There is a lot riding on Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. Though Man of Steel was its own standalone movie, this story has the burden of continuing Superman’s journey, rebooting Batman, introducing many (many) new characters and heroes, launching the DC Extended Universe, all while succeeding as a two and a half hour film. Audiences have so many questions going into this film.
Is Zack Snyder, widely praised as a visually compelling director whose movies are only as good as their scripts, up to the task of launching a cinematic universe that must balance PG-13 action and compelling characters? Could the filmmakers overcome the obvious pressure to quickly build to a team-up movie while trying to tell the story of a contained conflict between two heroes? In the age of Guardians of the Galaxy and Deadpool, is there really a need for a superhero franchise to live and breathe in the “dark and serious” realm? Though Batman v Superman asks way more questions (and answers very few), the answer to these questions is sadly: no.
Batman v Superman is preoccupied with many things: telling a coherent story with engaging characters is not one of them. It is hard to try to sum up the plot of the film, as it is so scattershot in its approach, but basically we have three main characters: Bruce Wayne/Batman (Ben Affleck), Clark Kent/Superman (Henry Cavill), and Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg). Each of these characters deal with the catastrophic events of Man of Steel in different ways, each of them has a different ideology for world-safety that drives them. It is in this set-up, a Batman-Superman-Lex power struggle, that I believe the film could have worked. That is a smaller story, with clear character motivations and the opportunity for some great scenes of conflict. But that is not the only story Batman v Superman is telling.
No, because in addition to the three characters above, each one of them have their own side-characters and subplots as well. There is a more substantial role for Lois Lane (Amy Adams), both as journalist and girlfriend. In addition to our new Batman, we have a new Alfred (Jeremy Irons) and he is great; unfortunately Irons’ great performance has to be balanced with way too many other subplots. We have various senators, political figures, and seedy criminals telling a story that tries to involve our main characters, but really just muddies the movie. And of course, we have to make time to build the extended universe. In addition to Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), there is some significant time spent setting up future movies; this goes beyond an easter egg, wading into full-on subplot territory.
There are a lot of characters here, there are various religious metaphors at play throughout the film, plus there is the balancing act between dark/serious and scenes of levity. Batman v Superman has a story it is trying to tell, while it also is burdened with not only looking back and addressing Man of Steel, but it seems as though it required it also to be burdened with looking ahead for future franchise films. Bottom line, there is just too much happening, and Snyder (along with screenwriters David S. Goyer and Chris Terrio) are not up to the task of balancing this collection of ideas.
For example, the first hour of the film switches between all of these characters and subplots with a central mystery pushing the plot forward. At least you hope there is a mystery driving the plot, because everything is so confusing. Scene after scene happens without any obvious connection between them. After 30 minutes of confusion, you have to give the filmmakers the benefit of the doubt that this is some Rube Goldberg/mystery box plot, and the reveal will make all of these scenes make sense. That reveal never comes. Instead, we jump right into the action for the last half of the film, and because we did not connect to the characters in the first half of storytelling, there is zero investment in the action scenes of the second half.
There is a big batmobile car chase in the middle of the film. Batman has finally found the “thing” he has been investigating. What is the “thing?” Who are the criminal factions involved? How is this connected to the other main plots involved? Why is the Batman not concerned with the various lives it appears he is ending? Whether by accident or purposeful misdirection, the film is not concerned with making sure the audience has any investment in the scene. But I guess it looks cool.
Analyzing that specific action scene, an uninviting mess that looks cool, is the best way to describe Batman v Superman as a whole. Many things can be said about Zack Snyder; saying that he does not do visuals well will never be one of them. Along with cinematographer Larry Wong, Snyder has created a beautiful looking mess with this film. Each individual scene could work as an amazing Batman/Superman/DC Comics short film. There are ideas and motifs that are communicated visually, and the action is really cool to look at, but edited together for a two-hour movie? The beauty of Snyder’s direction is lost.
It looks as if this film is well-intentioned, it just has too much going on for its own good. There are some good performances by Affleck and others, as mentioned, Snyder’s direction is great to look at, and there is some slight fun in seeing future DC movies teased. Maybe these positives can outweigh the overstuffed plot, confusing editing, and muddled messages. Unfortunately, there is one more negative to be discussed when describing my feelings towards this film. And it is not one character, or a subplot, or a story idea, or a theme. It is the tone, specifically the feeling in the movie. The overall feeling the film gave me was that of crushing depression. Warner Bros has staked its claim as being the “dark and serious” superhero storytellers. With the success of The Dark Knight trilogy and Watchmen, a pattern was set, and I believe it is a disastrous pattern to follow. In addition to the feeling of confusion, after about 45 minutes I pretty much threw my hands in the air and gave up. The film pummels you with its self-seriousness and depressing tone. Every single character, line of dialogue, camera motion, musical choice, everything, it all works together to tear down any sense of positivity you may have towards a film like this.
Maybe that can work, maybe there is a place for a PG-13 depressing superhero film, maybe. But it is not here evident here in Batman v Superman. This level of sadness is appreciated in Watchmen, a film that criticizes superhero stories while dealing with rape, murder, profanity, and nuclear war. This level of sadness has officially overstayed its welcome with this film. I don’t believe superhero films have to mimic the 20th century optimism of which they were created. There is a way to tell a serious superhero story while also grounding the characters in the real world and have them interact in a post-modern 21st century. It is possible to tell a superhero story that is serious; Batman v Superman is not to be an example of that.
The “dark and serious” motif was pushed over the edge in this film. Call me old-fashioned, but when you have characters dressed in goofy outfits fighting each other, some levity is appreciated. We don’t need to be dealing with themes of religious martyrdom or dealing with 9/11 level terrorism in a film like this. Maybe other filmmakers are up to the task of addressing those issues in the midst of a superhero film, but it is not these filmmakers, and it is not this movie. The film’s unrelenting commitment to being serious brings down any and all enthusiasm you might have from seeing these amazing characters on the big screen.
I’m worried. I’m worried as someone who has defended Zack Snyder in the past: can he do anything besides “serious” movies that seem like SNL-style parodies? I’m worried as a Batman fan: though his darkness worked in the Dark Knight films, were the wrong lessons learned from Christopher Nolan’s brilliant trilogy? I’m worried as a superhero movie fan, I truly am. With Snyder and Goyer continuing on to Justice League, is there any hope? If Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is any indicator, then no, there is no hope. And make no mistake, the removal of hope or any sense of optimism did not happen by mistake, it was a purposeful creative choice. And that creative choice, to take away the hope these characters are capable of inspiring, derailed this film before it even started.