“I’ve seen men of steel die and dark knights fall and even then, I accomplished my mission no matter what.” – Rip Hunter, Legends of Tomorrow
As I pulled up to the theater on Thursday night, I couldn’t help but feel a little fatalistic. As the Rip Hunter quote suggests, I began to sense that I was acting out of obligation to my childhood more than celebration. I was going to see Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice on opening night. The film had already been billed as one of the year’s biggest blockbusters. However, it was also the movie generating the most interest in its critical evaluation. The preceding Man of Steel certainly drew a mixed reaction. After the embargo on reviews had been lifted 48 hours earlier, the vitriol was unleashed on “BvS.” I had been put into as dour a mood as any Zack Snyder feature, but there I was anyway. With the full silver-screen experience behind me, here are my thoughts on the flick, itself, and some of its overwrought criticism. (WARNING: Spoilers Ahead!)
Where They’re Wrong
The first unwarranted criticism is the film’s “incoherence.” It’s been more than 24 hours and I still don’t understand this claim. A clear plot exists. The megalomaniacal CEO of Lexcorp, Lex Luthor, wants Batman and Superman out of his way. He schemes to frame Superman for a Middle East standoff-turned-slaughter. Then, Luthor uses the outcry to influence the government to give him access to the Kryptonian tech (from Man of Steel) necessary to defeat him. While developing that ultimate solution (Doomsday), he baits Superman and Batman into conflict – believing Superman to be a sure bet to kill Gotham’s vigilante. As insurance, he even kidnaps Martha Kent and holds her life ransom for Bruce Wayne’s head. Nothing hard to follow here. Luthor is looking to kill two birds with one stone.
The other chorus from the media’s carp-crusaders is that the film is some kind of adolescent testosterone contest. I can only assume these reviewers arrived about a half-hour after show-time. One of the most effective pieces of Dawn of Justice is the exposition. Yes, we revisit (again) the murder of Thomas and Martha Wayne. However, the flashback connects to the civilian ground view of the sheer devastation left by Superman and General Zod in Man of Steel. We see an older and grayed Bruce Wayne, whose purpose and rage is reawakened by the carnage in Metropolis. Many of his employees are killed, buried in rubble, with their families left just as shattered. The powerlessness he feels connects to his own formative childhood trauma. Wayne’s rage may be misplaced, but it is hardly petty. Superman’s in-kind rejection of The Bat also has nothing to do with jealousy or insecurity. Call it platitude or principle. Yet, if Superman is supposed to stand for higher ideals, then the moral relativism of Bruce Wayne’s methods can hardly be perceived as justice.
In short, neither the plot nor the motivations of the central characters is left in doubt in BvS. But the complexity of that plot does create certain drawbacks, and on those points the critics seem justified.
Where They’re Right
Because of the layers involved in this legendary clash – those that are sincere and those manipulated by Luthor – many of the other elements that should work for this film get short shrift. Laurence Fishburne as Perry White, Diane Lane as Martha Kent and Holly Hunter as Senator Finch bring a definite likability to the screen. They provide levity at times when the movie is overdue for it. But whatever praise they earn for the film, Jesse Eisenberg’s portrayal of Lex Luthor undoes it. To be clear, Eisenberg’s talent is not in question. Nevertheless, as many have opined, his portrayal appears misguided. The best Luthor I have seen on screen is still Kevin Spacey. Capturing both his calm and cruelty, Spacey exuded every trait fans relished from the criminal mastermind. Eisenberg’s lunatic depiction is better fit for a Toyman or Riddler. In an odd way, this new manic Luthor is a mirror image to the nearly as out-of-place distance and burden of Henry Cavill’s Superman. However, Amy Adams work as Lois Lane is commendable and the tenderness between her and Cavill on screen does more to humanize Kal-El than almost anything else.
In addition to the talent and performances that go underutilized, we also endure an extended wait for the payoffs of the Justice League and Wonder Woman. Despite the toil leading up to it, I still give BvS credit for Wonder Woman’s combat debut. At her descent onto the battlefield with Doomsday, I nearly cheered aloud in the theater. But if Zack Snyder were in attendance, I imagine he’d ask me to leave because his films aren’t for that, and I thought better.
In that vein, the criticism that perhaps rings truest to me about Dawn of Justice is that for its first 2 hours, it can be a joyless slog. As 2009’s Watchmen and 2013’s Man of Steel taught us, the tone and color of the film would be inescapably solemn. Batman v Superman, though, kicked that up a notch. Despite not getting the love affair with Superman in the opening round of this cinematic universe, we still managed to go through the falling out. First, there was the 9/11-esque opening montage. Then, the Superman frame job and the government turning on him. We’re treated to a litany of media clips scrutinizing whether Kal-El is menace or mensch. Even what should be a heroic scene – Superman rescuing a space shuttle during a launch disaster – is part of a narration sequence in which his character is indicted. In this fantasy world, heroism is a thankless act. There is no wonderment or fascination with what we see on screen. If you define successful comic cinema by the standards of Captain America or the original Iron Man, it would be understandable if this landscape was too bleak to tolerate. And that comparison leads me to some final points.
What I Took Away
Yes, the film does lay the vital groundwork for a coming Justice League. There’s a Wonder Woman film already in production and the promise of another Batman trilogy. But based on this second outing of the DC Universe, I can’t help but wonder how many I’ll enjoy it with. The somberness in which Snyder drapes these icons may be whittling down the DC fandom rather than building out from it. What makes sci-fi, fantasy and comic geekdom so worthwhile isn’t just the individual experience of film and television, but the community you connect to through it. I love sharing these experiences with friends and fellow nerds. By these presentations being devoid of the fun, light and color that comics offer, are we celebrating or surviving this new universe? If I have a final hope from the last act, it’s that the death of Superman catalyzes a mini-reboot. At the movie’s end, humanity pours out its heart to Superman because of his self-sacrifice. The controversy over his presence has been answered in the affirmative. In his eventual resurrection, perhaps we’ll see a Superman that can reflect that love and loyalty back. It certainly would engender the same from the fans.
Overall, I would rate this film as closer to a 6 than a 5 on a scale of 10. I still have hope for what this universe can be, but I may need Wonder Woman to re-ignite it by next summer.
Written by Joseph Money