The recently released DC Comics film Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice has been almost universally panned by critics and has been disliked by fans so much that there is now a movement to prevent director Zack Snyder from directing any other superhero movies. There are several reasons why the dislike is so strong.
First of all, this is a film that doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Not only does it have a trailer full of spoilers that ruins the movie (which I wrote about here) but this film also exists in the shadow of the very successful and excellent Marvel Cinematic Universe films, The Avengers and the like. The Marvel films are a triumph of multi-film story telling and with almost everything that Marvel gets right, Batman V Superman, as the herald of the new DC cinematic universe, gets wrong.
And Batman V Superman also lives in the shadow of the recent Christopher Nolan-directed Batman trilogy, with the middle film of that trilogy, The Dark Knight, easily being the best Batman film ever, not to mention one of the best superhero films ever and an excellent film overall. Not only was this film an excellent and enjoyable way to watch Batman being Batman at his best, but it was also a thesis on order versus chaos and on the escalation of superheroes and the challenges to their morality. Superhero films have always had two main strengths, a minor strength and a major strength: the minor strength, which is often confused for the major strength, is the fact that the heroes and villains look cool and do cool things; the major strength is the fact that the exaggerated characters, powers and circumstances of superheroes throw into sharper relief the thesis of the film. In The Dark Knight, as mentioned, this is order, represented by Batman, and chaos, represented by The Joker, battling for the heart and soul of Gotham City. The real threat in that film was not whether The Joker would physically and mentally defeat Batman but whether the citizens of Gotham would succumb to The Joker’s machinations and be revealed as vicious and selfish people who were so afraid that they would turn on themselves and destroy the idea that Batman was fighting for, that people are good.
So in order for this film and the franchise that it is a part of to be able to stand alongside and be counted as an equal with some of the most successful films ever, it would need something unique, something special that would warrant its existence. Unfortunately this film fails in that respect. It certainly tries to be something unique but it fails with regards to its thesis, its content and pacing, its characters, its narrative structure and its world-building.
The thesis of Batman V Superman is about what a superhero means for a democracy; it is an examination of what happens when an unaccountable agent of supreme power begins to interact with a system based upon accountability and equality of all citizens in the decision-making process. To give credit where credit is due, this is a new take on superheroes. Questioning the consequences that an unaccountable person has for a democracy, challenging the might of those who are capable of breaking and defying laws so easily, is new territory and are important questions for a world with superheroes. Is the legal and physical collateral damage of someone as powerful as Superman worth the unaccountable protection? Is supreme agency something that you can rely on?
As the film begins there is a political movement directed against Superman as he is recognized for what he is, an agent of supreme power whom is completely unaccountable to anyone else on the planet. While these questions may not be fully explained and answered, there are new questions to the superhero world, at least until Captain America: Civil War comes out in about a month’s time. The problem with Batman V Superman is that these major strength questions are subsumed by the minor strengths of superheroes; what could have been the major thesis of the film is buried in the fact that Superman is good, Batman is good and Lex Luthor is evil. Little explanation is offered as the thesis is jettisoned for the sake of having trope characters.
Let me make it clear, everyone knows that Batman and Superman are good and that they work together. The full title of the film is Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice. This is an allusion to the Justice League, a group of superheroes that includes Batman and Superman and whom work together to rid the world of evil. So you know that by the end of the film they will be on the same side, that the film will include the earliest stages of development of the Justice League and that, since the film includes Superman’s arch-nemesis Lex Luthor, that Luthor will be the at least a villain in the film, if not the villain. The challenge for the film was to then get Batman and Superman working together—presumably against Lex Luthor—while answering the questions that it raised about democratic accountability for superheroes.
As the film begins both Bruce Wayne/Batman and Lex Luthor are anti-Superman. Batman, despite the fact that he himself is a vigilante, presumably excuses himself from any issues of accountability because he works with the police. Both he and Lex Luthor believe that they are the best person for the job to bring Superman to justice, each with their own unique skill set. Bruce Wayne is Batman and so tries to personally confront him. Lex Luthor tries to manipulate the democratic system to put pressure on Superman, and ultimately goes around Congress to unilaterally try to humble Superman, vilify him and to try to defeat him. Without revealing too much, any questions about the accountability of superheroes becomes ignored or forgotten as the questions are rolled up into the characters of Superman, Batman and Lex Luthor. The characters simply act in their classical, tropey manners and the questions are ultimately dropped as the film turns into what you knew it was always going to be; Batman and Superman against Luthor. What would have been the major strength of the film is undercut as the film is determined to showcase the minor strength that you are accustomed to, to seeing superheroes battle super villains.
That brings me to character development, and there is very little of that. While Superman briefly shows self awareness of his naiveté with regards to the fact that it is difficult for him to remain good when his campaign to do good has so many negative consequences, like collateral damage, the majority of Superman’s character development relies on the audience having seen the prequel Man Of Steel, which was an excellent portrayal of Superman and explored and changed his character. It is Batman who receives the majority of the character explanation in this film, such as it is, although it is largely restricted to the portrayed night terrors. In fact, the film relies on its audience being familiar with Bruce Wayne/Batman and tries to introduce the fact that Batman is now older and that he is a very damaged character. For the main human character in the story, there is little exploration. The explanation for Lex Luthor, in turn, is based on just a few scenes where he does get to explain his belief that Superman is evil because he is unaccountable, yet his maniacal drive to vilify, humble and defeat Superman is never unfolded. And Wonder Woman is simply in the film with no explanation at all about who she is or why she does what she does. So despite the size and scope of the film there is actually little character explanation and little character exploration. This is a long film and one that should have relied on character development to respond to its presumed thesis and because it is building its own cinematic universe, the Justice League films and the upcoming Wonder Woman and Aquaman films. Yet despite the length of the film, there is little character exploration for anyone, which brings me to the narrative structure.
The narrative jumps from character to character to the point where many of the narratives feel unfulfilled. With such quick changes there is little emotional resonance built between the characters and the audience, and some characters can feel underused. An example of this is Alfred, Bruce Wayne’s butler, played by Jeremy Irons, and Lois Lane, played by Amy Adams. As the two best actors in the cast you would think that better lines and roles would be saved for them. However, these two parts waste the two great talents playing them because they have barely any screen time and because they have very little to do with the plot. Anyone could have played them.
Finally, the film suffers from world-building, from having to explain what is happening and why and how things work in this cinematic universe. The lead example of this is the introduction of a few characters who aren’t even in the film but who exist in the DC Comics Justice League Universe. Whereas Marvel reserves these scenes for post-credit teasers and in doing so does not disrupt the actual movie, DC tried to integrate these characters into the plot. The result, combined with all the faults listed above, is a movie that tries to contain too much, that is to full to be able to accomplish everything that it sets out to do. And at nearly three hours in length that is saying something.
Put simply, Marvel does it much better and, consequently, Marvel has nothing to worry about. Since the Marvel Cinematic Universe films and since the Christopher Nolan Batman films, superhero fans now expect more from their films and from their superheroes. They don’t just want to see their superheroes be superheroes, they want to see them mean something, to combat moral and political issues that have resonance in the real world. This film, instead, is a film that fails to accomplish that. While it does deserve credit for its ambition, that ambition ultimately makes the failure that much worse. Batman V Superman is a film full of CGI and superheroes that is surprisingly slow moving and that never really grabbed me, though I suspect that has more to do with the trailer spoiling the film than the film itself. This isn’t a good film, but it is made worse because the story telling, character development and world-building of Marvel has been far superior. If you want to see a good Superman film go watch Man Of Steel, and if you want to see a good Batman film go see The Dark Night. Batman V Superman is a bit of a mess and not worth seeing.
There is no post credits scene.
Batman V Superman is in theatres now.