2016 is going to be full of big superhero titles coming to screens everywhere, but one of the most anticipated for sure had to be Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, a landmark release that features not just a guy in a cape or a guy in a bat costume, but both a guy in a cape and a guy in a bat costume. It has a tantalizing premise and is adapted from some pretty solid source material, so hopes for the Zack Snyder film have been pretty high since the project was announced.
But it turns out almost nobody likes it.
BvS, as it will be referred to because the title is unwieldy and kind of silly, is currently sitting pretty at a 29% on Rotten Tomatoes. It’s lower than every single movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, panned superhero flicks like X-Men Origins: Wolverine, the Ben Affleck Daredevil, and the very not-classic Batman Forever. Nearly every quality of the film has been attacked in the press, so much so that Ben Affleck experiencing crisis has become hilarious, and while it’s been immensely successful, it stands to go down as one of the biggest critical failures in movie history.
I really expected to hate this film, and had no faith in the DC universe before I walked in to a showing of it. But I was wrong. BvS is a messy film, for sure, but it’s not the disaster that reviews are making it out to be. Because the dialogue is so vitriolic and one-sided, in lieu of a traditional review I’ll be taking some of the biggest criticisms levied at the film and discussing why or why they don’t stick.
1) The editing and pacing are a mess
One of the universal complaints you’ll hear about BvS from casual fan to professional critic alike is that there is no logic to the film’s structure; things happen, but they don’t seem to happen in any particular order or are stitched together in a way that conveys cohesiveness. This is one that I do think has merit to it, and likely might be a consequence of a last minute cut to the order of 30 entire minutes to the film. Other than a few plot quibbles, like how any character has knowledge of each other’s secret identity (other than with Superman, I guess they should be able to just, y’know, look at him), it’s really hard to say what exactly is missing, but the feeling persists that something is.
If 30 minutes of cuts doesn’t derail your film, that’s an indicator that there’s already a lot going on, which is certainly the case with BvS. Superman (Henry Cavill) is trying to prove he’s a good guy to the world and romance Lois Lane (Amy Adams), who is on the trail of mysterious government dealings in Africa, and Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) is returning as Batman to try and take down crime lords in Gotham City, except he also wants to kill Superman, and so does Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg), who is doing shady dealings with the government, and what’s the deal with that spaceship too? With all these different plotlines, the film has to spend time with each, but seems to do so almost at random.
I have less of a problem with the pacing in the film. It’s still not perfect because one of my first reactions was that the film didn’t have a middle, but I appreciate that Snyder gets to the title fight sooner than expected (at least, sooner than I expected). The name on the marquee, after all, is Batman v. Superman–people are expecting them to actually get around to going against each other and don’t want it to be put off until the very end.
2) DC doesn’t understand its own characters
With an adaptation of any beloved property, you’re playing with fire if you deviate from what the original is like, and even worse off if you stray from what people think it’s like. Comic heroes are among the most iconic figures we have in contemporary pop culture, so fans will have their feathers ruffled quite a bit if, say, Batman is adapted on-screen to not have any qualms with murder, or Lex Luthor is a psychotic wreck rather than a merciless mastermind.
Different versions of the characters aside, this is a little bit of a invalid critique to begin with, since adaptations have a purpose beyond serving the source. When people say they don’t think this is a good version of Batman, they’re criticizing the film for what they want it to be rather than what it’s trying to be. It’s acceptable to want things, but if these movies are going to be treated as serious works of art, they should be judged with the same assumptions in mind.
But onto specifics, because I don’t think these are even necessarily bad versions of these characters. (Disclosure: I don’t really care for DC characters to begin with, so let that color my opinion all it can. It certainly explains why I don’t really mind the verison of Lex here, although it has its problems.) The Batman of this film is a world separated from any other version we’ve ever seen on screen: he’s well-established in his career and down one Robin, presumably murdered just like in the comics. He is, to put it lightly, fucked up, and probably as crazy as some of his rogues. That’s an angle that is often explored in the comics, but not necessarily to this extent, and that means it’s incredibly refreshing. If there’s one thing I hate in a superhero film, it’s a bland adaptation that changes nothing.
What’s even better is that, assuming these films get to go on, the audience will get a front-seat to Bruce Wayne struggling with this very problem. Of course not killing is a huge part of Batman’s identity, but now there’s fertile ground for him to struggle as a character more than he has ever before if it means being caught between these philosophies. I love the hard-line Batman as much as everybody else, but change is not going to kill anybody (other than Batman’s victims, I guess).
3) The Justice League tie-in is poorly executed
The Marvel Cinematic Universe has been enormously successful since day one,as even their most mediocre offerings (looking at you, Thor 2 and Ant-Man) do gangbusters at the box office and are guaranteed to be successes at this point. It’s been no secret that DC is envious and wants to get their own thing going with the Justice League, and BvS puts those efforts into overdrive. In addition to introducing Wonder Woman ahead of her own film, there’s also a sequence where she watches video footage unveiling The Flash, Aquaman and Cyborg and hinting at their future involvement with these films.
Yes, it’s a pretty lazy way to introduce all of them, but one thing I really appreciate is not having the origin story song-and-dance be drawn out into the 2020s. The last thing I want to watch is yet another origin story of a superhero which follows all the standard beats, has the same exact stakes and only advances the overarching plot in the most minimal way. Yes, we need proper introductions to these heroes, but the most tedious part of any of these films is out of the way already, and for that we should be grateful.
(I should note that I’m not against origin stories on principle, because several films that serve as origins are great. It’s just that screenwriters have so far proven themselves almost 100% incapable of deviating from what is so obvious a formula they can teach it in 9th grade algebra, and the films suffer as a consequence.)
4) It is so, so grim
This is kind of like saying “that hot sauce is not that hot,” but it gets levied so often it’s worth a brief discussion. Personally, I didn’t find BvS to be overwhelmingly dark or dour, and I don’t know if I can articulate why other than pointing at that giant green monster above. There’s a certain inherent playfulness to your movie if it can feature any of the following: 1) flying space people in capes 2) an electric cello theme accompanying one of your main characters 3) green space rocks which kill space people 4) a giant fucking monster man. Other than #2, which I pointed out because it’s ridiculous, these are all comic book hallmarks that we haven’t been able to see in a Batman movie in a really long time. I love what Christopher Nolan did with the character, but are we going to pretend his ultra-gritty and realistic take doesn’t deserve this same complaint?
What’s more is that this film has action in it which is A) incredibly fun and B) totally ridiculous. There are literally nuclear weapons launched at one point, and I’m not going to pretend that it is done smartly or with restraint. But I do think there is a whole lot more going on than people pouting in silly costumes–the fact that the costumes are silly should prove that enough.
The final word
There are a lot of things I didn’t talk about, simply because so much has been said already that it’d be sort of like pissing in the wind. BvS does a lot of things the right way, and it does a lot of things without any grace at all. It is a pretty good movie, at least on one viewing, and it may or may not be vindicated in the future. I’d advise anybody who plans on seeing it to think about it carefully before coming to their final conclusion.