Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice has all the ingredients at its disposal to be a classic blockbuster while appealing to hard core comic book geeks, fans of a good story regardless of its subject matter, technophiles, and appreciators of talented actors dedicating themselves to a project and delivering nuanced performances. Ultimately, it misses the mark not because it’s a “bad” film – it’s not – but because dueling agendas conspired to cram so many different aspects into the story that the actors are constrained by a paucity of narrative and the indecisiveness and lack of conviction for the film’s director Zack Snyder.
Traversing the thin line of integrating superhero stories into the real world is a difficult task that has confounded Snyder before in Watchmen. Perhaps he learned a few lessons from that film’s ultimate underachievement from an admittedly promising idea, but Watchmen was not as well-known to the public at large as are Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, Lex Luthor and the Justice League with their backstories ingrained prominently in the public discourse. Nor did it have the entire future of a franchise riding on its success or failure.
The sense of realism has to be adapted to suit the holes that will be in the story if one wants to look for them. Either it’s the real world or it’s not. If it’s going to be set in the real world, then there are certain facts that have to be altered to accommodate that. Superman v. Batman is not as clumsy, unwieldy, preachy and ridiculous as Watchmen, but it’s clear that Snyder is still unable to decide exactly what he’s trying to say, how closely he wants to adhere to the genesis of the characters, and what demands he and the writers acquiesced to in a “go along to get along” manner for the sake of commercialism.
Superman/Clark Kent is sufficiently vulnerable and confused as to his place in a world that is not his own. Batman/Bruce Wayne is well into his career as a crime fighter and wedged in with being unable to stop while wondering whether or not his actions have helped or hurt. The introspection of both as to what Superman should do and if Batman has wasted his energies or even made things worse could have been explored as they move through their lives in parallel lines that eventually intersect in large part due to their upbringings and circumstances.
The freshness of the idea in taking a younger actor like Jesse Eisenberg and casting him as Lex Luthor could have been a master stroke designed for the modern world in which the film is set. In the nascent stages of preproduction and casting decisions were being made, the usual interpretation of the character lent itself to it being a middle-aged corporate titan who saw the appearance of a being from another world as both an opportunity for himself and an affront to his own accomplishments as an all-powerful human who saw his life’s work decimated by this thing that did little more than appear and was, by accident of circumstance, accorded the power to rule should he choose to. That meant that the story would follow previous film incarnations of Luthor with Bryan Cranston the one most prominently mentioned to play it. This was a repeat of the same concept of Luthor that led to the casting of Gene Hackman and Kevin Spacey in the role in prior film incarnations.
Eisenberg is the Luthor for a new generation. A Mark Zuckerberg-like tech genius who has achieved everything one could reasonably expect to achieve in life, he is seemingly haunted by his past – simplistically explained by an abusive father – and a brain that is operating on a level so far above everyone else that he simply does not know what to do next. He has every reason to be satisfied in life, but he’s not. Rather than being a Zuckerberg turned evil, he comes across as a Martin Shkreli-clone: a brat who has no respect for anyone or anything and will eventually face the consequences for that oblivious arrogance. In a comedic sense, the character devolves into something close to Scott Evil from Austin Powers instead of a fully-developed and layered badness that is as ingrained as Batman and Superman rather than him being bad and not having a single viable reason for it.
It’s not the fault of Eisenberg that his Luthor makes so little sense. Major plot lines were haphazardly tossed in like a paella in which the chicken is undercooked and the seafood is three weeks old. Eisenberg’s Luthor is manic and rudderless, unsure where to point his energies and acerbic tongue. He doesn’t seem to know what it is he exactly wants. The idea of a young Luthor is new and interesting, but with that comes immaturity and a lack of focus that is inherent in the character and was not present in Hackman or Spacey’s interpretation, nor would it have been an issue had Cranston been cast as a classic Luthor.
Whereas the older, wiser and more calculating Luthor subtly nudges the two heroes into a confrontation with neither knowing they’re being callously manipulated, the younger Luthor is afflicted with the impetuousness of youth and the “I want it NOW!!!” attitude that accompanies a level of wealth at which everyone bends to his will.
The suspension of belief goes too far in reconciling with Luthor who, by some inexplicable amount of self-control, was able to tamp down on his desire to commit mass murder and build a billion dollar company before age thirty until his derangement detonates. His plans and schemes are just as difficult to believe. The creation of Doomsday was not the initial goal, but a backup plan.
Doomsday was a backup plan only set into motion when Batman steals Luthor’s cache of Kryptonite and, rather than steal it with some semblance of ambiguity as to who took it, he leaves a mini Batarang as a method of taunting Luthor, confessing, or condescendingly informing audience members who took the stuff.
As the story moves along, the question continually arises as to what it is and what it’s supposed to be. Without coming up with story alternatives as to what they “should” have done, the fundamental differences between Batman/Wayne and Superman/Kent are such that they could easily have been adapted to today’s world and a film could have been made exploring the dichotomy as to how their characters and philosophies have been molded.
The alien Kent was raised in a conservative, middle-American enclave in Kansas – on a farm no less – by caring parents who created a family unit and successfully sought to instill in their adopted son a belief that people are inherently good and helping is not a right that he can take or leave at his whim, but a duty because he has the ability to be a force of good.
Wayne’s story has never deviated from its initial intent. He grew up as a wealthy city-dweller with liberal parents who’d spread their wealth to those less fortunate and sought – as Superman does – to do the conventionally “right” thing only to be randomly murdered by one of the same criminals their liberalism and sense of fairness allowed to roam the streets and do what it is criminals do: commit crimes. This lesson was never lost on young Wayne as, during the day, he maintained his father’s generosity and legacy and, at night, brutalized criminals who violated his own sense of justice that emanated from that one minute in his life in which his idyllic landscape was ripped from him in a senseless act of random violence. Batman’s violence is just as random in that he decides, unilaterally, who deserves it and who doesn’t.
These characterizations put Superman and Batman on an inevitable collision course. This is something the movie explored and inexplicably abandoned.
Simultaneously borrowing heavily from Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns in which the ultimate face off is not about Batman and Superman fighting for its own sake, but because their sensibilities were always so different that the eventual conflict was unavoidable, the movie goes halfway in fleshing out the disagreement in tactics that put the two on opposite sides.
There are so many unnecessary distractions and plot deviations that look like they were tossed in at the behest of upper-tier executives and it hampers the film. Was it necessary to see an extended montage of Bruce Wayne training for his fight with Superman? The amount of weight he has chained to himself as he does chin-ups will be irrelevant when it comes to that battle. It’s Superman. If Batman’s going to beat him it won’t matter if he can lift 500 pounds, but if his gadgets work and he’s been able to effectively synthesize the Kryptonite he stole. It was a vanity shot from Snyder and nothing more than needless filler right out of the Sylvester Stallone “look how ripped I am” days of Rocky IV and Rambo II.
One scene during the Batman-Superman fight is unintentionally symbolic as they end up in a public bathroom and Batman picks up a sink and uses it to batter Superman. The “kitchen sink” analogy is apropos as they threw everything in there including the kitchen sink because there was a commercial need to sacrifice continuity and common sense for the good of the other, forthcoming films in the burgeoning DC Universe including Suicide Squad, Wonder Woman, Aquaman, Justice League Part I and II and perhaps new standalone Batman and Superman films.
Unlike The Dark Knight Returns, there’s no clear explanation as to why they’re fighting in the first place. Nor does the end fight have any link to why Superman and Batman were eying one another as enemies.
The fight itself is misrepresented in the advertising campaign to appear longer than it is and for a different reason than what is portrayed. The script is, in part, responsible for that with its vacillation in answering the question of why. Initially, it appears that Superman is disgusted by Batman’s flouting of the law and violation of constitutional principles that all men have rights no matter what they’ve done or are accused of doing. Batman scoffs at Superman’s naïveté and his sheer and unavoidable inability to have a grasp on how humans function when they don’t have the ability to fly, move mountains, saved their loved ones as the child Wayne could not, or do whatever they want based on a sheer accident of birth and environment.
That foundation for the fight recedes into the background not because the two are facing a common threat, but because the reason morphs from a philosophical divide to a Luthor scheme to get the two to fight to destroy Superman.
There are a series of whys and whats that cannot be reconciled.
Why is Wonder Woman there in the first place and why is she interfering with what Wayne/Batman is trying to do if she had long ago abandoned humanity after her experiences in World War I – reportedly where the Wonder Woman film is set?
Why was she leaving only to decide to jump in when the Doomsday crisis looked set to destroy the entire planet?
Does Superman no longer see Batman as a threat to the American ideal once the two meet and come to an uneasy truce for the good of the masses?
Does Batman trust Superman when, before, he felt he was a threat to humankind that had to be preemptively destroyed?
Why is Luthor doing this? What’s his primary motivation, if he has one?
There are many more than this and it’s not nitpicking, it’s legitimate.
Interspersing social commentary into a story that, when dissected, could never happen in the world as we know it is a difficult strategy to take and the movie, trapped in its own excesses and corporate requirements fails to achieve it because the social commentary is abandoned in favor of special effects and settling the matter when it’s not actually settled.
When compared to the Marvel Universe, what’s missing here is more than story. The lightheartedness to take some of the edgy nature off the subject matter of life, death and how to counteract power and threats is noticeably absent. There are few moments of irony and no laughs as there are in every Marvel film. The darkness engulfs Batman v. Superman and its story is not able to bring it enough light to make it acceptable.
When there are great characters, there’s no need to tie them up. Great material is the fundamental basis for great work. Essentially, what Snyder did is akin to hiring James Taylor to sing and putting his voice into the same technical apparatus that makes the odious singing voices of Jennifer Lopez and Paula Abdul less objectionable. If this is what you were going to do, why bother? If the studio suits were looking at the script – as they appear to have done – and said, “Wait. Where’s Wonder Woman?” “We need more explosions and outer space and chase scenes and gunfights!!” where was Snyder, the in-the-trenches producers and the writers to say, “This won’t work. In fact, it’s gonna damage the brand”?
The actors are being unfairly castigated. Unlike many actors who have done superhero films for no reason other than the paycheck and the inevitable profile increase that comes with a massive blockbuster, Ben Affleck, Henry Cavill, Gal Gadot, Amy Adams, Laurence Fishburne, Eisenberg, Jeremy Irons are all onboard in inhabiting the characters and seem to enjoy what they’re doing. The material is such that they too are hamstrung just as Snyder seemed to be by what was required to be the jumping off point for subsequent films. Because of that, they made something that had the money, the star power, the automatic fan base and the storylines to make something spectacular and sadly isn’t.
For a movie to be disappointing, it does not have to be classified as “bad.” And that’s where Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice ends up. It’s watchable and enjoyable, but is ultimately disappointing because all the puzzle pieces were in place for it to be special and they were bashed together for the sake of outside requirements when the first tenet of any creative endeavor – a point – was ignored and all the participants were victimized as a result.