It’s hard to know where to start with a film like Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.
I am not a Zack Snyder fan. But I have appreciated the skills he has shown and I have understood, even when repulsed by them, his storytelling instincts. I was trying hard to keep an open mind when he popped on screen with a “please-no-spoilers” request to the media before the screening I attended (note: always a good idea to screen a movie in IMAX in which a full third of the fully-booked room has horrible, too-close seats) and he referred to his movie as “Batman vee Superman,” my stomach sunk. I mean, it is literally what the film is named. But it’s an abbreviation of versus… unless he thinks it’s something more clever than that… who knows what that would be… so maybe it’s a kitschy insider way of talking about his own movie… and even so, be aware of your audience.
Now this is the moment when some people will accuse me of being overly critical or nitpicky and going in with a bad attitude. This “vee” moment was more a pet peeve-like thing than anything else. But it is, like it or not, instructive. As for a bad attitude, I am a little bit guilty. This thing smelled like trouble from a distance. The murky, overly arty outdoor campaign continued that. I think the WB pivot to the action between Superman and Batman was the right commercial pivot, but I could never have imagined how false an impression of the actual movie those ads turned out to offer. But honest… I was as open as I could be as the movie started. And this review is going to get a lot more critical and nit-picky, if that is how you want to see it.
So the movie begins…
Zack Snyder still shoots everything in close-up or wide shots. Everything else seems to challenge him beyond his skill set (or style, if you must). There is no possible way to follow any of the major action in this film. It is big. It is loud. It is violent. But it is a crappy CG blur interrupted by close-ups of this one or that one taking/making an impact or landing.
The dialogue has the feel of high school Shakespeare… which is to say, that if you are familiar with Shakespeare, you know what the words are meant to mean, but the people saying them really don’t understand them, so it feels like a foreign language, making little sense. In this case, it is the words and directorial context that are at fault and no matter how hard everyone (especially the actors) try, it comes out like pretentious teenage verbal masturbation.
Of course, that lets off the storytelling too easily, blaming the marble-mouthed dialogue. The ideas are terrible from start to finish. Does Superman have a single serious, considered thought why he’s so pissed off at Batman? Has Batman made any effort at all to consider – as the world seems to have, though the film doesn’t bother offering that context – that there might be a reason why Superman failed to protect Metropolis instead of being a participant in the killing of thousands? And as importantly, if not more, do either consider their own flaws or are they just two megalomaniacs with mommy issues, now joined by Lex, working out his daddy problems?
My critical brethren seem to have landed on the idea that this film is nothing but an ad for Justice League and I can’t argue that… but I do feel that it was meant to be more than that. (And as ads go, it is horrible.) There is a great idea in this. Two icons of great meaning and power who have come to believe that they have to fight in order for the world to be safe. Should be something great. Think about talking with friends about the ideas late at night and how many really smart takes might come up. And then, watch this movie and wonder whether anyone realized just how low this film really aims.
The Donald Trump/Ted Cruz comparison is a comical meme on the web, but it is shocking how much more interesting the real life conflicts are than the ones in this movie. Why does Trump have a constituency? Why does Cruz? Why is Trump such a threat to the Republican Party? Why do they all hate Cruz? Answer those four questions – and that’s just tapping the surface – in a 2 hour movie and you will have a vastly superior one than BvS:DoJ.
Imagine, if you will, that Hillary Clinton was really a mortal threat to the nation… and was likely to win. Think of the tension in the idea that these two people who are so opposite and so opposed to one another must come together, somehow, in order to save the nation. Serious drama. And what, for the sake of argument, if Wonder Woman was the only person who could break through their arrogance to unify them.
Of course, the argument that Hillary Clinton would be terrible for America is absurd and 80% of America knows it, even if many of them don’t love the candidate. Be clear on that. But as a dramatic idea, dynamite.
Instead, in BvS, you have a Lex Luthor, amusing at times, but who believes nothing. He’s a climber, not an ideologue. And yeah, a good writer could make that work too. It would be funny, as the Hackman version was in the first Superman, just working a real estate angle. But Zack Snyder has no sense of humor (or self-awareness, it seems). Nor a vision.
Now that I think about it, a mega-problem with this film is that every major male character is wrong in deep and profound ways, but never learns anything… except that they may need others to preserve themselves more than they need to kill them… because none of them are about anything more than their specific mistaken ideas of the facts. There is nothing for us to care about.
Snyder tries to create an intense, adult intimacy between Superman and Lois Lane, even doing a bathtub scene. But her passion for him is as shallow as the dialogue, like we should know why she loves him from some other movie. Is it the greatest (or most complicated) sex ever? Don’t know. Is she trying to fix him? Don’t know. Is he really that nice? Don’t know. We know that he will save her because he thinks he loves her.. but we don’t know why and because of that, we don’t care.
I don’t feel The Dark Knight worked as well as many did, though I still think it is a terrific piece of filmmaking. Specifically, the stakes that The Joker creates for Batman, choosing between his love and a large number of lives, challenges how Batman sees himself. The payoff on it just wasn’t satisfying to me. However, it was a really smart, complex idea inside a comic book movie.
In this movie, Lex pushing against Superman’s vulnerabilities means nothing more than playing him for a sucker in a bigger game. This is an example of how Snyder is a simple thinker and Nolan is a deeply ambitious one. (Success in ambition is not the best measure of the ambition, but that’s a whole different discussion.)
But let’s put aside the movie this could have/should have/might have been. Let’s get back to what it is.
Here is a list (without any overt spoilers) of things I disliked in this film:
The only non-celebrity black people in the film as villains/victims
Superman/Zod fight as 9/11 metaphor
Batman shooting people
Batman origin story… again… adding NOTHING!
Referencing John Boorman as though this director could carry his jock
The great Jeremy Irons cashing a check in really nice clothes (except the hazmat suit by Gautier, which is absurd)
Amy Adams’ boobs bobbing in a tub in a hacky stab at intimacy
Referencing Stanley Kubrick as though it wouldn’t make Kubrick vomit
Parental advice that sounds like it came out of the world’s largest fortune cookie
55-year-old junior Senator who heads a committee and speaks unilaterally for the US government.
Every woman other than the four with more than a few lines of dialogue is objectified
The wrong iconic assholic character with problem hair from the last movie gets a dialogue chunk.
No one seems to have been able to decide whether this Batman was Frank Miller’s 55-year-old Dark Knight (shamelessly and endlessly ripped off by Snyder to inferior effect) or the 40-year-old that the math of the film (parents killed in 1982) suggests. He is thick and a bit limited like the elder Batman, but a workout warrior and played by a 41-year-old Ben Affleck, whose righty curmudgeonliness never quite makes sense. (Affleck seems to be playing Clooney half the time, who would have made a lot more sense in this film, really, not that Affleck doesn’t do fine.)
Referencing Cole Porter in a way only someone with no wit at all would do
Upskirt of Gal Godot long enough to show a cleft where her thigh meets her groin
Major dramatic events created exclusively by characters not communicating
Previews of additional characters only to set up the next film. The movie actually stops to have these mini-trailers, watched by a character downloading files
More terrorism references that don’t earn the choice
Dream sequences that are good enough for ads, but not to be taken seriously by the screenwriters in the film proper.
“Clever” shift from all the daddy issues of Man of Steel to mommy issues.
Horrible jerk-off use of a coincidence of decades-past character naming.
Batman vs Superman not being enough for this film
Fake-outs so obvious that the audience is 30 minutes ahead
I was shocked. I have come to expect murky action and overripe dialogue and flat characters and bad ideas from Zack Snyder, but I didn’t expect to be listening to endless dialogue sequences that seem to be written by a teenager trying to be Strindberg nor to have the whole thing hinge on errors of judgment or filmmaker tricks nor to find these iconic characters so lost and uninteresting from start to finish. This is a movie that a mediocrity could have done much, much better. This film could only be this bad because the filmmaker was truly ambitious and truly not up the fulfillment of any small percentage of those ambitions.
It may seem oxymoronic to say that you should be able to feel the joy of a filmmaker who is trying to make a serious story that includes action. But you must. Or it is going to be terrible.
For everything that failed about Green Lantern, for instance, at least you could feel that the team, from director Martin Campbell to credited writers Greg Berlanti, Michael Green, Marc Guggenheim and Michael Goldenberg were trying to do something interesting and it just didn’t come together. There was comedy. There was a crazy interesting performance by Peter Sarsgaard. There were wild aliens. But there was comic book seriousness that looked like shit (literally at times) and it didn’t work. But I felt the joy in there.
I don’t demand perfection. Not by a long shot. Great genre filmmaking makes you feel, not intellectualize… not analyze the minutiae. You can drive a truck through the holes in many of my favorite genre films. Don’t care. Don’t want to real lists of errors. Joy.
In Batman vee Superman, I feel a movie desperately trying to prove its intelligence while doing everything on screen that it can to prove that it’s not half as smart as it thinks. It will try anything to be important. But movie audiences see through this every time.
I have made the comparison to Star Wars: The Force Awakens. JJ Abrams, while a great guy and a clear talent in many aspects, may not have an original idea in his head. But he is as good as they come at putting the Silly Putty on a great piece of original art, transferring the framework, and coloring it in to make it look like a really good minor variation on the original. He always entertains, even if he never challenges an audience.
Zack Snyder might be a greater artist than JJ Abrams. But we will never know that until he stops trying to prove it. So he keeps revving the engine of the world’s biggest franchise, like the noise is what matters.
In the words of Frankie Goes To Hollywood…
“Relax don’t do it
When you want to go to it
Relax don’t do it
When you want to make Batman v Superman a pretentious crap show.”