By Matthew McKibben | March 25, 2016
Director: Zack Snyder
Writers: Chris Terrio, David Goyer
Starring: Ben Affleck, Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Jesse Eisenberg, Diane Lane, Laurence Fishbone, Gal Gadot, Jeremy Irons, Holly Hunter, Scoot McNairy, Tao Okamoto
Note: This review contains a massive spoiler.
Say what you will about Man of Steel and Batman v Superman director Zack Snyder. Love him or hate him, everyone knows his name and what he does for a living. Who directed Thor 2: The Dark World? Off the top of your head, name the director of 2014’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles? If I spotted you “Peyton Reed,” director of Marvel’s Ant-Man, can you name another movie he’s directed? I could do this all day. Some of Hollywood’s most successful blockbusters were directed by some pretty anonymous people. We know a director’s name when they’re a true visionary or auteur (Spielberg, Kubrick, Malick) or when they’re a lightning rod (Michael Bay comes to mind). By my estimation, throughout his career, Snyder has straddled both sides of that fence.
If I say the name Zack Snyder, you instantly know where you stand on him. To some, he’s Michael Bay type, but with a little more heart and soul… a director who likes melting your face off with loudness and explosions, but who also knows that you have need to have at least a nugget of character development in order for you to connect with what you’re seeing on screen. To others, he’s a visionary director who expertly adapted visionary comic books like 300 and Watchmen for the big screen. To others, he’s basically a glorified music video director; an expert visual filmmaker who creates great looking movies but one who consistently fails to craft memorable or comprehensible stories.
In Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, Snyder kind of hits all of the above points. At times, Batman v Superman goes from being engaging, to being an empty vessel. It goes from moments of epic awesomeness and enjoyment, to epic moments of boredom and unpleasantness. It has moments of true greatness in it, but then it has moments that left me scratching my head in bewilderment.
As I type this, BvS sits at 30% at Rotten Tomatoes. That score seems a little unfair to me, and isn’t entirely indicative of the movie’s quality. The movie is a mess, but it’s not a movie worthy of a 30% score on RT. This isn’t one of the worst movies ever made, nor is it a “bad” movie, but it might be one of the messiest, most overstuffed big budget movies of all time. Because it sometimes goes back and forth from greatness to lameness, it could make make for a frustrating moviegoing experience. Watching BvS is like watching a really talented quarterback throw 50 yard perfect spiral touchdown passes in one drive, and then watching that same quarterback pull a Mark Sanchez butt fumble in the next.
It’s a little unclear where the fault lies with the messiness of the movie, but if I had to make a completely uneducated guess, I’d say the movie’s issues break down as such: 45% studio interference, 35% director’s vision, and 20% script. This movie just feels completely overstuffed with story elements. It plays like a movie that had an initial idea to pit Batman versus Superman as a way to expand the greater DCCU (DC Cinematic Universe), but then had someone come in and say, “you know, Batman versus Superman is a movie’s worth of stuff, but how about we add in the Death of Superman storyline, as well?” And then someone else said, “You know, everyone, this is a sequel to Man of Steel so we also need to address many of the complicated issues raised in that first movie.” And then the powers that be dropped all that off with Snyder and screenwriter Chris Terrio (Argo) and said, “GO!” At no point did someone say, “You know, each of these concepts would make for a pretty substantial two hour movie by itself, there’s no way we can really make all of this work in one movie, no matter how long we allow you to make it.”
Because the movie is so front loaded with story overload, it impacted themes, characterizations, and story concepts in ways that probably weren’t intentional.
Take, for example, how the movie’s portrayal of Superman was directly impacted by the inclusion of the “Death of Superman” storyline. It’s no secret to those who know me that I’m a feverish supporter of Man of Steel. I feel that it established the DCCU well and introduced Superman into a real world setting. He was a character who, while searching for answers as to who he was and where he came from, was forced to debate what kind of man he wanted to be. His birth father foresaw great things for him and gave him his classic blue and red uniform. His adoptive father was nervous of how the world around him would respond to knowing they weren’t alone in the world.
Batman v Superman does seek to address that this conflict is still very much weighing on Clark/Superman. It seems like no matter how hard he tries or how many people he saves from various perilous situations, he doesn’t completely feel connected to the world around him, and the world shares its ambivalence, but in actuality, it downright loathes Superman. Because he hasn’t fully embraced where he falls on the hero vs reluctant hero dynamic so expertly shown in the first movie, this isn’t a Superman who is going to stand with his chest puffed out as he’s saving a young girl from a factory fire, nor is he a guy that’s going to kind of shrug off a warlord’s bullets with a subtle grin. He’s still a guy who is saving people because he can, not because he feels overly compelled to. I thought we left that Clark behind at the end of Man of Steel.
Because he’s still going through the motions of being a hero, I don’t feel like we fully connect with Superman in the ways that would ultimately make the death of Superman impactful. If the world ultimately fears and dreads Superman to a level that they’re burning him in effigy or holding hearings on his exploits on Capitol Hill, how are we as an audience really supposed to fully connect to him? We, as an audience, know he’s doing right because we can see it on screen. But he’s clearly not really enjoying himself, nor does he seem to love humanity. It looks like he dreads being Superman, and I found it hard to fully connect with him.
A movie that wasn’t overloaded with three different complicated stories would have had time to more fully explore his inner debate, as well as showing us how the world embraces (or not) Superman. We’re left with a Superman that doesn’t enjoy his job, and a world that doesn’t enjoy him doing his job. I know it’s not my job to fix their story. I’m supposed to review what’s there, not would could have been. But I was hoping to see a movie that sought to answer how a horrific world would handle a symbol of hope and light like Superman.
I don’t know… maybe the movie did answer that question and I completely missed the point. Maybe Snyder showed us how our (at times) truly horrific world would destroy a symbol of hope like Superman. Perhaps this is a dark work showing how hope isn’t possible in today’s world. Maybe the “Death of Superman” storyline is actually the one that’s most prescient and that Superman isn’t really possible in a world where terrorists blow up airports and places of worship. See what I’m talking about with unintended consequences?
That very “what kind of hero do I want to be” dynamic seems tailor-made for a movie where Batman and Superman battle one another. One hero, Batman, operates on fears and brute force, while the other hero, Superman, operates on our better ideals and values. When you have a Superman that scowls the whole time and doesn’t seem particularly engaged in what he’s doing, it makes the contrast between the two heroes really muddy and not as impactful as the material demands.
A studio that had less on its plate than what the WB is trying to do here would have given this movie the room it required to explore this dynamic and not rushed it. The concept of Batman taking on Superman is interesting by itself. Superman exploring what kind of hero he wants to be through the dynamic of dueling with Batman is an engaging movie. By the end, he’s fully decided on what kind of hero he wants to be and the world comes to grips with how it feels about Superman. In this, it’s rushed. They don’t like each other, they battle, they reconcile, Superman dies. But because he didn’t particularly feel engaged with the world and the world didn’t seem to be particularly engaged with him, you largely feel nothing at his death. The emotions I had in that scene were the emotions I carried with me into the theater, not ones fully brought out by the movie itself.
Again, this feels less like one full movie and more like three movies tied into one. I think that’s a shame because this movie actually does get a number of things right. This is perhaps the most cinematically interesting Batman we’ve ever had. If you had worries about Ben Affleck, they were unfounded. He nails it.
Everyone from Jesse Eisenberg to Laurence Fishburne to Amy Adams had some really meaty stuff to sink their teeth into, and each actor was more than up to the task. It’s the material around them that was more spotty, fluctuating between moments of true cinematic greatness, and moments reeking of studio interference and artistic overreach. Sometimes, as a moviegoer, I wish movies were actually just flat out bad than being something that tasted greatness as often as this movie does. This review might read more harshly than my attitudes towards the movie actually are. Batman v Superman is a movie I’ll be revisiting again soon, and a movie that’s grown on me the further I’ve gotten from it. This isn’t a bad movie, just an epically overstuffed one.