Reviews: Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice

 

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Whose brilliant idea was it to let the director of Watchmen handle Superman? I thought Zack Snyder was the wrong choice back when I saw Man of Steel, even though I was cautiously favorable of the film. Having seen Batman V. Superman, I not only think he’s the wrong director for this material, but I’m actually starting to wonder whether 300 was a fluke and that Snyder simply isn’t that great of a filmmaker (let’s face it: good as it was, 300 was an exercise in style more than substance). There is just so much wrong here that I have to wonder whether film just fell apart or whether it was designed this way as part of some misguided vision.

The plot is that, eighteen months after the events of Man of Steel, Superman (Henry Cavill) remains a figure of controversy, with voices on all sides calling for a reexamination of the unthinking adulation he receives for his acts of heroism. Among the critics is Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck), who was present during the climatic battle in Metropolis and witnessed the destruction and death caused by the battle first hand.

Another critic is the young wunderkind Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg), the youthful CEO of Lexcorp. Luthor’s company has discovered radioactive remnants of Krypton that deteriorates Kryptonian DNA and he wants Sen. Finch (Helen Hunter) to allow him to import it as a deterrent in case Superman ever goes rogue.

Meanwhile, Superman himself is living with his girlfriend, Lois Lane (Amy Adams), but is just as dubious of his own mission as everyone else, especially after a quickie rescue of Lois turns out to have unexpected consequences. In Gotham, Wayne begins to think it might be necessary for him, in his alter ego as Batman, to kill Superman as a preemptive strike.

Where, oh where, to begin?

Man of Steel was a deeply flawed film, but it wasn’t a bad one. Its revisionist take on the Superman story left much to be desired, but it was entertaining enough, and despite being way over-plotted managed to maintain a coherent story. The biggest problem was the fact that Superman himself was never the heroic or iconic figure he was supposed to be, not so much because the filmmakers were consciously undermining him, but because Zack Snyder and his writers clearly had no idea how to portray a character like that.

Well, that problem hasn’t gone away. If anything, it’s worse here, because the film’s plot is largely predicated on an adored figure that doesn’t exist. We’re told over and over again how people are embracing Superman as a savior, but apart from a brief scene in Mexico City and an even briefer montage, we never see it. Everyone and their dog talks about how dangerous Superman is, how disruptive he is, and how checkered his record of helping people is. Even Superman himself doubts himself. “Superman was never real,” he tells Lois at one point. “He was just a dream of a man from Kansas.”

This is a reference to his foster father, Jonathan Kent (Kevin Costner). Apparently, Clark’s nostalgia for his dead father has caused him to forget that Jonathan was so against his using his powers to help people that he preferred to let himself get sucked up into a tornado.

Superman is never the grand, heroic, or even likable figure that he ought to be. He’s just a sullen, self-pitying non-entity with little personality and no obvious virtues to speak of. Rather than an honest farm boy with the power to fight injustice and always save his girl, he comes across as a weary, confused cipher just going through the motions because he lacks the interest or character to do anything else. This movie is so bent on deconstructing the iconic figure of Superman that it forgets to actually construct it in the first place.

Batman isn’t quite as bad, though that’s only because he was already a dark, complicated figure, so there’s only so much deconstruction they can do to him. But they give it the good ole college try. This version of Batman has no qualms about killing and apparently thinks nothing of blowing up bad guys with the Batmobile’s firepower. Out of his vehicles he largely restrains himself, though he thinks nothing of branding a Batsign into the skin of the criminals he fights, ensuring that they’ll be beaten to death once they get to jail. He’s no more certain of his mission than Superman is, telling Alfred (Jeremy Irons) that criminals are like weeds, and that therefore his actions as Batman are effectively meaningless. The only real legacy he thinks he can leave is to remove the threat of Superman.

You know, the other day I commented that Deadpool, for all it’s cheerfully over-the-top content, was not a nihilistic film. Well, guess what? This one is. The movie constantly puts forth the message that heroics are ultimately meaningless, or that they just cause problems for someone else instead. The world is a zero-sum game in which people just suffer, and the only choice is who will suffer, and heroes are, at best, well-meaning failures, at worst jack-booted thugs imposing their will on the world.

Who the Hell thought this was a good theme for a Superman movie?

Again, for all his psychopathic behavior, Deadpool at least believed in what he was doing. He had something he was fighting for, and it was, as far as it went, a good cause. He wanted to be reunited with/rescue the woman he loved and stop the man who ruined his life from ruining anyone else’s. While he was merciless to bad guys, he was decent enough to innocent people, and even evinced an inconsistent kind of chivalry through such things as protecting a teenage girl from a stalker and spending his purchased time with Vanessa trying to get to know her as a person rather than just using her for sex.

That means that, at the movies this year, Deadpool is a more admirable hero than either Batman or Superman.

I could end this review right there. I mean, once you’ve established that, what else needs to be said?

Oh, but there’s more. Lots more. I haven’t even gotten to the worst element of the movie: Lex Luthor.

When I heard that Jesse Eisenberg had been cast, I thought it was a mistake. They were obviously shooting for a Mark Zuckerberg type for Lex, which I thought was completely for the character, but I was willing to at least give it a chance. Then when the trailers came out and I began to see bits of his performance, I was even less convinced. Well, bad as the trailers made him look, he’s even worse on screen. He wasn’t scary, he wasn’t funny, and he certainly wasn’t imposing or dangerous or commanding or anything else that Lex Luthor ought to be. He was just annoying. It got to the point where I honestly had to fight the urge to shout at the screen for him to shut up already.

Eisenberg plays Luthor like he really wanted to be playing the Joker, and specifically Heath Ledger’s Joker. In fact, that’s really the best way to describe it: it’s a bad imitation of Heath Ledger’s Joker, only it’s supposed to be Lex Luthor, who (as the filmmakers evidently forgot) is a completely different type of character. This is by far the worst depiction of Luthor I have ever seen; even worse than Gene Hackman’s version. At least Hackman was a convincing evil genius and had a real motivation for getting rid of Superman. He was a kind of light Bond villain, which wasn’t a good characterization, but at least an acceptable one. This…this is just a train-wreck of a performance. Hell, the version of Luthor on Challenge of the Superfriends was a better rendition than this.

Let me describe Luthor as I see him; he is the Randian Superman brought to life. By sheer force of will and talent, he has become one of the most powerful men in the world, able to flaunt the law at will and living only to reshape the world in his own image (for an example of this character done right, see Clancy Brown’s excellent portrayal in Superman: The Animated Series and Justice League). Then Superman shows up, and he’s more powerful than Lex ever could be without even trying. That is why Luthor hates Superman so much: because he’s someone that he can never beat, and not only that, but he takes all that power and uses it to help people and even dares to try to put limits on Lex himself.

It’s often said that Luthor is a man fighting a god, and in a way that’s a good image: if Superman is a Christ figure, then Luthor is the devil, eaten up with envy that he will never occupy such heights and resentful that his own precious will is being in any way curtailed.

What’s Luthor’s motivation here? It’s never really spelled out, but as near as I could gather, he hates Superman because he stirs up memories of how he lost his faith as a child because God never saved him from his abusive father.

Ahem.

WHAT!?!??!?!?!??!

They have one the greatest comic villains of all time, one of the iconic antagonists in modern fiction, and that is what they come up with!? That’s their reason for the great battle between the smartest man in the world and the Man of Steel?!

And that is the only motivation he’s given. Luthor and Superman never even meet until after Luthor begins his campaign against him, so he can’t be blaming Superman for standing in his way. In fact, as far as we know, Luthor never even committed any criminal actions until he decided that Superman needed to go. He, apparently out of the blue, determined to commit numerous acts of terrorism, murder, and so on, crafting a convoluted scheme to discredit and kill Superman (a plan that any idiot would realize is likely to result in, at the very least, his own death and possibly the end of the world) all because Superman’s existence dredges up his daddy issues?

Oh, and to make matters worse, it was Luthor’s father who built the company: Lex himself just inherited it. In fact, we have no evidence that he has any real talent or brilliance of his own. And far from making himself Superman’s greatest foe through sheer force of will, here he’s a mass of neuroses and can’t even keep it together long enough to make a simple speech at a charity event.

So, in summary, this version of Lex Luthor is not a master businessman, not a man who rose to the pinnacle of human achievement through sheer force of will, not the greatest criminal mind of our times, but a whiney git who had everything handed him and decides to destroy the world because he can’t deal with his bad childhood.

For Pete’s sake, that’s not Lex Luthor: that’s Doctor Doofenshmirtz!

Obviously, they were trying to make Luthor into a Mark Zuckerberg type, except that Zuckerberg at least has genuine accomplishments to his credit. That means that, as a corporate bad guy, this version of Luthor is actually less impressive than Mark Zuckerberg. Superman vs. the Social Network would have been preferable to this!

Okay, okay; enough about Luthor. What about Ben Affleck as Batman? Well…he’s not bad. As I said, Batman is less botched than Superman, though he’s nowhere near as cunning and intelligent as he ought to be (but as far as that goes, why single out Batman?), and comes across less like a hero fighting a lonely battle against corruption than a manic depressive who channels his psychosis into beating up people he can get away with hurting. When Batman has lines like “The only thing my parents taught me was dying in a gutter for no reason,” it’s a sure sign that things have gone off the rails. Nothing he says or does makes me think this is a guy who would dedicate his whole life to this campaign. I mean, why would he when he himself considers it to be pointless?

I think Affleck makes a better Bruce Wayne than Batman, and the opening scene with him trying to save his employees during the battle in Metropolis is probably his best moment and one of the best scenes in the film. That said, he does everything to announce that he’s Batman short of having a bumper sticker that says “My Other Car is the Batmobile: No Kidding!” Really, Bruce Wayne, famous billionaire playboy, shows up in an underground prizefight and chats up a Russian crime boss and no one, ah, bats an eye?

About the one person here who actually plays his role on the right note is Jeremy Irons as Alfred. He’s never seen serving as butler (Bruce apparently let Wayne manor fall into ruin, so they’re living in a smaller house on the property. I’m going to pass over how wrong that is because I don’t want to be here all day), but otherwise the characterization is perfect. Alfred is Batman’s tech support, common sense, and conscience, and Irons suits the role well. The film capture’s Alfred’s snarky, yet respectful attitude and he gets most of…no, all the good lines.

About the only other person who I really buy as their character is Amy Adams as Lois Lane, though Lois doesn’t have as much to do this time except be the one person who actually believes in Clark. An early sequence, in which Lois goes after a story, gets in over her head, and Superman flies in to rescue her, is pretty much perfect…except that they immediately go and undermine it, because that’s what they do. Of course, the removal of the Lois Lane-Clark Kent-Superman triangle has robbed the relationship of much of its drama, so their romance doesn’t really inspire much interest here. In any case, she’s recognizably the feisty, brave, heartfelt, oft-endangered girl reporter we all know and love.

Holly Hunter as Senator Finch doesn’t really have a reason to be here, but she plays the role well as probably the smartest and most believable character in the film. She wants Superman brought to account, but she knows better than to trust Luthor either. Though it was kind of weird for me to hear Elastigirl talking about how suspicious she is of superheroes.

Diane Laine as Martha Kent is a definite step-down from last time. Here she tells Clark “You don’t owe this world a thing.” What the heck is with this family? Old-fashioned Kansas values aren’t what they used to be, I guess. Oh, and Kevin Costner appears in a dream sequence to reinforce the idea that heroism is ultimately pointless, which is at least consistent with his characterization last time.

By the way, that dream sequence is only one of several, each one stupider than the last. The worst, and perhaps the most ridiculous part of the film, comes when Bruce dreams that Superman conquered the world and that he, Batman, is in the resistance, only they get captured, and somehow Batman killed Lois, so Superman kills him…except that Bruce doesn’t know who Lois is at this point, meaning that it’s implied to be a psychic message from someone, but we never find out who sent it or why, and anyway it never comes into play again, so what was the point of the whole thing? To establish that Bruce doesn’t trust Superman? The film had barely been talking about anything else the whole time! To set up something for the Justice League films? Who spends five minutes of an already-overstuffed movie vaguely setting up something that has nothing to do with this one but might come into play later? It’s just a gratuitous, silly waste of time. Really, I haven’t seen this many pointless dream sequences since Jaws: The Revenge. Yes: I went there!

There are a lot of sloppy little things, too. Like, for instance, what was the point of Clark clashing with Perry White (Lawrence Fishbourne) over Clark’s refusal to write the stories Perry wants him to? This is just one more little stab into Clark’s characterization: the Clark I’m familiar with would never flout his boss like that for something so trivial as a difference of priorities. As a matter of fact, if he’s so insubordinate, how does he even still have a job? Perry also contributes to the nihilistic tone of the movie by commenting that “America’s conscience died with John, Martin, and Robert,” making me slightly sick at the notion that the frickin’ Kennedy brothers were the keepers of America’s conscience (Side note: Baby Boomers, JFK’s assassination was not the earth-shattering event you think it was: it just seemed that way to you because you were young at the time). He repeatedly dismisses the idea that the public wants the press to try to right any wrongs and sneers at the idea that people care about Batman’s criminal actions. With all these people talking about how futile their chosen endeavors are, I’m wondering whether Zack Snyder is trying to tell us something about his own opinion of this movie.

Large chunks of the plot are utterly pointless. What was the point, for instance, of Luthor trying first to smooth talk, then to discredit Sen. Finch? He was apparently going around her back the whole time anyway. What was the point of Lois’s investigation into Lex’s conspiracy, given that he eventually just captures her and explains it? And was Superman supposed to have quit for a time? Near the end Lois smiles and says “You came back” after he catches her once more. Uh…had he left? Why did Diana Prince (Gal Gadot) steal Bruce’s big data-mining gadget to recover a photo from Luthor? I mean, what did she think he was going to do with it? Track her down? Evidently, he can already do that, with or without the photo. And if it’s such a big deal to her, why did she allow herself to be photographed in the first place?

What’s that? I haven’t mentioned Diana Prince AKA Wonder Woman yet? Yeah, there’s a good reason for that: because there was literally no point to having her in this movie. She makes zero contribution to the plot, save for joining in with the big battle in the end (which also provides the one (1) instance that she shows the slightest personality: after taking a massive hit from Doomsday, she cracks a satisfied grin before going back into the fight. It’s a good moment, but far too little too late). With a little re-choreographing, you could easily cut her out of the whole movie and not change a thing. Venom in Spider-Man 3 was better utilized and more integral to that film than Wonder Woman is here (hell, she actually creates a bit of a plot hole regarding how the end battle plays out).

A climactic shot of Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman standing side-by-side would have been awesome if I gave a damn about any of these characters. Seeing Iron Man, Thor, and Captain America standing side-by-side in The Avengers sent chills down my spine because I had already seen them in their own films and was genuinely interested in how they would interact; I knew them, I liked them, and I knew how cool they could be on their own, so seeing them all together was awesomeness cubed. Here, instead of three tried and trusted heroes, we get two characters who can barely muster the will to get out of bed in the morning, plus one of the background extras. Big flying deal. The shot is about as impressive as a piece of fan-art depicting the same thing.

Wonder Woman’s presence is just the most glaring example of the desperation that went into this thing. There is no passion, no creativity, just “how can we pack the seats? Well, let’s have Batman fight Superman. And then lets jumpstart the Justice League by bringing in Wonder Woman and teasing Aquaman, Cyborg, and the Flash. Then let’s bring in Doomsday, and…” The whole movie is a soulless hodge-podge of familiar elements from the comics, done by people who neither care about the characters nor have anything interesting of their own to offer in exchange, as portrayed by actors reading bad, pretentious dialogue amid bad, pretentious direction.

I’m kind of glad that I saw this film right after Deadpool, because in many ways it’s the exact opposite of that film. Deadpool was a passion project made by people who loved the character and who went all-out to entertain their audience. Batman V. Superman is a desperate cash-grab made by people who obviously have a degree of contempt for their material and who seem primarily interested in showing off how sophisticated and artistic they think they are. Deadpool was a cheerful exercise in crude, gory fun; Batman V. Superman is a joyless exercise in despair. Deadpool had no pretension; it just wanted to entertain. Batman V. Superman seems to think it’s making some kind of important statement about heroism, humanity, and God (in fact, it’s every bit as shallow as Deadpool, only it doesn’t know it).

It’s not completely worthless. There are individually entertaining scenes. I really liked the sequence introducing Batman, which is suitably gritty and dark to demonstrate how criminals see the Dark Knight. A few of the action scenes have a degree of interest to them, especially a late one in which Batman storms a building full of thugs, and I did like how Lex dropped the name ‘Doomsday.’ Oh, and at the very end there is what I suspect is a tease for Darkseid, which I admit would be really cool. There are one or two funny lines (mostly from Alfred), and some impressive images. The Batmobile in particular is a seriously cool vehicle and managed to combine the best of the Tim Burton and Christopher Nolan versions.

But what about the title fight? Well, it was kind of cool, but ultimately, it was a disappointment. For one thing, there simply was no emotional weight to it. Batman and Superman aren’t friends; in fact, they have no relationship whatsoever, so what does it matter if they come to blows? We in the audience are familiar with them from other sources, but in this movie neither of them comes across as especially important. The film doesn’t bother to build up to the fight in any meaningful way; instead it just kind of pushes itself there, does its thing, and moves on. Besides, we aren’t invested in this Batman enough to really be interested in what he’ll do to stay in the fight, and we don’t believe in this Superman enough to fear that he’ll put up enough of one. And without spoiling how the fight ends, I don’t buy it. Among other things, it was another example of how these characters just aren’t who they’re supposed to be. To put it broadly, Superman is too careless and stupid; Batman is too brutal and psychotic (there hasn’t been nearly enough going on to put him over the edge like that, if he is who he’s supposed to be). This isn’t how a fight between these characters ought to go.

(For a contrasting example, see Freddy vs. Jason, which actually took the time to build up the title fight within the context of the film itself, clearly established what was at stake, and had it proceed based on who the characters were and what they would do in that situation before ending in a way that didn’t compromise the figure of either combatant. Of course, that was written by people who actually gave a damn about the characters they were working with, so…).

And as for what happens next, well, frankly, it’s just stupid. A rushed, unengaging ending that seems to be a desperate attempt to coax fans back for the next film, and which starts to collapse the moment you think about it (i.e. what, exactly, did Luthor plan to do with Doomsday if his first plan had worked?). There is no emotional impact to what happens because a). it’s far too early in these characters’ careers for this to really mean anything and b). we’ve seen no reason why the majority of these people should react the way they do, or, frankly why we should care. See, that’s what happens when you spend all your time deconstructing your myths: they stop being mythic, and so stop being interesting.

So, in summary, I did not enjoy this film. I went in with low expectations, but the movie somehow managed to limbo under them. It’s just a complete mess, and I am not at all looking forward to having to endure more of this universe down the line.

Final Rating: 1.5/5. A few cool moments and a few decent supporting characters are about the only mitigating factors in this Justice-League-sized disaster of a film.

 

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