Wow. Rarely have I ever experienced such a divide between my personal thoughts on a film, and seemingly every single paid “critic” who has presumably seen the same film as I. Are people having a laugh? Are they being obtuse for some unknown reason? The last time something happened like this was during the release of Ridley Scott’s diamond-cut masterpiece The Counselor, and before that with Michael Mann’s expressionistic tour de force Miami Vice and Tony Scott’s avant-garde Domino; throw in the last two films from Terrence Malick as well. On repeated occasions, I simply don’t understand what film most people seem to have been watching or say that they’ve seen. Don’t get me started on this asinine argument that Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice isn’t “fun.” It may not be YOUR idea of fun, but for people who like their superhero stories gritty and dark and thoughtful, this movie is beyond fun. To be perfectly honest, it’s absolutely astonishing on almost every single level, especially given how routine and homogenized most blockbusters have become. You don’t hire filmmaker Zack Snyder to be “safe.”
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – he’s a visual genius. He understands the inherent power of the cinematic image and he exploits it for all it’s worth. Film is a visual medium, first and foremost. I understand that it all starts with a script, but films are not books, and for me, the power of the image will always supersede that of the spoken word. And because Snyder’s images are so consistently mind-blowing, people love to forget how he almost always pays attention to story and character and motivation; he’s not uninterested in his screenplays despite what so many love to report. And best of all, and most rare, he challenges his comic book material in ways that you rarely see, especially in Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice. Though definitely not a direct sequel to his smashing and rousing Man of Steel, this new film picks up in the immediate aftermath of the events of that 2013 blockbuster (and in my favorite sequence of the film during the Battle for Metropolis), and over the course of two and half hours, expands on Snyder’s vision and idea of realism within the scope of the fantastical, continuing down a purposefully humorless path through the revisionist corners of the DC universe.
This film is playing by Snyder’s rules, rules that borrow a tad from Frank Miller’s graphic novels and other bits of comic book inspiration, but make no mistake, this is Snyder totally unleashed. So, if you’re not a fan of his overly dynamic visual style, then you aren’t likely to respond well to this heavy and sometimes nightmarish piece of action filmmaking. This is a dark looking film, heavy on nighttime action with rain-soaked skylines and a striking sense of noir running through its very fabric. After the bright daylight action sequences of Man of Steel, Snyder decided to desaturate his images, suggesting a level of death and despair that has hit both Gotham and Metropolis. I’ve been enamored with Snyder’s aesthetic ever since his brilliant reimagining of Dawn of the Dead, which is easily my favorite modern horror film of the last 20 years. 300 was a pop-art explosion that broke new stylistic ground and Watchmen sits at the very top of the pile of films inspired by graphic novels. Sucker Punch is lusciously composed and severely underrated, and I happen to think “that owl movie” is really fun and unlike any other “kid’s movie” out there (visually it’s alive in ways that few films could ever dream of being). But it was Man of Steel that really set my world on fire, and now that he’s been given the keys to the expanded DC universe, I am overwhelmingly excited to see where he takes these various characters and to observe his glorious visual style progress even further. Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice is as bold of a superhero film that I can think of, a movie that takes chances with its material, and succeeds greatly as a result.
I am not going to spoil the plot. There’s a lot to dissect, the focus is split evenly between Batman and Superman, and there are some really well integrated teasers and Easter eggs that will inform future movies in this particular universe. From the trailers, it’s been made clear what you should generally expect, but because this film is super dense (being confused by many as “overstuffed”) and packed with characters and incidents and numerous plot strands, I’d rather people just experience it. Your preconceived notions of these characters and their origins and histories will be tested all throughout this film, and I seriously applaud the entire creative team for boldly taking risks with iconic characters and imagery and making it their own thing. I will say that I do wish the film had simply been called Dawn of Justice, as it’s both more concise and slick, and it better represents the overall scope to the proceedings. The titular smack down, while no doubt viscerally and visually impressive and narratively clever, comprises maybe 10 minutes of screen time, with so much more of greater importance occurring during the film. It’s not a throwaway, this bout of the titans, but rather, feels more like a series of intense disagreements rather than genuine fear or hatred of each other. I thought I maybe knew the driving force that would pit Batman and Superman against each other, so it was a pleasant surprise to see my expectations upended. It’s also abundantly clear that Snyder wanted a longer film, as the pacing does feel strange in a start-stop manner in spots, and I noticed in a few instances where it was obvious that some connective tissue had been removed. There’s a 30 minute longer director’s cut coming out on Blu-ray, so it’ll be interesting to see what the suits at WB felt needed to be trimmed. It just strikes me as odd that Snyder would have conceived of a close to three hour cut without knowing for sure if WB would allow him to release his vision as is; didn’t the suits, at the script and development level, realize how long and how packed of a film they were getting involved with?
And when it comes to the action, Snyder doesn’t disappoint. There’s a sense of weight to the big fight between Batman and Superman, and there’s one beat of action at the mid-way point which felt positively surreal, something that I truly didn’t expect. And that opening sequence is a true wowser, showing Bruce Wayne racing through the exploding streets of Metropolis, with Superman and Zod ripping stuff apart; it’s a bird’s eye view of total destruction and it’s scary and thrilling in equal measure. Snyder, as always, has a field day with slow motion techniques, but in general, keeps his camera calm and steady, allowing for some seriously awesome widescreen compositions that blast the eyeballs on multiple occasions. While I am not particularly fond of lead characters doing battle with all CGI monstrosities (there was a certain level of disinterest during the climactic battle with Doomsday), I was pulled back into the film by the emotional content, which hits some rather shocking notes towards the last act.
Snyder and screenwriters David Goyer and Chris Terrio were definitely interested in mixing up the formula, throwing a lot of stuff against the wall with almost all of it sticking, and allowing for multiple viewings to truly unlock all of this film’s many secrets. The thunderous and at times operatic musical score from Hans Zimmer and Junkie XL takes cues from Man of Steel and becomes something larger and at times even more epic, with a triumphant musical cue waiting for Wonder Woman during her battle entrance. Thematically, it’s a rich film, with both superheroes getting a chance to battle their inner demons all throughout, with the surprising maternal connection to the both of them being explored in a unique fashion; call it a “Tale of Two Martha’s.” Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice is a beast of a movie, and nothing like The Dark Knight trilogy from Christopher Nolan, with Snyder going out of his way to separate his version of Batman from Nolan’s, as he was wise to do. And the film also feels like a big departure from Man of Steel in many respects, much darker and more forbidding.
The performances are all uniformly excellent, with Ben Affleck cutting a hardened pose, both emotionally and physically, as Batman/Bruce Wayne. This is a very different Batman, more heavily armored and ready for battle than ever before, with a distinct lack of caring for the overall outcome of his adversaries. Snyder likes his superheroes to kill their bad guys, not hurt them with force. Henry Cavill embodies exactly what a modern Superman should be, bringing both nobility and an incredible sense of stoicism to the role; hopefully we’ll see a bit more of Clark Kent in upcoming films. Gal Gadot is sexy and heroic in equal measure as Wonder Woman, and I can’t wait to see her in action during her standalone film. She seemed EXCITED to be getting in on the big-battle action in the final act which was very cool to see. Jessie Eisenberg plays this new-fangled Lex Luthor with the proper amount of absurd glee that’s needed for this type of role, going appropriately over the top but never losing grasp of his character’s edgy megalomania. Jeremy Irons is all class as a more weathered version of Alfred, and he gets the film’s best lines of dialogue. Amy Adams brings that signature pep back to the role of Lois Lane, and while she’s not neglected, I hope there’s another standalone Superman film to focus more on her relationship with Clark and Superman. And Holly Hunter and Laurence Fishburne both get some really good moments; same goes for the terrific Scoot McNairy.
But the star of the show here is Snyder and his absurdly talented cinematographer Larry Fong, who literally peels your head wide open and blasts the screen with one insanely composed image after another. I grew up in a DC Comics household. Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman – these were my favorite characters, the ones I became obsessed with as a tyke. So, to see the DC Universe explode in such a fabulous way on screen, I feel tremendously lucky to have films like Nolan’s The Dark Knight Trilogy and Snyder’s mesmerizing Man of Steel ready in my Blu-ray arsenal. And with Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice, the flood gates have been smashed wide open for more adventures with these decidedly darker superheroes.