Full disclosure: Although I grew up with Batman, my comic book love largely lies with Marvel. To be more specific, Spider-Man has been my go-to for a long time. I do not have publisher bias or any ill will towards the DCEU, nor do I blindly love all of the Marvel films–I’m actually really critical of their output most of the time. So do not try to dismiss the following opinion for either reason, as I’m sure some of you will. I want both cinematic universes to thrive and do well because competition is good for the consumer. Now with that out of the way, let’s move on.
Beware: Spoilers Ahead
It’s hard to believe that it has already been three years since Zack Snyder launched the DC Cinematic Universe with 2013’s Man of Steel. Three years doesn’t seem like a long time in a general sense, but when you take into consideration that Marvel has released six films since then–equating to the entirety of their Phase Two–it is a little worrisome. Their competition already had a five-year head start and the last thing DC needed was to fall even further behind. When it came time to officially kick things off, I can only imagine it was a massive, overwhelming undertaking, and the release of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice proves it.
When readers and audiences were freaking out about casting choices, they should have been more concerned about the film’s story and writing. So you went on a rant claiming Ben Affleck was a terrible actor undeserving of the cape and cowl? Well, that should have been the least of your concerns, because Dawn of Justice does not fail due to its performances. In all honesty, I thought Affleck played a great Batman / Bruce Wayne. He felt more mysterious and believable than Bale, who I generally enjoyed throughout Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy. He’s more introverted and emotionally scarred here, and Affleck does a great job of portraying his almost father-like love for Gotham.
The other performances are a little more complicated because their weakness comes less from the actors themselves and more from the film’s lack of cohesion. Take Jesse Eisenberg, for example. A fun, energetic actor who gave that similar, twitchy performance he’s known for. It’s as engaging and consistent as always, but it feels out of place, and maybe a little unnecessary. And here’s the film’s first major problem: it’s trying so hard to be serious, to create a universe that is polar opposite to Marvel’s, that it so often feels silly when a handful of creative decisions don’t necessarily stay within that realm of seriousness.
And even when certain elements are trying to be serious, they go so far over the line that it still feels silly, almost to the point of being satirical. For example, one of the film’s unintentional funniest moments came during the big brawl between Batman and Superman. As we’ve all come to expect, Batman is using Kryptonite left and right, kicking the crap out of Superman and getting ready for the finishing blow. As his big, metal foot is crushing Superman’s throat, he raises the Kryptonite spear and Clark utters these words, “You’re letting them kill Martha.”
Bruce then starts screaming, “WHY DID YOU SAY THAT NAME?!?!?!?!” over and over again before Lois rushes to his side and tells him it’s his mother’s name, and just like that, the fight is over. This is supposed to be a poignant moment in the film where Bruce and Clark come to a point of personal understanding, but when you think about it, you can boil it down to this: “Wait, your mom’s name is Martha? No shit! My mom’s name is Martha! You know what? You’re not that bad after all. You’re cool, man. Wanna be bros?”
The sad part is that moments like this, while hilarious, are just minor examples of a much larger problem. Dawn of Justice really suffers from a muddled, congested, and poorly structured script. As a medium, film is only satisfying and successful when there is a clear goal coupled with a proper build up to the most important part of the experience: the climax. Unfortunately, the climax suffers because the writing fails on the first two fronts. There is no clear goal in Dawn of Justice because it is constantly changing.
The narrative starts as Superman must take responsibility for the deaths he’s caused. Okay, great. That on its own would have been perfect. That’s compelling, it’s interesting… but there’s more. Because on the other side of the coin you have Batman who wants to personally make Superman pay for what he’s done, but since we don’t know how he currently exists within this universe, we need backstory and setup material, which detracts from the main thread. So we’re a little congested by this point, but they’re still not done.
In a third thread we have Lex Luthor, a manipulative man who is 100% against the evil alien from space. He’s more schizophrenic and eccentric than intimidating, which as I mentioned earlier, detracts from the film’s main tone, but why tread familiar waters. The government and the people want Superman, Batman wants to kill him, and Lex is off playing with alien technology and the dead body of General Zod, creating what would eventually become Doomsday. That leaves us with three story lines that could have been meaty and engrossing on their own, but ultimately feel half-baked when crammed together.
What’s worse is there are numerous occasions when certain main characters know something, but we are never told how they acquired the information. Or we’re led to assume they know, but they still act ignorant as to what’s going on. How did Lex know Clark’s identity? How did Clark know Bruce’s? I thought Batman already existed in this universe? If that’s the case, why were the cops acting like they had no idea what was going on when they walked into the building with the sex slaves? The film is littered with weird flubs and inconsistencies like these, so that piled on top of the rushed nature of the three main plot threads just becomes too much to bear.
As we’ve come to expect, Hans Zimmer has once again composed the score, with Junkie XL as his right hand man. In a surprising turn of events, it isn’t nearly as interesting as some of the work he’s provided in recent years. Like the film itself, the score is all over the place, which I guess is a solid representation of how disorganized the film is when listened to independent of the movie. The music is occasionally moving and beautiful, but oftentimes perpetuates the unconvincing tone of the film. Not only are some scenes ruined by music that is more dramatic than necessary, but there was another unintentionally hilarious moment during the fight with Doomsday. Once Wonder Woman joins the action there’s this incredibly out of place guitar riff that is so unlike the rest of the film’s compositions it makes it hard to take the moment seriously.
Look, as it sits, this movie should not have come out the way it did. This is a marathon, not a sprint, and you can’t take shortcuts to try and catch up to the competition in front of you. The writing in this film constantly pretends we’re operating in a universe that is familiar and pre-existing when it isn’t. Instead of having a three-year gap between these two films, Batman and Wonder Woman should have received their own standalone movies in that time period. Ambition and vision should always be applauded, but when you’re going up against a juggernaut, there needs to be strategy, as well.
The problem with Dawn of Justice isn’t that it’s a terrible movie, but that it isn’t a particularly good one. If there is one adjective I could use to describe the experience as a whole, it would be “incomprehensible.” The individual pieces are greater than the sum of its parts, the narrative structure is abysmal, and it feels incredibly reactionary. Instead of trying to counter Marvel’s output by doing things their own way, DC attempted to create a film that encapsulated Marvel’s four-year Phase One in a two and a half hour movie. I’m sorry, but you can’t do that. The DC universe deserves more than that, and quite frankly, the fans do too.