It’s been nearly two years since Superman’s (Henry Cavill) colossal battle with Zod (Michael Shannon) devastated the city of Metropolis. The loss of life and collateral damage left many feeling angry and helpless, including crime-fighting billionaire Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck). Convinced that Superman is now a threat to humanity, Batman embarks on a personal vendetta to end his reign on Earth, while the conniving Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg) launches his own crusade against the Man of Steel, and the world wrestles with what kind of a hero it really needs.
With Batman and Superman fighting each other, a new threat quickly arises, putting mankind in greater danger than it’s ever known before. It’s up to Superman and Batman to set aside their differences along with Wonder Woman to stop Lex Luthor’s ultimate plans.
Cast: Ben Affleck, Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Jesse Eisenberg, Jeremy Irons, Gal Gadot
Written by: Chris Terrio, David S. Goyer
Directed by: Zack Snyder
SPOILER ALERT: This article contains spoilers, some mild and some pretty big.
At some point during development, the title was switched around from “Superman vs Batman” to “Batman vs Superman.” This has turned out to be very appropriate for a multitude of reasons. From the narrative’s Batman-heavy focus to the overall gritty texture of the movie, it definitely favors the dark knight over the man of tomorrow.
It’s hard to criticize the movie’s plot or story because there really isn’t one. It’s just a series of events that have been arranged in chronological order. Director Zack Snyder had (or more likely was given) a list of events that had to be shown in this film to set up the new DC Extended Universe, and he was ticking them off, one by one. There is no overall theme, message, or… point. Basically, there’s no “there” there. So with the topic of plot off the table, let’s talk about what this film actually has.
What’s actually nice about this film is that even though poor Henry Cavill’s role has been cut down to about one-fifth of the movie, there’s actually more of Clark Kent here than there was in the first film. We are finally treated to little glimpses of behavior that “feel” like Clark Kent, especially in the couple of scenes that he shares with Lois Lane.
Love it or hate it, the 90’s TV series “Lois & Clark: the New Adventures of Superman” brought a very real Clark Kent to the screen, and summed him up with two sentences. In a scene in the second season, Dean Cain said to Teri Hatcher, “Lois, Superman is what I can do. Clark Kent is who I AM.” This was the essence of the character. Of course, this was when we were watching a fleshed-out, three-dimensional person. Zack Snyder’s Superman is an empty shell to hang fight scenes on. There’s nothing wrong with Henry Cavill’s performance. He just isn’t given anything to “do” as an actor. This is why people may “ooh” and “ahh” at the fight scenes of these two movies, but it’s difficult to care when characters are in mortal danger. Superman is in over his head, and he might be killed? Big deal, we’ve been watching him for two hours now, and we don’t even know him.
The majority of this new film is spent focusing on Ben Affleck’s Batman. But while Superman is not even two years into his career yet, Batman has been fighting crime for nearly two decades. This gives Zack Snyder the chance to bring a version of Frank Miller’s “Dark Knight” to the screen. It may also be a wise choice because for the past thirty-six years, the only successful DC superhero movies have been Batman films. The only exception was Man of Steel. Audiences know Batman so well now that there is no point in retelling his origin story for the ten thousandth time. The interesting thing about this is that, unlike Superman, Batman doesn’t feel at all out of place in this “grim and gritty” cinematic universe. While Superman feels like a stranger in his own movies, Batman feels right at home. In Man of Steel, Superman explained to Lois Lane that the “S” shield on his chest is the Kryptonian symbol for “hope,” a feeling that is ironically absent from either of these films.
To understand what is missing from the modern interpretations of Superman, both in the modern “New 52” line of comics and in theatres, we need to go back to the very beginnings of the character. Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster created a demi-god based on Samson or Heracles. Yes, the character was an alien living in a human world, but at the time, Siegel & Shuster hadn’t even figured out what that meant yet. Superman was “alien” in the sense of being an immigrant. When Action Comics first started, he didn’t take on space invaders, super-powered villains, or even mad scientists. This was before “able to leap tall buildings” meant actual flight. He took on crime lords, corporate crooks, and corrupt senators, foes that modern humans could appreciate; though beating them might have been just out of reach for regular people. Today those real-world villains are completely out of reach, but I digress…
There is more to Superman than just his ability to break stuff. The point of the character is that he was meant to inspire. Superman was never intended to be a reflection of every day life and the harshness of the world around us. Bill Finger and Bob Kane were addressing that in their Batman stories. Superman was meant to make readers feel that they could and should aspire to be something more, that people can be a genuine force for good. And for those foes who are just out of reach, Superman will pick up the slack and save the day. By this model, Superman stories should always be inspirational. In effect, “grim and gritty” is more toxic to Superman than kryptonite.
Jesse Eisenberg plays the arch-villain of this story in an interesting portrayal of Lex Luthor. I suspect we’re going to be seeing that word a lot in relation to the casting of DC’s Extended Universe characters: “interesting.” Eisenberg’s Luthor is not the loony real estate speculator of Gene Hackman, the amoral corporate businessman of John Shea, the sinister tycoon of Clancy Brown, or even the fiercely mad scientist of Kevin Spacey. Instead, his Luthor is an odd fusion, sort of an “all of the above” response. There are numerous references to his poor and humble beginnings with no explanation as to how he rose to power as a multi-billionaire. He is erratic and distracted, at one point gibbering uncontrollably before a crowd of party guests. Somehow, he manages to gain focus just long enough to manipulate Bruce Wayne and Superman into mortal combat with each other. He hedges his bets by creating an all-powerful “Doomsday” device, a monster to kill Superman with, that he has no hope of controlling or containing. In fact, how he manages to survive the explosion as Superman and Doomsday first clash is unexplained. I guess audiences were just supposed to forget that he was standing twenty feet away. He also spends the entire movie with a full head of hair, a detail that gets corrected at the end of the movie… for no particular reason… whatsoever. There’s also snot-drool. It’s intended to depict Luthor’s final descent into madness, but all that really comes across is “ew.”
A lot of fuss has also been made (and rightfully so) about Gal Gadot’s portrayal of Wonder Woman, finally bringing this a-list character to the silver screen after 75 years. Unfortunately, when the end credits are rolling, she is still a total mystery. There is even a small in-story joke (a very rare commodity in this bleak film series) in which Superman and Batman are asking each other who she is. Here’s what little we do know: Diana Prince has returned to man’s world after a self-imposed exile of nearly a century. Apparently, she had a very bad day during World War I, the events of which will most likely be depicted in her first solo movie. This means we’re likely to be treated to more “grim and gritty.” Oh, joy.
In fact, everything seems to indicate that the entire DC Extended Universe is going to be focusing on more “grim and gritty” storytelling. It seems that the producers at Warner Bros. studios have learned that gritty and harsh stories are what make Batman movies work, and so naturally that same approach is what makes ALL superheroes successful, right? Well, so far, the Marvel cinematic universe has fourteen examples to prove that this is not true. But don’t bother trying to tell anyone at Warner Bros. that. Martin Campbell’s 2011 Green Lantern film is considered a box-office failure. But when asked why it failed, Jeff Robinov claimed that the movie wasn’t edgy or dark enough. Then less than a year later, Joss Whedon’s Avengers made one and-a-half BILLION dollars.
For reasons best known only to themselves, studio executives chose to hire hit-or-miss stylistic visionary director Zack Snyder to reboot the Superman franchise. While his adaptation of Frank Miller’s 300 was a hit, his adaptation of Alan Moore’s Watchmen was a miss. But what Snyder gave us was a Batman movie with godlike superpower fight scenes. Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel is dark, brooding, and ultra-violent. Unfortunately, it was enough of a success to justify using it as the template for their new cinematic universe. He’s contracted to direct the two Justice League movies and produce four of the spin-offs. So apparently Warner Bros. is determined to dress up every character in their pantheon as a Batman clone because that is all that they know. In spite of the abysmal reviews that this movie has been receiving, it is well on its way to exceeding studio expectations. Of course, that may be due to record advance ticket sales through Fandango. It will be interesting to see if this movie continues to be financially successful over the weeks to come.
While Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice doesn’t deliver in terms of story or character, it does have one thing that Zack Snyder can be very proud of. At least it’s better than Josh Trank’s 2015 Fantastic Four movie.
Do you agree or disagree? Do you have any further insights you’d like to share? We welcome your comments. Feel free to take a moment and enter them below.