BATMAN v SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE
Whenever I review a movie, I always make it a point to deal with my own personal take and nothing else. Cinema is such a subjective art form, it’s futile to take issue with a differing viewpoint. But every now and then, along comes a movie so excessively condemned I have to wonder if the critics are all wrong/biased/insane. In the case of “Batman v Superman”, it’s gotten way out of hand and I cannot in good conscience let this stand. A defense must be mounted!
In the spirit of the film, this review pits general critical opinion against mine in a colossal, 6-Round showdown. To make this debate legit it will feature excerpts from actual reviews, all combined into a single adversarial persona: Criticman! Through detailed breakdowns of the film’s essential components, I will demonstrate that Criticman’s attacks are either unfounded, exaggerated, or just plain ignorant. Mind you, this isn’t going to be one of those “I’m smarter than you” vanity pieces. This is an honest exercise in redressing a huge imbalance. Wherever the film’s failings are too glaring to refute, I shall readily concede.
Be advised: in order to properly discuss what works and what doesn’t, I must get into HEAVY SPOILERS. You’re here because you’ve seen the film and want an answer to all the negativity out there. With that in mind, let’s begin…
ROUND 1 – STORY
CRITICMAN: “Batman v Superman” is wretched, astronomically atrocious, and an absolute storytelling disgrace. The story is messy, unfocused, incoherent, over-long, and for all its incident-packed nature, is downright boring. Eventually, the script’s illogic wears you down.
ELECTROSHADOW: Alright, let’s get this out of the way first. Yes, BvS does indeed suffer from a somewhat messy and unfocused story. This is an ambitious and sprawling narrative, with a whole bunch of characters and subplots weaved into what is basically a rather simple premise of two superheroes butting heads. Director Zack Snyder and his writer Chris Terrio got a little TOO ambitious for their own good here.
CRITICMAN: It’s not going to be much of a debate if you agree with the criticisms.
ELECTROSHADOW: Unlike you, Criticman, I always provide a fair and balanced perspective. There’s no getting around the fact that the filmmakers made some storytelling choices that simply did not work. Not for the running time they settled on anyway. I’m not saying a longer cut would’ve cleared everything up, but there are plot points that aren’t fully fleshed out, and what remains in the film give the impression of an incomplete and disjointed narrative.
The biggest offender is an early sequence in Africa that is meant to set Superman up as a reckless, unstoppable weapon in the eyes of the world. Snyder has admitted that he removed a lot of scenes here for time. It shows. In place of those missing scenes, he resolves the sequence awkwardly with an eyewitness testimony of the death and destruction Superman supposedly caused. But since we don’t see it the impact is somewhat lost on us. This whole bit feels unnecessary anyway because we’ve already seen the damage he (unwittingly) caused in “Man Of Steel”, and at the start of this film through the eyes of Bruce Wayne.
The African subplot sparks off yet another mini-tangent, where a stray bullet lodged in Lois’ notebook leads to her discovering that baddie Lex Luthor has been manipulating things behind the scenes. While it’s fine to give Lois a pro-active role, this ends up undermining Lex as a brilliant, figured-out-all-the-angles player. If his plan is to secretly frame Superman, it’s a sloppy move to supply his mercenaries with bullets that can be traced back to him.
So yeah, there’s a lot of stuff happening in this movie, and some of it is self-defeating. But to say that it is boring is complete nonsense. This point can easily boil down to a matter of taste, but I happen to like movies that are densely packed with detail. I find a certain joy in mentally unpacking the information both on the spot and later on, long after I’ve left the cinema. Although the way the information is presented is occasionally clumsy, mostly due to editing choices, the information itself is fascinating. As for the movie being incoherent, come on. It’s neither incoherent nor illogical; you’re just not paying due attention. Despite its complexity the various story threads generally come together to serve the big picture — how and why these superheroes end up fighting. Pretty much everything we need to know about that is up there on screen.
CRITICMAN: “Generally?” So you admit that they don’t all add up?
ELECTROSHADOW: I admit that there are things in this movie that should’ve been given a bit more thought in order to make the story tighter and more efficient. Of course, the studio’s need to establish a shared DC universe also causes some problems. There’s one dream sequence too many, and they raise more questions than they answer. But that in itself isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Audiences of today are used to studios playing the long game, where each movie in a franchise contains teasers of future events and characters.
As a set-up for “Justice League” this isn’t anywhere as jarring and out of place as the Thor subplot in “Avengers: Age Of Ultron”. Snyder introduces the other Meta-Humans (Flash, Aquaman, Cyborg) as a by-the-way discovery during Bruce Wayne’s investigation into Luthor. The total goofiness of Luthor already having designed superhero logos for each of them notwithstanding, the video dossiers segment is a quick and cool little sequence that hardly detracts from the main narrative. Batman’s post-apocalyptic vision comes off as more of a detour, but even then it serves to drive the Dark Knight further into paranoia over Superman. Again, it’s in service of the big picture.
Looks like there’s an almost equal measure of pros & cons to the story/storytelling, so this First Round is a draw.
BvS 1, Criticman 1
ROUND 2 – TONE
CRITICMAN: Fine, I’ll give you your draw as an act of charity. Because you won’t be able to argue away this next one: the film is a joyless slog. Tainted with this air of nihilism and grim despair, it’s constantly threatening to collapse from self-seriousness. When was it decided superhero movies shouldn’t be any fun?
ELECTROSHADOW: I think you’re mistaking fun for entertaining. The two CAN be mutually exclusive, and if you think a superhero movie cannot be both dark/serious and entertaining at the same time, then the problem lies with your own pre-conceived expectations and not with the film. It seems Marvel Studios has a lot to answer for. Their brand is all about being fun, meaning more humour, a brighter colour palette, and nothing that kids cannot watch. That style works really well for them. Now, suddenly everyone expects all superhero movies to be that way. Why? Why can’t the DC universe strike a distinctly different tone, one that is aimed more at adults (or the adult-minded)? I’ll tell you why, Criticman. Because you hold this ridiculously out-dated notion that superhero movies are just for kids. You think that since the whole concept of superheroes is inherently childish, they should remain in the domain of children.
You can argue that Marvel has successfully grown up the image of the superhero while still maintaining its appeal amongst kids, therefore anything that tries to move away from kiddie-appeal amounts to betrayal or contradiction. That is just an incredibly limited way of thinking. The fact is, there is room for all kinds of interpretations, even a deathly serious one. Batman’s brutal takedown of Luthor’s thugs is vicious, borderline R-rated, exceedingly grimdark… and bloody entertaining at the same time.
You also make it sound like BvS is nothing but grim despair, which is patently untrue. If you cannot even crack a smile, or feel a sense of awe, at the sight of the three most iconic superheroes in history sharing the big screen for the very first time, then you are dead inside. That moment where Wonder Woman saves Bats? Pure cheer-worthy gold. That scene where the Batmobile tears through wood, steel and stone like tissue paper only to end up a steaming wreck when it bumps into Superman? The 6-year-old in me went nuts.
Criticman also conveniently forgets the numerous sprinklings of humour, delivered primarily via Alfred’s delightfully dry wit and Perry White’s endearing sarcasm. Even Batman gets a funny line. “I thought she was with you” may be corny to some. To me, it comes at just the right moment, and nicely echoes Wonder Woman’s earlier playful taunt about “little boys with no natural inclination to share”. DC films will never be as light-hearted as Marvel’s, but they are certainly not humourless either.
And the movie is nihilistic only if you choose to ignore what’s being presented to you. As dark as BvS is, it still finds room for positive, life-affirming themes. Most of these themes are embodied by Superman, and I’ll get into that in the next round. This Round, let’s call it like it is. BvS 2, Criticman 1
ROUND 3 – CHARACTERISATION: SUPERMAN
CRITICMAN: I call it bullshit, is what. Life-affirming, positive? Superman is little more than a smugly sociopathic deity. This guy doesn’t seem to have a decent bone in his body. Snyder outright ignores the values these superheroes always stood for.
ELECTROSHADOW: If you think the filmmakers don’t get Superman as a character you’re willfully misreading the film. At the end of “Man Of Steel”, Kal-El was closer to becoming the Superman we’re all familiar with. But that doesn’t mean he needs to stop evolving as a character, which is what BvS explores. This is a superhero who has not yet figured out the “hero” part entirely. He’s still unsure of himself, he’s still a work in progress, and he’s well aware of it. He’s clearly learned valuable lessons since the events of the last film and continues to learn in this film. For example, he now avoids collateral damage by quickly taking the fight away from populated areas. Is that not a sign of decency, of compassion, courage, and selflessness? All the values you say he lacks?
CRITICMAN: That’s a sign the filmmakers were back-pedaling on how negligent Superman was in the last film. Now they want to make it look like this newfound respect for innocent bystanders is a form of “character development”.
ELECTROSHADOW: First of all, it’s not newfound. Superman has always cared about human life, he was just overwhelmed in his battle with General Zod. The fact that he now has the presence of mind to take pre-emptive measures IS character development. What would you have them do, ignore the events of the last film? Then you’d be attacking Superman for having learned nothing. It’s a no-win situation with you.
Also, you’re just trolling when you label him a smug sociopath. A sociopath is a person with no understanding or regard for the feelings and well-being of others. Basically, someone with no conscience. Superman in this film is ALL conscience. While he has found his sense of purpose as mankind’s saviour, he’s still struggling to find a sense of belonging. It’s an interesting notion: God as an immigrant. Thanks to Luthor’s scheming, public opinion turns against Superman and he finds himself even more displaced. All he wants is to do the right thing, and to do right by his adopted homeworld, and yet circumstances keep testing that resolve until it reaches breaking point. That explains why Superman just disappears after the Senate bombing instead of coming forward to explain he wasn’t responsible. He believes he’s lost his place amongst men.
It takes a visit from his late father Jonathan Kent to remind him of what being a hero truly means. And it means that heroism can be a very thankless, lonely endeavour, often rewarded with blame or guilt, but that is the necessary sacrifice. As we know, in the end Superman makes the ultimate sacrifice. His journey towards the classic superhero archetype is completed by the end of this film. I don’t know about you, but that’s the inspiring Superman that I know and love.
CRITICMAN: Well, speaking of soul-searching and whatnot — that is another major problem. None of this emo navel-gazing goes towards building his antagonism towards Batman. Superman has no real motivation.
ELECTROSHADOW: Wrong again. Snyder and Terrio wanted to make Superman a more sympathetic character here, which is why he gets all this exploration of human themes. More importantly, the filmmakers weren’t interested in just doing a straightforward beat-em-up. The “v” in the title is also about the differences between the two men on a philosophical and psychological level. Superman stands for hope, Batman stands for fear. Because that’s what both men grew up with, respectively. One is a testament to the power of parental love and guidance, the other the utter absence of it.
The so-called “emo navel-gazing” you accuse Superman of is precisely what keeps him grounded and pure of heart… and accounts for his distaste of Batman’s ways. As far as Supes is concerned, Batman is an extremist, just a step removed from men like Zod. Having learned his lesson the hard way with Zod, Superman feels it is essential to take pre-emptive measures to prevent this human vigilante from becoming an all-out monster. So there’s your motivation for Superman. BvS 3, Criticman 1
ROUND 4 – CHARACTERISATION: BATMAN
CRITICMAN: When it comes to Batman, I won’t criticise his motivations, because I think for a change we can both agree that the film establishes them quite logically.
ELECTROSHADOW: Why, Criticman. Could you be in danger of turning into a reasonable man? Haha. You’re right though. From our first glimpse of Bruce Wayne rushing headlong into the Metropolis disaster (awesome sequence, btw) only to end up with a fellow orphan in his arms, we totally get why he’d hate Superman, or at least what he symbolises. It’s by design that this sequence comes immediately after the flashback scene of Bruce’s parents getting murdered by a robber. Snyder wants to reinforce how Bruce sees Superman: as an inhuman murderer. Even worse, an immensely powerful one. Since Batman has dedicated his life to stopping criminals, he sees it as his sworn duty to stop Superman.
CRITICMAN: No disagreement there. Now what I really hate is that this Batman kills. Batman doesn’t kill!
ELECTROSHADOW: Ah, back to the debate. Excellent. Yes, generally Batman’s code of honour means no guns, no killing. The thing is, that code has been broken before, both in the comics and the movies. This film is partly based on Frank Miller’s seminal graphic novel “The Dark Knight Returns”, and Batman’s a stone-cold killer there. In Tim Burton’s two “Batman” movies, he killed lots of people. So it’s not fair to single out Snyder’s version as a betrayal of the character.
CRITICMAN: You want to talk about betrayal, try this: Bruce Wayne, for all of his gadgetry and fighting prowess, is supposed to be an abstract thinker, beyond intelligent. The idea that he can be so easily manipulated or lack foresight is out of character.
ELECTROSHADOW: But you see, Batman isn’t thinking straight when it comes to Superman. His judgement is so clouded by prejudice and hatred, it doesn’t take a lot to manipulate someone in that state. Alfred notes how Bruce has changed for the worse since Superman came into the picture (in addition to all the bitterness he’s lived through in the last 20 years, including Robin’s death). Reprimanding him for his nasty new habit of branding criminals, he says: “That’s how it starts. The fever, the rage, the feeling of powerlessness that turns good men cruel.” Alfred realises that Bruce’s rage partly stems from a feeling of impotence in the face of such a God-like figure. For all his brawn and brains, it amounts to an ant taking on an anteater. It really was quite easy for Luthor to push him over the edge. Besides, a massively pissed-off Batman is the most badass kind, and true enough this guy delivers. This is easily one of my favourite big screen iterations of the Caped Crusader. BvS 4, Criticman 1
ROUND 5 – PERFORMANCES
ELECTROSHADOW: Let me guess. Now you’re going to prattle on about Lex Luthor not having any motivation. Allow me to save you the trouble and address that upfront. Luthor, in a subtle parallel with Bruce Wayne, also suffers from feelings of inadequacy over Superman. He sees himself as the intellectual pinnacle of mankind, what with his genius-level IQ. And yet, it means nothing. So he’s insanely jealous of this God whom he feels is undeserving of all that power.
CRITICMAN: Yes, yes, I know. Luthor references Greek philosopher Epicurus in that if God is all good then he cannot be all-powerful, and if he is all-powerful he cannot be all good. So what? The character may have some half-baked reason to despise Superman. It’s the acting I take issue with. Jesse Eisenberg’s performance is pitched at an 11, and what’s meant to come off as anti-social instead plays as overly caffeinated.
ELECTROSHADOW: Throwing your ‘So what?’ back at you. Yeah, so what if Eisenberg goes over the top and all twitchy? The important thing is, does it work for the character? To answer that, you’ve gotta go back to what the intent is. The intent is to pitch Luthor as one of those endlessly entitled trust fund brats who’ve grown up warped by delusions of grandeur thanks to the over-inflated, hyper-sensitised cult of false stardom that only social media and 24-hour news networks can enable. Add a touch of textbook megalomania, some daddy issues, and that sounds exactly like the Lex of this film to me. To be fair, I can see why some would find Eisenberg’s performance irritating. It is a risky choice to write and play him that way, and while the risks don’t pay off entirely, Eisenberg certainly makes the role his own. Most crucially, he sells me on the character constantly fluttering back & forth over the fine line between genius and madness.
I’d say the problems regarding Luthor are more to do with how he’s written. Apart from the issue I mentioned in Round 1, some of his actions aren’t properly thought through. How was Luthor planning to control Doomsday after unleashing him? Say the creature succeeded in killing all the superheroes, what then? It’s not like it was going to just happily obey him after that.
CRITICMAN: Yes, even more abject foolishness. Much like Snyder failing to coax anything resembling a decent performance out of Henry Cavill. What an uncharismatic, wooden, and sour Superman.
ELECTROSHADOW: I will say that Cavill frowns a tad too much here. It would’ve been nice to see his Clark smile just a wee bit more. That would’ve helped make him more likeable. Mind you, I’m not saying he is unlikeable. As explained in previous rounds, the character is troubled by a crisis of confidence. So he’s not going to be all sunshine and rainbows. It’s just that in the rare moments where we catch a glimpse of Cavill’s smile, it’s rather winning, and I suspect just a couple more of these would’ve helped even out the impression that he is one-note. Cavill is not one-note at all. There are subtle expressions he makes in quite a number of scenes that suggest a character processing a lot of complex feelings inside. Examples: the look on his face after the Senate bombing, his reaction when he finds out his mother’s been taken hostage, and his resigned yet tender “I love you” to Lois right before his final attack on Doomsday.
You know, I think the real reason Cavill isn’t so impressive to you is that he is upstaged by Ben Affleck, and to a certain extent, Gal Gadot. It’s funny to look back on all the hate Batfleck received when his casting was first announced. Now, the praise for him is almost unanimous. I liked his casting then and I love his performance here. As Batman, he cuts an imposing figure and pulls off the physical stuff pretty well. As an older Bruce Wayne, he simply nails the burning anger and the deep-seated cynicism towards humanity and life in general. Affleck also has nice chemistry with Jeremy Irons, who once again shows he can make the most of any role, no matter how small.
Speaking of shining in small roles, Gadot is great as Wonder Woman. The character is used sparingly yet enough so that she feels crucial, and Gadot has an enticingly regal, mysterious air about her that keeps us wanting more. She has this lovely little moment where she’s brought down by Doomsday… and she breaks into a big smile. Like she’s having the time of her life! Snyder said that reaction was 100% Gadot’s choice. It’s very telling that the naysayers have stopped whining about her casting too.
As for the rest of the supporting cast, Amy Adams is fine, Laurence Fishburne is amusing, and Diane Lane is still my favourite Ma Kent. So apart from Eisenberg, the acting isn’t really an issue for this film. Don’t you agree, Criticman?
CRITICMAN: Sigh. Very well, then. BvS 5, Criticman 1
ROUND 6 – CRAFT: ACTION, VISUALS, EFFECTS, MUSIC
ELECTROSHADOW: I don’t think we even need to get into this final round to determine a winner. But since you’ve dished out such a relentless pummelling on this film, now it’s time to return the favour.
CRITICMAN: You bastard.
ELECTROSHADOW: You’re welcome! Anyway. Say what you will about Snyder’s weaknesses as a storyteller, the guy is a talented visual craftsman. He does action like few other directors can. The fight scenes are a treat to watch, without having to rely on any gimmicks (eg: speed ramping). Snyder shoots in a clear, smooth style that allows the well-staged fight choreography to fully register. The titular showdown is terrific, the stuff action figure playtimes are made of, and I was surprised to see it end on such a decisive note. No cop-out draws here.
And although you might find the “Martha” moment too convenient, I think it’s a wonderfully simple yet emotionally resonant way of resolving the hostility. This discussion belongs in Round 4, but whatever. Throughout the film, we constantly hear Bruce dehumanising Superman (“You’re not brave. Men are brave.”). So when this supposedly inhuman alien ends up pleading not for his own life but for the life of his HUMAN mother — one with the same name as his — it finally jolts Bruce back to his senses. It’s beautiful.
Snyder has a superb eye for design too, which is why Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman’s costumes all look fantastic. The Batmobile is a damn sight more appealing than Chris Nolan’s boxy version. The only design misstep is Doomsday, whose look is too derivative and just not very interesting. As for the CG, there are a few dodgy shots but by & large the effects are top notch. It’s also important to give due credit to the score. Hans Zimmer has been knocking it out of the park, and teamed up with Junkie XL here, they’ve created an aural landscape that is operatic and atmospheric in all the right ways.
CRITICMAN: Sounds suspiciously like your mind was made up about this film even before you went in.
ELECTROSHADOW: Look who’s talking. If anyone’s preset bias is showing, it’s yours. I went in with a healthy amount of concern. I came out of this feeling like I’d watched a highly compelling and re-watchable movie, albeit with its fair share of problems.
ELECTROSHADOW: Look, the entire point of this review hasn’t been to prove that critics are idiots who don’t know anything. Technically, I’m considered a critic too so it would be counter-productive to slam critics. The fact is, when critical reception for a film is overwhelmingly negative, it is a valid sign that something’s indeed wrong. And I have pointed out the film’s flaws where necessary. “Batman v Superman: Dawn Of Justice” is both bloated and lean in the wrong places, with a middle portion that meanders and sags a little. Some of the acting is an acquired taste, and the way certain characters are presented is controversial.
At the same time, it’s obvious to me that much of the film’s content and themes have gone either unnoticed or misinterpreted by critics (and blind fanboys). Also, while the creative decision to go all “dark” has not gone down well with many people, it’s really a matter of personal preference. I personally like what the DC Cinematic Universe is doing, in terms of tone, characterisation, and visual style. A few directorial and writing blunders aside, the film is by no means “atrocious”, “meaningless”, “idiotic”, or “unwatchable”. Those are all hyperbolic reactions that call into question the real reason(s) behind them, be it prejudice towards Zack Snyder, a vested interest against DC, or just plain old-fashioned Expectation v Reality. Yes, critics are human too, and just as susceptible to frailties like these.
Final Result: BvS 6, Criticman 1
CRITICMAN: I’ve realised, all this bickering is pointless. Maybe we should work together instead of fighting.
ELECTROSHADOW: Sure. I’m putting together a team…