Editor’s note: Be sure to check out the rest of our #TBT reviews on the DCEU here.
I have now watched Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice four times (one being the Extended Cut that makes the film a “better” and more “coherent” viewing experience). The first time was on opening day and the film failed to meet my already modest expectations. I was never truly excited for the film but had it dazzled me I would’ve been the first person to sing its praises. The end result, for me, was an overlong and haphazardly edited motion picture that only had sprinkles of inspired moments (more on that later).
Sometimes the viewing experience at home can make things different. Time away from a film can allow you to come back in with a fresh perspective and maybe make you forgiving of some of its shortcomings because all the hype has died down. This was not the case with Batman v Superman. The viewing experience at home was even more of a chore and it only allowed me to pick apart issues that I had with it when I saw it in theaters.
Then there was the Extended Director’s Cut which seemed to be loved by DC fanboys because it made the film a more cohesive experience. I’ll give credit where credit is due. The major issue with the theatrical cut was that it looked like it was edited by a 2-year-old. The film jumped around from scene to scene with no real purpose and wreaked of being excessively rushed, despite having a 2 and a half hour runtime to tell its story. The Extended Cut mostly fixes some of these editing issues but it also makes the film clock in even longer which doesn’t fix the problem of it overstaying its welcome.
The fourth viewing took place this week as we prepare a bit of a throwback to the DCEU films released so far as Justice League is unleashed upon us on Friday. Not only did I watch this film again but I also revisited Man of Steel (flawed but nowhere near a trainwreck) and Wonder Woman (still the queen that rules them all and should be the standard the DCEU should strive for). Dawn of Justice, for the fourth time out, is still a mess. I would love to say something has changed but the failure of this installment in the DCEU is more than just disappointing, it’s also frustrating. Have you ever seen potential in someone or something and just see it being squandered? That’s my overall feeling with Batman v Superman. There are so many incredible moving parts at its disposal but it can’t effectively use nearly all of them. The question is, after seeing this four times now, who do we blame for the film’s shortcomings?
I’m not a big fan of the Marvel v. DC battle between fanboys. Let me give DC some credit by saying when someone great is at the helm and they are given the freedom to tell that story effectively you can get masterpieces (look no further than Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy). Those are solid comic book films that also function as compelling dramas with stories worth telling. The world they exist in is bleak and very dark but its organic to the plot and feels like a necessity rather than a visual crutch. Man of Steel dabbles in a similar darkness but it doesn’t feel natural to the plot. It feels as if being dark and moody is a brave visual choice and that’s simply not the case when you’re doing it for the sake of doing it. Batman v Superman turns the notch up on that darkness and it serves even less purpose. Sure, Batman lives in the darkness but give us a reason to care about the darkness that he inhabits.
Marvel tends to be criticized by DC fanboys for being lighter than their offerings but the issue isn’t light versus dark. Marvel could probably tell the darkest of stories and still be compelling because they put the time and effort into their films. The fact that they happen to be fun and not take themselves so seriously is an added bonus. Batman v. Superman is so serious that it becomes unintentionally funny because it’s not self-aware enough to realize how ridiculous it can be.
Adding to the debate of these 2 comic book brands is the time and care put into one brand and the lack of time and care put into the other. Marvel carefully plotted individual films before giving us The Avengers and I guess DC, feeling late to the game, rushes through a lot of moments in Batman v Superman to set up there on team-up effort, Justice League. The cameo’s in Batman v. Superman (save one) to set this up feeling like they were thrown in as an afterthought. Like, “oh yeah make sure we mention Aquaman and The Flash because they’ll be important eventually”. This is a studio problem more than anything. Warner Bros. is trying to keep up with the competition and tripping over their own feet to do so.
I suppose this feels more like a rant than a proper review so let me get into the film as a whole. To get the point that is heavily promoted with the film’s title, Batman v Superman figures out a way to establish the superheroes as rivals rather than buddies. Each question the other’s legitimacy. Batman (Ben Affleck) watched friends die as a result of Superman’s battle with Zod in Man of Steel. He’s also concerned about the future possibility of Superman turning against his adopted planet. Meanwhile, Superman (Henry Cavill) sees the Dark Knight of Gotham as a dangerous vigilante. To even the playing field when these two square off, Snyder introduces Kryptonite. With Superman diminished, he and Batman can pound on each other for a while without it seeming ridiculous that Batman is a mere mortal and Superman could realistically kick his ass. Meanwhile, supergenius Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg) is up to no good, although this time he’s interested in more than a real estate scam.
Things don’t start off on an incredibly negative note. The first 15 minutes are perfectly rousing and showcase director Zack Snyder at his best. Snyder is a visual director and thrives when spectacle is at the forefront. The action sequences and CGI are mostly top notches (save the overblown spectacle of its ending which is a victim of an issue that plagues many superhero films, even the good ones). If Snyder could rely solely on his visual eye things would be in a better place but Snyder isn’t good at directing solid character development. There are some iconic characters in the film (the title characters being the most iconic of them all) but they lack life. They’re avatars and even though they’re effectively played for the most part (Ben Affleck doesn’t embarrass himself as Bruce Wayne/Batman & Henry Cavill is stoic enough to represent what Superman stands for) they’re not done any favors by the script. The actors can only do so much before it’s just 2 guys in costumes jumping from one action sequence to the next.
Then at 154 minutes, Batman v Superman is a bit of a muddled mess. With so much time to tell a compelling story, it’s a shame that it doesn’t get the service it deserves. There are some incoherent dream sequences and scenes that jump from one extreme to the next with a lack purpose. The common thing from all 4 of my viewings of this film (less so with the Extended Cut) is that the edit jumps are noticeably jarring. So jarring in fact that they induce whiplash. It’s never a good sign when you have to say “so why did that just happen?”
The supporting players are a bit of a mixed bag. Despite my distaste for the film, the one thing I seem to be a minority on is Jesse Eisenberg’s turn as Lex Luthor. I know many weren’t pleased with his turn but he was a breath of fresh air in a film that suffers from taking itself too seriously. He comes off as brilliant and wonderfully unhinged which makes him better than the run of the mill villain bent on world domination. It’s a different take but it’s one that worked for me.
On the other end of the spectrum, Amy Adams is a poor Lois Lane. This has been the case since she took on the role in Man of Steel and it hasn’t changed here. She’s most definitely a capable actress but she just isn’t right for the part. She lacks the tenacity to make Lane pop and her chemistry with Henry Cavill doesn’t set the screen on fire. Again, this was also a Man of Steel problem and it’s not really rectified here. Jeremy Irons is an ok Alfred but he seems to play the role with a bit more contempt than loyalty when compared to Alfred’s from the other films.
Finally, we have Gal Gadot, in her first appearance as Wonder Woman. Before the film was released, Gadot got her fair share of criticism because many people felt she was wrong for the part. As we know now, Gadot proved to be the best thing this film had to offer and her solo film represents the true pinnacle of the DCEU. Admittedly, she’s shoehorned in to set up her solo film an appearance in Justice League, but her scenes give the film the much-needed energy it lacks. You honestly crave more of her whenever she’s off-screen.
As I write this review, the Justice League reviews have begun to drop and they range from mixed to abysmal. Despite Wonder Woman offering a bright spot among the muck (I didn’t even mention the mediocrity of Suicide Squad which is also in this universe), it seems like the DCEU hasn’t learned it needs to take time to tell a compelling story. Rushing these films out to make a quick buck, when they’re lacking in innovation, may pull in coin for the time being but it spoils the brand. That’s a depressing endgame for a gallery of characters that could have solid stories told on the big screen if the studio cared more about quality.
Reel Talk gives Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice 1.5 Reels