I’ll start with a confession: I am a Zack Snyder defender.
I consider Watchmen one of the most underrated films of the last decade, had good things to say about Sucker Punch (at the time, at least), and actively liked Man of Steel (while acknowledging its issues).
So I went into Batman v. Superman, not unimpressed by the fragments I had seen, bombarded by condemnations from most and staunch defenses from a few, prepared to take up the cause of advocating for a truly skilled director, if a less consistently able storyteller.
But I cannot defend this film beyond pointing out the handful of things it does fairly right, in light of the many, many things it does aggressively wrong.
This review has a special treat at the end: a breakdown of its thematic weaknesses by my friend Blaise Marcoux. As he is far more versed in the actual comics than I am, I think his perspective makes an excellent counterpart to my own. Note that he wrote his piece independently of mine; I simply asked for his blessing to include it.
There isn’t so much a plot, as a junkpile of incidents which take 151 minutes to transpire.
Beginning with yet another iteration of the death of Bruce Wayne’s parents (in a sick joke, they’re leaving a theater screening John Boorman’s Excalibur, an infinitely superior film), we leap ahead to the events of Man of Steel, seen from Wayne’s (Ben Affleck) vantage as Kryptonian vessels and the Superman-Zod beatdown ravage…okay, I’m not actually sure if they’re ravaging Metropolis or Gotham – which, this film establishes, are separated only by a bay. In any case, a Wayne Enterprises building and many employees are killed in the process, and Wayne broods fiercely when he realizes Superman is involved.
Like a Chick tract, we then leap ahead 18 months to see Batman shutting down what appears to be a sex trafficking operation. We then go to the African nation of “Nairomi” (which was Central Asian in the comics, apparently) to see Lois Lane (Amy Adams) having a sit-down with possible terrorist General Amajagh (Sammi Rotibi), which is promptly interrupted by the revelation that Jimmy Olsen (Michael Cassidy) was carrying a CIA bug, and the interview was merely a ploy to track the general down. Jimmy is promptly executed for his trouble* and Lois is taken hostage.
Of course, Superman (Henry Cavill) arrives on the scene and rescues her, but his appearance is accompanied by much bloodshed, and hearings are held in the Senate, chaired by Kentucky senator Finch (Holly Hunter), which place the blame squarely on him and brand him a renegade; one witness (Wunmi Mosaku) laments that he answers to no one – “Not even, I think, to God.” Told about the hearings, Supes/Clark Kent professes not to care, saying that saving Lois’ life was all that mattered. He then climbs, fully-clothed, into a bathtub with her.
Meanwhile, in the Indian Ocean, a large amount of Kryptonite is discovered. Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg) wants to weaponize it as a deterrent against Superman and others like him, but Finch rejects his requests. Looking for a link between Luthor and somebody named Anatoli Knyazev (Callan Mulvey), Wayne goes to a party at Luthor’s estate with the intention of bugging Luthor’s communications. While there, he butts heads with Kent over the issue of Batman vs. Superman, then discovers his bug has been stolen by Diana Prince** (Gal Gadot).
He later gets the bug back from Prince (in a scene which overtly rips off The Dark Knight Rises and subtly rips off Eyes Wide Shut), and begins decrypting it, before having a long and bizarre dream which seemingly homages Sucker Punch of all things, with Batman fighting off a swarm of winged insect-men wearing the Superman logo on Nazi-esque armbands. Then…someone…reaches through a wormhole and tells him something, then he wakes up.
(Naturally, this acid trip is actually setting up major plot points for the DCCU, and the wormhole traveler is apparently one of the various Robins, but if you didn’t know that going in, you’re going to be as lost as I was.)
He decides to weaponize the Kryptonite himself, and sets out to steal it from a Lexcorp convoy, but Superman intervenes and orders him to stand down forever. Batman replies “Do you bleed? You will?”
I’m going to stop the detailed synopsis there and move on to the analysis, filling in the rest of the story as I go. Frankly, I’m already relying heavily on Wikipedia to piece together the story of a film I saw just yesterday, which says a lot.
And that plays into the film’s most fundamental liability: the script by Chris Terrio and David S. Goyer. Terrio wrote the overrated script for Argo and won an undeserved Oscar for it, so I wasn’t expecting much from him, but Goyer has been attached to some fine films over the years: Dark City and The Dark Knight immediately come to mind. Then again, he also wrote Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance, The Dark Knight Rises, and Man of Steel – the latter two are good films, but they have serious issues with their writing.
But where the writing for Dark Knight Rises crumbles under the weight of its many plot holes, that film at least has a cohesive narrative. Batman v. Superman badly lacks cohesion, with scenes piling on top of scenes without any momentum. I had feared the film would bite off far more than it could chew, and I was right: the film is not just Batman vs. Superman, it’s Superman vs. the anti-Superman faction, Batman vs. Diana Prince, Prince vs. Luthor, Batman vs. Luthor, Superman vs. Luthor, Batman and Superman and Prince (who turns out to be Wonder Woman, though the words “Wonder Woman” are never uttered) vs. Doomsday (oh yeah, there’s that whole plot thread to deal with)…
It’s all too much for the film to handle. Even allowing for the possibility that the extended cut (adding a full half-hour to an already overlong film) will fill in some of the gaps, the lack of focus and drive are likely too fundamental to be resolved by the mere restoration of footage.
Worse, the constituent parts the film haphazardly slings together are themselves rather variable. The opening moments, alternating the death of the elder Waynes with young Bruce having his pivotal encounter with the bats, seem superfluous; that said, I do kind of like Affleck’s weird monologue over the sequence – though damned if I know what “diamond absolutes” are. And the scene which follows, Wayne racing through crumbling downtown Metropolis (I would assume) towards his threatened building, has some striking imagery, like Wayne wandering through a cloud of dust and seeing a riderless police horse trot by, but it too is marred by the decision to have Wayne scream the name of his business associate in desperation; he’s saying “Jack”, but it sounds like “Dad”, which confounds the ear.
Lois’ adventure in “Nairomi” and the hearing afterwards are all right, but the bathtub scene is laughably staged (also, I swear you can see Adams’ breasts for a split second or two), and Clark’s blunt indifference to the fallout from his rescue is off-putting.
In fact, the film has a pretty iffy relationship with Supes on the whole, and he’s the focus of some of its most misguided moments: a scene where, after rescuing a girl from a burning factory in Mexico, he is treated almost as a divinity by a crowd of Mexican people will probably make a few viewers squirm, and another scene where Finch, the senators and attendees at Superman’s hearing (which he decides to show up to), and the Capitol building itself are obliterated by a bomb features the absurd sight of Superman reacting to a catastrophic explosion with a grimace more suitable for a stomachache.
That hearing scene, in fact, deserves special mention. We’ve established that Finch is on Luthor’s bad side after blocking his desired Kryptonite import. We’ve established the folk idiom “You can take a bucket of piss and call it Granny’s peach tea”. So when Finch is laying into Superman for exercising his powers without any kind of oversight, and she sees a jar of something golden-yellow on her desk, Hunter begins to pause and sputter, such that I initially figured the character was poisoned. No, it’s just a dubious acting choice, though I’m inclined to think it was Snyder’s direction more than Hunter’s instincts which led to it.
And I haven’t even mentioned the character who does the bombing: one Wallace Keefe (Scoot McNairy, who’s rivaling Ben Mendelsohn in the “popping up everywhere” sweepstakes – they also both appeared as partners in crime in Killing Them Softly, and I’m just gonna stop now before my brain melts), an employee of Wayne Enterprises who loses his legs (and, it would appear, his family) to the attack on Metropolis at the film’s beginning, and who is later arrested for defacing a statue of Superman, which threatens to bring charges of terrorist threats against him. Luthor bails him out, gives him a fancy new wheelchair, and loads it with explosives when he attends the hearing. Meanwhile, Keefe has been sticking it to Wayne by returning his disability checks with various damning messages, the last of which is “You let your family die”.
Cue intense staring.
Back to Supes: he also has two separate parental encounters which are both abominably written. First, he speaks to his mother (Diane Lane), who tells him:
Be their hero, Clark. Be their angel, be their monument, be anything they need you to be… or be none of it. You don’t owe this world a thing. You never did.
So which is it, Martha? (Oh, and that reminds me of another rant I owe you…but soon.)
Then, wandering through the frozen wastes towards the Fortress of Solitude, he finds Pa Kent (Kevin Costner), building a cairn for some reason, who relates a story about diverting flood water from his family’s fields, which ended up destroying his neighbor’s farm; while he ate a celebratory cake, their horses were drowning. This turns out to be a vision of sorts, according to the IMDb an example of a real phenomena called the Third Man factor***, though in the film it comes off as a bizarre non sequitur which reinforces what a dick this rendition of Pa Kent is – not that something couldn’t be done with that, but nothing really is.
Was I saying something about the individual scenes of the film and how the sum of those parts was not much more than the total of the film? Yes, I was.
The film’s depiction of Wayne is decent enough, but its take on Batman is disturbing, to say the least. Where Batman has historically been staunchly opposed to killing his enemies, this Batman has little regard for life, killing nameless henchman wholesale and being quite prepared to kill Superman in their climactic showdown, and even being gleeful about it, saying “Well…here I am” with a nasty grin before shooting Superman with Kryptonite gas and beating the shit out of him before taking a Kryptonite spear (which he fashioned with the hunk of Kryptonite he stole from Lexcorp on his second attempt – the first being interrupted by Superman’s ultimatum – both times incurring massive property damage and, presumably, extensive loss of life) and slicing Supes’ cheek to make good on his boast of making him bleed.
The Batman of the Dark Knight trilogy might not have been universally popular, but you can get why he had supporters in Gotham. This Batman, on the other hand, is just a sadistic bastard, who literally brands bad guys, which we are told is essentially a death sentence in Gotham prisons. I’m not absolutely opposed to such a depiction of Batman, provided the film around him could support it. But Batman v. Superman assuredly cannot, given that it can barely tell the story at its core, let alone introduce entirely new takes on the two most famous superheroes of all time.
So the climactic one-on-one showdown may be well-enough staged, but the thematic foundation of it is so antithetical to anything any but the most generous fans would be prepared to accept that it’s hard to be excited by it. And it’s interrupted by a moment which crosses the line from being misguided to being thunderously idiotic.
Batman has Superman at his mercy. Superman was goaded into the battle in the first place by Luthor having kidnapped Ma Kent and taking her hostage; Luthor even tosses Polaroids of her bound and gagged to rouse Supes’ ire before revealing that if Superman kills him, she will die, and if he doesn’t bring him Batman’s head within an hour…she will die. Rather than, say, grabbing Luthor by the balls and threatening to make him suffer profoundly (but non-lethally) if Martha is not freed, he takes the bait, flies down to Lois (with whom, I should add, Luthor baited him into showing up by shoving her off his helipad), and sadly exclaims that “No one stays good in this world”, before flying off to battle.
Sorry for the digressions, but there are so many layers of ridiculousness in this film that I keep exhuming from my memory.
Anyhoo. Batman has Superman at his mercy. He’s about to kill him with the Kryptonite spear. Lois shows up (having been choppered over). Superman desperately gasps out that he has to save “Martha” (Ma Kent’s first name), at which Batman pauses and demands (screamingly, of course) to know why Superman said that name. Superman is too…something…to explain, and Lois helpfully explains the matter, which causes Batman to flash back to the death of his own mother…who was named Martha. He stands down, leading to this exchange:
Superman: Luthor. He wanted your life for her’s. She’s losing time.
Lois Lane: The scout ship seems to be drawing power from the city. It’s gotta be Lex.
Batman: They need you at that ship. I’ll find her.
Superman: My mother needs me.
Batman: Wait. I’ll make you a promise: Martha won’t die tonight.
So, to reiterate: Batman, who has been driven to brink of homicide by his hatred for Superman, by his conviction that Superman was menace to the people of Earth and had destroyed, completely changes his tune…because their mothers had the same first name.
I face-palmed as intensely as I possibly could without breaking something at that moment.
Not only is it just asinine from a dramatic standpoint – that the plot of a $250 million blockbuster hinges on a coincidence which I’m sure someone felt awfully damn smug about is a pretty sick joke – but the fact that Superman would say “Martha” and not “my mother”, especially in a moment of desperation, is so fucking contrived, so far removed from human nature (or Kryptonian nature, for that matter), that it should have been shot down before it was even allowed to be written. It’s one of the most idiotic decisions I’ve seen in a major film in a long time, and it’s made all the worse by how pivotal it is to the story.
If Supes had just said “my mother”, we could’ve all gone home a lot sooner. But no.
So, after this, Batman goes to rescue Martha and Superman goes to deal with Luthor. The former succeeds, shooting the tank of the flamethrower one of Luthor’s henchman is threatening to incinerate Martha with (did I mention this film pisses on the no-kill rule?), but the latter discovers that Luthor has an ace up his sleeve. Having taken the corpse of General Zod and sliced of his fingerprints, having used those fingerprints to access Kryptonian technology, having used something called the “Genesis pool” (which looks like Granny’s peach tea to me), Zod’s body, and a few drops of his own blood, he has created a beast known as Doomsday (Robin Atkin Downes), which, being technically Kryptonian, is very hard to kill.
After Martha is delivered to safety, Batman and Superman jointly take on Doomsday, but it proves a formidable opponent, and the military gets involved, nuking the SOB as Superman pummels it into orbit, but the result is only a temporarily weakened Superman and an invigorated Doomsday.
Meanwhile, Prince has been preparing to leave, presumably fleeing the revelation of her true identity, when she sees the battle on the news and decides to join in. After a dumb exchange (“Is she with you?” “No. I thought she was with you.”), Prince/Wonder Woman does her part to subdue Doomsday, but there seems to be no feasible way of killing it.
Then the Kryptonite spear is remembered, and Lois, who had thrown into the flooded basement of an abandoned building, goes to retrieve it, but is trapped underwater by a collapsing floor. Superman rescues her and retrieves the spear, but cannot hold it for long as it weakens him tremendously. Bidding Lois a sad farewell, he flies to Doomsday with the spear in hand and drives it into the beast’s chest, but receives a bony spike in his own chest in return. Mortally wounded, he runs Doomsday through (running himself through in the process), and they both die.
Two simultaneous funerals are held; a lavish one in D.C. honoring Superman, and a simpler affair in Smallville for Clark Kent. No one draws a connection between the two because people are stupid.
At the funeral, Wayne tells Prince to round him the meta-humans she knows (and those Luthor has been keeping tabs on) to form an alliance. She expresses doubts about their willingness to cooperate, but since a Justice League movie is on the way, we know they will.
Batman visits Luthor in prison (now shaved bald), and tells him he’ll be watching. Luthor responds that “the bell has been rung” and “he” is coming. Batman punches the wall with his Bat-brand, and Luthor rants about the bell and says “ding, ding, ding”. Lois scatters dirt on Superman/Kent’s coffin, and a lingering close-up reveals the dirt beginning to rise (and, supposedly, a heartbeat is faintly audible; I didn’t catch it) as we finally cut to black.
Apparently Luthor is talking about Darkseid and the “ding”-ing is the sound of a Mother Box. But this is all so vague that the uninitiated are going to be completely lost.
I will go on one last rant, against Jesse Eisenberg, whose Luthor is inexcusably terrible. I’ve had mixed feelings about Eisenberg before – he was great in The Social Network, but I found him fairly tiresome in The End of the Tour – but he displays all his worst tendencies here. He seems to have been allowed to improvise quite a bit – there’s a painful scene early on where he gives a deliberately rambling and awkward speech – but rather than enhancing any scene he’s in, he indulges himself in the most grating way imaginable. All tics and smug giggles and affectations, he’s a continually unpleasant presence, but he’s such a goof as to have no menace whatsoever.
The material doesn’t exactly give him much help – the scene where he crows over bringing Wayne and Kent together is pretty damn dumb – but Eisenberg’s performance is an absolute failure. He’s neither fun nor fearsome, he’s just awful, and if the Razzies don’t notice him, they’re dead to me.
But, for all the shit I’ve been slinging at Batman v. Superman for over 3,100 words, there are things I can give it credit for. Snyder doesn’t bring the visual goods to the same degree he did with his earlier films, but he and cinematographer Larry Fong do make the film look fairly decent at times. The film lacks for color much of the time, but the ugliness is in the tone more than the images.
The technical crew, for the most part, hold up their end of the bargain quite well. I didn’t especially love the sets, but they do their job; the visual effects are as good as you would expect from so expensive a film; the sound is well-mixed. David Brenner’s editing isn’t too strong, but I’ve seen worse.
The score combines the efforts of Hans Zimmer and Junkie XL (aka Tom Holkenborg), and it’s a pretty good score. I do miss the soaring main theme of Man of Steel, but I guess in these circumstances it wouldn’t really fit. I haven’t listened to the score independent of the film yet, but it does stand out as one of the film’s better qualities.
Aside from Eisenberg, the cast is variable. But one fairly pleasant surprise was Affleck, who’s a perfect Wayne (better, arguably, than Christian Bale ever was), and is a decent Batman as well; the film’s take on the character might be thunderously misguided, but Affleck definitely tries to make it work, playing up the twisted enthusiasm this Batman has for brutality. I’ve given Affleck a fair amount of shit in the past, but he does do a good job here, and at the very least I’d like to see him continue in the role under more satisfactory circumstances.
Cavill, on the other hand, seems a bit frustrated by the film’s treatment of Superman. In Man of Steel, he brought the earnest, heroic Superman to the 21st century; here, playing an embattled, conflicted take on the character, he seems lost. I’m not sure if that’s because of Cavill’s shortcomings as an actor or the many issues endemic to this film, but he mostly comes off as a self-consciously scowling grump.
Adams is fine as Lane, but she has little to really do besides advance the plot; Hunter is stuck with some of the film’s silliest moments, but beside that holds her own adequately. Slightly better is Laurence Fishburne as Perry White, whose brainstorming of grabby headlines provides the film with many of its few intentional laughs. Most of the rest come from Jeremy Irons’ Alfred, who snarkily chastises Wayne for his lifestyle and acts as a weary old voice of often-tipsy reason. His Alfred may be the only character whose conception and execution work completely as intended.
Gal Gadot has received many of the film’s best notices, and she is solid, but I can’t say her actual performance really impressed me that much; mostly it’s the inherent awesomeness of Wonder Woman that shines through, more than anything Gadot does (or is able to do) with the role. But I’m certainly willing to see what she does when the character is given a chance to shine – which she really isn’t given here. This was a preview at best.
That may sum up Batman v. Superman as well as anything: it’s a preview, a prelude to a cinematic universe which is already on shaky footing given the dubious performance of its first entry. It’s a film which ends with a death that carries no weight, not only because you know it will be undone when the next film rolls around, but because the film that precedes it doesn’t build up to it. It doesn’t build up to anything. It stumbles along from start to finish, accomplishing nothing besides setting the stage for God knows how many more films.
It is a film which will be rendered disposable by that which follows, which is just fine, because in of itself, it’s pretty much a waste.
*I didn’t even realize until doing research for this review that said photog was Jimmy Olsen (details here). This film keeps finding new ways to be both confusing and fucked up.
**Maybe I wasn’t paying enough attention, but I swear the name “Diana Prince” is never clearly spoken.
***I guess this might be an explanation for the “Ghost Clooney” scene in Gravity, one of the scenes which most diminished my estimation of it, but I’ll reserve my apologies until I actually rewatch the damned thing.