THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS
Batman v Superman Dawn of Justice. Where do I begin? 3 years ago Zack Snyder and Harry Lennix shocked us all by reading a quote from The Dark Knight Returns on-stage at Comic-Con, sending the DC fanbase into a goddamn frenzy. The search was on for a new Batman, and the Man of Steel sequel was beginning to come together. Next, we get news that Wonder Woman will be making her first big screen appearance as well, and the expectations for the movie shot up with every new piece of information. Oscar-award winning screenwriter Chris Terrio? Jesse Eisenberg as Lex Luthor? Jeremy Irons as Alfred? The list of information spread out over the span of about 1000 days is too endless to list. Now that the day finally came where we can enjoy the movie, it’s not shameful to feel…a little bit underwhelmed.
Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice‘s biggest problem, yet which is also it’s biggest strength, is that it’s structured and presented exactly as a comic book or graphic novel would be. You can feel the stacks of single issues in the movie that culminate into one big, giant trade paperback that a delayed reader would pick up. The problem with this is that the film’s screenplay envelopes itself with a unique and jarring presentation which may or may not take repeat viewings to finally get a grasp of. Much like Gone Girl, it’s unconventional layout makes viewers either flip a switch on that says “Alright, I have to change how I watch this film” or for some others, “this isn’t how movies are supposed to be made, this is lame.” which is completely understandable, for non-comic readers. The basic principles of a comic book apply to this film in every single way, which is why it’s probably so divisive right now.
It’s troubling, for me, as I am a lover of film and a lover of comic books. I’ve extensively read both film screenplays and graphic novels, and reviewed for both mediums in the past. However, it feels as though the film’s editing was clearly tampered with to cut it down to a presentable theatrical cut length. Plenty of scenes — which were gorgeous and fantastic, such as Kevin Costner’s cameo — felt out of place and didn’t necessarily link with the rest of the film’s context. It definitely exudes breath that this is not Zack Snyder’s full and complete film, which is why the Extended Cut was probably announced weeks in advance to assure viewers that there is more than what we saw, in the case there were any reservations.
It almost feels as if Batman v Superman denies itself a traditional second act in favor for an extended final battle, whereas Man of Steel’s third act was a bit short so it almost offered itself a fourth act to finally deal with General Zod. During the climactic battle with Doomsday, we’re often suddenly cut away from the gigantic momentous action to give us a glimpse of what else is happening in the world that isn’t quite important to the story, to present elements that somehow would’ve been great if the middle had more of a traditional roller coaster vibe. Yet, this is almost the same structure that comic books follow. And that’s how Batman v Superman presents itself through thick and through thin, as a comic book film. It’s a comic book movie made for comic book fans.
Ignoring how it’s built in the underlying layers, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice actually boasts a really fantastic, gripping and heart-stopping story-line culminating threads that started from the beginning of Man of Steel. The film features Clark Kent’s natural extension to his Man of Steel character arc, where he’s trying to still figure out what his purpose is, but the public just won’t care to see it, only for him to realize Lex Luthor is framing him for nefarious crimes. Then, you have Batman and Wonder Woman looking into Lex, which prompts Lex to bring Batman and Superman together in a fight to the death, but why? It’s almost a storyline completely pulled from the panels of a comic book, and that’s why it’s brilliant for DC fans like us. This is probably another “elemental clash” that critics couldn’t quite grasp, it’s the fact that Batman v Superman presents a cartoon-style storyline and characters with the aesthetic and tone of an adult film, much like DC’s actual comics do. Other comic book movies usually pick one or the other, even Zack Snyder’s previous adaptations had a concrete or significant style.
Speaking of Zack Snyder’s previous efforts, this film is probably a complete polar opposite from Man of Steel, which, aside from the natural story line extension, makes it feel as if it’s not even connected to the predecessor. With Man of Steel, the focus that Snyder and company had was that it took place in a very relate-able, grounded environment that viewers can sympathize with. They built sets with Sears, iHop, 7/11 and much more to make it feel as if we were living in the movie. The coloring was a bit desaturated to reflect that as well, among other things. With Batman v Superman, we have the reverse. Insanely vivid colors, fictional and outlandish locations and sometimes blatantly stupid-fun setpieces or concepts. I’m not even saying this in a negatively way, because this is actually the correct reflection of a DC Comics book, it’s just possibly another reason why people didn’t quite expect such a cartoon from this film considering how realistic Man of Steel was. Everything from Lex’s insane, maniacal plan, the almost satirical depiction of the “evil military” and the birth of a giant monster by subjecting Zod’s body to a DNA merger felt almost like a “self-parody” of not only older comic book movies, but Zack’s previous work itself. To put it bluntly, Man of Steel was the beta test and Batman v Superman is the final product launch.
In an odd way, it almost feels as though Batman v Superman is the flipped version of Snyder’s 2009 adaptation of Watchmen and I fully expect Justice League to sort of follow this thematic reversal. Through my personal interpretation, Watchmen is one of the most layered, complete films there are yet it disguises itself as a cartoonish superhero film in a satirical way when it’s everything but that, whereas Batman v Superman disguises itself as a strong, serious dark piece like Watchmen when it’s actually a cartoonish superhero film, and it definitely works for this piece of film. That’s not to say Batman v Superman doesn’t have layers or depth — because it certainly has plenty as that comes with the package of having Snyder make your film — it’s just that first and foremost the movie is about creating a love letter to some of the greatest hits of Superman.
Zack Snyder’s goal with these movies is to create the definitive Superman who goes through thick and thin, adapting his greatest ups and downs from the comics and using the real world audience as a mirror reflection for his films. Despite being a Batman fan all my life and someone who sort of neglected Superman (and later got a proper appreciation for the character), I can’t deny that these movies are all about Superman, especially with the religiously allegoric ending where he sacrificed himself for the greater good despite the world (even our real one) not quite deserving such a sacrifice. I just firmly believe that there’s a misguided definitive depiction of Superman in some people’s minds that lead them to not understand the heavy faithfulness to not only the character, but his world of DC Comics, in these films.
During the final act’s climactic battle, I have to wonder if the multiple — yet, not forced — mentions of no civilians being in the range of danger was due to a response of Man of Steel’s constant criticism (in which over 5,000 people died) because Superman flying Doomsday into space — leading to the nuke scene from The Dark Knight Returns, executed brilliantly — was a natural extension to his character’s traumatic experience from the fight with General Zod. However, Wonder Woman asking Batman why he drove Doomsday to Gotham’s abandoned docks, and then the military mentioning Stryker’s Island being empty felt a bit on-the-nose of a response to the destruction criticism. Nevertheless, it definitely worked for all the characters involved. Wonder Woman knows how traumatic these monsters can be from her past, and Batman’s line in the Batwing — “It’s happening again, Alfred” — spoke almost more about the character’s stance on the Battle of Metropolis than even the intro flashback scene did.
Talking about more of a technical aspect of the movie now, Larry Fong and the rest of the crew worked tirelessly to make the movie look absolutely beautiful from the first frame going forward. Not a single shot in the movie looks uninspired or lazy, and some camera setups are so genius to convey a presentation of the strong narrative. A notion I once thought to be impossible — for a film to have a better funeral scene than The Comedian — was surpassed with almost seamless ease as Superman and Clark Kent’s parallel funerals were beautifully executed with gorgeous shots and a score that shattered my emotional resistance. Clark being buried in an old-school traditional wooden coffin whilst the American flag being pulled off of Superman’s expensive, luxurious coffin with a silver S spoke volumes. Especially with the importance of that symbol meaning “hope”, it was now being buried into the ground. Yet, the destruction of the biggest symbol of hope is what causes that very value to persevere in future films with the Justice League, which is a particularly odd topic to discuss with this film for me.
I don’t believe there is a single shot in the movie that isn’t perfect for it’s purposes, and even the cinematography and camera operation felt like it came out of a comic book or video game, something that isn’t foreign to Zack Snyder films. This is definitely one aspect that is undeniably better than Man of Steel, as that film had questionable shots and snap-zooms that did seem a bit odd. Perhaps it was the return of Snyder’s longtime friend and partner Larry Fong that skyrockets the quality of visuals in Batman v Superman, a master in his field of work that will be praised for decades to come and even long after his death, hopefully. It’s a friendly and committed crew that keeps Zack Snyder films at top level, because everyone is so in-sync with each other after years and years of hard work. Zack, Larry, Clay, Michael Wilkinson and the rest of the regulars are such pioneers and so dedicated to the craft that they are always improving, always innovating whether those tests have positive outcomes or not, Snyder is never afraid to try something new especially with the incredibly brave and ballsy as fuck ending Batman v Superman entails.
There’s enough of Batman v Superman to talk about to fill an entire book’s worth, but one thing that can’t go unmentioned is the incredibly performances by the cast. In her small — yet vital — role in the film, Diane Lane absolutely slays as Martha Kent, a veteran actress who probably won’t get enough praise for her contributions to these films. Ben Affleck destroys every Batman that came before him with powerful line delivery and not only an accurate representation of a troubled Bruce Wayne, but a destructive and tormented Batman as well. In the film, the two characters have almost merged into one, with Alfred being the core divider to prevent the chaotic mess that would be if Batman assimilated Bruce Wayne or vise versa. Jesse Eisenberg’s criminally insane, yet manipulative Lex Luthor is a picture-perfect mirror reflection of not only the version of the character from comic books, but also retains some DNA from the early Richard Donner films with Gene Hackman playing the mad scientist. It’s almost as if Lex is still a child, seeking approval from his (now deceased) father, a thread that very well could have been pulled from the TV show Smallville, which Snyder is a confessed fan of. Henry Cavill also massively improves, where some of his best performances are those even without dialogue, as his body and facial language speak hundreds of words, such as the scene where the U.S Capitol explodes and he’s just standing in the middle of the explosion. I don’t see how any of the acting in Batman v Superman can be criticized.
To summarize, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with Batman v Superman in a technical aspect. When it comes to the creation and behind-the-scenes process of painting the canvas, it’s unbelievable some of the stuff they pulled off and I’d love to study the ins and outs. However, from an artistic point of view, Batman v Superman definitely has it’s structure, pacing and editing problems amongst other things. It’s clear the movie we paid to see in theatres is not Zack Snyder’s complete vision. I think the issue so many critics have with Batman v Superman is that through each and every layer it has, it exudes comic book DNA. Despite some viewers thinking this is a negative because it doesn’t fit the medium of film, it’s exactly what Zack Snyder was going for. Martha Kent’s line rings too true with almost all of Zack Snyder’s experimental filmography; “People hate what they don’t understand. […] You don’t owe this world a damn thing”.