Plot details discussed, major spoilers mostly avoided. Your call, but don’t yell at me.
I was never going to like Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice. This was a given, and has been for some time. What I didn’t expect was that I’d leave the theater feeling vaguely bad for Zack Snyder.
I realize this is a strange reaction. Snyder is a very successful film director, and Dawn of Justice has already made a great deal of money. (Even so, whether or not it has met its lofty financial expectations is still up for debate.) In addition, I have never particularly been a fan of Snyder’s. Sucker Punch was one of the most unpleasant theatrical experiences of my life. (Though I’d later watch the director’s cut and slightly adjust my judgment from “abomination” to “bad,” which ain’t nothing.) Watchmen and Man of Steel were often flashy but similarly suffered from his need to crank up the volume first and ask questions later. 300 was fine. Ultimately, he’s going to come out of this all right.
But whatever you think of Snyder, at least he has a voice, as deafening and silly as it can be. He is incapable of making anything but “un film de Zack Snyder,” and forcing him to attempt anything different is a fool’s errand. Luckily enough, here comes one such fool’s errand in the form of Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice. So much of this film’s lengthy running time is spent gathering the ingredients for the forthcoming DC Comics cinematic universe, and if there’s one thing Snyder has never been particularly good with, it’s “plot.” Scene after scene is spent pelting the audience with information, and it’s done in the most joyless, unimaginative way possible. At one point, a character literally sits down at a computer to watch video files that amount to little more than teaser trailers for future DC movie releases.
None of this is unfamiliar to audiences who have spent the last eight years watching Marvel movies, and that’s also part of the problem. DC is attempting to brand itself as the alternative to Marvel’s homogenous, Disneyfied aesthetic, but if Dawn of Justice is any indication, the only idea they truly have to change things up is to lean into every “dark and gritty” cliché imaginable. When it comes to setting up its expanded universe, it utilizes the same easter eggs and interminable dream sequences as Marvel, but attempts these feats with a straight face. This movie feels like a guest arriving eight years late to a party, and they’d rather skip the small talk and instead have a deep discussion about ISIS.
This darkness also is a fundamental miscalculation of the audience for many superhero movies these days. I saw Dawn of Justice at 1 p.m. in a theater with about 10-15 children and their respective parents. Here are some examples of scenes that occur fairly early on in this movie:
- Bruce Wayne’s parents are shot dead on the street. (Did you know that’s why he became sad, and thus Batman? People forget that.)
- We return to the carnage at the climax of Man of Steel, featuring 9/11-esque clouds of debris, a man with his legs trapped under a steel beam, and a little girl discovering her parents are dead.
- A violent shootout at a terrorist camp in Africa, including a man being shot in the face point blank, but there’s no visible blood so it’s apparently fine.
- Batman captures a human trafficker and brands him with the bat symbol.
This fixation on brutality suggests that the makers of Dawn of Justice likely watched and enjoyed Christopher Nolan’s Batman films, but did not truly engage with them or understand what made them work. Snyder is the least of this movie’s problems; if the studio did not want it to be this dark or violent, it wouldn’t be. (There also wouldn’t be a rumored R-rated cut coming out later, which, ugh.) But ultimately, these are superhero movies, and the people drawn to these types of characters are going to be younger, as they were in my screening. Even adult fans of these characters can’t be too excited to watch them mow down baddies with abandon and wallow in their personal misery.
It’s worth noting that, despite their unusually serious tone, Nolan’s Batman movies were actually quite fun in their own way. Even The Dark Knight Rises, which is in many ways a very silly thing, mostly got away with it because it actually makes some attempt to meet the audience halfway. For one, Nolan’s movies are made with actual craft, and across his trilogy he created a fully realized world where Batman actually did seem to stand for something good in the face of evil. In the middle of The Dark Knight, Batman badly injures himself to avoid running the Joker over. In Dawn of Justice, he’d run the Joker over, shrug it off, and go moping in his impeccably-designed cave. Nolan’s interpretation of Batman represented an escape route from the darkness; Snyder’s film is incapable of breaking away from its single, monotonous, violent tone.
Of course, that doesn’t stop the movie from trying to have it both ways, since you could count on two hands the number of times it attempts to apologize for the civilian death toll at the end of Man of Steel. The early sequence in which Bruce Wayne ventures into the carnage is actually a good one, and it nicely sets up the “conflict” that develops between our two signature heroes. Then, once the final fight sequence begins, the audience is constantly reassured that the battle will have no impact on civilian life. That island they’re on? Uninhabited! Those office buildings they’re crashing through? It’s night, so they’re pretty much empty! That nuke we’re about to set off in the sky? It won’t affect anyone on the ground! It’s rare for a movie to simultaneously have so much and so little regard for human life.
The constant tonal problems are only exacerbated by a plot that never makes a lick of sense. Dawn of Justice amounts to little more than a parade of thin characters doing who-knows-what for who-knows-why, so of course it all ends with our heroes fighting an impossibly boring, slimy CGI monster the producers picked up from the Lord of the Rings lost and found bin. (The monster’s name is Doomsday, which means nothing if you aren’t already familiar with the universe.) Until that point, the main antagonist of the piece is Jesse Eisenberg’s Lex Luthor, who is portrayed as a Silicon Valley tech-bro gone too far. His motivations are extraordinarily unclear, and it doesn’t help that his nonsense is thrown in with another subplot involving a Congressional investigation into Superman that is picked up and dropped at the movie’s convenience.
It’s all nonsense, but that doesn’t stop the actors from performing it all with impressive conviction. Eisenberg’s performance is the only one that doesn’t quite feel at home, though perhaps that’s because he’s the only element in the movie attempting to actively jump off the screen. Ben Affleck and Henry Cavill are both good, and they often hint at what better versions of their characters could be. (If you need proof as to how great Cavill would be as a “fun” Superman—weird, I know—check out his great performance in the otherwise blah The Man From U.N.C.L.E.) Amy Adams’ Lois Lane is good enough at running around and looking concerned. For the most part, though, the entire ensemble as asked to maintain a single, somber facial expression while slowly reciting very. serious. dialogue.
This was bound to be a mess no matter who directed it, and Zack Snyder’s penchant for unchecked mayhem ultimately only makes things worse. He has all the tools to make a fun, striking movie, but in all likelihood it won’t have anything to do with this D.C. nonsense he was tasked with creating. As of now, he is scheduled to direct two Justice League films, which seems like it could be a mistake for everybody involved. Despite the financial success of Dawn of Justice, the overall reaction suggests audiences might not be onboard for a long-term investment with Snyder’s take on this universe.
All is not necessarily lost here, though. Next summer sees the release of Wonder Woman, and based on Gal Gadot’s few appearances in Dawn of Justice (which also don’t make sense, but whatever) there’s potential there for D.C. and director Patty Jenkins to provide audiences with something slightly different. This August’s Suicide Squad is interesting mostly because of the cast, though the recent news that there would be reshoots to add some more jokes is… interesting. (Could be a good thing! Or too little too late.) If you want to take the negative route, though, it could be possible that audiences only have room for one cinematic comic book universe in their lives. It’s too early to rush to conclusions, but Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice isn’t exactly the most promising foundation on which to build a megafranchise.
P.S. – Did I mention that this movie is about 15 percent Batman dream sequences? I forgot that, didn’t I? Ah well. It is bad.