As I walked into the Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice screening, I was full aware of the 30-something percent score on the Rotten Tomatoes. Some part of me went in looking for points to bolster arguments in defence of this film. The other part wasn’t too surprised because a certain Zach Snyder was helming this film and Snyder in the end, did what the label on his right foot says – great visuals and ideas but flawed storytelling (refer to reviews of Watchmen).
BvS all but opens as the final showdown between Superman/Kal-El/Clark Kent (Henry Cavil) and General Zod in Man of Steel ensues. We view this battle from billionaire Bruce Wayne’s (Ben Affleck) perspective as parts of Metropolis and Gotham (apparently sister cities) are ravaged by the juggernaut battle. He is trying his best get his employees out of one of his towers but as we gather from the trailer, this is damn near his 9/11. The rubble clears 18 months later and America is trying to come to terms with the power being wielding Kal-El as we are treated to some truth-and-reconciliation type hearings.
Some see Superman as an unpredictable bundle of godly power complicit in the Old Testament devastation of Metropolis/Gotham and a threat to humanity. Others see him as a saviour and totem of hope. It’s very clear where Bruce Wayne stands on that divide and our understanding of this incarnation of Wayne will be anchored by our awareness of the journey he has been through. We learn he has been in the vigilante business for about two decades which comes with loss and much more cynicism and ruthlessness. Bruce is convinced the Kal-El is ticking nuke waiting to happen and this is enforced by some weighty reveals.
As far as the BvS tandem goes, we understand Bruce’s role here and as a component of this film, the Dark Knight is damn near perfect. Batman is my Star Wars. Deep down I hate myself for attempting defences of Batmanipples and Robinipples. I knew I was going to love seeing Batffleck and his character is probably this film’s best beat. Batman here operates with some uncompromising vengeful viciousness to the extent of actually branding some of the crooks he takes down with the bat insignia. He still toes that moral line we expect but he is more Old Testament than normal here and as the DC universe expands, the uninitiated will come to understand why.
We move over to the other side of the BvS divide and things aren’t as rosy. I had a thing for Superman when I was younger and I still favour the animated version but he is, in essence, a simple entity when weighted against the emotion and anguish of Batman. Snyder understands that and he tries to build something complex around Superman rather than make the character himself overly complicated. As noted earlier the emergence of Superman has elicited two different sentiments from the public – fear and hope. Sections of the American senate led by Holly Hunter’s Senator Finch are trying to keep him in check and given the destruction from Man of Steel and, they have good reason.
Of course, we have the people who adore Kal-El for the saviour he is and we are served montages of him embodying the hope that he is. The film establishes the polar sentiments towards Superman but doesn’t do much with those points outside the hearings which are intensified when Superman is involved in an international incident. Affairs begin to lean towards Jesse Eisenberg’s hipster Lex Luthor who comes off as diabolical and calculating but in a jarringly off-kilter way. I feel the makeup of this particular incarnation of Lex will rightfully elicit mixed reactions but his actual schemes in this film are downright asinine.
The average action film lives and dies by its villain. If you buy into Lex Luthor here, you will find this film to be as tight as they come. If you are like me, you saw him as the conduit of a number of glaring plot holes. Lex is at the heart of some kind of some kind of conspiracy this film is trying to sell us on and of course, we have the reporter extraordinaire, Lois Lane (Amy Adams) trying to get to the bottom of things because what other purpose could her character have served? The question of Lex’s motivation is called into question though we see what Snyder may have been driving at. He just uses a real bumpy road to get there.
Aside Bruce Wayne, we can tell the visions for most of the other key characters are not fully realised, possibly because the studios are a little too bothered with building up the DC Expanded Universe for the upcoming sequels. This film drops some Easter eggs pertaining to the future movies and the broader direction of the DCEU and the first one we encounter is subtle but immensely exciting. A second reveal is laughably grating despite the warmness it elicits. I have no doubt most fans will understand the limited characterization on screen but that is no excuse for tons of telling and very little showing.
Notice how I have so far struggled to say much about Superman. Well, that’s because he doesn’t do much here and he isn’t that compelling a screen presence I would have hoped for considering his strong showing in Man of Steel. He is pretty much reduced to a one-note outline of what could have been and it is no coincidence he features prominently on the Lex Luthor side of things. I can say for sure Superman has issues with Batman’s style of vigilante justice but why? – another silly beat this film hits. We see Superman give the Dark Knight an ultimatum to cease his vigilante activates and we just sense a certain writing room was clearly lacking ideas.
We also realise Batman and Superman basically feel the same way about each other in that they are both somewhat above the law which is weird and again lazy from the script. Is the film trying to say something deep? Nah. They’re just held in place for a collision course and that titular grudge match does come our way courtesy of the mother of all contrivances featuring Lex Luthor after the other half-hearted attempts at a setup. The epic battle between the Bat of Gotham and the Son of Krypton is not earned, especially on the Superman side of things. The key questions are; did I care? Nope. Where my eyes welling with tears of joy? Yep.
Batman v Superman is dark, and grim just the way I like it served. The film has more lows that highs but no one will come out thinking about the lows. I only recall most of the lows because I am naturally nitpicky and take notes in the name of objectivity. A good marker for a film experience is what comes to mind after a viewing when you ponder on it and its components. Lex Luthor is a nut case but I was drawn to the philosophical beats he hit. The execution of his character fell flat but there remained some intriguing depth to his character and a broader examination of what power is.
I think of Superman and I don’t think of his flawed machinations or lame fast-tracked relationship with Lois. I recall the dialectics thoughtfully embodied in the film’s closing moments or the relationship with his mother, Martha (Diane Lane) – poignant spurts reminding us of the human aspects of Kal-El. These great points sadly exist in a vacuum because of poor plotting but they are worth the watch for their strong execution – especially the ones not hinted at in that damning trailer. Consider that brilliantly tense “Granny’s peach tea” sequence which is simply stupefying.
There’s a lot humble pie being eaten because Batffleck only flew in played the best Batman ever. He is as ominous and violent as Frank Miller’s vision and the action sequences are unhinged and primal in forcefulness. When the big showdown with Superman comes along, most of us are probably aware of the outcome but Snyder still manages to keep us on our toes despite the archetypal battle of brains and brawn. The battle between Batman and Superman is also a subtle throwback to the dynamic between Leonidas and Xerxes in 300. “Do you bleed?” The Dark Knight asks Superman early in the film. “How much of a god is superman?” this film asks as it continues its philosophical musings.
BvS is a cauldron bubbling with more excitement than incisiveness. Snyder has probably been forced to prioritise a shared universe setup over developing a coherent story and layered characters. There is a lot to enjoy in the film, especially for Batman fans and the hints at the Justice League will leave some drooling. This film is slaying at the Box office. The critical vitriol didn’t really hurt that much. BvS sports some truly great moments that are unfortunately compromised by lazy writing and some over-ambition of the part of our director.
It still remains visually stunning thanks to Snyder and DP Lary Fong’s immense craft – The bizarre but arresting “Knightmare” sequence has to be seen on the big screen. We undoubtedly have here a jaw-dropping action spectacle and there is story smothered in there somewhere. It remains to be seen how the well the upcoming 3 hour R-rated cut frees up some of this film’s intended substance.
By Delali Adogla-Bessafirstname.lastname@example.org/Ghana