DC Comics and Warner Brothers’ second step in setting up a universe of superhero movies to rival Marvel’s hit theaters this weekend to big buck and vitriolic reviews. Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is a messy, bloated epic that occasionally struggles with coherence. It is a movie that seems simultaneously designed to appeal to and piss off fanboys. It somehow feels cut to the bone and a half hour too long. It is both contemplative and thoughtful and a big dumb action movie. Batman v Superman is at least two different movies jammed together. I don’t really understand why I like it so much. Despite its numerous and glaring flaws, Batman v Superman remains highly entertaining.
BvS stars Ben Affleck as Batman and Henry Cavill as Superman. During the climactic showdown in Man of Steel, Wayne Tower in Metropolis was destroyed. Bruce blames this on Superman. Meanwhile, an attempt by Lois Lane to get an interview with an African warlord becomes an international incident, with again Superman taking the blame. While Batman searches for a weapon to use against Superman and Superman deals with an increasingly fraught political situation, Lex Luthor plots behind the scenes to make use of his newly discovered Kryptonite and to get control of General Zod’s remains. These threads, and a few more, move at a breakneck pace until it comes to the inevitable confrontation between the title characters and from there expands into another city stomping fight scene.
Whether you find them good or bad, there is no question that the performances in the film are memorable. Jesse Eisenburg play’s Lex as a coked out hipster CEO, with odd verbal ticks and barely contained smugness and disdain for all around him. It is the first instance of a live action Luthor that genuinely feels like a threat. Affleck’s Batman is bulky and driven, with his Bruce persona and Batman persona more similar that previous versions. The one drawing the bulk of the criticism is Henry Cavill’s Superman, who doesn’t get enough to do in the movie and who many viewers seem to be deliberately misinterpreting. He is stoic, but with even the slightest amount of charity it the closest any film has come to the Superman I grew up with. All of the primary roles are distinctive takes on very well know characters. They don’t work all the time, but they aren’t easy to forget either.
To its detriment, BvS trusts its audience and expects a lot from them. Yes, they use the opening credits to once again show Batman’s origin, but for the most part this movie expects the viewers to know who its characters are. The movie doesn’t quite work if the viewer is not already at least somewhat familiar with them. Considering how strongly ingrained Superman, Batman and Lex Luthor are in the pop culture consciousness, that is not an unreasonable expectation. But people aren’t familiar with these versions of those characters, and it makes it hard to read some scenes. Knowing how Batman should act is essential to understanding that he is not acting normally. Which he isn’t for most of the movie. But the movie has never shown that normal, it just expects the viewer to know it. Just like it expects the viewer to know who Superman is and what he does, because it certainly can’t spare more than a few minutes to show it. The fact that the movie never gives Lex Luthor a reason for hating Superman. To me that is a ridiculous complaint; he is Lex Luthor, hating Superman is what he does. The movie is not interested in explaining any of this, but it expects it to be understood. While some of it should be, BvS takes it too far. Some establishment of normal is necessary to contrast when thing change. A few lines from Alfred and talking heads on TVs don’t cut it. That is the most substantial problem with the movie.
The actual plot as it unfolds it fine. It tries to pose some substantial questions about right and wrong, about the effects of a Godlike being appearing in our midst, both those effects on us and the effects on that being, but it never really finishes making its case, instead getting sidetracked by CG spectacle and awkward attempts to set up future DC comics movies.
There is no getting around that, much like its title, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is an awkward mess. But the more I think about it, the more I like it. Also, while it may be just the contrarian in me, I find the more vitriol I see spewed at this movie the more I like it. It is flawed. It skips by important plot points to save time for Wonder Woman essentially watching youtube videos. The first half seems to be completely devoid of establishing shots. It all but assumes a movie between it and Man of Steel where Superman actually does Superman stuff. But for all those problems, and more, I couldn’t help but enjoy it. It attempts to wrestle with weighty themes. It wants to be something more than Marvel’s slick popcorn fair. BvS never quite gets there, but the ambition is refreshing.