Watching the new DC film, “Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice,” it occurred to me that this much-maligned superhero adventure could not have come along at a better time, either in terms of pop cultural or historical significance.
First, my reaction to the movie: It’s not bad. Actually, it is very, very good. The only problem is , “good” is the enemy of “great,” and “Batman V. Superman” is not great. It has a couple of titanic flaws that threaten to make it mediocre rather than good. And when you’ve got two of the most famous superheroes in all of fantasy land in your movie, what you really need is for said film to be great. Not just good.
It’s the sequel, more or less, to 2013’s “Man of Steel,” the CGI-post-Avengers-era Superman update that was, itself, only good, not great. Made by DC in response to the unexpected popularity of Marvel’s Iron Man and Captain America franchises (AKA the Marvel Cinematic Universe, or MCU), “Man of Steel” brought the Caped Crusader out of the Chris Reeve age into the realm of digitalized mass destruction – and wow, did that movie crush the shit out of Metropolis. Its action-packed climactic sequences literally burned Superman’s home-city to the ground. Audiences found themselves talking more about the brutal ending than anything else, forcing DC (and director Zach Snyder) to address the issue of photo-realistic violence in any sequel that came along. I mean, Metropolis got leveled.
But with Marvel claiming more and more market share thanks to the world-beating popularity of 2012’s “The Avengers” (itself an only fair-to-middling superhero adventure in which New York City takes as bad a beating as Metropolis), DC found itself in another quandary: how to launch its own super-franchise? What with Christopher Nolan’s take on The Dark Knight already in the history books, the company had to act fast. Solution: Jam Batman into a Man of Steel sequel and make the whole thing part of a universe-building “Justice League” franchise.
Hence not just a sequel to “Man of Steel,” but “Batman V. Superman.” In what has to be the most obvious bit of apologia in movie history, half of the new film is taken up with explaining/apologizing for the destruction at the end of “MOS.” I can’t help but wonder if this wasn’t a bad idea – it certainly does seem awkward and self-conscious. The movie opens with Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) running flat-out into disaster as he watches Superman and General Zod wage war on each other in the climactic battle from the first film. This sets up his angst toward Superman: what if this all-powerful, godlike alien wanted to destroy the whole planet? What would stop him? Wayne happens to have a super-heroic alter-ego called Batman who takes it upon himself to try and answer that question.
The film also provides us with a new-and-improved Lex Luthor, the billionaire genius whose nefarious schemes are aimed at destroying/humiliating Superman. Here is one of the movie’s chief flaws. First of all, Lex is played – insufferably – by Jesse Eisenberg, who was fantastic in David Fincher’s 2010 Facebook saga, “The Social Network.” Here he is just a stuttering, stammering, over-caffeinated, wordy, pretentious douche nozzle whose motivations run from the oblique to the obscure and back again. He is the absolute worst thing about “BvS,” a movie that constantly threatens to collapse under the weight of its own pretentiousness.
So what is this film about? Well, it’s about Bruce Wayne battling an international criminal organization, of which Luthor appears to be the head. It’s about Batman attempting to obtain enough Kryptonite to take on Superman. It’s about the love affair between Superman/Clark Kent and the ever-plucky Lois Lane (Amy Adams). It’s about Superman getting called on the carpet by the US government for his alleged involvement in a terrorist action overseas. It’s about Superman coming to terms with his own god-like abilities and how the world perceives him. It’s about Lex Luthor attempting to take down Superman, and the government, and Batman, all in one fell swoop. It’s about Clark Kent ducking out of work to save the world. It’s about Bruce Wayne discovering a race of meta-humans, including one Diana Prince, who seems to be on a mission of her own. It’s about …
You get the idea. It’s overstuffed. Chaotic. All over the place. There’s just too much going on.
Yet the movie isn’t bad. In fact, it’s entertaining as hell. It is well-acted by a more-than competent all-star cast. (Ben Affleck is quite good as the tough, gruff, mean-as-hell Batman. Oh, and the one exception is Eisenberg, who again, rubs me the wrong way.) Where the movie has trouble is in juggling all this stuff. It’s not really a Superman movie and it’s not really a Batman movie. (I’m beginning to wonder if it’s possible to even justify a standalone Superman movie – he’s indestructible! What does he have to worry about?) I liked the battles, the special effects, the sometimes misguided attempts to find meaning and motivation for everything that happens. I was sort of moved by the ending.
(Here’s a question for you. What the hell was the purpose of the scene with Jonathan Kent? Is he building a Fortress of Solitude? Is the whole scene just a dream of Clark’s? I mean, I’ll accept Kevin Costner in a Superman movie but really? What is he talking about here?)
Finally, there’s the whole inclusion of Wonder Woman in this strange brew. As played by the lovely and no doubt talented Gal Gidot, the Amazonian princess here is – quite a welcome presence. If you’re going to portray Wonder Woman cinematically, this is the way to do it. She’s spectacular, graceful, apparently fearless, loves a good fight, and more than equal to either of her male super-counterparts. And the previews for next summer’s standalone WW movie look stunning. I say, bring her on.
As the film played out, though, I was struck by its underlying commentary on/prediction of Donald Trump. Watch it and perhaps you’ll see what I mean. This movie could only have come out at this time in American political history. Do you see any parallels to Lex Luthor’s schemes and the unveiling of his ultimate weapon? Could our superheroes perhaps resemble a team of Democrats, shrinking from one horrific sight after another? It’s an interesting, if unintended, layer of interpretation.
Final verdict; “BvS” is a messy bombshell of a movie, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s found a great new Batman, and it somehow found a way of at least intriguing me about the Justice League still to come. It ain’t perfect, but it’ll do.