Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016)

batman vs superman

There’s just no gentle way to say it: Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice is a disappointment. It would have been impossible for the film to live up to the hype anyway, considering this is the first time in history the world’s two most popular superheroes have shared the big screen together (fanboys haven’t been spraying their shorts all over the world for nothing). But despite a few cool moments and scenes of action brilliance, this is a deeply flawed movie, an overlong mess with fundamental issues in storytelling.

Remember when audiences complained about all the seemingly innocuous destruction in Man of Steel from the final battle between Superman (Henry Cavill) and General Zod (Michael Shannon)? Batman vs Superman starts off by making us think that was their master plan all along, revealing that there was indeed a lot of collateral damage, some of which had a very personal impact on Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck), the billionaire vigilante otherwise known as Batman.

And so begins an epic sulking match between two dudes with very different philosophies. One is a god among men but a relative amateur at being a superhero, while the other is a jaded superhero who takes the law into his own hands and believes the caped crusader cannot be trusted.

In line with Man of Steel, the tone is very dark and sombre, which have led critics to accuse the film of being too serious and lacking in fun. Personally, I didn’t have a problem with it as DC had to find a way to differentiate itself from the Marvel cinematic universe, and we’ve seen from Christopher Nolan’s wonderful Dark Knight trilogy that dark can work.

This all sounds great, doesn’t it? It’s a premise that should work in theory, though in practice it’s s different story. The problems remain in the surprisingly shit script by Academy Award winner Chris Terrio (Argo; he also wrote the screenplay for Man of Steel) and David S Goyer (Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy) and the execution by director Zack Snyder (Man of Steel, 300, Watchmen).

Snyder has always had talent for visual flair and action, though crafting a compelling narrative hasn’t always been his forte. Batman vs Superman is an accurate reflection of Snyder’s strengthens and weaknesses as a filmmaker. The images are never a problem; the gorgeous bluish grey colour palette, the expensive special effects, and the bone-crunching action sequences offer a smorgasbord of visual delights that will no doubt satisfy fans. A couple of the fight scenes involving Batman and a sequence with the Batmobile are particularly spectacular and warrant the praise.

On the other hand, the storytelling left a lot to be desired. The first half felt like a Batman movie, told from his point of view, which is partly understandable because we’re getting a new actor playing him. But we got so much Batman that Superman became more of a symbol than one of the two main characters. And then towards the end, it shifts uncomfortably into a Superman movie. The result of a Batman-heavy first half and a Superman-heavy second half — rather than letting one of them own the whole film (like what Marvel is doing for Captain America: Civil War) or focusing on both of them at the same time — is that the film feels uneven and disjointed, and neither character gets the development they deserve.

Instead of the layers a film like this needs, all we got was a lot of brooding and angry reactions, which are fine if these emotions are set up properly. However, people just pop up without adequate introductions, and the transitions between plot points are all over the place. It assumes you’ve seen Man of Steel, and secret identities don’t mean much at all. Plot holes, which are expected in any superhero movie, are poorly masked. It’s not that the narrative doesn’t adhere to common sense, it’s just that the story is pieced together in a rather incoherent manner. To be honest, even the trailers feel like they are structured more adequately than the film itself.

Even the dialogue is a mixed bag. You have these fantastic monologues and exchanges some of which you would have already heard in the trailers. But while they sound totally epic in trailers, in the context of the movie they often feel contrived.

My suspicion is that a lot of stuff probably got left on the cutting room floor –important pieces of exposition and explanation are left out, while needless dream sequences take up way too much valuable screen time. Perhaps we have to wait for the R-rated version Snyder is preparing for the Blu-ray release, but at 151 minutes the movie is already way too long — and feels that way too.

Interestingly, the two actors people were concerned about when the cast was announced turned out to be fine. Ben Affleck turned out to be a pretty decent Batman, both physically and acting-wise, while Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman was probably the best thing about the whole movie, making it justifiable to be excited about her upcoming standalone movie.

Sadly, Henry Cavill appears to have drawn the short straw. Most of the time he’s relegated to second fiddle behind Batman, and then he’s suddenly called upon for some heavy duty emotional scenes as though we’re supposed to care about him, which isn’t very fair.

As for Jesse Eisenberg, who I really like and think is a good actor, there’s no other  way except to say his Lex Luthor was a misstep. It’s less of a casting problem and more of a characterisation problem. This version of Superman’s nemesis looks like the Riddler and acts like the Joker (and not the Heath Ledger version). Most importantly, he’s simply not putting any fear into anyone.

Amy Adams actually has quite a meaty role as Lois Lane, but the rest of the all-star supporting cast doesn’t get to do much. Still, it never hurts to see the likes of Lawrence Fishburne, Jeremy Irons and Diane Lane (and a couple of surprising cameos).

I’m not trying to trash the film. It has good moments, epic moments that live up to the promise of the trailers. But so much of that good is outweighed by fundamental problems that would doom any movie.

Batman vs Superman has so far polarised fans and critics. As usual, I probably fall somewhere in the middle, though I must say on this occasion I’m more inclined to side with the latter. The fanboys, some of whom have waited decades for this movie, are probably willing themselves to believe this movie is the best thing ever. Or maybe I missed the point and need to see the movie again to understand it better, though to be honest I’m not getting the urge to sit through it again.

Having said all that, Batman vs Superman does do a solid job of setting up what is yet to come (it is, after all, called Dawn of Justice), giving us the hope that the future Justice League films (yes, it’s in 2 parts) will be able to finally get it right.

3 stars out of 5

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