“That’s how it starts. The fever, the rage, the feeling of powerlessness that turns good men… cruel.”
Oh Zack Synder, how long can I keep sticking up for you? I’ll defend Watchmen to the death, but it’s gonna be a bit harder with Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice, because honestly, it’s not a great film. Don’t get me wrong – I loved it, but it’s hard to call it a complete success. Your enjoyment of the good bits (of which there are quite a few) depends entirely on your tolerance of the bad bits. And if your were one of the many who hated Man of Steel for it’s grim tone, odd pacing, and slightly uncomfortable use of 9/11 as visual reference point then chances are you’ll hate this one even more.
The film opens with the familiar scene of Bruce Wayne and his parents as they leave a theatre (this time it’s John Boorman’s Excalibur) and are then gunned down by a thug. Straight away it’s clear that Batman vs Superman is going to be Zack Snyder at his most Syder-y; opting to film the entire thing in slo-mo. His style is definitely a decisive one but personally I love it. It worked well in Watchmen and it works again here, although the opportunity to not shy away from brutal violence perhaps means Watchmen comes out a little clearer than the slightly sanitised, close up violence of BvS. Although frequently bloodless, you won’t exactly be wanting for more brutality; BvS has got that in spades. Whether it’s Batman branding goons with his Bat-brand, or stabbing them, or blowing them up, the main source of violence comes from the Bat – and it’s awesome. Not only does he deliver a healthy dose of violence to the goons, sometimes he just straight up kills them to achieve his goals. As someone who never really cared for the strict adherence to Batman’s ‘one rule’ in some of his comics and especially in the Nolan Batman films, seeing Batman free of his tedious moral quandaries is great, and gives us as an audience a more enjoyable Batman. I’m a big Batman fan, but this new iteration is probably my favourite live action version so far. And even though these changes will bother a lot of other fans, I just see it as a different take on a classic character, one which I think was desperately needed after the slightly dull Nolan Batman.
The scenes with Ben Affleck’s Batman aren’t only incredibly brutal, they’re also the best in the film. There are two scenes in particular which I think will stand out. One is classic Batman; him bursting into a warehouse and taking out about 2o armed thugs. It’s a real step up on the disjointed, confused action of Christopher Nolan’s trilogy and is probably the only time we’ve seen a Batman fight scene truly realised in live action. Again, the stabbing and general murdering of the thugs might annoy some purists but I loved it. The standout scene in the film though is perhaps a slightly controversial one as it’s one of the many awkward scenes shoehorning in an extended DC universe. These scenes mostly fail (the laughable scene of Bruce emailing Diana the Justice League stuff) but this one – the best of Bruce’s dream sequences – is amazing. Bruce nods off in the Bat-cave and dreams of a world taken over by the God-like Superman, and dreams he and a small band of resisters are all that’s left. It doesn’t even really matter that this scene comes out of nowhere because seeing a gun wielding, trench coat wearing Batman take down the Superman storm-troopers in one a long uninterrupted take is soooo cool. Another thing the film does well is that it poses big and not easily answered questions. Bruce’s debate on whether an inherently good, but extremely powerful person should be taken down if there’s even a one percent chance of them going off the rails is really interesting. It’s just a shame the film doesn’t keep this intelligence up all the way through to the end, instead opting for a typical heroes vs CGI monster that plagues most Superhero film climaxes.
Unfortunately not everyone comes out of this film as well of as Ben Affleck’s Batman. Although this film was really a Man of Steel sequel it’s Henry Cavill’s Superman who suffers most, and not through any fault of Cavill’s. Snyder treats him like he did Dr Manhattan in Watchmen; as some god-like alien too far removed from human life. And while this gets us some of that sweet religious symbolism that Snyder loves so much, he forgets that one of the best parts of Superman is just how human he is. This internal alien vs human conflict is occasionally referenced but for the most part Cavill is reduced to just standing there, looking cool. Luckily it’s not all bad for Supes, and there is a great scene towards the end where Batman realises that Superman is actually a dude with a Mum, just like him. Some fans have been criticising this scene, arguing that it boils down to “our Mums have the same name, let’s be friends” but I think it’s more than that. Affleck is note perfect here, as he realises that this ‘alien’ he has been planning to take down is actually more human than god. These human elements are scattered throughout the film, and while some are bad (Kevin Costner’s Jonathan Kent pops up randomly, building a little stone monument on top of a mountain) some are actually pretty good – Jeremy Irons’ Alfred for example. And while I think they get hidden in the all of the explosions and slo-mo, it’s a nice touch in what a lot of people dismiss as purely a film of spectacle.
I am sorry Henry Cavill didn’t get more to do in the film but it honestly could have been worse for him. I mean, at least he isn’t Jesse Eisenberg. Eisenberg’s Lex Luthor isn’t a patch on the character brought to life wonderfully by talented actors such as Gene Hackman, Kevin Spacey, and (my personal favourite iteration) Michael Rosenbaum. Eisenberg plays Lex as some sort of twitchy, autistic, silicon valley millennial. Which would have been fine, perhaps even good, if this character wasn’t meant to be the charismatic philanthropist and megalomaniac, who leads the world in the fields of science and technology. I’m hoping the father of Eisenberg’s Lex, who he doesn’t shut up about, will make an appearance at some point, and he’ll be the Lex we all know because as it is, Eisenberg is just an embarrassment. He does get a couple of laughs but most of the time you’re spent wondering whether these were intentional or not. The absolute worst part though is that his plan just doesn’t make sense. We aren’t given any reason as to why he wants to kill Superman; something I’m hoping the extended cut will rectify. As it is though, I can only assume it’s because he’s crazy? Or because Supes reminds him of his father… or something? Either way, it’s the weakest part of an already pretty weak script.
The other supporting characters are good, if underused. These include Holly Hunter’s idealistic senator, Scoot McNairy’s laughably depressed Wayne Enterprises employee, wounded during the climatic events of Man of Steel, Diane Lane as Martha Kent, and the always hilarious Laurence Fishburne as Daily Planet editor Perry White. Amy Adams’ Lois Lane gets a bit more than them, and judging from one scene in particular she’s going to be very important in the upcoming Justice League film, but she’s not really given much to do here except walk round clutching a plastic bag like a crazy homeless person. They’re all great actors though so what little they are in it is usually pretty enjoyable. Not all the female characters suffer so much though; Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman is a highlight of the film. Her first appearance in costume, teamed with her kick-ass Hans Zimmer + Junkie XL score is really awesome, and a nice bit of silliness in an otherwise grim film. Some of the DC cameos in the film makes me a bit wary at the prospect of an extended universe but Wonder Woman is brilliant and I can’t wait for her standalone film after seeing her in this.
The bottom line: I loved Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, but it isn’t really a ‘good’ film. It’s too dour for it’s own good, the script is a mess, the villain’s evil scheme falls apart as soon as you put any thought into to it, and trying to shoehorn in an extended universe makes a good portion of the film feel clunky. But the film’s action is very good, and it should be praised for it’s attempt at facing some tough questions and questionable morals. Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman is superb and Ben Affleck is probably the best Batman and Bruce Wayne we’ve ever had in the live action films. A lot of stuff in the film doesn’t work but the bits that do are excellent. It sometimes feels like the unfortunate result of studio meddling so hopefully Snyder’s directors cut can rectify some of these issues. But as it stands now Batman v Superman is a mess, but god is it an enjoyable one.