Batman v Superman is chaotic and overstuffed, but not all that bad
There will likely never be a fully satisfying portrayal of Batman. The character has been around for 77 years and written in a multitude of ways, changing subtly through each incarnation. There are consistent elements to the story—the murder of his parents, the wealth of his alter ego, the name of his manservant. But like a popular song covered by a variety of artists, your favorite Batman tends to be the version you heard first.
For many, it was the slapstick style of Adam West. For others, it was the team player Batman of the Silver Age of comics. The best of the Batman films were largely inspired by Frank Miller’s seminal graphic novel “The Dark Knight Returns”. For me, Batman will always sound like Kevin Conroy, who voiced the Caped Crusader in Batman: The Animated Series, a cartoon that grew out of the Tim Burton era. There is likely not another comic book character that inspires such division among fans.
Ben Affleck dons the cowl in the latest comic blockbuster Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, another film that borrows heavily from Frank Miller, and manages the character well, despite baffling character choices by the writers.
The film is dark and serious, simultaneously well done and chaotically organized, occasionally confusing, and at its heart overstuffed with exposition for other films. There is far too much going on for a coherent narrative but the film still manages to captivate the audience for nearly two and a half hours. A blockbuster that can do that can’t be all bad, no matter what critics parroting the consensus Rotten Tomatoes score might say.
The biggest problems of the film occur in the second and third acts. The first third of the film is stunning. Director Zack Snyder crafts the conflicts in the film in subtle, effective ways. Set 18 months after the events of Man of Steel, many are questioning the acts of the godlike alien that destroyed a significant portion of Metropolis in an attempt to save humanity. Those in power discuss the wisdom of allowing an unknown vigilante with enormous personal power to act unilaterally and the potential complications that may arise in a world knitted together through the uneasy alliances of sovereign nations.
Both Bruce Wayne and Lex Luthor are correct in their skepticism about the inherent goodness of a being that answers to no one. The potential for insightful commentary on power, justice, and responsibility is set by the characterization of Wayne as the defender of humanity and the apparent hypocrisy of Clark Kent’s quest to expose the brutality of “the Bat of Gotham”. All of these things should lead, very naturally, to a conflict between these champions of order.
But then the filmmakers make bizarre decisions that betray the very ideas they introduced at the outset. The World’s Greatest Detective falls victim to the World’s Stupidest Plan, the Man of Steel bends like a cheap paper clip, and Lex Luthor is suddenly less quirky and more mentally challenged. Zack Synder forgets that he has a story to finish and chooses to focus on setting up the next several films with out of place dream sequences and forced cameos.
Additionally, the film tries to merge at least three separate comic book story lines into one, expecting that the audience will respond emotionally to conclusions that are entirely unearned. It’s important to note that none of this is the fault of the actors in the film. Ben Affleck is on par with Christian Bale in his portrayal of Batman and Henry Cavil is acceptable as Superman, given what the script allows him to do.
In fact, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is very nearly saved by the appearance of Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman (helped immensely by her drum heavy theme by Hans Zimmer.) The action scenes are entertaining and the film beautifully shot. Were the story not so convoluted, it might have been something to behold.
Films like this one invite comparisons to the highly successful Marvel Studios Avengers series, for understandable reasons. Obviously, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is not in the same league as 2012’s The Avengers. Arguably, though, it suffers the same problems as The Avengers: Age of Ultron. Both films were overstuffed with characters and subplots and convenient flashes of future franchises. Both films suffered narratively due to franchise concerns.
Comic books films have passed the point of no return, it seems. From here on out, every film will essentially be a trailer for the next one. Salvation may lie, for a time, in small screen shows like Daredevil and Jessica Jones.
Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is nowhere near as bad as it’s been made out to be, but that doesn’t make it very good.