Arguably the two biggest heroes in comics have come together for “the greatest gladiator match in the history of the world,” a pretty tall order for DC Comics and Warner Bros., who have struggled to build the cache of their superhero universe over the years and watched in anguish as Marvel has become an unstoppable force of blockbuster hits that’s changing the game for Hollywood.
2013’s “Man of Steel,” introducing Henry Cavill as Superman, was supposed to course-correct DC and Warner’s ways, and while it was definitively better than, say, “Green Lantern,” its inability to reach the bar set by Marvel and Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight” trilogy led to divisive opinions.
And “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” is experiencing a similar fate.
That shouldn’t be a total surprise. DC Comics and Warner Bros. keep hitching their dreams of critical acclaim to director Zack Snyder and writer David S. Goyer, who both worked on “Man of Steel” and other comic book projects such as “300” and “Watchmen” (Snyder) and “The Dark Knight Trilogy” (Goyer) and have yet to truly follow through on the promise their names once held.
Yet neither Snyder nor Goyer can be entirely blamed for the negative reactions to “Man of Steel” and “Batman v Superman.” The craftsmanship is just not adding up to a cohesive vision, and what makes it on screen simply isn’t resonating with fans.
“Batman v Superman” begins on a compelling enough of a foot. After giving us a visually striking montage retelling Batman’s origin story, we see Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) navigating the destruction of the final sequence in “Man of Steel.” As he looks to the sky in horror, we immediately get a sense of how his ideology will put him at odds with Superman.
It also helps that this sequence meaningfully addresses a chief criticism of “Man of Steel” – all the reckless destruction of Metropolis trying to pass for a riveting climax. We see the impact of the devastation, and it sets a tone for the issues we will grapple with throughout the movie, about whether Superman is a god and a hero or poses a continuous danger to the world.
Of course the ending of “Batman v Superman,” ironically involves even more reckless destruction trying to pass as meaningful entertainment. So the film contradicts itself, and therein lies the biggest problem – a crisis of tone and identity.
Snyder and Goyer opt for a grim and gritty film, presumably continuing in the mold of Christopher Nolan’s “Dark Knight” trilogy (Nolan had a story credit on “Man of Steel”), but the seriousness doesn’t gel with its other priority: being a flashy, digital effects-heavy blockbuster. There’s a reason Nolan’s films didn’t feature excessive CGI grand finales. The story is actually rather thoughtfully constructed with some nice plot points that provide a handful of surprises for the audience. It’s definitely more than a little messy having two main characters, arguably a third in Lois Lane (Amy Adams) and also wedging in Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) and the setup for the “Justice League” movie, but it’s compelling and creates some thought-provoking moments (at least in the ultimate edition).
The other clash of tones comes in humor vs. seriousness. On one hand, you have a brooding Bruce Wayne and on the other, a theatrical Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg). Eisenberg’s performance is good as a psychopath, but wrong for the movie and wrong for the character. The role attempts to emulate Heath Ledger’s Joker but forgets that that was a man without a past dressed as a clown, not a famous billionaire in hipster garb. This Luthor would fit better in a more playful, Marvel-like movie.
You could pick apart “Batman v Superman” in any number of ways, but you could do the same of a lot of superhero movies, some that are well-praised, even. The difference is these conflicts in tone. The incongruence opens the film up to our scrutiny because it keeps us from getting lost in the story and reminds us we’re watching a film that’s trying so hard to make sense.
Because up until the very final moment in a big battle between our two heroes who greatly misunderstand each other, “Batman v Superman” gets the job done. Not in the smoothest of ways, but enough, much like “Man of Steel” did. The real sin is not learning from what held that film back.
DC and Warner Bros. have already launched into “Justice League” with Snyder at the helm, but they’ll continue to make the same mistakes unless someone can step in with a guiding vision. If there was enough of a singular vision in “Batman v Superman,” those mistakes wouldn’t have happened. That’s the difference between Marvel and DC’s film universes – let’s just hope there’s still time for DC to catch up. Now that “Justice League” is happening, it’s now or never.
Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice
Directed by Zack Snyder
Written by Chris Terrio and David S. Goyer
Starring: Henry Cavill, Ben Affleck, Amy Adams, Jesse Eisenberg