In the interest of getting “hard” copies of my work under one roof, I plan to spend the next few weeks posting the entire archive of my film journalism here on ScullyVision. With due respect to the many publications I’ve written for, the internet remains quite temporary, and I’d hate to see any of my work disappear for digital reasons. As such, this gargantuan project must begin! I don’t want to do it. I hate doing it. But it needs to be done. Please note that my opinions, like everyone’s, have changed a LOT since I started, so many of these reviews will only represent a snapshot in time. Objectivity has absolutely no place in film criticism, at least not how I do it.
The DC Extended Universe will always be compared to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It’s unavoidable, and by sheer virtue of coming to fruition in a post-Avengers world, the DCEU will always be fighting an uphill battle. If they do something decidedly similar to Marvel, fans will lament that DC refuses to blaze its own trail. If they do something original, fans will whine that DC should take a page from Marvel’s playbook. It’s a lose/lose situation from any angle, and it’s through this lens that Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice transcends it’s many flaws to deliver a wallop of an action movie, all the while making good on its promise to establish a firm ground upon which the path to the Justice League can be built. To compare the DCEU to the MCU is unfair and in my opinion, wholly pointless, so I am not going to do it. Man of Steel was a deeply polarizing movie. Some of us (including me) loved it while others were bothered by it. In the three years since its release, the two factions have pushed each other into extremes. Many fans of the film refuse to see its flaws, while those who dislike it have taken the film as a personal attack on their sensibilities. Oddly enough, neither side of the argument is glaringly wrong. As much as I enjoy the film, there are few criticisms of it that aren’t at least a little bit valid, but to me it’s a matter of how much these flaws threaten to divorce the viewer from the movie. I was enraptured. Many were not. Batman v Superman (henceforth referred to as BvS, for my fingers’ sake) is a direct response to the polarized response to its predecessor, which both bolsters and weakens the film in different ways.
BvS begins with a mostly silent, Watchmen-esque retread of Batman’s origin. We’ve seen Thomas and Martha Wayne get killed in just about every cinematic iteration of Batman, but this time around, the first stop on Bruce Wayne’s “stations of the cross” is slightly different. This is the first time, if memory serves, that Thomas Wayne makes an attempt to fight back. It’s when he clenches his fist and rushes his attacker that he ends up catching a bullet. It seems like a small tweak, but in a film that delivers a fundamentally different Batman (one who has no compunction killing people – more on this later) this becomes relevant. At this moment it also becomes clear that this is a primarily a Batman film … with a side of Superman.
From here we move forward to the big boss battle from Man of Steel, only this time we see it from Bruce Wayne’s ground-level perspective. In this universe, Gotham is a sister city to Metropolis (it’s the Camden to our Philly, crime and everything) and Wayne Enterprises has a building located at ground zero. As death and destruction rains down upon the citizens, Bruce runs toward the madness to save as many people as possible. He can’t do much, but his experience sets off a deep-seated mistrust of Superman. This mistrust grows into an obsession, and the seeds of the titular battle are planted.
In the present day, Batman busies himself fighting low-level crime in Gotham. Clark Kent trots the globe covering bubblegum stories for The Daily Planet while his alter ego saves Lois Lane when her aggressive journalism tactics put her in harm’s way. Batman has been active for years, and it’s clear that most of the altruism has faded from his life of crime-fighting. He does what he does not because he believes in justice, but because he’s mad at a world he cannot fix. He feels his work has done more damage than good, and as a result he’s beginning to question his legacy … and loosen his rules of engagement. On the other side of the coin is Superman, who wants to do good, but hasn’t found a proper way to answer for the destructive nature of his powers. He is both loved and hated, but finds himself in a world too cynical to have faith in a God who walks amongst men. One can’t help but feel this is also a sly dig at Man of Steel‘s detractors. Has our world grown too cynical to house a Superman? Signs point to yes.
Much in the same way Batman takes issue with Superman’s unchecked power, Superman takes issue with Batman’s increasingly cruel methods of imposing vigilante justice on lower socio-economic areas. Yeah, I’ll admit that it’s a little reaching, and a bit on the nose regarding the current societal conversation about the methods of the police, but it’s not invalid.
While all of this is brewing, Lex Luthor is pulling strings in an effort to discredit/kill both heroes, and a government task force (led by an excellent Holly Hunter) is attempting to open a dialogue about how to properly handle a world where men with laser-eyes come from the sky.
The hype regarding Ben Affleck’s take on Batman and Bruce Wayne is real. He looks the part, acts the part, and makes it entirely believable that a man of distinction would also be a man of obsession. This version of the Caped Crusader is not going to go without controversy, however. He kills a lot of people, and does so quite brutally. We must remember that this is Batman AFTER the fact, and he’s reached a point where his golden rule hasn’t seemed to make much of a difference. Frankly, I’ve always found Batman’s “I won’t kill you but I will put you into deadly, inescapable situations and refuse to save you” malarkey to be a cheap copout. In a way, it’s refreshing to see Batman so unhinged. It also leads to some incredible action sequences, most of which feature a brilliant, if underused Jeremy Irons as Alfred. When we get a solo Batman flick, the chemistry between he and Affleck will be a major selling point.
Sure, we can all moan about how different this Batman is from previous iterations, but if that’s the case, I guess we should go back to the Adam West style, right?
Another thing that works well is Jesse Eisenberg as Lex Luthor. He is a bit underwritten, and a little loose on the motivation front (taking down Supermans is what Lex Luthors do!), but Eisenberg’s delightfully deranged performance makes a strong case for him simply being drunk with power. He condemns Superman, stating that power cannot be innocent, while fully aware that his own power has done more than stoke his drive to be evil.
Structurally, BvS feels disjointed. The narrative bounces from scene to scene with nary a thread of connective tissue. It’s not necessarily jarring, but one wonders what could have emerged with just a touch more effort toward establishing a through-line. This episodic approach lends itself to comparisons with a trade paperback, but as appropriate as such a thing may be, this is a film, and at 2.5 hours, pacing is key. This isn’t to say that the film ever drags. It doesn’t. In fact, it rockets toward the throwdown between our heroes, but I imagine an alternate cut where the forward motion of the narrative is more organic rather than finish line oriented. I also imagine a script where Superman’s moral quandary (which could honestly be an entire film in and of itself) is explored as more than just an engine to put he and Batman at odds with one another.
But when they do come to blows, it’s pure movie magic, and it’s a solid reminder of how good Zack Snyder is at conducting a symphony of violence. The battle showcases Batman’s ingenuity as well as Superman’s capacity to err on the darker side of his humanity. The battle kicks off an INSANE third act that is going to thrill just as many people as it upsets. Lucky me, I was thrilled. Like EXTREMELY thrilled, yo.
The movie ends in a way that sets up a million possibilities for sequels. We already know of a Wonder Woman standalone, a Batman standalone, Suicide Squad, and two Justice League films, but mostly I’m pining for another Man of Steel. Superman is underserved, and it’s a shame considering how solid Cavill is in the role. I want another Superman movie which caters to his charisma and places the big blue boy scout into a world not so filled with darkness. Man of Steel lead us there, but BvS takes a hard left into the gritty world of Batman. It’s a good look, and I hope it’s indicative of some future tonal variety (a thing that the MCU takes measures not to do). With Man of Steel and BvS being so tonally different, I have high hopes that future DCEU films will vary in tone as well.
As for the extended universe being built, we do get quick glimpses of other Justice League members, each of which is fun despite being haphazardly shoehorned in. Wonder Woman, however, is a standout. Her appearance in battle caused an eruption of cheers in the theater. Gadot plays her with a sly confidence befitting the role. Those who have access to the score should give the track “Is She With You?” a listen. It captures the energy and spirit of Wonder Woman’s extended cameo perfectly. Her standalone feature will certainly be a DCEU highlight.
In closing, BvS is a big, bold experiment made by people who really care. At times it suffers under the weight of all that it’s trying to accomplish, and it is marred by its allegiance to correcting the “mistakes” of Man of Steel, but this is all small potatoes. Love it or hate it, BvS loudly declares that the MCU plan isn’t anywhere near DC’s radar, and that in itself is exciting. In a world where every step the DCEU takes is criticized as being either too much or not enough like the MCU, it’s wonderful to see a comic book movie attempt to go this big, and while it’s not perfect, it’s a huge, hugely entertaining piece of mythmaking. BvS confidently swings for the fences. It doesn’t quite clear them, but boy oh boy it’s a beautiful swing, and man, does that bat crack (pun partially intended) when it connects.
Plus, Batman and Superman beat the life out of each other and it’s totally awesome.
Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice opens in Philly theaters today.