Batman v Superman: The Dawn of Justice is, like its title implies, a grand piece of entertainment. Batman. Versus. Superman. Dawn. Justice. This might be the most epically imagined fantasy film since Return of the King. Every camera shot is scaled to the utmost significance, moving constantly to capture every action and reaction. Every beat of the movie is accompanied by the bassiest cacophony of strings Hans Zimmer could possibly muster.
These characters are not characters, bothering with lowly film elements like stories or arcs or development. These are icons and they are shot, literally, as icons. They are Gods, iconographically. Speeches are made by the Big Important Characters, reacted to in voice over from other Big Important Characters. All dialogue is written to convey the utmost feeling of emotional intensity. The film bleeds seriousness.
The problem? All of these elements of Batman v Superman hover just around the border of fantastic and farce. An epic camera rig is welcome, but it doesn’t have to sweep quite so much. Music can be loud, and the BWWWAAAAAWWWWWWs can be numerous, but sometimes music can be subtle, or even absent. That works, too. As for the dialogue, sometimes, it can just be dialogue. “Do you bleed? You will” is not actually dialogue it’s just meaningful talking for no purpose. If Batman and Superman spent 10 seconds in human conversation, this whole thing could have been avoided.
But it wasn’t, and Batman and Superman are, eventually, going to punch it up. And given that fact, there is plenty to enjoy in this epic monster. Maybe that’s to be expected when there is just this much movie. In fact, and no one is more surprised at this than I am, I kind of liked Batman v Superman. I mean, despite how stupid it is, and how few scenes actually seemed necessary, I liked it. Snyder commits so strenuously to the film’s belief in its own greatness that somewhere near the two hour mark, I started to believe in it myself.
First. Ben Affleck is great as Batman. He takes on the character with a convincing exhaustion–he’s been at the vigilante business twenty years when BvS starts–and his purpose for going after Supes actually makes some sense. Superman works with impunity, his fight with Zod took out thousands upon thousands of Metropolitans, including the Wayne Enterprises building. The first scene in Batman v Superman is actually Bruce Wayne driving around Metropolis as the Supes v Zod battle (see Man of Steel, if you must) rages above.
This is a smart start for Snyder. It shows that he listens to his critics. The destruction in Metropolis and the anonymous untold deaths of thousands that must have occurred remains one of the loudest criticisms of Man of Steel. For Snyder to build his film around that criticism is welcome.
Anyway. As it turns out, Batman v Superman is essentially a Batman Movie that WB didn’t want to market as such, probably because Batman had his own far superior trilogy that concluded not even five years ago. Affleck does a bang-up job in the part, at least in the scenes that matter. This is also the darkest version of Batman that has ever been put on film–Batman is branding criminals with the Bat Brand, essentially marking them for death in prison–and Affleck getsthe job done acknowledging his criminal behavior even while fighting the good fight.
I also appreciate Snyder’s exploration of the the social, scientific and religious conundrums caused by the the very existence of Superman. Hitting religious themes and images in the broad strokes is really what Snyder does best, and he indulges that impulse with abandon in Batman v Superman. One of the major problems of Man of Steel was Snyder’s repetitious, overt Superman = Jesus imagery. Superman’s inherent goodness and midwestern-ness and unfailing Boy Scout nature may be true to the 90 year old comics character, but that is not where Snyder goes this time. This time, Snyder gets Superman dirty by association, and it’s pretty fun to watch.
(In fact, Snyder’s version of Batman, Superman, and most of the DC heroes bears very little resemblance to their comic book origins. The histories are there, but how Snyder interprets these characters is completely his own reading. This has been a sticking point for some, but I find it refreshing to see Snyder offering some POV. Superman will outlive Snyder’s slimy version of the character).
Much of this comes through Lex Luthor. Jesse Eisenberg plays Luthor as a young tech-genius billionaire with some notable eccentricities. Most of Luthor’s character arc unfolds with complete incomprehensible nonense, but Eisenberg is a capable monologuer, and he has some doozies to play with. My favorite regards his explanation of how, when he was a boy, he learned quickly that “if god was all powerful he could not be all good, and if he was all good god could not be all powerful.”
Such questions of theodicy might reasonably be on the mind were an indestructible god-like alien figure to descend to earth an act as savior. And I am glad that, even in his hammed up way, Snyder is giving his characters opportunities to discuss what evil and good and god might mean in such a circumstance. Sophomore theology is what everyone goes to superhero movies for right?
Other highlights? Wonder Woman makes her first appearance in film history on the big screen. When those bracelets first flash into action, I was given a real charge. Speaking of Wonder Woman, props to the film for giving Diana Prince an accent. Gal Gadot is an Israeli actress, and her accent is strong. Not all superheroes are American.
I’m not inclined to make a running list of likable elements of Batman v Superman, so I will just add that Snyder remains a lithe director of action. Here, his two supers face off in clearly organized and actually visible scenes. Kind of ridiculous ones (that sink?) but still cogent.
All of this is tempered, if not ruined, by Snyder’s belief that the audience is stupid. This has always been the biggest sin of Snyder’s film career. He must spoon-feed his audience every last detail of plot, story and emotion.
This film opens with Batman giving voice over about the fallen nature of the world, saying, “Things fall. Things on earth. And what falls is fallen.” This tautological profundity is so banal and empty that its presence in the film at all, let alone opening the movie, is amazing. But if the voice-over about falling heroes doesn’t reach you, Snyder pairs the words about fallen things falling with images of Bruce Wayne’s parents falling to their death. And boy Bruce Wayne falling into the bat-cave; and close up shots of pearls falling.
In the same fashion that Batman wants to fight Superman, it turns out that Superman wants to fight Batman. So we hear Clark Kent rail against Batman at work, and at home, and at work again. We see Superman confront Batman with a warning. We watch Clark Kent watch TV of Batman’s overzealous ways. But it is not enough! We must also see Clark Kent flip through photographs of carnage left by Batman, and we must also see that on those photographs, someone has written the words JUDGE, JURY, and EXECUTIONER? What if someone looked at those photos in another order? Or if they were separated? It doesn’t matter. What matters is that every person in the theater has been reminded that Clark Kent disapproves of Batman.
Batman v Superman has so many scenes and this treatment could continue for each of them. Almost all of these scenes has something to recommend it–Henry Cavill, Wonder Woman’s costuming, Snyder’s religious obsessions–but that something is always buried in a pile of dumb. It doesn’t have to be that way. Some restraint from Snyder and his characters could go along way to making a movie like Batman v Superman a blast.