Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016) / Action-Sci Fi
MPAA Rated: PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action throughout, and some sensuality
Running Time: 151 min.
Cast: Ben Affleck, Henry Cavill, Jesse Eisenberg, Amy Adams, Gal Gadot, Holly Hunter, Laurence Fishburne, Jeremy Irons, Diane Lane, Scoot McNairy, Harry Lennix, Callan Mulvey
Small role: Kevin Costner, Lauren Cohan, Michael Shannon, Charlie Rose, Soledad O'Brien, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Patrick Leahy, Nancy Grace, Anderson Cooper, Patrick Wilson, Carla Gugino (voice), Ezra Miller, Jason Momoa, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Ray Fisher, Joe Morton
Director: Zack Snyder
Screenplay: Chris Terrio, David S. Goyer
Review published March 25, 2016
Just as Disney's brand of Marvel films has sought to build an interconnected cinematic universe of characters that will team up on occasion and cross over into each other's films, now Warner Bros/DC Entertainment is trying to force-feed its fans the same with what should have been just the straight sequel to their Superman solo re-launch, Man of Steel. Not only do we get a reboot of Batman into the universe, but the powers that be have decided to make this the prequel to their upcoming super-team of heroes, a la The Avengers, called the "Justice League". So, we get Wonder Woman (Gadot, Triple 9) introduced into a supporting role, give cameos to The Flash, Aquaman, and Cyborg, all in the hope of generating a great deal of buzz among the fanboys of these DC properties who have longed to see representations of their favorite characters finally emerge on the silver screen.
However, by showing all of their cards and making it clear they intend to try to merely copycat the success of the Disney/Marvel blueprint, the makers of Batman v Superman have killed off any form of dramatic tension they could have mustered from the big brawl between two of comicdom's most beloved characters. When you know that "Justice League" is going to be a thing, you will know that Batman (Affleck, Gone Girl) and Superman (Cavill, Man from UNCLE) will not truly die during the course of this film, which, given that the film introduces the "Doomsday" plotline from the "Superman" comics in which, for a spell, Superman would famously die, you can kill off an un-killable character and no one ever, not even for a second, thinks, "What?! Are they really going to do this?"
Even worse than this, we also know that Superman and Batman will be allies in Justice League, so their animosity toward one another is going to be cleared up by the end, something that the trailer (and the promotional picture I've used for this review) tells you outright, negating the very reason to be enthused about the proposal of an all-out melee from the film's title. Even in this confrontation, the character motivations are skimpy, with Bruce Wayne, reeling from the destructive collateral damage he witnessed first hand in the battle between Supes and General Zod in Man of Steel, basically asserting that Superman needs to be destroyed because he has the power to destroy humanity. If there's even if there's a 1% chance he could turn evil, he needs to be killed just to avoid the risk. Basically, we have to presume Batman, aka Bruce Wayne, is a complete idiot out to fulfill his own prophecy by antagonizing Supes, raising all sorts of questions to the public, vilifying him in the media. He's actually trying to stop Superman from destroying humanity by making him an enemy of humanity, in a plotline that makes no sense whatsoever from the first moment we try to deduce his faulty reasoning.
Also lessening the already anemic dramatic tension is the knowledge that wealthy psycho genius Lex Luthor will become the main villain of the film, trying to un-tap the secrets of the universe from within the remnants of Zod's downed Kryptonian starcraft, played with maximum vexatiousness from Jesse Eisenberg (American Ultra) in a tic-riddled, motor-mouthed performance that packs more ham within it than your neighborhood deli. It's not even a joy to watch Eisenberg try to chew the scenery, often looking like he's laboring to give fans a wildly charismatic and edgy performance to relish, but he's going against his grain as a consummate big-screen introvert -- too neurotic and chatty to convincingly play psychotic and sinister when the film needs him to change gears. Instead of a formidable foe with monumental gravitas befitting one of comics' most menacing of villains, Lex is more a bratty nuisance who seems to stumble into a great deal of luck, dropping into circumstances that allow him to gain the knowledge and power to destroy the world, almost by happenstance. It's a terrible miscasting of an important role that's also written in so scant a manner that he barely registers as anything more than a catalyst of contrivances to force in major set pieces that director Zack Snyder and company are determined to inject into the plot.
As for the other performances, Cavill continues to look every bit like Superman in terms of physical appearance, but his dull-as-dishwater personality makes us not care a lick that he doesn't get much screen time as Clark Kent. Ben Affleck is competent as Bruce Wayne, though he still looks goofy in a superhero costume, especially given that Bruce Wayne, a figure persistently in the public eye, makes no effort to cover up the tell-tale mole on his right cheek while wearing the Batman cowl. How the public hasn't caught on to the alter ego identities because of a pair of glasses and a rubber mask is beyond basic comprehension. Diana Prince, aka Wonder Woman (not named in the film), doesn't even bother, but there's no back story to her character, and no motivation presented to anything she does. Here is a clear case of a superhero that needed a solo project prior to her involvement in this film, but, again, Warner Bros. thinks that they can generate more money by spinning her off of the Batman/Superman coattails than in the converse, so we're stuck with a shoehorned vessel of striking physical beauty but limited character range just to whet fanboy appetites. The less than super-human characters aren't even worth mentioning; they are only here to give the villains someone to kill and the heroes someone to save.
At this point in his career, it should be abundantly clear to everyone that Zack Snyder is not the director you want at the helm if you're trying to launch a universe of favorite characters and make us care emotionally about any of them. Snyder has a fetishistic skill set akin to Michael Bay in that he feels a need to topple buildings and blow things up whenever the opportunity arises. While he's technically proficient at the task, he lacks Bay's exuberance while doing so. This is a mostly humorless and joyless effort, overly serious and stylized to the point where any trace of humanity has been squeezed out of the proceedings to become as mechanical and serviceable as any of the computers running to max capacity in order to generate the voluminous special effects shots that permeate much of the overly lengthy run time of Batman v Superman.
The best thing Snyder has to offer is that he does know how to deliver some great iconic shots, mostly copycatted from Alex Ross comic panels in the same fashion by which he essentially copied the artwork in 300 and Watchmen. But there's a difference between knowing how to craft an obscenely expensive 'motion comic' and being a true visionary talent. At this point, there's little evidence in his work to show that Snyder has anything creative to say, visually or otherwise, other than to know how to translate a panel of drawings into a live-action set-piece.
Astonishingly, the dialogue often encroaches into wince-inducing territory from screenwriters who definitely know better: Chris Terrio, who won the Academy Award for Best Adapted screenplay for Ben Affleck's Argo, and Man of Steel's David S. Goyer, a comics-to-screen go-to guy who famously wrote the wildly successful Dark Knight trilogy for Christopher Nolan. It's a film full of characters we barely know or can relate to spouting out half-hearted platitudes about the world and humanity that ring hollow in the moment. The story-telling is the worst part of Batman v Superman, with flashbacks, dreams, and weird visions that distract much more than they enhance. The ham-fisted way the Justice League is also introduced into the film is laughable -- it's literally Batman sending Wonder Woman an email(!) with attached video clips filmed and culled from sources unknown for purposes also unknown. For as much of the blame as many have placed on Snyder for favoring pyrotechnics over people, there's no reason to think that a great film could have emerged from this muddled script, obviously having been cobbled together among a think tank of studio hacks who sloppily tinkered with whatever the original plan had been to the point of incomprehensibility. There's plenty of wrong-headed thinking to go around, starting with the poor decision to fast-track the entirety of the DC universe right from the Man of Steel sequel.
Perhaps the only time I managed to have any excitement in watching Batman v Superman came from the very first moment that we see Wonder Woman appear in full battle costume and ready to save the world. It's a feeling that lasted all but two seconds, as, outside of the excitement at finally bringing something new and energetic into a mix that had grown old and stale about ninety minutes prior, Snyder and company don't know what to do with her except for make her instantly part of the cacophonic special effects mélange that is the entire last god-awful hour of the lumbering film.
Although crafted to be an eye-candy extravaganza, Batman v Superman feels like a movie that's too dark to enjoy, and not just in its narrative tone. Instead of colorful, vibrant, and exciting, we get shadowy, dismal, and washed out. Metropolis should be a beaming city of light and benevolence with a brave, noble and optimistic guardian, as contrasted with the dirty, crime-ridden streets of Gotham, under the protection of a fear-mongering hero willing to wallow in the same muck as the bad guys. Instead, Metropolis is just a business district with its own conflicted hero battling his own inner demons. Superman and Batman should be polar opposites, instead of 'Grim and Grimmer'. If DC Entertainment can't get their two most well-known characters right, what hope is there for the various franchises? If fans can't get firmly on board, and the films aren't gaining any new fans outside of those who enjoy Marvel and are looking for properties to pass the time in between entries, all of these plans to make solo projects and spin-offs will wither on the vine, much like SONY virtually killed off any interest in Venom and Sinister Six projects after the Amazing Spider-Man 2 made is no longer care much for Marvel Comics' most well-known hero, Spider-Man.
After the mixed bag that was Man of Steel, the attempt to play catch-up to Marvel has been botched in a fashion that will have many wondering if Warner Bros. can figure out a way to correct their current course and produce projects that fans can get truly excited about watching. Perhaps with Snyder vacating the director's chair for someone with newer and fresher eyes, and screenwriters who are more interested in building a proper story beyond dime-store philosophizing in between pointless battle sequences, we might have a chance, but the well of ideas for DC seems like it might be polluted beyond the ability to save, given that their cornerstone characters feel dour, antiquated and superficial. Hopefully, their secondary characters will have the reduced baggage to allow them to be free of gloomy super-seriousness and do something funny, exciting, daring and different in the way of Guardians of the Galaxy and Deadpool. It's a lot of money to throw on the screen in order to give us little more to be excited about than plastic action figures smashing into each other while striking iconic action poses.
©2016 Vince Leo