2009 was an intense year. We saw the inauguration of the first African-American President, the economy was in complete freefall, and our society was facing an existential crisis. The cultural touchstones of that year reflected the nation’s anxieties. In particular, the film adaptation of the graphic novel Watchmen, emphasized these stresses. Its bleak, dark approach, mixed with morally ambiguous characters, created a tone that mirrored American hopelessness. In that respect, director Zack Snyder’s 2009 superhero epic was spot on, but the critics were fairly mixed upon its release.
Now it is 2016, and in some respects, we face the same anxieties and frustrations that we did seven years ago. America has become a place bereft of heroes, and the heroes that remain often disappoint us. What happens when our leaders fail us? What do we do when they don’t live up to our expectations? What if we even question the very validity of their existence?
These are all questions that, for good or ill, get addressed in Snyder’s newest epic, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. I recently saw this film, and intend to see it again, but I must share my thoughts as a bulwark against unnecessary nitpicking and fan disappointment. BvS is not a perfect film, far from it. Its narrative issues and complicated plot often drag the film down. (Film critic Chris Stuckmann addresses many of these problems fairly in his review on YouTube.) But when this film works, it works beautifully. I would argue that this film might be one of the most ambitious, if not the most ambitious, superhero film ever made. And I’ve already mentioned Watchmen.
The overly pessimistic criticism of this film, in my view, stems from its inability to live up to people’s expectations. It also felled victim to the “hype-machine.” Warner Brothers has been teasing audiences with this film for three years, and the trailers did not always represent the film properly. (In one trailer, the studio gave audiences way too much). I will say, though, that Snyder and company can be consoled by the fact that this film may garner more respect in the future, not necessarily for what it could have done better but for what it did right.
So, since most reviews focus on its failings, I’ll offer a more balanced view. First up, the tone. Snyder’s failings as a storyteller are often redeemed by his ability to capture mood, tone, and thematic through lines. He does this perfectly in BvS; the opening scenes that reintroduce Batman and his tragic past are beautifully haunting. Additionally, this new Batman is older, more cynical, and morally ambiguous. This is the kind of Batman that movie goers like me have wanted for a while; a Batman that isn’t sure what the right thing to do is anymore. While the film doesn’t address it as concretely as I would have liked, future films can flesh this out and build on what this film established.
Superman also feels the weight of heroism. One of the film’s themes that I really liked was whether the world really needed a Superman. Does the benefit of his heroism outweigh the costs of life and liberty? This question comes through the character of Senator June Finch (played by Holly Hunter), whose own misgivings about the Red-Caped alien from Krypton get used against her by the menacing and over-the-top Lex Luthor (played by Jesse Eisenberg). Like Batman’s moral ambiguity, the film fails to really play with this theme as much as I would have liked. However, when it does address these anxieties, it is powerful and thoughtful.
Next, let’s talk about casting. The best thing about BvS is Batman/Bruce Wayne, played by the controversial pick Ben Affleck. While many derided his choice for the role in 2013, I was delighted. I thought he was a perfect choice for the caped crusader, and I can confidently say that I was not wrong. Affleck’s pathos and intensity in this film are perfect for Snyder’s tone. He’s also an excellent Bruce Wayne, maybe the best we’ve seen on screen. I also really liked Jeremy Irons as Alfred Pennyworth and hope to see more of him in future films.
Henry Cavill returns as Superman, and is very strong in the role, but he does feel a little underdeveloped. I would have liked to see more of his life at the Daily Planet and his relationship with Lois Lane, but hey, the movie was already two and a half hours long. It may have been difficult to balance everything this film wants to do. (We will come back to that later.)
The most controversial casting choice for me was Jesse Eisenberg as Lex Luthor. I found his appearances in the trailer to be annoying and campy, as if he was in a different movie. But having seen his entire performance in the context of the film, I was pleasantly surprised. His menacing demeanor and almost spastic body language works, for the most part. There are a couple of scenes where it is a bit too much. In particular, there’s a philanthropy dinner scene where Luthor attempts to give a speech, but the character basically rambles and then yells at the audience. While I appreciate the attempt to make him unsettling to the filmgoer, it came off more awkward and unpolished. However, his other scenes, especially a rooftop scene with Lois Lane, are pitch-perfect. He serves as an adequate villain for the film.
However, I can’t finish this review without discussing Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman. She is one of the best parts of the film. She steals every scene she’s in. I think that it is high time that a female superhero is front and center in this type of film, and I look forward to seeing her in future installments of the DC Universe.
As with Zack Snyder’s other films, the cinematography and production design are gorgeous. The film is never boring to look at and there’s a lot to take in. However, there are times when narrative and character are sacrificed for tone and visual appeal. This is oft-repeated criticism of Snyder, whose problems with storytelling do appear in this film. He often has a hard time balancing all of the characters and plot points that permeate the movie. In a nutshell, this might be the film’s biggest problem. Dan Murrell of Screen Junkies was correct when he remarked that the movie was like five separate movies smashed into one and the filmmakers had trouble carrying everything effectively.
All of these criticisms are valid. I think the script really needed one more rewrite or edit before they started shooting. Having said that, the film we did get was good and it didn’t deserve the level of vitriol it received.
Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, warts and all, gave movie-goers a powerful introduction to the DC Universe. It could’ve been easy for the studio to make something like Marvel, but they didn’t. They gave audiences something completely different than most superhero films, and for that, I can applaud it. The best thing I can say about this film is its ambition, its willingness to take risks and be bold. Does it always work? No. But when it does, it’s great. This film is certainly better than other big superhero films like Avengers: Age of Ultron, which had all the same problems but not nearly as much hate.
Art is supposed to challenge us. It is supposed to throw things at us and make us deal with them. Within the comic book genre, this film achieves that. The fact that it has divided so many people speaks to its ability to challenge audiences and make us question the very idea of heroism. Whether you loved it or hated it, this film compelled you to speak your mind. That might be its biggest victory.
Overall Grade = B+