Author’s Note: Yes I am a defender of this movie. There’s a few things I might go back and rewrite as more issues with the DC cinematic universe have been piling up since this was published, but I still stand by my opinions of the movie itself and the material within it, a year and a half later.
Batman versus Superman has been treated with a lot of anticipation and a lot of reservation for the months – even years – leading up to its public release this past week. Much hope and hype both were riding on it, with people seeing it as DC’s last chance to “catch up” with Marvel and its well-established and now long-running cinematic universe.
But there was a catch to it, Man of Steel, which was supposed to be Superman’s thoughtful, triumphant, magnificent return to the forefront of public opinion via the movies, ended up being a controversial film with mixed reception and reviews.
With the echoes of those arguments over tone, writing, characterization and the portrayal overall of Superman in the movie still ringing around internet message-boards three years later, many people were worried that the same thing would happen with BvS, considering it was being handled by the same director, and at least some influence from the same script writer.
Could Terrio’s influence and the addition of the wider influence of the more actors and aspects from the DCU be enough to save BvS from the same fate?
THE SHORT OF IT
In brief, I think it was.
But many, many people do not share that opinion. In fact, although BvS debuted to huge box office numbers, by the time the public release in the USA hit on 3/24, there had already been several days of advance reviews from critics who roundly panned many of the same aspects of this movie that MoS got nailed on.
If I were to summarize my feelings on Batman v. Superman, it would be that this is a really fascinating set-up for the DC cinematic universe and strikes a very unique style and tone that creates for some effective and powerful on-screen moments. However, for a lot of people who do not already have an interest in the DCU or have the slavish, fanboyish investment that refuses to accept new interpretations or styles for their favorite characters (despite reasonable context within the universe), it’s a very frustrating movie that will lose most of their interests.
Overall I really enjoyed the movie a lot and would like to go back and pay for another ticket, not out of devotion to see this side of superhero movies succeed against Marvel, but because I genuinely enjoyed it for what it was.
THE LONG OF IT
I really think that the major themes and character arcs of this movie are more clear (and more importantly) more CONSISTENT than they were in Man of Steel.
Batman is a tortured, jaded man nearing the end of his rope, plagued by nihilism regarding his chosen calling in life. Only Alfred is a constant presence in his life still, the ONLY real constant companion he has, insistently and passive-aggressively trying to get him to step back from the brink and rethink his mindset and actions.
Jeremy Irons as Alfred is a really perfect performance that brings a wry humor and perspective to Batman’s character that is much needed, as a keel is needed to steady a boat at sea. Ben Affleck is also an amazing Bruce Wayne, and a reluctant and increasingly brutal Batman. Affleck sells both sides of the character very well, with a sense that the Bruce Wayne side of his character has been neglected or subsumed into his role as Batman for a long time.
A few things happen in the movie to change that and force him to reevaluate his personal crusade as Batman though. Of course there’s his conflict with Superman, but his reaction to Superman initially is completely reactionary. He is obsessed with the idea that Superman is unstoppable and that it’s only a matter of time before he cracks and decides to go full BAD END evil.
In fact, most of his time in this movie is taken up by him first figuring out how to steal Kryptonite from Luthor’s labs in order to outright kill Superman. Ironically, even though the movie repeatedly asks Superman what the proper use of power is (“We’ve spent so much time focused on what he CAN do that we haven’t stopped to ask what he SHOULD do.”), but Bruce Wayne never slows down to THINK about the purpose of the power he is utilizing to kill Superman, or what kind of man looks to hoard that power in the first place.
He actually stumbles across hints of Luthor’s larger plots and shady dealings in trying to pull this heist, and it’s only through the intervention of Wonder Woman to redirect that access to a different goal, and a final epiphany in his showdown with Superman, that he realizes the full ramifications of his actions. It’s by realizing that there is more to the DCU than his own personal crusade that he’s able to move past that obsession and back into the role of a proper superhero with priorities reoriented to the truly best good of the world.
You could say in fact that he comes dangerously close to BECOMING Luthor during this movie with his single-minded obsession with Superman before he’s brought back from that brink from outside intervention.
Speaking of Luthor, while everyone else in the movie doesn’t seem to understand the idea of those ramifications of his actions until it’s too late (i.e. how he is using the power he has amassed), he knows EXACTLY what he is doing and IS willing to take it to those extremes to see his vision fulfilled of a world where he is in control of a weapon that can take down the single most powerful known superhero (“meta”) in the world.
Previous movie Luthors were focused on controlling resources that are valuable for monetary gain in the world. BvS’s Lex is fundamentally an arms dealer who seeks a monopoly on the arms race, rather than a real estate broker who seeks a monopoly on those land titles.
I have seen several people complain about Eisenberg’s portrayal of Lex. It’s definitely very different from typical portrayal in the comics. Comics Lex is very reserved, dignified, stoic and charismatic. This Lex can best be described as “manic depressive”. In fact, I agree with the complaints to a degree, and think that Eiseinberg’s performance is more suited to The Riddler than what I typically envision as “Lex”.
That being said, I still think he’s a very effective villain for the movie to stand against the heroes. He’s unrepentantly and horrifically callous in the lives he’s willing to take, and destruction he’s willing to wreak in order to secure his power. Some people were shocked at how he left his assistant, Mercy, at the mercy of a planted explosive device that ripped through the Capitol building, deliberately set up to discredit Superman in the process. For no other reason than plausible deniability.
It’s cruel and evil, yes, but so is Lex! Comics Lex is just far better at hiding that sociopathy under smooth words and a strong, square heroic-looking jaw.
There are a few scenes where Eisenberg’s twitchy mannerisms and stream-of-consciousness lines disrupt and distract from events, but it’s clear from the other characters’ in-universe reactions to those moments that they’re deliberately supposed to be off-putting and unnerving. Doesn’t stop the audience from awkwardly shifting in their seats with them when it does occur though.
In short, Lex is not the kind of Lex that you would expect, but there are core elements of his character in common, and he has a decidedly unsettling presence in the movie (especially towards the end) that hint at a pathologic nihilism that dovetails nicely into introducing the potential main threat for the Justice League movie. Batman’s nihilism was focused around the futility of his efforts against the superstitious and cowardly criminals he fights against. Lex’s nihilism is more around the futility of humanity in general.
If Superman suffers from one thing in this movie, it’s the fact that all too often, things HAPPEN to him, and he reacts to them, rather than him taking more direct agency and contributing to the advancement of the plot. It’s the actions of the other characters that drive him, and he carries over an unfortunate pattern from Man of Steel of spending the movie wandering around seeking advice from other people when bad things happen rather than speaking for himself. We see and hear a lot of other people talking about what Superman SHOULD do and what he SHOULD feel, but his character still largely feels empty and directionless.
One major diversion from this tendency is in Clark’s relationship to Lois. In this context we get to see him happy, get to see him take responsibility and make decisions, and speak his mind and how he feels rather than hearing other characters opine at length to provide an externalized internal monologue.
I honestly really did not like Amy Adams as Lois in MoS, I thought she was kind of wooden and largely unnecessary in the movie, when Clark Kent was supposed to be more of the audience perspective character who was stepping into the larger universe, rather than Lois herself. Here, her role in confronting Lex is clearer and makes more sense in context of the writing, and the Daily Planet scenes with her and Perry provide some of the best lighthearted moments of the movie.
Superman’s highlight though comes in the last act of the movie when he’s confronted with an unimaginable choice, either attempt saving his mother on his own from Lex’s schemes and risk her dying a horrible death, or break the moral code and public face he’s been so tragically mindful of in order to fight Batman to the death. Instead of simply seeking to break the Bat immediately, Supes goes with an olive branch to seek reconciliation and help from Batman. It’s Batman’s own stubbornness that prevents it, and then when Supes is caught by surprise by the Kryptonite stolen from Luthor, soon finds himself forced to fight for his life once again, against a foe who refuses to find another way to resolve conflicts.
Supes’ conduct during this fight does more to speak to his character than most of the scenes before that point in the movie, and it’s a shame that the script doesn’t allow Henry Cavill to flex his acting talent over a wider range.
She hints at vague things to be revealed in her solo movie, looks jaw-droppingly gorgeous in a dress, and helps convince Batman to redirect the attention of his efforts while at the same time, Superman and Batman’s presence help to convince her to come back out of semi-retirement to contribute to saving the world again. After being disillusioned by events that we haven’t seen yet but are implied, she sees in their struggle something that’s worth fighting to defend again, and that there are men who choose to use the power they have for the better of others. Simple, and explicitly stated.
In the movie though she contributes quite little to the plot other than introducing hints of things that will come around in her solo movie, or building to in Justice League. Gal Gadot also noticeably does not have as much acting talent as Affleck or Cavill, and comes off as wooden in some parts.
One thing I will say in her favor, it’s REALLY nice to see an actor or movie direction not fall back on the tired trope of “everyone from classical Greece or Rome has a British accent”. Her accent is amazingly unplaceable for most American viewers (the actress herself is Israeli), and it fits the character of someone who’s been around the world for centuries and is decidedly removed from the modern world and its linguistics and vernacular.
Man of Steel’s major theme was “it really sucks being Superman”, but was unclear as to why, other than the apparent gut-felt reaction to the massive amounts of destruction and pain Superman exhibits during the final climactic fights of the movie. Batman vs. Superman expands and clarifies that theme.
It really sucks to be a superhero because people (and the heroes themselves!) have a tendency to project their own fears, failings and world-views onto what they assume of others. Luthor and Batman are both painfully paranoid and fear misuse of power, Luthor because he knows how dishonest he is about his own misuse of power and expects the same behavior from others, and Batman projects his own insecurities about his failings as a superhero into an expectation that Superman will not stay good. If Bruce cannot save his young sidekick ward, and knows that he is increasingly slipping into dangerous, self-destructive patterns of behavior, he expects that Superman can do no better and will eventually make the same mistakes.
Even then, the general public itself projects all the hopes and concerns and flaws of humanity onto Superman, it’s no wonder that he can’t live up to them all and will inevitably disappoint people. Even as Superman attempts to show his goodwill and his character AS Superman through continued sacrifice and aid, he’s only met with a barrage of monologuing and commentary from pundits, scientists, politicians, and ordinary people around the world. They cannot simply see him for a regular guy who is trying to do his best, everything is spun into one of two extremes, either he’s perfectly good and omnipotent, or he is NOT perfectly good and will turn evil, or he is not omnipotent and will let everyone down when he fails to save everyone. Everyone seemingly cannot accept the fact that he is just a human being using the talent to merely try to help others.
This is exemplified with Luthor’s monologue about the Problem of Evil (if God is all-good, he cannot be all-powerful, and if he is all-powerful, he cannot be all-good), substituting Superman for God (or as a simple figure of authority over others). Again, it is Luthor’s own paranoia regarding his knowledge of his own sociopathy that he expects everyone else to be just as selfish and callous as he is.
Funnily enough, the people who are most inclined to see Superman and his motivations for what they really ARE, are the female characters.
This is a very feminine-positive movie. Not necessarily “Feminist” positive, FEMININE. Female relationships and the love derived from them is very much at the forefront of both Superman and Batman’s characters, and ultimately what provides the impetus for the ending sequence where they come to see other options other than fighting. Wonder Woman hits it on the nose a little TOO hard with her line about “no natural inclination to share”, but that’s really the most blatant example of the recurring theme.
It’s Superman’s relationship with Lois that grounds and humanizes him far more than in Man of Steel, much to BvS’s benefit. It contextualizes his decisions and his relationship to humanity and Earth much more. It’s also Lois’ intervention that ends up saving his life at the end, and it’s when Bruce sees that side of him (the son, the boyfriend/fiancee) that he sees Clark finally as a human being, and not as an Anti-Christ that must be destroyed.
Wondy does a good job of charging into the heat of battle when the need is called for, but overall she and the other women in this movie give meaning and importance to that fight too. Without them it would be a slaughter, a tragic gang fight shootout that destroys them in the process. With the positive influence of the women in this movie, it allows them to see the world in a clearer light, understand their place in it, and WHY they must fight.
OTHER THINGS I DIDN’T LIKE/WOULD CHANGE
The main issue I’ve been seeing people complain about in this movie is the way it’s directed and edited, and I have to agree on that point. The biggest problem I had with this movie is primarily the editing. It feels like they shot two movies’ worth of material and then had to pick and choose what they wanted to use.
In my opinion, they could’ve edited it down even further to tighten up the pacing. There’s many points with poignant silences and deliberately-framed slow-motion shots that are there for trailers to be cut, and only serve to slow down the movie and make it two-and-a-half hours long. This movie does NOT need to be two-and-a-half hours long.
The other problem with the construction of this movie is that there are several scenes that are out of chronological order, and while watching the movie it’s not apparent first of all which ones they are, why they are placed where they are in terms of thematic connections, or where they’re supposed to go in chronological sequence in general. The editing feels like they had a broad outline of events that they NEEDED to hit in sequence, and the rest just goes wherever they felt like. None of those scenes are particularly BAD, but it’s a little distracting how the movie picks up and puts down plot points without a clear sense of pacing.
In addition, sometimes it seems like the script was written for the characters to hear themselves talk, and continued lines past a certain point don’t add to the scene. On the other hand, many of those scenes also allow the soundtrack to breathe and have a say in the matter, and the soundtrack is VERY strong and well-constructed to do just that. Wonder Woman’s theme in particular is an incredible kick in the pants, and sets itself apart immediately from both Batman’s brassy melancholy and Superman’s soaring fanfare.
If the soundtrack suffers from anything, it’s overuse of a couple themes (like Wondy’s) for inappropriate moments to prop up times when the scenes stretch away for no reason otherwise.
To improve this, I would cut a couple sequences entirely. The multiple dream sequences I think do help to contribute to characterization and the plot overall, but they are not contextualized well within the overall arc of the story, and more than once they introduce one out of the blue without any explanation until the end when you realize it is supposed to be an imaginary sequence.
This is particularly a problem with the Knightmare sequence where Bruce gets a glimpse of how dangerous the world could become if Superman lives up to his expectations. However, what many viewers may not catch is that Batman is NOT watching a world ruled by Superman, but by Darkseid.
I’ve heard mixed things about the Knightmare sequence. I personally love it because of the larger implications for the wider DCU that is developing, however, other people have complained that it is only tangentially and unclearly related to the main A-plot of the movie, and that tenuous connection is what should’ve been emphasized. I agree on that point, the sequence should’ve been transitioned to in a way that clarified what was going on for the audience, as what makes for excellent fanservice for long-time DCU fans like myself might confuse other less-experienced audience members if not contextualized properly.
And this version definitely is not.
Neither are the cameos of the other JL members, again as cool as they look, and as much as I like the CONCEPT of them all, it’s not set-up within the overall arc of the story well enough to contribute as anything other than previews for the Justice League movie. It’s especially jarring when you’re taking ten minutes away from that plot just to provide short teaser trailers for the audience.
The one preview that I felt was properly incorporated into the main story of the movie is Lex’s final warning in prison to Batman. It’s important to Batman’s character, because when he’s faced with the choice to brand Lex as the “worst of the worst” and mark him for punishment and attacks in prison, he chooses mercy and lets Lex rot in his own poisoned mind. However, Lex responds back with a seemingly nonsensical warning about “alarm bells” and waking up something.
Again, DCU fans recognize that Lex is warning about Darkseid (an unusual turn of events seeing Lex affected so severely by Anti-Life, normally he is a strongly ego-driven character and not inclined to falling into that trap himself). Other viewers may not pick up on that.
However, this scene is actually set up to get the audience asking questions rather than just checking out entirely from the events occurring on screen, and is a well-performed scene by both Affleck and Eisenberg. More of the build-up for JL needed to be set-up like that, in having portents that arise from events that are DIRECTLY connected to the main thrust of the plot.
It’s not enough that the fan-service exists, it must add to the here-and-now, rather than only the expectations for the sequel.
Going into BvS, I didn’t buy into the sky-high hype machine because I figured that Snyder’s shortcomings of style over substance would come into focus with this movie yet again. I was right to some degree, but the one expectation that I DID have, that it would serve as a solid platform to build on to create the Justice League and their context within a wider universe, was very much delivered.
This is a movie franchise going through some growing pains, moving from very introspective and moody styles and focuses into a wider view incorporating more styles and character perspectives. As more creators add onto this vision (the upcoming Suicide Squad and Wonder Woman movies, for example), it’ll be interesting to see where it moves on from here and how it develops.
Marvel/Disney has a very tight control over tone, thematic emphasis and overall plot arcs that each movie slots into. DC/WB on the other hand seems to be willing to risk a chance on letting directors with separate ideas and concepts do as they wish with the properties they are given.
We’ve already seen the extent to what Snyder can provide to the universe, but what it lacks in cohesive, tight direction, it makes up for in the fact that it provides a wide-ranging base to anchor these new stories into.
Is it perfect? Hell no. Is it completely irredeemable crap, an insult to movie-making and superheroes, and deserving to be thrown down the memory hole? Also, Hell No. But it did succeed at meeting my own expectations and getting me excited for what DC could bring to the big screen with their burgeoning shared universe.
I walked out of Man of Steel with a heavy heart and mind, no one laughed during the movie, no one applauded, during the emotionally exhausting finale, no one cheered for Superman. In BvS, people cheered when Superman and Wonder Woman appeared in the fight against Doomsday. People gasped when the Flash broke through the Speed Force. People laughed at Batman’s dry wit against insurmountable odds. People applauded at the end when Superman comes back from death to lead into a new beginning with the start of the Justice League.
In short, people were INVESTED in this movie like they were not with Man of Steel. And that to me is the best sign of what this movie succeeded at for my opinions, and for the experience of the general audience that I saw at the Thursday night premiere.