I liked Man of Steel. A lot. To the point where it was in my top ten that year. This was not a popular opinion. I spent the better part of 2013 getting into fights with people who absolutely hated that movie and it was kind of draining to defend the movie as much as I did because I didn’t really have an intellectual silver bullet to prove the movie’s worth. At the end of the day it was all a matter of taste, I thought it was a very well made superhero movie with a certain grandeur to it and I didn’t come into it demanding that it reflect whatever it was Superman was supposed to represent in the past. Other people disagreed and were turned off both by the fact that it avoided the candy-colored lightness of the Marvel movies and also by the fact that Superman was depicted in a more human and fallible way and by the fact that it ended in a big destructive fight sequence that didn’t strike them as heroic. I kept trying to explain that the collateral damage in the finale was mostly caused by the villains rather than the hero and that it wasn’t reasonable to expect Superman to stop and save random individuals on the street when there’s a bigger battle to be fought against a rampaging villain, but most people just don’t want to listen after they’ve found a high horse to get up on. Anyway, given my appreciation for that movie you’d thing I’d be excited for director Zack Snyder’s follow-up, but that hasn’t really been the case, in part because it sounded like DC was cravenly trying to ripoff Marvel’s already tenuous “make superheroes team up” formula and was taking too many other dumb suggestions from the peanut gallery. I’d like to say I was wrong to doubt Snyder and that I’d once again have a movie worth defending but alas, the critics are going to be right about this one.
The film picks up a little over a year after the events of Man of Steel and introduces audiences to our new Batman (Ben Affleck). This batman has much the same origin story as the character we’re used to but has been engaging in his war on crime for quite a while by the time we enter into his story. Bruce Wayne has been suspicious of Superman (Henry Cavil) since his introduction, in part because he lost friends during the disaster in Metropolis. The public at large is also uneasy about this new entity in the world, especially after he’s blamed for a number of deaths in a rescue mission gone wrong in Africa. There are congressional hearings into that incident and the high profile Metropolis billionaire Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg) begins searching for a substance called Kryptonite that could be sold to the government in order to bring down this superhuman one and for all. As tensions rise between all involved parties, it becomes clear that all these forces could come crashing into one another in an epic battle royale.
Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice has a whole lot of things it has to do: it needs to be a sequel to Man of Steel, it needs to introduce a new Batman, it needs to set up the formation of a Justice League down the line, and it needs to make good on its title and show Batman and Superman get into a great big fight. Doing any one of those things would be a tall order and doing all four is s nigh impossible task and one also has to question if some of these things was a good idea to begin with. The decision to create a DC Cinematic Universe where a bunch of separate heroes join up reeks of a company aping off of a competitor’s success and I don’t think that the Superman created in Man of Steel was ever meant to be part of a larger universe of superheroes, at least not this quickly. Ultimately though I don’t think that part of the challenge is really the problem here, although it does lead to one embarrassingly clunky scene where three new heroes are introduced to audiences via CCTV footage. Instead I think the biggest problem is the pressure of finding a good reason to actually have Batman and Superman fight.
The film’s opening scene depicts the finale of Man of Steel, but from the perspective of Bruce Wayne, who was apparently on the ground that day trying to reach his corporate headquarters. It’s an interesting scene in that it shows Bruce Wayne doing exactly what everyone apparently thought Superman should have been doing in that scene: saving people. He manages to help life debris off of one guy and manages to save one girl from a falling object all while doing fuck-all to actually stop General Zod or end the crisis at hand. That’s the thing about the ending of that movie, people claim that Superman’s actions were needlessly destructive but he did kind of save the whole world in the process and I personally think he has nothing to apologize for. But fine, whatever, assuming that his actions were indeed controversial with the public why don’t they just run with that? Why is there also this incident in Africa in which Superman is blamed for the deaths of a bunch of people who were clearly shot rather that punched or vaporized by heat vision or any number of other telltale signs of Superman related slaughter? That’s a waste and it’s frankly never exactly clear how the public at large feels about Superman, but it’s clear that Batman doesn’t like him at all. You’d think that since Batman is himself a misunderstood vigilante (one who uses particularly questionable methods in this one) he wouldn’t be quick to judge Superman, but view him as a threat he does and the movie even goes so far as to stop everything and display an interesting looking but completely out of place dream sequence to underscore this. It makes even less sense that Superman thinks ill of or particularly cares about Batman, but there is an underdeveloped sub-plot where Clark Kent wants to do a series of stories about Batman even though this shouldn’t really be news at this point in Batman’s career.
Ultimately the thing that brings these two to blows is an incredibly elaborate scheme by Lex Luthor and one that really doesn’t make a whole lot of sense as it plays out. For starters, the direction they decided to go with Lex Luthor was completely wrong from the start. The idea was to turn the character into a young Mark Zuckerberg style billionaire, but didn’t make him a self-made innovator so much as an heir, and then lazily cast the guy who straight-up played Zuckerberg in a different movie. What’s more Luthor is depicted less as a ruthless, power-hungry, and brilliant criminal and more as a raving maniac who just wants to instigate mass destruction. There is very little real motive for Luthor’s actions in the movie, Superman doesn’t seem to be on his case at all and as far as he knows neither is Batman so it’s quite unclear why the guy is so obsessed with killing either of them and especially not to the point where he’s going to go to such wildly extreme measures. The whole movie would actually make a lot more sense if they’d just ditched Luthor and replaced him with The Joker, a character who would actually have a vendetta against superheroes and would have a lot less to lose by going to such extreme measures.
Zack Snyder is going to catch most of the blame for the movie even though his direction is almost certainly the best thing about it. The film certainly looks good and there are some action scenes here that are really well done. There’s a fight towards the end where Batman takes out a room of armed thugs which is basically the action scene we’ve long waited for from the character, the promised fight between the two characters isn’t bad once it gets started even if it ends in the stupidest way imaginable, and the chaotic final action scene is… well, it has problems but it certainly works better than it might in other hands. In fact I think the most does sort of find its footing in its last half hour or so and becomes fairly effective as superhero action film but the damage is already done at that point. I certainly don’t think that Snyder is blameless for this thing and there are some scenes like a poorly rendered car chase that he should have handled better, and people who were displeased by the collateral damage in Man of Steel will be just as mad at this movie. In fact, I’m a lot less willing to forgive this one myself in that regard because Batman is a character that generally seem more rigid in that regard and some of the deaths here generally seemed more avoidable.
Really, the guy who needs to be fired for this thing is David S. Goyer… actually I’m not sure I want to pin this on him either because he was frankly given a rather thankless task. The people truly responsible are the Warner Brothers marketing people who gave them an impossible number of things to do with one movie. The decision to make this thing without first introducing Batman in a solo outing made sense given that no one really wanted a Batman reboot this early after the Nolan trilogy, but they probably should have just done that because trying to introduce a character in a massive crossover project like this proved to be too much. What’s more, they should have never gotten it into their heads that this needed to literally be Batman versus Superman because the extent to which they had to contrive in order to bring these guys into opposition was a waste. A simple team-up would have been sufficient. Finally they shouldn’t have used this as an opportunity to cravenly introduce a larger universe of heroes because it really comes off desperate. The Wonder Woman introduced here is decently rendered but the movie is too overstuffed as it is and the other cameos are just shameless. If they had discarded some of the excess baggage this thing might have had a chance but as it is the damn thing is an unsalvageable mess. DC flew way too close to the sun with this one, they saw that Avengers money and decided to just dive in head first before they learned to swim. It’s a shame because I do think that the grandiose and sincere style that Snyder was developing was sound and that they were right to try to do things differently from Marvel but they completely botched the execution along the way.