Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice was first released on March 19, 2016, directed by Zack Snyder, written by Chris Terrio and David S. Goyer and starring Henry Cavill, Ben Affleck, Amy Adams, Gal Gadot and Jesse Eisenberg. The Ultimate Edition was released just a few weeks ago and added 30 more minutes to what was already a densely packed 2.5 hour slug fest which not only tried to tell the conflicted story of Superman duking it out with a Frank Miller-esque Batman, but also do the setup work for the rest of the DC Universe.
I’m actually assuming that if you are watching this, you have already seen at least the original version of Batman vs Superman so this review is full of spoilers.
Now there is a lot to be said about this movie. The direction and storyline and the motivations behind that story are a whole tale in themselves. Then there is the technical execution of the screenplay, which is certaily competent from a film making/special effects standpoint but which leaves the audience feeling unsatisfied despite a rock-em-sock-em gladiator battle between the two mightiest heroes to have ever graced a DC comic book, followed just minutes later by an even more epic battle against the mutant villain Doomsday, this time adding the undeniably badass Wonder Woman into the mix. It seems like all the ingredients are there to make what should have been an immensely awesome movie, but instead we get a big bleh.
The original version of Batman vs Superman was a critical disaster with only 27% tomattometer on Rotten Tomatoes but coming out with a 65% audience score. Mainly what the Ultimate Edition does is flesh out some of the story pieces which made the original version very confusing to a lot of people. But as I’ll go over, the story has some very serious problems both morally and logically and those problems couldn’t be fixed by simply restoring some scenes that should have been in the final cut in the first place. No, the problems with Superman vs Batman go much deeper.
A friend pointed out to me recently that director Zack Snyder is a follower of Ayn Rand and her philosophy of Objectivism. Normally I could care less about what a film maker’s religion or personal philosophy is, but in this case I think this helped explain something that was a real puzzle to me since Man of Steel was released back in 2013. Snyder does not share a writing credit here, but visually you know when you are watching a Snyder film and his influence on the tone and story is obvious.
Ayn Rand’s Objectivism is a system of reason which puts individual will first and rejects the idea of altruism, external duty or acting for interests other than one’s own except to the degree that those actions would help oneself. As she put it, the essence of Objectivism is “the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute.” Now I’m not making my own moral judgements about Rand’s philosophy here, but learning this about Snyder certainly did clarify why his version of Superman was so confusing and different from what we see in the comic books and earlier movie versions of this character. I think Rand’s selfish ethics were more evident in Man of Steel but they still permeate not only many of Superman’s actions here but also influence Batman and even Wonder Woman.
This attitude shift is a major change from how these superheroes act and what motivates them in the comic books. And while that may be the fundmental philosophical problem with what is going on in the DC Cinematic Universe, there are other issues with this particular film’s story that are a lot less esoteric in nature. And here I lay blame directly on the feet of co-writers David S. Goyer and Chris Terrio. Goyer seems to have a knack for ruining potentially great material when left to his own devices, with writing credits on slipshod, illogical movies such as Jumper, Ghost Rider and the oh-so-forgettable 1998 Nick Fury: Agent of SHIELD. I can only guess that Christopher Nolan somehow kept Goyer’s rabid impulses in check during the much better Christian Bale Batman movies they wrote together and that also shows you the influence a director can have on the tone and plot line.
Batman as played by Ben Affleck is presented here for the first time in the new DC universe. Batman has always been a figure of questionable sanity given his proclivity to dress up as a bat and go beat the crap out of Gotham’s motley array of street thugs and super villains. But even more is heaped on him at the beginning of this movie when we see Bruce Wayne trying and failing to save his real world employees from the insane carnage Superman’s battle with General Zod wrought across the city of Metropolis. This very well-shot intro leaves Wayne not only intensely traumatized, but also out for Superman’s blood. There is no question where Batman comes from, what his motivations are or that this tragedy has changed him into a much darker version of what we are familiar with. He’s gruesomely violent and has even started branding criminals, knowing that the bat brand is a mark of death in prison. In short, he has become a vengeful one-man army who will stop at nothing to get what he wants and doesn’t care what the rule of law says. This mindset is necessary to lead him on a collision course with Superman and I didn’t particularly have an issue with this for the sake of the story, although this whole thing is radically different from how Batman was made to confront Superman in the source material from Frank Miller.
Which leads me to what I think is the weakest part of the movie: Lex Luthor, played by Jesse Eisenberg. I like and respect Eisenberg as an actor who has done some really good work but the script and direction he gets here leaves him playing not Superman’s ultra-brilliant arch-nemesis Lex Luthor but instead just channeling Heath Ledger’s Joker. There is very little backstory to Luthor other than he was abused by his father and this presumably led to him becoming vengefully insane towards anyone who I guess Luthor considers a power figure. Maybe he’s also trying to get rid of Superman because he views him as the only barrier to accomplish whatever other villainous plans he may have, but we never find out or see what those plans might be. The entire movie is about him working this extravagent plot for the sole purpose of getting rid of Superman. Without any understandable or realistic motivation, he really just comes off as totally unglued.
Worse, it’s not just his mannerisms, but everything about him comes off as insane. People may listen to him or work for him because he throws his money around like candy everywhere he goes, but he’s obviously got something really wrong with him in his social interactions and even the public speeches he gives. No one would want to do business with him and he certainly would not ever get access to the highly secured Kryptonian ship and certainly not ever have exclusive access to Zod’s body. This is a very weak part of the story with no support or sense except that it has to happen in order for things to happen later. With key plot points like this, you’d think more thought would have been put into his motivations and more justification given to why anyone would want to help him. Instead, he creeps everyone out who goes near him yet people can’t wait to give him whatever he wants.
The question of Superman’s morality, the choices he makes and what he should or shouldn’t be doing according to human standards are made much clearer in this version. It’s also much clearer how Luther arranged things to take Superman down including manipulating both Clark Kent and Bruce Wayne and even the United States Senate. However, it’s when this becomes apparent, basically at the start of the third act, where things really start to go off the rails.
Lois Lane actually discovers that Luthor is behind all the nefarious events of the movie just before there is an explosion set off at the Capitol Building which Luthor set up to make Superman the fall guy. Right after the explosion, Lois Lane could easily have told Superman that Luthor was responsible but she says nothing! She actually has two opportunities to do just that but doesn’t, so that is just crazy but of course she can’t do that because then the rest of the movie literally could not happen.
The other thing that is just as crazy is that Luther somehow goes down to the core of the Kryptonian ship and just puts his hand on the control panel and it wakes up and starts talking to him and gives him the power to morph Zod’s body into Doomsday, the big bad monster that Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman will have to fight. So we’re supposed to believe that this ship has been in government hands for two years and no one ever thought to go down to that chamber in all that time and put their hand on that panel? This is a really ridiculous point.
It then gets more crazy when Luthor has Lois Lane kidnapped and she’s up on the roof of Luthor’s building with him alone. Why she didn’t just beat him up herself right then and there I don’t get. He’s not a physically imposing villain and I’m pretty sure Lois could actually take him.
But he then pushes her right off the edge of the building, confident that Superman will appear to catch her, which is very stupid because he doesn’t even know if Superman is on this continent. At that point in the movie, Superman has been gone for weeks on a soul-searching quest to his Fortress of Solitude at the North Pole.
Luther then blackmails Superman using pictures of his kidnapped mother, as though Superman couldn’t use his x-ray vision and speed to track down his mother in the city and hold on to Luther to keep her alive in the meantime. No, instead this forces Superman to do Luthor’s bidding and go battle Batman. And this conforms to Luthor’s incredibly twisted morality about how if something is ultimately good it can’t be ultimately powerful. I could get behind a lot of the questioning of Superman’s proper place in society throughout the movie, since we all know that talking heads and pundits would be doing that endlessly on CNN. That is how our society is, so it’s not hard to see all of that happening. But Luthor’s moral condundrum sounded like crazy nonsense to me and falls totally flat as the supposed motivation for all his behind-the-scenes machinations to get Superman and Batman fighting each other.
This of course all leads to the epic confrontation between Batman and Superman, which then leads to the even more epic battle with Doomsday. When Wonder Woman comes on the scene, she is truly a wonder but even then there are some plot elements I think may have been missed by a lot of people. For example, one thing that maybe some people didn’t notice is that her Sword of Athena, whatever it’s made of, is another thing besides kryptonite which is capable of cutting into Kryptonian skin. She actually cuts off Doomdays’s hand with it. I thought that was interesting. What I thought was even more interesting is that while it was certainly in character for Superman to plunge ahead with the Kyrptonian spear to kill Doomsday, Wonder Woman was doing really good holding her own against him and I think it would have been totally fine if he had just given her the spear and had her plunge it into Doomsday’s heart. He was, after all, basically killing himself by doing that and while it certainly was a heroic sacrifice, I usually like those kinds of things better when they truly are the last resort.
Wonder Woman, on the other hand, literally came out of the entire battle without a scratch. It’s not clear what her limits are, but if she can do that much, she’s actually way more of a match for Superman than Batman ever was and she doesn’t even need kryptonite to do the job. Just think what an interesting movie Wonder Woman vs Superman would have been.
So with such weak story elements and plot holes you can drive a truck through, this movie was not well thought out and in the end, falls flat despite the best efforts of everyone on screen to make something out of what they’ve got. I haven’t even talked about how over-stuffed it was with all the future DC universe characters which they just had to force in to this movie, instead of gracefully rolling them out as was done with the Marvel Cinematic Universe. These are not only distracting but make this movie overlong and even more confusing. DC is simply rushing to do their ensemble Justice League and I think they made a mistake in their strategy.
However, one element that I have to comment on just for fun is that the Batmobile is completely awesome. I didn’t think it was possible to out-do the Tumbler from Nolan’s Batman movies, but they actually did it here. This thing even has flares to deflect heat-seeking missiles. I’ve been a Batman fan for my entire life and I was impressed with the design and execution of this Batmobile.
But, when that’s one of the best things I can say – that I liked the hero’s car – you know you have a problem and that is what Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice is. It’s an example of how to mess with the source materials so badly that they are actually distorted beyond recognition. So in the end, the Dawn of Justice is actually an injustice to us all and gets a rating of Pretty Bad.
Thank you for watching.