Movie Review: Batman V Superman, Closer to the Mark.
In 2013, Zack Snyder‘s gritty and joyless Man of Steel introduced audiences to a new interpretation of Superman, one where our hero was unsure of himself and his place in the world, and had much of his moral code dictated to him by outside forces. Snyder’s Man of Steel was molten, easier to shape but deadly to pretty much all who touched him. In his second outing, Batman V Superman, both Superman and Snyder begin to feel more at home in the DC cinematic universe they are creating, thanks in large part to the tremendous ground work laid down by Christopher Nolan and his Batman series. While this may not be Nolan’s bat, this cinematic universe feels like its spiritual successor, and having Batman as a major component of this film helps to solidify and ground the proceedings and give Superman some bearings.
For those looking for a quick guide to if they should get on board with this project, and perhaps the larger DCU, my answer is a qualified yes. This film is better than Man of Steel in almost every way…but that’s not much of a compliment in of itself. As a second outing, Superman still has flight-school nerves, and it mostly shows in the rocky landing this picture makes, but the take off is immeasurably smoother this time around, and the inflight accommodations are a touch more refined. There were several moments of pure enjoyment to be had here, which I did not feel was true of its predecessor. There are still some major issues that need to be worked out, but Batman V Superman is a decent film that takes some risks with its characters, some of which work and some of which do not. I felt that on the whole, it mostly worked.
Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016)
Billionaire Bruce Wayne is a man haunted by demons. Scarred by the brutal murder of his parents, he has adopted the persona of Batman, a masked vigilante who is willing to go to almost any lengths to force order and justice upon his surroundings. His world is imploded by the arrival of Superman, and as he witnesses the climactic fight between Zod and Superman tear apart Metropolis, he realizes how powerless he is to stop their rampage or save the many civilians caught in their wake. He vows to become as strong as necessary to make sure that carnage never happens again.
Lex Luthor, another fantastically wealthy CEO, has a similar awakening due to the kryptonians’ arrival. While Batman sees Superman as a force of nature that must be prepared against, Luthor sees him as an existential challenge to his perceived superiority. Feeling that his intellect is the pinnacle of human achievement, and constantly reminded that this world cherishes brawn over brains, he likewise sets about creating machinations to thwart the Man of Steel. One of these schemes is to force the two caped heroes into a direct confrontation, which he instigates by playing upon both of their fears.
One of the first risks that Snyder takes is reworking many of the central tenets of his characters. We have seen that Snyder’s Superman is willing to kill, if there is no other options. We also see that Superman really doesn’t have a core set of beliefs. Truth, Justice and the American Way are not really his guiding principles. This Superman is more an adherent to “try to do what feels right while taking as few risks as possible.” Pa Kent has made him aware of his own monstrous strength, and he acts like a giant trying to sneak through a village without crushing too many peasants, and occasionally turning over fallen apple carts. It kind of makes sense for this character, as he could accidentally wipe out a city block with a sneeze. In this film, Superman is a touch more comfortable in his surroundings, but is still walking on eggshells after his fight with Zod.
Batman is likewise changed. This Batman is older, and if not wiser, more cynical. Early on, Alfred chides him about his more brutal methods, and Wayne reminds him that “we were always criminals.” There are mementos of his earlier adventures that hint that Bruce has lost much more than his parents. Breaking one of Batman’s cardinal rules, we rarely see this character WITHOUT a gun in his hands. In Snyder’s darker universe, Batman has embraced his amoral role, and is apparently comfortable with using any measure to obtain the order that he seeks.
Finally, we get a slightly skewed version of Lex Luthor, who is more mad genius than sophisticated crime baron. His preening and mental tics can become irritating, but his absolute certainty of his own place in the cosmic order makes him a lethal adversary, willing to go to any lengths to stay on top.
Drop the Mask
I found the performances of the main stars to be pretty good. Henry Cavill’s Superman is still a bit too conflicted for my liking, but his Clark Kent is a saving grace. In disguise as a normal person, Cavill actually gives Superman breathing room to actually fight for his budding beliefs. Kent feels like a moral crusader, willing to challenge the status quo. He also still has excellent chemistry with Amy Adams who plays Lois Lane. Adams, though given less to do this time around, is still one of my favorite characters in this series.
Ben Affleck gives us an interesting take on Bruce Wayne. He is sternly paternal, actively interested in caring for those under the protection of Wayne Enterprises. He’s made a surrogate family of his corporation and his city, and is genuinely protective of these people. Batman may crave order, but Wayne craves family, Affleck’s Batman is decent (and doesn’t rely on barking his phrases like Christian Bale,) and while he still has that core of anger that Nolan gave the character, he seems much more in charge of it.
Jesse Eisenberg’s Lex is a mixed bag. The constant verbal tics make him hard to understand at times, and feel a bit put on. That being said, his earnest mono-mania feels very real, and he delivers some of the most exciting scenes in the film. His penultimate confrontation with Superman is shocking in its grandeur and malevolence. He believes every word he says, and really is a super villain not to trifle with.
Let Them Fight?
The first 3/4 of the film is all set-up and world building…and I actually found it to be intriguing and engrossing. There is sporadic action, which helps keep the pace of the film from feeling dull, but once again the maneuvering of Bruce Wayne, Lex Luthor, and to an extent Lois Lane and Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman (more on her in minute) was entertaining for me. More than just character building, it showed heroes and villains who need to do legwork to get their goals achieved. Much like the second Captain America film, seeing larger than life heroes struggle and find their footing amongst their mortal settings is interesting.
The last 40 minutes of the film is all action, and nearly succumbs to the same failings as Man of Steel. Snyder has just not found a way to make a Superman fight feel exciting. Fortunately, Batman is there to save the day. Like Nolan showed us, Batman’s fight sequences can be brutal and beautiful, and it has real heft since Batman can be hurt (and can hurt back) without having to kick someone through a building. His fights have real stakes. Superman has to scale down to fight Bruce, but that just means he has to take an actual fight instead of hiding behind blurry CG. The titular confrontation is fairly satisfying, but is quickly eclipsed by the big fight with Doomsday (no spoiler, its in the damn trailer!) which is often a blurry, grainy, CG muddled mess, just like the Zod fight from Man of Steel. It is a bit of a let down…until Wonder Woman shows up.
Wonder (why she doesn’t already have her own film) Woman!
Wonder Woman is a revelation in this film. Everyone in the theater I was in applauded the minute she appeared in her armor, sword and shield in hand. She steps in and joins the fight, and just feels right. Gal Gadot’s Diana Prince seemed like a cool customer who avoided human affairs when at all possible, but her Wonder Woman is a keg of dynamite who loves a fight. She actually smiles when Doomsday wallops her! She’s enjoying herself! My god, people in a Zack Snyder film are allowed to enjoy themselves!? She even gets Batman to crack a joke. WW gives as good as she gets in the fight, and actually has some great choreography that translates well to CG, dashing around (no flying for her!) and actually making sound tactical moves. I can’t wait for her to get her own movie, and the people around me seemed to feel exactly the same way.
Second Times the Charm…
Despite being on my Least Anticipated list, and making some late stumbles, I enjoyed this film. There are flaws: Superman still doesn’t feel natural (and his parents still feel like selfish bastards,) and his fights are a mess; The use of CG, while toned way down from MoS, is still problematic, and relies too heavily on smashing up fake buildings (we’re assured they’re empty this time at least!); Some of the characters are contorted in ways that feel wrong; The music in this piece is not good. At least MoS had a detectable theme to its music. Batman V Superman wants so badly to break into Batman’s theme from The Dark Knight, it actually felt absurd when it didn’t. It kept swelling and swelling to the point where you knew that it needed to blare out a big Batman theme song (hell, even Burton’s Batman movies had a great score)…and then it just fizzled. They need to fix Batman’s PA system, cause without it you cut the tension in his scenes in half.
Batman V Superman, in the final accounting, did exactly what it needed to do for me. It fleshed out its characters and worked them into a shared universe, and while some changes are debatable, they actually feel like they have something in common now. In doing so, it gave me reasons to want to see more of these movies. I could go without seeing Superman again for several films, and be just fine, but I am interested in what this Batman is capable of, intrigued by the other super heroes shown in brief glances, and totally hyped for Wonder Woman’s solo outing. Its a long and winding path that got me here (Man of Steel felt like a nail in the coffin, not a glorious beginning) but I’m actually at the point where I give a damn about the DCU. That, fans, is a win.