The DC Cinematic Universe is born but nearly collapses under its own weight.
In the time since Zack Snyder’s long awaited Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice (which I’ll refer to as BVS from here on in) was released (now well over a year and a half at time of writing), critics on the whole have given it something of a mauling whilst many fans have attacked those same critics, both in the general press and those who are solely independent, for simply voicing an opinion that differed from their own. The film’s own star, Henry Cavill, even went on record in something of an eloquent but still veiled attack on those critics to say the following;
“The interesting thing is that we get the critics who have their personal opinions. And the thing about personal opinions is that they always come from a place. And there’s a preconceived idea which you have to get past a critic before you start writing your article or your review, and that affects everything.”
My response to that would be to agree with Mr Cavill in that yes, critics, such as myself have personal opinions about films. I write from a personal standpoint and I can’t see how anyone can honestly or adequately write from a point where they’ve detached themselves from their own personal likes and dislikes. Do you want to read lifeless and robotic appraisals of films that say little about what the author feels is good or bad about them? I certainly don’t and I often read more reviews by other critics than I write myself. When it comes to films the opinions of others matters to me, even when I don’t necessarily agree with them. That’s why I read reviews and articles about films. I won’t ignore those opinions and neither do you, the reader. If you did then the likes of this site and more longstanding and established sites as well as independent YouTube reviewers like Chris Stuckmann and James Hancock wouldn’t be doing what they’re doing.
Before I get to my own thoughts on BVS, I’ll try and give you some perspective as to my expectations going into the film back in mid March 2016. For reasons I can no longer recall, I didn’t see Man of Steel in the cinema. I’m no Superman detractor and have a genuine fondness for the first three Christopher Reeve films (yes, even Superman III). When I finally saw Man of Steel after the initial negative reviews it got from some critics and fans, I was genuinely surprised by it. I appreciated it’s more realistic approach to the character and felt that Cavill was far more suited to the role than Brandon Routh was in 2006’s forgettable Superman Returns, a film that hasn’t held up well in the decade since its release. Whilst the excessive collateral damage wrought by Superman and General Zod at the climax of Man of Steel was a little too much, it was, for me at least, the only major flaw in an otherwise well made film. With regards to Snyder’s previous work, please see my retrospective on his 2009 adaptation of Watchmen that will be posted here in the next few days, it’s very positive.
So, Batman V Superman, at long last two of the most iconic superheroes met on the big screen. If my preamble hasn’t bored you then I’ll waste no more of your time with pointless synopsis and I’ll get right to what you want to know, did I enjoy it? No, not really. In fact far less than I expected to. Batman V Superman has some good moments and some interesting thematic elements but it’s mired by some crucial flaws and some outright unforgivable factors that severely hampered my enjoyment of it on multiple viewings including Snyder’s 183 minute Ultimate Cut.
Addressing these flaws individually, the main one which has bothered me about BVS the most is one that’s inherent in the basic plot of the film and that’s Bruce Wayne’s hatred of Superman. He’s supposed to be the world’s best crime fighting detective so how can’t he see that Superman is a force of good and was trying to save not only Metropolis but the world? Didn’t he see the giant, city-destroying spaceship during Superman’s battle with General Zod? Yes, the battle led to huge civilian casualties and was a flaw of Man of Steel which, to Snyder’s credit, the director has tried to address here but a flaw it remains. I just didn’t buy into the motivation behind Batman’s hatred of Superman and therefore the very plot point that drives the film’s narrative didn’t work for me. Even his loyal friend and butler Alfred tells him, “This man is not your enemy.” When Batman utters the now oft quoted line, “Tell me, do you bleed? You will.” He just comes across as utterly misguided because at no time is Superman portrayed as anything other than a force for good. Batman is smarter than this and for all the good that Afleck brings to the role the writing undermines him. To compound things, when Batman does a complete 180 just because their mothers have the same first name it just comes across as lazy, had no emotional resonance, didn’t seem earned and was very jarring. It’s a facet of the script that has been subject of much criticism and outright mockery on social media but it can’t be ignored as it’s frankly lazy writing and as prime an example as any of BVS’s ill-conceived script.
Where BVS falls down hardest is it’s overstuffed plot. It’s like three films crammed into one, Man of Steel 2, a Batman reboot and a set-up for the Justice League film. Each of those could have worked if given their own films and we’ll soon find out how successful the much anticipated Justice League is. Man of Steel 2 could have dealt with humanity’s acceptance of a messiah-like superhuman on Earth, the Batfleck reboot could have fleshed out this older, more brutal Batman and given his character time to breathe and resonate with an audience familiar with a younger and more morally conflicted Batman. A Justice League film in place of BVS could have introduced the other members in a manner that didn’t seem as shockingly lazy, ham fisted and forced as what we get here. A top secret LexCorp e-mail replete with conveniently designed character logos? Really? It could have nicely tied up any loose ends from the previous films to provide the overarching narrative that DC are trying, but failing to create here.
With all three of these crammed into one film, it‘s a mess and our characters are given short shrift. Afleck’s Batman received high praise and he is indeed a fine incarnation of The Dark Knight but if he’d been given his own film before the Justice League was introduced it would have avoided him getting sidelined in favour of numerous unfocused narrative threads. Cavill is fine but his Superman has no joy in him at all and whilst I’m not asking for some of the more overt humour of the Christopher Reeve era Superman which would feel somewhat out of place here, does Superman, and the film in general, really need to be so dour and gloomy?
Whilst on the whole the cast are fine, in particular Jeremy Irons as a less gentlemanly Alfred, the one completely unforgivable piece of casting for me was Jesse Eisenberg as Lex Luthor. Eisenberg’s jittery, manic performance is all tics and loud verbal outbursts. He’s redolent of Jim Carey in his most annoying prime. The majority of his scenes are cringeworthy and his performance at times is ill-fitting to the serious tone of the film. Amy Adams’ Lois Lane is the subject of some unnecessary sub-plots, one in particular relating to tracing a bullet that seems to be there for no other reason than to give her character something to do. Unfortunately this cripplingly boring and unnecessary sub-plot takes up far too much of the running time, and ridiculously, even more so in the Ultimate Cut.
On the technical side, the editing, in the first half at least, is sloppy. The film lacks any organic narrative flow and often seems to be a series of disjointed scenes that have just been thrown together. Again this smacks of three films being crammed into one. This is in stark contrast to the flawless editing in Snyder’s Watchmen. Hans Zimmer and Junkie XL’s score is, in places, so bombastic and clumsily on the nose so as to seem amateurish. The way the music shouts “It’s Wonder Woman!” every time the character is on screen is completely devoid of subtlety although the recurring use of the rousing theme from Man of Steel is welcome.
There is a glut of CGI throughout the film and it is of a varying quality but an alarming amount is sub par, especially Doomsday who manages to rightfully earn comparisons to The Abomination from 2008’s The Incredible Hulk but is nowhere near as well executed. Given that the far more convincing Abomination was created nine years ago I’m amazed that Doomsday can look so bad in a film with such a huge budget. Doomsday himself also exemplifies the often contrived and lazy plot insomuch as he’s there purely as a convenient plot device by which to bring our heroes together.
The issues with the editing and effects would be more excusable if this had been a rushed and troubled production but as is now well known, BVS was in the can well over a year before its eventual release and one can only guess as to why the post production period lasted so long. That wait certainly wasn’t for the finely crafted effects and editing. The look of the film, certainly in the IMAX 3D theatrical screening I saw, was at times murky and washed out. It made me hanker for the pin-sharp vibrancy of Christopher Nolan’s perfectly lensed Dark Knight trilogy.
It’s not all bad but in the considerable time since first seeing it, I’ve struggled to recall that many great scenes and the many flaws have played greatly on my mind. The brutal warehouse fight near the end is superbly executed as is the Batmobile chase but so much of the film’s action is a mess of shoddy CG and, dare I say it, poor direction in places.
There are some lines of dialogue that are nothing but clumsy foreshadowing such as Lex Luthor’s “You should not pick a fight with this person” and Perry White’s, “Nobody cares about Clark Kent taking on the Batman”. Look, we know this is Batman V Superman even if the title did appear innocuously in the bottom right of frame during the film’s opening. I’ve tried to highlight the good points but I’m back to the bad and God knows I don’t want to be. The film has an alarming number of dream sequences that aren’t even just lazy exposition, many of them make little sense within the confines of the film’s plot. They seem to set up events in possible future films but this film should still work wholly on it’s own.
Listing these flaws is frustrating as I really wanted DC to get this film right. I had sincerely hoped that the 30 minute longer, R-rated Ultimate Cut would address some of these issues but all it gave us was more of the unnecessary sub plots and nothing of any real value to an already overstuffed film. I’d hoped that if given more time and space to breathe, there’d be a far better film in there waiting to get out but unfortunately the additional footage didn’t do enough to address some of the logic missteps or develop the characters and in particular their motivations. BVS isn’t an awful film but nor is it in any way the great film that it should have been given the source material. Some of its flaws are significant and could have easily been rectified in the writing stage. The bold move that the film takes in its final act by killing off Superman is, from a certain point of view, commendable but even that seemed to lack much of the emotional heft it should have had and was clearly for nought as we’re all fairly confident of his return in Justice League which opens later this week.
I’ve no doubt that studio pressure to get the DC Cinematic Universe up and running in order to play catch-up with Marvel Studios was a major factor here. I trust that in the hands of the right filmmaker, given the freedom to make the film they’d wanted, a director who is both suitably able and passionate about the source material, then they could have been able to give us the film we deserved as fans and not a film with pointless bullet subplots, jars of urine and an excessively irritating Lex Luthor pushing Jolly Ranchers into an old man’s mouth. What the studio’s interference with its rush in creating a cinematic universe has led to is an overstuffed film that has failed to pick a straightforward narrative thread and run with it. There’s too much going on with too little focus. It’s main purpose is to set up an expanded cinematic universe in just one film, something that takes time and planning in order to adequately flesh out characters that have depth and are deserving of our affections based on more than merely the legacy of their comic book counterparts. As a result these beloved characters are left woefully underdeveloped and the film as a whole suffers for it. As someone who still holds out hope that following Wonder Woman, the DCEU can perform a full about turn, regarding the film at hand, I can only conclude that Batman V Superman is a bit of a mess.
Film ‘89 Verdict – 5/10
Justice League opens in the U.K. and US this coming Friday 17th November.