Review: Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice

When I was a kid reading Batman and Superman comics, the first thing that grabbed my eye were the elements on the surface. Bright colors. Heroes and villains. Life or death situations. The imagery.

As I got older and revisited many of these comics, every year I'd lived managed to add a layer of meaning I could find in the comics. The human heart of the characters deepened the more you got to know them. Batman wasn't just about an angry orphan getting revenge for the murder of his parents. He was learning how to build a life, to trust a family, to become the best he could be. Superman wasn't just about an alien learning to assimilate to the American way of life, he lived it, and struggled with the weight of being a God with a sense of humor, a smile, and unending hope.

Watching Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice it makes one wonder if Zack Snyder or his writers ever read a comic book beyond that surface level at eight years old.

Ultimately, though, the source material doesn't matter to the film. It doesn't matter that I'm a lifelong Batman fan. It doesn't matter what my opinion of Zack Snyder is or how I felt about his previous DC Comics outing, Man of Steel. It doesn't matter how I think Batman and Superman should act like or stand for. What matters is that this film doesn't work on its own, without any outside subjectivity.

Snyder takes all of the iconography of some of the greatest comic book stories ever told, manages to wring the life, color and character out of them, and display them in this film as though we should be grateful for it. For over 75 years, DC Comics has given us some of the most striking images and moments in comic history, and Snyder had a smorgasbord to choose from, but he never dove deeper to discover why these moments worked. He borrows without rhyme or reason, mashing up images and ideas that were never designed to gel together. It doesn't matter what he's stealing from, he does so without regard for what it might add or subtract from the movie. There are images from Superman IV: The Quest For Peace, The Iron Giant, Batman Begins and a dozen others. In a movie you're on the fence on, lending the power of these images can bring you back on board. In a film this limp, it makes you wonder why you're not watching those other movies instead.

The film is overlong and plodding. The first hour of the film hops around from situation to situation in a way that you hope will pay off if you pay attention, but it never comes together in a way that makes sense. Characters act with little or no logic, the "story" of the film makes even less sense, and every frame alternates between heavy-handed and brooding. The worst of the movie manages to be heavy-handed and brooding.

I admire the ambition of trying to dive into a movie and give us aged versions of some iconic characters, but we're still given their origins in an already bloated movie, and then instead of trying to write scenes to make the characters more interesting, they're still paper-thin and their actions are reactions to things that make even less sense. In a film where the title is the name of two marquee characters, the core of their characters should be driving the plot, not the other way around. Characters in this film, iconic or otherwise, don't act believably in any way; there is no cause and effect to the story. Every device of the plot is designed around herding the characters unwillingly into the next over the top, barely in focus, action sequence, rather than letting the characters react in ways that might help us root for them.

The cinematography in the film is a major problem as well. The action was, at best, difficult to track. Snyder is fond of barely-focused closeups and handheld action to obscure all of the effects he's pouring into every frame. Combined with the generally dark shots and low color saturation, there's nothing about this movie that looks fun either.

As for the actors, I believe Henry Cavill as Superman and Ben Affleck as Batman are completely competent, but they're never given a chance to do anything but pout and repeat lines that are drenched in faux-gravitas. Which is sad, because they're both perfect for the parts. Cavill a chiseled 90s Superman, and Affleck the perfect Neal Adams era caped crusader. Jesse Eisenberg's Lex Luthor seems like he's in a different movie, but only because he's the only actor who seems to be having fun. Curiously, Snyder's camera treats him like he's a Wes Anderson character, turning Lex Luthor from a menacing villain into Max Fischer from Rushmore.

Gal Gadot seems as though she'd be fine as Wonder Woman, but she's given nothing to do but look pretty and watch the news. Seriously. She's shown in a variety of situations from swanky party to antiquities shopping, even on an airplane, and she finds a way to watch cable television news in every situation in order to be the most passive tool for exposition I've ever seen. When she finally plays an active role in the climax of the film that doesn't involve her checking her email, she's not used as a character as much as another plot device. She's the convenience of plot that allows something to occupy the big bad guy long enough to allow Superman and Batman to advance their stories.

In fact, the film doesn't treat any of its female characters well. Amy Adams' Lois Lane is put in mortal peril repeatedly to advance the plot and bear witness to all the hard work the men in the plot are doing. Diane Lane's Ma Kent and Holly Hunter's Senator Finch are both treated the worst, though, and in completely disappointing ways. Holly Hunter has to act her way through a scene where she's literally staring at a jar of Lex Luthor's urine, an excruciating symbol of male privilege. For her part, Ma Kent is given the "Killing Joke" treatment, abducted, tortured, and photographed to do nothing but motivate the male protagonists into actions that barely made sense.

This was disappointing and any goodwill that Warner Brothers had tried to garner over Marvel with positioning Wonder Woman into a film of her own before Marvel allowed a female to headline one of their films evaporated. This is easily the most sexist superhero film of the year. Possibly the decade.

More than anything, the film simply doesn't make sense. The plot is boring, none of the emotion hits at all. I am a big fan of all of the sources culled to bring the images of the climax brought to life. The comic books made me cry. In the theater, I was incredulous, angry and annoyed.

There was not a single redeeming quality to this film. The story was ham-fisted, the progression of plot and character motivations were idiotic, the physics and logic of the world weren't consistent with themselves, let alone reality, and it just wasn't fun.

My favorite graphic novel growing up was Batman's Death in the Family. On the surface, it's about nothing more than the Joker killing Robin.

As you get deeper, the characters become three dimensional. Robin is an orphan struggling with the fact that his mother might be alive. Batman is a man who didn't realize he needed to be a father to this boy. Superman is a man torn between his duty to his friend, his desire to save lives no matter the cost, and the duty to law and order. Reading the book today, the format of it might seem a little dated, but the human story with these characters at the core stands up as a masterpiece of the form from any era. There's emotion in it. The story builds in a logical progression, shows us nothing extra, builds to an emotional conclusion, and offers us a brilliant, open ending.

Maybe Zack Snyder could have learned a thing or two about comics if he'd read some instead of just flipping through and looking at the pretty pictures.

Instead of watching Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, you'd do better to read the comics. They're more mature, have more depth, and offer more fun in just about every way.

Bryan Young is the author of "A Children's Illustrated History of Presidential Assassination" and "The Aeronaut," the editor-in-chief of the nerd news and review site Big Shiny Robot!, and is the co-host of the Star Wars podcast, "Full of Sith."

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