NB: The following contains major spoilers for Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice
Maybe it’s fitting that a film as bone-crunching and violent as Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice has been met with similarly brutal reviews in some quarters. While the true weight of the audience response to Batman V Superman will only really be felt after its international roll-out over the weekend, some critics have really sharpened their knives for Zack Snyder’s latest DC movie.
The Wall Street Journal called Batman V Superman “underdeveloped, overlong and stupendously dispiriting.” The New York Times wrote, “What Mr. Snyder has concocted is less a free-standing film than the opening argument in a very long trial.” More than one reviewer described Batman V Superman as “a joyless slog.”
Now, Batman V Superman didn’t leave us as angry as it did some outlets, but it’s fair to say that, by the end credits, we felt more than a little ambivalent about the 150 minutes of chaos and disillusionment we’d just seen. A film where thought-provoking moments sat alongside confusing or goofy ones, where quite breathtaking images often gave way to a eye-watering blur of smoke and laser effects, Batman V Superman is a tough film to digest, let alone describe in a spoiler-free review.
So with the spirit of balance in mind, here’s an attempt to break down what we appreciated about Batman V Superman and what we didn’t. What had us excitedly clutching our seat-rests and what left us quietly shaking our heads. Your opinions will inevitably differ, of course – we’ve a feeling Batman V Superman will be a superhero movie whose relative merits will be discussed for many years to come…
From Batman V Superman’s autumnal opening, it’s easy to forget that a ripple of controversy once surrounded Ben Affleck’s casting as the Dark Knight. As both Bruce Wayne and his cowled alter-ego, Affleck seems just about perfect – urbane in public, hard-drinking and embittered in private, and borderline terrifying in his dealings with Gotham’s criminal underworld.
Sure, we’ve seen the death of Bruce’s parents a legion times before, and as a means of getting audiences up to speed with Bat lore, Snyder’s opening is lean and stylish – with considerable inspiration taken from Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns graphic novel, whose grungy air hangs heavily over Batman V Superman. Bruce’s nightmare sequences, which become increasingly unpredictable and baroque as the film goes on, are also effectively staged, and even appear to imply that the hero’s struggling to differentiate between what is real and what isn’t.
Bruce Wayne’s introduction into what was once Superman’s territory is also artfully done. The conclusion of Man Of Steel – itself controversial on the film’s release in 2013 – is seen again from street level, as Bruce races through the streets in a vain attempt to save his office building from inadvertently being destroyed during Superman and Zod’s apocalyptic punch-up. Yes, the way the Metropolis destruction recalls real-world events is as disturbing as it was in Man Of Steel, but here, we get more of a feeling of its senselessness – through Bruce, we’re shown the human consequences of that climactic battle.
For the first hour or so, Batman V Superman looks as though it’s going to do something quite interesting: establish Superman as something closer to the hero we recognise, while the villainous Lex Luthor quietly manipulates public sentiment against him. Disgusted by what he did to Zod and horrified by the collateral damage his fight caused, Superman vows to become a protector and force for good. This, in turn, would make Batman’s growing distrust and hatred for Superman all the more dramatic: just as Batman becomes convinced that Superman’s the equivalent of a sentient atom bomb, capable of going off at any minute, Superman has actually become the benign superbeing we all know from the comics.
This isn’t how the film pans out at all, of course, but we’ll get onto that topic in a moment.
Batman V Superman gives itself an awful lot of plot strands to juggle right from the opening act, but a mixture of superb performances and arresting imagery help to smooth out the bumps at first. Jeremy Irons is quite wonderful as a more tech-savvy, dry and dapper Alfred Pennyworth. We sense that, over time, Alfred’s role in Bruce’s life has shifted from manservant to quartermaster and partner in crime. There’s a wry sparky bit of chemistry between Affleck and Irons in their few scenes together, and we can’t help but wish more had been made of their friendship.
It’s also pleasing to see Superman being given more opportunities to rescue people from disaster, and some of these sequences are the most arresting the film has to offer. It’s here that we get to see the possibility of the Man Of Steel sequel that, if it ever happens at all, won’t arrive for many years hence: Superman as a bright light of certainty and goodness in a world riven by terrorism and war.
Snyder’s ability to craft short, eye-popping sequences is both his great talent and a narrative hindrance. These and many, many other moments in Batman V Superman are technically dazzling and look great in isolation, yet fail to add up to a satisfying whole. Some of the action sequences featuring Batman and his new arsenal of vehicles and weapons – seemingly crafted from solid iron – are as explosive and dynamic as any you could hope to see on a cinema screen. (That there are so many of them, and that they’re all so loud, has a dissipating rather than escalating effect on the plot. But we digress.)
Away from the testosterone-laden grudge match, it’s Gal Gadot’s brief appearance as Wonder Woman that really sticks out – not least because she glides through the movie with a dignified grace while everyone else’s veins are popping out of their necks. Most of the seeds for spin-offs and sequels land with a clang in Batman V Superman, but Diana Prince’s introduction doesn’t follow suit; it’s Wonder Woman, we suspect, that moviegoers will be talking about the most when they leave cinemas.
Then we come to Jesse Eisenberg’s portrayal of Lex Luthor. A characterisation which has already divided critics, we’d actually come down in favour of Eisenberg’s wired, weird performance. As a recognisable embodiment of Lex, he’s about as wide of the mark as we can imagine – short of the part being played by a Zanussi washing machine – yet in a film otherwise bereft of eccentricity or lightness, this brattish, babbling Lex at least cut through the mix.
Batman V Superman is lifted by its performances yet dragged right back down again by its muddled character motivations. We’re still puzzling over exactly what Lex Luthor’s plan entailed, and why he went to all the bother of manipulating Batman and Superman into confronting each other when he’d already figured out (seemingly by magic) how to create Doomsday out of Zod’s mouldy corpse and his own DNA.
Other elements of the plot seemed to have been thrown in to give secondary characters something to do. Fans would have been up in arms if Lois Lane (a returning Amy Adams) didn’t have a part in the story, so what do David S Goyer and Chris Terrio do? They come up with a military conspiracy for her to solve, which involves the CIA, experimental bullets and does precious little to further the plot.
Likewise, Holly Hunter shows up as a Kentucky Senator and Scoot McNairy gets a small role as a survivor of the Metropolis cataclysm, which leads to a grim flash-bang set-piece that merely underlines Superman’s existing status as a pariah. And what are we to make of the frankly strange plot point about a jar of urine? As we said, we didn’t mind Eisenberg’s outre performance as Luthor, but this kind of puerile pranking is more the work of the Joker than a cool criminal mastermind.
When Batman V Superman isn’t outright confusing, it often just feels over-stuffed. We can’t help thinking that the headline title fight – the events that lead up to it, the battle royale itself and the emotional fall-out – would have been more than enough for a major film on its own. Instead, Batman V Superman throws in (admittedly spectacular) dream sequences which act as wrong-footing non sequiturs, unnecessary side-stories and, of course, those seeds for the coming DC movie universe.
Wonder Woman aside, the other characters in those future DC movies are so half-heartedly introduced that they almost feel as though they were spliced in by a different director. For all but the most dedicated comic book fan, the brief, blink-and-you’ll miss-him appearance of Ezra Miller’s The Flash in Bruce’s dream sequence will pass in a baffling haze. But even this is better than effectively having Wonder Woman sit at a computer and play a series of teaser trailers for us one after the other. Suddenly, the patient build-up of the Marvel Cinematic Universe through easter eggs and post-credit stingers seems even more ingenious than it already did. If anyone felt their pulse quicken at the sight of Jason Mamoa’s face on a computer screen, we’d like to hear from them.
Even at 150 minutes, Batman V Superman felt like a film rushing to fit everything in. With the constant cross-cutting between Lois in Washington, Batman branding perps in Gotham and Superman going through his existential crisis, there was scant time given to exploring who the characters are behind the costumes. Oh, there’s philosophising and there are speeches and soliloquies, but precious little in the way of human interaction. At most, we have to make do with the odd flirtatious exchange at a cocktail party between Bruce and Diana, or a strangely out of place moment where Clark gets in a bath with Lois. Outside those scenes, the movie does little to humanise these two embittered heroes.
With Batman V Superman so full of shrieking set-pieces from the opening titles onwards, maybe it’s inevitable that the big title fight doesn’t live up to the hype. Batman looks cool in his Frank Miller battle armour and the clouds roll moodily. But then Batman lets off a bunch of canisters full of green Kryptonite fart gas, and the mother of all gladiatorial battles degenerates into the comic book equivalent of a scrap in a pub car park – with Superman coughing and wheezing to boot.
It doesn’t help that the fight’s come about through some pretty flimsy manipulation on Lex Luthor’s part (if Superman and Batman both had mobile phones, the former could have called the latter and explained what was going on before the fight even started) or that it ends on a moment of bogus emotionality. After two hours of anger and hatred, Batman and Superman suddenly find some common ground: their mothers both share the same first name. Yes, this bone-crunching fight effectively ends like the 90s anthem, Breakfast At Tiffany’s:
You’ll say, we’ve got nothin’ in common
No common ground to start from
And we’re falling apart…
Meanwhile, Lois is running around with Batman’s Kryptonite spear of destiny, decides to dispose of it by chucking it in the nearest stretch of water, then promptly realises that it might be quite useful. Because by this point, Doomsday’s turned up. Ah yes, Doomsday…
In a film sold as Batman V Superman, did we really need the main event to be upstaged by the sudden arrival of Doomsday? And in the context of a film that is all about building up a DC universe, doesn’t killing off one of its biggest characters seem a little, I don’t know, premature? It’s the kind of dramatic climax we’d expect at the end of a trilogy or maybe even later – not when Superman’s had just one solo outing.
Then there’s Doomsday himself – a big, hulking brown monstrosity that looks a bit like the one in the comics crossed with a denizen from Lord Of The Rings. It’s here that the film fully degenerates into a mush of flickering lights and screaming. Say what you will about Batman’s (quite shocking) use of guns, the odd knife and bat-shaped branding irons – those earlier fights at least had a sense of physicality and weight. Just when Batman V Superman reaches its crescendo, the action becomes so outlandish and outsized that it loses all sense of drama.
Superman’s death, which allows Snyder to stage a heavy-handed pieta scene, also fails to land as an emotional pay-off. Even more so than in Man Of Steel, Superman comes off as distant and embittered here. Snyder and his writers have singularly failed to make us fall in love with this incarnation of Superman, so why would we stop to mourn him?
Having written all this, it probably sounds as though we’re as down on Batman V Superman as every other outlet seems to be. But having picked the film to pieces, there are still moments where the film really connects. As a vision of Batman as a fallen hero who’s drifted so far from his own tenets that he even calls himself a criminal, and who’s feared even by the people he saves, it’s distinctive, bold stuff.
We can’t help but admire Syder for sticking to the tone and style of comic book movie he wanted to make, even as the plot is at pains to note that the final fight is taking place in a deserted area, not the densely-populated downtown Metropolis of Man Of Steel. Affleck’s a great choice as Batman, Gadot clearly works as Wonder Woman, and Cavill, although crowded out in this movie, has the odd moment of heroism that makes us wish he’d been given more freedom to flex his muscles as Earth’s protector.
Batman V Superman plants the seeds for a host of movies to come, from next year’s Justice League and Wonder Woman to solo movies for Aquaman, Cyborg and The Flash. The question is whether, by falling into The Amazing Spider-Man 2’s trap of spending so much time setting up future films, it winds up putting off more cinema-goers than it pleases.
Critics have already had their say. Now the fate of the DC movie universe lies in the hands of its audience.