With the release of Suicide Squad this past weekend, I figured it was about time to take a look at DC’s previous critical bomb. And so, today’s feature is the much-hyped and highly divisive DC cinematic grudge match, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.
Dawn of Justice was written by Chris Terrio, most notably of Argo, and David S. Goyer, whose previous credits include Dark City, Batman Begins, Blade II, Demonic Toys, and Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance, among others.
The movie was directed by the ever-divisive Zack Snyder, whose previous films include 300, Watchmen, Man of Steel, and Sucker Punch. Snyder has already been attached to direct the Dawn of Justice follow-ups, Justice League and Justice League Part Two, and is a listed producer on all upcoming DC cinematic universe features.
The cinematographer for Batman v Superman was Larry Fong, who shot such films as 300, Sucker Punch, and Watchmen, and is working on the upcoming Kong: Skull Island. Before he made the permanent jump to blockbuster films, he worked extensively on the TV show Lost.
The editor for the film was David Brenner, who previously cut flicks like 2012, Wanted, The Day After Tomorrow, The Patriot, Independence Day, The Doors, and World Trade Center.
Dawn of Justice boasts a large cast list that includes Ben Affleck, Henry Cavill, Jesse Eisenberg, Amy Adams, Diane Lane, Jeremy Irons, Holly Hunter, and Lawrence Fishburne, among others.
The plot of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is summarized on IMDb as follows:
Fearing that the actions of Superman are left unchecked, Batman takes on the Man of Steel, while the world wrestles with what kind of a hero it really needs.
Long before Dawn of Justice hit theaters, it managed to get on the wrong side of many fans of DC comics with the casting of Ben Affleck as Bruce Wayne and Batman. Many couldn’t separate him from his unsuccessful string of action features, which included a stint as the Marvel superhero Daredevil, prior to his critical rebirth with his acclaimed directing career. Surprisingly, most fans now cite Affleck’s depiction of Batman (“Batfleck”) as one of the few highlights of Dawn of Justice.
While Dawn of Justice is not the first film installment in the DC Cinematic Universe, as it follows the continuity of Man of Steel, it is undoubtedly the key launching point for DC’s imminent future on screen. It introduces not only Batman, but Wonder Woman, Aquaman, The Flash, and Cyborg as potential subjects for connected stories down the line.
Both the plot and aesthetics of Dawn of Justice borrow heavily from two key source materials: “The Death of Superman” and “The Dark Knight Returns.” However, the result manages to defy being faithful to either comic story, and likely wouldn’t please die hard fans of one or the other.
In July of 2016, an expanded cut of Batman v Superman was released on DVD and Blu-ray, which included 30 minutes of cut footage. This director’s cut has been marketed as an Ultimate Edition, and was meant to counter some popular criticisms of the theatrical cut.
The idea of a Batman and Superman team up has a long history, both inside and outside of the pages of DC comics. Series such as World’s Finest have seen the two iconic characters team up with fellow allies and get up to all manner of shenanigans, including occasionally traveling in time. Likewise, the characters have crossed paths many times in animation, such as the Super Friends ad Justice League series.
Batman v Superman was greeted with a notably mixed reception, particularly online. The Rotten Tomatoes scores currently sit at 27% from critics and 65% from audiences, which is a significant gulf, and has been cause for claims of bias and conspiracy on the parts of some. The IMDb score is no less contentious: it currently sits at a 6.9/10, but that is only after alleged vote brigades inflated the score for weeks after the film’s initial release.
Batman v Superman is a movie that certainly has a fair share of flaws, but I think its biggest failing is the lack of character building in the screenplay. The movie so heavily relies on the audience’s recognition of the characters on screen, that it doesn’t bother building them beyond that. I have never had so much trouble feeling invested in characters in a superhero movie, and I’m including movies like Howard The Duck and Daredevil in there.
On top of the character issues, there is a strange lack of connection between sequences throughout the movie, to the point that long stretches just feel like bloated montages. It is hard to relate to anyone in the story as a result, because you don’t really spend quality time with any of them. Instead of the characters feeling like close friends of the audience via shared experience, they just come off as adjacent acquaintances. There is just no emotional bond built between the characters and the observers.
However, there are a few notable bright spots to the movie. Batman, on all fronts, is actually pretty solid. Jeremy Irons is a spectacular Alfred, and his dialogue with Affleck was the most real and relatable thing in the movie. Personally, I also thought the aesthetics of the Batman suit and paraphernalia were a welcome departure from all of the character’s previous film appearances. The armor and voice modulator were a nice touch, as hokey as they might seem to some, and Affleck absolutely nailed an aged and burnt-out Bruce Wayne. Honestly, I think that Batfleck would have been a better fit for a story like The Dark Knight Rises, in which his methods are either publicly frowned upon or no longer needed, but he is cornered into a return to form.
Likewise, Wonder Woman was definitely cool to see, and looked cool in action on screen. Gal Gadot has gotten a little bit of unmerited criticism for her accent, but I thought it fit the character pretty well, and it wasn’t exactly distracting. However, Wonder Woman’s presence also made the move feel even more bloated than it already was. She (and the rest of the Justice League) felt a little too forced and transparent as mechanisms to build branching paths for a sprawling film franchise. That might have been fine if they were worked in as minor references or as concluding teasers, but they are given a little too much focus, to the detriment of the story and film as a whole. The result is both a muddy story and a poor introduction to some key franchise characters. The Justice League either needed way more attention and a role in the plot, or way less time on screen.
Almost certainly the most mocked aspect of Dawn of Justice is the cause of the two central heroes’ ultimate alliance: the revelation that they both have moms named Martha. I can understand that this was an attempt to emotionally tie the two characters together, and give them common ground to come to terms on. Unfortunately, not only isn’t this commonality built up very well, but it is just too simplistic, and comes off as borderline comedic as a result. It is just too minor of a coincidence to justify burying the hatchet on a pretty serious grudge.
Overall, Batman v Superman isn’t unwatchable by any means, but it is definitely sup-par. Snyder does have a gift for crafting images, but he’s never really gotten a handle on story or characters, which are necessary to give those images genuine gravity. For fans of Snyder’s other works, this is probably a perfectly acceptable flick. Likewise, die-hard Superman and Batman fans may just be pleased to see their idols on screen again. However, in my opinion, this is not just sub-par, but disappointingly forgettable. What of this movie, in 10 years, will be remembered? Martha? Batfleck? The box office number? Almost nothing about the story or the emotion that should have defined this movie will last. As with many Snyder films, this is an exercise in spectacle that is ultimately all flash and no substance.