So Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice went down like a lead balloon when it was released two years ago.
I’ve been generally hard-pressed to locate anyone who has good things to say about what was supposed to be a massive, game-changing movie for the DC cinematic franchise.
I, however, find it a much better film than most people give it credit for.
There are some positives in this movie; it’s just that you have to wade through a lot of flawed, difficult film to appreciate them.
I also think the fact that I was already hearing how bad this film was supposed to be before I got to watch it may have actually helped me enjoy it more than I might have done. And I in fact enjoyed it much more the second time (a few months later) than I had on first viewing.
Because all the pre-release negativity – and therefore my preconceptions of suckiness – was already there, I couldn’t be disappointed.
And actually, I had never been that hyped about BvS anyway: the trailers had never excited me. In fact, the only Batman/Superman trailers I’d been excited by had been the inventive YouTube fan-made teasers for a retro Christopher Reeve/Michael Keaton version of BvS.
So, in effect, something like X-Men: Apocalypse disappointed me more – because I was expecting so much more of that movie.
That being said, I am not going to try to make any case for BvS being any kind of masterpiece.
Badly paced, poorly written, dull for long stretches, struggles with tone, and sorely lacking in wit or charm. It is awkward and cumbersome. There are germs of ideas that don’t go anywhere and, in general, it isn’t clear what this film is trying to be – other than an attempt to enshrine in cinematic lore the first meeting between DC’s two most iconic properties.
The actual meeting of Batman and Superman itself is sorely deficient in depth or charm, which simply adds to the injury.
But in the spirit of optimism – and as this movie has already been adequately torn to shreds by countless critics – I am going to avoid an angry critique of this BvS and instead just going to highlight some of the few things I genuinely enjoyed here and make the case for why BvS is actually a worthy film, despite its flaws.
There are moments where some potentially interesting themes start to suggest themselves; but they’re not given the proper depth or exploration. For example, the Superman-as-Messianic-figure theme was potentially a very interesting path to go down; but it is merely hinted at and then kind of fizzles out.
I will say, however, that the film expresses this theme very, very well on a visual level.
I like this idea of Superman as a Messiah – particularly as this film is clear to paint that as a negative (or at least a dubious) thing; it’s an interesting way to go with the Superman mythology, given the lack of other options.
Yes, the style, tone and imagery is lifted right out of one of Zack Snyder‘s other film adaptations – specifically Watchmen and the Dr Manhattan imagery – but, even so, it works well here.
A darker, more tortured Superman with a controversial or uncomfortable Messiah standing among much of the population – that’s a good way to go, as the only alternative is a cheesy, all-American hero trope and a Christopher Reeve rehash (which you can’t really do at the same time as you’re trying to do a dark, moody Batman).
This Superman as Messiah thing should’ve actually been expanded a little more: but, even as it is, I think it imparts something very thematically interesting to core of the film and, at the very least, gives this film a handful of genuinely great visual moments.
There are also moments or elements of grown-up-ness to the narrative too and attempts to touch on real-world issues and contemporary concerns – it doesn’t go far enough with any of this and seems content to merely hint at them and then back away; but those elements are there.
There’s also Wonder Woman. Which more or less just works as an intro for that character in this cinematic universe.
And in fact I’m not embarrassed to admit that that climactic moment in the big CGI finale, where she makes her appearance and joins the battle was genuinely a ‘fuck yeah’ moment. Maybe it was because so much of the film was so lacking in feeling or energy that we really needed something like that.
But actually, no, I genuinely think that was a really cool superhero entrance: cheesy as it was.
The way we got our real-time intro to Diana Prince in BvS – and then got her backstory film later – also worked really well; and is in fact a rare example of the DC Cinematic Universe having some good planning/sequencing.
Also, I really liked Jesse Eisenberg as Lex Luthor. I will in fact go further and say this is the best, most interesting, interpretation of Luthor I’ve seen to date in film or television.
And I’m not a fan of Lex Luthor in general – I think he’s a dull, overrated and over-used villain. But Eisenberg’s young version of Luthor is genuinely interesting and enjoyable to watch. I like that he’s a little unhinged, a little quirky and odd-mannered. It brings something fresher to what could otherwise be a stale, tired formula.
Any version of Lex Luthor I’ve ever seen on read in all the various incarnations (including even the Young Justice: Invasion animated series) has been the same dull, tired villain: what we’ve got with Eisenberg here is genuinely new life being breathed into a tired cliche, and I think there’s significant potential with him for future films.
I also think Ben Affleck can probably make a better Bruce Wayne than Christian Bale did. He doesn’t shine much in this particular movie, but that’s more because this particular movie is very flawed and tonally awkward. But I feel like Affleck as Batman could work, given better writers.
I know the reality is that we’re still on a continuous quest to find an adequate successor to Michael Keaton: but we’re never going to do better than Keaton’s Batman. Affleck might be the best we get.
Other positives? Holly Hunter brings some gravitas and screen presence to her scenes.
As for Henry Cavill as Superman? I don’t think Cavill is necessarily the problem – it’s more the continual problem with how to write Superman in general.
Again, as with the Keaton problem, it’s very difficult to replace Christopher Reeve. There’s a general problem with Superman, which is that he easily becomes a boring, one-dimensional character with no subtleties or complexities. He is more a symbol than a character.
It’s been a really long time since I’ve even read a Superman comic book, because I just can’t work up the interest. So translating him into cinema is very difficult.
I will say that this version of Superman looks great (especially when the eyes light up), especially when embedded in a big visual effects backdrop. But that’s about it: there isn’t enough there to be engaged by or to find endearing.
I’m not sure there is a more interesting way to render Superman as a personality, which is why the studio’s best option is to ditch Superman solo movies and just use him in a Justice League setting, where he can be part of a bigger, more diverse, mix.
The problem with Superman is that you either have to go the Christopher Reeve route – which probably isn’t going to work again – or you have to go dark and moody. And, in a film that has Batman heavily in it, you pretty much have to go dark and moody.
And I think it works alright – albeit, you’d have to ditch some of the bad writing and silly ideas that undermine too much of this film. But in the broad strokes, I think it works – and, again, I think the Messiah thing definitely has some thematic or tonal strength to it.
The other thing to consider is that BvS gave itself a hell of a lot to do.
More broadly, this film is two things: it’s a Batman/Supermam ‘origins’ movie and it’s a Justice League inception story. In other words, it’s literally ‘Batman v Superman’ and it is also ‘Dawn of Justice’.
As the first thing, it works well in places, but falters in others; as the second thing, it’s pretty poor. I mean, there’s no subtlety or cleverness to any of it; it’s literally just Diana Prince being randomly brought in and then a brief scene of her thumbing through videos on a computer showing footage of some of the other yet-to-be-introduced characters (Flash, Aquaman and Cyborg), and then a forced line at the end where Diana and Bruce hint at bringing a team together.
It’s pretty abysmal, actually, indicative of terrible writing, poor planning and total lack of flair or subtlety.
There are also dumb add-ons or ideas scattered throughout the film (what the hell was the deal with Bruce’s vision of Wally West? And why is Bruce having visions at all?). Again, the biggest problem is that this film is all over the place, feeling like it was written by a committee of people who don’t like each other. It never properly coalesces.
As for the two main focal points of this big-budget behemoth – the first Superman/Batman clash and the final trinity showdown with Doomsday – if you can basically switch off your brain, you can reasonably enjoy these spectacles.
I kind of just told myself to revert to my seven-year-old self and enjoy it with the innocence of a kid.
That final, climactic showdown with Doomsday does, unfortunately, end up descending into a spiritless CGI-fest with no heart or substance, literally like watching a video game at times; but this is a problem with a lot of big-budget movies now (Avengers: Age of Ultron and X-Men: Apocalypse both had the same issues) and not necessarily a sole failing of BvS.
It also doesn’t help that Doomsday is rendered as such a dumb-looking villain. That said, there are still one or two bits of it that are pretty cool. As mentioned, Wonder Woman’s arrival definitely woke me up; and some of her special-effects in particular were nicely rendered.
But I know I’m kind of stretching here: the underlying truth is that this sequence quickly loses its sense of meaning or reality and starts to feel like you’re just watching a presentation by a team of self-satisfied computer animators.
I make no excuses – the finale is pretty terrible. Most of the best stuff in this film occurs in the first hour-and-a-half or so.
If anything, this movie feels less like a project that its makers poured their heart and soul into and more like an overblown prologue or set-up for other movies that are to come; in particular, Wonder Woman and Justice League.
Which is a waste. Marvel Studios of course did lots of set-up for the first Avengers film, but it was done with palpable care and affection and never felt like mere stepping-stone or perfunctory set-up. BvS, on the other hand, really feels like a film that they just wanted to get out of the way – it doesn’t feel like a movie crafted with any great care or with affection.
And, unlike the Marvel Studios situation, it doesn’t feel like Warner Bros have any real love for their DC properties but are simply trying to capitalise on the age of blockbuster superhero movie franchises.
All of that being said, I still argue that there is some good stuff in this film. Enough so to make it a substantial, meaningful viewing experience more than once. It is deeply flawed and imbalanced; but, as big superhero blockbuster events go, there are worse ones than this.