I feel like this will be the most controversial and hotly debated blockbuster of the year. It currently sits at around 30% on Rotten Tomatoes, but a closer look at the reviews in question shows how unfair a great number of them are. Too many make comparison to Marvel’s empire of a cinematic universe, with reviewers wanting and even expecting to get a light-hearted romp, with heroes that toss out witty quips as much as they throw punches. But the foundation of this film is Man of Steel, and that’s not a film that was known for its quips. Man of Steel was a very gritty and grounded look at what the world would be like if Superman really came to us. And the answer is: Some would fear him, some would worship him, some would try to destroy him, some would use him to do evil in his name.
Batman v Superman does not offer a reset to the themes presented in Man of Steel. On the contrary, it expands on them. It takes them to the next logical conclusion. It’s not a popcorn action movie like Civil War promises to be this May. In many ways, it’s a philosophical dissection of the nature of heroes and of our own human desire to tear down those we perceive as greater than us, before turning around and lifting them on a pedestal. There’s an action story inside this movie and there’s some fun to be had, but The Avengers this is not.
And that’s okay, but not to most critics it seems.
Having said that, the movie is not without its flaws, of which there are three.
First, the movie takes too long to get moving, and spends too much of its already-long runtime setting up the plot and moving all the pieces into place. This creates a bit of a dragging feeling throughout the opening half of the picture. The ads, the posters, even the title of the movie makes you want to see the two heroes hurry up and throw down, but the actual “Batman vs Superman” fight is saved until the end of the second act (and it’s a long first two acts to get to it). I wonder if this will hurt the rewatchability of the movie in, say, ten years time. I think a lot of the opening hour might be skipped when it comes to home-video.
Second, on a technical level, the editing of the film is its greatest sin. It was curious to me that a three-hour director’s cut was announced months before its release. The fact that it was R-rated got most of the buzz, but to me it was the idea that the cut would be three-hours long was the most interesting part. That, and the fact that it was announced before the movie came out, when usually info like that is saved until after the first few weekends at the box office. I wonder if Warner Bros. wasn’t nervous about the reaction the movie would get, and wanted to hurry up and promise that a superior cut was still on the way.
I have a feeling I will end up liking the three-hour cut more than I did the theatrical release, as the two-and-a-half hour cut felt like a three hour movie that had been cut down too much. It was as though Zack Snyder finished his movie and handed it in to Warner Bros. with a three-hour runtime and the studio balked, thinking that no comic book movie and blockbuster hopeful should be that long. The movie needs to sell tickets, and especially in its opening two weekends; that means it needs a lot of showings in theaters. A long runtime cuts into how many times it can be played in a day. So my guess is the studio ordered Snyder to trim it to a more manageable length and he turned in the two-and-a-half hour cut we have today. As it is, the movie has too many scenes that feel disjointed from the rest of the movie, as though the scenes that stitched them together were left on the cutting room floor. This affects character motivations, little moments that explain why certain things just happened, and even help the pace of the picture. Even if it adds time to the length of the movie, putting scenes back in can help the movie to flow better and make the time go more smoothly. This movie doesn’t have that.
Third, there is simply too much going on for any one thing to work. In all honesty it feels like there are three different movies, with three different agendas working in this picture. There is a Man of Steel sequel movie here, a Batman reboot movie here, and a Justice League prequel movie here. All three independent stories are playing concurrently with each other for the first two hours, before all coming to a climax together for the final thirty minutes.
The Man of Steel sequel deals with the direct fallout of the original movie, as the city-wide destruction from the Zod/Superman fight is dealt with by the US Congress and used by Lex Luthor for his own nefarious purposes. This storyline is the one that gets lost in the shuffle the most, with Superman especially seemingly adrift in his own movie. The Man of Steel himself is not given much of a character arc and does more reacting to the plot around him than he does moving it forward. Still, when the spotlight is on him, Henry Cavill does very well in the role and while the man himself doesn’t do much, the world around him does. This storyline is all about how the world is struggling to know how to treat Superman now that he’s definitely a part of the world’s affairs. Is he a menace or a savior? By the end of the movie, the world comes around to seeing him as a hero but at the cost of Superman’s own life (more on that later).
The Batman reboot-storyline sees the Caped Crusader introduced to the DCEU (which is apparently what we’re calling the DC Cinematic Universe), first with (yet another) look at his parent’s death, his fall into the bat cave and his decision to dedicate his life to fighting crime. We’re given a story that follows Batman hunting down the head of a crime syndicate named “White Portuguese.” We’re shown an older, more jaded version of Batman, one who exists in a world where Robin was killed by Joker. This Batman is more careless with human life, as he brands his enemies with a hot iron, knowing that such a mark means certain death in jail. Critics were up in arms about the way Batman is portrayed but I’ll have more to say about his character arc in a bit.
The third storyline is the prequel to the Justice League movie, scheduled for next year. While only about 25% of the movie is related to this story, it’s a quarter of the movie that sticks out like a sore thumb. This feels very grafted-in and is the least woven into the two main plotlines. The secondary members of the Justice League (Flash, Cyborg, Aquaman) are introduced to us in the most bland and obvious way. Batman (and later Wonder Woman) simply look at a computer file that Lex has on them, giving our heroes (and more importantly, us the audience) a teaser for them. The most curious part of this plotline comes in the form of a vision Bruce Wayne has about halfway through the movie.
In the vision, Batman fights off, with a gun as well as his fists, a horde of flying soldiers (which look like Darkseid’s parademons if you know your DC history) until he is overpowered and restrained. Superman then appears, vaporizes a few other people who are restrained, and kills Batman. This wakes Bruce up from his vision and just when you think “what was that about?” another mind-bending thing happens. The Flash appears from some kind of a portal, warning Bruce about the dangers ahead. Again, if you know DC comics, you know that Flash is capable of traveling through time. That seems to be what’s happening here, but it’s so sudden in its occurrence and is over without any reflection or discussion from Bruce that it may do more confusing than teasing to the general audience.
Other than that, we have Bruce and Diana discussing the need to find the other “metas” (code for superheroes) and bring them together to fight. Why fight, Diana asks. Bruce doesn’t say, but it’s obvious the vision from Flash has him spooked and needing to get prepared for the dark future ahead. Lex, in prison, babbles seemingly insanely about “him” who is coming from the stars. This certainly is a tease for Darkseid who apparently will be the big bad to be fought in Justice League 1 and 2.
So we have three storylines. We have three very independent plots, any one of which easily could have consumed its own picture. Instead the movie puts them all into one movie, to the detriment of each plot and to the picture at large. It’s clear that Warners didn’t want to be patient; they didn’t want to forge ahead with a traditional Man of Steel sequel, a Batman reboot and a Justice League lead-in. They wanted to drop all their DCEU world-building onto one movie, take their lumps and then be ready for Justice League. Marvel actually did something similar with Iron Man 2. That was a movie that had a lot of its plot sacrificed in order to set up the first Avengers movie. As a result the movie was a disappointment critically (though it made more than the original, and superior, Iron Man film).
What’s done is done and now we look ahead to Justice League. On that note, there is no more room for excuses: Justice League must deliver next year. It must not be another critical disappointment.
Now that the negative is out of the way, there are some positive things to mention:
First, the movie takes the biggest knock on Man of Steel—namely, the almost obscene destruction caused by the Zod battle—and makes that central to the plot. It retroactively takes away the criticism that dogged the movie for three years. Now that criticism becomes a plot point, not a directorial mistake. This movie, like Man of Steel before it, does not present us with a happy world that instantly embraces the alien Superman as a hero. Kal El has to earn his hero stripes and that process is a two-movie journey. It started in Man of Steel and it ends with Batman v Superman. Throughout this movie, Superman is a character of divided opinion, with some seeing him as a near-divine protector, and others a dangerous deity. Batman’s motivations are very clear and no one who said “why would Batman want to fight Superman, they’re both good guys” in the run up to this release should have any trouble understanding the “why” of the conflict. Movie critics attack Superman in this movie, calling him dour and brooding and too much like Batman. That’s nonsense. He’s an emerging superhero; he’s still new at what he is and what he’s doing. By the end of the movie he sacrifices his life to end the Doomsday monster, and everyone comes around to embracing him for what he has totally become: A hero. I expect the Superman of Justice League (and beyond) to be much more like the Superman we know and love.
Second, Ben Affleck as Batman is a revelation. He’s perfect. He’s a great Bruce Wayne, playboy. He’s a great Bruce Wayne, brooding detective. He’s a great Batman, masked crime fighter. He is probably the most well-rounded and comic-like version the character has ever had in a live action setting. That said, this version of Batman is a broken man. And it’s very frustrating to read so many criticisms about his actions in this movie from people apparently blind to the obvious backstory and character arc he undergoes in the film. They key to understanding him comes from a line spoken by Alfred, who mentions that Bruce is a changed man. He hasn’t been the same since Robin was killed. This Batman has lost hope in men and so he doesn’t care if a criminal gets killed (you’ll notice that he never takes a direct shot to kill anyone, though many die indirectly at his hands). He goes so far as to brand criminals with his logo, knowing full well such a move is a death sentence for them in prison. The change comes after he witnesses Superman sacrifice himself. It leads Bruce to understand that men are still good. He even specifically says that at the end of the movie! It’s why, in the jail cell with Lex, he doesn’t brand him. He’s changed. He has hope in humanity again. There is an amazing character arc in this movie and it’s only lost because of the aforementioned disjointed nature of the three-plots-in-one.
Third, Wonder Woman steals the show. As Diane Prince she only gets about fifteen minutes of screentime before the finale, but even with that limited exposure, she captivates the audience. She’s suave, confident, and manages to stay one step ahead of Bruce Wayne at the big event at Lex’s house. By the time she finally reveals herself in all her Wonder Woman glory, the crowd is itching to cheer for her, and cheer they do. Throughout the final battle she dishes out the most damage, and when she takes a beating, she responds with a smirk! Any worries about the DCEU will be a distant memory next year when she gets her own starring picture.
The movie got its three central characters—and the three central characters to the entire Justice League—very right. Where it stumbled was in the way it went about telling their story. It sacrificed a traditional movie plot for the burden of world-building. Also, the movie was dark and maybe a little too heady and philosophical to play to the popcorn-movie-loving crowd. But does this movie do anything to dampen my excitement for Justice League and the solo-projects DC and Warners have lined up? Not at all. This movie could have been better, but the universe it has helped established is ready to be explored.
Bring on the DCEU!
8/10 – The parts are better than the whole, and the upcoming director’s cut will probably rectify a lot of the problems I had with it, but it’s nothing like the disaster many critics are trying to paint it as. Not by a long shot.