With a horrendous 28% (5/10 average rating) on Rotten Tomatoes, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice ranks among the worst reviewed superhero movies of all time – it sits even lower than X-Men Origins: Wolverine (38% – 5.1/10) and other 2016 bombs such as The Brothers Grimbsy (38% – 4.7/10). But was it really the catastrophe that most critics have painted it as? Short answer? No, not by a long shot. Time to give Batman v. Superman the “Benefit of the Doubt” and look at what worked (as well as what didn’t). Extensive spoilers within.
Let me start by saying I didn’t dislike Batman v Superman. I didn’t like it either. I also didn’t find it a middle of the road, lifeless movie. It was more disappointing than bad, unfulfilling than flat-out terrible, and full of decisions that were stupid/questionable more so than incompetent and awful. This isn’t to say that there isn’t stuff to hate about this movie, but the hate this megafranchise megamovie has received is far greater than the final product deserves. Though at times, it feels as though it was destined to be reviled from before cameras even started rolling.
The most obvious place to start when looking at the near universal animosity is director Zack Snyder, Public Enemy Number One when it comes to the ire spewed towards Man of Steel and Batman v Superman. Needless to say, Snyder isn’t a particularly beloved director, and the fact his first name rhymes with Hack makes it so much easier to lambaste the Sucker Punch filmmaker. Yet ironically, Snyder, who is arguably the film’s biggest weakness, may also be its greatest strength. For better or worse (a lot of people will say worse – quite loudly), Batman v Superman, and by extension the DC Extended Universe, is his vision. I personally find that an interesting contrast to Marvel, which despite its massive success mostly feels as though it lacks a single, artistic voice (though it has a pleasant consistency thanks to the guiding hand of Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige). Whether DC’s specific voice being Snyder’s specific voice is a good or bad thing (a lot of people will say bad – quite loudly) remains to be seen, but at least he seems to be trying to do his own thing rather than flat out ape Marvel Studios in look and design. (For all their faults, his two Superman films have an epic quality in a way that mostly eludes the Marvel films.)
Snyder’s tendency towards epic and spectacle can definitely work towards his detriment as much as it does towards his advantage. Like with many superhero movies, this was a movie that tried to be way too much at once – way too much. It tries to be a sequel/meta-apology to Man of Steel, a serious look at the aftermath of Man of Steel (which failed to have a real conclusion despite it being the crux of the movie), a Batman re-origin story, an adaptation of The Dark Knight Returns, a last minute adaptation of The Death of Superman, and DC’s version of The Avengers all at once. Considering everything Batman v Superman tried to accomplish and attempted to be, it was actually almost successful – albeit in a unsubtle and sloppy way. At times, it felt like watching several Justice League animated series episodes out of order. Yet despite its bloated story, it was still more streamlined and easy-to-follow than Avengers: Age of Ultron. I’m not saying it’s better than Avengers 2, just that it was more successful in areas where last year’s team-up movie wasn’t.
Disappointingly, the biggest problem with this Justice League franchise is less Snyder and more Superman, or rather his personality … which we can probably blame on Snyder. Anyway, The Last Son of Krypton is just not a pleasant guy. He doesn’t save lives with a smile and the satisfaction of a job well done. Whether helping people trapped by a flood or on an exploding rocket, he looks like he’s doing penance. He showed no emotion at the Capitol explosion. He doesn’t do his job at The Daily Planet. The only people he seems to like are Lois and his adopted mother. No wonder no one showed up at his funeral. (Though I did like the beat-you-over-the-head symbolism of the real body of Kal-El being buried in a basic pine box while Superman gets the fancy casket. )
[Side note: It’s still fascinating to me when superhero movies remove so much of what makes the characters important yet keep in “iconic” aspects that don’t necessarily fit the movie. Just because Goblin appeared, didn’t mean Gwen Stacey needed to die in The Amazing Spider Man 2. Just because Doomsday appeared, doesn’t mean Superman needed to die defeating him. He’s Superman, we know he’s not going to stay dead so the emotional connection is deadened…especially with this Superman. (Ironically, he was condemned by the world for directly saving an entire family from Zod but the world mourns his death for saving no one in particular?)]
Aside from Cavill, the other actors are universally fair. The biggest question mark was always Jesse Eisenberg as Lex, but I thought his performance was mostly good; the character itself was the problem. Lex’s motivations and schemes ranged from ill-thought out to flat-out absent, but Eisenberg himself was solid. The most bizarre aspect was how Lex failed to capitalize on the best way for to achieve his goal: The Capitol explosion. For anyone on the fence of whether Superman is a hero or a villain, blaming Superman for the tragedy would have been a surefire way to get him ostracized. Didn’t Snyder do this with Watchmen and Ozymandias and Dr. Manhattan? Yep. Would it matter? No. It’s not as if Snyder is above repurposing ideas – his own and others – but it would have made a lot more narrative sense than destroying the Capitol (and killing poor Mercy Graves and half the cast) for no reason. Unfortunately, despite a relatively good set up, Lex ended up suffering from Bond villain-level stupidity. By the end, he reveals his entire scheme rather than using his intelligence to distance himself from the fallout.
I’m sure it’s been said by plenty of people before me, but a Lex who is smart enough not to go to jail seems far more dangerous than one who is imprisoned. Though I guess this deleted scene shows why he simply wouldn’t care what happens to him. After all, what threat can a humble human be when you have a super duper alien villain a thousand times bigger than Doomsday who’s coming? Except…wouldn’t it be a nice change of pace for the epic threat to be more homebound? We had the massive destruction of Man of Steel and we had the massive destruction of Doomsday (of course, the entire area was “evacuated” – because Man of Steel went over so poorly that now all superhero movies need to give us a running civilian death count), yet those ended up being among the weakest elements of their respective films. Despite the massive lore connected to Darkseid and Apokolips (Darkseid’s home planet), won’t we just end up in the same place? Boring massive destruction that goes on forever? That being said, seeing the destruction of Man of Steel from the ground level with Wayne and the rest of Metropolis citizens was perhaps the most effective sequence in either of the two movies.
[Side note: If anyone should have nightmares about Darkseid (i.e. the “desert sequence”), it should be Lex who is experimenting with Kryptonian technology and therefore would have better subconscious ‘knowledge’ of alien threats across the galaxy. There’s no reason for Batman to know about Omega beams.]
Nevertheless, special credit needs to go to Eisenberg for having a performance that gives the movie a nice jolt of energy. Jesse and Jeremy Irons were the two actors who gave the most life to their respective roles. Irons’ Alfred acknowledging Bruce Wayne’s talents as a spy over being Batman near the beginning was a nice approach to show his potential relevance to the Justice League – not as a fighter but as a thinker. (Similarly, Clark-as-Clark using his superhearing to discover Bruce Wayne’s secret was a good use of his powers.) I also thought Scoot McNairy as Lex’s Trojan Horse Wallace Keefe (raise your hand if you thought he’d be future-Flash Wally West when he gave his first name to Bruce Wayne at the beginning) gave a decent, albeit underused, performance. It would have been interesting to see him more active in the scheme rather than being stuck as a passive pawn. Gadot and Affleck were also fine, and it’s easy to imagine them continuing in these roles. That being said, it was great seeing the agility and flexibility of Batman in a way we’ve never seen in live action before, and we bought into Batman’s motivations even without the decades of history defining their relationship prior to their fight that made The Dark Knight Returns so powerful. Though I guess now it’s clear that The Dark Knight blatantly murders people while using guns.
Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman (and Lois) seemed to work well together, but it wasn’t nearly as effective as it could have been. Yet another night-heavy, senses-deadening action sequence … except now we have a Doomsday laser light show to make things even harder to see (at least the Battle of Metropolis took place during the day). Plus Batman only had one Kryptonite gas canister left to use against a monster who was taller than buildings – what good could he really do? Maybe if they had some communication devices, it would have played better by allowing us to see the characters’ rapport with one another. (Why not introduce some Wayne Tech? Batman apparently had an extra cowl lying around.)
For all the complaints, Batman v Superman is not as bad as other big budget tentpoles of recent years. It’s certainly superior to the likes of Josh Trank’s Fantastic Four (which I previously Benefit of the Doubt-ed, Green Lantern, and X-Men Origins: Wolverine. Despite its superfluous overlong action sequences, it never feels as disconnected or dull as Spectre. Though Batman and Superman’s moms having the same name stopping the fight is about as stupid as Blofeld being Bond’s presumed dead half brother. It was the equivalent of Springfield Milhouse meeting Shelbyville Milhouse in The Simpsons‘ “Lemon of Troy”.
So what does this mean for the rest of the DC Extended Universe? This movie starts the franchise off on a … complicated note. On a positive hand, even without those (unnecessary) videos of The Flash, Cyborg, and Aquaman, one leaves Batman v Superman with a sense of a mostly formed universe. But is this a universe we’ll want to return to? Maybe, but maybe not. Much like my feelings after Man of Steel, I certainly see potential here, but also many pitfalls. Batman v Superman certainly builds on Man of Steel, but it still feels like it’s playing catch up to Marvel. Like Superman’s first flight, it lacks an element of grace, but after this film, one definitely gets the sense that we may be close to what this franchise will “be” rather than remaining in a permanent holding pattern of what it will “become” (e.g. The Amazing Spider-Man series). Hopefully, allowing new voices through David Ayer’s Suicide Squad and Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman will lead to an Extended Universe that feels even better fleshed out and less dominated by Snyderness.
Unfortunately, over the past few days with the film’s remarkable box office success, the narrative has shifted to critics v. audiences (at least wait until seeing the returns of second weekend before you declare one side victorious). This is not the way to view or approach the franchise and its future. Batman v Superman is a highly flawed film, but one with enough going for it to not completely count it out. Neither side is entirely right, but neither side is entirely wrong. Feeling as though one needs to choose a side in Team Critics v. Team DC will only prevent Justice League and this entire franchise from correcting its mistakes and getting itself on an equal playing field with Marvel … or at least something not completely despised from the word go.