As we could have expected, Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice has suffered a polarizing release. Instead of celebrating the long awaited live action crossover between the two most prolific superheroes of all time, we are forced to evaluate whether or not the film is even watchable. That’s not a debate we should be having, but here we go. Generally speaking, you have the 20% of fans that just like to hop on the bandwagon and bash things to go with the crowd. Then, you have the 20% that feels the need to go against the masses and play contrarian. The immature DC haters are cancelled out by the stubborn DC apologists, and what the modern Internet generally leaves us with is the 60% of honest opinions that remain. Some cynics would have that closer to a 40-40-20 breakdown, but you get my point. I’ve been lucky enough to hear smart, passionate people from both sides. Either way, the “DCU” or “DCEU” is off to a very rocky start, giving us two heavily criticized movies. Their Rotten Tomatoes ratings, combined, cannot surpass any of the three Dark Knight trilogy films. Is Rotten Tomatoes the divine authority on the quality of our films? Absolutely not. Some of the more social media present fans have reminded us of this many times over the course of the past week. But the site does keep a trusty finger on the pulse of the general public, and is something to be taken into serious consideration when judging a franchise’s overall success. I’m certain many of the Tomato-haters cited them in 2008 when Nolan’s genius made superhero history. Your personal opinion, on the other hand, is entirely your own, and I can proudly say I entered Batman vs. Superman with an open mind.
As always, let’s start with the positives. Harsh critics may deny it, but there are several. For one thing, the trio of heroes all step up and deliver. Henry Cavill may not have had enough to work with in terms of how Superman was handled, but I still fully believe he is the only guy meant to play this role right now. Ben Affleck absolutely wowed me, capturing the anger, paranoia and ruggedness that I always felt was missing from the many live action Batman portrayals that came before him. Is he my favorite Batman? I think with a better script, he certainly could be. He’s certainly the last one I’d want to be running away from. Last but certainly not least, Gal Gadot really impressed me in her limited time as Wonder Woman. I’ve always felt the Amazonian demigod was the Justice League’s most valuable member. Now, there’s finally something other than a comic or cartoon that can back me up. They even undersold her cool entrance from the trailer. She blocks the Doomsday blast with her gauntlets, not her shield. Then she proceeds to school the Kryptonian Frankenstein with her remaining weaponry. Let’s face it, she did about one thousand percent of the dirty work against that glorified punching bag while Batman was busy hiding and Superman was busy cuddling. I can’t in good faith say Jeremy Irons is the best Alfred, but he’s an excellent choice and his rougher demeanor fits perfectly into Zack Snyder’s bleak universe. My upcoming avalanche of problems with Lois Lane has nothing to do with the great and talented Amy Adams. With one historically cringe worthy exception, this cast actually did a great job despite so many doubts heading into the film’s release.
Let’s dive into the negatives with the occasional silver lining because, whether or not you agree with it, the criticism of this movie is often justified. I’m actually struggling to give my review any narrative structure because of how many issues there are to address at once here. To start by yanking at the longest thread, Dawn of Justice is a storytelling disaster. If you’re going to overcrowd a movie with plotlines, you better be ready to transition seamlessly from one to the other. This movie, at times, plays as if you asked Transformers writers to write a Game of Thrones episode. You don’t have to be those HBO geniuses to make this story cohesive. Just take a few layers off the top, leaving only the foundation of what you actually need on screen. That way, you can dedicate more time to explain some character motivations, or you just make the movie shorter than what ended up being a sloppy marathon. You really don’t need Lois’ hour-long bullet investigation to tell the audience that Lex Luthor is behind it all. That time could’ve gone into better demonstrating why Bruce Wayne can’t figure out that what happened to Metropolis is mostly Zod’s fault. Superman isn’t the Hulk. You can give him believable problems other than “people misunderstand him.” There’s plenty of substance to be written between the simple but classic concept of two heroes with conflicting ideologies going head to head.
Only their ideologies can be tough to read, because the characters are poorly developed. So you rely on your fans’ previous knowledge of the characters and their stories. That works just fine for me and (I imagine) anyone reading this, but you need to be considerate to every level of fan. From the die-hard young man who deserves your best filmmaking effort, to his girlfriend who he dragged to see this and is just trying to have a good time, everyone should enjoy this movie without feeling completely lost. Batman vs. Superman is like a class that demands summer reading before you even go back to school. Luckily, the reading is awesome, but not for everyone. And to be honest, even my nerd brain was spinning as I watched Superman moping around and Batman absurdly slaughtering people. I can’t wait to hear his logic for not killing The Joker after he’s so willing to blow common thugs to pieces. These aren’t the Justice Leaguers I’ve followed for a decade and change. Before you assault me with examples of how loyal this movie was to the comics, I get it. The recreated, almost frame for frame Dark Knight Returns “I believe you” scene was awesome. But the nature of both lead characters were dumbed down and made simpler to perpetuate the sheer misery that this universe seems to be striving for. These guys are more complicated than Mad vs. Sad: Dawn of Unpleasantness. And when you do go for humor, you can do better than “I thought she was with you.” Alfred brought some legitimate cleverness to the table, as his character should, but these heroes need more personality. Let’s at least see shades of the Boy Scout and the tortured soul, and how these two would naturally come to blows.
I specify “naturally” there, because their fight was anything but natural. In fact, the reason behind this tremendously anticipated showdown ruins the title itself. Martha Kent should not be the person that both starts and ends this fight. In fact, she should have nothing to do with it. I remember thinking it was cute that they threw her a scene earlier in the movie. My warmth soon turned to horror as I realized mama Superman became the central plot device of the most prestigious superhero showdown in cinematic history. Ask any fan, and you’ll get a catalyst better than “Lex took my mom.” The idea that Superman is essentially blackmailed into fighting Batman, after waiting for years to watch this fight, feels a bit like we were robbed. Let’s talk about the fight itself. The first half was awesome. Again, reminiscent of the source material. The sonic traps into the turrets and eventual Kryptonite weaponry is exactly the type of gauntlet you want to see Bats put the Man of Steel through. Everything after Supes gets blasted with the Kryptonite grenade, with one very cool exception, is bland. It seems to be that through two movies, Zack Snyder’s only attack for Superman to use is throwing his opponent through a wall. I know he’s not the most intricately trained character ever, but we can be more creative than this. Combine his wide array of powers, one to the next, and give us some real fisticuffs, so it looks a little less like Optimus Prime fighting Megatron. The exception? Superman letting Bats hit him in the face while the Kryptonite wears off is probably my favorite moment in the entire movie. The Kryptonite spear was a nice touch, too.
Speaking of the cool Kryptonite spear, let’s talk about its legendary wielder. No, not the Batman; the invincible Lois Lane. Think my Lois bashing got in the way of my central points? Now you know how I feel about this movie. Lois Lanes’ bloated importance in this movie provides a constant distraction that chipped away at the pieces of my heart that weren’t still weeping over all things Lex Luthor. As mentioned earlier, her entire subplot was completely pointless. Don’t worry; if Civil War dedicates a quarter of the movie to Pepper investigating Hydra, I’ll be similarly disappointed. Lois’ scampering around the battlefield amidst the most dangerous beings alive blowing everything up was oddly reminiscent of Gwen Stacey’s battlefield presence during The Amazing Spider-Man 2’s final act. Sadly, that’s not where the similarities between these two end. But that’s a discussion for another paragraph. Lois takes an all-powerful (in Earthbound Kryptonian warfare, anyway) weapon and throws it away. Then, she nearly drowns trying to retrieve it, forcing Superman to abandon the team for way longer than he had to. Let’s not pick on her decisions anymore. Let’s dissect why she’s even there in the first place. She hovers around the three heroes once the battle’s over, clearly not belonging there. It’s like when your friend brings his younger sibling to a hangout. You like the kid and everything, but the whole group dynamic is off. If those four are the Beatles, Lois is George. What is Zack Snyder’s love affair with Lois Lane? First, Zod inexplicably wants her on his ship in Man of Steel. Then, she’s an integral piece of the Dawn of Justice finale after already hogging up way too many of the earlier minutes. And Barry Allen comes out of left field to tell us she’s the key to everything? I get it; if she’s killed Superman loses it. But in conjunction with everything else I just referenced, that is an absurd degree of importance to place on a character who is neither a villain nor in the Justice League. Phrase Flash’s warning differently. Say Superman’s dangerous, leave it at saying Bats is right about him. That way it fuels Bruce’s motivation against his rival, while refocusing the story on what really matters. Instead, the fate of the universe lies with two Mrs. Kent’s.
No movie genre exhausts the term shoehorn quite like comic book movies, and no comic book movie shoehorned stuff in quite like this one. From the moment Dawn of Justice was added to the title, we knew this movie was going to rush their own timeline forward, skipping the individual setup projects that would more naturally build to an ensemble adventure. We were forced to accept that, and could only hope they managed to do it well. First, there was the hallucination/dream sequence that was just as disjointed as the rest of the film. At least dreams are supposed to be a little all over the place, but someone please explain to me why Bruce Wayne has the psychic ability to have this bizarre vision. A dream is one thing, but we know that it’s a direct look into the future if the Justice League is unable to stop whatever terrible thing leads to a half Darkseid, half Injustice apocalyptic future. Even The Flash’s appearance was a part of the dream, which also doesn’t make any sense. Why not actually have Barry appear for a moment to warn Bruce, then disappear? Unless you’re telling me that was real, then Bruce passed out, only to wake up again? No matter how you slice it, it’s poorly done.
The Darkseid foreshadowing in general was incredibly heavy handed. He’s an awesome character, as well as a more fearsome villain-of-all-villains than Thanos from the Marvel side if you ask me. But we shouldn’t be hearing or seeing or even thinking a single thing about him in the second movie. At this rate, who is the Justice League going to fight in their “Phase 2” equivalent? Sinestro Corps? Brainiac? Cool as they are, they’re what you use to build up to Darkseid, not the other way around. Phase 2 is way too early to send in the B-team. If you absolutely must reference the big guy, longtime fans still would’ve understood more subtle references. Non-fans still have no idea what’s going on. So what’s the point of abandoning subtlety just to beat us over the head with Darkseid in a movie that already made the premature move to introduce Doomsday? Why have Lex acquire all the otherworldly knowledge there is to acquire through the magic of plot conveniences and completely swing his already unclear motivations in the direction of an omega villain that should have nothing to do with him? It’s bad enough that he seems to have nothing to gain from his part in this story. Now you’ve made him obsess over devils and look more like a cult member than a megalomaniacal genius. Jesse Eisenberg didn’t need any help ruining that character, but Zack Snyder and company lent a hand anyway. (Massive spoiler incoming through the remainder of this paragraph, in case you somehow haven’t seen this movie yet and would like to skip forward) I had hoped Doomsday would be temporarily defeated, only to return and carry out the Death of Superman arc much later. That is a card you get to play once, only once, in your DC universe. And they blew it now, with absolutely zero built up love for the character and between the team itself. The team isn’t even formed yet. For the record, if Cap doesn’t die in Civil War, I’ll be equally disappointed. That’s because this is the time to play that card, after all this buildup. It would devastate fans, whereas Superman’s fake death carries absolutely zero weight. Kill him in Justice League Part 1 at the earliest after building relationships, resurrect in 2 to defeat Doomsday alongside the full team. Then take us through another phase of great DC movies, then fight Darkseid in the Justice League’s second full adventure almost a decade from now. This really isn’t the hardest timeline and pacing to draw up. I’m doing it half-asleep on a train. Oh and in case you were excited about a less lame Doomsday final form, that trailer shot was in fact his final form.
Why just shoehorn villains when you can force heroes in our face too? Again, if you absolutely must squeeze other Justice Leaguers into this movie, I’m sure there are clever ways to do it. But Batman sending Wonder Woman a damn PowerPoint presentation isn’t one of them. It looked as if there was an email attachment going around between the executive producers featuring test footage for future movies and Snyder just said “you know what, let’s just use that” the night before the movie came out. I would’ve loved to see that Flash clip go viral and have Warner Brothers intentionally leak it a year from now. Or maybe include an extended version of that Cyborg clip as an extra on the Dawn of Justice Blu-ray. But using that series of unnecessary winks and nods towards the audience mid-movie not only breaks any synergy the story might’ve had at the time; it also ruins potential goodies that could’ve been used more effectively in the future. We get it, you can’t do post-credit scenes. I think DC should’ve taken a few more notes from Marvel’s connected universe and even I admit that’d be too cheeky. So instead challenge yourself to do something even they haven’t thought up yet. Start a viral miniseries that previews future JLA members, telling small tales of their heroic deeds. Side note, what were they thinking with that Aquaman clip? Jason Momoa actually looked uncomfortable…in water. If there’s one item on the playing Aquaman résumé, it’s “look comfortable in water.” I actually am fully behind that casting choice, but give the guy a fighting chance if you’re going to wedge him into this movie. It looked like one of those weirdly themed America’s Next Top Model shoots. The point is, Marvel didn’t think of everything. There’s plenty of grey area between copying them and just vomiting your characters onto the screen.
Let’s dedicate a very small segment of this to Jesse Eisenberg. We knew he was a bad idea, with the exception of those who just like to disagree, and then he was bad. If you ask me, he’s a talented actor who delivered exactly what you deserve when you cast Jesse Eisenberg as Lex Luthor. Was he bad? Monumentally. In hindsight, I actually could’ve lived with two hours of quirky quips like the handshake joke from the trailer. It wasn’t Lex, but it at least made me laugh. Instead, we get a series of weird artistic decisions like portraying a Lex Luthor who can’t even deliver a speech from start to finish without suffering a nervous breakdown. If there’s one DC character I’d want delivering my speeches, it’s Lex Luthor! Anyway, the casting shot callers got exactly what they deserved. Considering I really did like the rest of the cast there’s nowhere to place too much blame other than director and somehow DCEU godfather Zack Snyder. I’m not sure why DC gave him the keys to the car after he made an ok movie with bad reviews so that he could make an ok movie with terrible reviews. His vision is completely style over substance, taking chunks away from character development time so he can blow stuff up. Most of the DC faithful that I’ve had the opportunity to hear or read have admirably and fiercely defended both him and the movie as a whole. They’ve made some good points too, when they’re not just saying, “critics don’t matter.” There are many positives to focus on and maybe build off of for a future movie that really hits a home run. But given the fact that this film so aggressively refused to learn from Man of Steel, I honestly don’t see some sort of epiphany from the leadership that would deliver us that dream DC project we’ve all been waiting for.
In many ways, this was a truer comic book adventure than any DC movie we’ve ever seen. They’re finally not afraid to take chances. But at the end of the day, it just does not effectively tell a story. I watched The Dark Knight days after BvS to gain some perspective that would either nudge me one way or the other in terms of this new film’s legacy. The fact is, that movie (as well as Begins, really) knows exactly the story they want to tell and how to do it. They’re amazing in almost every way. How was the more serious Batman movie also the funnier one? You’ll say, Dawn of Justice isn’t competing with those movies and the two universes are completely different. I agree, and I actually felt the excessively grounded Nolan-verse was the only thing holding it back. Snyder’s universe has a distinct edge in terms of the subject matter they’re willing to cover and the boundaries they’re willing to push. Batman vs. Superman doesn’t try to be above comic book movies; it instead tries to say that comic book movies are already right up there with any other genre in terms of critical potential. But before you can tell every DC story ever told, you have to tell one. One story, beginning to end, that makes people want to see another. Nothing makes people want to see a second movie more than a good first movie. You can abandon all teasers, Easter Eggs and elaborate production schedules if you can just produce a film that makes fans want to come back for more. Then, once you have a handle on that, go ahead and throw in some hidden gems for the more astute fans to notice once they watch it a second or third time. Throw in the Joker card at the end of Batman Begins, because you’ve earned it.
The Garfield Spider-verse died trying to make three movies before it made one. DC will not suffer the same fate, simply because of the boatloads of money they’ll be making and the superior fan support. But they still owe us, as passionate and at times unreasonable fans, their absolute best filmmaking effort. To be clear, I won’t say this is a terrible movie. That’d be 21st century sensationalism. Realistically, it’s a mediocre movie that should on-and-off entertain the average viewer and infuriate DC fans to their very core. As a huge fan, I’m shocked most of the aggressive support has come from other huge fans. Are you guys not dissatisfied at all? Just across this superhero street, the company of which I’m also a huge fan is absolutely crushing this connected universe game. Is every movie great? Not at all, but the universe as a whole is thriving. And here we are struggling to even get our act together. They have a talking raccoon, in an awesome movie, and I still have to defend Henry Cavill being Superman. Of course, this DC franchise isn’t dead. Not even close, and those laughing at that possibility can hold their breath. But I’m right to demand more from adaptations of this fantastic source material. As far as Batman vs. Superman is concerned, I had hoped for much more than what we received.