The latest superheroic blockbuster, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, is meant to kick off numerous franchises and an entire shared universe, but I’m less than enthused. This pseudo-Man of Steel sequel is not so much the dawn of anything as it is the continuation of highbrowed cynicism as a narrative principle. Pallid, forgettable, and an exercise in creative exhaustion, this film is the cinematic equivalent of a child slamming two plastic toy dinosaurs into one another. As you might imagine, the result is quite inconsequential.
This is DC’s challenge to rival Marvel Comics, who have built a successful interconnected film universe that began with Iron Man and resulted in The Avengers, and which continues to grow, writing-wise and in terms of popularity. But the Warner Bros.-owned company has made the not-so-brilliant decision to hire Zack Snyder as director to helm most of their franchise development, including this movie. Snyder, who has given us such bloated hyperviolence flicks as 300 and Sucker Punch, is someone who focuses largely on visuals and little on story, applying to his works a boneheaded, vapid approach, to boot. It’s a shame, then, that two of the most compelling and beloved comic book characters in the history of pop culture have been left in his hands. Accordingly, they fall to pieces.
Ben Affleck plays an older, more apathetic Bruce Wayne/Batman, who views Superman (Henry Cavill) as a potential threat to humanity, after the Kryptonian inadvertently killed thousands during his battle against General Zod during the previous movie, Man of Steel. To summarize in a spoiler-free manner, you should know that the two iconic heroes are manipulated by Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg) into having a modern-day gladiator match, until they are forced to unite along with Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot, who gets way less screen time than she deserves) against a common threat.
A bewildering mishmash
Casting aside the ridiculous idea that Batman, the “World’s Greatest Detective,” could be stupid enough to be baited into such a fight, you’d think that with such a straightforward synopsis, the writing would follow suit; it does anything but. The first hour is a bewildering mishmash of Superman sequel, Dark Knight origin story, and, essentially, an underlying apology to the audience for what mistakes Snyder thinks he made in this film’s (admittedly criticized) predecessor. Then it switches over to the title fight for which it’s named, with superhero cameos (obligatory tablesetting for upcoming films) shoehorned into the midst of that narrative. The final portion of the movie, pitting these two guys and Wonder Woman against the villain Doomsday, is more enjoyable, until another poor decision is made in regard to a beloved character at the end.
Part of the problem, I think, is that between disconnected scenes and poorly choreographed fights, it simply cannot maintain the momentum it strives for, and it tries to replicate explosive comic book spreads at the cost of coherency and quality film craftsmanship. But it’s more than that. The very DNA of the film is corrupted, as numerous mismatched story arcs from the source material – mostly the Batman and Superman comics – are fused clumsily together here like a Frankenstein’s monster, and then expected to flow smoothly; or perhaps the audience is expected not to note the sloppy writing job as they’re dazzled by the special effects and wham-bang action.
This is insulting enough to true comic fans, but then Snyder has the nerve to piss on our boots and tell us it’s raining; to stretch a tapestry of pomposity over the entire affair, as though he were covering up his own mess or, worse yet, a crime scene. Indeed, the film’s high-minded, inflated sense of self-importance carries it along with a stilted cadence that borders on self-parody, though neither the director nor the cast seem privy to the joke. It’s possible that Snyder actually thinks he’s crafting some sort of operatic splendor, but in actuality, the attempt is something more akin to writing Shakespeare in crayon.
It’s supposed to be fun
I have to give credit where it’s due, though, because it’s not all lofty pseudo-philosophizing. Some of the ideas floated here are actually intriguing. The moral and sociopolitical dilemmas raised by Superman’s existence, for example, are actually well-written and affecting. If you isolate them from everything else, that is. But alas, in the greater scheme of things, it’s just one more ingredient in this superhero potluck, floating uncertainly beneath a thick, cloudy film of hard-boiled pessimism. Even worse, the rest of the ideas there are – along with whatever muddled allegorical motifs that are woven throughout this mess – just aren’t compelling, provocative, or interesting.
Here’s the thing: a superhero flick doesn’t need to change your worldview or resonate with you, the viewer, on any sort of deep, emotional level. Nor should it, in most cases. It’s supposed to be fantasy. It’s supposed to be escapism. It’s supposed to be fun. Batman v Superman is so concerned with its own thematic hyper-realism that it’s forgotten those basic elements.
But even the director is not all to blame. This movie feels very corporate, and that makes sense. It’s essentially the latest installment meant to guarantee that good old “superhero money” for the film studio, which has had several recent critical and box office flops. Marvel, now owned by Disney, is of course very corporatized as well, but they manage to choose directors, writers, and casts that have creativity and heart.
In the unlikely event that you haven’t noticed, the dirty handprints of Warner Bros.’ forceful marketing team are smeared all over this project. The subtitle “Dawn of Justice,” for example, is there to make you think about the upcoming Justice League, a two-part juggernaut of a film that will unite Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, The Flash, Cyborg, Aquaman, and who knows who else. And needless scenes are scattered throughout this grueling, monotonous, two-and-a-half-hour experience in order to reinforce that brand, to the detriment of the actual story.
Ultimately, Batman v Superman is the result of the hasty catchup game that DC/Warner Bros. is playing as Marvel/Disney outpaces them in theaters. In the race to get from Point A to Point B – and make as much money as possible along the way – they’ve made a series of poor creative decisions. This movie is very much the product of that; a harsh lesson in what not to do in a comic-based film, and yet another reminder that capitalism is anathema to art.
If you shut off your brain, shorten your attention span, and embrace form over content, you’ll find Batman v Superman to be entertaining on a highly superficial level. Whether it’s worth purchasing a ticket for or better to wait until it’s released on DVD and Blu-Ray is a personal choice, but the latter may be wiser. This is neither what most comic fans wanted nor what general moviegoers deserve, but it is what it is. It’s a beautiful disaster. But it’s still a bad movie.
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