Reviewer: Philip Price
Director: Zack Snyder
Stars: Amy Adams, Ben Affleck, Callan Mulvey, Diane Lane, Ezra Miller, Gal Gadot, Henry Cavill, Holly Hunter, Jason Momoa, Jeremy Irons, Jesse Eisenberg, Kevin Costner, Laurence Fishburne, Scoot McNairy,Tao Okamoto
Released: March 25th, 2016
It’s important to remember that each individual comes to a movie not only with certain expectations and preconceived notions, but a different life experience up until the point they view a movie that will inform how they respond to a given piece of entertainment. I’m a child of the nineties, a product of Power Rangers and Capri Sun’s; a time when what some would argue the best iteration of Bob Kane’s Batman character would be brought to life. I’m of course referring to Batman: The Animated Series which ran from 1992-1995 and more or less became the defining Batman in my life-the Batman all other Batman’s would be chasing from that point on. Too young for Michael Keaton’s movies and too juvenile to initially understand just how bad Joel Schumacher’s films were, the animated series brought to life the most genuine and credible version of the superhero my generation (or any other up to that point) could imagine. I adore the Christopher Nolan trilogy and what he did for the genre as a whole. I will forever hold that trilogy in high regard and The Dark Knight as one of the single greatest theater-going experiences of my life. Eight years after the Nolan/Christian Bale epic that will go down in history as the best live action version of Batman thanks to the late Heath Ledger’s performance we now have the next attempt to bring the caped crusader to life in what is more or less the sequel to 2013’s Man of Steel. Jump-starting the DC Universe in an attempt to catch up with Marvel Studios, director Zack Snyder and his team have delivered a film that seems to want to bring the tone, artistic quality, and believe it or not…the fun of that nineties animated series to life on the big screen, extended universe and all. This is where I come at the movie from. A place of balance between what was my childhood Batman (never having a large affinity for Superman given he never had as influential an animated series) and what is my more mature, realistic Batman in the Nolan trilogy. It’s a parallel that worked out well for my progression from child to adult and so, the big question was: where would Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice fit into this scheme and how would everything I’ve seen and read of these characters inform my response to Snyder’s bringing together of these two icons on the big screen for the first time? For this particular viewer: I enjoyed the hell out of it.
I’m something of a Zack Snyder apologist without the necessary credentials of actually being so. It’s been four or more years since I’ve seen Dawn of the Dead and even longer since I’ve re-visited 300 or Sucker Punch (and yes, I own Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole on Blu-Ray along with the rest of the filmmakers filmography), though I pop in Watchmen every now and then if for nothing else the opening reel that looks and feels as epic as it’s supposed to be. Man of Steel is a movie I have re-watched recently (with the director commentary no less) and saw multiple times in its theatrical run which forced me to feel like one of the few defenders of the film despite being able to consent to its problems. The thing is, Snyder has always had the same set of issues with his films and beginning with Watchmen they really began to suffocate him. Style over substance, bloated narratives he can’t seem to convey in a cohesive manner, and an affinity for large scale damage and action sequences that, while looking amazing, carry little to no emotional weight with them. This is what detractors of BvS‘s predecessor were so adamant about and will undoubtedly do so again here despite Snyder consistently throwing in lines of dialogue that clarify no civilians live in or around the areas where mass destruction is occurring. While I can understand these complaints and certainly see where people with opposing opinions are coming from I still have this natural inclination to believe that Snyder simply “gets it”. We live in a world where Snyder has been presented with too much food for the small plate he’s carrying. We live in a world that enables Snyder’s larger issues to be amplified due to the climate in which motion pictures are made as large scale TV series, but at the very least one must admit that Snyder throws his own heroes as well as himself into this same world. Not unlike his situation, Snyder’s versions of Superman and Batman do not live in an idealistic world where conveniences allow them to live by the codes they once represented in earlier incarnations, but rather they exist in a world where conflict and debate are real. They are not present in a world of absolutes where either are regarded as the out and out heroes. And it is out of this an interesting, more complex world is born in which we find and are given the proper justification to see two of the most iconic characters of the twentieth century come to blows.
Since the mixed reaction to Watchmen and certainly since the downright wall of hatred Sucker Punch ran into it seems there has been a large amount of contempt for Snyder’s films and that will go unchanged with BvS. The film has its issues, to be sure, chief among them being the editing and the shoe-horning in of other, larger universe aspects, but it also has so much going for it in terms of the story it’s telling and how it visually conveys that story that it is impossible for me to ignore the beauty of it. Yes, enjoying the hell out of something and it legitimately resonating with me are two different things and I understand that, but to a certain extent I can’t help but feel I’ll be thinking about the film days and weeks down the line. I’ll certainly be seeing it again and dissecting certain scenes, specific shot choices, and musical cues that stood out to me the first time around while attempting to better comprehend the scope of the narrative so as to bring into focus a more definitive feeling about the experience as a whole, but with all of these thoughts and feelings jumping around after only seeing the film once I have to believe that much of what I saw did resonate with me on one level or another. That I was simultaneously able to truly enjoy large parts of it only now seems like something of a miracle. There is so much to take in. So many visually stunning portraits to behold on the IMAX screen and certain ways in which Snyder presents things that one can almost see the wheels churning in his head and what glee being able to capture such an image will bring to him once he’s completed it. In the same train of thought though, I’m also reminded of just how much the director relies on CGI to bring his action sequences to life or how easy it seems for him to lose control of a narrative that at once makes sense and the next moment can seem to hinge too greatly on chance to make any real sense. There are issues, I’m not saying BvS is a perfect film, but I do see it as an admirable effort that succeeds more than it fails.
And so, what does succeed? What is it about this clashing of the titans that makes it so successful from my perspective? First, we have the pure vision of Snyder. As I’ve probably stated too many times in this review already, Snyder has a certain way of visually telling a story that is unlike any other director working today. His style is all his own and he can deliver such scenes as Bruce Wayne’s parents being killed (a scene we’ve seen to the point of redundancy) with a fresh enough vision that it feels we’re experiencing the ramifications of that event for the first time. One may not agree with his storytelling methods, but to deny there is genuine vision there is false. Next, and to somewhat stay in line with Snyder’s visual prowess, is the cinematography by Larry Fong. The titular battle that was clearly shot in genuine IMAX is worth the price of admission alone and yet the smaller moments with Clark Kent (Henry Cavill) and Lois Lane (Amy Adams) in their apartment feel surprisingly intimate (as sparse as they may be). There is also a fair amount of fan service going on here. Though I’m not a reader of the comics and am unsure the numerous sources from which Snyder and screenwriters David Goyer and Chris Terrio are pulling from it is clear that much of the imagery and I’m sure a fair number of the plot points are meant to elicit some reference to a certain moment in our characters storied histories. This brings us around to the performances that are bringing these iconic characters to life and while we’ve had an entire film to see and be assured that Cavill is more than a fine enough Superman the trick was going to be convincing fans and audiences that Ben Affleck, the movie star, could transform himself into Bruce Wayne and his alter ego, Batman. For some, Affleck’s Batman might be the shining beacon of an otherwise too dark and too gritty project, but the level of brutality, integrity, and downright badassery that Affleck brings to his portrayal of the dark knight only compliments the larger picture. As an older, more seasoned and war torn Batman, Affleck gives both his Bruce Wayne and the man in the cape and cowl layers that represent what the years of picking weeds only to watch them grow back have done to him.
The next big question mark was Jesse Eisenberg as Lex Luthor. Again, not having a close relationship with the character of Superman growing up I of course didn’t see what the big deal was about his arch nemesis given he seemed little more than a bald businessman with an evil agenda. How could a man of no super powers even hope to do battle with a God-like alien? Due to this I felt more open to whatever interpretation Eisenberg was willing to try out in this universe and though it takes a little getting used to, I ended up coming around to kind of love what the ever interesting actor does here. Not only is Eisenberg playing Luthor as something of a manic psychopath who seems to barely be holding it together by the time his teams have recovered Kryptonite from the alien wreckage left at the end of the first film and are bringing it to his doorstep, but he is so un-imposing, so non-threatening in his stature, and yet still so cunning in his delivery that one can’t help but to be fascinated by the thought of what is going on under this facade of the hip, boy wonder CEO who has a basketball court in his main office. There are shades of The Joker within Eisenberg’s Luthor as rather than offering different anecdotes about the origin of his scars this Luthor is prone to telling stories about his father and his father’s influences on him that have more or less formed the ideals that push forward his hatred of Superman, his need to destroy Earth’s boy scout, and the extent he is willing to go to and the money he is willing to spend to manipulate both Batman and the world into believing that it doesn’t want or need this alien being around. While it will take a few re-watches to better understand if Luthor’s plan was actually any good or if there were one too many holes that allowed it to too often rely on fate Eisenberg is such an inherently intelligent presence that the first time through one is able to buy into the validity of what he is doing without questioning it.
In all honesty the biggest detractor is that there is simply too much to go around. There are multiple films here and to have been able to see Snyder or any director with a unique sense of vision be able to flesh this universe out more and at something of a slower pace might end up being the route Warner Bros. wishes they would have taken. Within BvS we first have the sequel to Man of Steel where the virtue of Superman is brought into question and brought in front of the senate to decide if what Superman is doing is what he should be doing. There is a montage of gorgeous heroics that is splattered over philosophical qualms and approvals over what Superman stands for, whether he is within the realm of human law, and whether or not he is no longer a metaphor for the Christ figure, but is indeed the second coming that only hints at what a true Man of Steel sequel could have been. There is the stand alone Batman movie that Ben Affleck could have made that would have established this new embodiment of the world’s greatest detective allowing us to see more of the insane batcave this version beholds while delving deeper into how the tumultuous history of this version of Batman has informed who Affleck’s Bruce Wayne has become. And then, on top of all of that, we have the eventual (and inevitable) team up of our two titular heroes and the spoiled baddie they must battle due to the egomaniac that could have plagued either one of their solo films. There is simply too much delivered in too short a time span to delve as deep into these characters within this context and so, while the film is two and a half hours, it still ends up feeling like an iceberg in that 90% of its mass remains under the surface as opposed to the mere 10% we are able to glimpse with our own eyes. This surface-level gleaming of elements is especially true when it comes to the inorganic ways in which Snyder, Terrio, and Goyer chose to integrate the remaining members of The Justice League that should have been one of the first things to go if they couldn’t find a better way to preview what we already know is coming anyway. Maybe this would have assisted in the multiple ending syndrome from which the film also suffers. As it is, the actual story the film is telling can become somewhat sporadic in its first half, but while I was concerned about all the parts in motion I was also relieved at how well they were ultimately able to bring all of these cogs together into one, well-oiled machine.
As for the remaining check marks one expects a review of this film to mark off I can say that yes, Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman is indeed pretty spectacular in the handful of scenes she is featured. Unlike the marketing made this out to be this is still very much a Batman/Superman movie with Diana Prince only popping up every once in a while to remind us there is more on the horizon (and I can’t wait for it, so job well done on that front). The score from Hans Zimmer and Junkie XL is epic in the most epic of terms. Sure, the Man of Steel themes may have been used one too many times to try and elicit one too many artificial feels when Clark returns to gather advice from his earthly mother (Diane Lane) or runs into a ghost of Pa Kent (Kevin Costner), but the music largely only enhances the field on which BvS is playing to a much grander one proving its worth to be almost invaluable. Yes, the marketing for the film gave too much away as Doomsday should have never seen the light of day until the first screenings on the 24th, but while the trailers and other promotional materials maybe showed us too many of the “moments” it never let on to how they each were connected and in that there was real satisfaction to be found in watching the story unfold. Yes, as I’ve said, there is definitely too much story here for even a two and a half hour film, but unlike some Snyder films it feels as if the director at least has a grasp on what he is trying to accomplish with each section of his film rather than simply allowing it to fly off the rails as he has done in the past. Scoot McNairy should be mentioned for the minor, but interesting additions his character provides to the larger narrative as should Jeremy Irons and Holly Hunter. Irons is especially fun to watch play off of Affleck’s stern Batman as his Alfred is more of a partner and companion to Wayne than in any of the other live action adaptations.
In the end, some will walk away disappointed the meeting of Superman and Batman on the big screen was not all they wanted it to be and others will walk away plenty pleased with what they were witness to wondering what more the film could have done to satisfy those angry fans and critics. It is in this aspect of the varied reactions that BvS is most different from its Marvel counterparts to which it will inevitably and already is being compared. Marvel had both a large disadvantage and promising advantage when it came to setting up its cinematic universe due to the fact there were hardly any preconceived notions about the likes of Iron Man or Thor outside of the core fan base. And so, Marvel’s biggest challenge was making these second tier comic characters appealing enough people would get on board for more movies. Having characters such as Batman and Superman, each who have been seen in various forms on the big screen before and each of which have a much larger fan bases in general, there are an abundance of preconceived notions that not only does any new iteration have to meet and/or exceed these, but they also have to convince all of these biased, prejudice, and many time bitter pre-determined notions that this latest version is indeed worth their time. To have properties such as Batman and Superman is both a blessing and a curse given their names alone strike up the most attention, but if done in a way the masses can’t generally agree on the risk of loss is that much bigger. To further contrast, Marvel tends to make fun, serialized weekly specials (though it seems Civil War and to an extent, Ultron look to shake that up a bit) that I enjoy very much and most of the time have no issues with whatsoever (some of this due to a few entries being that vanilla), but with Man of Steel and BvS Snyder has created something that feels operatic, feels grand, feels almost legendary on a scale where it’s impossible to ignore the creativity, effort, and all-around investment that went into bringing this massive ship into port. This grand scale the film possesses is too big and too ambitious to be as easily dismissed as it has been. For me, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is a feast for the eyes and a thoroughly entertaining piece of B-movie grandeur. I enjoyed the hell out of it.
You can also check out my new film review show called INITIAL REACTION. Look for a new episode each week and be sure to subscribe to our channel here. Here is our review of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice: