It’s fair to say that Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice isn’t quite as bad as has been made out across most of the media. It has a lot wrong with it, but there are some nice bits. It’s by no means a masterpiece, very far from it, but it’s no Green Lantern either.
Possibly the most baffling thing about the movie is the bizarre decision to recycle a plot from the worst Superman film ever made Superman IV: The Quest For Peace and make it a sizeable section of the movie. I’m not going to spoiler it further than saying if you’ve seen Superman IV you know this is a very bad idea indeed.
So what is the story?
It is two years after the events of Man of Steel when Superman and General Zod smashed up the centre of Metropolis accidentally killing several thousand people in the maelstrom. The level of collateral damage Henry Cavill’s Superman was directly responsible for in that movie makes him a very different, pragmatic and dour creation to the one most of us were familiar with from Christopher Reeve’s time in the tights. Reeve’s Superman was the all American boy scout, and although at one point it is mentioned that Cavill’s Superman has been spotted getting a cat down out of a tree, it is incredibly difficult to actually imagine. This Superman may be caring and striving for good, but he’s also selfish and incredibly careless. He’s also pretty gruff which from our experience of the character in previous incarnations makes him a lot like Batman.
What the film does a lot right with is Batman. As well as Jeremy Iron’s excellent turn as the Wayne butler Alfred (think Iron Man’s computer Jarvis but a real person) Affleck is very good. Ben Affleck’s Bruce Wayne is an older man than we are used to, who has been fighting crime on the streets of Gotham as the caped crusader for twenty years (which makes it a bit curious that Clark Kent has only just heard of him – one of many plot holes). He is weary and embittered, but still dedicated to smashing (and apparently not beyond killing) bad guys. He is a slightly younger version of the Batman in Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns graphic novel (something which is visually referenced several times). As Bruce Wayne he is particularly at odds with Superman as he was in Metropolis the day everything collapsed, witnessing the death and destruction from the ground. For anyone watching the end of Man of Steel wondering what the mayhem of several thousand people dying looked like as buildings collapsed left, right and centre, here we get to see it. It’s not fun. It can’t be accidental that we see correlations with video footage taken on the day during 9/11, however crass it is of the movie-makers to draw parallels.
The fact that Superman/ Clark Kent also doesn’t seem to regret any of his actions is telling.
Amy Adams as Lois Lane doesn’t really have much to do except for be in the right place to serve the plot. At one stage because she’s in Metropolis and the plot needs her to be in Gotham she somehow and inexplicably persuades her boss to lend her a helicopter. Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is surprisingly funny on occasion, but that’s mostly down to Laurence Fishbourne as Daily Planet editor Perry White. He gets all the best lines. He’s a terrible newspaper editor though – walking in of a morning to a not very busy newsroom and telling his columnist Clark Kent that he’s now going to be looking after the sports page for no apparent reason.
Diane Lane as Clark’s mother Martha Kent shares the only moment in the film where we see Superman as a truly good man – she does wonders with the little she’s given to do. Holly Hunter as Sentator Finch is crying out for more than her allotted screen time too. Gal Gadot’s introduction as Wonder Woman is kept nicely intriguing even if she isn’t given more to do than help out in the final scrap and be introduced for her own standalone movie and the upcoming Justice League film.
Jesse Eisenberg’s nervy, twitchy performance as Lex Luthor is an intriguingly bold choice that simply doesn’t pay off, as the character comes off more like the Riddler from Batman than the powerful criminal mastermind of a giant business. More than that, rather than being amusing it’s simply annoying. Eisenberg would’ve been a great choice for the Riddler. This Lex then is a genius, but one who hides it by being deliberately obnoxious. And he has a plan to defeat Superman and help those who are trying to do the same.
And here is where the v of the title comes from – Batman wants to kill Superman because of his quite reasonable objection that when the man in tights tries to help, he actually ends up hurting and people die in his wake. Wayne believes if Superman decided one day to turn his powers against the people of earth, he could destroy the planet. So Wayne is forming plan, and a showdown eventually takes place. The reason Batman ultimately stops trying to kill Superman when he finally has a clear advantage is… unconvincing.
It’s a real shame that having Batman as the embittered middle aged figure Snyder still feels it necessary to show his origin story again. It’s all done with dream sequences and way too much slow motion. In fact there are way too much dream sequence and slow motion in the film. None of it is necessary. Flashbacks are one thing, but flashbacks as dream sequences, with added slow motion are pointless, however pretty they look.
The problem Snyder has always had is that Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies reset the level of “reality” aimed at in the filmed comic book world. Although they were nuts and bolts fanciful there was always the idea that this could happen in a real world context. They were gritty, but (for example) Catwoman never actually went by that name or had a real costume, she was just an expert cat burglar. What if a billionaire did just blow all his cash on some extreme sports gear and a big cave? With Man of Steel this pattern continued – there was never much pretense at Clark Kent hiding who he was – Lois Lane found out pretty quick. Man of Steel takes place on a recognisable Earth. In contrast with the Marvel Cinematic Universe though, which sets stuff in the “real world” but does it with a genuine lightness of touch regardless of the movie or TV series, the DC Extended Universe makes sure we understand that everything is Very Serious Indeed. Unfortunately, you can’t have it both ways especially if the origin stories of some of the heroes about to be introduced are a bit, well, silly. And make no mistake, this film is now serving as a prequel to the upcoming The Justice League which has a man who can talk to fish in it.
No digital photography?
For no readily explained reason all photographers in the world of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice seem to use film cameras. It appears Polaroid and 35mm film are the staple and digital photography hasn’t reached Metropolis or over the bay to the city of Gotham. It’s almost if they were only put in for the visual dramatic effect – A scene where Lex Luthor scattering Polaroids for example is just bizarre and clearly done because it’s supposed to look good. Certainly more dramatic than flicking through images on an iPad.
This is another issue, which the film like so many others, is guilty of. A lot of things only to look good rather than serve a purpose. A car chase with Batman along the docks has no serviceable reason to happen rather than be a car chase along the docks. There’s a lot of padding and at 2 and a half hours long it’s not something the film needs. It is flabby, the first act is so invested in re-introducing Batman’s origin story that things take a while to get going. The big fight sequences are big, fast overblown and difficult to follow, but have a lot of CGI thrown at them which supposedly makes everything alright, but actually doesn’t. It’s a visual mess.
There’s a lot wrong with the film, plot holes, characters behaving weirdly to serve that same plot, inconsistencies – but without wanting to go into spoilers, there are some welcome and affecting shocks too. Fix those plot holes and make a more convincing reason for the characters to behave in the way they do and this could have worked.
All in all this is watchable fluff, it’s just nowhere nearly as important as it takes itself.
And it’s not as bad as everyone is making out. As long as your expectations aren’t raised very high, and you don’t think too hard about it, you’ll probably find stuff to enjoy within. On occasion it’s even quite fun.
Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is on general release now.