, while the general perception has been why Luthor’s traditional characterisation was jettisoned – especially when Breaking Bad star Bryan Cranston was linked with the role at one point, a fact confirmed by Snyder himself.
Luthor’s hubris and desire to see both Batman and Superman destroy each other leads to the final, almighty showdown where the heroes team up. That’s right, the endgame isn’t Batman and Superman knocking the bejesus out of one another – that occurs with roughly an hour left to go, and typically unfolds in a scenario where Superman has to hold back. His restraint allows Batman to drive home his violent retribution, which borrows heavily from the aforementioned The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller, right down to Batman’s heavy armour and Kryptonite based weaponry. Still, their common theme – being orphans – is what eventually builds a bridge between the two. It’s handy considering it’s just before Luthor unleashes another DC character on the pair in the hopes of killing them both.
Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman end up battling Doomsday, a villain most notable for being the behemoth that actually kills Superman – which he does here. Yep, there’s another shocker for you, the final 25 minute battle ends with Superman sacrificing himself to defeat the monster – a moment that somehow lacks emotional resonance. Maybe because Superman has become somewhat of a passenger in a movie bearing his name, or maybe it’s because we already know Henry Cavill will be back for the first installment of The Justice League feature, but something is lacking. Cavill’s acting is fine, but it could be that the audience just hasn’t built up enough of a relationship with his Man of Steel yet to make his death mean something. The move is supposed to represent Superman’s nobility and willingness to give his life so the rest of the world might live (Snyder loves religious metaphors), but he’s just not been around long enough.
That said, the scenes following his death, with Superman’s “official” state funeral in Washington intercut with Clark Kent’s humble send off in Smallville, are well shot and do add that gravitas missing from the fight scene. It captures the sadness of the death of a public figure, while at the same time removing the doubt that had lingered over whether Superman was actually the benevolent superhero he claimed to be. Again though, long time DC Comics readers will recognise the themes of the storyline The Death of Superman, but guess what, even if you haven’t read it, you don’t need to be a psychic to know that Superman isn’t staying dead.
So how best to sum up Batman v Superman? It’s not a blockbuster, it’s not an accessible film, it’s not even a self contained story. It is, though, something very different to the multitude of other superhero films out there. Most embrace the willingness to “ground” characters so we better understand them, but in a world of Amazonian warriors, and nigh indestructible aliens, Batman v Superman revels in telling tales of outlandish heroes and the effect they have on the world. It tries to say plenty of meaningful things about absolute power, vigilantism, perception of so-called heroes, and in doing so does more than a popcorn festival, but it doesn’t hit the mark in that regard. What it does do is unapologetically put on screen perhaps the closest representation you’ll get to a comic book in larger media. The look and feel of the movie, and it’s imagery, should be applauded. Cavill’s Superman is one you could see struggling with the burden of being a hero, which the modern day printed version has done continually. Affleck’s Batman is the comic book version, not the gothic knight of Burton’s vision, nor the armoured ninja of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy. This Batman is one scarred by life’s events and retaliating in the only way he knows how, through violence. Maybe he lacks the more cerebral parts of the character, but there are still plenty of tales to tell from his history of fighting crime in Gotham (Affleck’s Batman has been active for more than 20 years). The rest of the Justice League? We can’t say too much, simply because we haven’t seen enough of them to judge.
It isn’t a bad film, but it suffers from trying to put too much on screen too soon. The comic reading fellowship can get the most out of this, but anyone looking for 120 minutes of escapism will not find what they want here. Critics have savaged the movie, but it still made $420m in it’s opening weekend. That suggests enough people want to see what DC has to offer, but DC hasn’t quite given it to them yet. In a movie where superheroes, viewed by many as being incorruptible beings of perfection, aren’t perfect, it’s slightly ironic that the movie itself is just as flawed as they are.