‘Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice’ review — but first, a backstory

Ben Affleck (Batman) and Henry Cavill (Superman) in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice
Ben Affleck (Batman) and Henry Cavill (Superman) in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice

Before I start on this review proper, buckle up for a not-so-brief history of how Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (from now on referred to as BVS) came to be. It’ll help you understand why BVS rubbed me wrongly from the get-go, and why I went into it with derisive feelings. My friend accused me of being biased against the film, and so even if it was good, I wouldn’t say so, but that’s not true. *If* it was good, I would admit it — in tones of absolute surprise, yes, but I would.

DC Cinematic Universe’s PR Problem

Reading internet comments sections, I get the feeling that Warner Bros. has a PR problem with their DC Cinematic Universe. The amount of people who slam their efforts and predict failure for their superhero movies seems way more than for Marvel, whose movies are usually received with praise and excitement. (Even now, when BVS is triumphing at the box office despite all the naysaying critics, people are forecasting that the film won’t be able to maintain its streak at the box office.) There are those who support both Marvel and DC movies and want both to succeed, but these level-headed people are far and few between, as compared to the legions who have split themselves into camps of Marvel or DC fans.

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice
Marvel vs. DC fans

Even the media seems to play favourites, working almost as a pack to eviscerate the film, as though determined to sink it from their words alone. Movies earning slightly less than their projected estimates at the weekend box office is a pretty common occurrence; less common is trade mag Variety making headlines with subjective descriptors out of it, like they’re actually *happy* it’s not doing as well. One writer even compared BVS to Donald Trump, one of the worst people to be compared to, thereby showing more bias than I expected from them (even though I can see the parallels). It’s like they were bewildered why their dismal reviews did not have any power to sway the public from watching the movie. The only other huge tentpoles I can think of that are this level of critic-proof are the Transformers and Fast and Furious movies, which are made for and consumed by the masses like junk food. Junk food doesn’t have nutritional value in the first place, so who cares what people write about them?

The End of a Good Streak

But it wasn’t always like that. Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy was beloved by fans and critics alike, and Warner amassed a ton of goodwill for being the studio that released some amazing Batman films. But they mis-stepped so badly with Ryan Reynolds’ Green Lantern movie in 2011, with its hideous CGI green costume, silly villains and terrible story, that not only did Ryan Reynolds’ career not recover for five years until Deadpool’s staggering success revived his fortunes, it seems that Warner swore off making “fun” superhero movies ever again.

Ryan Reynolds as Hal Jordan in Green Lantern. Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures. TM & © DC Comics.
Ryan Reynolds as Hal Jordan in Green Lantern

Then in 2012, Disney/Marvel released the game-changing, five-years-in-the-making superhero team-up movie The Avengers, which was such a hit that every studio in Hollywood starting looking to see how they could “adopt” that formula. These were astonishing, outsized results beyond anyone’s dreams, because the box office gross of that one single movie was the equivalent of three or four of Marvel’s Phase One movies combined. Meanwhile, in that same year, The Dark Knight Rises came out and though still good, wasn’t as great as The Dark Knight — something I feel a lot of people couldn’t forgive it for, especially when they had such high expectations of Christopher Nolan. And though The Dark Knight Rises did earn a billion dollars, it was almost half a billion less than The Avengers. (In part due to the nature of the movies themselves — The Avengers was a fun romp for the entire family; The Dark Knight Rises a darker, socially relevant movie that may give some parents pause about bringing their kids along.)

Christopher Nolan, Morgan Freeman and Christian Bale behind the scenes of The Dark Knight Rises.
Christopher Nolan, Morgan Freeman and Christian Bale behind the scenes of The Dark Knight Rises

On top of that, Nolan expressed disinterest in making anymore Batman movies, which left Warner a gap to fill in their future assured income, just as Marvel was chugging full steam ahead on the money train. They foresaw this problem happening though, which was why they already had Man of Steel, their reboot of Superman, coming out in the next year, on the back of which they hoped to launch a new franchise and perhaps a future Justice League movie. To helm it, they got Zack Snyder, someone whom they felt would instill trust in fans to treat the iconic character right — just as Christopher Nolan’s involvement did for Batman — as his comic book movies 300, Watchmen and Sucker Punch have cult followings, despite the latter two not being commercially successful. But Man of Steel didn’t give them the results they hoped for.

Hollywood: An Industry of Copycats

I’m not sure how many people remember this, but BVS was originally supposed to be a Man of Steel sequel. And then Man of Steel underperformed with US$668 million worldwide — which is actually a decent sum, but if you consider that Warner Bros. expected it to earn a billion dollars, and the fact that Iron Man 3, which came out in the same year as Man of Steel, earned almost twice as much with US$1.2 billion — then yes, it underperformed. Plus, it suffered a mixed reception from the critics, unlike the glowing ones Warner was accustomed to for The Dark Knight trilogy.

So Warner decided to reboot their most popular comic book superhero and put him in the sequel (not even a year after Christian Bale’s Dark Knight hung up his cape for good), and announced — at the 2013 Comic-Con, barely a month after Man of Steel opened in June — that instead of Man of Steel 2, we will get BATMAN VS SUPERMAN *cue dramatic music*. It’s like they were saying: “LOOK, BATMAN IS IN THE MOVIE, GUYS, AREN’T YOU EXCITED NOW since you didn’t turn out in droves for Superman’s solo outing”. There had been plans for a Justice League movie for the longest time, but now they began talking about copying Marvel’s formula and creating an expanded universe of films using their stable of superheroes — like how Marvel assembled the Avengers by giving each member (well, almost) their own movie before bringing them together — that will culminate in an all-out, sure to be epic Justice League movie, guys!

Except Warner started off with the Captain America equivalent (Man of Steel), skipped all the Iron Man, Thor and Incredible Hulk movies, and jumped straight into The Avengers (BVS).

Zack Snyder and Harry Lennix announcing the Batman/Superman movie at the 2013 San Diego Comic-Con. (Photo by Kevin Winter – © 2013 Getty Images)
Zack Snyder and Harry Lennix announcing the Batman/Superman movie at the 2013 San Diego Comic-Con. (Photo by Kevin Winter – © 2013 Getty Images)

Ok, fine. Hollywood is an industry that’s all about cashing in on the thing that is currently most successful — be it the hottest trending actor or actress, or in this case, the idea, of a “shared universe”. 20th Century Fox and Sony Pictures are trying to do it for their superhero movies, and even Universal Pictures and Paramount Pictures are applying it to their non-superhero franchises like Dracula, The Mummy and Transformers.

For Warner, that means BVS had to come out as soon as possible, since they wanted to strike while the iron is hot, and Marvel already has a five-year head start on them. Factoring in a bare minimum of two years of development and production, they scheduled the release on July 17, 2015.

A Game of Chicken

Then, in January 2014, Warner decided they couldn’t meet that deadline and moved BVS to May 6, 2016 — the same day that Marvel had already staked out for a yet-to-be-titled film. Now tentpole opening dates are planned by the studios years in advance in order to call dibs on the best weekends for maximum box office results, so what Warner did was to try to scare Marvel off that weekend — the same weekend that did so well for The Avengers in 2012 — as there isn’t space for two tentpoles reaching out to the same target audience to open together, and Warner felt they had the upper hand with the “bigger” movie. (I even wrote a reaction post about it back then.) But Marvel didn’t take the bait, and they carried on with their plans to release Captain America 3 as per normal.

So Warner finally decided to back off when they realised that Marvel wasn’t budging, and changed their date to March 25, 2016. Of course, when they did it, they said they weren’t “flinching”, they just found a better weekend with a longer corridor of weaker competition, as the next major blockbuster doesn’t open for another few weeks, so that will help them earn more money. (Right.) I mean, they were correct of course, as the box office results this past weekend show, but if that was their reason, why have this whole posturing exercise (that lasted seven months) in the first place? All it looks like is Warner lost the game of chicken that they themselves started.

Playing Catch-Up

On the same day that they announced the change in date, they also made known their plans to release two superhero films a year until 2020, duplicating and presumably competing with Marvel’s strategy, if you take the rumours that Marvel has plans for movies until 2028 into account. And then two months later, Warner Bros. CEO Kevin Tsujihara announced to a roomful of investors their plans for 2016 to 2020, which included full details of their DC movies lineup. So Marvel, not to be outdone, announced their entire Phase Three slate two weeks after that, but one-upped Warner by inviting fans to take part in their event, the best way to create instant buzz and raise excitement among their target audience. (Warner should know, since that’s how they sold the idea of a Batman/Superman movie to their fans.)

President of Marvel Studios Kevin Feige and actors Robert Downey Jr., Chadwick Boseman and Chris Evans onstage during Marvel Studios fan event at The El Capitan Theatre on October 28, 2014 in Los Angeles, California.  (Photo by Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images for Disney)
President of Marvel Studios Kevin Feige and actors Robert Downey Jr., Chadwick Boseman and Chris Evans onstage during Marvel Studios fan event at The El Capitan Theatre on October 28, 2014 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images for Disney)

(Not to say that Marvel doesn’t have a competitive streak. This is all just conjecture, but I have a feeling that if BVS hadn’t moved to 2016, they would never have given Iron Man a prominent role in Captain America 3 and turned it into ‘Civil War’, aka The Avengers 2.8. After all, there are only a few superheroes in the Marvel Cinematic Universe at this nascent stage; pitting 6 superheroes against 6 is more like “Civil Bar-room Brawl” rather than “Civil War”. The comics had a sprawling cast of characters to create a grand saga of friends turning on friends, but the MCU? They probably just wanted to have an Avengers-sized box office in the same year that BVS came out (and not to forget, Suicide Squad in August — Warner’s counterpart to Guardians of the Galaxy), so as not to give any impression of losing out. Justice League coming in two parts is probably why they also split Avengers: Infinity War into two, because the indications all along were that there would be three Avengers movies, not four.)

Milking the Hell Out of Everything, And Then Some

Warner has one of the best marketing departments in the world, but for BVS, they gave up on finesse and only had one plan of action: MILK THE HELL OUT OF EVERYTHING, starting from the title. Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice could not be a more obvious title if it *tried* — at a glance, it tells you that the movie is a showdown between Batman and Superman (why is “s.” missing from “v”? “Batman v Superman” doesn’t actually make sense), and at the same time, it’s going to herald the beginning of the Justice League. I was joking to my friend that if Marvel named Civil War the way Warner named BVS, it would have been called Iron Man v Captain America: The Avengers Take Sides! (See, it sounds stupid doesn’t it.) For something that is theoretically a Man of Steel sequel, Batman’s name comes first, which shows how much faith Warner doesn’t have in Superman to sell the movie. You may have heard about the video where no one recognised Henry Cavill wearing a Superman T-shirt in New York City despite his face being plastered on huge billboards all around. If Batman wasn’t in the movie, the people at Warner would have freaked out.

An Arrogant Director

Also, I wasn’t very impressed with Zack Snyder after his constant flip-flopping attempts to justify Man of Steel’s controversial ending — you know, the one where Superman causes mass destruction and kills millions of people during his battle with General Zod. (Though I didn’t mind so much that he killed General Zod.) I feel that in a way, he is trying to defend it as a better movie than people think it is. Which is understandable, since it’s his baby; but he’s doing so by invalidating other people’s opinions just because they don’t have “cred”: “I’M the ultimate comic book fan, and if you didn’t get my movie, that’s because you’re not a big enough fan of the comics.” Way to lord himself over everyone else.

Ben Affleck and Zack Snyder behind the scenes of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice
Ben Affleck and Zack Snyder behind the scenes of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice

I was even less impressed when he trash-talked Marvel. As the spokesperson for the film, he didn’t have to stoop to the level of fans on the Internet and be a dick about it. Neither Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige nor the directors of Civil War trash-talked his movie even when Warner was trying to force Cap off the date they both wanted, so he shouldn’t either.

I also feel that Man of Steel was more ponderous and faux philosophical than it needed to be. I get that they were trying to follow Christopher Nolan’s footsteps, but the movie felt very full of itself. The only good things I can remember about it were Russell Crowe as Superman’s dad and Hans Zimmer’s score, though I might have liked Kevin Costner as Clark Kent’s foster dad too. Henry Cavill was fine as Superman, but he has this *constipated* face when he’s trying to look serious or anguished, which makes it hard for me to take him seriously.

Henry Cavill as Superman in Man of Steel
Henry Cavill’s constipated face in Man of Steel
Henry Cavill as Superman in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice
Henry Cavill’s idiotic serious face strikes again in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice

So yeah, I definitely had very negative feelings towards BVS going into the movie. And BVS only confirmed all of them.

You see, there are dark, brooding superhero movies, and there are movies that drown you in a cacophony of noise, visuals, and angst up the wazoo. If Man of Steel was heavy, ponderous and self-important, BVS must be at least 10 times of that. It is so grim, joyless and angst-ridden that for a popcorn movie, I barely enjoyed myself. (And it IS a popcorn movie, even though it tries to deceive you into thinking it is some deep, philosophical shit worthy of Stanley Kubrick or something. Gosh, when Lex Luthor smirked that line about “psychotic” being “a three-syllable word for any thought too big for little minds”, I was rolling my eyes so hard at how clever the writers think they are for coming up with that.) Watching someone save the world has never been more tedious, because Batman and Superman obviously resent their obligations.

Ben Affleck as Batman in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice
“Why does the world need saving?”
Henry Cavill as Superman in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice
“These ingrates. I should leave them to rot.”

The movie strives for operatic grandeur, with a score that screams and wails and pounds and booms — but it did not earn it. This is one of the rare few scores from Hans Zimmer that I mostly disliked. I suppose the sound of instruments fighting among themselves would fit the images of the characters fighting each other on screen, but it was just noise and visuals overload — too much banging crashing stomping roaring exploding. I honestly didn’t know what was going on for most of the Doomsday fight, because to quote Daredevil (the TV series), it was a “world on fire”. Things smashed into each other and then exploded into more fire. Zack Snyder really threw EVERYTHING at you in order to try and make you like his movie, but he forgot to include a reason to care about the characters other than the fact that they are Batman and Superman — just like how he seems to think that the film is by default a tragic opera because two iconic superheroes on the same side are fighting each other. By the end, when the “So-Called Shocking Thing” happens, I was numb to it. Partly because I knew that there’s going to be a Justice League movie, so Superman can’t be dead; but if he remains dead, I won’t miss him either.

Even director Kevin Smith, huge Batman fan, friend of Ben Affleck, didn’t like the film because it “had no heart”. Yeah, that sounds about right.

Ben Affleck as Bruce Wayne/Batman in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice
Ben Affleck as Bruce Wayne/Batman in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice

There were several things that made me go “What on earth is happening?”, but this movie actually made me angry enough to go: “I F**KING hate this movie” in the theatre. Most of these occurred during Bruce’s hallucinations/nightmares. Not only were they redundant, worthless, crap to the story, they were unnecessarily frightening, key word being UNNECESSARILY. So it’s not only enough that they had to flashback to Thomas and Martha Wayne dying, repeatedly, in ssslooowww-mmoooooooooo, as though the audience is too stupid to deduce that Bruce is HAUNTED, IN CAPITAL LETTERS, by his parents’ deaths the first three times it was shown; they also had to have glowing-eyed, otherworldly monsters crash through his mother’s tomb for no reason whatsoever? WHY WAS THAT NIGHTMARE EVEN NECESSARY???

Ben Affleck as Bruce Wayne/Batman in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice

And the much publicised fight between Superman and Batman was brutish. It wasn’t brutal, it was brutish — as in uncivilised, like beasts, Superman and Batman going back to their baser carnal instincts, a “crashing” of the titans. Because that was how needless and painful it was to watch this fight. There was nothing for me to enjoy, because there were no light moments, and I don’t get any kick out of watching good people beat each other up with the aim to kill. Even worse, Superman could have prevented the fight in the first place had he chosen to be more to the point, instead of whatever long-winded spiel he was going on. A simple “Bruce, let’s not fight! It’s all Lex Luthor’s ploy! Help me save my mother!” would have sufficed. But of course, the audience paid to watch Batman fight Superman, so a fight they shall have! Let’s make Batman so dumb as not to see through Lex Luthor’s machinations, so that this fight can happen!

Henry Cavill as Clark Kent/Superman in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice
Henry Cavill as Clark Kent/Superman in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice

And yet, despite all my anger over this bloated mess, the movie wasn’t TOTALLY awful.

Gal Gadot is the one ray of sunshine in this bleak horrorfest. Her Wonder Woman is so joyously badass and raring for a fight (against people who actually deserve it) that she has instantly become my favourite superhero in this DC comics universe. Best of all, unlike practically everyone else in this miserable movie, she doesn’t treat living as though it’s a chore — she is able to make fun of the self-absorbed male superheroes who don’t know how to share, and can’t tell that they’re being played. If she had gotten off the plane sooner, she would have stopped Batman and Superman’s shit immediately. As it is, I shall assume she simply didn’t care and wanted to leave the city because they were being idiots. Good choice!

Gal Gadot as Diana Prince/Wonder Woman in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice
Gal Gadot as Diana Prince/Wonder Woman in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice
Gal Gadot and Ben Affleck in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice
Another picture of Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman, because she really is the best thing in this movie.

I cannot wait for the Wonder Woman movie. I wouldn’t mind if the Justice League movie never arrived though. Their scenes felt shoehorned into this movie just so Warner could introduce the rest of the Justice League team, and they seem like another bunch of gloomy, tortured folks. I shudder to think how much more wretched the Justice League movie is going to be, especially since Zack Snyder is directing it too. Yay.

Also, Ben Affleck as Batman was great. If only they had written him better, instead of simply “the One who Hates Superman and Has Nightmares”. His on-the-ground perspective of Metropolis being destroyed was refreshing, also because it was the only instant in the movie that I felt he was a human being with a spectrum of feelings beyond anger and woe. Jeremy Irons’ Alfred was a good character, though relegated to the wise sage/sidekick role. He should have been given more to do.

Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s cameo as Bruce Wayne’s father was a pleasant surprise, because I like him, and I didn’t realise he was in the movie. Then I remembered that a few months ago, I read about him being cast as Bruce Wayne’s father. Cool.

Anyway, I sincerely hope Civil War swoops in next month to trounce BVS in *everything*: box office intake, records, critical reviews, audience reception, whatever. That will teach Warner to make a crap movie and still expect to earn boatloads of money off it. >:(

Cap and Tony in Captain America: Civil War
Cap and Tony in Captain America: Civil War