Batman v. Superman Is a Well-Intentioned, But Deeply-Flawed Mess of a Film


CAUTION: This review contains major spoilers for Batman v. Superman
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There are some good ideas and good intentions behind Batman v. Superman. If you want to make a superhero film, there are worse comic books to crib from than Watchmen, The Dark Knight Returns, and the Doomsday arc. If you’re trying to create a film that owns its four-color roots while also aiming to make some kind of grand statement, there are worse ideas than trying to examine the social and political repercussions of god-like aliens coming to Earth. If you want to add your own bit of shading to a set of time-honored icons, there are worse ways to do it than showing each of them struggling with the legacies of their parents.

But trying to do this all at once requires a deft hand. Trying to do it all with the added requirements of the expected big-budget action sequences, the need to launch a new cinematic universe, and an effort to correct for the perceived missteps of a prior film, would take a miracle-worker. If the balance of all of these disparate elements isn’t just right, instead of the intended depth and complexity, you get a well-meaning, but ultimately incoherent muddle. That’s what the cumbersomely titled Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice amounts to — a boldly ambitious, hopelessly flawed, overextended mess of a film.

But it’s a film that’s at least trying to honor the better source materials it’s liberally borrowing from. Director Zack Snyder creates a film that wears its Watchmen influences on its sleeve. The seminal Alan Moore novel (which Snyder himself adapted in 2009) isn’t just a presence in Batman v. Superman, with its common themes of how a supernatural being might not only inspire both awe and fear but also change the way we saw our place in the universe; it’s also a veritable blueprint for the character dynamics and overarching plot of the film.

Snyder’s Superman in BvS is his Doctor Manhattan, a god-like individual who inspires worship in some corners, blame in others, and makes both politicians and private citizens equal parts grateful, resentful, and nervous about what he’s capable of in turn. Lex Luthor is his Ozymandias, the brilliant man who sets in motion a byzantine plot to get the world’s attention, while trying to discredit and destroy the demigod whose very presence shifts the balance of where humanity stands. Snyder even has his own Giant Squid in Doomsday, a genetically engineered abomination unleashed on a major city center as the final piece of Luthor’s plan.

 

Man, Groot's really been working out!

 

These character sketches are all bound up in Snyder’s desperate attempts to emulate the thematically rich ruminations on power and heroism–and more specifically the exploration of where mankind stands in the face of a godlike-power–that are the bread and butter of Watchmen. But his take is a facile and fallow one.

Rather than offering a genuine resolution, or even an acknowledgement, of the complexities of these concepts at the forefront of his film, Snyder weighs the movie down with a series of on-the-nose statements from stock characters, grand clunky speeches, and striking but empty images, all of which devolve into explosions and fistfights just when they threaten to actually engage with the film’s worthwhile-if-miscalibrated thematic material. Snyder offers all of the right surface-level nods to these concepts, with none of the nuance in thought or execution that made them so salient in Moore’s work.

The same goes for the director and writers’ attempt to forge a connection between the film’s titular heroes (and their main antagonist) through the sense in which each of them is chasing the ghosts of their parents. Batman is constantly haunted–in his thoughts and in his nightmares–by the deaths of Thomas and Martha Wayne. Superman himself sees an apparition of his dead father, who warns him of the unintended consequences of trying to help. And Luthor’s crusade against Superman is at least partially motivated by his unresolved feelings toward his own less-than-loving dad.

The film hints that Papa Luthor is Lex’s mental landmark for unchecked power, as a man who woefully abused it and led Lex to a psychological, more than a principled, stand against Superman and the power he represents. Luthor bundles his vendetta with legitimate concerns about the dangers that an untethered demigod poses, but at base, they’re just excuses for him to, in his own twisted way, try to get back at daddy.

 

Which he conveys by making Trump-like faces.

 

It’s part and parcel with a series of laudable attempts to draw parallels between the major figures in BvS. But the force of those connections is lost in the way the film dramatizes them.

Batman’s nightmares–when they’re not bafflingly disconnected efforts to set up future films–are strange, clumsy efforts to explain the character’s motivations. Superman’s visit with Pa Kent (Kevin Costner) features awkward, fortune cookie-level dialogue that blunts any resonance the scene is meant to have. And Luthor’s casual mention of his daddy issues works well enough as subtext, but that motivation eventually gets lost in a sea of convoluted evil schemes and poorly-defined goals for the character. There are interesting thoughts on parental legacy floating around in the background of Batman v. Superman, but the film falters when it fails to satisfyingly convey or develop them.

In the same vein, Batman is the only character in the film with a real arc. Snyder half-heartedly attempts to give one to Superman. Clark questions whether it’s really worth it for him to protect humanity (as Diane Lane’s Ma Kent puts it, whether he owes them anything), and then ultimately decides that these people are not only worth fighting for, but worth dying for. But it’s executed in a pretty lumpy fashion, regardless of the ultimate cheapness of the sacrifice. And in line with the themes of the film, Superman is more god than man here, an aloof, stone-faced stoic, who stands apart from everyone and everything else, even the audience. He is, ultimately, the object of the film, not the subject.

Batman, by contrast, has a clear journey. The Kryptonian clash from the end of Man of Steel, which Bruce Wayne witnessed from the streets below in the heart of the war zone, renders him deeply mistrusting of Superman and what he represents. Bruce is convinced of the dangers that these warring deities herald, that they may fight and harm and fell one another, in battles that cause incalculable damage, while the combatants exist as something wholly apart from and indifferent to mankind, with no connection to the mortal beings forced to tremble in the wreckage at their feet. He trains and schemes and develops a plan to fight this enemy. Then, in the moment of truth, he discovers that Superman, in fact, has a very strong, very palpable connection to humanity — the woman who raised him.

 

"ARE YOU READY TO BE FRIENDS NOW?"

 

The Batman in this film is obsessed with living up to his parents’ legacy. There’s a subtext in the flashbacks to his parents’ deaths that from his perspective, his father could have done more to save his mother if only he’d acted faster, if only he’d moved to stop the man who took life and death into his hands first. Bruce means to act faster, to honor his mother’s memory and stop a much more powerful man before he has another opportunity to hurt someone, only to realize that Superman is trying to do the same thing, to protect his own mother.

That epiphany comes from Batman learning that Martha Wayne and Ma Kent share a name. The way that information is delivered–with Batman puzzling over Superman muttering “Martha” until Lois runs in to explain it–is more than a little clunky, but the realization itself is a neat trick. That simple coincidence provides the smallest bit of common ground between the two of them, and helps Batman see the Man of Tomorrow in a new light — not as a god on high, indifferent to the people below him, but as a person with a connection to this world, and to humanity, who’s motivated by the people who raised him the same way that Batman is.

It’s a nice way to bring the two iconic characters together. It draws from the source material, and even if the execution cuts a few corners along the way, it works as a symbol of the things the two heroes have in common. It’s just a shame that Batman’s motives get jumbled in the indulgent and unnecessary dream sequences, that Superman’s reciprocal beef feels more than a bit forced, and that it takes a long, plot hole-filled slog to reach that point.

Whatever pretensions to thematic resonance and examination of real issues Snyder & Co. possess, they’re lost in the undifferentiated gray mass of fists and fury that commands the last third of the film. An endless battle with a hokey-looking cartoon character (seemingly recycled from character designs for The Hobbit) removes the thrill and excitement from what is supposed to be the climax of the film. Instead, the audience is offered an entree of empty violence, that features the occasional neat little moment, but mostly devolves into dull static with little logic or connective tissue.

 

Destined to be airbrushed on the side of somebody's van.

 

It’s not helped by the fact that there’s very few characters ensconced in this grim maelstrom for the audience latch onto. There’s a quiet intensity to Ben Affleck’s Batman, a sense that beneath his calm exterior lies a burning fire, that makes him stand out in BvS. And his humorous, world-weary rapport with Jeremy Irons’s Alfred is one of the few bits of endearing levity in the film. But Batman v. Superman gives us little reason to grow attached to anyone else.

While I don’t mind Henry Cavil’s detached, Doctor Manhattan-esque turn as Superman given the story the film’s telling, where he’s intentionally made to seem distant outside of a few select scenes, that understandably makes him difficult to warm to during most of the movie. Amy Adams is again underutilized as Lois Lane, given plenty to do but little that matches her talents. Holly Hunter makes a lot out of a little as the skeptical Senator Finch, but she quickly succumbs to the weakness of the writing. And Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman is a complete cipher, who, aside from some Catwoman-like interplay with Bruce Wayne, could have just as easily been replaced with Aquaman or Hawkgirl in the big closing battle with little ultimate difference.

And, once again, there’s Lex Luthor, who continues to be one of the most interesting but fatally flawed ingredients in this film. Jesse Eisenberg, an otherwise talented actor, is doing his best Luthor-cum-Heather Ledger’s Joker routine, full of tics, smirks, and quirks meant to distinguish him as the unique uber-bad guy. Eisenberg’s Luthor gets by well enough in the beginning of the film, playing the eccentric young billionaire who thinks he’s smarter than the room and isn’t afraid to take his liberties accordingly. But as Batman v. Superman goes on, he shares a pathology, oddly enough, with the villains in The Amazing Spider-Man films. At some point in the narrative, the story requires him to be more directly antagonistic to the heroes, and the writers decide that he needs to be not simply evil, but full-on nutbar insane to do it, with little motivation for the change. It’s a poor hand for a character clearly intended to be this franchise’s Dark Knight-era Joker or the MCU’s Loki, at the same time Snyder’s trying to make him into Ozymandias.

 

"Hey look! It's the three of us on screen together all at the same time! Isn't that wild?"

 

That’s the frustrating thing about Zack Snyder’s films, whether it be Man of Steel or his own Watchmen adaptation or even 300. He clearly understands that there are big ideas these stories touch on, that there are significant implications to the larger-than-life figures who do battle on the silver screen. He’s smart enough to gesture toward them, to try to incorporate something broader and more intellectual into the films he makes, but in the end he has nothing really to say about them. They’re mere talismans, signifiers of profundity that falter when he forgets to put any substance behind the clunky one-liners and skin-deep tableaus he’s constructed.

There’s a good film buried somewhere within Batman v. Superman–possibly two or three–about the way our world would change in the presence of the supernatural, about how even our greatest champions may be haunted by memories of the people who raised them, and about a shared humanity in beings great and small. But saddled with Snyder’s shallow, muddled take on these themes, the nigh-incoherent plotting and character motivations, the mandatory grandiose-but-weightless battles, and the inevitable loose threads that add little to the proceedings beyond a perfunctory tease of sequels and crossovers, the film, well-meaning though it may be, cannot help but collapse under its own weight.


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6 Responses to Batman v. Superman Is a Well-Intentioned, But Deeply-Flawed Mess of a Film

  1. col says:

    Great article and completely agree. Snyder is a smart man with great ideas but he`s no storyteller. And a movie with this big of a plot, you need someone who`s not only capable of telling one but great at it.

    • Andrew Bloom says:

      Thanks very much, Col! That’s the thing that kills me about Snyder — he has some really interesting takes on these characters and these types of stories, but there’s always something missing when he tries to bring them to life. There’s something to like in every film he makes, there’s just also a lot that seems lacking or poorly-considered too.

  2. ZAR says:

    The funny thing is that the original graphic novel “The Dark Knight Returns” – on which this pointless movie is (mostly) based – has also been turned into an animated movie. AND IT HAS EXACTLY THE SAME ISSUES!

    In the end you’ll find out that Miller really isn’t a great storyteller (and you don’t need a Linkara, to make fun of him). Or even good at psychology. He’s mostly strong at creating images. And scenarios.

    “Batman vs. Superman” simply was made too late to “work”. It should have been done in the – early – 1990s. With Michael Keaton and Christopher Reeves. And even back then it would have MASSIVELY suffered had it stuck too closely to the original story! Watch the animated movie if you don’t believe me.

    And Zack Snyder has never done a good movie. Period. He’s suffering from the VERY same problem Frank Miller is. He can SHOW great, but he cannot tell. He imitates the other medium, but he does NOT understand it.

    Snyder has never LEFT the mindset that (unfortunately) Ridley Scott reached a few years ago (anyone remember Prometheus?): They both believe that they can “fix” a weak story with strong visuals*. Or by constructing a whole film only around ONE single scene, one story segment, and not caring about the rest.

    No, actually you can’t. Especially if you build on a “prequel” that pictured Superman even as brutal and uncaring**.

    * George Lucas – in contrast – obviously believed that you could fix any “weaknesses” in post production. But he never, ever would have constructed his prequels around a single aspect or a single scene. His problem was, that nobody around him during the whole production cycle was able or willing to tell him, that his stories were weak, badly constructed and that he had no idea how to properly direct his actors.

    ** Apart from the game “Injustice: Gods Among Us” there’s also the animated movie “Justice League: Gods and Monsters” which moves along this route… but properly!

    • Andrew Bloom says:

      I’ve seen the DKR animated movie, and thought it felt a little dated and not especially resonant, but I chalked a lot of that up to the Citizen Kane Effect. I think there are some folks who are amazing at coming up with stories but not necessarily great writers (Lucas fits the bill for me), and I haven’t read enough of Miller to say one way or another, but that’s what he sounds like to me from what I’ve heard of him and your description.

      As for Snyder, I think you’re right on the money in terms of his inability to show rather than tell, which makes the lack of clarity in BvS all the more mystifying. I do think he’s a superb visual storyteller, which is why he can succeed with something like 300 that’s all flash and little substance, or the opening segment to Watchmen which succeeds by conveying a good amount of feeling through a quick collection of images. And then there’s Dawn of the Dead, which I’d argue is his best film and, perhaps coincidentally, the one with the most humor, that still makes its bones through a series of powerful and impressive setpieces more than character or plot. But anything where he has to really draw out character development or plot progression or theme and his limitations quickly become apparent.

      (As an aside, I think Ridley Scott had a great return to form with The Martian, and I enjoyed Justice League: Gods and Monsters even if I feel like it leaned into some easy tropes at times.)

  3. Brian Ballast says:

    “That’s the frustrating thing about Zack Snyder’s films, whether it be Man of Steel or his own Watchmen adaptation or even 300. He clearly understands that there are big ideas these stories touch on, that there are significant implications to the larger-than-life figures who do battle on the silver screen. He’s smart enough to gesture toward them, to try to incorporate something broader and more intellectual into the films he makes, but in the end he has nothing really to say about them. They’re mere talismans, signifiers of profundity that falter when he forgets to put any substance behind the clunky one-liners and skin-deep tableaus he’s constructed.”

    What i am to understand from this, and your own superficial understandings that batman, superman, and lex all have parental relationships referenced in the film, and that they all correspond to watchmen characters, is that YOU, not the film, couldn’t be bothered to reach any deeper conclusions from the “clunky one-liners and skin-deep tableaus” and parental themes and watchmen archetype appropriations. batman v superman is supposed to be a film where the characters, especially lex and superman, come across as cyphers the first time you watch it. heck “clunky one-liners”? are you referring to the fact that all of the dialogue is coded, especially lex’s dialogue? it’s supposed to be vague and cryptic the first time you watch the film, all the while seeming like grand proclamations. just because it’s broad and declamatory doesn’t mean it doesn’t suggest deeper things once the viewer gets a better sense of its context within the overall work. the film needs to be seen a least thrice, and its symbolism rigorously deconstructed, before a trustworthy opinion can be forged of it.

    • Andrew Bloom says:

      I’m sorry you feel that way, Brian. As you may be able to tell from the tenor of my review, I’m not particularly inclined to rewatch the film twice more. Still, I think the film lays its ideas out in a pretty bare fashion by the time the credits roll, and the points that seem uncertain on first blush become clearer on reflection after later developments in the movie. That, however, does nothing to save the tin-eared dialogue, which would hurt the film regardless of what it’s trying to say.

      I also don’t believe the symbolism of Batman v. Superman is complex; I think it’s muddled, and reflective of a director who understands the importance of theme and the resonance of superheroes as larger-than-life figures, but does not have a coherent or deep take on that and relies on the equivalent of platitudes instead. There’s obviously room to disagree about this, and what works for one person may be anathema to another, but I stand by my conclusions and my review.

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