By Tim Murr
One week after its release and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is still creating controversy and dividing fans. It’s also doing something I don’t recall ever seeing before: the critics have made themselves and their personal experiences the story, rather than the movie. For a film that is so successful at the box office, there’s a high level of blind vitriol being leveled at it by so many critics from the blog-o-sphere to mainstream outlets. And yet fans are loving it and it made $500 million its opening weekend. BvS is rated at 29% on Rotten Tomatoes and 7.3/10 on IMDB. How can there be that wide of a disparity? And how can fans and critics be so divided?
There’s much being made over the dark tone and excessive violence in BvS and frankly, that’s being overblown. Oh, it’s dark and yeah, its violent—it is a Zack Snyder film after all—but the reports of traumatized children are dubious. As a parent, if I had a four year old, I wouldn’t take them to see the film, just like I didn’t take my son to see The Dark Knight. My wife and I watched it first without him to make sure it wasn’t too violent and decided we’d wait a couple of years since Heath Ledger’s portrayal of the Joker and the nearly horror movie-like atmosphere would likely be too much for him to handle.
My kids are ten and twelve now and loved the hell out of BvS. As PG-13 superhero films go, BvS and The Dark Knight probably are the two darkest films, but BvS is a distant second. The real darkness in BvS is found in the bigger subplots that will either go over most young kids’ heads or are too abstract for them to relate to. The Dark Knight was much more direct and intimate in its violence, when we had the Joker at his most psychotic.
Between Man Of Steel and BvS, there’s a massive body count. The destruction in the wake of Superman battling Zod across Metropolis has never been so vividly on display. I’m not talking about gore or even bodies being strewn about: in those two films many buildings go down, blow up, or are smashed to bits, but we don’t see dead bodies. That’s mostly left up to the imagination. Grown ups know what happens to human bodies when buildings go down, and to retain a necessary PG-13 rating, Snyder doesn’t spell it out. The destruction in these two films were responsible for much of the criticism, but Snyder is building a thesis. These two films are more philosophical about violence and the idea of a god-like being walking among us.
After the obligatory “let’s watch Bruce Wayne’s parents die again” scene, BvS takes us back to the closing moments of Superman and Zod battling over Metropolis. This time though, our perspective is from that of Bruce Wayne and the citizens of Metropolis, while Superman is a distant comet in the sky smashing through buildings. Heat vision slashes through steel and concrete and real people get hurt. Wayne drives frantically through the streets, desperately trying to reach his Metropolis office and warn his employees to evacuate. Ben Affleck is fantastic and hardcore in this scene. We see Bruce rush through the throng of screaming people, straight towards the destruction to try and save who ever he can, because as fans know, “Bruce Wayne” is the mask; he died when he was a boy. In or out of uniform Bruce is always Batman. (I’m happy to say also, that we get more Batman in this movie than in almost all three Nolan films combined.)
There’s much debate between pundits, politicians, and the public about Superman in BvS; how could there not be after the millions in damages done at the end of Man Of Steel? Superman is rarely at the forefront in this film, the way he was in Man of Steel, but this isn’t a Superman movie. Batman’s name comes first and it’s more about an angry mid-forties Batman trying to solve the Superman problem.
When he is on screen though, Henry Cavill is still my favorite Superman and Amy Adams as Lois Lane is wonderful. There’s not a lot of dialogue for the Man of Steel here; he’s quiet, contemplative, hurt, and doubting himself. None of that stops him from rushing off to save people from a burning building or rescuing flood victims, but again, it’s not his movie and we’re kept at a distance from him. We get more character development from Clark Kent, though. We see him at the Daily Planet and at home with Lois and in a way these scenes are more telling, because Clark’s secret identity is a little more complicated than Bruce’s. Bruce is always Batman, but Clark is always Clark, even when he’s wearing the cape. Clark is also Kal-El, a god-like alien who has to practice measured restraint with every step, every movement, because he can snap a person in half like a match stick without effort.
One of the biggest complaints critics have made is that this isn’t the big, smiling blue boy scout Superman of their youth. First of all, duh, this is a Zack Snyder film. Second of all, the last time we got THAT Superman, everyone hated it. Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns, starring Brandon Routh, was a direct sequel to the first two Richard Donner/Christopher Reeves films. It was also a wonderful tribute to those films and Routh did an amazing job bringing Superman to life.
In fact, I’d go so far to say that Superman Returns is one of the most unfairly maligned films ever made. Especially in light of the teary-eyed laments over BvS that Snyder “hates Superman and wants to kill him off.” Total nonsense. While Superman remains at a bit of a distance from us, we still see him doing what Superman does; being the good guy, being the guy that would go to hell to save Lois, being a son that loves his mother, being the guy that respects authority. Aside, from being emotional about the loss of life in Metropolis and the consequences and debate about his very existence, Superman is still Superman.
One of the other great controversies of BvS is the casting of Jesse Eisenberg as Lex Luthor. Eisenberg does come across as an odd choice, at first, but probably because we’re used to an older, more reserved Lex. Just because he defies our expectations, though, doesn’t equate to him doing a bad job. Eisenberg has a fascinating, manic take on Lex, but ultimately the god complex and burning desire to crush Superman come through. It’ll be fun to watch Eisenberg develop Lex, because he got off to a really good start here. He’s also the most fun Lex we’ve had. He hit all the beats and drove the story as you’d expect, just a little more twitchy and weird than say, Kevin Spacey.
Maybe one of the film’s biggest wins is the casting of Gal Gadot as Diana Prince/Wonder Woman. When we first get to see her in uniform I got chills. Gadot kicks so much ass in the climax, nailing the character, even down to the smirk when she gets knocked down by Doomsday (more on him in a minute). Shooting of the solo Wonder Woman film is already underway and based on Gadot’s performance here and the WW footage that’s been released so far, it may have been worth the wait for Wonder Woman to finally get her own movie.
But really, Wonder Woman is just the icing on the cake. After all, the movie is called Batman v Superman.
Wisely, Snyder pulled from each character’s biggest, most recognizable stories, the first and most integral to the stories being The Dark Knight Returns, Frank Miller’s 1986 prestige format mini-series. That story showed us a Batman that had been retired for a decade, while Superman was still out there as the last sanctioned superhero. The big climax of Miller’s tale has an armored Batman kicking the shit out of an out of touch Superman. There are beats pulled from The Dark Knight Returns, but this is far from a straight adaptation.
Instead, Snyder reworks existing stories as a way to familiarize the audience with the characters and situations faster, so the story can be told in one movie rather than two or three. You don’t need to have read Miller’s version to understand what’s going on in BvS; there’s plenty of exposition between Affleck and Jeremy Irons (who’s fantastic as Alfred). I don’t want to give away too much of the movie, but the reason for their fight is logical and well done. Affleck and Cavill really bring it in the eponymous fight scene. Batman is dangerous, relentless, and fearless while Superman is hesitant, even trying to stop the fight before it starts, but bringing the thunder when pushed to his limit. Like he did with Watchmen, Snyder brings a comic to life in a way that we haven’t seen before, despite how many adaptations we’ve seen in the last decade.
The second story that plays into BvS is The Death Of Superman, a comic series which introduced us to one of Superman’s most hardcore adversaries; Doomsday. In the comics, Doomsday is a prisoner in an underground cell that escapes and rages toward Metropolis, meeting Superman in a battle that kills them both. In BvS, Doomsday is Lex’s ultimate weapon. Created from his own DNA and mixed with the DNA from Zod’s body, Doomsday emerges as the giant monster he is in the comics. I wasn’t a fan of The Death Of Superman or of Doomsday as a comic character, but as a device to help introduce Wonder Woman and further Batman and Superman’s stories, the big CGI beasty does a good job and provides some great Wonder Woman moments.
In addition to Wonder Woman we get glimpses of Cyborg, Aquaman, and The Flash who will all feature heavily in next year’s Justice League Part One. There is a lot of world building going on in BvS, its purpose is to set up the bigger Justice League films and the new D.C. Universe in general. Some people bristle at this, but it’s a petty complaint, because BvS still stands on its own as a solid action film. Yes, there’s a lot going on and if you’re not invested in these characters it may seem a bit convoluted, but if you’ve ever read a superhero comic or watched a superhero film you won’t be lost. Snyder communicates his ideas clearly (despite what many critics have claimed) and I imagine the extended director’s cut will probably strengthen the film the way the ultimate cut of Watchmen did for that film.
I loved BvS, I really did. We got the best Batman, we got great action scenes, we got actual in-depth thought about the events of the overall story, and we got a solid cast. Despite the critical backlash, I think Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is going to have a long shelf life with fans and will only strengthen as the DCU really gets rolling.