My expectations had been thoroughly put to rest after a week of seeing different versions of the headline “What Batman vs. Superman did wrong.” Hopes already dashed, I was still going to try my damndest to like the movie. Hell, I will still defend Man of Steel (and even Superman Returns in my drunker moments). Without even having seen a trailer, I was still ready to defend this film. Oh boy.
This review contains spoilers.
The plot of Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice is somehow both too complicated and too simplistic at the same time. It’s a strange accomplishment, but when you look at some of director Zack Snyder’s other projects, it’s not too surprising. Suckerpunch was, for example, trying to be a chinese-box of a movie, but ultimately it’s just about pretty girls kicking ass to escape. BvS is also a film that tries to appear complicated, with smuggling, a heist, backdoor dealing, and “a working behind the scenes all along”-genius. But that genius’ (Lex Luthor by Jesse Eisenberg) master plan is exactly what it says on the tin: Batman vs. Superman, the ultimate showdown. And the plan is accomplished by good old-fashioned coercion.
The film doesn’t need more plot, however, because it isn’t really about events, but about difficult questions of power, authority, and our place in the universe. Man of Steel placed this question squarely on Clark Kent’s (Henry Cavill’s) shoulders. Does he have the duty and/or the authority (purely through the fact that he has these powers) to be our hero? Ultimately, he sacrifices Zod (and by extension the whole of Krypton) for Earth and his identity as part of humanity.
In BvS the question must now go to the rest of us. The film frames the questions in three different ways, with varying degrees of success. First, the US government decides to hold hearings. Senator Finch (Holly Hunter) gives a few very interesting speeches on the problem with Superman. He might want to help, but shouldn’t act unilaterally. Superman doesn’t act merely in the US, however, and the film fails to show any other government reacting to him entering their airspace, rescuing their citizens, or supposedly killing their baddies. I would say the best attempts to explore these questions come from Finch, or alternatively you could watch Zack Snyder’s Watchman.
The second framing is the injured man, Keefe (Scoot McNairy), from the Man of Steel showdown. He has every right to be upset, but he ends up being a sort of parody of the same scenario in The Incredibles, a film that handles these questions far better. Does the “rescuee” have a right to be upset about the loss of limbs when the alternative was the loss of humanity? What could Superman have done differently to stop Zod from destroying the atmosphere to also keep Keefe whole? Sacrifice a different building? What can he do now to make up for it? I don’t know, and the movie never asks that question directly, so he is left being a foil for Lex Luthor without giving us any true account of his grievances.
Lastly, we have Batman, the most illogical version of the question yet. He admits he himself is a criminal, but somehow Superman’s world-wide version of this doesn’t fly. The film wastes so much time on back-stories, weird lingering shots on things we don’t need to see (don’t get me started on the dream sequences) that Batman’s legitimate question is completely muted. Does a God-like creature have any right to fly about the world, arbitrarily deciding who should be saved, who sacrificed?
The film has gotten a bit of flack for Batman’s decision to spare Superman because their moms had the same name. I want to give the film credit that it was a useful device to make Batman realise Superman was a person, with a mother. The scene fails because of more unnecessary shots of Martha’s grave, making it seem like the significance was in the name itself instead of a shared humanity, and potential shared loss.
The above sounds like a list of problems too long to overcome, but I won’t say the film is without merit. I enjoyed myself every time Lex Luthor was on screen. He played it as a sort of Zuckerberg-esque/hip new start-up CEO. Jeremy Irons was a good Alfred, though like all the characters he was hampered by odd dialogue. Both Henry Cavill and Ben Afleck are good at being angry at each other. When the script gets it right, when it asks the right questions, and when the scene is part of the story (not backstory or a dream) there is definitely something of a great movie in there.
Unfortunately, Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice just doesn’t have what I hoped for in a sequel to Man of Steel or even a ramp-up to the Justice League. It fails in asking the real interesting questions these two characters (as they are represented in the film) should be asking each other. It fails more than it succeeds at good action. The script sometimes becomes incomprehensible (“my parents taught me the world only makes sense if you force it to”- or something, what? Bruce, speak plainly, please!). There are good, even great, moments. I would love to see this Superman and this Batman eventually getting along. They were, despite everything, engaging. I do want to see more of them, and I will probably watch this film again to do just that.
Dice roll: 3