Director Zack Snyder’s 2014 Superman film, Man Of Steel, was fairly divisive among comics and genre fans. One of my own complaints with the film concerned the level of destruction seen during the film’s climactic battle being something that its hero should have been working harder to mitigate and that the fatal solution to the evil General Zod’s rampage was also out of character. But in approaching Man Of Steel‘s followup, the cumbersomely titled Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice, I was open to the possibility of reappraising that opinion if, as some of the Man Of Steel‘s defenders would argue, it was the beginning of Superman’s superhero career and this new film would show that the previous one was just the start of a character arc that would play out over Warner Brothers planned series of interconnected films. Such reappraisals are becoming the norm due to the nature of franchise films these days. Unfortunately, Snyder doesn’t follow up on these dangling plot threads from the first film in any meaningful way for the character. Instead, he seems more interested in Superman as icon than character, leaving the caped hero much of a cipher in his own movie.
(I suppose before we get any further into this, I should lay out some bona fides. I’m old enough to have seen the first Christopher Reeve film in theaters when it was first released. One of the first comic books I can recall owning was Action Comics #500, a great overview of the Superman mythos for the uninitiated. I still own it. It is part of a DC Comics collection that spans several decades of collecting and fills some sixty-plus short boxes, outnumbering my Marvel collection by about six-to-one. If there is anyone rooting for and invested in the success if bringing these characters to the big screen and to more people, it would be me. Which is why much of this review is being written from a place of disappointment.)
Structurally, the film starts off a mess. Snyder has numerous, perhaps too many, story elements and ideas that he wants to introduce. We see the finale of the last film through the eyes of billionaire Bruce Wayne, aka Batman. Then we cut to the recovery of some kryptonite from the Indian Ocean months later. Then Superman saves Lois Lane from some militants in Nairobi. Then we cut to some Senate hearings where a woman is complaining about what happened to her village after Superman was there. Then Superman is back in his civilian ID of Clark Kent and he and Lois are getting frisky in a bathtub. And then Batman is rescuing some enslaved women. And so on.
Snyder flings scenes one after another at the audience with no real thought as to how these moments should flow cinematically. Individually, they’re fine, but stitched together the film lurches about Frankenstein-like, stumbling towards the spectacle that Snyder seems far more interested in. The motivations for Holly Hunter’s Senator Finch character seems to waver back and forth between support and condemnation of the hero, depending on what the scene needs. Whatever needs doing to get the two leads to their appointed first round will be done, internal logic be damned.
Choosing spectacle for its own sake, rather than letting it grow out of a strongly built story leads to some puzzling narrative holes. It is implied that Kryptonian artifacts left over from the last film are highly sought after, if only to weaponize the technology. If that is so, then why do we see the second World Destroyer from Man Of Steel just sitting in the Indian Ocean where it fell? Wouldn’t it have been carted off off by someone to exploit? And the ease with which a large chunk of Kryptonite is found near that site also beggars credibility.
Even more perplexing is the structure and purpose of Bruce’s dreams. The first one we see is a nightmare that sees him reliving his parents’ death and serving as a capsule recap of the character’s origin for the viewer. It also serves as a way to reveal how he is still driven by that tragedy to this day. All of that would lead us to assume that any of his dreams will be of similar character revealing nature. Except they’re not. Bruce’s next dream is of a world wherein Superman is a despotic ruler, and the fact that this is Bruce’s fear visualized probably tracks for the average viewer. But to comics fans, Snyder has also stuck in several elements – the flying, alien soldiers known as Parademons, fire pits and a large Omega symbol – all culled from the New Gods sector of the DC Comics mythology. Speculation has been high that it will be New Gods villain Darkseid who is ultimately revealed as the big bad of the upcoming Justice League films, and the inclusion of Parademons and the like certainly confirm that. However, that makes us question as to whether the dream is a manifestation of Bruce’s fears or is it a prophetic vision? And that is something that has never been associated with the character before.
Complicating things is the appearance of the Flash with a warning from the future, which seems unnecessary, if not outright redundant, given that Bruce is already seeing that tragic future possibility being played out in his vision/nightmare. It is not that the idea of a time-traveling Flash is a bad one. The moment feels inspired by a similar one between the two characters in the classic 1986 comics miniseries Crisis On Infinite Earths. But mixed in with the already confused dream of Bruce’s, it doesn’t even make any sense. In the end, the sequence comes off as a confusing muddle of intent. It is hard to care about what Snyder wants to tell us when it seems as if he doesn’t even know what he wants to say.
What should have been a conflict between two heroes stemming from their philosophical differences instead boils down to the pair – one of whom has often been described as “the World’s Greatest Detective” – being manipulated by a crazy pants, tech genius man-child. Batman has always represented fear, whereas traditionally Superman is supposed to stand for hope. In recent years, the S-shield on his costume has been retconned into meaning the word on his Kryptonian homeworld. And while Snyder has a scene where Lois reminds a despondent Clark that he inspires hope around the world, at no point does Snyder ever show this. In the two scenes where we see him performing super feats – rescuing a girl from a burning building and floating above people trapped on rooftops by a flood – we see people reaching out to him in either worship or supplication. It seems as if Snyder wants to argue for Luthor’s point of view that Superman is a danger because he is more god than man. When was the last time a movie actively encouraged you to root for the psychotic bad guy? It makes sense, as when you look at the ending and realize that Lex did indeed win. (At least until the first of the two Justice League movies hits theaters late next year.)
What makes all of Luthor’s whinging on about Superman-as-God difficult to swallow is that Snyder had previously avowed that he wanted to distance himself of the original run of Superman films, but appropriated the Christ imagery that director Richard Donner had infused into the original film. Snyder brings that back for Batman V Superman, this time applying it to both his titular heroes. (In his nightmare about his parents’ murder, we see a young Bruce raised up towards the sun by a flock of bats, his arms outstretched.) Also, take note of the number of crosses you will see in the film. There is more Christ imagery here than in some of the Christian-oriented films that have been released in the past few weeks of this Easter season.
But going to the Christ imagery well again isn’t the only thematic idea that Snyder recycles without exploring anything new within. He doubles down on Man Of Steel‘s 9/11 imagery right at the beginning of the film and then again towards the end. The contrived nature of this also makes it hard to give credence to any fan theory that Metropolis was well evacuated by the time of the building-tumbling finale of Man Of Steel. If anything, the memorial we are shown in Metropolis has several obelisks inscribed with the names of those lost on that day, an echo of the real memorial at Ground Zero in New York City.
Expectedly, there is a lot of heavy lifting going on in this film for Warner Brothers interconnected superhero universe based on the characters from corporate sibling DC Comics. And much of it seems rather forced. Now this is not a new critique to throw at a franchise film like this. It happened with Iron Man 2 and The Amazing Spider-Man 2. But in Iron Man 2‘s case, much of the hints at what was to come came naturally out of the story and were well integrated into the film. Much of what Amazing Spider-Man 2 tried to lay in terms of groundwork for future films may have come out of that film’s story, but were all clumsily added on at the end of that film. Batman V Superman takes a bit of each approach, but unfortunately the bits it takes are the bad ones. The hints of the future heroes who will make up the Justice League, and star in their own solo films over the next several years, are introduced within the story, but without being an actual outgrowth of it and done are wedged in in a ham-fisted fashion. At one point, Bruce is reviewing computer data stolen from Luthor and stumbles across a series of files showing video glimpses of Wonder Woman, Aquaman and the future Flash and Cyborg. The problem is that each folder is labeled with a stylized logo, as if Luthor somehow knew what their superhero names will be in the future.
There are plenty of other flaws to the film. Snyder’s direction is big on wow factor, but lacking in subtext. One of the greatest moments of the first Avengers film was the long tracking shock during the Battle of New York showing all of the heroes working together as a true team for the first time. Snyder contributes nothing of similar flair or artistry. Jimmy Olsen finally makes his franchise appearance, only to be revealed as a CIA mole and shot in the head within two minutes. The inclusion of Doomsday at the end of the film felt about as awkwardly forced onto the narrative as did the executively mandated intrusion of Venom in Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 3, and unbalances an already teetering movie as much.
But there are moments where the film does get things right. Ben Affleck is so very good as Bruce Wayne/Batman. He gives more to his performance than just what is in the script, and his performance is probably a sharp stick in the eye of those who complained when his casting was first announced. Likewise, Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman is fantastic. There is a fleeting moment during the battle with Doomsday, where as she is knocked down, Wonder Woman gives a grin that speaks volumes more characterization than other characters who have more screen time ever got to show. It makes me excited to see her solo film next year. (And hopefully, they’ll continue to utilize the theme music used here, perhaps the best piece of music composed for this new franchise so far.)