On March 25th, two titans of DC comics collide in a cinematic battle heralded as the fight to end all fights. Unfortunately, I found myself thinking only one thing as I walked out of the theater – strike two, Mr. Snyder. Director Zack Snyder earned his geek cred by bringing Frank Miller’s epic 300 to life in the film of the same name and by mostly succeeding at bringing Alan Moore’s acclaimed graphic novel Watchmen to a live action-format. This set high expectations when he became the curator of the DC cinematic universe and director of both 2013’s Man of Steel and the newly released Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. His films, comic-based or not, are visually impressive and always feature immensely talented actors and high-concept narratives. With great risk, however, great reward does not always follow. Sadly, as both a fan of DC comics and cinema as a whole, this film falls short in both categories. Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice suffers from being both highly derivative and uninspired at the same time with its only true successes being Ben Affleck’s battle-weary Batman, the introduction of Wonder Woman into cinema, and the titular battle that answers – truthfully – the greatest question of all: Who would win?
Set predominately 18 months after the events of Man of Steel, Batman v Superman shows us that the country is visibly split on how to handle Superman. While the public within the U.S. and abroad largely view him as a savior, elsewhere Superman is viewed as culpable and going without responsibility. Newly introduced Bruce Wayne is among the latter – blaming Superman outright for the thousands of deaths in Metropolis and largely for the deaths he could cause in the future. Terrified of what Superman’s uncontrolled power could do, Bruce sets out to find a way to remove this threat to humanity, unaware of a greater threat looming on the horizon.
Visually-speaking, the world of Batman v Superman is a lush, vibrant place. This is surprising given that the bulk of the film is focused on Batman, a character largely known for sticking to the shadows, but it’s necessary to highlight the realness of the world in which these characters live in contrast to the actions they take. Every shot is calculated to maximum efficiency to bring out the mood of each scene through Snyder’s signature hyper-reality color. Bruce’s Batcave is a dark, monochrome workshop with only small bursts of color. Conversely, Superman’s alter-ego, Clark Kent, is shown living in a home that is literally lighter with whites, blues, and the warm color of natural wood accents. These visual cues are intended to accent the natural differences between these two icons of the DC Comics universe. No one can blame Snyder for creating a flat world, we can blame him for creating a hollow one.
Led primarily by Ben Affleck as Bruce Wayne/Batman, Henry Cavill as Clark Kent/Superman, and Jesse Eisenburg as Lex Luthor, the film struggles to identify a clear through-line narrative. The sharp cuts between the worlds of each character become jarring without a natural transition and, ultimately, make the movie feel as though it’s telling three stories at once: a revenge film, a redemption story, and the birth of a hero. Given how each character is delivered, who knows which is which. As a comic book story, the expectation of realism is low, yet Snyder insisted on creating a world with rules, so the film should follow them. Actions have consequences and hard choices need to be made, yet at no point do any of the characters really deal with any of them.
Introduced in Man of Steel, Henry Cavill’s Superman sees himself as a protector of the world, but he can’t see the damage he causes, nor the responsibility he holds. Cavill’s portrayal of Superman comes across as smug and arrogant; a child who wants to do the right thing, but can’t handle the criticism that comes from making the wrong choices over and over. I had hoped that the responsibility storyline would bring humility to this version of Superman, but instead it seemed only to cement that this is not the Superman who earns trust and inspires hope; rather, he is a man with super abilities that will call another man a dangerous vigilante, even after throwing a normal human through a wall. There is continually talk of how Superman represents “hope,” but this is never earned from a narrative perspective. Instead, Snyder attempts to trade on the history of the name “Superman” to evoke emotional sense memory from the audience to imbue Cavill’s Superman with that same emotional response. Transference only works when there is a baseline and, twice now, Snyder has failed to present a Superman worthy of the name.
Similarly, the iconic Lex Luthor, portrayed with manic energy by Jesse Eisenburg, acts as both mcguffin and architect in one of Eisenburg’s worst performances to date. Billed as an evil “Mark Zuckerberg,” we never learn why he’s considered a genius, only that he’s rich, insane, and technologically gifted. A character that is, traditionally, the human moral opposite of Superman who believes himself to be the true savior of humanity, Luthor serves as a foil against Superman’s inherent strength to demonstrate the capability of the human race. Rather than simply manipulating from the shadows, this Luthor stands brightly, spewing his plans loudly, and is ultimately surprised when his plans are foiled. In the end, Eisenburg creates a character whose greatest success is bringing to life a character we are grateful to see punched in the face.
In contrast, the much maligned Ben Affleck is fantastic as the newest cinematic Bruce Wayne/Batman. Inspired by Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns series, this Batman doesn’t just incapacitate his prey, but will put them down permanently. This is a necessity if we are to believe that Batman has a chance against the superhuman Kryptonian. Affleck effortlessly slides between playboy and predator; able to convey the great pain that caused the birth of the Bat, while convincingly displaying the loyalty to his employees that Bruce is known for in the comics. There is little doubt, whether he is racing through a crumbling Metropolis during the battle between Zod and Superman from Man of Steel as Bruce Wayne or is clad in his cape and cowl, taking down multiple combatants at once – Affleck is Batman.
The final success is Gal Gadot’s Diana Prince, a.k.a. Wonder Woman. Though her screen time is limited to perhaps less than ten minutes, her presence is strong. Neither love interest nor damsel, she is on a mission of her own that causes her to cross paths with Bruce throughout the film. Though it’s his subtle encouragement that inspires her to join the final battle, Wonder Woman becomes the main combatant, demonstrating clear glee with each exchange against a horribly contrived final boss. You get the sense that this is the first time Wonder Woman has seen battle in a century and Gadot’s performance reflects the joy Wonder Woman takes in sparring with an opponent. For a character that some believed too difficult for a live-action outing, Wonder Woman steals the movie while Superman is off discussing his emotions.
Writing a review without discussing the exact failings of this film is difficult in several ways, mainly because of spoilers. Ideally, every audience member should go into a screening with enough awareness of the material to be prepared without ruining the experience. Additionally, it’s often hard to quantify into words beyond the feeling of something. It would be easy to turn your brain off and enjoy Batman v Superman as nothing more than trite entertainment, but this is near impossible given the enormity of this moment. Never before have Superman and Batman – two of the greatest characters in literary history – been brought to life in flesh-and-blood form. These are characters who exemplify the way love can push us to act nobly from both the brightest and darkest part of ourselves in an effort to better the world. Though Batman v Superman will likely make heaps of money, I cannot, in good conscience, recommend this film as it fails to provide a clear, plausible narrative, shows a blatant disregard for the source material when simple adaptations could have been made, tries to create plot twists that are neither surprising nor original, and, most importantly, we have not been given a Superman we believe in.
Early screenings begin Thursday, March 24th. In theaters nationwide starting Friday, March 25th.
Final Score: 2.5 out of 5