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I am three viewings of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice in at this point. That fact, in-and-of-itself, should convey something about how I have reacted to the movie.
I tried to go into “media blackout” before seeing the film but it was hard to avoid the avalanche of negativity that greeted the movie’s premiere last week and I went into my first viewing knowing the movie had scored a shocking 33% on Rotten Tomatoes (that rating has dropped to 29% at this point). So, as I watched the movie unfold, I tried to ask myself (and The Cinnamon Girl and Sous Chef who saw the movie with me) “is this movie as terrible as I’ve heard and I so badly want it to be good that I am blind to its faults?” As the movie ended and realized I had really liked it, I asked the same question. Then I asked a harder one: I asked the Phantom Menace / Green Lantern question.
After seeing both of those movies, I convinced myself they were good and that anyone who said otherwise was wrong. However, in both cases, that paper lion of an argument fell apart on repeat viewings. Rapidly.
In this case, I tried to remain as objective as possible about Batman v Superman on my second and third viewings.
I am not an idiot. I know that I am not particularly objective about the source material. Batman is one of my favorite literary characters of all time. And, while I love the Marvel movies, I have been a DC guy since my first comic book purchases. I know that I want this movie to be good. I know I want it to spawn a massive cinematic world so I can see more DC heroes on the big screen. I want it to work.
And, in my opinion – objective or not – Batman v Superman works far more often than it doesn’t.
Ben Affleck works. Overtime. Of the many complaints I heard during the production of the movie, concerns over Ben Affleck’s casting as Bruce Wayne/Batman were loudly voiced. Many of these concerns seemed to be fallout from Affleck’s less than spectacular turn (over a decade ago) in the title role of Daredevil, a movie that is, perhaps, best left in the past. Other objections seemed simply to be about Affleck himself and, no doubt, he is a polarizing figure. Perhaps that’s what makes him the perfect choice for this movie. As a Batman who has been fighting the war (and losing more than a few of the battles) against crime in Gotham City for two decades, his Bruce Wayne is hardened and grim. “How many good guys are left” in Gotham City he asks Alfred (Jeremy Irons in a fine performance), “how many stayed that way?” Affleck’s Batman has lost his parents, lost a protege in his fight and, as the movie begins, loses his control over his world. This is a key point in Affleck’s portrayal – the loss of control. The revelation of “the Superman” and the destruction Superman’s battle with General Zod causes shows Batman he no longer controls his world – the decimation of the Wayne Financial Building represents what has happened to Batman’s faith in good in the world. Affleck, with graying temples and a set jaw (what a jaw he has!) handles all of this very, very well. His Batman is tired and morally compromised. His Batman is willing to do almost anything to win. His Batman turns his back on Alfred, on his principles and on goodness itself. His Batman is dark. And Affleck delivers the darkness. He is terrific as Bruce Wayne, terrific as Batman and terrific in the movie.
Gal Gadot works. Her Wonder Woman is a very welcome addition to the DC Comics Cinematic Universe. Gadot is engaging and, dare I say it in the context of this movie, fun even before she dons her iconic costume. As Diana Prince, she is more than a match for Affleck’s Bruce Wayne and she is great in the two scenes they share prior to her big reveal during the film’s climatic fight. Though I don’t know why, I was surprised at how much I enjoyed her portrayal and I am very much looking forward to the Wonder Woman movie that comes out next year.
Henry Cavill works. You can say what you want about the writing and directorial choices as they impact this version of the Man of Steel, but I really like Henry Cavill in this role. Certainly, he looks the part, but his performance isn’t just about that. This is a Superman who is struggling to find his place in the world and Cavill plays that marvelously. I loved his Clark Kent, especially in his interactions with Laurence Fishburne’s Perry White. I loved his devotion to Amy Adams’ Lois Lane and the implications that devotion had. I loved his heroic ascendance at the end of the movie. Cavill, though he plays something of a second banana to Affleck’s Batman in this movie, is a great Superman.
The motivation for the big “versus” works. The set up and payoff for the Batman versus Superman battle doesn’t suffer from a convolution of plot. One may argue that they don’t like the characters’ motivations or that they believe the characters should have acted differently, but their motivations in their battle are clear. Batman fears Superman will destroy the world – he’s seen evidence of this already and lived the consequences. Superman’s very presence in the world challenges Batman’s ability to control the world to “force the world to make sense” and he cannot have that. Superman’s motivation in flying to Gotham to confront Batman is equally well drawn and valid, though you’ll have to see the film to see if you agree. Why they fight makes sense and, frankly, I think why they stopped fighting makes sense, too.
What doesn’t work?
Though overall I thought it worked fairly well, the plot and pacing of the film has parts that don’t work as well as they could have. One clear example of this is a result of the film’s reluctance to be a clone of the Marvel movie’s post credit sequences. Instead of teasing future developments following the conclusion of the movie, Batman v Superman front loads these kinds of things into the narrative of the film itself which results in a number of dream sequences and one computer oriented reveal that, while they work as individual elements, feel a bit shoehorned into the overall proceedings of the movie. I won’t say much more here as I don’t wish to spoil the movie, but I will say that the movie is trying to accomplish so much “world building” that the plot sometimes suffers for that effort. The movie also features a significant set of characters, both major and minor. Finding something for each of them to do becomes a challenge. And the audience is asked to give some significant benefit of the doubt to leaps of logic and to insights some of the characters have to justify the actions they take, specifically in the climax of the movie. Lois Lane, Lex Luthor and the US government all suffer from this problem late in the movie.
The theme of the real world implications of Superman’s actions juxtaposed with what I would call comic book-y occurrences (Doomsday’s creation anyone) is a bit jarring. It’s very interesting to me that the movie (much like Man of Steel) seems to want to take on the idea of what would happen in the “real world” if Superman existed. I find that a fascinating concept. The problem this idea runs into is that the “real world” doesn’t feature Amazons and aliens and dark night vigilantes. The movie wants to be grounded and wants to be a comic book simultaneously. That’s a tough sell and it isn’t always easy to buy it in Batman v Superman.
And there are the divisive elements. These are pieces of the movie that seem to have really split audiences.
I loved Jesse Eisenberg as Lex Luthor. Many people hated him in the role. No matter which side of this debate you find yourself, it would be difficult to argue that the actor didn’t give his all to his portrayal. Eisenberg was “all in” as Luthor and I thought he was great. I had fun watching his manic, scheming, brilliant, troubled Lex and, as I understand the character as he is set up in this movie, his plots and plans have been unfolding since the moment of the Black Zero event in Man of Steel. He has built contingency upon contingency and he’s perpetually ready for a next move. The film sets him up with knowledge to make him the most dangerous man on the planet. I am looking forward to a pay off to that set up. I thought Eisenberg was great fun to watch and I want more of this Lex.
Zack Snyder is one divisive guy. While I thought the direction by Zack Snyder was ambitious and, in many cases, special, his particular tone is all over Batman v Superman. Unlike other superhero franchise films (the Marvel films) where the direction takes a back seat to the characters and to the “house brand”, Snyder’s vision, like it or hate it, is right up front in Batman v Superman. His ambitions are prominent in the movie. Importantly, Snyder’s concept of superheroic myth – that these DC characters are goddesses and gods among humans – inspires what he does in the movie, how the script is developed and how he directs the action. Snyder is the guy who embraced the idea of “who watches the watchmen” in Watchmen (another divisive film he directed) and that concept is all over Batman v Superman. That’s one hell of a choice Snyder makes and reaction to that choice has much to do with how the movie is perceived by an audience. If it’s not your particular brand of tea, it will be hard to enjoy the film.
I can understand why many have issues with the film. These are gods with problems and doubts, gods wrestling with concepts of power and justice. A morally ambiguous Batman facing a self doubting Superman in a brutal and violent fight is not everyone’s idea of who these characters are or should be. And that’s cool. The fact that people care so much about the manner in which these characters are handled says something very special about their place in fiction. I love that. I love the strong reactions.
I will simply say that, in the context of this movie, Batman and Superman’s motivations worked for me. I understood why Batman was unhinged and bought the development in his character in the course of the movie. I thought Superman’s arc was likewise handled well. In fact, I firmly believe that the versions of the characters who emerge from the battles of Batman v Superman are very much the characters that purists want to see: a Batman committed to a renewed sense of goodness and justice and a Superman driven to give everything he has to protect humanity. I think these are the characters in their most iconic forms. Time (and Justice League Parts I and II) will tell.
There is much more to say about the movie. It is surprising to me how virulently some have reacted to it and how overblown and misplaced some (not all – people can disagree about whether they like a particular movie, certainly and people can debate whether Batman v Superman is any good at all) of the critiques of the movie have been, but those are thoughts for other (forthcoming) posts.
For now, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice receives FOUR out of a possible FIVE Kryptonite Spears.