[Movie] Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016)

BvSThis post has mild spoilers for Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice. If you do not wish for certain information regarding plot points from this movie to be revealed to you, you might want to consider not reading any further.

Was there ever a movie as destined to bomb as Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice? Between Ben Affleck pretending to be Batman and Zack Snyder pretending to be a director, it feels like the movie’s fate was pre-destined. Sure, some part of the movie’s poor performance can chalked up to the glut of decent comic-book super-hero movies in recent years, but that’s no excuse for a project this size to have nothing to show for itself other than some flashy special effects and a few well-choreographed action sequences. The most perplexing thing about this movie’s failure, however, is how very predictable it was. It seemed that each new announcement regarding the movie pushed expectations to new lows; from the casting choices to the film’s premise, it seemed like there was disaster lurking around every corner. Indeed, everything that could possibly have gone wrong, did – from a slipshod script, unconvincing performances and questionable production, if this movie doesn’t end Snyder’s all too long career, nothing will. (3.0/10)

There isn’t a dimension of this film that is immune to criticism but perhaps the best place to begin would be with the film’s very premise. To understand why the premise is problematic, we need to understand what Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice really is – it might look like a thinly-veiled excuse to get two of DC Comics’ most profitable and marketable characters on screen at the same time but in fact, it is actually a thinly-veiled excuse to introduce audiences to the soon to be formed Justice League. Was there really a reason to have Batman fight Superman? Was there really a need to call the movie Batman vs Superman when the two titular characters have essentially one real confrontation throughout the movie? The baffling thing is that in the course of an admittedly long movie, the audience must at various points believe not only that the conflict between these two characters is justified and inevitable, but later, also that that same conflict was actually unnecessary after all. It’s an impossible exercise in doublethink; if the audience doesn’t buy into the belief that conflict between the two men is necessary, then the first half of the movie seems pointless but if the audience is convinced that the conflict is necessary, then the two heroes’ quick reconciliation at the end seems unsatisfying. Beyond that, it simply beggars belief that two of the more competent heroes in the DC Comics universe would not attempt to talk to each other like adults at any point in the movie before resorting to violence.

It’s tempting to fall into the trap of believing that with such a weak premise, the scriptwriters’ hands were largely tied – but there’s simply far too much wrong with the way the premise plays out to let them off the hook so very easily. In their defence, the broad structure of the film is a demanding one; the script must now somehow explain not only why Batman must fight Superman but also then what compels them to unite. However, that does not explain why character motivations are so shallow or why the plot looks more haphazard than a block of Jenga after a long game. Far too much of the film’s story relies on the consistent and continuing incompetence of several characters – especially Amy Adams’ Lois Lane – who really ought to know better. The film’s villain, a Lex Luthor played by Jesse Eisenberg, is made to look especially competent by his adversaries relentless idiocy but a strong script would have let the audiences marvel at a genuinely intelligent, airtight plan from Luthor. The biggest issue with the script however, is one that is symptomatic of the film as a whole; it cannot decide whether it wants to have a fairly high-minded, sophisticated conversation about power, responsibility and the two heroes’ differing ideologies or if it wants to descend into a grandiose street brawl with shiny gadgets and alien superpowers. You can argue that there is no evidence that the film would have been able to pull either option off convincingly but surely, any attempt would have been better than their half-hearted attempt at a safe middle ground.

Certainly, not every movie is to be watched for its plot but the emphasis that Batman vs Superman places on its visuals over its narrative is distinctive. Yet, even in this aspect it doesn’t fail to disappoint. The action sequences in Batman vs Superman are chaotic and incoherent making it borderline impossible to discern what is happening. Occasionally, the movie will opt for a wide angle perspective shot in an attempt at conveying a sense of epic scale – but that falls a little flat when there is a sum total of four characters moving on screen. The movie’s first major fight between its two protagonists is thankfully something of an exception – the whole sequence was cleanly shot, and Affleck’s simple kicks and punches did a lot to emphasis the exceptional physicality of his Batman. The film’s final fight, however, left something to be desired; there were plenty of flashy explosions and bone-cracking blows but they felt strangely superficial, like the explosions themselves held no weight. Overall, the action and special effects weren’t terrible but surely, given the movie’s gigantic budget of $250 million (in comparison, The Avengers cost $220 million), it isn’t unreasonable to ask for more.

Finally, there are the individual performances themselves, which can be split quite fairly into broad categories of the good and the forgettable. Jesse Eisenberg’s Lex Luthor is unhinged in a way that’s a little too Joker-esque, but was nevertheless a convincing menace throughout the movie. The real stand out performer, unexpectedly, was Jeremy Irons’ Alfred Pennyworth. Alfred has always been an easy character to like, providing a wry and human counterpoint to Batman’s relentless angst; Irons amps both the humour and the humanity up a little – not enough to steal the show, but enough to provide the movie with a few sorely needed bright spots. Gal Gadot provides a few of those as well; her Wonder Woman is dignified, competent and the only real source of optimism for the future of the franchise. The bulk of the rest of the cast falls squarely into the forgettable category but Henry Cavill and Ben Affleck both deserve special mentions, albeit for rather different reasons. Cavill did a respectable job of trying to convey both the threat and promise of his demigod-like character but was hamstrung by a weak script. Affleck’s Batman was bad but not quite as awful as the endless ridicule heaped upon him since his casting would have you believe. This new Batman is, however, indubitably a step down from Christian Bale’s; he is angry, embittered and far less cerebral. He is, however, also more of a no-frills kind of Batman, one who isn’t above killing and one whose raw physicality can be genuinely intimidating. Simply put, Affleck makes a good Batman but a terrible Bruce Wayne.

Each of these failings can actually be traced back to a single source; Snyder’s indecision about exactly what this movie was supposed to be. On one hand, Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice had to be entertaining enough to compete with the likes of The Avengers: Age of Ultron but on the other hand, you get the feeling that Snyder didn’t want to completely abandon the progress that the Nolan movies had made in adding more intellectual elements into the genre. Evidence of this indecision can be found throughout the film from the half-hearted attempts at provoking a discussion about morality to the incredibly cheesy moments like Bruce Wayne’s dream. The consequences of Snyder’s last embarrassment go beyond the movie itself; there are also implications for the financial future of the DC Comics’ cinematic endeavour as a whole. With such a stuttering start, perhaps it might be more prudent for them to cut their losses and call this dawn a day.

The Verdict: Go ahead and watch the movie – it’s awful, but at this point, it’s the culturally appropriate thing to do. Expect nothing and you’ll still walk away disappointed, but at least that way you can feel justified in bitching about it later.

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