How much do critics really matter anymore, and what happens when audiences and critics can’t quite seem to agree about a movie? For one thing, you either make box office gold or find utter ruin; but for another thing, you have this week’s super hero themed The Anticipated, Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice. This film has been met with reactions ranging from divisive to disdainful from critics and even audiences, but has still raked in truckfuls of money. So what gives? What about this film has caused such a stir? Let’s see if we can get to the bottom of this.
Like Super Spoilers Ahead
Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice (March 25th, 2016)
How was it?
I’ll just get in front of this right now. I actually kind of liked a lot of this movie, and I think some of the hate it is getting has been because once the the negative reviews came out, people began to pile on, because that seemed to be the way the wind was blowing. The film certainly didn’t get the benefit of the doubt for a lot of its decisions that other films (especially Marvel films) might have. I say some of the hate because good Lord is this film a hot mess, filled with questionable directing choices and outright terrible writing decisions. There are just so many points in the movie where all you can think is, what the hell is happening? Despite that, a lot of this film works really well, which is why I ultimately felt it was more good than bad.
A lot of what makes DC super heroes so interesting at times is that they are more like gods than men. Some might argue that Marvel’s more human characters are inherently more interesting, and to some extent I might even agree with that, but there are a lot of creative opportunities available for DC characters, especially if one is willing to play around with their mythology. This is especially true for Superman, who has always been a somewhat problematic character. His immense power set can be creatively limiting, and it’s hard to make the “boy scout” personality type interesting on screen. I have always found the latter contention a bit overblown, because the first two Superman films are quite good (give or take time travel that would have destroyed the Earth), and those are some of the most earnest films ever. The problem is that the next three Superman films after those were either just not good, in the case of Superman III and IV (probably because Richard Donner unfortunately had absolutely nothing to do with them) or simply too focused on the past, in the case of Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns (although some disagree).
Superman was indeed in need of a fresh take, something that would bring the idyllic 1950s-style collateral damage-less stories into a more contemporary narrative aesthetic. I appreciated the way Man of Steel attempted to do this by trying to get more into the psychology of Superman, instead of simply saying he is pure Good and always will be. It showed a Superman struggling with what he was supposed to do with his life instead of just being a super hero. A Superman that was not strong enough to prevent massive collateral damage, and that was cornered into killing Zod in order to save people. This is a flawed Superman, and that makes sense, because this was an origin story, and Superman shouldn’t be perfect as soon as he begins. The execution of all of this was hit-or-miss, but it at least laid the groundwork for Superman to really pop in his next film, where he could struggle meaningfully with the actual hard work required to be a good hero instead of merely being a dude that can fly and punch things.
This set-up worked out for Batman v Superman to a certain extent. Unlike most people, what I found to be most compelling about this movie wasn’t Ben Affleck’s Batman (he’s fine, but his internal struggle never works as well as it should, especially because it forced me to re-watch Thomas and Martha Wayne’s deaths for the umpteenth time) or Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman (who kicks ass, but is wasted from a story perspective), but Superman’s story of trying to figure out if being a hero is the right thing to do. That storyline is actually somewhat fresh, and offered a chance to really examine Superman’s place in the world.
Which is why I was so annoyed that this storyline took up maybe 15 minutes of the movie. This meant that none of the emotional beats from this film ever really hit home, no matter how hard Henry Cavill tried to make them work (and man, he tried really hard). Sure, the story is all there. Superman is questioned by the world, Superman questions himself, Superman thinks about flying away from it all, but instead ultimately chooses to sacrifice himself for a planet that may always fear him, because it is the right thing to do. But none of these story beats are given the right amount of time to actually work. Instead, Batman has to be introduced and explained. Wonder Woman has to be in this film. Lex needs a storyline. The Justice League needs to be hinted at. Darkseid has to be hinted at. Basically, this film went from being a true sequel to Man of Steel to a launching pad for an entire cinematic universe, and that meant taking crucial screen time away from Superman’s story.
I would like to say that this film could have been fixed simply by split it into at least two movies (a Man of Steel sequel and a Batman/Justice League film, maybe), but that doesn’t address the fact that the wrong director was in charge of this movie (and Man of Steel). Zack Snyder isn’t necessarily a bad director in general; I think he’s fine, and there are a couple of DC properties I think he could actually manage quite well. But dear Lord, the man is an awful fit for Superman, and he has no business being the main creative force behind DC’s entire cinematic universe. The more you listen to his interviews, the more you realize that he simply hates Superman as a character, and so can’t really be trusted to tell a proper Superman story. The reason so much shit got added to this movie is that, on top of WB’s ill-fated decision to try and condense the years-long process by which Marvel built up their cinematic universe into one movie, it is clear that Snyder simply was uninterested into telling any more stories about Superman than he absolutely had to in order to get to things like the Justice League. So while Snyder had some really good ideas that he wanted to examine about Superman, his clear dislike for the character meant that Superman would never get the proper reconstruction he needed to work as a character. (Really, the much better version of this story has been told during the first season of Supergirl on CBS.) Superman needs a director who loves the character, and more importantly, one who won’t kill off Jimmy Olsen because he thinks it would be fun, or make Superman look like a demon when he fires off his heat vision. Snyder is simply a poor fit for the character, and it poisoned a lot of the good he actually did with this movie.
Nor does all that really even get into the aforementioned writing issues, ones that make me worried that David Goyer has corrupted Chris Terrio. The number of times this film had WTF!? writing moments is simply unacceptable. Most notably when Lois (Amy Adams) inexplicably decides to throw the only thing that can kill Superman into a pool water instead of trying to destroy it, and then it becomes clear that the reason she didn’t destroy it was so she could later go back and try and retrieve the spear in order to kill Doomsday, who she had no way of knowing would ever exist. Just, ahhhhhhhhhhh! The writing logic gap there is immense, and the movie is plagued by these moments.
At this point you’re probably wondering, considering all of my issues with this film, how can I say I liked this movie? The answer is two-fold. One, I respect the film’s ambition. I will always give a film credit for trying to do too much, as long as it pulls some of it off, and even for its flaws, this film does actually portray some of the problematic ideas behind Superman and Batman in a way that is compelling. But second and more important reason I enjoyed this: the actors are great. Even with somewhat limited (and limiting) material, everyone in this film cobbles together far better performances than they should have been able to. Affleck brings a weary fury to Batman that is a sight to see. Gadot infuses personality into her limited role as Wonder Woman. Jessie Eisengberg’s Lex Luthor (muddled character motivations aside) is a unique take on the character, and one that works despite the fact that the film doesn’t really know what it wants to do with Lex. Jeremy Irons’s Alfred brings much needed levity to the film, and prove that Irons can do anything well. This is a well-cast movie, and watching them salvage questionable writing and directing decisions is quite the sight to see. Mostly, though, I found that this film was entertaining, hot mess and all, and at some level that is enough.
Isn’t this based on…?
Like, all of DC Comics. Although a big part of the film was based on Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, it feels like every idea about Superman and Batman that has ever come up was considered for this film, and a lot of them were used.
Did it warrant its selection in The Anticipated?
The big reason this film made this year’s list is it felt like the perfect litmus test of where we are at with super hero films in today’s world. How this film did, I thought, would provide clues as to the future of the industry for years to come. Would this film continue to move the genre toward oversaturation, or would it signal a tiredness that would signal the end of the onslaught? The answers have been illuminating. Much like Avengers: Age of Ultron, this film has been both a box office success and failure. Dawn of Justice made $170 million in its opening weekend (domestic), giving it the highest opening for WB ever and the 6th highest opening of all time. This film, however, officially had a $250 million dollar budget, and honestly, that is probably lowballing it (not to mention the amount spent on advertising). So this film needed to at least make a billion dollars worldwide to be considered a true success. The savage reviews, however, have taken their toll, and the film saw a steep drop off the following week in returns despite rather weak competition. This means the film is unlikely to clear the billion dollar mark, let alone the $1.4 billion Age of Ultron made, but was still considered a “disappointment.” This doesn’t mean this film is a box office disaster, like let’s, say fellow fellow WB releases Jupiter Ascending or Pan, but it certainly isn’t a success, either.
This has caused an interesting response from Warner Brothers. Not only is WB not scaling back its super hero plans, it even added two more movies to its slate (one of which is probably a solo Batman film, while the other is who the hell knows). What Warner Brothers is doing, however, is focusing its efforts more. That means cutting back on riskier films (outside of another live action Jungle Book, to which I can only wonder, “Why!?”) and instead do whatever they can to make sure there are more stable properties: the DC comics movies, the LEGO movies, and anything related to Harry Potter (so as of now, the Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them movies). Apparently the idea is to ensure that the issues with Batman v Superman don’t continue to happen in their big ticket films–especially the 2017 Justice League movie, which could easily go as far wrong creatively as Batman v Superman, especially with Zack Synder still at the helm. Whether this is anything more than lip service remains to be seen, but it’s an encouraging sign that WB is not simply burying its head in the sand and pretending every thing is fine, because even from the perspective of someone that didn’t hate this film, everything is not fine.
More importantly, this film has finally seemed to knock WB out of their weird obsession with being anti-Marvel to the point of not letting their movies be funny. It’s one thing to make a decision to make your universe darker as a contrast with the lighter nature of the MCU (a nature which has at times hindered Marvel’s ability to tell stories with real emotion in them), but that doesn’t mean your films should be utterly devoid of humor. The complaints about the “grimdark” nature of Batman v Superman have been a bit overblown, because the dark tone is not even in the top five reasons for the issues currently plaguing the DC Cinematic Universe. But it is true that these movies need to understand it is okay to lighten up at times.
The current reshoots for Suicide Squad seem to agree with this assertion, as even if they aren’t simply to add more laughs, they are clearly being done to ensure the film is not the same dour and dark movie Batman v Superman was. Of course, considering it has been revealed that the original trailer for the Suicide Squad movie contained basically all of the jokes in the entire movie, which basically meant the trailer had no relation to how the actual film would be maybe WBs simply has no idea what its doing, and is just assuming throwing more money at the problem will fix things. Still, it does feel like right now that the problematic nature of Batman V Superman could ultimately prove to be a turning point for the DC Cinematic Universe, as WB learns from their mistakes and course corrects. Then again, Zack Snyder still has all the power, so maybe it’s all hopeless. Regardless, Batman v Superman is ultimately going to be one of the most talked about films this year, and has already provided some of the most entertaining discussion about the nature of movies, and the divide between audience and critics for quite some time. So yeah, it warranted its selection in spades.
Would I recommend it to others?
Strangely, yes. This is a movie that people should see for themselves to determine what they think about it. For better or worse, this is probably going to be one of the films that will always be talked about in relation to movies in 2016. The cultural conversation about this movie has been quite large, and so I would definitely recommend at least giving it a look once it is available outside of theatres. Especially considering that is the way you will be able to watch the Rated R cut.
How would I rate it?
So despite questions of quality, the buzz for this film is crazy. People have talked about it incessantly, and likely will continue to do so for the rest of the year. For better or worse, it has indeed set up the super hero genre for years to come, so for the handy-dandy made up Anticipation Meter, Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice receives 9 bat brands out of 10, because I will likely talk about this film more than any other for the rest of the year, and it is going to be one of the films that people remember most from 2016.
For an actual rating: this is somewhat hard to parse, as I have to weigh the film’s many flaws against its ambitious ideas and great acting. I can’t rightly say this film is truly good, but it is full of individual moments that are either good or really well done, particularly the action scenes (outside of parts of the Doomsday fight). So ultimately that leaves me to score this film 2.5 stars out of 4. Overall, I think this is actually a decent movie, just not a good one, so it gets a low but positive score.
That’s it for this edition of The Anticipated. I’ll be honest, I have no idea what film will be next, as there are several films on my list that have proven difficult to see. So just keep checking in on the blog to find out when the next one of these will appear. Until then, remember that The Flash was also in this movie, and he is always the best, even if he only appears momentarily.