This generation has its Phantom Menace.
Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016), an awesome-if-cluttered-looking film, came after years of nerd anticipation. We wanted to see the
two three most iconic superheroes together onscreen, in live action. We hoped it would make up for the problems of the overly grim and constipated-looking Superman of the film's predecessor, Man of Steel. We wondered how it would gesture towards the Justice League, and if DC could develop a cinematic universe to rival Marvel's. Mostly, we just hoped it would be good. I mean, how hard could that be? Put Batman and Superman at odds before they face a common foe and, sure, hell yeah, throw in Wonder Woman, as the older and wiser mentor and peacemaker. Marvel cranks out multiple super-flicks a year that range from passable to excellent. DC, which has been around longer, should be able to manage.
Don't let Warner Brothers tell you otherwise. The fans were pulling for them.
They had a great idea for an opening scene: during the city-destroying battle from Man of Steel, Bruce Wayne drives into the chaos to help save his Metropolis employees who, admittedly, lack a certain instinct for self-preservation, given that the city was under an evacuation order. Never mind. We see a very human Batman, not in action outfit, watching godlike beings knock down buildings and slaughter innocents like two angry kids fighting on on a playground overrun with ants. He's angry. And he knows he must do something about this danger. The exciting scene, effectively played by Ben Affleck, bridges the films, establishes the titular antagonists, and sets the plot in motion.
Unfortunately, before we get to that gripping opening, the movie makes us sit through a turgid retelling of Batman's origins. Thomas and Martha Wayne must die yet again for the benefit of the three people left on earth who don't know the source of Wayne's crusade. We also learn that he discovered a Bat-cave! Seriously? I missed getting my popcorn for this?
The script that follows further undercuts the premise. Firstly, much of Batman's reasonable concern over Superman will be revealed as manipulation by Lex Luthor. Secondly, the plot will turn on the name of Wayne's mother. This decision makes precious little sense.
Equally senseless: the idea to make everything grim and angsty. Once again, Snyder or DC or WB decide a movie about Superman-- Superman!-- should be bereft of joy and escapist fun. As I have written elsewhere and often, grim darkness isn't more mature than wild-eyed optimism; it's just another form of immaturity.
Snyder may have done a decent job adapting Watchmen, a comic expressly about the dark side of the superhero mythos. He fundamentally fails to understand the appeal of DC's iconic characters, and refuses to be consistent in the versions he has created. His Batman is Frank Miller's "Crazy Steve,"1 a certifiably deranged, death-dealing vigilante-- except when it serves the purposes of the plot for him to be sane. This Batman also remains an urban legend, despite operating openly for two decades, responding to a public bat-signal, and branding criminals. Snyder's Man of Steel, meanwhile, is a mopey arrested adolescent who doesn't hesitate to kill, even when other options exist. As a follow-up to the previous film's city-destroying rampage and neck-snapping, he gets started in this one by punching a human opponent, a man he could easily subdue, through a wall. Yet, somehow, he's also some sort of Super-Jesus who rescues kitty-cats from trees and to whom Metropolis raises a statue. The film's villain, Lex Luthor, meanwhile, is a shaggy-haired series of squirrely gestures and insane yammerings, but simultaneously a master-planner. He has also discerned Batman and Superman's secret identities, though the film doesn't bother to show us how, preferring instead to pad the bloated 150 minute running time with matter unconnected to the plot.
After years of terrible decisions, DC Comics wants this movie to launch its own cinematic universe, to compete with Marvel's successful one. Instructively, Batman v Superman w Wonder Woman came out shortly before Captain America: Civil War, a cluttered film that actually worked, in no small part because it understood its characters and its main conflict. Batman v Superman w Wonder Woman v Jesse Eisenberg not only fails to understand its players, it doesn't even understand basic human motivations and plausible cause-and-effect.
Superman has demonstrated his ability to locate Lois Lane from half a world away, and yet he cannot find his kidnapped mother across town. Batman has weapons that can kill Superman, but he doesn't use them right away in their key battle, preferring to dance Ali-like around the ring awhile. Superman can destroy Batman from the air, but he doesn't. Batman's brand on a criminal is a "death sentence" in prison, instead of, say, becoming an underworld status symbol or creating a good opening for prison yard chatter.
Clark Kent, reporter, wants Batman stopped, but in this version of reality, Gotham City is across the bay from Metropolis and Superman could literally have taken in Batman at any time between morning coffee and his 8:00 am cat rescue. When he finally approaches Batman he wants to talk to him about a really important plot point. Instead of just explaining himself from the sky, he lands and gets goaded into a fight.
Lex Luthor's plan to blow up a public hearing takes forever, as key witness Kal-El stands in the courtroom like a fool who lacks x-ray vision and the ability to move faster than the speed of explosion.
Finally, after nearly killing Superman, Batman decides he may be wrong about him because he learns their mommies have the same first name. At that point, they team up. Glad this script demonstrates such keen insight into human psychology.
While Batman heads off to rescue Martha Kent, Superman and Wonder Woman battle Doomsday, in this version a creation of Luthor, who is under government contract but not official oversight. Those scenes are actually interesting, if as underlit as everything else in the film. At least Superman has someone to fight in his movies who is not a bald genius, General Zod, or a continent. As in comix lore, Superman only defeats Doomsday at the cost of his own life. Equally in keeping with the source material, he will be returning shortly.
The desire to cram the backstory of a larger universe creates some the best and worst moments. In an already confusing film, it does not help to throw in a weird, complicated dream sequence that sets up a future film. Batman's complicated history litters the film. Usually this doesn't hurt too much, but most of it could have been left on the cutting room floor.2 However, a scene where we learn of the existence of other superheroes looks hopeful.
We see brief file footage of other heroes: Aquaman, the Flash, Cyborg, and, of course, Wonder Woman. Save for the Amazing Amazon, these heroes do not connect to the plot. Instead, their existence sets up a final scene in which Batman and Wonder Woman agree to search for others with special powers. Unlike the dream sequence (the cost of which could easily have funded several low-budget films by up-and-coming directors), the found footage super-dossiers prove intriguing, tantalizing.
And then there's Wonder Woman herself. While the film may not, strictly speaking, have required her, she's the best thing in it. She's one character who appears on-point, and Gil Gadot does an excellent job, fighting the good fight and mediating between the boys. The only taint, really, on her appearance comes from a for-the-trailers scene in which Superman and Batman seem surprised to see her ("I thought she was with you."). Batman has already met her and knows she likely will appear.
The fights end, the smoke clears, the vast number of dead who are not named Superman/Clark Kent get ignored, and Luthor goes to jail, where he fails to reveal anything at all about Superman and Batman's secret identities. I suppose Superman could have slipped him that same super-kiss-of-forgetting that he used on Lois in 1980s' Superman II, but I don't see where he would have had time and I'm shocked Snyder didn't include such a scene if he actually filmed it.
The widespread negative reactions to this film led to some rethinking by corporate, so that the trailers for the forthcoming Wonder Woman: The Nautical Dawn of Justice and Justice League: The Elevenses of Justice movies actually look promising. Warner Brothers might have learned something about making superhero movies. When your characters aren't consistent, your plot makes little sense, and your script lacks a sense of fun,3 no amount of visual poetry will save the movie.
Now if they would just learn, as their audience has, that Zack Snyder is an overpaid hack who should only be given films that are supposed to be unrelentingly grim, that would be real progress.
Directed by Zack Snyder
Written by Chris Terrio and David S. Goyer
Ben Affleck as Bruce Wayne / Batman
Henry Cavill as Clark Kent / Superman
Jesse Eisenberg as Lex Luthor
Gal Gadot as Diana Prince / Wonder Woman
Amy Adams as Lois Lane
Diane Lane as Martha Kent
Laurence Fishburne as Perry White
Jeremy Irons as Alfred
Holly Hunter as Senator Finch
Scoot McNairy as Wallace Keefe
Callan Mulvey as Anatoli Knyazev
Tao Okamoto as Mercy Graves
Brandon Spink as Young Bruce Wayne
Lauren Cohan as Martha Wayne
Alan D. Purwin as Wayne Industries Pilot #1
Mark Edward Taylor as Wayne Industries Pilot
Hugh Maguire as Jack O' Dwyer
Michael Shannon as Zod
Michael Cassidy as Jimmy Olsen the Doomed Photographer Who is Not Developed at All So Who Cares?
Theo Bongani Ndyalvane as Rebel Translator
Julius Tennon as General Security Chief
Sammi Rotibi as General Amajagh
Wunmi Mosaku as Kahina Ziri
Rebecca Buller as Jenny
Dennis North as Senator Barrows
Kiff VandenHeuvel as Officer Mazzuccheli
Sebastian Sozzi as Cesar Santos
Ralph Lister as Emmet Vale
Harry Lennix as Swanwick
Christina Wren as Major Farris
Jeffrey Dean Morgan as Thomas Wayne
Dennis North as Senator Barrows
Neil deGrasse Tyson as Neil deGrasse Tyson
Kevin Costner as Jonathan Kent
Nancy Grace as Nancy Grace
Jason Momoa as Aquaman
Ray Fisher as Cyborg
Ezra Miller as the Flash
1. Since there is no "Crazy Steve" node as of this writing, a note must suffice. Frank Miller's hugely influential and often brilliant The Dark Knight Returns and Batman: Year One reinvented Batman in the 1980s and have cast long shadows. They worked, even if his Batman was in danger of becoming unhinged in the latter and (in his older-age) grown seriously disturbed in the former. However as Miller's paycheques increased and his reality checks diminished, his depictions of Batman grew increasingly crazy and grim, culminating with the controversial All-Star Batman and Robin, the Boy Wonder, which depicted Superman as a dink, Batman as a sadistic psychopath, and Wonder Woman as a MTGOW parody of a human female. Brett Weiss in The Comic Buyers Guide summed up widespread opinion by saying the series had good art in the service of a project that seemed to be "bad on purpose," and fans dubbed Miller's Batman-- at least the most extreme incarnations-- Crazy Steve. And Crazy Steve is not the goddamn Batman.
2. I'm more concerned about his age. Since it's a superhero film, I'll accept that he can keep fighting without his body entirely breaking, but how well will Affleck work as the Batman if the DC Cinematic Universe lasts as long as Marvel's?
3. A couple throwaway jokes, while appreciated, don't really count.