BvS: The Worst Kind of Bad… Almost Good

Batman V Superman image from Tech Insider

How do you mess this up?

Comic book fans have been waiting for more than a decade to see Batman and Superman together on the big screen, to the point where it became a Hollywood inside joke. These are characters that have appeared side-by-side on TV since the 1970s and in comic books since 1952. We know these characters. We know their relationship to each other. We have seen many, many different writers and creative teams examine these guys from every different angle possible.

How do you mess this up?

We all knew the plot of this movie from the moment it was announced: Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg) was going to come up with some evil plan to trick Superman (Henry Cavill) and Batman (Ben Affleck) to fight each other. It may be a predictable plot, but it’s a compelling one, and one that could be great if they get the details right.

How do you mess this up? By getting the details wrong.

When Warner Bros. announced this film at the 2013 San Diego Comic Con, a passage from Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns was read aloud to the audience, in order to give fans an idea of where they were going in terms of tone and themes. On paper, that’s not a bad idea. Other adaptations of Miler’s work, such as 300 and Sin City, have been very successful. However, Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice is not an adaptation of The Dark Knight Returns. Quite frankly, I almost wish it was. 

When watching this film, it became quite clear to me that the filmmakers took all of the superficial elements of Miller’s style – the film noir feel, the emphasis on masculinity and machismo, the violence, and the willingness to explore the dark sides of the heroes – without actually understanding why these elements worked. Namely, that there was something far deeper going on beyond those superficial characteristics. The Dark Knight Returns was a deconstruction. It pitted Superman’s optimism, hope, and belief in the inherent goodness of humanity against Batman’s pessimism, nihilism, and belief that people are inherently selfish and order is something that has to be imposed by force. It was also a subversive parody of the happy, goofy, smiling Adam West-style Batman that most people of the time were familiar with.

Miller's Batman would never ride in a hot air balloon.

Miller’s Batman would never ride in a hot air balloon.

Dawn of Justice doesn’t seem to have any deeper message, other than “If Superman were real, he’d, like, be totally controversial, yo.” It doesn’t come across like it’s dark for a reason, it comes across like it’s dark because “Dark stuff is cool!”

This movie is just so frustrating, since all the pieces are there for a great movie: A great cast, a director (Zack Snyder) who still knows how to make movies look great, and excellent action scenes. Not only that, but even though she doesn’t appear in the title, Wonder Woman makes an appearance in this film, and Gal Gadot absolutely knocks it out of the park with her portrayal of the world’s most iconic heroine. She really is the highlight of this movie for me, and if Warner Bros. tries to use this as the jumping-off point for their own Marvel-style superhero universe, I hope they keep this Wonder Woman.

Yet, as the saying goes, the devil’s in the details. This movie may have all the pieces of a great film, but it puts them together all wrong. It has absolutely bizarre pacing, moving far too slowly for about two-thirds of the runtime, then far too quickly when the climax hits. It has weird continuity errors; for example, some scenes and dialogue imply Batman has just appeared in Gotham and started his crime-fighting campaign, while others explicitly state that he has been at this job for 20 years. Huh?

By the way, is Snyder hanging out with Alejandro Iñárritu (Birdman, The Revenant) lately? I ask because the film includes multiple long, strange dream and/or hallucination sequences that add nothing and seem to only be there to be artsy. I mean, yeah, Avengers: Age of Ultron also included several such sequences, but in that film it actually made sense because they were rather important to the plot.

Then there’s the small matter of Lex Luthor. Eisenberg’s performance as the infamous comic book maniac is actually pretty solid, but the script he’s reading from makes no sense. As I said in the beginning, we all are going into this movie already knowing what his plan is – make Batman and Superman fight – but he seemingly has no motivation behind this desire. The most important part of a good villain is a good “why”. We have to understand the villain, but there is no understanding this version of Luthor.

The ironic part is that in practically everything else, this movie goes too far in the opposite direction. Does Warner Bros. think we’re stupid? They must, since time and time again the film doesn’t trust the audience to piece together what is going on through context, dialogue, body language, mood, and tone as most movies do, and instead spells everything out through clunky exposition, forced dialogue, and graffiti that couldn’t be more blunt. It’s like the filmmakers are shouting to the audience “You are supposed to be feeling sorry for character X now! Feel sorry for him! Do it!”

Heck, the movie even opens with the million-and-twelfth depiction of the murder of Bruce Wayne’s parents. Really, guys? We had to see that again? We’ve seen it so many times, we could practically recite the scene in our sleep. Get to the story, already!

Ugh. That this movie had so much going for it only to fail to put it together correctly is frustrating. That we have now had years of Marvel films showing us how these sorts of movies are done makes Dawn of Justice inexcusable. If all you want is to see who would win if Batman fought Superman, this movie will answer that question just fine, but beyond that, I wouldn’t recommend it. A 5 out of 10.