Review: BATMAN v SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE sacrifices storytelling for table-setting

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I really like Zack Snyder. I’m not afraid to admit it.

I think both Dawn of the Dead and 300 are solidly enjoyable films, the latter likely being his best effort on the big screen. It certainly had enough impact that it secured him not one, but three major DC-based adaptations. Both Watchmen and Man of Steel are tremendously flawed films that I enjoy anyway. I am especially fond of his and David Goyer’s reinvention of the Superman mythos, even when those innovations work better on paper. The man simply has a skillset that I admire, particularly in how visually pleasing a landscape he generally paints from, barring some duskier tones in Man of Steel that take some of the bite out of the sheer cacophony of destruction and chaos that the film eventually turns towards.

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, releasing this weekend, feels like a reaction: both to critics who held a disdain for Superman’s perceived carelessness in Man of Steel‘s final act, and to fans of the DC universe who want Warner Bros. to rush out a cinematic universe that can quickly equal Marvel’s. For a while, it almost feels like Snyder might pull off the very difficult task in front of him, and then those odds quickly evaporate with each increasingly maudlin scene and bombastic action sequence.

If you’ve watched any of the trailers, you know the basic set-up. Months after the destruction of a significant portion of Metropolis by Zod’s hordes, Bruce Wayne/Batman (Ben Affleck) is at odds with the idea that someone with Superman’s (Henry Cavill) abilities can be allowed to exist. Conversely, Clark Kent is growing concerned with the increasingly hostile vigilante tactics of the Batman in Gotham City. Between them is the meddling visage of Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg), younger and with more hair than we’re used to, and has plans of his own involving a concerned Senator (Holly Hunter), the corpse of Zod, and other things that are best left for you to discover if you choose to do so.

Easily, the biggest praise I can give Batman v Superman is that it’s the best looking superhero film I’ve ever seen. The visuals feel like they’re ripped right out of the comics page, and while that doesn’t necessarily make for satisfying drama at all times, as a creature of aesthetics, I was enamored with how beautifully Snyder and cinematographer Larry Fong captured the events of the film in a way that feels more vivid and enticing than its predecessor.

In addition to its visual appeal, Batman v Superman employs a bevy of skilled performances. Ben Affleck, especially when operating in the solo Gotham City-based method in which we’re used to seeing this character, is one of the best Batmen we’ve ever had. Gal Gadot steals the show as Wonder Woman though, both in the way the character is developed and her performance therein. These pieces on their own made me wish I was watching a solo film that developed either of these characters further, and I’m excited at the prospect of Gadot’s upcoming solo film especially. Lastly, Jesse Eisenberg’s Lex Luthor will surely be one of the more divisive elements of the film, given his manic and “playing to the backrow” approach, but I found myself in the “loved it” camp.

All of that said, the sum of these parts is not as satisfying as you might hope. While Man of Steel wasn’t perfect, it at least felt refreshingly different from a Marvel film, given the onslaught of big screen superhero properties every year. My biggest bone of contention with Marvel Studios is that rather than focusing primarily on solid storytelling, the greater concern is often setting up the pieces of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Batman v Superman falls into a similar trap as seen in films like Iron Man 2 and Avengers: Age of Ultron (but worse) where the focus is pulled away from character development, of which there’s very little present to begin with, and instead placed on egregiously cramming in as much connective universe tissue as possible. I am excited for some of the pieces that were set-up, but I’m sad to say this movie was sacrificed in order to do it.

While Marvel is saved from those problems with snappy dialogue and crowd pleasing moments, Batman v Superman doubles down on the “grim-dark” approach from Man of Steel, and the combination of these problems makes the film feel like more work than it should. It also doesn’t do any favors to the already lengthy two and a half hour running time, and scenes that are intended to have weight can’t be felt by a fatigued and numbed viewer. By the third act, everything just feels like punishing white noise. (Side-note: if you’re wondering if this film is appropriate for children, the answer is no.)

This is, unfortunately, a case of a potentially intriguing story trapped in the body of a bloated and poorly edited film – I was stunned at how haphazardly some scenes transitioned from one to another. There’s clearly a strong core and moral conflict in a script that had too many producers’ notes crowding the margins and defeating its own purpose at almost every turn. As a result, we may very well be facing the last film Snyder ever makes within the confines of the DC Universe, box office results pending. At this point, some change may do everyone some good.

Comments

  1. William O'Brien says

    I saw it last night. It is a masterclass in how to avoid making a good movie with these characters.

    “Punishing white noise” is a very good way to put it.

  2. James Van Hiseq says

    My big concern is whether it does what I found annoying in Man of Steel, which had some of the most ugly cinematography I’ve ever seen where the color was washed out so much that everything looked blue. It made the film boring to look at.

  3. Jer says

    I was stunned at how haphazardly some scenes transitioned from one to another.

    Is this a suggestion that some of the scene transitions are worse than the haphazard scene transitions in Man of Steel, or are you just forgetting how random some of the scene transitions in that movie were?

    I just watched Man of Steel again last week and I was kind of surprised at how choppy and abrupt the scene transitions were. I didn’t remember that from my previous viewing of the movie (spreading it out over 3 evenings actually helped me appreciate some things about the movie that I hated the first time around more but also highlighted some of the odd directorial choices that I missed the last time around).

  4. George says

    BuzzFeed reviewer Alison Willmore said Gal Gadot steals the film just by acting like she’s enjoying herself. She actually smiles! That’s radical for a Zack Snyder film.

  5. Daniel says

    I loved the film. I found it to be complex, ambitious, and very emotional–essentially the antithesis of the typical Marvel film (which I generally like but often find to be too glib and repetitive for my tastes). To each his or her own, I guess.

    I do take issue with one point that Kyle makes (as do other critics): the criticism of the film setting up too much for future films. I think this is an unfair dig on films like this. BvS is the second chapter in a 10-chapter story. And much as is the case in multi-chapter novels, each chapter in this serialized story foreshadows and sets up elements that will come later, so that when watched in succession later on, the experience will (hopefully) feel like one coherent, fully considered story. Much as I don’t expect every element introduced in chapter two of a novel I’m reading to be fully resolved by the end of the chapter, I don’t expect every element in this film to be fully resolved by the time it ends. I know that it is setting up the next chapter. That’s what good serialized storytelling does. And I think the critical consensus that finds fault with this hasn’t adapted to the way that genre films like this (and Marvel’s too, for that matter) are now more like big budget TV series like “Game of Thrones.” The medium has evolved in that sense.

    I’m also curious about Kyle’s comment: “I was stunned at how haphazardly some scenes transitioned from one to another.” Several other critics made this exact same point, so I went into the film expecting that myself, but there were no scene transitions that fit that description for me. I thought the story flowed very naturally. I found none of the transitions to be abrupt or awkward. I’m wondering if you could describe which scene transitions you’re talking about without giving away any spoilers.

  6. George says

    Daniel said: “I think this is an unfair dig on films like this. BvS is the second chapter in a 10-chapter story. And much as is the case in multi-chapter novels, each chapter in this serialized story foreshadows and sets up elements that will come later, so that when watched in succession later on, the experience will (hopefully) feel like one coherent, fully considered story.”

    This is the whole problem with these pop culture spectacles, Daniel. The demands of serialized storytelling (and of providing Easter eggs, cameos and post-credits sequences for the fanboys) are preventing them from being movies.

    This isn’t like binge-watching a TV season on DVD, only a year (or less) after the season first airs. It will require MANY years before these “sagas” are complete, if they’re ever complete. If Affleck or Downey quit (or die), they’ll just reboot and start over. So much for a conclusion.

    I wish there were superhero movies like 10 CLOVERFIELD LANE, which works as a standalone movie that can be watched and enjoyed by people who have never seen CLOVERFIELD.

  7. Kyle Pinion says

    I will say, my second viewing of this went over a lot better. A more engaged audience, the IMAX screen, and adjusted expectations helped a lot. My chief complaints still stand, but I think it’s about on par with Age of Ultron, another heavily compromised film. I think this one maybe sticks the landing a tad better.

  8. George says

    My favorite fanboy conspiracy theory: Marvel and Disney are paying critics to pan BATMAN V. SUPERMAN, to ensure its box-office failure. Hilarious.

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