[THIS REVIEW CONTAINS MINOR, GENERAL SPOILERS.]
Wow. The script for “Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice” (2016) was really bad.
I hate to begin a review with a statement so negative, but it’s true. I really think that I could have done better than this, and I know nothing about screenwriting. Hell, parts of the movie were actually MSTy-worthy. I just can’t believe that the gifted David S. Goyer had a hand in this.
Batman is flatly rendered and barely likable. Superman is capably played by Henry Cavill, but has little to say. Lex Luthor is portrayed as a cloying, verbose, flamboyant, attention-seeking manchild. He gets all the screen time in the world (and more dialogue than Superman, it seems), and he really come across as a whiny, rambling high school student playing at theologian, trying in vain to impress the girls. Luthor seems to want to ingratiate himself to every other character on screen. Strangely, this includes even those he is threatening or endeavoring to murder. He has weird vocal tics that quickly get on our nerves. “Mmm.” He makes repeated references to god, who he hates, and … this makes him hate the godlike Superman, via Freudian transference. Or something.
He consequently wants to kill Superman. He has kryptonite and demonstrably capable mercenaries at his disposal. But, for some reason, he wants to employ unreliable, convoluted plans to prompt Batman to do it. His plans to motivate Batman include harassing him with newspaper clippings and nasty notes, like a deranged stalker.
He also has a photograph of Wonder Woman that she would like to keep secret. She goes ahead and mentions it to an ostensibly drunken Bruce Wayne at a party anyway.
Oh! Luthor also knows the secret identities for both Superman and Batman, and has known for some time. We don’t find out how he knows, and he does far less to exploit this information than you would think. Couldn’t he easily (and quite legally) cause problems for both men simply by exposing them? Superman knows Batman’s identity too; I guess we can chalk that up to his x-ray vision? Batman is not in the know, and spends much of the movie trying to play catch-up, and is easily manipulated by Luthor. This is despite the fact that, in the comics, he is the world’s greatest detective.
There is bad dialogue, weird science, and bad science. There are murky, vague plot points and unsupported character motivations. Some things are just plain dumb — Metropolis and Gotham City stand within sight of each other, just across a bay. Either hero could easily intervene in the other’s city … but they apparently respect each other’s nearly adjacent turf, even though they don’t know or trust each other.
Even the premise is shaky — legions of people hate Superman because they blame him for the damage inflicted by Zod during the events of “Man of Steel” (2013). Couldn’t he just exonerate himself by simply telling the truth — that Zod attacked earth and he rose to defend it? I’m willing to bet most people would get that.
There are … dream sequences … and/or visions … and/or messages from the future? And … conversations with the dead? Or … not? You tell me.
Why does Superman need a winter jacket?
Why does he refer to his mother as “Martha?” Do any of us refer to our mothers by their first name?
I could go on, but you get the idea. I actually found my attention wandering during this movie.
All of this is a shame, because there are hints of brilliance hiding among the mediocrity. The movie is ambitious. It seems to want to say a lot about weighty themes such as power, unlimited power, its ability to corrupt, and the unintended consequences of unilateral action. There seem to be visual references to real world horrors like 9/11 and ISIS’ terrorism, which I found pretty bold. I’ve never been good with subtext. Were there allegories here that I missed, connected with U.S. foreign policy or the War on Terror?
I will say this — the film isn’t quite as bad as the critics are making it out to be. It isn’t all garbage, it’s just a below average superhero film. And it appears worse because it’s part of a genre characterized by a lot of really good films — Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies were groundbreaking, and most of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s titles were quite good. So this ambitious misfire seems far worse in contrast. I myself would rate this movie a 5 out of 10 — even if I might be biased here by my lifelong love for these iconic characters.
I’ll tell you what — why don’t I go ahead and list this movie’s successes? There are a few things that I really liked, and this blog post is so negative it’s starting be a buzzkill.
- Ben Affleck did a damn good job in his portrayal of Batman. I’m sold. I strongly get the sense that he worked hard to prepare for the role. The man is a good actor; this was a good performance. Somebody get Batffleck a better script!
- Amy Adams and Diane Lane are both skilled actresses, and are both a pleasure to watch here, as Lois Lane and Martha Kent, respectively.
- The special effects are damned good. If you’re a longtime fan of Superman, then his heat vision alone might make this movie worth the price of a ticket. His flights and landings look damned good too. The scene where Wonder Woman lassos Doomsday was downright beautiful — it’s one of the best FX shots in recent memory. I couldn’t conceive of anything better by using my imagination.
- The fight choreography when Batman takes down multiple thugs is quite good.
- It’s a little hard for me to articulate, but … the final showdown here really does capture the epic, mythic feel of a major superhero battles in the DC Comics I grew up with. We’ve got two heavy hitters — Superman and Wonder Woman — battling a super-powered villain in an apocalyptic battle, with the quite-mortal Batman holding his own just fine, employing the power of badass. It was a hell of a fun finale for me, as it recalled the superpowered clashes I used to find in the better-written “Justice League” comics, or those various Jeph Loeb-written team-ups between Bats and Supes. The vibe was just right, and it really struck a chord with me and improved the movie.
- As much as I’ve complained about the script, there were parts here and there that were actually surprisingly awesome. The scene at the Capitol was darkly inspired. Luthor’s modus operandi for controlling Superman was a nasty bit of business. And one character delivers a monologue about a flood that is vivid and hauntingly sad — and it was made all the more effective because the actor delivering it is so talented. I’m genuinely surprised that the movie went so dark with all of these moments. Again — there were hints of brilliance among the mediocrity.
Postscript: a note to those who might be new to comics — this movie cribs heavily from two famous comic book story arcs. The first is 1972’s “Must There Be A Superman?” and the second is 1986’s graphic novel, “The Dark Knight Returns.” I haven’t read the former, but let me assure you that the latter is incredibly good. It was written and illustrated by Frank Miller, and it was so damn good it actually transformed the medium, by changing how fans and the general public viewed comic books. It’s a masterpiece. The point I’m trying to make is this — please don’t judge the seminal comic series by its putative representation by this film.
Postscript II: has there really been a great live-action Superman movie since “Superman II” in 1980? It’s well known that the third and fourth installments in the 80’s franchise were abominable. I thought that “Superman Returns” (2006) and “Man of Steel” were both good, but they got mixed reviews from audiences and critics alike. Weird.