It is generally agreed upon that comic book fans have recently been treated to a bounty of pleasures on the Silver Screen. Even films that are not entirely satisfying (such as last year’s Age of Ultron and Ant-Man) were still enjoyable experiences. Yet, nothing’s perfect, and the clunkers keep slipping past. Last year fans had to suffer through a Fantastic Four project so awful, it managed to outdo the mess that was 2014’s Amazing Spider-Man 2. The good news is that Batman Vs Superman: Dawn of Justice never matches these nadirs. There are some positive elements to the movie; there are some pretty bad ones as well. The real problem is that there is very little which is actually great. Thus, while the overall film is not outright incompetent, it is also barely engaging or compelling.
The movie does not get off to a good start by retreading familiar territory. Yes, Bat-fans you get to see the Waynes’ gunned down in slow-motion flashback one more time. While there is a plot point for this (beyond the obvious origin details), the information could have (and is) delivered in a different manner elsewhere in the narrative. The story proper begins by repeating the climax of Man of Steel from Bruce Wayne’s perspective. Spurred on by Superman and Zod’s wholesale destruction of Metropolis, Bruce rushes to save employees of Wayne Enterprise’s Metropolis office. The sequence does a good job of establishing the noble side to Bruce’s characters, even if the viewer spends most of it wondering if Bruce could have saved more lives if he had donned the cowl. Regardless, as the smoke clears, Bruce is one of the many people wondering if the recently arrived Man of Tomorrow is a future disaster waiting to happen.
One of those individuals is Lex Luthor. Luthor is very much at the center of the movie’s narrative, responsible for pretty much every twist and turn of the plot. In the lead up to the movie, it seemed odd that director Zack Snyder along with screenwriters Chris Terrio and David S. Goyer left the Bat-villains out of their story. It turns out to be a wise choice, as Luthor proves to be worthy adversary of both heroes. Jesse Eisenberg’s take on Luthor might not be strictly orthodox but it is a well-thought out interpretation. Eisenberg emphasizes Luthor’s youth, playing him as a cocky rich kid who believes his brilliance entitles him to whatever he desires.
At the same time, he has deep scars. The screenplay heavily implies that Luthor was abused by his father, which caused Luthor not only to reject literal father figures, but symbolic ones all the way up the scale to God. Thus, just as his own father proved to be a tyrant, any person with any power must be corrupt. Hence his declaration that “The oldest lie in America is that power can be innocent.” Superman threatens more than Luthor’s sense of species superiority; he threatens Luthor’s entire worldview. Luthor must drag Superman down to his level, bloody his hands in order to demonstrate that any “god” is as fallible as man. It is to Eisenberg’s credit that he makes all this grand concept work, while still delivering an entertaining performance. Indeed, the scenes with him are the most engaging ones in the movie.
Unfortunately for Dawn of Justice, Luthor is the exception, not the rule. (What does it say about a superhero film where the adversary is the sole fully realized character?). Terrio and Goyer provide Ben Affleck’s Batman with some good beats. Affleck handles himself well as a grizzled, cynical Dark Knight. His frustrations, his sense of helplessness in the face of Superman’s might, is a believable psychological factor warping his judgement. Terrio and Goyer do a good job of introducing different perspectives on the clash of opinions over Superman’s arrival. And what about Luthor’s philosophy? Is he right about humanity’s inherent weaknesses? The screenwriters were clearly interested in broaching some rich subtext about superheroes and their role in society. They want to do more than script a string of fist-fights. In fact, could some of the characters’ criticism of Superman’s blind eye to collateral damage be a meta-response to similar fan complaints about Man of Steel?
However, this is where the movie misses its mark. Whether because of time constraints or lack of skill, the writers never scratch beyond the surface of any of these questions. Ideas are tossed around but never settle into anything coherent. In addition, the screenplay employs way too many short cuts and cheats. More than one character reveals that they know Batman’s secret identity without explaining how they pieced it together. The problem is not that such a deduction is unbelievable, but that it seems to happen for story convenience. Again, are the writers being lazy or was additional material cut?
The most grievous example is the long-teased Bat-mare sequence. It just suddenly comes on Bruce as he waits for a file to be decrypted and ends just about as abruptly. Is it some long-distance mid-******* from Luthor? A foreboding dream? Did Alfred use the wrong organic herb for brewing tea? The movie never explains. Under other circumstances, the ambiguity would be fine, except here it plays such a large role in the character’s development it feels a bit too much like shorthand. In addition, Affleck’s Batman is way too easy with killing opponents. More than once he clearly causes a person’s death. This extends to the Superman dilemma as well; viewers never witness Batman struggling with whether he has the right to be Superman’s executioner.
These flaws in the writing are not helped much by Snyder’s direction. To say that this is the best film of his that I have seen is more a reflection of the poor quality of the others than the merits of this one. His attention span is better here than Man of Steel, allowing for longer stretches of character development without an action set piece. However, he still fails at creating any type of engaging ambiance. His action sequences, especially the climactic battle with Doomsday, are a blur of poor CGI and jump cuts. His signature slow-motion leaps and thrusts feel artificial, pulling the viewer out of the action. Even a more somber sequence uses these crutches. When a pair of ceremonial canons are fired, the smoke billows out in exaggerated CGI excess, followed by a huge canon shell (do canons even have shells?) dropping to the ground like a spent pistol casing. It twists what should be the most poignant moment of the movie into one of unintentional self-parody. (By the way, how is it that J.J. Abrams gets all the flak for lens flairs? Snyder leans on them much more readily).
Amidst all of this sound and fury signifying disappointingly little, the rest of the cast make out the best that they can. Jeremy Irons captures Alfred’s sardonic side, ever-loyal against his better judgement. Holly Hunter brings sincerity to her role as a Senator simply trying to do what is best (as opposed to what Luther politely demands). Laurence Fishbourne does the gruff veteran newspaper editor thing, spending most of his scenes wondering what is up with that Smallville newbie. Diane Lane carries on the Kent family tradition of giving the worst pep talks ever. (“You don’t owe this world anything.” What?).
As for The Man of Steel himself, Henry Cavill does lend the role presence; he definitely looks the part. At the same time, he has a tendency to look lost amidst all the CGI pyrotechnics. (For his part, Affleck looks more comfortable during the action sequences). In the end, Cavill’s performance is another aspect of the movie that is mostly surface. This is especially true of his relationship with Lois Lane. Perhaps Cavill and Amy Adams simply have no chemistry, perhaps it is another example of screenwriting short cuts. As in the previous film, viewers are simply told that Lois and Clark are deeply attracted to each other without ever being shown it. Their courtship was virtually non-existent.
The same holds true for Lois’ character in general. The audience is told that she is a smart, driven independent woman, but there is precious little evidence of it on screen. There is a scene during the Doomsday battle when the viewer feels that Lois is about to have her kick-ass moment, only for her to fall back into the damsel in distress role. Such a waste of her character is a double shame as Amy Adams is one of the most talented members of the cast. Who would have thought that she would have had more to do acting opposite Jason Segel and a bunch of Muppets than as Lois Lane?
This leaves Wonder Woman. One of the most hyped aspects of Dawn of Justice has been the cinematic debut of the Amazonian princess. Indeed, the first shot of her in costume was the only time during the screening when the audience burst into applause, which says something considering how Warners spliced that reveal into pretty much all of their trailers. And therein lies the rub. While Wonder Woman has more than a cameo, the majority have her scenes have already been glimpsed in one form or another in commercials. Her first meeting with Bruce is a clever bit of banter between equals, yet beyond that her character does not get much of a spotlight. As a result, Gal Gadot make an adequate first impression but that is as far as it goes. Full judgement on her suitability to wear the fabled Bracelets of Submission must be reserved until her solo film arrives next year.
What Dawn of Justice does do well is naturally fit her into the storyline. One of the concerns about this project has always been that Warner Brothers was shoving too many characters into one movie. For the most part, the screenwriters successfully navigate the pitfalls of building a shared universe. The nods to other Justice Leagues members do arrive as advertised (Aquaman’s is the most impressive) and in a manner that feels organic. Now it could be argued that some of the above complaints about narrative shortcutting could have been solved if viewers did not need the “metahuman” thesis explained to them. There is truth to this. At the same time, it is nowhere near the disastrous pileup of characters and plot threads that passed for Amazing Spider-Man 2’s screenplay.
Again, though, Amazing Spider-Man 2 was a disaster of a film that stopped the franchise dead in its tracks. Dawn of Justice will not have that effect on Warner Brothers; Snyder’s Justice League Part 1 will screen next year come hell, high water or intra-universe Crisis. In the meantime, though, fans will have a chance to see other creators play in the DC sandbox. So far the aesthetic has been dominated by Snyder, yielding unremarkable results. Hopefully David Ayer and Patty Jenkins can bring a richer, more satisfying palette of flavors to the table. As it stands, the DC Cinematic Universe has plenty of potential which remains largely untapped.
PS: You do not need to hang around for any mid/post-credits scenes. There are not any.