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What is your review of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016 movie)?

★★★

Disclaimer: This review will contain spoilers. Many spoilers. Proceed only if you don’t mind.

Ever since Zack Snyder took the stage at Comic Con 2013 to announce a then untitled Batman v Superman (two weeks after Man Of Steel’s release), fans have been psyched up for the first cinematic union of Batman and Superman. Since then, we’ve been subject to a steady dose of marketing and hype-building from DC Comics and its parent company, Warner Bros. From revealing the first footage of Batman in The Dark Knight Returns armor flashing the Bat-Signal preluding the start of a showdown with Superman back in 2014 to the various casting choices and the backlash received for them (Ben Affleck as Batman, Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman, Jesse Eisenberg as Lex Luthor) followed by first looks at several of the cast members in their respective roles along with several stills, trailers, TV Spots, interviews, promotions magazine articles and footage shown via talk shows and other means, the studio has constantly kept the movie at the back of our minds. Interviews often had the cast and crew showering unnatural praise on the writer Chris Terrio and his script, lauding it for the intelligent dialog, psychological depth in characters and well-reasoned motivations. Somewhere, as the movie’s release drew nearer and nearer, rumors about executives panicking and worrying skeptically about the reaction to the movie started doing the rounds but these were drowned out in the noise of other promotional material accompanying the movie during these final pre-release stages (the final trailer anyone).

Alas, that final doubt did turn out to be somewhat true as critics tore the movie apart, scoring it an average of 5.1 / 10 on Rotten Tomatoes with only 30% reviews being considered fresh. Fans on the other hand were left divided on the movie’s outcome with some praising the movie exceptionally, while others deriding it for the same reasons as the critics. There’s a minority though that consider the movie to be just well-made enough to warrant a decent rating while certainly not the masterpiece that some fans are making out to be. Turns out, I’m in that minority.

The movie opens with a visual dream sequence showing some familiar elements of Batman’s origin story: the murder of Bruce’s parents, his subsequent fall into the well and the Bats appearing out of the Batcave. Such dream sequences of Bruce are a recurrent and an important part of the movie, as we will see. It then takes us back to the Black Zero event which had Superman and Zod battling it out on the skies of Metropolis; only this time, it shows the battle from the perspective of civilians on the ground and one in particular: Bruce Wayne. As it turns out, Wayne happened to be present in Metropolis at the time of the Black Zero event and, in the ensuing fight, loses his employees and people professionally close to him. So far so good.

We then flash forward to a year and a half. Superman’s existence is now a well-known fact: he’s accorded a God-like status by some whereas others (read: the politicians and congressmen) debate on his presence and his will to decide which disasters and events to act upon. A recent desert brawl where Superman saves Lois at the expense of other African thugs ignites this discussion further.

Meanwhile, in Gotham, The Batman (Bruce Wayne), considered a myth, has been propagating his brand of justice by marking criminals with his bat insignia while torturing them for information. He is specifically looking out for an alias called White Portuguese that will lead him to the remains of the largest chunk of Kryptonite left in the wake of the Battle of Metropolis. By convincing Senator Finch, Lex is able to lay hands on that last piece before Bruce can access it. Through a series of events, Luthor sets up the bombing of The Capitol building where Superman is summoned to answer in front of a committee for his actions. The incident is blamed on Superman who is then manipulated into fighting Batman. Batman, in the meanwhile, having seen the explosion, concludes that Superman is a threat that needs to be kept in check. With the Kryptonite in place, Batman preps out his armored suit and battles it out with Superman. Lex meanwhile, ends up creating a Kryptonian monster mixing Zod’s DNA with his own blood to unleash havoc and kill Superman. Wonder Woman makes an appearance and the trio then team up and fight Doomsday to save the day.

The plotting has several inconsistencies. This is not just evident when you see the movie, even a simple read of the plot synopsis on Wikipedia alludes to a disjointed narrative. For starters, we see Jack, one of Bruce’s employees in the Wayne Financials building. Only when called by Bruce and told to evacuate the building does he order people to leave. And this when Zod’s ship can clearly be seen hovering outside. This but naturally results in his demise giving Bruce a (forced) reason to grieve. The entire sequence then seems to have been thought out in retrospective to the backlash that Man Of Steel received for the destruction that resulted from its climactic fight.

In fact, most of the plot points in the movie just seem to be forced in order to have the subsequent events occur. For instance, Lex hates Superman throughout the movie. He believes power should be earned, not gifted. Since Superman was born naturally powerful and Lex is obviously not, he despises Superman for his strength and unnatural abilities, lamenting that such power should be earned and having it being gifted to Superman is unfair. Sounds like a good enough reason to hate Superman. Except, it doesn’t come of well in the movie at all (it is barely mentioned in passing). All this information is much more evident in Jesse Eisenberg’s promotional interviews for the movie where he explained the different quirks and motivations of his character. Were it not for those, I’d be lost on understanding the reason of Luthor’s hate. Again, out of nowhere, Lex seems to create Doomsday without realizing the repercussions of it. Finally, Wonder Woman’s appearance towards the end, regardless of how heroic it is, does seem a bit forced. It appears the only reason Gal Gadot was in the movie was to make an appearance towards the end and form the Trinity pose signaling the arrival of DC.

The problems with the plotting don’t just end with its inconsistencies. The movie moves at a rather awkward narrative that, rather than being a cohesive whole seems like a string of beautifully directed scenes stitched together. Take one of several scenes out and watch it by its own and it’ll work. Put all of them together and the whole thing starts feeling a bit disjointed. A lot of times, one scene doesn’t naturally lead to the other; we start off with the desert battle, then jump to Batman’s introduction, followed by Lex’s introduction, followed again by Lex’s interaction with the senator that seems a bit out of place if the dialogues are to go by. Perhaps these problems arise because Zack, instead of having his own style, seems to ape the styles of two visionaries whose influence on the film is clearly visible: Christopher Nolan and Frank Miller. Undoubtedly, The Dark Knight Returns is the film’s biggest influence; whole frames seem to have been lifted straight off its pages which is a good thing. Only that The Dark Knight Returns had a strong narrative to back it up. Sure it did use a lot of the cross-cutting between different plot threads but each of those plot-threads moved forward smoothly on its own which made the back and forth cuts interesting to follow. One gets the impression that such cuts here merely exist so that Zack can simulate Miller’s style of interconnected narratives; the narratives by themselves aren’t strong enough to hold viewer’s attention. Also, Nolan’s influence is clearly seen in the film’s dark bleached out tone and the Inception-ist ending with most of the film taking place after sunset. While I don’t particularly have an issue with the film’s dark tone (if it requires it), the Inception-ist ending felt a bit unnecessary. Like Miller, Nolan also did a lot of cross-cutting on the Dark Knight movies but again, the essence of the narrative was never lost in the midst of that narrative. Simply put, both Nolan and Miller maintained the momentum in the midst of interspersing different scenes. Snyder doesn’t.

Another plot point that could’ve been avoided is Batman killing. While Snyder did explain his reasons and logic for including scenes where Batman kills (he’s never shown killing someone directly), Miller’s novel used such things as rubber bullets to justify time and again that people are only going to be injured and not killed. If Snyder could include a scene explaining Batman’s amplified voice generated through the cowl, he might as well have included a couple of more to work around ways where Batman didn’t have to murder people due to explosions. But given the way it proceeds, Batman v Superman takes up a lot of time in slow-motion visuals than actual plot content, again a visual aesthetic that Snyder seems to have replicated from the comics without replicating the other important aesthetic that makes or breaks a film (writing). The film has about 2.5 hours and while people may argue that it has to do justice to a lot of characters in a short time, I believe 2.5 hours is a fairly good amount of time to serve all movie characters well enough given that it had 3-5 major characters to deal with (Nolan hadled several more in The Dark Knight Rises and to better effect).

After so much criticizing then, you’d wonder if this is another negative review and if at all there’s anything worth praising about the film. As a matter of fact there is; there are several positives in fact. For starters, Synder’s great sense of visuals ensures the film looks great on all levels. While he may have forgone storytelling in capturing the visual look (kind of what Ang Lee did with The Hulk), the visual part glows. And I’m not just talking about production values – those are stellar without doubt. I’m talking about the framing of scenes, the angles, and the way the action with all its scope and grandeur is captured. Someone could very well make a graphic novel out of this movie and all they’d have to do for art is simply pick up stills from this movie and it’ll work. The cinematography is top-notch in that sense though occasionally, I had problems with the wobbly camera-work that is present in some of the scenes (the exact same problem I had in Man Of Steel); the camera wobbles so much that it becomes nauseating at times though thankfully those moments are brief (one example is the party sequence where Bruce tails Diana who’s escaped with the valuable intel).

The entire fight between Batman and Superman is a fight for the ages. Superbly choreographed, it not only is reminiscent of several moments in The Dark Knight Returns but also has an outcome that is bound to please plenty of fans. As also is Batman in general who, with his gritty, violent nature is clearly the scene stealer. His introduction in the movie which Affleck rightly said plays out like a horror scene is something that looks straight like a Killing Joke comic strip come to life; it is perfectly dark, scary and truly makes Batman seem like a creature to be feared. Affleck also gives a commendable performance as Batman and does justice in his role, given that he has huge shoes to fill. Batman’s gadgets, the Batmobile, the Batcave and the armored suit – everything about him is well done. The third act also has its moments, specifically Wonder Woman’s entrance which, no matter how forced, does create a heavy visual impact in giving us the Trinity together for the first time on live action. Also the final moments with Superman are pretty memorable, reminiscent of the comic book storyline The Death Of Superman and serve to setup the impending formation of The Justice League nicely (though I admit, Snyder could’ve been a bit more subtle on the revelations of the Justice League members).

Towards the middle of the movie, we have the now famous Knightmare sequence that has been glimpsed at in the movie trailers. The sequence sees Batman part of a deal involving Kryptonite in the middle of an apocalyptic wasteland (is this why the music here has shades of Mad Max: Fury Road’s score, also composed Junkie XL) by from which glimpses of a destroyed only to realize it is a setup. He then goes on a killing spree in a one take sequence where he ends up taking out many of the thugs (like a boss I must add) only to end up captured. Superman then arrives in the scene that was teased back in November, unmasking Batman which is when the Knightmare ends. Bruce then has a vision of The Flash popping up from what looks like a break in space time (he’s possibly arrived from a future where they’re fighting a war). The Flash warns him of Lois Lane being the key and frequently laments loudly about it being too soon for him to issue this warning before Bruce wakes up, ending the scene altogether.

A lot of theories have been surfacing online about the rumored significance of this scene. One thing that is almost universally agreed upon is that this sequence marks the imminent arrival of Darkseid, a formidable villain who the Justice League is going to end up fighting eventually (possibly in November next year). The vision itself is touted as being a vision from the future where Darkseid has invaded earth and laid waste to Metropolis bringing about an apocalypse. The Justice League is fighting Darkseid when The Flash, for some unspecified reason right now, has to go back in time to warn Bruce about Lois. Superman’s behavior in the scene seems to have spawned theories of its own as well. While some suggest he is acting under the control of Darkseid after being resurrected, others say that Superman may have lost his semblance of sanity after possibly having lost Lois Lane in a future battle. This may very well be the reason why The Flash warns Bruce about Lois Lane, possibly to save her so that she stays alive thereby preventing Superman from going mad and thereby preventing the unmasking sequence from occurring in what could be an alternative timeline.

While a lot of people have criticized this scene for being absolutely unfriendly to newbies, I personally consider it to be one of the best parts of the movie. It is also a lot better put together as compared to say, a similar scene with Thor in Marvel’s Avengers: Age Of Ultron. What good is a comic book movie if it doesn’t give fans enough material to discuss and to come up with theories of their own? On that ground, Batman v Superman definitely succeeds; there’s a lot for comic buffs to discuss once they’ve seen the film. I personally have a theory about the Superman unmasking sequence: the one doing the unmasking may not really be Superman himself, but a clone of his named Bizarro. In the comics, Bizarro was created as a clone of Superman after The Death Of Superman saw him dead and considering that part of the third act was inspired from this storyline, who’s to say that Bizarro cannot exist in the DC Cinematic Universe. Also, now that genetic creation is possible what with the origin story of Doomsday, there does exist the possibility of a creature like Bizarro coming to life in this universe.

To wrap up the technicalities, the movie has great visual effects and cinematography for its dark mood. All the cast members give decent performances given what they have to work with including Henry Cavill, who people may have criticized for being wooden but personally, felt perfect in the role of Superman. Ben Affleck is perhaps the scene stealer – his world-weary burnt out brooding Batman comes to life on the screen, at times lifted straight out of Miller’s pages. And the movie’s faithfulness to comics is commendable in certain sequences such as the opening with the death of Bruce’s parents or the armored suit. There’s also a scene where media reports describe a certain bombing, again a clear homage to The Dark Knight Returns which had the bulk of its story narrated through media broadcasts.

My disappointment from this movie comes from the expectation that it could’ve been so much more than what it is. With characters as iconic as Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman, where people pretty much have grown up with the origin stories, there was little chance you could go wrong. DC had it much easy compared to Marvel who had lost the rights to all their A-Listers and had to come up with a B-List set of superheroes and gradually build them up into A-Listers whereas almost all characters of DC being considered for the Justice League are potential A-Listers. And yet, we have a movie with problems in the most fundamental of all areas: script. The very script that the cast was so hyped up about and praising Chris Terrio so much for. Perhaps some lessons ought to be learned from this movie, more so in focusing on narrative. Marvel has a centralized vision in the form of Kevin Feige who coordinates different movies and ensures that they’re all connected seamlessly and naturally and yet subtly (Age Of Ultron was an exception for subtlety though). DC seems to be lacking that vision and if Snyder is the visionary, he’s not enough. They still have a lot of time left to iron out these issues before Justice League comes out. A better bet would be keeping Snyder as a consultant who could help with the look and action of the movies while hiring another director and / or writer to help with the narrative. These are strong characters that deserve writing justice.

That being said, Batman v Superman: Dawn Of Justice is an enjoyable flick. Critic opinions are unnaturally harsh on this one which is a bit understandable given that they aren’t as familiar or invested in the DC-verse as fans are. Sometimes, the journey is better than the reward. In this case, the 2.5 year journey from the movie’s announcement to its release was far more memorable than the 2.5 hour movie itself. Despite its flaws though, Batman v Superman: Dawn Of Justice is a superhero bash-up that deserves to be witnessed on the big screen. Watch it and form your own opinions instead of letting those of others guide you.

Overall Score: 7.0 / 10.0