Minor spoilers or whatever.
I’ve been really freaking excited for Batman v Superman for a long time.
Batman’s inclusion and the rise of the Justice League felt like the natural evolution of the story presented in Man of Steel – he would definitely take notice of Metropolis, and Superman’s arrival could inspire other meta-humans to come out of the shadows. Casting Ben Affleck was another plus; I like him as an actor and he’s directed a bunch of critically acclaimed movies, so having him play such a pivotal character would mean he’d have a lot of creative input, which is a plus. The subsequent hiring of Chris Terrio as writer over David Goyer gave me a massive confidence boost. Goyer seemed to be the biggest problem with Man of Steel, and Terrio had just written Argo with Ben Affleck, which won the Best Picture Oscar. How could that not be a good thing? I was also pleased with Jesse Eisenberg’s casting as Lex Luthor, a choice I had actually pined for a couple of months before it was announced (and was shot down for…). The modern Lex would be like Mark Zuckerberg, and I was ecstatic at the thought of this new, innovative take on the character from a fantastic actor.
The trailers and plot all looked very promising. Injecting politics into a Superman movie was a salivating prospect; everything about Batfleck looked incredible; Lex was just how I hoped he would be; Wonder Woman looked awesome; the colour palette and spectacle from cinematographer Larry Fong were striking – everything looked great!
You know what happened next.
Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is currently sitting at 31% on Rotten Tomatoes, with 199 reviews counted. That score isn’t going anywhere. The fans all seem to be crazy for it, and it’s still gonna make a hell of a lot of money this weekend, but the critics hate it. Unfortunately, that last bracket includes me.
I saw it at the big UK press screening on Wednesday night (with fellow writer Ciaran, whose review you can read right now), and I left feeling bitter, angry, frustrated and disappointed. It’s perhaps even more divisive than Man of Steel was, with a lot of individual scenes to love but a hell of a lot of stuff to hate as well.
I’m not going to review this movie on what I thought it should be, which so many seem to be doing. Basically, I’m not going to say it’s terrible because it’s not fun. It’s important to assess films on narrative rules and what they’re trying to achieve rather than something it’s not. Without further adieu, let’s get started, shall we?
It’s incredibly apparent early on in Batman v Superman that it’s a complete trainwreck. It bounces between characters and plotlines carelessly with no real set-up for anything which is going on – we’re just thrown into the middle of situations. Zack Snyder took the “show, don’t tell rule” of filmmaking at face value by presenting us with a ton of stuff rather than relaying it through exposition. It’s always good to have less exposition, however the major issue (which was present in Man of Steel too) is that almost none of the stuff is backed up with any logic, leaving the viewer confused about what they’re watching and why – which is probably the keyword of everything in both of Snyder’s movies.
It’s unclear why Clark Kent is even Superman, or why Bruce Wayne is Batman. Why are they doing what they’re doing? What motivates them? Why does Lex want to bring down Superman badly enough that he’s willing to engineer some kind of monster (which would be a PR shambles) to do so? How does a flimsy African-bullet sub-plot relate to the wider story? Why do Batman and Superman only give a shit about each other eighteen months after Man of Steel? Why are Clark and Lois Lane in a relationship? What do they see in each other? What kind of person is Clark? Why does Diana Prince show up at all these high-profile events? Why should I care?
Just shoving a bunch of shit at us is the defining problem of both of these movies. Forget the overbearing darkness and Superman killing Zod; Snyder doesn’t seem to know how to provide context and set-up for anything, from characterisation to important plot points. The example which springs to mind is Clark’s relationship with his mother, who goes on to completely define the third act. Prior to this, the two characters share one scene together, a conversation which we’ve been shown in the trailers… and pretty much all of the dialogue is in the trailers too.
How can the audience be expected to care about this if we don’t understand why their relationship is so strong? Even in Man of Steel it’s kinda shoddy, and it ultimately leaves the narrative feeling empty and weightless. It’d be like if, in The Force Awakens, the audience didn’t know that Han Solo and Kylo Ren were father and son before he kills him, and Han’s only previous scene in the movie was when he chats to Rey on Takodana.
Sounds terrible, doesn’t it?
There’s an argument to be made that Snyder does all of this because he trusts the audience to use their common sense. Generally, people have some idea of why both Clark and Bruce do what they do: to bring justice to the world, avenge the ones they’ve lost, an inner desire to do good. It’s been hammered into pop culture since the 1930’s. However, this problem is two-fold. If we’re going to root for these characters then we need to be reminded of their motivations in the movie itself, especially when the plot relies completely on those motivations.
Furthermore, Snyder seems to have made it his mission to radically overhaul almost every character he adapts, rendering most of their prior portrayals meaningless in regard to these movies. If the audience knows Batman’s motivations, then they also know that Batman doesn’t kill, or at least tries to avoid it all costs – but Batman does kill a hell of a lot in this movie. So does Superman, obviously. The way that both of these characters are presented doesn’t exactly suggest that either of them want to bring justice to the world or have any kind of desire to do good because they’re so miserable. Batman doesn’t give a shit about anything and Superman cares about saving everyone one minute and only about Lois Lane another. Consequently, everything feels messy.
It’s no secret that the repercussions of Man of Steel‘s ending is dealt with in a big way. During the development and production process, it seemed that Zack Snyder had listened to those of us concerned about Superman’s lack thereof for collateral damage and civilian casualties. As it turns out, that was just at face value too. Recently Snyder defended the death toll yet again by saying that The Force Awakens had more death by blowing up an entire planet. This is true, but it’s still not answering what people were really bothered by. Of course there was going to be a high death toll. The problem is that Superman didn’t seem to care. Consequently, Superman spends no time reflecting on this in Batman v Superman, and all of the chatter about it comes from news reports, Holly Hunter’s Senator Finch and Batman. This creates a contradictory Superman: on one hand, he’s going all over the place and saving lots of people. On the other, he never brings up all those innocent people he ended up killing and still doesn’t seem to care about all the deaths and damage he’s causing in this film.
Snyder clearly understands this complaint to some degree (as evidenced by the excellent Bruce Wayne-centric prologue in Metropolis at the beginning), so this seems to suggest that Superman not caring is intentional. It doesn’t matter whether you think “dark n gritty” is the way to go for all superheroes – it’s a basic rule that the audience needs to root for lead characters, and when you have friggin’ Superman acting completely unlikable, there’s a severe problem.
The problems with Superman don’t even end there. During the car journey home last night, it became clear that Clark Kent is a blank void intended for cool action rather than an actual character. I challenge you, dear reader, to describe what kind of person Clark is. Is he funny? Awkward? Shy? Confident? Contemplative? Moody? Arrogant? Sarcastic?
You probably can’t answer it, thus leaving the main hero acting as a mouthpiece for moving the plot along. Batman is the only character in the movie with some clear motivations and personality; we get hints that he has a drinking problem, sleeps around, he feels a duty to take down Superman after being there in Metropolis, and he’s evidently a fucking psychopath. The entire time I was sat there I just wanted to be watching a Batman movie with Ben Affleck and Jeremy Irons appearing in every scene. They were both excellent, as was the majority of the Batman material. It’s a real shame that the film surrounding them was so weak; here’s hoping that Warner Bros. throws all the money necessary at Affleck to fast-track that solo movie.
This is a worse movie than Man of Steel in that the plotting and characters are nonsensical, however an issue persistent in both pictures is the lack of a solid structure. That film actually taught me the importance of structure in filmmaking – how scenes need to connect to one another and evolve in order to satisfy. The Avengers does this brilliantly in its first act, with each scene linked through dialogue or themes. Man of Steel continually bounces between the past and the present and elsewhere with limited cohesion, making the whole experience disorientating and confusing. This is nothing in comparison to Batman v Superman, where the exact same thing happens (the movies have the same editor), but it’s made so much worse because the story is far more sprawling. You’ve got Lois Lane’s stuff and Batman’s stuff and Superman’s stuff and Lex Luthor’s stuff and the government’s stuff and Justice League set-up and does your brain hurt now?
When there’s no structure to what’s going on, the viewer can easily become confused about what matters, what doesn’t, and which parts of the story link (this is important in any vast narrative). It was so confusing for me that I’ve forgotten the order of most of the scenes, so the only example I can recall is when Perry White makes a joke about Clark clicking his heels and ending up in Kansas. Logically, you’d expect the next scene to be Clark in Kansas, but that scene doesn’t occur for another ten or fifteen minutes. In fact, it might have been before that line. I honestly have no idea because everything became so dizzying.
It’s as if someone made a really delicious, aromatic, tasty bowl of pasta, and then decided to throw it against the wall before serving. The pieces to a decent-to-good movie are all there; investigative Lois, Man of Steel fallout, scheming Lex, crazy Supes-hating Batman, controversial Superman and so forth, but they’re all so butchered and convoluted that you end up feeling angry at how badly the movie fails such an easy task. The characterisation issues would still be there, and the plot would still be a bit weird, but it would at least make a lot more sense and could have been much more enjoyable.
Aside from most of the Batman material, there isn’t really a lot to like about this movie. Wonder Woman is pretty badass but she doesn’t really add anything beyond what we’ve already seen, and her inclusion is still unnecessary; I actually liked Jesse Eisenberg’s erratic Lex Luthor and how you really didn’t want him to secretly win (as you do with a lot of villains these days), but there’s some definite character flaws with him – as in, there’s no logic behind anything he does; Larry Fong’s cinematography is great; there’s a mish-mash of tones which leave the film feeling weird; the sour and depressing mood really drags the whole thing down and robs it of any fun whatsoever – even Nolan had fun! Again, Snyder seems to take “dark n gritty” at face value, not seeing the need for moments of positivity bar a couple of shots at the end of the film.
After being burned by Snyder twice now, I’ve lost all interest in Justice League and have no excitement for it whatsoever. I have high hopes for Suicide Squad and think that will be good, but if Warner Bros. decide to keep him around then I’m not going to let myself get hyped for it as I have done for Man of Steel and Batman v Superman. I’d much rather everything in this movie be terrible (preferably all amazing), a la the Star Wars Prequels, than be so close to greatness yet at the same time so far. It’s just frustrating, and I have no interest in going through that cycle again for a third time. I adore all of these characters, and Batman in particular means a lot to me. While I was pleased with his portrayal here, I don’t trust Snyder to deliver again.
Part of me even pities the guy. He’s been looking tired and grey for months, and that seemed even more apparent recently. He and Henry Cavill actually showed up at the press screening. which was pretty awesome. Bleeding Cool filmed the whole thing and, well, see for yourself.
Ultimately, Batman v Superman is not a good movie, and I was relieved by the time the ending rolled around. It’s not a film which really warrants repeated viewings unless you want to understand what the fuck went wrong. Nonetheless, I would still recommend seeing it. It’s a film you need to experience for yourself, and if you do enjoy it then I’m happy for you. I’ve been wanting to love this movie for the past three years, and I managed to convince myself – and others – that it would be incredible. I constantly defended it online and in real-life, citing Ben Affleck and Chris Terrio as great filmmakers who would keep Snyder in check, and lauded the epic trailers. I wrote my own plot summaries and ideas for what could happen in the movie and in the future of the DC Extended Universe. I was giddy at the Comic-Con trailer, and was ecstatic and relieved when the first reactions were overwhelmingly positive. I don’t have an “anti-DC agenda,” and I didn’t want to hate this movie.
Therefore, I don’t want others to feel the same way, and the completely divided reactions means there’s a good chance you could love it. So, watch it. Fall in love with it. Smile with pure joy as Batman and Superman finally meet on the big screen after almost eighty years.
Let’s all just hope that Justice League turns out better for everyone.