Movie Review: Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice


Last week, I wrote a rant against marketing abuses of Marvel Cinematic Universe, but even as that was finished and scheduled for publication, DC Extended Universe released Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. Despite my rant against these shared fictional universes, I decided to see it. I have neither the time nor the money to see everything, but I do try to see a cross-section of those movies that generate the most attention and interest and publicity. I was also curious about how DC Extended Universe would differ from Marvel’s. Would it employ the same seeding of future projects? From the trailers, it appeared that they were striving for a darker, grittier tone than Marvel’s superhero movies, and I like dark, gritty tones. But the biggest reason I wanted to see Batman v Superman was because of Wonder Woman. This was the first time, to my knowledge, that Wonder Woman appeared in a feature movie, and I was excited and curious about how they would introduce her. The pre-release publicity photographs of her looked awesome! I wanted to see this character on the big screen!

Directed by Zack Snyder, Batman v Superman is DC’s second released in their Extended Universe. The first was Man of Steel (2013), which starred Henry Cavill as Clark Kent/Superman. He reprised his role in Batman v Superman, as did Amy Adams as Lois Lane. Ben Affleck starred as Bruce Wayne/Batman. Jeremy Irons played Alfred. Gal Gadot, from the Fast and Furious franchise, starred as Diana Prince/Wonder Woman. Jesse Eisenberg plays Lex Luthor. Chris Terrio and David S. Goyer wrote the screenplay. Larry Fong, who made a name for himself with Lost, was the director of photographer.

After the movie, as I was walking out of the theater, I texted one of my friends: The movie was okay. Okay! That is the best way to describe it. Okay! If you got 2 1/2 hours to kill and ten bucks in your pocket you don’t want, yes go see this movie. It won’t disappoint you, I believe, but I’m also betting it won’t amaze you.

The worst element of this movie is that it insisted on committing the same sins that I ranted about in last week’s article. Since I never saw Man of Steel, and since Batman v Superman began where (I assume) Man of Steel ended, I felt lost at the beginning. In other words, I felt seeing Man of Steel is a prerequisite to seeing Batman v Superman. It is like those college classes where you have to take Chemistry 201 before you can understand the material in Chemistry 301. Until you master basic chemistry, don’t dare try to study advance chemistry. And in this way, don’t dare watch Batman v Superman without seeing Man of Steel. You’re not going to understand the beginning of the movie, and without understanding the beginning, the whole movie falls apart. This is an inherit weakness of these shared fictional worlds, at least as currently applied–the interweaving of plot elements. In my rant about Marvel Cinematic Universe, I compared this to the Gordian Knot (actually mentioned in Batman v Superman), and I have to say that DC is tying its own Gordian knot in its Extended Universe.

Another weakness of these shared universe is the seeding of future movies in the current movie. Wonder Woman and a revisioned Batman were not the only superheroes introduced in this movie. In visions, dreams, and flashbacks, we met Aquaman, Flash, and Cyborg. Maybe others. I do not know. It was hard to keep up. These superheroes are slated for their own stand-alone movies, but I suspect they’ll appear in Justice League Part One, set for release in 2017. (Part One, ‘mind you! It appears to me that they had already decided to give this movie The Hobbit treatment, of breaking one story down into multiple movies. In the words of Hans Solo, “I got a bad feeling about this!”) Since introducing these characters now in this fashion served no function in the current movie, their introduction is a contrived effort to seed interest for the future movies. In blunt words: They’re marketing rather than storytelling. As such, they weaken the story.

Which brings me to the second worst element of Batman v Superman–the confusing story. Usually I blame bad writing on the screenwriters–Terrio and Goyer–but in this case, I wonder how much they are to blame, when no doubt they were contractually required to introduce so many characters who have no role in the current movie. They had to break away from the plot and the character development to infuse parasitic elements into the story. This seeding of future movies is a parasite. (Yes, I know that mixes metaphors.) A movie can only be so long. Two or three hours. Maybe if you have a story as fascinating as the Battle of Gettysburg, we’ll sit through a movie 4 1/2 hours long (Gettysburg (1993)), but most of the time, three hours is the most we want to give a movie. Batman v Superman is 2 1/2 hours, and precious time in that period was spent not on developing plot or defining characters but on creating the Extended Universe. It weakened the story and left me bewildered by character motivations.

At the risk of writing a spoiler, let me write about one sequence. Bruce Wayne, needing some information from Lex Luthor’s computer, attended a gala at Luthor’s home. He sneaked away from the party to find the computer. Located in an unlocked glass room off the kitchen–where chefs and wait persons were busy working–this was the world’s most insecure computer. It was also the easiest to hack, because all Wayne had to do was attach a device to a cord. Of course there were complications that I won’t detail, but when he got the device back to the Bat Cave, deciphered it, and learned the information he sought, it was so commonplace–the name of a cargo ship–he could’ve learned it by Googling it.

That is weak writing. Not only is it weak, it’s insulting. It spits in the audience’s face, shouting, “You guys are sooooooo stupid!” And that is only one example of where the writing is lazy and contrived. The movie was so flooded with stupid writing that at one point I lifted my arms in an exasperated shrug. I sighed in annoyance so loudly that the viewer in front of me gave a dirty look.

Don’t blame me, guy! Are you seeing this?

The job of a movie like Batman v Superman is to entertain us. Bad writing is not entertaining.

But other elements in the movie were entertaining. The photography is beautiful. Some movies are worth seeing just for the photography. If Batman v Superman isn’t one of them, it comes close. I believe the photography is the number one reason to watch this movie. In many shots, especially towards the end–with the superheroes in their super uniforms–where Marvel would’ve posed the characters in front of a green screen to add a CGI background in post-production, DC built a set and staged the shots. This added a textual feel to these shots that you don’t get with green screen and CGI. Add dim light and muted colors, and you have that gritty atmosphere I like. Since these are characteristics of Zack Snyder’s films, I don’t know whether to tribute him or Larry Fong for the effect. Let me call it a beautiful collaboration. Snyder had a vision; Fong and his cameramen turned the vision into a reality. To me this dark tone is the perfect metaphor to the psychological dilemmas that are inherent in being a superhero. We have long known that Batman, as a vigilante, must do wrong to do right. In Snyder’s vision, Superman and Wonder Woman share in this paradox.

I know other people had concerns about the casting. An Englishman playing Superman? Ben Affleck as Batman? One reporter–a female reporter, thank god–even hinted that Gal Gadot wasn’t busty enough to play Wonder Woman. Despite these criticisms, I have no problem with any casting decision. Nor do I have a problem with anyone’s performance, except to say that there was too little character development to adequately judge any actor’s performance. (Reference all my comments above about bad writing.) Diana Prince/Wonder Woman, for instance, only had 16 lines. She had fewer lines than I have fingers and toes! How do you define a character with only 16 lines? I’m not saying that it can’t be done, but it wasn’t done in this movie. Since my top reason for wanting to see Batman v Superman was to see Wonder Woman, this was a big disappointment.

One exception to the abridged characterization was Eisenberg’s Lex Luthor. Though he wasn’t a fully developed character, he was better developed than the others. In contrast to Gene Hackman’s narcissistic, greedy Lex Luthor, Eisenberg’s Luthor is motivated by neither narcissism nor greed. Psychopathic, he seems to seek destruction for destruction’s sack. As such he craves power. If he seeks wealth, it is only a means to power. Villains are often the most interesting characters in fiction, and in Batman v Superman, Lex Luthor is the most intriguing character. Eisenberg’s performance is the best of the movie. I’m not sure that is saying much, though, because Snyder’s instructions to the other characters seem to be “act dark and brooding.”

As I said earlier in my review, I left the theater with mixed feelings. I still have those mixed feelings. So I don’t know whether I should recommend the movie. If you love superhero flicks, you’ll probably love this movie. But if you’re someone like myself, who enjoys some of them but hates others, then you might want to skip the movie or wait for home viewing. After my rant last week, my sister-in-law wrote me to say she had stopped spending money on such films. I fear that is the choice these shared fictional worlds are forcing on us. You’re either all in or you’re all out. I don’t want to make that decision. I want to feel comfortable seeing some of these movies without feeling I need to see all of them in order to understand the plot, the characters, and the shared universe. That said, seeing Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice wasn’t a waste of my time or money. It had flaws, it could’ve been better, but I enjoyed it.

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