Review: 'Batman v Superman' throws lots of punches, but with no impact at all
I live less than two minutes from Warner Bros., and to get anywhere, I have to drive by the studio, and every single poster spot on the side of the studio, normally occupied by four different movies and four different TV shows, is currently taken by Batman v Superman: Dawn Of Justice. From my living room window, I can see the water tower at the center of the lot, which currently features the shield-and-cowl combination logo for Batman v Superman: Dawn Of Justice. In fact, it is impossible to look anywhere in that general direction or be in my car or be outside my house in Los Angeles without feeling like I’m being bludgeoned by the oh-so-urgent existence of Batman v Superman: Dawn Of Justice.
Speaking as a fan of Man Of Steel and of Zack Snyder’s work in general, I am baffled by what I saw tonight. In one regard, it certainly feels like they delivered on the promise of that incredibly awkward and franchise-minded title. But I’m not sure how a filmmaker whose work normally speaks to me as clearly as Snyder’s does could deliver something that feels this confused, this impersonal, and this corporate. It is a confounding mess of a movie, and while there are individual sequences that I enjoyed as isolated moments, it is almost breathtakingly incoherent storytelling. Characters do what they do because the movie requires them to do it, not because they are behaving like characters at all. There’s no sense of voice to the film. I have no idea what I should think about Batman or Superman or Wonder Woman based on what I see here. They are all apparently blanks who simply exist to react without thought or purpose to whatever stimuli is presented to them. Structurally, there’s something fundamentally broken about the way this thing’s been built, and I have a feeling it’s going to take some time to really pull apart all of the mistakes that were made.
One thing’s clear: I don’t want the Justice League this movie promises.
Simply put, I don’t care. I don’t have any reason to care about what’s being promised here. This is the least compelling franchise come-on since The Amazing Spider-Man 2, and as the closing credits concluded, I was relieved to see there was no post-credits scene. The entire movie feels like a closing credits scene already, winking and elbowing us to let us know we’ve got so many more movies coming. It’s hard to call something an Easter Egg when the movie stops cold to spotlight it, so it feels more appropriate to call these digressions outright previews. As previews go, though, they left me less interested than ever in what they’re selling, so I guess I’d have to call this a failure.
Here’s the thing: I didn’t hate the movie while I was watching it. More than anything, I was indifferent to it. I found myself looking at it more as an exercise than as a movie, and that’s a problem. At no point did I get drawn into it as a movie. If anything, I’d love to hear someone who has no history with comics try to describe the story of this film after they watch it, because I’m going to guess they would be absolutely baffled by it. I can tell you that as someone who is intimately familiar with all of the source material they’re drawing on here, I am still baffled, but at least I can tell you what they’re doing. I can’t tell you why they’re doing it at any given point, and that’s a major problem. Or rather, I can, but it’s not because of anything that you see onscreen. This is, more than any movie I’ve ever seen, a response to the responses to the film that came before it, and in answering his critics, Snyder has undone everything genuine about Man Of Steel, selling out his characters and undermining the point of that movie. Before I went to the press screening tonight, I revisited Man Of Steel, and I walked into Batman v Superman with that film’s tone fresh in my head. Maybe that’s why I’m so confused by what I saw. It felt like the work of two radically different filmmakers, and it felt like the second filmmaker didn’t like the work of the first filmmaker at all. It’s like Batman Begins was followed up by Batman and Robin.
Beyond that, this movie feels like the work of someone who doesn’t particularly like either Batman or Superman very much. If you were upset because Superman broke General Zod’s neck in Man Of Steel, you will most likely burst a blood vessel when you see Batman, Serial Murderer as he gleefully destroys criminals in this film, often with high caliber firearms. One of the sequences in which he guns down a batch of people is a dream… maybe… but there’s another where there’s a huge body count that he is directly overtly responsible for, and by the time it ended, I was really confused about what I was watching. This is supposedly a film in which the two greatest heroes of the DC universe end up fighting, but I don’t see how either Batman or Superman is meant to be the hero of this film. Snyder’s Batman is already burnt out and cynical, heartbroken by what we have to presume was the death of Robin at some point. He’s graduated from just capturing bad guys to branding them so that people in prison know they’re supposed to kill them. Seriously.
Meanwhile, things do not seem to have improved at all for Superman since the ending of Man of Steel, which we see again here from Bruce Wayne’s point of view, making Superman seem like a horrifying public menace. In an early scene, Lois Lane (Amy Adams) ends up in the middle of a bad situation while interviewing a terrorist in Africa, and Superman swoops in to save her, which somehow triggers an international situation for reasons that are unclear. Superman mopes a bit. He takes some PR hits on television. He finally gets bullied into showing up for a Congressional hearing, and then things get even worse, so he disappears for a while.
By the time Batman and Superman finally get around to the title fight, they both seem to be menaces driven entirely by reactionary emotional impulse. It’s never clear why Superman thinks he has any particular leg up on Batman, morally speaking, and the same is true of Batman’s rage towards Superman. Sure, we are shown that final Metropolis fight from a perspective that makes it clear that it’s meant to be 9/11, but Batman’s behavior in the film is childlike in the sort of unwavering and single-minded anger he feels towards Superman. This isn’t someone who has spent 20 years battling evil in all its forms in Gotham City; this is a petulant six-year-old who wants what he wants when he wants it.
I haven’t even touched on my story issues or on the other characters that the film muddles, like the entirely unconvincing take on Lex Luthor as played by Jesse Eisenberg. Considering how many ways they could have approached Luthor, it’s mystifying to see what they chose. He is omnipotent, evidently, and has already identified all the future members of the Justice League. He’s got files on all of them, and those files each contain a perfectly-crafted little glimpse of these characters who otherwise have absolutely no impact on the story being told. I could accept that if Luthor was given some sort of driving reason to fear meta-humans or to even know of them, but the closest they come to explaining his rage is a hint that his dad hit him, leading him to not believe in God. And if that entire paragraph leaves you wondering what the hell I’m talking about, welcome to my world.
Whatever you think of Man Of Steel, I can tell you, scene after scene after scene, exactly why characters are doing what they’re doing. One of the things I love about that movie is that they made big choices about the characters. Lois Lane, for example, is incredibly competent. For once, she’s ahead of everything. She figures out who Clark is before he’s ever put on the Superman suit, and she’s never presented as a dummy. In this film, she goes from being a good journalist to being supernatural. She appears at random when it is convenient for the plot, and then does both very smart things and very stupid things depending on the moment. There’s a certain weapon in the film that she ends up with, and what she does with it, plus what she then has to do about it, is a perfect example of wasted pages. Nothing she does advances the plot or helps in any significant way, with one exception, and that one exception is my least favorite moment in the entire film.
With Luthor, he’s written with no consistency from scene to scene. Sometimes he’s playful and sly. Sometimes he’s twitchy and disconnected. There comes a point where it starts to seem like he’s actually being controlled and informed by something external, and that may well turn out to be a story thread for the future. But as it’s handled here, it just doesn’t work.
Eisenberg and Adams are both very good actors left scrambling because their parts are essentially unplayable. In Man Of Steel, Zod was literally programmed from birth to do one thing and one thing only, and because of that genetic programming, every action of his makes a horrible kind of sense. He truly believes that his actions will help him retrieve and preserve the Codex, the key to the genetic rebirth of the Kryptonian race. He is understandable and motivated, and it makes his battle with Kal-El matter because the stakes for each of them are crystal clear. Meanwhile, this film ends with Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman fighting against a giant CGI creature that looks like about a hundred other generic CGI monsters, and I have no idea what the creature’s powers are, what it wants, why it’s rampaging, or even why it exists. Lex Luthor helps create it, but it’s never clear how he knows what to do to create it, or what he thinks he’s going to do once it finishes its rampage. How invested can we be in a fight when one major part of that sequence means so little to the overall story?
The script is credited to Chris Terrio and David Goyer, but here’s where I find myself most frustrated. I don’t want to lay all the blame on them, because I can’t believe they are the architects of the film’s problems. It feels like Zack Snyder was forced to shoot the notes he got from the studio, like they had an outline that they all agreed looked like the right version of the film. But it never moved past the outline stage, and so there are several building blocks that appear to be in the right general place, but they don’t work because there’s nothing connecting them. I’m sure Kevin Tsujihara likes the scene where we stop and watch previews for proposed movies with Aquaman, The Flash, and Cyborg, and it must delight him when characters stand around and talk about working together in the future, but I can’t for the life of me imagine how anyone could think any of this legwork actually connects as storytelling.
That is doubly true of the way they shoehorn Wonder Woman into the movie. She is a person who appears in the film. I can say that much. And she says words that are in sentences. In several scenes, she moves and does things. She’s in focus and her costume appears to generally fit in with the world. Beyond that… what can people really say about her? She’s not really given a role here. Gal Godot looks good. She swallows a few lines of dialogue with her accent, which is more a problem with the film’s almost relentlessly bombastic sound mix, but it doesn’t matter. Everything she says here is meant as a bread crumb for her film, and it’s so clumsy that you almost expect her to turn to the camera and say, “In theaters June 23, 2017.” She’s in pursuit of a photograph that Lex Luthor has in his digital archives, and that photograph is a direct tie to her stand-alone movie, confirming that the majority of it will apparently be set during WWI. She mentions something about that photo, and it’s meant to be provocative, but with no other context, it doesn’t connect. There was only one moment of hers where I actually reacted. It’s during the big final fight of the film, with the big CGI beastie who is the final boss level, and it’s a brief moment. Wonder Woman gets punched hard enough to send her flying. When she rolls over, still smarting from the punch, she smiles, and that smile says, “Oh, so it’s gonna be like that, is it?” She’s still smiling as she gets up, and as she runs back into the fray, and it makes her feel in that moment like a veteran warrior enjoying that familiar rising of the blood. She’s interesting for that brief moment, and then the film goes back into steamroller mode. I suppose if I were to list the things I like the most about the film, she would be on that short list, but that’s only compared to the things the film does more dramatically wrong. She is fine, but just looking at her appearance here, in the context of the film, I don’t feel any urgent need to ever see the character in action again. Is “fine” as much as I should expect of these characters?
I’m not even sure I’d say that the rest of the League is fine. Ezra Miller’s Flash features in two moments, and one of those may or may not be part of a dream. The way Snyder presents it, The Flash appears to Batman to warn him about Superman in the far distant future, telling Batman that he was right before he vanishes again. But then Batman wakes up, and we’re left to wonder if it was a real vision or just another of Batman’s symbolic dreams? Batman spends much of the movie doing things based on dreams he’s had, and it just makes him seem like a big psycho in a mask instead of the World’s Greatest Detective. The other piece of Flash footage is from a convenience store surveillance camera, and it’s okay, I guess. The Cyborg footage looks like it’s from some cheap online YouTube show, not like a teaser for an upcoming giant franchise film, and the Aquaman footage is meant to suggest that Aquaman has enormous power, but it doesn’t explain anything at all. Not one of the glimpses actually puts any bait on the hook. I don’t inherently love these characters, and neither does a huge chunk of the mainstream. If you expect the audience to be excited about the promise you’re making in this film, you have to give them a reason, and oddly, they don’t even try here. They just parade the characters past, and while some comic book fans will flip out simply to see these characters in live-action, it’s not enough for anyone else.
How about the fight itself? The main event, after all, is what the title of the film promises us. It’s a fairly perfunctory affair once it arrives, and it ends quickly. The way it ends, though, is meant to be the film’s most emotional moment, and when I rolled my eyes instead of actually feeling the weight of that moment, it felt like the film’s last chance to work. I would imagine that whoever came up with the beat felt very clever, but it’s all built around the very facile surface level connection that Bruce and Clark share. Simply noticing that connection doesn’t make it a profound insight.
The final half-hour of the film is all built around another big moment, and while Warner Bros. has been begging everyone to avoid printing any spoilers, it seems like they’re going overboard. Comic book fans will not be terribly surprised by the film’s conclusion, and mainstream audiences won’t believe the ending for a moment, especially not when Warner is being so vocal about their ongoing plans for Justice League and the various heroes in the films. The big spoiler is more annoying than anything else, because it means the end of the film has to play out on an even more dour note than the rest of the film, and it’s a lot of time and energy spent on something that will simply be undone within the first fifteen minutes of the next film. The very last shot of the film makes it explicit; this is not so much a conclusion as it is a pause button. “But didn’t The Force Awakens end on a moment that will literally begin the next film as it picks up seconds later?” Yes, but it didn’t spend twenty minutes setting up this big misdirect before the cliffhanger. I don’t mind if DC decides to lean on the serialization, but I do mind when a story tries to force me to have an emotional reaction without earning it, and especially when they’re asking you to get emotional over something that will be reversed immediately.
Much of the blame for this film will be laid at Zack Snyder’s feet, but that feels unfair to some degree. I think he made exactly the film Warner Bros. asked him to make; that’s the problem. The film they asked him to make wasn’t developed from an organic place. It’s not the logical next step in a story being told. It is an informercial. It is slick, and it is frequently very pretty, and from scene to scene, from moment to moment, it looks like a real movie. But without a beating heart, this is a wax figure, lifeless and frozen, a simulation. The studio asked Snyder to make them a 150-minute trailer for their entire slate of superhero films, and he certainly did. Sadly, like most infomercials, this one promises more than it delivers, and two-and-a-half hours of being hustled left me cold. Whatever it’s selling, I’m not buying.
Batman v Superman: Dawn Of Justice opens in theaters everywhere this week.
[Take a look at our spoiler-FREE video review above and our spoiler-FILLED below]