WARNING: This review absolutely contains spoilers. Do not read if you haven’t seen the film yet and wish to remain in the dark about specifics.
Well, here we are! A little less than three years ago, Warner Bros. panicked when Man of Steel (which was a nice big success) didn’t make a billion dollars worldwide. They tossed any plans they had for a Man of Steel 2 and decided a mere two days before their DC Cinematic Universe presentation at San Diego Comic-Con to make their next effort a two-hander co-starring Batman (Ben Affleck). And thus, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice was born.
Was this the right decision or should they have held off on zooming down the path to a Justice League film, instead allowing our new Superman (Henry Cavill) some time to breathe and grow as a character? We’ll never really know and there’s not much point in pondering what might have been. I’m also not going to waste any time examining how true to the comics any of these characters are as they are presented in this film. Instead, let’s simply focus on the film itself. How does it stack up?
It’s alright. It’s not great, but it’s also not terrible. It’s not a creative success, but it’s also not an outright failure. It’s simply a bunt of a film. If you were hoping for a home run or gleefully playing for a strike out, you’ll be disappointed. Was I hoping this film would be more than just “alright”? Of course I was. It’d be hard not to wish for more than that, especially given the inherent potential of the elements at play within the story. That said, it’s flaws also didn’t send me into a seething fit of rage like some of my fellow film writers.
When I started this year looking down the barrel of at least 7 major blockbuster comic book adaptations, it would have been silly of me to assume that I would love them all. I do not love Batman v Superman, but I also do not hate it. In many ways, it simply reminds me of its predecessor, Man of Steel.
The film begins an opening montage laying out the oft-told backstory of Batman. We see Thomas Wayne (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) and Martha Wayne (Lauren Cohen) gunned down in the alleyway behind a movie theater in front of their young son Bruce’s eyes. We see snapshots of their funeral and Bruce running away from it; falling into an undiscovered cavern and surrounded by bats. We then cut to the finale of Man of Steel where Superman and the US army take on General Zod (Michael Shannon) and his Kryptonian forces over the city of Metropolis. This time we watch it from a Bruce Wayne in his late ’40s as he races into the city to help save his employees at Wayne Enterprise’s Metropolis offices. We witness first hand the death and destruction caused not only by Zod, but by Superman as well.
The film then jumps 18 months forward. The world is torn about the idea of Superman. Many view him as a messiah-like savior, constantly crying to the heavens for his help and praising every act of daring do that he performs. Others wallow in misery in the wake of the aftermath of his efforts. Villages gunned down in retaliation for his interventions overseas, people morning at a monument to those who died in the Battle of Metropolis, and those like Wallace Keefe (Scoot McNairy), who were left maimed by the attack on the city.
There’s a lot of resentment in the air and it isn’t just coming from everyday folk. It’s also coming from the U.S. government, who are holding senate hearings on the subject of Superman. These hearings are headed by Kentucky Senator June Finch (Holly Hunter), who herself seems conflicted about the existence of the Last Son of Krypton. Less conflicted are Bruce Wayne and Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg). Both are independently seeking ways to weaponize the planet against Superman and other Kryptonians. This is where our MacGuffin comes into play.
In the Indian Ocean near the wreckage of the Kryptonian World Engine, a giant piece of Kryptonite is found. Lex Luthor instantly seeks about getting his hands on it and when the U.S. government blocks his way, he turns to assassin/criminal/sex trafficker Anatoli Knyazev (Callan Mulvey) to smuggle it into our country for him. If Knyazev name sounds familiar to fans, it should. He’s better known in the comics as KGBeast.
Batman, of course, catches wind of this and wants the block o’ Krytonite for himself. This sets our heroes on a collision course, as the machinations of Lex Luthor begin to wind both heroes into a frenzy to pit them against one another. Lex, of course, has a back-up plan, should Batman be unable to kill Superman: Doomsday. Using his superior intellect to gain access to the Kryptonian wreckage from the Zod’s failed attempt to terraform Earth, he takes the dead general’s body and uses the ship’s technology to create the deformed monstrosity, Doomsday.
So where does Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) factor into all of this? She throws a wrench into Bruce’s plans to hack Luthor’s servers because she’s looking for a photograph in Lex’s possession. That seems an odd thing to go to such trouble for and the film itself never gives us a reason for her quest. Sure, comic book fans know that she probably wants the photograph, taken in 1916 during World War I, because it’s of her and her lost love Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), but the film never makes this clear.
Perhaps the promised longer cut eventually coming to home video will elaborate, but I have to imagine that this little beat might make audiences scratch their heads a bit. It’s mainly just a poor excuse to have Diana around in the film long enough for her to suit up for the final battle with Doomsday. Gal Gadot comes off very well in the role here, despite being given very little to work with, and will clearly knock the role out of the park if given the opportunity. Here’s hoping that her own solo film, due out next year under the direction of Patty Jenkins, is more coherent than this film.
Moving on to other performances, Ben Affleck makes for a pretty great Bruce Wayne and Batman, although he too is underwritten. We get his motivation, but his back history is a bit too vague. Apparently Batman has been operating in Gotham for 20+ years. Sometime in the interim, The Joker (an unseen Jared Leto) managed to kill Robin (we aren’t told which one) and Wayne Manor has been destroyed. Bruce and Alfred (Jeremy Irons) now live in a chic lake house adjacent to the old Wayne property. Irons and Affleck bounce well off one another and go a long way to giving the characters some sense of long-running history, but here’s hoping we get a bit more in the aforementioned extended cut headed our way. Given that Barbara Gordon (Jena Malone) was apparently cut from the film for the theatrical version, I’m guessing some more Bat-character scenes are coming our way, which is very much a good thing. The film needs them. I would happily watch a solo Batfleck movie, however, so I guess that’s a plus.
Holly Hunter gets some nice scenes as Senator Finch, but like McNairy’s Keefe, she’s mainly a plot device. Lucky for Snyder, he cast both roles well and allowed these actors to chew on them just enough to make their pawn status slide down easier. Most new characters beyond the ones mentioned already are cameos or glorified extras.
Mercy Graves (Tao Okamoto) is a non-entity of a character, which will probably disappoint some fans. As for our future Justice League, don’t expect much in the way of appearances from any of them beyond the big three. Aquaman (Jason Momoa) gets a nice little moment in his short cameo, whereas future Cyborg Victor Stone (Ray Fisher) sits in the background while his father Silas (Joe Morton) mumbles to a camera for a bit before obligatorily connecting a Mother Box up to him. What’s a Mother Box? A tease for Justice League: Part One, that’s what it is.
The Flash (Ezra Miller) manages to get two beats, though both are cameo-sized. We get to see Barry Allen zip in the blink of an eye to stop a robbery. We also seem him in costume relaying a message from the future to Bruce (albeit via a dream…it’s a little hazy). That whole sequence, which is partially comprised of the “Knightmare” bits from the trailers, is almost entirely nothing but set-up for Justice League: Part One and likely to fly right over the heads of most viewers. There’s a nugget that is applicable to the film at hand, but it’s lost in a sea of crazy references that only comic fans would get. I might tackle that whole sequence in a piece later on, but for now just know to keep your eyes peeled during it.
What we are left with now is the few supporting players carried over from Man of Steel. Lois Lane (Amy Adams) actually gets a lot more screentime than I initially expected she would, which was a nice surprise. I would have liked some more one on one time between her and Clark, especially given events that occur towards the end of the film, but it was nice to see the movie constantly using her in a proactive manor. I just wish the same could be said for the rest of the returnees.
Laurence Fishburne returns as Perry White and his sole purpose is to complain about Lois busting the Daily Planet budget and Clark not writing about what he’s been assigned and/or being absent from work entirely. It’s a thankless role that Fishburne can play with his eyes closed, but he deserves better. Harry Lennix and Christina Wren pop up again as Defense Secretary Swanwick and Major Carrie Ferris. The former gets a few tiny scenes with Lois, but the latter mostly just stands around doing nothing while wearing a uniform. Both Diane Lane and Kevin Costner return as Martha & Jonathan Kent. The latter gets to deliver a mood-killing speech via a dream. The former unfortunately spends most of her limited time as a damsel-in-distress. It’s a bummer.
Superman himself depresses me as well. Not because he’s portrayed very differently from his comic counterpart, but because the film lets him do almost nothing but brood and mope around. Seriously, I think Batman is less grim in his attitude than Superman is. Having seen him in other films, I know that Henry Cavill can be extremely charming. Sadly, this film never gives him a chance too. If anything makes me long for a never-coming Man of Steel 2, it’s this. Cavill needed another film to be charming and fun as Superman, as well as get a chance to further interact with his supporting players, before a film like this. We needed to care about his relationship with all of these characters before diving so deeply into the dark times. Had one come (say last year) before this film, it would have gone a long way to fixing a lot of the above problems.
Lastly, we have Jesse Eisenberg’s Lex Luthor. Of all the new characters, his is the most divisive. If you couldn’t already tell from the various previews, Eisenberg has gone completely over-the-top with the role. His take on Lex Luthor feels like Gene Hackman by way of Max Landis; a twitchy blowhard hipster take on the world-class criminal with a superior intellect. His mile-a-minute scheming is absolutely ridiculous, but I found his turn fun enough that it didn’t matter.
The biggest problem facing this film isn’t the performances or the direction (it’s extremely well-shot). It’s the script and the Justice League checklist that the writers were clearly ordered to follow. Perhaps things might play better in Zack Snyder’s coming longer cut (a pattern is forming), but as it stands, the film feels like it was hacked to bits to cut it down to its already-long running time. The editing is wonky as hell and often times nonsensical. Sometimes it’s hard to tell if many of the scenes are even happening in a discernible order, especially during the first two acts.
It’s rare that a film feels both sluggish and rushed, but Batman v Superman manages to pull both off. It’s like someone took a 4-hour epic and hacked it down to the bare essentials; giving us this weird mash-up of narratives. As a result, the few random Justice League references come off not only incomprehensibly weird, but also completely out of place. Simply put, this film is an absolute mess. Is it a mess that can be improved by the promised longer cut that I keep mentioning? Possibly, but somehow I fear that Snyder’s (I’m assuming) preferred cut of the film will be just as wonky and unwieldy.
This review is already incredibly long, which isn’t surprising given how much is crammed into this movie, so I’ll get to the point. I feel like I just watched this DC Cinematic Universe’s Superman 4 and am left scratching my head. It’s a soulless film and that missing soul has everything to do with a lack of character. I know who all of these characters are and that I am supposed to care about them, but I don’t actually care about them. What little emotional attachment I do have comes from liking the actors and their source characters, not from liking the characters themselves as they are presented. Can this be rectified in next year’s Justice League: Part One? I sincerely hope so, but I remain severely skeptical.
If you loved Man of Steel, you’ll probably at least somewhat enjoy what this film has to offer. It gets a lot right (while still botching PLENTY), but unfortunately in a rushed and messy way. If you merely liked or were indifferent to Man of Steel, your enjoyment of this will be much harder to gauge. If Man of Steel wasn’t your bag at all, then I suggest you sit Batman v Superman out, at least in theaters. No matter our favorite comic book character, there are always a few artist runs on each title that just don’t click with us at all. For better or worse, these new DC Cinematic Universe films seem primed to not click with a LOT of comic book fans. Will audiences enjoy them? Probably, but we won’t truly know until the grosses start officially rolling in across the globe this weekend.
I merely find Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice tolerable. It’s fine, but we should expect more than fine when it comes to this property these days. Better luck on Justice League: Part One, Mr. Snyder! In the meantime, here’s hoping David Ayer’s Suicide Squad (as well as Jenkins’ Wonder Woman and Wan’s Aquaman) is better.
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