No one that I know personally was looking forward to Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice more than me. I adored Man of Steel; I was excited about Ben Affleck as Batman; I loved the concept of Batman and Superman facing off in The Dark Knight Returns-style and for a mutual respect and trust to have to gradually grow between the two; I was enthralled at the addition of Wonder Woman and what she could do to expand the mythos; and I believed the combination of Zack Snyder directing and Chris Terrio (Argo) writing would mean that we would get a story that was both smart and visually dazzling. This movie was set to be epic and captivating, a new high water mark for this entire genre.
There was no way this could go wrong…
You live and learn, I guess. It pains me to write this–I feel my gut wrenching as the words appear on screen–but Batman v Superman just doesn’t work. Not only in the sense that it doesn’t live up to our lofty expectations for comic book movies; I mean as a stand-alone piece of story telling, this movie fails to function.
The core problem is that Batman v Superman is packed with way too much story and has absolutely no sense of pacing. If you go to see this movie, you will be amazed at how abruptly it jumps around between various plot points. The movie shifts us between Bruce Wayne’s investigation into Superman, Clark Kent’s investigation of Batman, Lois Lane’s investigation of Lex Luthor, Lex Luthor’s ridiculous plan to kill Superman, the government’s distrust of Superman, and a bunch of allusions to the future Justice League movie at near random. I don’t think that there are two back-to-back scenes carrying a single thread in this entire movie; and there is absolutely no breathing room to reflect on any of what is going on.
There is easily two films-worth of material here that is being shoved into a single installment, and every bit of the story suffers as a result. New characters–particularly Jesse Eisenberg’s Lex Luthor–aren’t developed nearly well enough to justify their motivations; whole scenes that should have incredible weight are just sort of forgotten about after they occur as the movie proceeds to something else; and in an attempt to setup for next year’s Justice League, the movie delivers us the most forced introductions possible to the other members of this future team. It is clunky to say the least. Worst of all, the kind of ideological differences between Batman and Superman that this movie should have thrived on are instead glossed over; indeed, the entire conflict between these two characters that gives the film its title seems little more than just one of many plot points in this movie, and it’s resolved in such ridiculously quick fashion as to undermine the whole purpose of having a movie based on it. And while I am talking about conflict, the fight scenes in this movie aren’t nearly as good as the ones from Man of Steel. Say what you will about the implications of collateral damage in that movie, but it certainly had some of the best fight scenes in a film, period. The ones here feel pretty muted by comparison.
The most frustrating thing is that there is a version of this story that works. This isn’t like last year’s Fantastic Four reboot, whose plot was lazy and uninspired. No, there is a brilliant film buried in here, you can see it if you take a mental log of what happens. The basic beats here play out okay and make for a compelling narrative, it just isn’t executed that well; it’s given no chance to unfold at an acceptable clip. This movie either needed to be significantly longer or be split into two parts (ironically, this idea was the subject of a scoffed-at Internet hoax some months ago). Trying to fit this much material into one mid-length film does everything a disservice. Prior to seeing it, I was optimistic that all of this could fit into one movie; now I am convinced that this should have only been about Batman and Superman. Nothing else.
As I write this, I can’t help but wonder who to place the blame on. By that I mean who decided to shove this much content into one movie. It would be tempting to go with Zack Snyder*, but he didn’t develop the script and so probably wasn’t the one trying to put all of these elements in. I also don’t think Chris Terrio or David Goyer, the writers, can really be blamed–as they both have demonstrated a better sense of plot and pacing elsewhere. No, I think I have to lay the blame at the Studio. The more I think about it, the more I envision a situation of Warner Bros. repeatedly sending out mandates to include more things into the script. “No, not just Batman and Superman. Stick Wonder Woman in there too! How about Doomsday? How about introduce the rest of the Justice League while you’re at it? Oh and make sure it’s only 2 1/2 hours.” I am convinced they showed no real restraint in tacking things on and forcing things into this movie; and no one, it seemed, stopped to consider whether or not this was actually going to make an enjoyable film. Or even a functional one.
I had every hope in the world that this movie was going to prove all of the nay sayers–those sardonic armchair quarterbacks who knocked Man of Steel and everything about its approach to the material– wrong, but that hope was misplaced. This movie doesn’t work. It was not allowed to work.
Now I find myself in a bizarre situation: I didn’t like this movie, and I worry that if it’s a success, those who made it will interpret their approach as a sound one, and they’ll repeat it with Justice League, which will suffer as a result. On the other hand, I still love all things DC, and if Batman v Superman is not a success, then Lord only knows how long we will have to wait for another team up of classic DC characters. I guess I’m forced to choose the lesser of two evils and hope that this movie crosses the billion dollar mark at the box office, or whatever gross it needs to keep the rest of Warner’s DC slate on track; and I will just have to hope that they do better next time.
So, now that I’ve sold out, what should I say to try to convince you to see this movie and hopefully contribute a few dollars it’s way? You would at least get to see Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman together on screen. Ben Affleck isn’t bad as Batman. Jesse Eisenberg is…interesting as Lex Luthor, and the film is at least never boring. Sure, it’s disjointed and all over the place, but never boring. And since I likely won’t get another opportunity to use it, here’s this Roger Ebert quote:
“I cannot recommend the movie, but … why the hell can’t I? Just because it’s godawful? What kind of reason is that for staying away from a movie? Godawful and boring, that would be a reason.”
So there’s my *recommendation* of this movie to you.
*That being said, while the main issue here is the lopsided narrative-to-run-time ratio; I sort of think that Zack Snyder’s comic book sensibilities do additional disservice. The choppiness of some of the scenes reminds me of how some comic books flow: they show a few panels and then jump to something else. That works when you are reading at your own leisure and can pause and go back to previous panels at your own discretion, but it doesn’t work while watching a film in real time.