IMAX-approved spectacle doesn’t smokescreen fragmented narrative and morality issues
Review by Tim Leibbrandt
I’m going to start this off by getting straight to the point. No, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is not a particularly good movie. Having said that, it is not nearly as big of a disaster as the critical panning on Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic would have you believe. It is no better or worse than Avengers: Age of Ultron, for instance, and I suspect that much of the loathing directed at the film comes from critics using it as a sacrificial lamb to vent frustration at the heinous over saturation of superhero movies lined up for their viewing pleasure over the next five years (at least). “It’s too late to stop the Marvel films from snowballing out of control, but perhaps if we crucify this one, we can put a halt to this universe,” the logic goes.
Well-conceived action sequences peppered among the mass destruction
In reality, BvS is frustrating because alongside its many failings, it does a number of things quite well. Barring tumultuous CGI lightning flashes during the climax, the visuals effortlessly skirt the line between reality and comic book fantasy and the character design is great. There is a lot of background attention to detail that only fans of the source material would pick up and, on the whole, the Hans Zimmer/Junkie XL soundtrack collaboration is exceptional. While permanently set to director Zack Snyder’s trademark blunt-force trauma mode, there are some well-conceived action sequences peppered among the mass destruction (this time in uninhabited areas we are repeatedly assured).
When it comes down to it then, the problem with BvS lies primarily with screenwriters David S. Goyer’s and Chris Terrio’s story. With a tighter rein on the narrative, a greater focus on the characters (and their motivations in particular) and a substantial trimming of the fat, the end result could have been far more satisfying. It is ultimately maddening how unnecessary and avoidable its failings are when many of the tricky ingredients are served-up just fine. Lengthy dream sequences , bizarre but significant changes to characters’ personalities (which serve no narrative purpose) and the prioritising of setting up ‘what’s coming next’ instead of focusing on the story at hand are all superfluous pitfalls which drag the film down. This is the first cinematic meeting of two of the most iconic characters of all time after all, it should feel significant. Unfortunately the weight of their meeting is diminished by the urgent rush to pile things on, assuring everyone that a Justice League movie is on the way and that it will be thiiiiiis big.
BvS’s approach to trying to do too many things at once is to split the film into disconnected vignettes of interactions between characters. This keeps things moving over the film’s lengthy 150 minute running time, but also allows them to get away with leaving most of the ideas and themes largely undeveloped. They don’t really commit to any kind of stance, and one of the film’s central conflicts is questionably resolved by a coincidence. This was a problem with 2013’s Man of Steel as well. In fact, the iterations of some of the Superman characters carried over from the previous film do a disservice to their MoS incarnations, in particular Laurence Fishburne’s Perry White and Amy Adams’ Lois Lane. (What on earth is she doing during the last 20 minutes of the film’s climax?)
The strong cast do the best they can with what they are given to work with. Jesse Eisenberg’s take on Lex Luther (basically a coked-up, evil doer reprisal of his Social Network character) is the most radical reinterpretation but lacked the intellectual menace that the ‘smartest man on earth’ should carry. Gal Gadot and the Ben Affleck dominate every scene which they appear in. What the audience takes away from this is that the inevitable standalone Batman and Wonder Woman films with Ben Affleck and Gadot respectively are likely to be far more interesting than BvS; particularly the latter which is being helmed by Monster director Patty Jenkins.
This draws attention to one of the fundamental issues with the current film. While Goyer and Terrio have no problem whipping up a distinctly different take on Batman to the previous film versions and basically have a blank slate to work with for Wonder Woman; they can’t seem to figure out what to do with Henry Cavill’s Superman. Cavill is a great Superman, but spends most of the movie looking either disappointed or angry and saving Lois Lane against odds so improbable they must have a telekinetic link. With the exception of a nifty line delivered by Neil deGrasse Tyson in a cameo as himself, the filmmakers fail to deliver on their promise of looking at what Superman might mean to the world as it exists today. By the end, they’ve more or less just hit reset and left it to the writers of the forthcoming Justice League movie to figure out how to make Superman/Clark Kent work. At this point, that job will fall to Terrio again.
To be blunt, it may be time to get some input from a writer who has a fresh perspective on the character and in fact the tie-in comics which were published in the lead-up to BvS’s release achieved that far more effectively than the actual film did. Writers like Scott Snyder, J. Michael Straczynski and Grant Morrison have produced excellent contemporary looks at the character in the comic realm, why not be draw on that resource?
By contrast, Batfleck is definitely one of the stronger points of the film and the interactions between him and Jeremy Irons as Alfred Pennyworth are eminently watchable. Pinching heavily from Frank Miller’s iconic 1980s take on the character, he is an older, wiser and more disillusioned version than previous onscreen representations. Having got so much of the character spot on, the liberties which screenwriters Goyer and Terrio take with the character’s morality are puzzling and, for me at least, detract substantially from the film. I am going to pick this up momentarily in a postscript rant.
In essence, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice could have been a far stronger entity in the pantheon of superhero movies if only it was more ambitious and coherent.
In fact, the “It’s a superhero movie” argument should be scrapped altogether. It’s not an excuse for lazy storytelling, and does a huge disservice to these iconic characters who are so beloved because of the quality of their stories. Bombastic ADD spectacle is not adequate compensation for an absence of emotional investment.
Having said that, I did enjoy the film infinitely more when I saw it a second time in the IMAX format where the spectacle could at least shine (and without hoping for an engrossing storyline). In the murky depths of a small 3D cinema, the fragmented narrative and issues of morality are harder to ignore.
Two of the core defining traits of Batman are that he doesn’t kill and doesn’t use guns. In the comics’ mythology, both rules stem from witnessing his parents’ murder as a child. BvS’s incarnation of the character is trigger-happy and directly responsible for the deaths of at least 12 people during the course of the film (excluding dream sequences). A Batman who kills is not particularly interesting because he could, for instance, just shoot the Joker and be done with the whole thing. You lose the central conflict which separates the character from hundreds of other morally lax anti-heroes: It is only his belief that life is sacred which distinguishes him from the villains which he fights against. That BvS makes no attempt to justify these liberties suggests sheer laziness on the part of the filmmakers.
As an example, there is a scene in which Batman is trying to follow a truck containing illicit cargo. He begins by shooting a tracking dart onto the truck so that he can hone in on its position. When it departs, he leaps into the Batmobile and recklessly gives chase. The henchmen occupying the truck attempt to evade their pursuer while firing rockets at him. The resulting action sequence leads to the Batmobile causing untold amounts of destruction and intentionally killing at least six henchmen. Their deaths are far from ambiguous, as Snyder doesn’t do subtlety. The severely damaged truck ultimately gets away because the Batmobile runs into another conflict and is stalled.
Now the fact that this Batman has caused rampant destruction and a number of deaths is bad enough, but what is ultimately so frustrating is that the scene serves absolutely no purpose as he just follows the tracking beacon to its destination the next day. He could just as easily have shot the dart, called it a night and gone home and the result would have been the same (minus the carnage and unnecessary deaths). If we absolutely have to have serial killer Batman, can his massacres at least serve the story somehow?!