#19: Batman v. Superman – Dawn of Justice (2016)

Director: Zack Snyder
Action, Fantasy
2h33min; PG-13

⭐ ⭐ ⭐ 1/2

Man oh man did people take the piss out of Batman v. Superman and there’s really not that much wrong with it actually. Is the story a bit of a mess? There is a line of logic that barely holds the film together and yet still does. Are there too many visual effects? Ehh, maybe, but when you have a bunch of gods and dude in a bat costume beating one another’s asses do you think it’s going to be easy to portray in reality? If BvS is really guilty of one thing it is trying to make this film the gateway to the extended DC cinematic universe. There are so many threads being sewn at once that something- character development- is bound to get loss in the process.

But it does begin with a bang. The film opens on the very day in Man of Steel (which takes up the majority of that film, I think) when Superman (Henry Cavill) fought Zod (Michael Shannon) and his jellyfish-like World Engine, leading to the destruction of a good chunk of Metropolis. It just so happens that the headquarters of Wayne Industries, the foothold of billionaire playboy Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck), is among the wreckage. Not having put on the other suit for some time the film sees Batman rising out of the shadows to enact a new crusade against the scum of Gotham and the son of Krypton. At the same time Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg) has his own plans for both the Bat and Superman.

A major improvement over Zack Snyder’s previous film Man of Steel is in his directing. There are quite a number of impressive shots here, the standout being the long-take desert dream sequence that sees Batman gunning down Superman disciples of the future while being overrun by the Parademons of Apokolips. I have always enjoyed Larry Fong’s dreamy cinematography dating back to 300 and while there might be a little bit too much bleak darkness this time around the film is quite often beautiful. Fong’s flames look straight out of a nightmarish comic book brought to life and beneath the visual effects he is crafting a gothic, serious tone for the broadening DC universe that I hope will carry over.

Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman ain’t nothing to fuck with.

That the film and Man of Steel before it take things so seriously is the fault of the actors for better and worse. Cavill continues to look like a man who has never heard a joke in his life although he is more physically built to play Superman than anyone before him. His Superman doesn’t yell all of the time any more and his Clark Kent is a bit of a nerdy dweeb being constantly shut down by his editor Perry Ross (Lawrence Fishburne chewing the scenery). Lois Lane’s (Amy Adams) ark is quite similar to what happened in Man of Steel. She is a hard-nosed reporter trying to uncover a big scoop- this time around tracing a bullet that doesn’t even exist on the black market- until she gets captured and used as damsel fodder. Their romance brought to mind the muddled relationship between Peter Parker and Mary-Jane Watson in Spider-Man 3. It’s a loose end that could have been tidied, much like some of the dialogue.

Scoot McNairy is severely underused in this film as a man who lost his legs in the Metropolis incident and now wants revenge on Superman. He doesn’t have much to do but look helpless and I wish there were more lines for him but his role in the film works. He is able to come face to face with Supes because of Senator June Finch (Holly Hunter). Hunter is one of the two funny people in the film and watching her go toe to toe with Eisenberg’s Lex Luthor is a blast. Her line “take a bucket of piss and call it Granny’s peach tea” circles around in a legitimately stunning way.

Eisenberg goes completely off the rails with his Lex portrayal but I like it. There’s a mix of Heath Ledger’s Joker madness and also the robotic dickishness that earned him an Oscar nom in The Social Network. He carries the film with Ben Affleck. The mystery of how Lex knows the identities of Superman and Batman is only unraveled in the film’s last moments and is one of my main quibbles. The film spends far too much time branching out the DC cinematic universe and not enough on being the best it can be, something that very few comic book movies focus on nowadays. While “ding ding ding ding ding” excites me as a comic book fan if you haven’t read up you are left utterly in the dark.

Larry Fong’s dreamy cinematography is quite often beautiful.

BvS lives or dies on Ben Affleck’s Batman: there is life and it is perhaps grittier and more badass than any prior spin on the character. This Batman feels like a secret agent and a soldier. Many critics called Affleck’s version a farcry from the comic book version and that isn’t true. This Batman is a true nightmare, a shadow that crawls along the ceiling- he’s merciless and doesn’t give a shit about what happens to the criminals he hunts so long as achieves his goal. It is a Batman who has seen too much over 2 decades whereas Christian Bale’s was a Bats only in the game for a few years. He stabs guys and he shoots people (in a dream, idiots) and he demolishes bones but he never directly kills and this is true to the character. The climactic warehouse fight is a wonder to behold as the Dark Knight unleashes his entire bag of tricks on two dozen hostiles. If there is an issue with the portrayal it might be that Affleck is trying to be humorous. Batman isn’t a funny guy.

His Batman is scary and his Bruce Wayne is just as enthralling. This is one of Affleck’s best roles, not showy. He conducts his intelligence operations from a gorgeous riverside home near the husk of Wayne Manor. Quite often Bruce is bathed in a gray color palette or a dirty David Fincher brown a la Fight Club. There is actually a great Fight Club moment that showcases how tactical a fighter Bruce is. Affleck is strongly complemented by Jeremy Irons’ Alfred, the other funny guy in the film. This Alfred is certainly colder and more world-weary than Michael Caine’s but very deadpan. Practically all of the film’s laughs belong to him.

A question mark on the minds of fans was Diana Prince a.k.a. Wonder Woman. Gal Gadot’s Amazon isn’t in the film for long but when she shows up to fight in the last third she’s fantastic. “I’ve killed things from other worlds,” she says, and you immediately know this goddess ain’t nothing to fuck with. Gadot plays up the innocent girl in Diana, the mysterious European woman that vexes Bruce Wayne throughout the film and only appears as her alter ego to contend with Doomsday, which isn’t a spoiler if you saw any trailers. Hans Zimmer’s score is haunting but doesn’t stand out from his other masterworks (anything by Christopher Nolan for starters) but his 300-esque walk on music for Wonder Woman completely breaks the tone of the film and pulled me out of it for a while.

Affleck’s Batman is grittier and more badass than any prior spin on the character.

Doomsday, a visual effects gargoyle born of the mating between General Zod’s dead body and Lex Luthor’s blood, looks straight up like the Abomination in 2008’s The Incredible Hulk. He even grows stronger the more he gets attacked like the Abomination althought the character does this in the comics.  Why he is exploding with an EMP attack is beyond me. How this battle ends also went over my head- just one or two more drafts to the script and the film could have ended better. The cliffhanger involving dirt can’t even be considered a cliffhanger because we already know what needs to happen for there to be a complete Justice League film.

Zack Snyder has been compared to Michael Bay and that is very unfair. While there are a bajillion explosions in BvS they don’t happen for no reason. The film’s story is a little too complicated at times and how we get to the titular showdown is mildly underwhelming. It’s more of a bathroom brawl than anything. The thing that sets them on the right path is very out there. It barely works and as mentioned before things like this certainly could have been fixed up with some more script work. BvS is not perfect and both of the heroes in the title deserve a little better. Not a bad first try though and here’s hoping that the mishaps in this film lead to fewer in next year’s Justice League. Ding ding ding ding ding.

 

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