Warner Brothers has obviously decided that Zack Snyder is the person to set the tone for their cinematic universe, to rival Marvel’s highly successful franchise. Last night I got to see Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, and somehow I don’t think Marvel has much to worry about. As a set-up for a cinematic universe it seems to exist mostly to demonstrate what a good job Marvel has done.
Spoilers will follow.
I wasn’t a big fan of Snyder’s Man of Steel. In particular, the whole thing with Pa Kent (Kevin Costner) telling Clark (Henry Cavill) that preserving his secret identity is more important than saving a bus load of drowning children was completely opposed to the whole point of Superman, or being a hero at all. And Batman v Superman even acknowledges Pa was wrong in a back-handed way, by apparently retconning Pa Kent’s attitude away. Instead dialogue in Batman v Superman suggests Superman does what he does because that’s what Pa wanted. However, we also get some bizarre dialogue from Ma Kent (Diane Lane) you can see in the trailer, where she says to Clark, “You don’t owe this world a thing. You never did.” Uh, yes, Clark does owe this world something: his life. Remember, Krypton blew up, and he was the only survivor (give or take all the other survivors from Man of Steel) because he was sent to Earth. Batman v Superman just doesn’t know why or even if Superman should be a hero.
That brings us to Batman, played by Ben Affleck. The version of Batman in Batman v Superman is based on Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, with a little of Tim Burton’s Batman thrown in. In The Dark Knight Returns Batman was willing to use guns to get the job done, but still rejected killing. But in Batman v Superman Batman doesn’t just use guns, he seems to love them. There’s only one scene where we see Batman engage in any un-enhanced hand to hand combat, and many, many scenes with Batman gunning people down with the Batmobile, the Batplane, and even with machine guns taken from enemies. I guess we’re supposed to assume that Batman wasn’t always so violent, but the movie doesn’t show us anything of Batman’s career between his parent’s funeral and the destruction of Metropolis at the end of Man of Steel. Batman v Superman also uses almost exclusively horror imagery to portray Batman and his world, in particular stained glass windows and bleeding stonework lifted from The Omen (1976). Even by Batman standards it’s a grim portrayal, and not any fun.
So those are the main characters. How’s the rest of the movie? Not good. The first ninety minutes of Batman v Superman is about as incoherent as any big budget action movie I’ve seen. There are about seven different storylines, few of which have anything to do with each other. Characters’ motives are unclear or even contradictory from scene to scene. The worst example of this is Superman’s attitude towards Batman. We’re supposed to think that Clark is worried by Batman’s vigilantism, but just a few scenes earlier Superman caused an international incident by attacking a warlord in Africa. The movie never addresses this apparent hypocrisy. (Surprisingly, it’s the situation with the warlord that has Superman dragged in front of Congress, not the wholesale destruction of Metropolis in Man of Steel.)
There are other things that just plain don’t make sense. Chief among these is Batman’s whole storyline. Batman is working his way up a organization of human traffickers, looking for someone called “White Portuguese,” who is apparently looking to smuggle a dirty bomb into Gotham. But later it turns out White Portuguese is a ship owned by Lex Luthor, and Lex is using it to smuggle the only known large piece of kryptonite into Metropolis after the government denies him a import license. The dirty bomb story is a lie Bruce told Alfred, and Batman actually wants to steal the chunk of kryptonite. But here’s the problem: Batman was looking for White Portuguese before Luthor was denied permission to import the kryptonite. So either it’s a huge coincidence that this particular group of human traffickers just happened to be the same group Luthor would use to smuggle in his kryptonite into Metropolis, or big chunks of the movie are way out of order. Or the script is terrible. I don’t want to rule that last one out.
The movie isn’t a complete loss. There are a few bright spots, but they’re few and far between. That’s not exactly true, they’re not far between. They’re all towards the end, when Superman and Batman actually start fighting. The way that fight ends is clever. Wonder Woman is fun, once she’s let loose. I’m actually looking forward to her solo movie.
The real purpose of Batman v Superman, of course, is to set up the cinematic universe. It does so in just about the most clumsy way possible. Wonder Woman is introduced as if she’s an art thief, more Catwoman than Amazonian. The Flash appears in a dream to Batman, apparently breaking through from the future. I think he was warning Batman about a future based on the Injustice: Gods Among Us video game and comics. The other two heroes are introduced via the equivalent of YouTube clips, showing us Aquaman squatting in the wreck of the Titanic and Vic Stone being resurrected by what looks like Kryptonian technology. In a nice surprise, Dr. Stone is played by Joe Morton. All of these make the worst of the Marvel introductions, Hawkeye’s cameo in Thor, seem like the model of smooth story-centric integration.
Then there’s Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg). At the end of the movie he’s shaved bald in prison and he warns that some big bad knows about the heroes of Earth now. Presumably, that’s Darkseid. How Luthor knows that, I’m not sure. In fact, Luthor’s only threat in the movie comes from his access to Kryptonian technology, and the fact that he knows all the heroes’ secret identities. That includes Batman’s, but the ending just pretends that Luthor’s knowledge doesn’t matter. Like so much of the movie.