Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice review: Snyder does it again
“I really hope this is good.”
That was the last thing I said to my friend before the start of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. I really wanted Batman v Superman to be good, even though I was underwhelmed by Man of Steel and director Zack Snyder’s cold and sterile style of filmmaking doesn’t work for me. In fact, the last movies of his I really enjoyed were Dawn of the Dead and maybe 300.
Snyder has a distinct visual flair, which logically would lend itself well to films based on comics, but in the process his movies become impersonal and cold. His characters barely feel complete; they are more amalgamations of other archetypes. That may work on an intellectual level, but it makes it hard to connect with characters – especially when those characters are already notoriously difficult to connect with, ala Superman.
Batman v Superman remains firmly within the limitations of Snyder’s scope. It is a visually competent film, with moments that border on spectacular, but it’s hollow. The characters are too distant to really root for, even with decades of lore supporting them. Replace Batman and Superman (and Wonder Woman) with original characters with the same powers, and the film would just be boring and borderline pretentious.
There are some great moments though. Batman v Superman begins by overlapping with Man of Steel, just from a different angle – the ground level. It actually makes Man of Steel retroactively better while simultaneously highlighting one of that film’s biggest flaws.
Superman and Zod’s battle for Metropolis is a terrifying event. It’s a disaster movie with super powers. Man of Steel only hinted at the cost of it, but instead chose to focus on the action rather than the consequences – and not just the ridiculous and unmentioned death toll, but the impact it would have had on the survivors.
Snyder recently defended the death toll in Man of Steel, claiming people were unfairly attacking his film and overlooking the deaths in The Force Awakens, where entire planets were destroyed. He does raise an interesting point about selective outrage and wanton death in movies, but the Star Wars films are fun. They have a sense of humor, which allows us to overlook the weight of certain things. Snyder deliberately makes his superhero films gritty and realistic, forcing audiences to take it seriously – which makes the unmentioned death toll a legitimate complaint.
Batman v Superman’s opening seems to suggest that Snyder and WB understood that problem in Man of Steel, but it doesn’t last long. It’s soon clear that the point wasn’t to inject humanity into the film, but rather to give an action packed rationale for later events.
The story then jumps forward 18 months. The public is split on Superman. Some see him as a modern messiah, others fear his lack of accountability. Batman, however, sees the Man of Steel as a threat to the world and the future.
As the Bat does his thing in Gotham, a weasely-but-interesting Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg) makes plans of his own, quietly whispering in the ear of politicians and military leaders that the world needs a Superman deterrent.
The rest, you can guess from the trailers. Batman and Superman scrap, a bigger threat emerges, and Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) joins the fight. Although it isn’t exactly a deep film, discussing anything else would be an unnecessary spoiler. You’ve seen the trailers. You’ve read the name. You know what to expect.
Snyder puts a visual emphasis on each scene, but he does so without a thought for pacing and overall storytelling. That makes for a two and a half hour special effects demo reel. It’s not so much that it creates pacing problems, but rather it eliminates the idea of pacing as a whole.
I went into the film with a completely open-mind, more thrilled by the idea of seeing Batman and Superman on screen together than concerned by Snyder’s method. , but like many of Snyder’s films, Batman v Superman isn’t concerned with the basics of storytelling. He is a big picture man, jumping from scene to scene without allowing his characters the room to grow. It’s a problem the director has always had, substituting technical skills to fill in for heart. The results are dull and uninspired.
Snyder’s films come across like a sociopath’s view of the world, where morality is a consequence of previous events and people are slaves to their actions. Characters don’t reason, their psyche is forcibly shifted due to outside events – that’s how Snyder deals with character growth – through trauma. It feels mechanical rather than organic.
Perhaps not coincidentally, the story in Batman v Superman would probably work very well as a comic, an inherently visual medium. And in many ways, Snyder is the perfect person to bring a literal translation of DC’s characters to the big screen. The problem is, literal translations taken from different mediums rarely translate well without someone injecting depth into them.
DC’s trinity are all bigger than life – two of them are basically gods (one literally so), while the other is the absolute peak of humanity, stronger, tougher, smarter, and more indomitable than any other person alive. They don’t crack jokes, they aren’t built on personality, and they are all defined by their actions rather than who they are when they aren’t in action.
DC seems to have done everything it can to shift away from that with the New 52, making Superman more human and Batman more damaged. The comics publisher recognized an issue, and addressed it. Snyder, however, embraced it.
Snyder’s grim version of the DC universe was in many ways inevitable. Just like the grittier comics of the 80s that were themselves a reaction to the homogenized stories coming at the tail end of the silver age, DC’s movies seem to be a grittier reflection of the success, and arguably even oversaturation of the Marvel movies. Not all the MCU films are lighthearted, but they operate within a spectrum that makes more comical films like Ant-Man and Guardians of the Galaxy seem like a natural fit. Those films would feel alien in Snyder’s DC film universe, a place where fun and humor are eyed suspiciously.
As for the A-list cast, the greatest visual effect in the film may be Ben Affleck, who is absolutely swollen. He looks like a baseball player in the 90s. Henry Cavill also looks like he could place well at a bodybuilding competition, but Affleck is a monster. He is serviceable as Batman, limited by a lack of depth, but he has a lot of potential for the future, as his Batman has a confident swagger. Cavill does what Snyder asks of him, coming across as the echo of a more interesting hero. He overdoes it in many scenes, possibly to make up for his general lack of character. That is more on the director than the actor though.
Gadot’s Wonder Woman is a scene-stealer, although her appearance won’t fully pay off until her spin off film where her backstory will inform her actions.
Arguably the best parts of the film are the teases for Justice League. It says a lot for the source material that people will still be excited by those nods, even as the film they are in is something of a mess.
Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice review conclusion
Like Man of Steel before it, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice will be a divisive movie, and the mouthful of a title should tell you all you need to know to have an idea of which side you will fall on. The name sounds like a legal case, while the subtitle is meant to tease you that this is part of the larger universe that leads into a Justice League franchise. Both allusions are fair – the film takes a more intellectual approach than an emotional one, and the best part of the movie is the promise of a bigger universe.
Snyder’s much-hyped epic is too grim to be fun, too set in fantasy to be real. More importantly though, it lacks heart – it’s a recipe made from a cookbook by someone that is more concerned with making sure the recipe works than making a meal that tastes great. There’s still hope for the upcoming Justice League films, but Snyder is a limitation rather than a boon.
Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is rated PG-13 with a running time of 2 hours and 23 minutes.