After Man of Steel in 2013, it seemed odd that Warner Brothers decided to follow it up with a team up movie instead of following the Marvel model and continuing with solo films. Not to say that is the only way to tackle the cinematic universe trend but in an industry where everyone is copying each other, it is strange to see Warner Brothers not take that approach. Admittedly when it was announced that the next film was going to be Batman VS Superman (later retitled Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice), I was a bit nervous. However, at the same time, I was excited to see my two personal favorite superheroes come together on the big screen.
Unlike Man of Steel though, which is often misunderstood and underappreciated, Batman V Superman is a messy and convoluted follow-up/expansion of the DC universe. There are many things to like in this nearly three-hour epic but for every one thing, there is to love, there is something to hate or dislike.
(Some Spoilers Ahead)
In many ways, the Batman V Superman feels like an epilogue to Man of Steel. The effects of Metropolis large amounts of destruction are draped all over this film. The Batman V Superman opens up on the ending of Man of Steel, from the perspective of the people on the ground of this 9/11 style of event. The human experience is shown through the eyes of Bruce Wayne. During the battle between Superman and General Zod up in the sky, one of Wayne’s buildings comes crumbling down killing a friend of his. This creates immediate disdain for Superman in Bruce Wayne’s eyes.
The first 30 minutes of Batman V Superman are superb. We get a brief overview of Batman’s origins and then the events of Man of Steel unfold from the perspective of Bruce Wayne (which is truly a well-done opening). There is a good deal of emotion and gravitas to these moments that ground the movie with humanity.
Unfortunately, the movie continues after the opening half-hour and proceeds to overcomplicate itself while also simultaneously not building the conflict between Batman and Superman effectively. The main thrust of Batman V Superman is Batman and Superman fighting each other. Zack Snyder and screenwriters Chris Terrio and David Goyer build Batman’s ideological issue with Superman effectively. But, why does Superman need to fight Batman? That’s never quite clear. Superman’s issues with Batman don’t feel important enough to the movie. When the two do fight it isn’t because of a conflict of ideology (which would be interesting) it is because they are being forced to fight. Superman engages in a fight that Lex Luther engineers because he captured Martha Kent. But, Superman makes no strong attempt to tell Batman about the situation and just proceeds to fight him.
Why do the fights between Punisher and Daredevil work so well in Daredevil Season 2? The reason why the fights between Punisher and Daredevil are so engaging is that they are battles between ideological differences. With Captain America: Civil War, Captain America vs Iron Man works in a similar fashion but also adds emotional stakes on top of that. Iron Man wants revenge on the Winter Soldier for killing his mother. Batman vs Superman comes down to a contrived plot device. While the fight itself is certainly well staged but it lacks any sort of emotional investment.
The film’s real problems are how clumsily it handles several different plot lines. Batman V Superman is not only dealing with Batman vs Superman but it is also dealing with Doomsday, Lex Luthor, introducing Wonder Woman (which serves as a sign for good things to come), setting up for the Justice League movie, has a subplot featuring Lois Lane, and a disgruntled employee (just to name a few). It is not unsurprising that Batman V Superman has a hard time, even with 151 minutes, balancing it all cohesively. Individually, some of this narrative through lines are interesting but put against a larger package they never come together.
But, there is still a lot to love about this movie. Ben Affleck really owns the role of Bruce Wayne and Batman (one of the most controversial casting decisions in comic book movie history). He lives up to the legacy of the role that actors such as Michael Keaton and Christian Bale have carved out for it. He is brooding, intimidating, brutal but manages to bring in some humanity at the right moments (for what it is worth Batman V Superman has the greatest hand to hand fight sequence of any Batman movie).
There is also a great deal of musing about what godlike superheroes are perceived by the real world, both the positive and negative impacts. This familiar territory for Snyder as he examed the questions posed by Batman V Superman in Watchmen and even a bit in Man of Steel. The more philosophical side of Batman V Superman shines when it allowed getting out of the mandated Justice League setup and overly complicated plot.
The finale of the movie is perhaps the biggest letdown. After a brief fight, Batman, and Superman makeup and go onto teaming up to fight the newly created Doomsday. For all the talent Snyder has at creating epic action the confrontation between Doomsday and Batman/Superman and Wonder Woman quickly descends into a massive mess of CGI fire, smoke, and explosions. Doomsday is nothing more than a faceless brute so the confrontation isn’t all that interesting and doesn’t have the emotional stakes of friends coming together to fight it.
For many, the Ultimate Edition of Batman V Superman is the superior version of this movie. At 187 minutes this edition fleshes out a lot of the plot that was felt rushed or brushed over initially. The opening scenes in the Middle Eastern village are given full context and Superman’s character is fleshed out a bit more. I think it is a bit of an over-exaggeration to say that the Ultimate Edition solves all the problems of the film. Jesse Eisenberg is just as annoying as he was in the theatrical cut of Batman V Superman (and still lacks any semblance of a driving motivation). The third act is still disappointing and the conflict between Batman/Superman isn’t given as much as depth as it needs. The Ultimate Cut is better but still has retains much of the issues of the theatrical cut.
There is something to admire in Batman V Superman. It is a bit of a mess but the entire production feels ambitious and at times thoughtful and philosophical. Perhaps the quick turnaround from Man of Steel is partly to blame for why this movie feels like it a bunch of ideas thrown into a blender instead of a finely crafted complex project. Batman V Superman is clearly swinging for the fences. On some level, I can see why some might enjoy this film but the number of problems is far too prevalent for myself.