In total, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is a gigantic misfire. The potential was here for a great piece of thoughtful entertainment, but at the end of it all you’re exhausted and your ears hurt.
Its failing is not that it does not follow some magical template, nor is it one of tone. The comics movie marketplace is large enough to appeal to diverse tastes and I rejoice in the idea that this genre can work to appeal to them all.
So please know that my harsh judgment of BvS:DoJ is not rooted in anything more than my judgment of it as an individual storytelling exercise. If dark, realistic-world superhero movies were the problem, then I (and many other people) would have rejected Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman film and told Christopher Nolan to go pound sand.
SPOILERS V DISCUSSION: THE DISCLAIMER
Here there be spoilers. I make this customary declaration not so much because I want you to remain unspoiled, but because an honest discussion of what is fundamentally wrong here is impossible without openly analyzing some of the granular errors made.
Those granular errors are choices stitched together from other sources like a Frankenstein’s Monster of cinematic exercise, and so talking about how each part contributes to the whole beast is necessary. As for the actual Frankenstein’s Monster set loose within the movie, that gets addressed directly later.
CONCEPT V EXECUTION: THE ROOT PROBLEM
To be sure, there are seeds of an interesting film (or three) here. The idea of responding to Man of Steel critics by introducing Batman as the audience’s “voice” was worth pursuing. Introducing Lex Luthor as a tech billionaire with a fixation on stopping Superman is intriguing. Superman is shown saving people, which at least advances him toward the hero we want. Showing news channel tongues wagging is real-world enough to induce a smirk, even if I did have to endure Neil deGrasse Tyson bloviating across the screen.
The precise problem is that this movie is a patchwork of intriguing concepts that never quite coalesce into a plot; Any hint of connective tissue feels more incidental than intentional. Zack Snyder’s gift for transposing images from the comic to the screen is part of what hampers the film from the first frame. Snyder relies on the audience having a preloaded extra-textual knowledge that allows him to cheat the storytelling.
In essence, this is all a small-screen concept writ large for a blockbuster. It reminded me of the way Michael Bay’s Transformers took a nostalgic pulp concept and boiled it down to a series of brief scenes between as much sound and fury as the director thought the audience could withstand. (Snyder misjudges that metric too.)
Still, I hung with the movie for the first two-thirds. I had a lot of structural problems with it, but there were positive points I hung onto. Jesse Eisenberg’s Lex Luthor wasn’t inspired, but it was serviceably interesting. Ben Affleck’s Batman, while not the best depiction, was interesting enough to watch. Jeremy Irons’ Alfred was actually quite a good take on the character and Gal Gadot obviously tried her best with Wonder Woman.
I ignored things like the “Knightmare” that served no useful story purpose in this film. It’s supposed to pay off (next time), like the video clips of Flash, Aquaman and Cyborg. But that doesn’t make their inclusion here any less forced. They impact the movie nothing besides running time. These sort of snippet scenes belongs on a TV show instead of a film.
THEMES V MEANING: COLLAPSE OF METAPHOR
Getting back to the idea of concepts not being the precise problem, Snyder is trying (I think) to explore some worthwhile questions. What is Superman’s responsibility to restrain himself and allow himself to be monitored? What is Batman’s guiding sense of accountability, when he sends people to prison with a mark that guarantees they get murdered in general population? (Ethical point on that one: he’s still responsible for their death.) Why does Batman try to destroy the very truck he’s trying to track?
These sorts of questions supposedly give the movie real weight. These are real heroes in a real world, and we have to deal with their realconsequences the way the real world would. That’s a worthwhile endeavor in a sense, because it’s an interesting thesis.
Sadly, the simple fact is that Dawn of Justice pursuit of “reality” does not excuse it from a pursuit of coherence. As these snippets play out, any emotional weight is blunted as the story jumps cat-like from one shiny moment to another, all playing with the intent of seeing the inevitable clash that got our butts in the theatre.
HERO V HERO: VILLAIN AND EXPLOSIONS
The titular battle is a bare fraction of the movie. There are others who have written more comprehensive articles, but to sum up: the heroes are manipulated in a ridiculously bald fashion to get them to fight. It’s supposed to make Luthor seem smarter, but it simply makes our heroes appear hopelessly dense.
This manipulation is supposed to be the trigger for the fight the entire plot has driven us toward. Batman and Superman facing off over a personal, ideological disagreement concerning a hero’s responsibility and accountability.
However, their fight is simply blunt force trauma for both the heroes and the audience. Like the movie overall, it looks cool but means nothing.
The third act then explodes into a cacophonous orgy of destruction that sniffs in contempt at such an ideological concept. That’s when boy genius Lex Luthor springs [Nuclear Bizarro] Doomsday [Man] so the movie can get on with its needlessly sacrificial completion. As an added bonus, both Metropolis and Gotham get hammered this time. Having heard so much criticism about Man of Steel, though, Batman assures us the docks are uninhabited, which makes utterly destroying them totally an act of restraint so far as this movie’s concerned.
The disastrous fight gets so bombastic that the floor started to shake and I had to put in earplugs. Whoever sound mixed this thing should be fired…from a cannon. I essentially tuned out and just waited for the sweet release of the end credits.
I won’t go full spoiler here, but if you saw Star Trek Into Darkness, it’s essentially that. While it doesn’t resolve in precisely the same way here, the movie's final frame is basically a reassurance that we won’t have to wait long to see that happen.
You heard audible groans in my audience.
If a movie were judged solely on the themes that a filmmaker was trying to convey, then Robocop 2 would be hailed as a masterpiece. Alas it is not, and it is precisely because of the difference between intent and execution.
This movie has the unique distinction of being both the worst Batman and Superman movie I’ve seen in years. I could continue writing for many more words about specific things that got under my skin or made me want to punch the sky, but unlike Zack Snyder I’ll take mercy on you and learn when to cut it out.
Until the inevitable reboot, I remain faithfully,
Post Script: I've seen the Sad Affleck video and I’ve never wanted to give him a hug so badly in my life. His marriage has fallen apart, highlighted by tabloids. He devoted a large portion of his life to this movie and I want him to know it’s not his fault. I still love you, Ben. I understand.