It can be a curious task, casting opinions on a movie as widely distributed as Batman v. Superman. Personal circumstances have dictated that DragonDark have had to wait six days to get to our nearest multiplex, and for a flick as divisive as this, that wait has felt interminable. A half-hearted social media lockdown and complete review blackout since Good Friday has failed to keep opinions from seeping into our consciousness, and much like forerunner Man of Steel, apathy toward Dawn of Justice seems hard to come by. A number seem to love it (a testimony that the opening weekend’s box office seems to support), but a more vocal contingent appear determined to verbalise their displeasure, seeking unprecedented levels of glee in the numerous negative notices that the movie has received and dancing on it’s grave with the force of an all-rhinoceros troupe of performers rehearsing Stomp. So, what’s the reality – is BvS really that bad?
Well, no. We’re not talking Green Lantern levels of disasterpiece here; there are enough glimmers of gold amidst the gloom to make it just about worthy of two-and-a-half hours of your life. Take note of the damnation by the faintest of praise there though, as BvS is a long, long way from being good. It would appear that a lot depends on your stomach for Man of Steel, as this is more of the same; dreary, violent, loud and packed with enough lapses of logic to leave a Vulcan suicidal. If you’re expecting anything resembling a faithful and considered take on the characters that you have loved for decades, then realign your expectations to avoid disappointment. As a Friday night popcorn muncher, however, for audiences infinitely less precious about the handling of fictional beings created for children over seventy years ago, it may just pass muster.
Let’s start with the positives – in particular, Ben Affleck’s Batman. Hate to say we told you so, but the Bostonian is the most natural fit for the cape and cowl yet seen on-screen in live action (despite being hamstrung by some questionable characterization – but we’ll get to that later). Ably assisted by Jeremy Irons as an intriguingly grizzled take on Alfred Pennyworth, this Dark Knight is finally portrayed as the World’s Greatest Detective. Forgoing the deduction methods so beloved of Christian Bale throughout Christopher Nolan’s trilogy, which seemed to largely seemed to involve dangling criminals from ledges while barking “where is it!/where is he/she!” in their faces , this older Bruce Wayne uses all the smarts – and technology – at his disposal in following a number of leads, as well as displaying some fluid athletic abilities in his fleeting action scenes that would make the most seasoned player of Arkham Knight blush.
Affleck is a natural for the more world-weary Bruce Wayne, channeling the troubled melancholy of Michael Keaton to great effect, and manages to elevate the material he’s given to work with; writers David Goyer and Chris Terrio are seemingly so determined to show that this Bat is a bad boy that we half expected a flashback to his teenage years wearing a leather jacket and smoking, but Affleck settles for the demeanor of a man whose Babycham we would not want to spill. Dominating the opening thirty minutes of the film, the much-maligned thesp truly shines in the quieter moments (check out the Sherlock Holmes-esque tip-off to an underground fighter for an example, or the instant switch of character into drunken Bruce Wayne when confronted by Mercy Graves), and this is a brutal but magnetic Batman that we’d love to spend more time with in the hands of a different creative team behind the scenes. Fingers crossed the negative reaction to Dawn of Justice hasn’t soured the actor on pulling double-duty as director on a future solo endeavor.
Other positives? Well, Henry Cavill does what he can as Supes, clearly more comfortable in the famous tights than he was last time out, though still given little to work with beyond scowling and hovering in the sky pulling messianic poses (the S on his chest still doesn’t stand for subtlety). Wonder Woman, while completely underused, enjoys quite a catchy musical sting compliments of Hans Zimmer and Junkie XL. The sub-plot revolving around Holly Hunter’s Senator Finch is fairly interesting while it lasts. Zack Snyder undeniably has an enviable eye for a glorious visual, especially during the titular bout of fisticuffs. There are a hundred and one easter eggs and references to different DC McGuffins and plotlines (The Spear of Destiny! Flashpoint! Parademons! Injustice! SS-style Supertroops! Rock of Ages!).
OK, that’s it. Time for the rest – and be warned, things are gonna be pretty spoilerific up in here. We’ve whited out anything we consider to fall under this banner so you can just highlight the blank text to read it, but if anything else slips through the net consider this your final warning.
Now then, let’s deal with the questionably haired elephant in the room – Jesse Eisenberg as Lex Luthor. Now, this was another slice of casting that we trumpeted upon announcement, and it turns out that you can’t win ’em all – Eisenberg seems to be playing in a completely different picture to the rest of the cast, deciding that what the world needs is another incarnation of Jim Carrey’s Riddler. It’s beyond comprehension how this went unnoticed throughout filming, but it’s a performance that sticks out like a sore thumb at a Las Vegas hand model convention, packed with nervous tics, stutters and mile-a-minute staccato dialogue – capped off by the most incomprehensible excuse of an evil plan that would even have Gene Hackman’s self-aggrandising incarnation of the character scratching his be-wigged head. Seriously – what was he trying to achieve? Framing Superman for the terrorist attack in the opening third – where all the dead were killed by gunfire? Framing Superman for the explosion of Capitol Hill – again, something that no sensible person would blame the Man of Tomorrow for, and in which is killed his own loyal assistant Mercy, and in which the script is at pains to absolve Kal-El of responsibility for in the very next scene? Depowering and disposing of Superman in case he chose to use his power to form a dictatorship, an act of pre-emptive fear inspired by his Nazi-saluting father? Then why involve Batman if he was just going to unleash Doomsday anyway? And why does Batman need to die? It’s a mess, and a huge disappointment.
Miscasting alone isn’t enough to fatally wound a movie – as anybody who has listened to DragonDark drone about Superman Returns, home to a wholly unsuitable Lois Lane in the form of Kate Bosworth, will know – but such a pivotal part to the whole future of the DCU needs much more careful attention. There may be hope for the future, as Eisenberg showed flashes of genuine malevolent brilliance (not least when tossing Lois from a rooftop in order to smoke Superman out of hiding, the kind of psychotic impulse that defines any effective comic book villain), but it will take a lot more work to convince DragonDark that the villainous future of the franchise is in safe hands. This is not a Luthor that could imitate his four-colour counterpart, rising to the status of President of the United States. Frankly, we wouldn’t trust Eisenberg’s portrayal to act as treasurer of the local church bake sale. Why oh why could he not just have played the role as a psychopathic Mark Zuckerberg?
Next up, the problem of the tone. Oh, the tone. From the opening moments (yet another re-enactment of the death of Thomas and Martha Wayne, complete with foreshadowing that will be spoonfed throughout), it’s clear that we are still very much residents of the DC Snyderverse, where machismo and mythology rule above all. Be it the fact that the Wayne’s have left the cinema following a trip to see the contemporary epic Excalibur over the traditional screening of The Mark of Zorro before redecorating Crime Alley, the fact that Thomas Wayne’s initial reaction to being confronted by Joe Chill is to get up in his grill and throw a punch, or young Bruce’s dream sequence whereby he is elevated by a flock of bats like a deleted scene from Dracula Untold, there is no shortage of symbolism throughout. This feeds in with the overarching theme of the whole movie, one of theology – what is the power of a God, and how does that fit into the world of man? It sounds weighty, but rest assured, it’s not explored in any great depth, asking the question frequently and vociferously but never really exploring an answer.
BvS is not a funny movie in any way, and in many respects that’s a blessed relief – the last time David Goyer attempted to be witty we ended up with Blade: Trinity, a movie with more one-liners that miss the mark than an intoxicated archer. But does that really mean it has to be so bloody earnest? Even Nolan’s flicks cocked an eyebrow on occasion, but this is nothing but a rain-drenched slog and slugfest with no room for anything resembling joviality. It seems to reek of Warner Bros. frantically attempting to carve their own niche into the realm of comic book flicks, thumbing their nose at the comparatively breezy Marvel and Fox properties. The trouble with this is that it paints these movies into a very particular corner, with their protagonists frequently acting out of character compared to their printed counterparts.
We’ve gone over Superman’s destruction of Metropolis in Man of Steel so many times that we’re boring ourselves with it now, and the consequences of this are confronted with varying degrees of success in Dawn of Justice (though we were interested to note that he made no attempt to save the cameoing Jimmy Olsen, or any other CIA operatives, in his rescue of Lois in the early running), but added to this we’re now faced with a Batman that seems completely comfortable with killing. Yes, smartarses, we’re all aware that Keaton’s caped crusader was arguably the most cold-blooded of them all, but the source material is treated with considerably more reverence now than in 1989. We can just about forgive the sight of him using a gun during the Injustice-influenced nightmare sequence, suggesting a future where the world has gone so far to hell that even Batman is using firearms after swearing that he never would, but the gay abandon with which he mows down stooges and thugs later in the flick is ridiculous, even if Snyder attempts to justify this by claiming that he ‘only kills by proxy’. If the heroes are this homicidal in this brave new world of the DCCU, where on earth does that leave the villains of David Ayer’s Suicide Squad to go? It all reeks of Snyder’s frat boy with a camera approach to filmmaking, throwing admittedly striking visuals at the screen with little concern for an already hole-laden script just as long as they look badass. One Michael Bay is enough for any generation, surely?
We’re not going to get started on the clunky, shoehorned references to future members of the Justice League. We just can’t face talking about it, or the ridiculous decision to have Lex seemingly design the logos for each of these future saviors of the universe – irony, or lazy storytelling? You can probably guess where we come down on this. Oh, and note how Diana Price opens each video file in the order of the movies’ scheduled release date – we guess that’s cheaper than running a trailer campaign too far in advance. And as for The Flash’s timebending cameo … no. Just no. We love a bit of fan service as much as the next geek, but warning of a terrible future under a despotic Superman unless Batman can save Lois Lane, then never putting the two characters together on-screen again in a situation where a rescue would be required, is just typical of the stitched-together scripting that hampers this movie.
And as for the ending … ugh. We long predicted that The Death of Superman would make its way to the screen, but its impact is completely diluted by tossing it into an already overcooked pot so soon – especially so hot on the heels of a certain other beloved character carking it in a galaxy far, far away. TDoS was hardly a landmark creative achievement as a comic book, but at least it had a sense of majesty, uniting characters and readers in a state of mourning. Dawn of Justice tossing it in now, when we’ve only had one and a bit films in the questionable company of Cavill’s big blue and when the script had made regular mention of the fact that the people of this universe are split on whether they actually care for Superman at all, means it’s just another set piece – and another rash decision made by Supes in the face of a powerful foe. Obviously he’ll be back, probably at the conclusion of Justice League Part 1, but the likes of James Wan and Seth Grahame-Smith would have appreciated the opportunity to throw a heavyweight cameo into their impending solo outings for Aquaman and The Flash. Naturally, this isn’t even mentioning the bizarre, rushed origin of Doomsday (and his completely unexplained evolution cycle), and the tiresome reliance on CG. If you were hoping that what you saw in the trailer wasn’t the finished product, think again.
There is so much wrong with Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, but there’s just about enough right – mostly visually – to give the DCU another try, especially in the hands of a different director. For much of the running time it would be fair to compare the movie to Marvel’s own take on The Incredible Hulk; a difficult second movie, overstuffed with foretelling of coming attractions, but one with a handful of highlights that just about keep it above stinker status. Alas, more false endings than The Return of the King, a CGI-stuffed final confrontation and a character death that doesn’t carry as much heft as it really should encourages unwelcome comparisons to Spider-Man 3. It’s been a long wait for this movie, and only the most optimistic could declare it to have been worth it. Not that this matters at a jot to DC or Warner. We’ll all be laying down our head-earned for Suicide Squad and Wonder Woman anyway, right?