REVIEW: Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2015)

Well, it’s finally here… and getting plenty of bad buzz. Oscar tries to give us a non-biased review of DC’s battle of the titans. 

We have finally arrived at one of the most anticipated superhero films of 2016, after three years’ worth of hype, speculation and hand-wringing. But, I must confess, when I saw the negative reviews start to pile up, I began to worry for everything that’s riding on the success of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. Now that I’ve seen the film, I can honestly say that I enjoyed it, but I can also see where some of the negative criticism is coming from. There are a ton of problems that I couldn’t account for, even with moderated expectations. I would ultimately suggest that anybody with an inkling to see it, out of their own curiosity, should do so and judge it according to their conscience.

After the destructive battle of Metropolis, Superman (Henry Cavill) has become a controversial figure, incurring the wrath of billionaire philanthropist Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) – the secret guardian of Gotham City known as Batman – who blames him for the mass collateral damage and casualties from the Kryptonian invasion. Superman, in his public identity as Daily Planet journalist Clark Kent, views Batman as a ruthless vigilante acting above the law to be brought to justice. Tech mogul Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg) also views Superman as a threat to the human race and begins to assemble components for a weapon that could destroy the Man of Steel, whom he resents because of his godlike powers. After Superman forcibly quelled a terrorist group in Africa, Senator Finch (Holly Hunter) requests that he answers for his actions at a public hearing, while Lois Lane (Amy Adams) starts to uncover evidence of a much larger conspiracy. While searching for evidence of other meta-humans on Earth, Bruce comes face to face with Clark at a LexCorp fundraiser, but a mysterious woman (Gal Gadot) manages to get away with the intel.

The acting varies from excellent to mixed. Affleck is the first actor to fully embody both Batman and Bruce Wayne; he’s suave and diplomatic as Wayne, stalwart and terrifying as the Bat. We also get the sense that he’s struggling to hold on to his humanity. Cavill is once again earnest and true as Superman/Clark Kent, but he seems far more stoic and brooding. Eisenberg has his moments of brilliant cunning and sadism as Lex, especially when he’s alone with Superman or Senator Finch, but his eccentric public persona and frequent shouting gets exasperating and, ultimately, he’s the weak link in the ensemble. Adams is still likeable as Lois and Diane Lane is still very much Martha Kent, but overall, their presence felt miniscule. Gadot nailed the warrior aspect of Wonder Woman, and shows good promise as Diana Prince. Hunter delivers a subtle performance as the Senator. Laurence Fishburne has more funny lines and charisma as Perry White, and is more memorable here than in the previous movie. As Alfred Pennyworth, Jeremy Irons has excellent chemistry with Affleck and injects some much needed sarcastic humour. Harry Lennix reprises his Man of Steel role as Secretary Swanwick, and he’s dependable. We have a slew of new minor characters with good character actors who are mostly wasted: Tao Okamoto as Mercy Graves, Callan Mulvey as Anatoli Knyazev, Scoot McNairy as Wallace Keefe, a Wayne Enterprises employee with a grudge against Superman, and Michael Cassidy as Jimmy Olsen.

Visually, you can see a gritty and stylised (but not exactly realistic) DC universe come together. This has been a natural bone of contention for many, as this doesn’t address the fact that Man of Steel was abnormally dark for a Superman film. Iconic DC visual flairs such as Batman in his famous Frank Miller armour, a more comic-accurate Batmobile, Wonder Woman’s perfect look, and even Superman’s brightened suit are welcome additions. Which makes it more jarring when major changes are made such as Batman killing criminals. With so many references and Easter Eggs, it might be fun for long-time DC fans like myself, but for general audiences, it’s easy to get lost.

Larry Fong’s cinematography manages to complement both Batman and Superman at the right intervals, but it is ultimately consistently dark throughout. The effects are up to their usual dependable standard, especially the final boss battle. When it comes to the actual Superman on Batman fight, it’s as brutal and as impressively staged as you’d want from these two characters. This is certainly the best Batman action we’ve ever seen put on screen; his mercilessness and brutality is chilling to behold. The score by Hans Zimmer and Junkie XL also comes up with mixed results: the returning Superman themes (minus the “Ideal of Hope”) and the new themes for Lex, Wonder Woman and Batman are memorable, as well as a handful of emotional cues, but everything else is mostly background music, not nearly as memorable as Zimmer’s complete Man of Steel score. There are also some very off-putting score moments when we first see Diana Prince in World War II, and the Wonder Woman cue feels out of place.

The biggest problem for me is the editing, which is ALL OVER THE PLACE. The opening credits showing the murder of Bruce’s parents (Jeffrey Dean Morgan and Lauren Cohan) is handled well enough, cutting between the murder and Bruce finding the Batcave. Kevin Costner even appears as the ghost of Jonathan Kent in the mountains, and it is very poorly-framed; Clark could’ve visited Pa Kent’s gravestone and received his inspiration from there. When it came to showing time transitioning, there are so many damn fade to blacks that I kicked myself for not keeping count! The way it moves from unrelated scene to unrelated scene made it feel truncated and unfocused. Dream scenes are used to convey character backstories and motivations, or even come across as completely perfunctory such as the “Knightmare Batman” scene. It’s a very awkward way of storytelling. The pacing speeds up and slows down at seemingly random points. Even though almost everything else in the film connects to the central story, the positioning of scenes in the final product makes the film feel disjointed. Supposedly, a three-hour Director’s Cut could mend these editing problems, but it’s hard to tell right now. The Justice League cameos were a mixed bag: Aquaman (Jason Momoa) was a bit inert, the two Flash (Ezra Miller) cameos were decent, but the introduction of Cyborg (Ray Fisher) was very poor; his creation is given away and shown in a very sloppy way. Due to the ad-hoc nature of the Justice League setup, this entire subplot could have been placed as an end-credit scene and nothing would have been missed.

The script by Chris Terrio and David S. Goyer is full of problems. There are a lot of memorable and iconic lines and worthwhile scenes, but also a number of groaners, mostly coming from Lex or Superman. The first half plays like a well-staged political thriller with Affleck as the star, and this effectively breaks away from the familiar superhero formula. They can write exciting action set-pieces and Snyder can stage them brilliantly, but the story itself runs thin. Characterisation ranges from solid (primarily with Batman) to poor (when Superman fails to notice a bomb in the Senate hearing). How they use side characters is also questionable: without giving too much away, Lois throws Batman’s weapon designed for Superman into the water, sees a threat in the city and then somehow figures out that Batman’s weapon will kill the monster and tries retrieve it from the water. Many characters, whether they’re cameos or consistent roles, have little to work with. The way the film jumps from character to character makes the film feel bifurcated, like an extended TV episode. It is ultimately more of a style-over-substance Justice League “prequel” than a Superman sequel or a Batman film; this is a Zack Snyder issue that comes into the forefront when attempting to craft a larger ensemble film with multiple plot threads.

Without spelling out any spoilers, Lex’s biological weapon from the trailers was not as shoehorned in as I feared it was going to be, and the film does build up to it, which is a relief. Another key spoiler which increased my respect for the film at the end was a very ballsy and interesting move. While it does cast a pall over the entire film, I admired it for the angle they were going for. Adams and Cavill have great chemistry in real life, but in this film, it feels much more restrained compared to Man of Steel. Superman is still emotionally distant and rarely smiles, making the contrast to Batman less clear cut, considering how differently they’ve been portrayed in the cartoons and comics. To pull from Batman Begins, Superman defines himself not by who he is, but through what he does and through his relationships with the people of Earth. This comes into play as to why he ultimately chooses to fight Batman, which contradicts earlier expectations; that his reasons for fighting Batman were ideologically-driven, and the emotional investment is not as strong as it should be. The way the rivalry forms between the heroes happens too quickly, and the resolution requires a particularly strong willing suspension of disbelief.

I don’t think it’s as bad as many critics have made it out to be, especially on Rotten Tomatoes, but I can’t call it a great film either. There’s just as much to admire in this film as there is to hate, and I will admit that I was entertained throughout most of it. In some cases, when something was done badly, something else was done perfectly just around the corner. There is effort on Snyder and company’s part to create a great movie, but in trying to balance all of these (often disjointed) plot points and characters, it gets lost in its own shuffle. I am excited to see how the DC Extended Universe begins to expand beyond the horizons of Gotham and Metropolis, and the great parts highlighted are worth seeing. Sadly, this cut of the film just isn’t that satisfying. Is it worth seeing and judging on one’s own terms? I believe so. Ultimately, I think it’s decent, which is somewhat disappointing considering the years of hype and anticipation.

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Oscar Stainton

Student of Ancient History at Royal Holloway University of London, Anglo-Mexican, die-hard Tolkien fan, lover of escapist fiction (be it in space or a world of knights and dragons), dino-maniac, and prospective writer.

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