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Movie Review: Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice

BvS: DoJ
I hope you're not going in expecting a huge performance from Jason Momoa...

[This review contains only minor spoilers.]

Almost as long as the two characters have existed, the debate over who would win in a fight between Batman and Superman has been echoing across playgrounds, living rooms, and comic book stores the world over. Though this question has been raised multiple times in the comics, on animated television shows, and through direct-to-video animated features, Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice has at long last brought the fight to the big screen. Billed as a pseudo-sequel to 2013's Man of Steel and a pseudo-prequel to next year's Justice League: Part One, this film is positioned as the lynchpin for DC Films' plans to create a cinematic universe to compete with Marvel's.

Though it might be a little unfair to compare Batman v. Superman to anything in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (the MCU), it is clear that Marvel's enormous success at building an interconnected, continuity-sharing series of comic book films is what has inspired DC's film aspirations. For the most part, this film does a good job not being a carbon copy of a Marvel film, and that comes with its own share of pros and cons. On one hand, the sober seriousness and darkened tone are better for exploring meatier themes and ideas, but on the other, they come across as a far less joyful affair than Marvel's snarky charm and gleeful embrace of the absurd. Batman v. Superman, in trying to be like both The Dark Knight and The Avengers, unfortunately fails to learn the lessons of some of Marvel's bigger missteps like Iron Man 2 and The Avengers: Age of Ultron. While both of those films are perfectly fine additions to the MCU, they suffer from an abundance of clutter, as their stories spend far too much time setting up future installments than in dealing with the present.

This is the Achilles' heel of the modern comic book movie, and it has been taking down comic movie franchises for longer than the MCU has even existed. Thankfully, despite its clutter, Batman v. Superman is not a trainwreck on par with The Amazing Spider-Man 2 or X-Men: The Last Stand, meaning that DC Films can still stay the course. It will also make a lot of money for the studio, and the next few films are already too far along in production to be scrapped. It may be receiving a critical drumming, but at its core, Dawn of Justice is a success at its mission to catalyze the DC Extended Universe (the DCEU), and it is a suitably entertaining treat for fans.

Superman angry
The last time he got this pissed, he wound up fighting himself in a junkyard

That said, it is certainly divisive. At its best, it's a visually poetic, operatic spectacle with a great soundtrack, good action set-pieces, and weighty themes. At its worst, it's an overstuffed and overwritten cinematic jumble of disjointed scenes that all too often favors style over substance and refuses to decide which story it wants to tell.

For example, there is a scene very early in the film involving Lois Lane being held captive by a terrorist in Africa. Mercenaries at the scene seem to suddenly switch sides and start executing civilians, and then Superman swoops in to save Lois by smashing the terrorist through multiple concrete walls. This scene is excellent for having fun action and setting up the theme of Superman's character arc--whether the collateral damage his presence creates outweighs the good he thinks he's doing--but at the same time, it feels like a convoluted scenario with a climax that pushes Superman out of character. Superman clearly kills that terrorist, even though he could have just as easily disarmed him, all because it looks cooler to have him smash through walls than it does for him to twist some guy's wrist.

Superman, as a character, certainly takes the brunt of the film's bad editorial choices. Instead of being the idealistic symbol for truth, justice, and the American way that Man of Steel appeared to set up, this Superman is pensive, skeptical, slow to act, and overcome with self-doubt. At one point, he finds himself in the middle of a crowded building as it explodes, and instead of rushing around to help potential survivors, he stares glumly at the devastation for several long minutes and then proceeds to fly away without a single word. I'll grant that the image of Superman standing in the middle of flaming wreckage is a powerful one, full of meaning and emotion, but again, it's a stylistic choice that runs roughshod over the character.

Alfred isn't pleased about Batman's attitude either

Thankfully, Batman is spared the same treatment. Make no mistakes, though: this is a very different version of the character than audiences are used to. This version of Batman has been pushed well past his breaking point by his twenty years of crime-fighting, so jaded and embittered by the futility of his own actions, the friends he's lost, and the sacrices he's made that he compares criminals to weeds that always grow back, lies even to Alfred, and sees in Superman the potential for next-level evil that can only be addressed pre-emptively. On top of all that, he has compromised even his most cherished principles, devolving into a borderline alcoholic who isn't afraid to use guns or kill people. While I'm sure many a fanboy will be unable to unwad their panties over this characterization of the Dark Knight, I find it a brilliant way to introduce a seasoned version of the character with the potential to be dynamic over the course of future films instead of having to rely on the well-worn crutch of rebuilding upon a new origin story.

Indeed, Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice would have been much greater had it been written first and foremost as a Batman story. Instead of meditating on the most provocative, interesting, and successful character, though, the plot gets repeatedly sidetracked by Superman's moping and Lois Lane's slow unveiling of a pointless government conspiracy (that doesn't actually make any logical sense). Even within Batman's own story, there are unnecessarily convoluted digressions and misdirects (such as Batman's quest to track down the "White Portuguese," an enigmatic figure who might be trying to smuggle a dirty bomb into Gotham) that drag the story down and confuse an audience that is waiting anxiously for the title bout. Of all the digressions, the expanded Justice League set-up is probably the most successful--at least for dedicated DC comic fans--though the bulk of it is very poorly timed at the scene right before the headlining fight begins.

Most troubling is the fact that all of this takes time away from planting the seeds for Batman's inevitable transition, which when it comes, is disappointing to say the least. The story pulls no punches in explaining why Bruce Wayne is taking the fight to Superman, and that explanation is rock-solid and perfectly logical. I daresay he convices me, especially since the Superman part of the story does very little to reassure me that the Kryptonian has anything to offer except frowny faces, a completely inexplicable hallucination in the mountains that should have been a flashback, and a refusal to work on Perry White's football story. The narrative then fails to adequately solve this central plot conflict, and when Batman and Superman become friends, it doesn't feel deserved or in character for anyone.

Begging a god
Every frame is a painting

Despite these obvious problems, Batman v. Superman is still an entertaining and beautiful film. There are many dreamlike, surreal scenes that are artistic expressions of something much greater than a mere comic book movie, and director Zack Snyder has a brilliant sense of both action and mise-en-scène. He relies a little too heavily on slow-motion to convey importance, but he can make something as simple as the breaking of a pearl necklace into a lyrical drama full of meaning and melancholy.

Just as notable is the breathtaking score. Whether it's familiar Man of Steel themes, Lex Luthor's gothic dirge, or Wonder Woman's wailing distortion guitar with a tribal drumbeat, the music comes across as suitably epic and emotional. Despite wild variations in musical style, everything in the soundtrack seems to fit perfectly, and it does an incredible job justifying the grim mood that permeates the entire story. We should be in mourning over the fact that composer Hans Zimmer is reportedly done with superhero movies, because this soundtrack (which, to be fair, he created alongside Junkie XL) is easily one of his greatest accomplishments.

Last but not least is the acting. The dialogue in the film is too clever by half--often bizarrely overwrought--but most of the actors are more than up for the challenge of delivering it. Despite being shortchanged by the story, Man of Steel alumni Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, and Diane Lane all do fine jobs as Superman, Lois Lane, and Martha Kent. They are greatly outshined, however, by the newcomers Ben Affleck, Jeremy Irons, and Gal Gadot, as Batman, Alfred, and Wonder Woman. Affleck nearly steals the entire movie, more than proving his detractors wrong and erasing all memory of that other comic book movie he is rumored to have been a part of some years back. While we see surprisingly little of him in the cape and cowl, Affleck's version of Bruce Wayne is perhaps the greatest we've ever seen on film. He feels more genuine than Christian Bale, smarter than Michael Keaton, and more cunning than either. I would happily watch an entire movie with Ben Affleck's Bruce Wayne, even if he never donned the Batman costume.

Lex Luthor
He just gets in the way

Unfortunately, for as good as Ben Affleck is as Bruce Wayne, Jessie Eisenberg is borderline unwatchable as Lex Luthor. As written, this version of Superman's nemesis is clearly more shrewd and intelligent than his cinematic predecessors--truer to the comic book character than ever before--but Eisenberg plays him as a twitchy manchild with wild moodswings and an incoherent mind. His mannerisms are cartoonishly extreme, and his voice is intolerably unmoderated. To say he breaks suspension of disbelief is to greatly understate how unrealistic and jarring Eisenberg's performance is here. I can't help but imagine how much better this Lex would be if played by almost any other actor in Hollywood.

In the final analysis, Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice is neither as terrible as its detractors predicted nor as brilliant as its fans were hoping. It's a sloppily written story told by (mostly) wonderful actors and one of the best visual directors of our time. It has thrilling action scenes that are illogically conceived but adeptly delivered. It's both a work of stunning beauty and a disjointed mess. It's perfectly solid as popcorn entertainment--as easy to enjoy as it is to nitpick--and I for one am looking forward to seeing where the DCEU goes from here, but if you go in expecting something as exceptional as the premise seems to promise, you'll probably be disappointed.


Severely flawed but beautifully shot, Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice is a mixed bag of awesomeness and mediocrity.

-e. magill 3/31/2016

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