Imagine American culture without Batman and Superman. Can we even conceive of such a society? Predating Indiana Jones, Star Wars, The Simpsons and other cultural behemoths, the comic book legends trace their debuts back to the 1930s prior to America’s entrance into World War II. Superman debuted in “Actions Comics # 1” (widely considered to be the most valuable comic book of all time) on April 18, 1938. Batman would follow with a first appearance in “Detective Comics #27” in May 1939. What came after is a rich, storied history of two classic Americana characters.
The latest cinematic treatment pits them against each other in “Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice”. The film is a direct sequel to 2013’s “Man of Steel” which featured actor Henry Cavill wearing the cape. Both of these movies are testaments of Warner Bros and DC Comics zeal to setup a movie empire that their rivals, Marvel Comics and Disney, have successfully done.
Even if one was proverbially living under a rock, they have still probably heard that Batman V. Superman has been run through the critical gauntlet and emerged battered and bruised. Lindy West of “The Guardian” slammed the film under a headline that read, “Batman V. Superman is 153 minutes of a grown man whacking two dolls together”. Christianity Today film critic Alissa Wilkinson called the movie a “confusing slog.” NY Times film critic A.O Scott lambasted the film stating: “A diverting entertainment might have been made about the rivalry between these two muscle-bound paladins — a bromance or a buddy comedy, an album of duets. “Batman v Superman,” directed by Zack Snyder (‘300,’ ‘Watchmen,’ ‘Sucker Punch,’ ‘Man of Steel’), is none of those things. It is about as diverting as having a porcelain sink broken over your head (one of the more amusing things that happens onscreen). In keeping with current business imperatives, what Mr. Snyder has concocted is less a free-standing film than the opening argument in a very long trial. Its two-and-a-half-hour running time — not so much a ‘dawn’ as an entire morning spent watching the clock in anticipation of lunchtime — is peppered with teasers for coming sequels.” As of the writing of this blog review, “Batman V Superman” sits at a 29% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
Well, I saw the movie with two friends and all three of us walked out of the Bellevue theater liking the movie more than we thought we would. I came to the conclusion that critics have gone scorched earth overkill in their opinions of “Batman V. Superman”. There are certainly problems with the film and first on the list would be script issues. However, there is a visual flair to the movie, it contains compelling themes (even if some of them may be half-baked) and yes, there is a degree of enjoyment to be had.
“Dawn of Justice” follows the epic mayhem of “Man of Steel” where Superman had an overlong throw down with General Zod and leveled most of a city. We find out in “Dawn of Justice” that one of those buildings had Bruce Wayne’s employees inside and in the beginning few scenes, we find Wayne looking up helplessly to find his building destroyed. The scene feels eerily inspired from the 9-11 terrorist attack. Hence, the beginning of Batman’s animosity toward Superman.
There is a Senator concerned about Superman’s powers as well. June Finch (Holly Hunter) mutters something about the world “marveling at what Superman can do but forgot to ask what should he do.” (my paraphrase). Meanwhile, a corporate mogul, Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg) is lobbying Senator Finch to obtain Kryptonite as a deterrent against Kryptonians. He also wants access to the alien ship and Zod’s body. His request is denied but do you think that will stop him?
The central fight, that the title of the movie advertises, is effective enough in its execution even if I did not buy why the pummeling necessarily came about or the abrupt end to the fight which seemed too convenient and entirely sentimental. I can understand Batman/Bruce Wayne’s animosity toward Superman (as I mentioned before) for the destruction of the city but the events leading up to the actual fisticuffs makes one wonder how an intelligent person (Batman/Wayne) and a powerful alien being (Superman) could not just talk things out. What fun would that be though in a comic book film?
Standing out entirely in this film is the performance of Ben Affleck. Once reviled by fanboys who thought this was an awful choice, Affleck has proven them all wrong. His treatment of Batman is surely one of the best ever put on the silver screen. He portrays Wayne appropriately as haunted and there are times when we look at his eyes and overall demeanor and see a specific deadness. This is a man who very much probably is an addict in what he is doing and cannot stop his own sense of crusading justice. Borrowing inspiration from the legendary Frank Miller’s take on Batman in “The Dark Knight Returns” comic book, there is a reference made that Batman has been fighting crime in Gotham for 20 years. Affleck shows a side of Wayne as tired but resolute in his continued mission.
Even though Batman is more seasoned in this movie than in other film franchises that have dealt with the Caped Crusader’s origins, we are still treated to little Bruce Wayne witnessing his parent’s murdered outside the theater in the opening moments. Critics have complained about seeing, again, the murder of Wayne’s family which we have seen in Tim Burton’s Batman and Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins. In one sense, I can understand the annoyance of doing this scene again and again and again. Here though, Snyder has a purpose for it. There is a distinguished focus on this movie on Batman’s nightmares or visions of gloom. To establish this mindset, which certainly does add to the Affleck performance, we become witnesses another time to the tragic murder of Martha and Thomas Wayne.
Finally, after about two and a half hours, we end up at the showdown between Doomsday and Batman/Superman plus guest Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot who in the few scenes that she is in has a powerful presence setting up future franchise installments). SPOILER: this sequence borrows heavily from this early 1990s comic by Jerry Ordway and Dan Jurgens.
The theme of Superman as a Messianic figure is continued and given more complexity based on people questioning his strong powers. What if Superman went bad is a completely understandable question given his nature? Lex Luthor mutters philosophical points (which are not incredibly well-thought out) about the problem of there being an all-powerful God who is fully-good presiding over a world like this one and other ramblings. Eisenberg (a talented actor for sure) seems to revel in making Luthor a Joker-type of character. Luthor is very different from the Joker and this is the only performance in the movie that I found lacking.
Another weakness follows from the first “Man of Steel”, the script writers and Snyder cannot seem to find much for Lois Lane (Amy Adams) to do and one wishes they would based upon Lane’s importance in the Superman canon and Adams superior acting skills.
I have been a fan of the Marvel universe movies but there is something about the DC Comics’ characters (especially Superman and Batman) that I grew up with where I really wish that DC would get their cinematic universe successfully off the ground. “Batman V Superman” has script issues and I’m not convinced Snyder is an effective cinematic storyteller as much as a one note conductor who has a panache for visual flair. The franchise may do better by moving on from him as a director. Still, I would categorize the movie as mildly enjoyable and this may be better to view with lowered expectations.