“The red capes are coming, the red capes are coming!” So says Jesse Eisenberg’s Lex Luthor in Zack Snyder’s Batman Vs. Superman: Dawn of Jusitice (BVS, from here on). This line is a microcosm for some of my feelings toward the film, which are… conflicted at best. It’s a pretty ridiculous piece of dialogue, and that’s par for the course in this film, which is filled with less than stellar writing. It’s also delivered by an actor whom I like, but who I find absolutely atrocious in this film (I seriously don’t understand how Eisenberg is so obnoxiously bad here). It can also be seen as a meta-textual reference to our current pop culture landscape: there are just so many damn superheroes in our movies, they can feel like they’re an invading force.
So we’ve got bad dialogue, an atrocious performance from the central villain, and yet another superhero film, which I’ll admit is a genre I’m getting sick of. Based on this, along with the multitude of other problems BVS has, you’re probably thinking I hated it, right? Well, not really. In fact, I kind of, sort of, maybe… liked it? At the very least, I didn’t hate it.
The plot is in the title: “Batman Vs. Superman.” Batman/Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck), traumatized by the destruction caused in Metropolis by Superman (Henry Cavill) in Man of Steel, a cinematic dumpster fire if there ever was one, is searching for a way to defeat the Son of Krypton, nervous about what the immensely powerful alien could do if left unchecked. And there are others who are equally perturbed about Superman’s motives and abilities, such as the aforementioned Lex Luthor and Senator June Finch (Holly Hunter, wasted). I could go on, but the plot is so convoluted it would sound like I’d lost my mind. But honestly, while that is something of a drawback, the plot isn’t why you’re going to see BVS, and I don’t really think it should be.
In terms of the acting, it’s pretty hit or miss. I’ve already mentioned Eisenberg, but I’ll do so again because he doesn’t deserve to get off easy for a performance that essentially his Mark Zuckerberg character from The Social Network doing an extremely poor impression of Heath Ledger’s Joker. Henry Cavill as Superman/Clark Kent is all empty charisma with no real spark. It’s partly his fault but also the film’s. I hesitate to say that Cavill can’t really do anything more than brood or snarl, because the film doesn’t really give him much else to do besides those two, but it wouldn’t surprise me if that were true. Superman is often so deified and made a symbol of in film and most other media that he doesn’t really come off as a character, but rather an idea, nothing more than a paragon of goodness and morality, and as a result it’s hard to connect with him as a person, and we should, because he’s arguably the most iconic superhero ever and it’s important to connect and identify with a character who’s emblematic of such goodness. The few bright spots in terms of character and acting are Jeremy Irons as what can only be described as a delightfully bitchy Alfred Pennyworth, Bruce Wayne’s butler, and Amy Adams as Lois Lane, though she still very underserved, much like Holly Hunter and Diane Lane as Martha Kent (all of whom happen to be women. Hmm).
Gal Gadot steals the show as Wonder Woman, which seems by design. Gadot and the creative team seem to feel the weight of responsibility to nail Wonder Woman’s big screen debut (a fact that boggles the mind) and they rise to the occasion. Unfortunately, like the other women in this film, she’s not around nearly as much as she should be, with only seven minutes of screen time. Still, the fact that she makes this big an impression in so little time is laudable, although I do wonder if it’s because of her performance and character or because she’s such a refreshing presence (it’s nice to have some femininity injected into a movie that would other wise be nothing but muscled-up dudes punching each other). Ben Affleck is surprisingly great, playing Batman better and more appropriately than any actor before. Batman is always idealized, made to look like the unequivocal good guy who just does some shady stuff in the name of stopping criminals. But nobody goes so far as to portray Batman as the terrifyingly messed-up, traumatized, unhealthily obsessive man that he is, or rather, should be. Affleck lets shades of this play out in his performance and while it’s great to see, the film doesn’t back him up and follow though.
And that perhaps is BVS’s biggest sin: a lack of follow-through. This is a problem with most blockbusters but it feels particularly egregious here, due to the sheer quantity and quality of potential that is squandered here. The film adopts a grim look, tone and feel, but it’s only the appearance of grimness, a façade, an uninspired continuation of what the filmmakers thought made Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy successful, without realizing that it was story, character, and mostly great filmmaking that made those movies work. Additionally, BVS tries its hand at the kind of heady philosophy that Nolan injected into his Batman films, but the ideas it brings up aren’t really explored in any detail or depth. How does Superman decide to intervene in any given situation? Should he go away? Should the government try to manage him? Or perhaps destroy him? What if he tries to take over or destroy the world? What is the role of the rich and powerful like Lex Luthor and Bruce Wayne in a situation like this, in the modern world?
It’s not that these ideas aren’t explored properly, they aren’t explored at all, brought up and then quickly tossed aside. Again, this is meant to give the impression of profundity and artistry, but it just comes off as Snyder and co. attempting to make their film relevant and important, but failing.. If you can’t sustain your sophomoric philosophical investigations of God, the Devil and Man, or whatever, then just don’t bother.
So we’ve got all these drawbacks, so many things are working against the film. So why did I enjoy it as much as I did? For one, I was never bored while watching BVS. Now that’s not that same as being engrossed throughout all two-and-a-half hours of it, but never feeling boredom is more than I can say for even most of the recent Marvel films, which sometimes feel like they’re just biding their time with filler story until the next set-piece. Despite the fact that it’s a mess, the story does somehow manage to feel necessary, not an excuse to create mayhem and action. I also didn’t find myself bothered much by the convoluted story and myriad plot holes. Yes, there were some moments that nagged me. For instance, the movie spends its first hour or so setting up a conflict between Batman and Superman that could’ve been dramatically compelling, but then swipes all that narrative work aside to have Luthor engineer their climactic battle for no discernible reason. Again, great set-up and potential that Snyder can’t capitalize on. (Side note: this plot point makes me wonder why comic book lovers are such huge fans of the film, since this seems like the filmmakers are almost poking fun at them. An awkward, anti-social nerd with inadequacy issues and power fantasies imagines pitting two superheroes against each other to see who would win? Sounds like every comic book fan has been inserted right into the film). But I digress, and like I said, most of the story problems I found relatively easy to ignore. Why?
I read one response to the film criticizing BVS for essentially stringing a series of moments together and expecting us to care. Evidently, they felt this is not how film narratives should be done. But therein lies the problem. Films aren’t novels, and narratives aren’t inherently required in cinema. Look at the multitude of experimental and art cinema that doesn’t follow the rules of traditional plot structure and logic. Would you criticize a Stan Brakhage film for having and incoherent plot? So to that I respond: isn’t cinema itself just a series of moments, of images, strung together that are only given meaning by us, the audience? And doesn’t this also sound like comic books themselves, quick little images, shown one after another in panels, in a way that doesn’t make logical, but emotional sense? Perhaps that’s why comic lovers enjoy the movie. BVS, better than any film before it, does the best job of moving the style and aesthetics of one medium (comics and graphic novels) to another, more pervasive one (cinema). Perhaps I’m giving Zack Snyder too much credit (I’m almost certain I am) but BVS might be that much better if you look at it like you would an art film, rather than a linear Hollywood narrative.
This is backed up by Snyder displaying a great eye for imaginative visuals. The opening montage showing Bruce Wayne’s origins is perversely mesmerizing, breathing new life into a backstory we’ve seen countless times. Several other dream sequences that Batman has, along with a handful of other images and moments, have the quality of an inventive psychological horror film, like a Dario Argento or David Lynch film. Yes, the visuals are almost comically dark, moody, and again, grim, (can we have just a little color please), and there is an overabundance of CGI spectacle, but a shocking amount of it is quite effective.
And then we come to the showdown itself, the titular battle between The Dark Knight and the Man of Steel. It’s easy to complain that this fight doesn’t have any dramatic potency thanks to the film squandering it and that it’s needless and tiresome. It’s not an exciting or satisfying fight at all. But it’s not meant to be. I noticed part way through the fight, I felt a sense of sadness, like I was watching a tragedy: two men who should be fighting together rather than against each other. The music anticipated my feelings and started to reflect them, providing mournful strings and a choir that amped up the perversity of the situation up to eleven. We don’t feel like cheering in this moment because we’re not meant to. Here we have two people who only want to do good, who want to help others. Why would we want to see them try to kill each other? BVS takes this cultural fantasy we’ve had for years and turns it against us and shows us how wrong these instincts and desires are.
At the end of the day BVS is most definitely not a great film. If it’s a good film, it barely gets there. But it’s certainly not a bad film. Maybe the movie just caught me in a good mood and I’m being more generous than I should. Maybe I was swept up in the excitement of finally seeing Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman save the world together. Maybe I’m just relieved it was better than Man of Steel, which isn’t saying much, since that movie was like passing a kidney stone. Maybe the film’s cynical, manipulative blockbuster magic worked on my inner 12 year-old and forced my violent lizard brain to overpower my higher mental functions. Maybe I’m totally drinking this movie’s Kool-Aid. But you know what? It’s not half bad.