I finally watched Batman versus Superman: Dawn of Justice. This was the Extended Cut and at least one review I’ve read suggest that the extra 30 minutes makes the film substantially better. Ah. Hmm. I didn’t see the theatrical version but either that was a huge mess of a film or the extra 30 minutes made the central problem far worse. This was a film that needed editing or some sort of substantial re-jigging. Perhaps what hit the theatres was a failed attempt at that?
Beyond this point, there are spoilers aplenty – so don’t read on if you don’t want to discover who the alter-ego of Superman is or what house Batman lives in [HINT: its an anagram of Mayne Wanor].
Zack Snyder, a man whose arguably best film is about animated owls and whose second best film is a misogynistic mess, is not a terrible filmmaker. A Snyder film will have decent actors and it will look great and is visually imaginative but somehow none of his movies ever really seem to gel. The problematic SuckerPunch navigated this tendency by jumping off into wild action fantasies that were only tangentially related to the plot of a woman trapped in an abusive psychiatric home (or possibly trapped in an abusive brothel). Relieved of having to make all the pieces work together SuckerPunch at least managed to be distinctly different from his other films in the way that it fails (although for a strong defence of it read this.)
So with Bat v Supes we get the same issue. It looks great. The acting is fine. There are some good action bits but the whole thing feels poorly stitched together and it goes on and on and on.
We start with the opening credits and a retelling of the Batman origin story. Bruce Wayne’s parents get killed, Bruce falls down a well and then BATS! Probably not something we need to know but it will be important later on – specifically that Batman’s mum was called Martha. It is nicely done but mainly unnecessary.
After that, it is time to recap last Superman movie but this time from Bruce Wayne’s POV as he attempts to rescue his employees from a Metropolis building that is being destroyed by battling Kryptonian. I like this bit also. It sort of works as a critique of the destruction in the previous film and yet, it sort of doesn’t. Here Bruce Wayne starts on his road to what we will know will bring him to fighting Superman and we also know that Bruce will have to end up deciding that Superman is OK and that maybe they should set up a Justice League or something. Which takes us back to the problem with the last Superman film which felt like we were supposed to be all fine with the casual smashing to bits of a major city.
I may as well say it now because the comparison will be made often: Avengers Age of Ultron and Captain America: Civil War did it better. The heroes showed more concern about the destruction around them in The Avengers films and the critique of that destruction was nuanced in the aftermath.
We skip ahead in time to the later aftermath of the Kryptonian attack on Earth and we see some divers recover some glowing green mineral from the wreck of a Kryptonian craft. Again nicely done. I feel like various pieces are being assembled, all be it a tad slowly.
Then the film goes off on a tangent. Lois Lane is attempting to interview a warlord in ‘Africa’ and things go very Snyderish. There are three elements to this sequence that play some role in the film: 1. reminding us that saving Lois Lane is a thing that Superman does 2. set up a mystery for Lois Lane to investigate (the lead mercenary is a very bad person) and 3. provide a pretext for the anti-Superman sentiment that we will see later in the film. Having said all that, this sequence has sinister mercenaries, armed militiamen, US drone attacks and maverick horse riding US special forces – oh and Jimmy Olsen as a CIA operative disguised as a camera man. The horse riding US special forces are there purely for somebody else to act heroic and so there can be a shot of them riding into the desert to try and rescue Lois Lane before a drone strike hits. They don’t succeed but it is OK because Superman saves her. Now don’t get me wrong – I’m not objecting to Superman saving Lois Lane, it is a required motif of the genre, but it is silly to pretend that there can be any real tension in it. Plot and cohesion and snappy storytelling end up playing second fiddle to visuals that are there for no good reason other than desert+horses=cool.
It is all not good news for Superman. There are hearings into Superman at the Capitol. Holly Hunter (yay!) is expressing concern about Superman’s unilateral action and she has some cause. A witness to the events in ‘Africa’ (I imagine Black Panther wincing every time) is describing a very different set of events than the ones we saw and the deaths are being blamed on Superman.
Back to Batman. What does he do? He fights bad guys. You may have forgotten this, so here is a scene to remind you. OK, it isn’t entirely un-plot relevant. Batman has been chasing down a shady character engaged in people smuggling but also involve in something else… However, Batman seems to have got even grimmer than usual and has taken to branding criminals with a bat symbol – which is somewhat ‘ick’.
Back to Superman: He loves Lois. Lois knows that Clerk is Superman. A handy recap because I didn’t recall that she knew that from the last film.
Back to Batman – oh, the bad guy from the African bit is somebody Bats is chasing as well.
And now onto…Lex Luthor. He’s worked out what kryptonite does.
35 minutes in and we’ve just about got the movie started. Batman, Superman, Lex Luthor kryptonite and disenchantment with Superman, plus some sort of plot with mercenaries. Don’t worry though, the mercenaries are working for Lex Luthor because even when the film is complex it is simplistic.
The film muddles along from there. Batman begins investigating Luthor but primarily he is trying to get his hands on the kryptonite we saw earlier. The mercenary stuff is not really important it is just so we can meet Luthor’s henchman and know that Luthor is a bad egg. At this point, Luthor is a genius mastermind and has a cunning plot.
As the film progresses it turns out that Luthor is just emotionally unstable and doesn’t really have much of a plan at all. The early incidents are Luthor trying to make Superman look bad. Luthor is shown to have strong motivations for disliking Superman but throughout the film, the story mistakes emotional motivation for reasons. Luthor’s make-Superman-look-bad doesn’t have much direction. Eventually, when the film needs the titular showdown, Luthor simply kidnaps Superman’s mum and demands that Superman fights Batman.
Batman, on the other hand, has been emotionally manipulated by Luthor into hating Superman – but even that seems a bit weak. We see a lot of Ben Affleck brooding or having nightmares but Luthor’s manipulation seems only a minor part of things.
Oh, I forgot about the nightmares. The nightmares include an extended glimpse into a dystopian future in which Batman commands the last outpost of resistance against a Superman ruled fascist state run by soldiers wearing Superman logos. This nightmare includes an extended fight scene. It serves no purpose AT ALL but just after Batman wakes up there is a weird time-travel message through some sort of portal. That doesn’t get discussed again either and the two things don’t seem to be related as such. From the magic time portal, Batman is told to seek out Lois Lane and I don’t think he does. The whole sequence is a classic Snyder cul-de-sac-of-cool. It is a dead end for the purpose of spectacle.
Speaking of nightmares, Bruce has one in which his pops out of casket as zombie vampire monster for no good reason. He is a troubled man.
Batman also discovers from files he stole from Lex Luthor that Lex has been documenting other ‘metahumans’ which include a Ms Prince he met earlier. Yay! It’s Wonder Woman and she is here to fight the force of evil. Gal Gadot doesn’t get a big role but she makes a good job of it. There is a tiny glimpse of Aquaman and also The Flash (but not the TV The Flash but another The Flash).
Speaking of troubled men, Lex Luthor as manipulative genius has been long abandoned by this point in the film. He is now more of a weak stand-in for Heath Ledger’s Joker but the earlier Lex Luthor had at least enough brains and forward planning to get the more disordered Lex Luthor access to the remains of a Kryptonian scout craft stuck in the middle of Metropolis. Just to digress – note that the film has taken great pains to remind us all about, Batman’s origin story but expects us to remember the locations of Kryptonian hardware from the last film.
I have lost the plot at this point.Luthor blows up a senate hearing and sort of vaguely implicates Superman. Batman steals Lex Luthor’s Kryptonite. Clark Kent talks to his dead dad on a mountain top (the Kevin Costner dad not the Russel Crowe dad). His mum and Lois get kidnapped by Lex Luthor. Batman equips himself to fight Superman and Lex forces Superman to do so.
Conveniently you can apparently see a bat signal in Gotham from a tall building in Metropolis. They are right next door. I didn’t know that. Handy. Aren’t they father apart in the DC universe? I guess they are both alt-New Yorks in some ways but perhaps Ben Affleck’s presence makes Gotham an alt-Boston? I’m afraid my knowledge of DC-lore is insufficient.
Onto the main event. Batman and Superman have a fight that visually borrows from Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns but otherwise has nothing to do with it. Which is odd when you think about it. Frank Miller’s take on Batman has been important for the cinematic version of Batman but its influence has perhaps become stifling. Yet even accepting its importance, it isn’t that important to the visual aspects of Batman. Snyder seems keen to reprise the visuals of Miller’s book both during this scene and also in a later scene when Superman is all corpse-like in space after being nuked (again visually based on Miller but for quite different plot reasons).
Anyway Batman and Superman fight. Batman uses kryptonite. The fight is brutal and nasty to the point that it is unpleasant. Perhaps Snyder is commenting on the viewers anticipation in watching two heroes fight and expecting fun and is thus showing how brutality is not fun or…maybe he is making a nasty fight scene. Maybe like the misogynism of Sucker Punch, it is both at the same time.
Lois intervenes and a weakened Superman, about to be stabbed with a kryptonite spear by Batman implores Batman to save Martha (Superman’s mum). Batman is discombobulated by Superman’s mum having the same name as HIS mum and reassess his previous decisions and actions vis-a-vis killing Superman. ‘Oh gosh’ thinks Batman ‘I’m a hero who fights criminals and doesn’t kill people and here I am about to murder this guy after poisoning him, oh and didn’t I shoot lots of people earlier and go around branding people in a way that is superficially in-character but actually at odds with the wider mythology surrounding my whole Bat-persona?’ – or at least I imagine he does.
Batman and Superman are now friends but…
You know what is another great DC comic book? The Doomsday series that led to Death of Superman. Let’s work that in somewhere.
Lex Luthor’s back up plan to achieve his objectives (which are,…I don’t know…kill Superman for reasons?) is to learn a pile of knowledge from the crashed Kryptonian ship, get General Zod’s body from the last movie and create a forbidden Kryptonian monster. This does all feel rather tacked on but it means we get more movie after the unsurprising outcome of the titular Superbat-battle.
An epic battle commences against Doomsday (I’m not sure he is directly named and initially, he doesn’t look quite the same ). Wonder Woman joins in to help Batman, Superman and Lois Lane fight Doomsday. Eventually, Superman stabs Doomsday with the kryptonite spear Batman had made to kill Superman with. Sadly Superman dies.
…and then movie still keeps going as we need two funerals and Lex Luthor needs his head shaving.
So *maybe*, if this was chopped up into forty-minute pieces and shown as a TV series, it would be pretty good. The dialogue isn’t terrible (although somewhat humourless) and the acting is fine. It looks great but as a story, it often meanders. Wonder Woman isn’t used well and feels tacked on to the story for the sake of a Justice League sequel.
A bit of Bat-angst is fine but the movie wallows in it. Again the emphasis is on why Bruce/Batman might be emotionally antagonistic to Superman but it is much weaker in giving him clear reasons to act (other than scary dystopian dreams). There is no sense of urgency in the film from Batman’s feelings. Yes, he is worried about what a future Superman might do, but it is a big leap from that to imagining that he’d be OK with murdering Superman as a consequence. Again, worth comparing with Civil War. Tony Stark/Iron Man is given both emotional motivation but also more overt reasons for acting.
Jesse Eisenberg is fine as Lex Luthor but the villain himself is pointless. The film can’t decide if he is a mastermind of just psychotic but not in an interesting way of exploring an ambiguous character but simply because the story really lacks any coherent evil scheme for him to follow.
Perhaps the best-served character is Lois Lane. Most of what she does makes sense and serves both the plot and her character. Amy Adams gives a good performance and is plausible throughout.
So not a movie that is unwatchable nor one that doesn’t have many good components but in so many ways weak and lacking coherence.