Movie Review - Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice
Back in the late 70s, three writers sat in the library at DC Comics, puffing Havana cigars and talking about Superman. Two of them, Cary Bates and Elliot S! Maggin, were staff writers there at DC. The third, the outsider in this case, was Mario Puzo…who had been hired to write a screenplay for the Salkinds for what would be the first two Superman films. Puzo had not been the first writer approached for the job. There were others. But all of them had problems getting a feel for the character…much less breaking any kind of story. It was in this discussion that Puzo had is ‘ah-ha’ moment. [And I don’t mean he became an animated version of himself and began singing Norwegian 80s pop. – Ed.] “This is a Greek tragedy”. The results, Superman: The Movie and Superman II, are films that we wouldn’t qualify as tragedies today. [You mean, the same way we wouldn’t qualify The Martian as a comedy? – Ed.] But the kernel is there. Even then, back in the more innocent days of comics…Pre-Crisis…pre-grim ‘n’ gritty.
Now, finally, we see that come to fruition. Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice is exactly that, a tragedy. One of the definitions: a serious drama typically describing a conflict between the protagonist and a superior force (such as destiny) and having a sorrowful or disastrous conclusion that elicits pity or terror. This is superhero film as grand drama. This is the Iliad of superhero movies. It is big, dense and complex. You need to be on your ‘A’ game, as there are a lot of moving pieces…and if you stumble, you may become lost…as it sounds like most other reviews did exactly that. I want to be clear…this movie is not for everyone. It is most definitely not a “Marvel movie”. The villain is not after an object, a MacGuffin, a prize or a goal. We’ll talk about each of these points one by one, but ultimately, this movie is a grand, operatic tale that we should be embracing, because its depth will allow it to remain standing once the tide of popular culture becomes bored with what currently passes for superhero cinema and the once embraced formula of the standard “Marvel movie” is considered tired and trite.
The film opens with yet another iteration of the death of the Waynes. Many have said that we don’t need this…yet again. And prior to seeing the film, I was actually in agreement with them. When I first watched the film, I thought that this was a good place for it…as it allowed any stragglers a chance to get in and get situated without really missing anything of consequence. Upon second viewing, I realized just how wrong I was. This retelling of that fateful night is important for two reasons, both of which are spoilery. I will say this, though, it is genius how Snyder tells us EXACTLY how the movie is going to end in this very first scene…but you have to know your film in order to see it. Pay particular attention to the movie that will open in the theater the Waynes are leaving on the Wednesday of that week. If you’re familiar with that film…then you know how this story ends…and it’s not exactly happy.
From here, we skip forward to the end of Man of Steel…the Battle of Metropolis as seen through the eyes of Bruce Wayne who was there because…reasons. Interestingly enough, we learn that Gotham and Metropolis are sister cities…right across “The Bay” from one another. That said, I don’t think there necessarily HAS to be an explanation for why he was there. If the cities were more distant…say Gotham being next to New York City and Metropolis being let’s say Toronto-ish…then yeah, there’d be some explaining to do. But the next city over? Hell, maybe there was a Thai food place over there he really liked and it’s not that far out of the way. Regardless, he’s there in Metropolis for the event and as such we see this as the beginning of his main point of contention with Superman that will eventually lead to our top-billed fight.
While, at this juncture, I could go the route of my infamous, at least to me, review for Interstellar, where I simply recited the entire movie in short form, here I won’t do that. Firstly, it does the movie a great injustice. Secondly, I don’t want to write that much. Instead, I will say that every scene that follows is there for a reason, whether it be for the motivations behind one of the characters (and the only character that doesn’t have a clearly shown or stated motivation in this film is Doomsday), the machinations of Lex’s plot or a look into things to come…be they within the confines of this film or out into the future of the DC cinematic universe. Worth pointing out and playing directly into what I was saying earlier about this movie being operatic is the use of dreams to help in telling the narrative. Most of them occur to Bruce and usually serving as the Ghosts of Christmas Past or Future…although Clark does have one which I’d call more of a ‘waking dream’ while he’s on what could probably be best described as ‘walkabout’ or even better ‘vision quest’. The biggest and Flashiest of Bruce’s dreams are the ‘Knightmare’ sequences. [I see what you did there…clever. – Ed.] These serve as our hint as to the ‘big bad’ we can look forward to in Justice League as well as serving as both a source of insight and confusion for Batman…insight in that he learns that Lois Lane is the key to what is to come and confusion in that he’s told that he’s “right about him”. The problem is, he takes this to mean Superman…and not the other subject of his investigations thus far into the movie…Luthor.
With the mention of Lois, we move into how well this movie moves to make sure everything is woven together. While Lois is our main vehicle in this regard, following the path of a single bullet all the way to its larger implications, she is not the only one. We get to see Batman doing some actual detective work in this film…not only in the Batcave, but also out and about as Bruce Wayne. While not at the level of the aforementioned, Clark even gets in on the action. Like with Man of Steel, it’s refreshing to have a Clark that is not the bumbler that has been depicted in the first five movies of the franchise. Instead, you get the feeling that this Clark is indeed a journalist worthy of being at the Daily Planet. If we look back in Superman history, we really haven’t seen this kind of Clark since the 50s when George Reeves took on the role.
It’s through this detective work that we see our characters moved into position as events unfold that raise the stakes until, finally, the third act explodes onto the screen. How Snyder handles the question that’s burned through comic book shops since the 30s I felt was with a deft touch, giving each side a victory. Batman fans get to see what they’ve always claimed would happen while Superman fans getting their own satisfaction as well. And yes, as everyone expects, Lex’s plan is eventually revealed in such a way to bring the two heroes not only to the same side, but forges an unexpected bond between them. I have to admit, the mechanism Terrio uses to do this is both genius and obvious. But that’s only the first half of this final chapter. The second half focuses mainly on stopping Lex’s plan…which has culminated in the monster Doomsday. In the beast’s creation, both the scout ship’s AI and Lex make mention of the ‘kryptonian deformity’. I wonder if this is what Jor-El was referencing to back in Man of Steel…first to the council when they suggest evacuation, “We’re dead already,” and second when explaining why neither he nor his wife could join their newborn son on his voyage to safety, “We were a product of Krypton and tied to its fate”. After all, the Superman comic reboot that shares its name laid out that not only were the residents of Krypton genetically tied to their planet, but a chain reaction in the core had given rise to a slow form of radiation poisoning called “the green death”…clearly the birth of kryptonite in this new age of comics. Flipping back to the movies, it’s not hard at all to take this explanation and adapt it to the kryptonite we see in this film…as kryptonite was used as a power source for the World Engine and, as Jor-El points out in Man of Steel, lacking power sources, Krypton society took to mining the core of their own planet for such power. It stands to reason that core material proves to be Superman’s favorite green rocks. I’m getting sidetracked though. The entire third act is a powerful piece of cinema, both in action and in emotion…as it grabs on and simply will not let go. For how it ends? Well, go back to the beginning…either of the movie or this review…but we won’t spoil it here.
What we will tell you is that this film is the DC films’ Empire Strikes Back. It is a middle, dark act of a trilogy comprised of Man of Steel, Batman V Superman and Justice League. And in zooming out, looking at this bigger picture consisting of the three films, combined with what happened in the first act, we come upon the largest theme…or theme cycle. Birth, Death, Rebirth. Even in saying that, I’ve probably tip-toed right up to the precipice of spoiler territory…but this is an important point to consider and one I don’t think many of those reviewing the film are keeping in mind. Birth, death and rebirth are the cornerstone of great drama…be they literal or figurative, event-driven or allegory. To go back to my opening statement, it’s these huge ideas, concepts, that push this film above what we see coming from Marvel and into the category that DC has always claimed to be…myth. It’s the grandest of stories on the grandest of scales, spanning gods and mortals and everything in between. This is the elevation of our comic book heroes to the pantheon of Classical sensibilities…great strength with great flaw…and often times the hubris that comes with both.
The perfect display of this is with Batman’s character arc. The best way to describe Batman’s disposition throughout at least three quarters of the film is something we’ve already heard in the trailers for the film: “20 years in Gotham, how many good guys are left? How many stayed that way?” Those, my friend, are the words of an absolute cynic. You can take it even further if you factor in his 1% speech too. As the film progresses and reaches the titular fight, a lesson from Nolan’s The Dark Knight creeps into this new DC cinematic universe: “You either die a hero or live long enough to see yourself become the villain”. But it is through his conflict with Superman that a better Bruce Wayne comes out the other side. In the film’s closing moments, when he’s trying to convince Diana to help him assemble the others (Flash, Cyborg and Aquaman) and she argues that she left man’s world, his century of horrors, for a reason, we see that the entire film was worth it. Just to hear Batman say “Men are still good” after spending an entire film seeing him convinced otherwise speaks volumes as to how much his interaction with Superman has changed him…and so much for the better.
Speaking of Big Blue, he too is not without a character arc. As advertised, he’s dealing with the fallout from the final conflict in Man of Steel…but also with the impacts and blowback from his efforts to help the world since then. For one reason or another, some of which factors into the main story so I’ll need to be vague, not all of Superman’s efforts to help are without collateral damage. That in and of itself takes a toll on him…but the blasting he gets in the media, including the very paper he works at, just adds salt in the wound. By one major event in the film, it has him questioning why he does what he does. It’s a good question to ask…and it’s certainly one we’ve all asked ourselves. In Man of Steel, he put on the costume because circumstances forced him to do so. Zod was unstoppable and he was the only person in any position to stand against him. As we get into this film, we see Superman helping where he can, but as he himself states it, he’s living out the dream of a Kansas farmer…his father, Jonathan. The necessary step that he needs to take is HIS reason for doing what he does. Now, as is always the way in these situations, we all see his reason for trying to save the world…it’s very obvious…but he doesn’t see it until the movie’s end. Then, and only then, do we finally see Superman, the Superman that we all know…and the arc is complete.
I won’t go into this too much, as nearly every single other review will cover this ad nauseum, but the cast is fantastic…mostly. I really only have one beef. We’ll get to that in a bit. Batfleck, I guess the best way I can put it is that his performance…well, I won’t say it cured my Bat-Fatigue…but he was a very enjoyable part of this film. Henry Cavill remains a worthy heir to Chris Reeve’s Superman. Gal Gadot, while it’s a small role, is spot on as Wonder Woman and she has me very much looking forward to her solo film. And all it took was a well placed smile. Jeremy Irons is the best Alfred ever. Period. The end. I think the same could be said for Laurence Fishburne’s Perry White. Amy Adams has plenty to do as Lois Lane and like in Man of Steel, carries the role very ably and, thanks to the writers, continues to portray the smartest Lois ever put to screen. Jesse Eisenberg seems to be the divisive element in this category…and personally I thought he was fantastic. This is not a Lex we’ve seen before, and yet has all the hallmarks of what you need in a good Lex. What everyone seems to be complaining about is the public persona he projects…but it is but a thin façade hiding the very palpable evil underneath. He’s very clearly the product of an abusive household and as such has a very core need for power and dominance…having had none throughout his youth. It’s not enough to bend a god to his will…instead he must send a message out to the stars…seeking even more power. And that Power is coming. That's what Lex is after...not some trinket that can be easily identified by the viewer, but instead an abstract ideal. So, yeah, I thought Lex was great. We catch a brief look at the rest of the Justice League…and while Jason Mamoa’s Aquaman and Ray Fisher’s Cyborg look fine, I gotta admit I’m concerned about Ezra Miller’s Flash. Now, I will also have to admit that I’ve never seen the kid in anything…so he might be the greatest thing since sliced bread…but right now, I AM one of those that thinks the current Flash, Grant Gustin, IS the greatest thing since sliced bread. Thus, I’m forced to admit there’s the possibility of bias on my part. We’ll just have to wait and see come Justice League proper. Another very minor niggle is with a character that very honestly I did not think would be back for this film…yet makes a very meaningful, if short, appearance…but there seemed to be a bit of forgetfulness of said actor. While what the character had to say very much lined up with how they were portrayed in Man of Steel…how they said it didn’t. It’s not a huge thing and won’t really take you out of the movie…but it is a thing.
For as much as I’ve gushed about the film, it is not without flaw. Granted, I found those flaws to be very minor in my overall enjoyment of the film…but they are present nonetheless. First off is something I’ve been championing for a while…but it really comes to a head here. Dear Hans Zimmer…could you just, like, go away? You know, forever? I didn’t want to feel this way, and with his scores for Amazing Spider-Man 2 and Man of Steel, I thought he actually was evolving and proving that he could do more than just BWAA…BWAAAAA….BWAAAAAAAA. But nope. Even more unforgivable is his theme for Luthor in this film. Not since the silent film era have I heard such a blatantly Snidely Whiplash, mustache-twirling theme. We KNOW Lex is the bad guy…we don’t need music that tells us “Boo! Hiss!”. Nuanced and sinister to reflect the character? Certainly! Painting him as a one-dimensional black hat musically? Not so much. Another was Wonder Woman’s theme…having wailing guitars going WHA WHA WAWA WHAAAAA WHAAAAA announcing her every appearance. This is a figure from Greek mythology here…I’m guessing they weren’t big into the electric guitar back then…and it would have been SOOOO much better had her music reflected that. I pray that whoever Patty Jenkins chooses to do the music for the solo Wonder Woman film can appreciate that…and isn’t named Hans fucking Zimmer. The other flaw…well, I’ve said already that this is a dense film…but from what I’m seeing in the reviews, I’m wondering if it’s so dense as to be impenetrable to those that aren’t DC mega-nerds like me. There are a lot of easter eggs in this film…and while I certainly appreciated them, I’m wondering if they’re vital to understanding the film…as they are used as kind of a shorthand to do some of the heavy lifting this film needs. I can’t help but wonder if this is responsible for many of the negative reviews among the general public. Sure, there are still negative reviews coming from the nerd sector too…but I’ll be honest, I couldn’t tell you what bug is up their collective (likely overly large and pasty) ass this time. Then again, I don’t think I’ve been part of the club since there was the vote for pro wrestling being included under the nerd purview.
David and Leslie Newman, when explaining why they took the assignment of screenwriting the original Superman franchise, offered the following: “Superman is our King Arthur…he’s our legend. He’s our pulling the sword from the rock.” While they may have completely failed in making that sentiment come to life, Zack Snyder, Chris Terrio and company have certainly succeeded. This, quite frankly, is Le Morte d’Superman (and if you got the Excalibur reference, you know I’m not kidding!). This is superhero storytelling lifted to the level that we’ve all referenced…but never seen made good on until now. To borrow what Arthur C. Clarke said regarding Dune, “I know nothing comparable except The Lord of the Rings”. Funny how he was talking about the books, wherein thanks to Peter Jackson, I can do the same for film. Man of Steel and now Batman V Superman tackle the first two-thirds of an operatic cycle…Birth and Death. With Justice League on its way, we’re certain to get Rebirth. Do not let the density of this film discourage you. Because it’s so dense and because there’s so many moving parts, multiple viewings are almost a necessity. I watched the movie 3 times in 4 days prior to posting this review…each time coming away with something new and a better understanding of the film. Lastly, I’ll use something Christopher Nolan said about Watchmen to battle against all the negative reviews that are coming out for this film. Nolan had said to Snyder that he’d made Watchmen “too soon”. My understanding of this quote would be that he, Snyder, was ahead of his time, deconstructing the cinematic concept of the superhero before it had been constructed in the first place. Here, once again, Snyder is ahead of the times…not treating superheroes as the throwaway popcorn entertainment that reviewers comfortably consider them as, but as the living breathing legends and mythology that they are and will be viewed as by future generations. Superman is our King Arthur, Batman his Dark Knight and Wonder Woman…well, okay, there’s no direct Arthurian parallel for her…instead, let us say she brings the Greek, be it just the drama or the tragedy at play within the film. Regardless, this is something we’ve never seen before, and, if we let the Negative Nancies have their way, something we’ll never see again. And that would be a damn shame…because just as drama has survived and thrived from those halcyon days of the Greek amphitheater, Snyder’s Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice shows that superhero films can be more than we ever thought possible…and goddamn if I’m not excited about that.
[Editor’s note: Sure, we’ve seen the movie 3 times now, but we’ll probably wait to go on full “In Defense of…” mode until the home video release. This way, we can see if the added 30 minutes hushes the fanboy bitching, but also because by then, all the common bitches should be available in easily accessed lists…which we can attack ala our Man of Steel review. Now, seriously, stop reading and go see the movie…naysayers be damned!]