Feb 6, 2020
Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016) is a long, dull trainwreck
[Editor’s Note: This review contains some mild spoilers about Batman v Superman, including the ending, which we’re classifying as a “mild spoiler” because it was already given away in the trailer.]
In the IMAX with my parents, watching this movie.
Turn to my mother.
Me: “I’ll keep you safe, Martha.”
Martha: “Can you save me from this crappy movie?”
Yes, my mother is named Martha. Me, Superman, and Batman are BFFs. And I may or may not be an iconic superhero. Random bit of trivia. And now, onto the obligatory Dawn of Justice review.
Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is a very, very boring film. Don’t get me wrong; there’s a lot of good stuff in it—the cinematography, in particular, is fantastic—but it’s a film that drowns in itself and doesn’t come close to justifying either its running time or its premise.
I should say, in spite of it being two and a half hours long (with a three-hour director’s cut coming out on Blu-ray sometime in the future), it doesn’t feel like an especially long film (at first). We actually get to the climax at around the two-hour mark… but that, of course, means the last half hour is just one long, epic action set-piece, as Superman faces off against Batman before the pair team up over the Marthas in their lives, then shortly after, they team up with Wonder Woman to take on Doomsday. It might seem like a spoiler to talk about the ending, but since most of this is in the trailer, it seems okay to talk about it.
So, yeah, this is basically a two-hour movie with a 30-minute finale tacked on at the end. That explains how it can go on for 150 minutes with only the bare bones of a coherent story.
The plot… needs a bit of detective work to understand, but I think I’ve pieced it together. Lex Luthor, er, sorry, Alexander Luthor, Jr. (we have a way out of Jesse Eisenberg’s miscasting—he’s not the real Lex!) wants to kill Superman (Henry Cavill). He’s got his hands on some Kryptonite to do the job, and on top of that, the U.S. government has given him access to the crashed and recovered Kryptonian spaceship from the first movie, along with the corpse of its pilot, General Zod (naked Michael Shannon).
(A)Lex(ander) plans to use both of these to kill Superman, but learns that Batman (Ben Affleck) has been assaulting his goons and also seems to be after the Kryptonite, so Luthor realizes that Batman, too, hates and fears Superman.
Luthor blows up the U.S. Capitol building during a hearing on Superman. He does this by using a disabled victim of the Zod battle at the end of Man of Steel as an unwitting bomber (in a very narmy scene, we cut to Superman stuck in the fiery building looking really mildly sad). Said victim also happens to be a former employee of Bruce Wayne, and is in fact someone Wayne personally rescued in the incident.
Realizing that Bruce Wayne is Batman and Superman is Clark Kent, Luthor sends Wayne fake letters from the “bomber”, and sends Clark gruesome photos of the criminals that Batman has tortured and killed (yes, in this universe, Batman kills), presumably hoping that Superman will take care of Batman for him. When that fails, and Batman steals the Kryptonite from under Luthor’s nose, Luthor figures that Batman wants to kill Superman. So he abducts Martha Kent (Diane Lane) to force Superman to kill Batman, expecting Superman to win, but still giving Batman a shot at dealing with his problem. His real plan, however, is to transform the corpse of Zod into Doomsday and kill Superman with that, after Superman has killed Batman (spoilers: he doesn’t).
The reason I’m trying to explain the plot is that it’s not really clear what the hell Luthor is up to or why he’s so obsessed with killing Superman in the first place. Given that around 20 to 30 minutes were cut from the film, it’s possible that some important plot details were cut for time (in favor of a lot of stuff that was much more deserving of it, mind you). However, I wouldn’t be surprised if some of it simply wasn’t filmed, and either wasn’t thought of or, to be more charitable, it’s meant to be more of a “reveal” somewhere down the line.
One scene in the movie is Bruce getting a vision of an apocalyptic future where Superman rules the world (though it’s implied Darkseid pulls his strings). Based on later dialogue, most likely Luthor is supposed to have had some sort of similar vision of info from the future, meaning that for once, he really does have good reason to think Superman is going to turn against humanity. This would also explain why he’s such a nutjob in this film, and why he’s going to such extremely reckless lengths to see Superman dead. But that’s just speculation on my part, and whether they were going for that or something else, they really should have explained or at least hinted at his motivations better.
Same with Batman; it seems they were suggesting that he snapped at some point prior to this film (from the murder of Robin, among other things), but while that’s not a bad angle to explain why he wants to fight Superman, or why he’s so violent, it’s never sufficiently spelled out for the audience. And if you don’t know your DC lore, you might not even catch the hints. Again, more explanation required.
The apocalyptic future scene, I will say, was actually pretty decent, as was the opening of Bruce navigating his way through Metropolis during the events of Man of Steel. The actual fight between him and Superman is fairly well done, too (if more than a little nonsensical), and Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) is great in the relatively brief amount of screen time she gets. There are good, solid scenes in this movie, and the acting and special effects and other elements are well done overall, but the bulk of it is just joyless and dull. Not joyless in the “grimdark and violent” sense (though I’ve seen reviews that state otherwise). No, it’s joyless simply in that it lacks any sense of cheer.
This film is way too serious and overly dramatic for its own good, but it’s far from the darkest or most depressing superhero flick out there. Rather, it’s just a film that lacks the emotions it needs to elicit in order for this story to really grab you.
The reason for this, I think, is that it very much adheres to the “heroes as symbols” school of comic book thought. Superman, in particular, is treated as less of a character and more of a plot device. There’s more in this film about how people react to Superman (not that that’s handled very well, either) than getting to know the man himself, meaning that at some point past the first act, Superman ends up being more like a supporting character in his own tale, which is annoying, since this is only the second film featuring this take on the character. And given what happens at the end of this film, he is in dire need of real character development, as is Batman.
This film really banks on people already knowing these characters, forgetting that we still don’t know this iteration of the characters. Honestly, they should have at least given us either a solo Batman movie or Man of Steel 2 before this one, given that it teases but doesn’t properly explore the themes it carries over from the previous movie or the ones it sets up on its own.
But even then, there are simply some fundamental problems with this movie. Batman and Superman have clashed in the comics before, but it’s been handled so, so much better than this, and when it was done properly, there was usually so much more going on in the story. This film’s plot is just an excuse to set up the DC Cinematic Universe (something Warner Bros has had years to get right, but didn’t even attempt until now), and the structure is poor, the music is excellently scored but often mishandled or overused for hammy dramatic effect, and the characters, while they do make sense from a certain POV, are not done justice. (Oh, and Aquaman, Flash, and Cyborg are relegated to mere cameos; that’s what all the hype around them amounted to.) Again, it’s amazing that a 150-minute film has such a flat and underdeveloped story. It really feels like a rush job, or that it’s a film based on cheap fan-service, or made by a committee.
Ironically, the one good thing to come of this is that DC has already burned their bridges, so to speak, since the next two DCCU entries Suicide Squad and Wonder Woman have already been filmed, and Justice League Part One is just about to start filming for a late 2017 release. In other words, while it might be tempting to want a franchise-wide reboot after this trainwreck of a movie, it’s probably best that we’re not going to get it, because the ultimate flaw of this movie is really just the script. Not the actors, not the characters, not the concept: the script.
Batman v Superman is a film made of promise, and while it isn’t the film that we either wanted or deserved, and it fails to deliver on the story and substance front, that promise still exists. The cast aren’t the ones who failed, and they deserve a chance to find their footing. If nothing else, one can still hope that WB and DC will learn their lessons and figure out a way to make this universe work, because there’s enough good stuff hidden away in this film to show that it can.