written by Kate Spencer
MASSIVE SPOILERS AHEAD; DO NOT READ IF YOU DO NOT WISH TO BE SPOILED
Whenever I set out to review something, I try to put personal bias and expectations aside and look at the merits of what I’m reviewing from a neutral to optimistic point of view.
And then there’s this piece of shit.
Okay, okay, I had to get that out of my system first. I’m not going to completely slam Batman v Superman: Dawn Of Justice because I think there are some parts that merit praising, but the overall thing is problematic at best and just plain awful at worst. Throughout the review I’ll try to stick to more general spoilers – particularly things that could be gleaned from the trailers. At the end, there are bits I want to discuss which are what I consider the spoilers of the movie. I’d considered leaving that part out, but I think it bears discussing, so we’ll throw up an extra spoiler warning before that.
The film opens on a flashback to oh-for-christ’s-sake-not-Crime-Alley-again. If you combine every flashback from every Batman show and film, Bruce Wayne has spent more quality time with his parents in Crime Alley than I’ve spent with mine over the last five years. But sure, why not? I mean there’s probably someone watching this who doesn’t know Batman’s origin. Thomas and Martha get shot during a mugging, little Bruce screams, flash forward to the funeral, Bruce runs away into the woods, falls down into a cave, sees bats. Instead of being terrified of them, Bruce jumps straight to the “stand among the bats” scene from Batman Begins and as the whirlwind of bats surrounds him, he floats off the ground and ascends into the air. I would like to offer my sincerest apologies to the people in my theater for laughing my ass off at this scene.
With that nonsense out of the way, we’re on to the present day. It seems fans and critics aren’t the only one with the events of Man Of Steel on their minds, because a year and a half later, the world the film is set in is still divided on that. Is Superman a hero or a menace? A man trying to do good or a savior from on high? If you thought the previous film beat the Christ metaphor into your head, get ready for it to be driven further in with all the subtlety of Jesse Eisenberg’s performance. We’re treated to scenes of Superman practically being worshiped, and shots of him descending from the sky like an angel. Scientists and politicians weigh in on what Superman means for the world and whether the world needs him. Superman being mistaken for a deity, the nature of our place in the universe if such a being exists, the morality of who he saves and why, and whether his existence does more harm than good – these are all great questions and themes that would work so much better in another film. Unfortunately, BvS is more interested in asking these questions than exploring the answers.
Superman, for his part, seems to want to continue doing what he’s doing. He wants to use his abilities to help people, and that’s all well and good but he’s not doing anything to answer anyone’s questions about him or dissuade those who are idolizing him. He’d rather be saving Lois from war zones and then joining her in the bathtub without removing his clothes first. You could say he’s trying to keep his distance from the world that he saves, but he lingers in it a bit much; mostly to pose for hero shots. As Clark Kent he’s not too worried about either his image as Superman or his job at the Daily Planet because he keeps bugging Perry White to let him write an article on the Batman of Gotham.
Meanwhile, across the river…no, I’m not exaggerating, they make it look like Gotham and Metropolis are right next to each other. Anyway, across the river in Gotham, Batman has gotten a bit more extreme in his crimefighting due to unspecified events and the loss of the Metropolis branch of his company (and many of its employees). Batman doesn’t understand Superman, and he fears him. The Man Of Steel’s existence makes Batman feel a little more helpless, so he’s lashing out…or that’s Alfred’s assessment, at least. Alfred lectures Bruce after he finds out that Batman has been burning the bat symbol into the chests of criminals with a branding iron. I don’t remember Batman ever carrying one of those, but okay. Batman thinks Superman is a potential threat, and wants a way to take him out if he ever actually becomes one.
They’re fixin’ to fight!
Lex Luthor is hatching evil schemes and genetic abominations. The former involves using mercenaries to attack Lois in a foreign country so Superman saves her but no one else, thereby making Superman look bad…and then having said mercenaries smuggle Kryptonite from the wreckage of one of the terraforming devices from Man Of Steel and letting Batman catch him in all of this so Batman can discover the existence of Kryptonite and steal it from Lex to use in his fight against Superman. *deep breath* Well okay, then. Lex also uses a victim of the Zod incident – Wallace Keefe, a former Wayne employee who lost his legs – to further discredit Superman in a special hearing. Oh hey, Lex called his assistant “Mercy”. She must be Mercy Graves, the character made popular by Superman the Animated Series and later brought over to the comics. She’s one of Lex’s most trusted assistants and bodyguards so it should be interesting to see her chara-— orrrr never mind, she got blown up by the bomb Lex hid in Wallace’s wheelchair to kill everyone in the hearing. What’s that, you ask? Why throw away a major character like that? Wait a bit. That’s going to hurt later.
Superman is blamed for his inaction in the bombing, and all of the plot points finally come to a head. Batman has had enough and starts making Kryptonite weapons, including gas grenades and an ominous-looking spear. To goad Superman into the fight, Lex had his goons kidnap Martha Kent with instructions to kill her in one hour if Superman doesn’t kill Batman.
The fight between the two is actually pretty lackluster. Superman tries to talk Batman down at first, but after a few light attacks that he just shrugs off, he decides to fight. The fight itself bugs me, and I’ll get into more depth about why when I talk about these two characters, but the two of them are just out for blood. This isn’t a simple misunderstanding between two heroes. This isn’t a reluctant fight between two good men. This is two men beating the shit out of each other with clear intent to kill. Batman gets the upper hand and is about to shove the Kryptonite spear into Superman’s chest when Supes blurts out that Lex is going to kill “Martha”. It catches Batman off guard, and I actually liked that they use Martha Kent and Martha Wayne sharing the same first name like this. Batman demands to know why Superman said “Martha” and Lois, who arrives just in time, says it’s his mother’s name. Batman agrees to help, personally rescuing Martha while Superman goes after Lex.
Lex has been a busy little sociopath. He’s gained access to Zod’s ship and Zod’s corpse. He uses the ship to merge Zod with a sample of his own blood to create a Kryptonian/human hybrid who for some goddamn reason comes out as Doomsday. Superman and Batman face off against Doomsday with help from the timely arrival of Diana Prince who is at no point called Wonder Woman but we all know. The final battle is pretty good. All three heroes work together pretty well – which is amazing considering under normal circumstances, Batman would be of no help fighting Doomsday. I do have to give the film some credit here because the three of them do act heroically in the fight. Anyway, it’s wrapped up and we’re sequel-baited. The end. And no post-credits scene, so don’t worry about sticking around.
Let’s talk themes, pacing, visuals, and all of that jazz. I really hate to say this about a director because I know each director has a style and specific themes which appeal to them, but Zack Snyder should not be directing the Justice League films. Man Of Steel and BvS both show that Snyder doesn’t know how to direct a superhero film and lacks even the basic understanding of the characters he’s putting on screen. He did okay with Watchmen, but Superman and Batman are not Watchmen. That’s a completely different tone, and when you try to shoehorn those characters into a film with that sort of tone, you have superheroes who don’t act like heroes and act completely out of character from the basic core that makes them who they are. Comic book adaptations naturally change things about the characters to fit the big screen, but at their core they stay true to their origins. I’m not seeing that here. When you put Superman in a grim, dark movie that’s a few ticks of the saturation slider away from being black and white, you lose a lot of what makes him Superman. As I said before, a lot of good questions are raised about the nature of a world where Superman exists, but in a movie that’s slowly building to a self-described gladiator match, something like that can get lost. During the showdown between the two and the final battle with Doomsday, those themes and questions have no real resolution. Maybe they would have worked better in a Superman solo film without the Batman, Lex, and Doomsday subplots.
Superman himself is wildly different from his comic counterpart, or at least the one I knew growing up. The Superman from the comics I grew up with was first and foremost a human being. Not by genetics or birth, but by his soul and the way he was raised. Comics didn’t emphasize his alien nature – the most alien thing about Clark Kent was he was a small-town kid living in a big city. His heart and ideals were always rooted in the life of a simple farmer. Comic book Superman wasn’t an alien among humans, he was an idealized version of a man representing the best of what humanity should aspire to be – noble, courageous, and kind. He just happened to have been born on another planet. Man Of Steel/BvS Superman is first and foremost an alien trying to find out how he fits into the world. That isn’t and should never be Superman’s story. This version of Superman acts like he just got to Earth and has no understanding of how human nature works. He’s constantly conflicted about what he should do and has little regard for how his actions are seen by others. He runs the Batmobile off the road and threatens Batman to stop what he’s doing because he sees Batman as too violent, but his go-to method for dealing with opponents is shoving them through brick walls and buildings. And threatening Batman with death a couple of times…how is this Superman?
Likewise, Batman is also a mess. Ben Affleck does a good job with the character but the material he’s given to work with isn’t good. Batman comes across as being downright criminal. When Alfred questions him about the branding, Bruce even refers to himself as a criminal. Look, I know Batman is outside the law as a vigilante but I think if Batman actually thought of himself as a “criminal” for one moment he would have a stroke. Batman is a few things – dark, brooding, paranoid, and such a tactician that when someone asks how he would fare against a given opponent, the fan response is usually “given a week to prepare, Batman could take down God Himself.” Things Batman is not: excessively violent, cruel, and murderous. Batman, like Superman, doesn’t kill people. There have been exceptions over the years – usually in comics written by people who get it wrong or try to be “edgy” and try something new, but Batman doesn’t kill. He also doesn’t use guns, but for some reason he’s firing a handgun and a rifle in a dream sequence/vision. He also tries to crush criminals in a truck with the Batmobile, shoots live ammo at criminals from the Batwing, blows up cars criminals are in, stabs one guy, knocks down one holding a live grenade so it goes off killing him and another criminal, and shoots the fuel tank of a flamethrower, blowing up the final guy – all to save Martha Kent. It’s like Zack Snyder heard people complain about Superman killing Zod and decided to double down.
It’s implied some other things have gone down in Batman’s life in the recent past. There’s a Robin costume spray-painted by the Joker. Wayne Manor has been gutted by a fire. Maybe if there were canon Batman films preceding this one which set up the character and revealed what the hell happened, I’d be more understanding of Batman’s state of mind, but the audience doesn’t know that. Sure, there’s supposedly a three hour R-rated cut of the film, but that’s not what’s been presented. We’re given a Batman with no canon history who acts differently from the generally accepted Batman a lot of us know and love without much context as to why.
I’m not sure what character Jesse Eisenberg is playing or what movie he’s acting in, but it’s not Lex Luthor and not BvS. I’d like to say he’s a decent actor besides this but I honestly don’t think I’ve ever seen anything with him in it. His performance as Lex is mesmerizingly bad, and I don’t know whether to blame the writing, acting, directing, or damn all involved. At times he seems to be channeling his Mark Zuckerberg role, playing Lex as the t-shirt and hoodie 21st century CEO type, but for most of his performance he’s doing some sort of Jim Carrey Riddler thing. Lex comes across as manic, childish, and socially awkward – none of the characteristics any other version of the character embodies. If the character weren’t constantly referenced by name you would have a hard time placing who the hell he was supposed to be – and that’s not because of the full head of hair. I’d say EisenLex doesn’t fit with this version of Superman, but the character would even be out of place in Bollywood Superman. He’s a terrible antagonist in this film, and he lacks not only the defining traits of the character he’s based on, but also any sort of charisma or menace to make him a good villain.
Wonder Woman is the highlight of this film and she’s sorely underused. When Bruce tries to copy the files on Lex’s server, Diana swipes his download device to look for a photo that belongs to her. When Bruce confronts her about this, she’s in a museum or something admiring a sword. He tries to Batsplain to her that the sword is a forgery, but she interrupts saying she knows and she further knows where the real one is. She tells him the files are encrypted and states that she didn’t steal the device from him, she just borrowed it and put it back in the glove box of his car. I love that she out-Batmans Batman. Batman decrypts the drive and finds data on a few metahumans, including Diana herself. He finds her photo – and it’s a photo of her from 1918. She’s over 100 years old. Later on, she appears to be on a flight about to leave Metropolis, but she hears about the Doomsday situation and jumps right into the fight. Just like that. It’s not even her fight. She doesn’t need a morality speech or to question her duty or her place in this world, she just does it – acting far more heroically than the title characters. She’s also fun to watch fight, for what bits I could actually make out in that clusterfuck of dimly-lit CGI. I’m not saying seeing her in action was worth sitting through the rest of the film, but it was a welcome sight after two hours of the plot dragging its feet and Batman and Superman making grumpy faces at each other.
Rounding out the rest of the characters, Perry White, Lois Lane, and Alfred Pennyworth are fantastic. I like Perry’s no-nonsense hardass side where he’s treating his reporters like teenagers who want the car for the weekend. His banter with Lois about flying coach on a business trip gave me one of the few laughs I got from this film. Lois herself is good too. From the aforementioned bathtub scene, she seems more keenly aware of the consequences Superman’s actions can have and tries to lecture him on that. She’s not afraid to put herself in the middle of the action either. She flies straight to the Batman and Superman fight and risks her life to get the one weapon that can stop Doomsday. Mostly she plays a role in uncovering the plot Lex is cooking up – and bravo to her for following any of that shit. Like Lois, Alfred attempts to be a moral compass, but for Batman rather than Superman. This is a different sort of Alfred that I enjoy – this is an Alfred who’s all out of fucks to give. He’ll tell Bruce he’s wrong about Superman, criticize his drinking, lament that the Wayne line will probably die with him, and not take any of Bruce’s guano. I think that’s the kind of Alfred this kind of Batman needs. He just needs a rolled-up newspaper to smack Bruce in the back of the head with and we’re set.
Alright, so what about cameos? Where’s Aquaman? Flash? Cyborg? Well, they’re there in small parts. As part of the data Batman stole from Lex, there are dossiers on metahumans each labeled with that hero’s symbol because Lex reads the comics I guess? We get a convenience store video of a man running at super speed to stop a robbery (Flash), a bearded man swimming out of a sunken ship to attack the deep sea drones with a trident (Aquaman), and footage from a lab experiment straight out of Robocop with how graphic it is in depicting bits and pieces of a human body (Cyborg). I should probably mention that the last one is one of many reasons why this isn’t a movie for children. Interestingly, it looks like the missing catalyst for the Cyborg project to work is a Mother Box, or at least what I assume is supposed to be a Mother Box.
Other cameos are stuff you might not even notice. I didn’t pay attention when they revealed the name of Lex’s head goon was Anatoli Knyazev – or KGBeast from DC Comics. I should have known it was him though because like almost every other character he was nothing like his comic counterpart. Hey! I bet that random camera guy with Lois who was executed by a warlord after he was revealed to be a CIA spy was Jimmy Olsen!
…oh shit, that actually was Jimmy Olsen.
Before I go into the extremely spoilery bits, I want to give a general wrap-up and “recommendation”. The film has some high points, and it introduces some interesting themes even if it doesn’t explore them. I’d love to sit down with someone and discuss hypothetical scenarios involving someone with Superman’s power existing in our reality, or even having that kind of power myself. Wondering where someone like that would fit into society, whether they would have a duty to use their powers as a hero, how they would choose when to act and when to not influence humanity – those are some deeply interesting topics to me. Sadly, the movie doesn’t do anything with them. It talks about them at length but it never goes anywhere. There is one small resolution which comes in the extreme spoiler bits below, but overall we’re just left with a ton of talking points and no meaty discussion. The heroes don’t act like heroes with the exception of Wonder Woman, who I feel is the best part of the film. It’s hard to give this one a recommendation, so I’m going to say if you’re curious, rent it or catch a matinee. This is not a film to pay full admission for. I’d even recommend skipping to the later bits of the movie because there’s a lot of padding here. Or if you’re just watching for Wonder Woman, wait until her solo film comes out and watch that. If you’re a longtime fan of the comics or really passionate about Batman and Superman, you’ll probably be disappointed.
And now for the extreme spoilers!
There’s a dream sequence while Batman is decrypting Lex’s files. It’s the one I mentioned earlier with him shooting several soldiers with a handgun and a rifle. Now normally you could handwave that away as a dream except for two things: one, why would any version of Batman use a gun even in a nightmare, and two…that may have been a vision, not a dream. There’s a lot going on in this part. Superman is running some sort of dystopian regime, he’s killing people with heat vision, and he unmasks Batman before collapsing his chest with his fist. You know, because heroes! For kids! The dream/vision also has some foreshadowing. Superman is blaming Batman for Lois’ death (it sounds like at least), which could lead to an Injustice: Gods Among Us-type bleak future. There are also Parademons fighting alongside Superman’s forces, and while I somehow missed it, I’m told there’s a giant Omega symbol on the ground. Both of those things point to Darkseid, who will probably be the Big Bad of the Justice League film. When Batman seemingly wakes from the dream/vision, a man in what looks like a red armored suit appears in some sort of portal or something and tells Batman “Lois is the key” and that Batman “was right about him”. I had to look this up with Dayna after I got home and no one else I discussed the movie with had any idea who the guy in red armor was. The audience at my theater seemed clueless too. But after some research, it turns out that was the Flash talking through the Speed Force from the future? Maybe? It’s vague because Batman then wakes up from that dream to find the files decrypted. They’re definitely setting up something for future films with that dream/vision/whatever, but it’s not clear how literally we should interpret it.
Last but not least…Superman dies killing Doomsday. He dies surprisingly heroically, deciding that this is his world and he’s going to give his life to protect it. Superman gets an empty coffin buried in Metropolis and Clark Kent is laid to rest in Smallville. His coming resurrection is obvious – so obvious they hammer home the Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan similarities right down to the ominous closing shot of the coffin and the bagpipes playing “Amazing Grace.” Still, it’s something I actually liked about the movie, so I thought I’d mention it. It doesn’t really redeem Superman’s mistakes in either movie, nor the movies themselves, but it was nice to see him do something heroic.
It’s up to you whether you think the few diamonds in the manure pile are worth it, but for me, they just plain weren’t.