Review: BATMAN V SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE (2016)

This is another long one with a couple spoilers thrown in. Better read it when you have some time and after you’ve seen the film for yourself.

Not often has it been this difficult to judge whether a film is worth watching in the cinema or not. I’ve got a soft spot for most of director Zack Snyder’s output (I even like SUCKER PUNCH) but MAN OF STEEL left me cold. The things I appreciate most about Snyder are his eye for visuals – that feeling you could take any random screenshot from one of his films and it would look good enough to hang on your wall – and his knack for delivering exhilarating, beautifully shot action scenes. Both these qualities were lacking in the Superman reboot from 2013. It felt like Snyder was holding himself back on purpose and trying to be more like Christopher Nolan instead, who was a producer on the film. So instead of high-octane fun we got somber dialogue and grey dreariness. Instead of visually arresting, crystal-clear punch-ups we got ugly, blurry CGI and enough lens flares to give J.J. Abrams an involuntary orgasm. So the promise of a sequel already wasn’t getting me too excited… and then that extended trailer hit in December. It looked even worse than expected. Was this going to be a failure on the level of THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 2?

I wasn’t the only one recognizing the signs; you could almost hear the critics collectively sharpening their knives after that trailer got released. I think the fanboys did too, because when they got to see the movie before the embargo on posting reviews was lifted, they drowned Twitter in a sea of positivity and exclamation marks. The critics weren’t impressed though. As soon as it was their turn, they slammed the film so hard it tumbled all the way down into that dark, forgotten place on Rotten Tomatoes where outcasts like FANTASTIC FOUR and GREEN LANTERN are forced to live, crawling around in their own feces, spittle bubbling in their toothless, mumbling mouths.

Funnily enough, when that happened it was actually a turning point for me. I started feeling like the film couldn’t possibly be that bad, nor could it be as good as the fanboys were claiming it to be. Clearly, both sides were greatly (and passionately) exaggerating, making me very curious about how I would end up feeling about the film. Good or bad, I just wanted to be part of the debate, so off I went to the cinema.

And… well…

BATMAN V SUPERMAN is a mess. It’s a film that is so easy to take apart, it’s no wonder the critics had a field day with it. I’m sure you’ve already read dozens of articles listing every plothole there is to find, as have I, and I’ll admit to enjoying them a great deal. In fact, I haven’t had this much fun reading and chatting about a film in a long time – there’s just so much to take the piss out of! The story makes no sense, for one. There’s no focus, with the plot constantly taking pointless detours or stopping dead in its tracks to give you glimpses of stuff that’ll become important in future films, but has no impact on the story being told right now. There’s four dream sequences for fuck’s sake! That would’ve been excessive even for a NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET sequel.

Also, the whole reason this film exists, the big brawl between the two most famous superheroes on the planet, only happens because both guys act wildly out of character and are too stupid to notice Lex Luthor’s blatant manipulation tactics. Speaking of Luthor, he’s played by Jesse Eisenberg and the actor has never been more grating. His every line delivery is so nails-on-chalkboard agonizing, it made me almost physically uncomfortable. He’s every bit as bad as you thought he was gonna be based on that awful trailer, and it just makes you wonder what Snyder was thinking when he signed off on this shit. The same goes for the climax of the film, which sees our heroes working together with Wonder Woman to defeat Doomsday, a poorly designed CGI creature that jumps around like The Hulk while randomly shitting out explosions, looking like the end result of a ninja turtle* fucking a cave troll. It looks like something you’ve seen a million times before in movies and video games, the ultimate in generic monster design. Out of all the sketches he must have been shown, was this really the one Snyder fell in love with? The one that made him go, “Yes! That’s what Doomsday should look like, I fucking love it!” It’s kinda hard to imagine.

Honestly, I could spend twelve more paragraphs bitching like this, but you know what? I’m not going to. All of this stuff is super obvious, you don’t need me to point it out to you. Instead what I’m going to do, is talk about the less obvious aspect of BATMAN V SUPERMAN: namely that there’s a whole lot of surprisingly good shit in it. They didn’t get everything wrong.

For starters, the way the film opens is fantastic. We see Bruce Wayne being dropped off by helicopter in Metropolis during the climax of the last film. High above everyone’s heads Superman is fighting Zod, and the destruction they cause is on the level of a hundred 9/11’s. Skyscrapers are collapsing left and right while Wayne tries to reach one of his own buildings, hoping to save his employees. It’s played completely straight, like a scene from an intense disaster movie, putting us right in the middle of the panic and the chaos. The film tries to show us what would realistically happen if two of these superbeings started punching each other through buildings, and the result isn’t pretty. Eventually we see Wayne looking up at the sky, realizing how dangerous an all-powerful alien like Superman truly is, even when he’s fighting on the side of humanity – let alone if he ever decided to turn his powers against us.

I loved this approach right off the bat, the tone of it, as it results in something completely different from what we’re used to seeing from Marvel**. I love their films as much as the next guy, but they do tend to give off the exact same vibe, every last one of them, making BATMAN V SUPERMAN feel fresh in comparison. Again, Marvel is great at what they do and I’m always looking forward to their next release, but it’s nice that theirs is not the only flavor on the market. There’s plenty of room for DC to come in and do things a little differently.

Another thing I quickly realized, is that Ben Affleck makes a fine Bruce Wayne/Batman. Honestly, that’s the one thing I was always expecting to like about the film, but he really does knock it out of the park. His Bruce Wayne’s got real swagger, and he looks good in the Batsuit. Plus he’s got all these anger issues going on. Affleck’s version is a little older than previous incarnations of the character, a little more bitter. He’s been doing this for decades and it seems like it’s barely had an effect on the overall levels of crime, causing him to take more and more extreme measures against the bad guys he’s fighting every day. Alfred warns him about his increasing cruelty but it seems to slide right off him. By the way, everyone’s favorite butler is played by Jeremy Irons this time around, and he’s the most likeable version yet. Right now these guys are the most exciting thing about the entire DC Cinematic Universe, and I can’t wait for that Batman solo movie to come around. Word is Affleck is gonna direct it himself – I’ll be first in line for that one!

Sadly, I don’t have as many kind words to say for Superman. While Henry Cavill is not a particularly strong or interesting actor, I do think he’s a good fit for our boy Kal-El. It’s just the way the character is written, the stuff they make him say and do – it makes him look unreasonable at best, deeply stupid at worst. Wonder Woman fares a little better, although she doesn’t have a lot to do (leaving me unconvinced Gal Gadot will be able to carry a film by herself and handle proper dramatic scenes effectively). Her best moment is when she shows up to the final battle, unexpectedly jumping in to reflect an energy blast. If you remember, that’s the moment the fanboys were so ecstatic about on Twitter, and rightfully so – it’s very cool. I do wonder if they realize how much the soundtrack helps to make that moment stand out, as it’s literally the only scene in the entire film that’s accompanied by a bit of actually good, recognizable music. All the rest of it is scored with generic background music, which sadly has been a trend in Hollywood for a long time now. It’s frustrating, as a lovely sweeping score, with bombastic themes and soulful melodies that you can still hum on your way home from the cinema, can greatly elevate the enjoyment of any given film. Apparently some people feel that a score should be nonintrusive, never telling you how to feel but hanging back and letting you decide that for yourself. Those people suck.

Finally, I’m happy to report Snyder stepped away from the more down-to-earth visual style he adopted for MAN OF STEEL. BATMAN V SUPERMAN is once again a joy to look at, full of luscious visuals for you to drink in, just like you would hope from a Snyder film. Look at Superman carrying that space shuttle, or him standing in a sea of people worshipping him after rescuing some chick from a fire. How about Batman looking up into the rain and seeing Supes slowly gliding down from the sky? It’s lovely stuff. The action is a step in the right direction as well. While the battle with Doomsday is an exhausting assault on the senses, and not in a good way, I do really like the big scrap between our two main heroes. Sure, it’s all a bit ridiculous. Not only would Superman never be tempted into an actual fight with Batman – least of all when he’s got better shit to do, like maybe finding his mom who’s about to be at the receiving end of a fucking flamethrower? – it’s also preposterous to think Bruce Wayne would even stand the slightest chance against him, let alone win! Still, the way it’s shot is kinetic and fun and exciting – exactly as epic as a fight like this should be. Special mention must also go to the scene where Batman takes down a warehouse full of thugs. It’s the type of action Snyder does best, and I hope to see more of it in JUSTICE LEAGUE, which is next on the list of DC releases.

So yeah, BATMAN V SUPERMAN is a mess, but it’s an ambitious one. It set many lofty goals for itself and while it objectively fails to reach many of them, it’s still an interesting and enjoyable watch. It feels like the good movie they were trying to make is in there somewhere, struggling to get out – it’s just hard to see because they added so much poorly judged bullshit that it’s made the water all murky. Maybe that R-rated cut that’s supposedly coming to Blu-ray will make a difference? Honestly, probably not, but I look forward to checking it out.

* One of those super ugly ones from the recent live action films.

** I do believe CIVIL WAR is going to ask a couple of the same questions BATS VS SUPES does, but I bet they take a different approach to it all. Can’t have a Marvel film without that fun, adventurous vibe after all.

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