When the best thing you can say is it’s not as bad as they say, what does that really say?
When Superman (Henry Cavill) made the conscious decision to kill General Zod (Michael Shannon) to stop Earth from being made-over into New Krypton, Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) is in Metropolis to witness firsthand the collateral damage of the super-brawl. It reminds him, of course, of when his own parents were killed — the first of many events leading up to him becoming Batman of Gotham City. Eighteen months later, Superman continues doing his hero thing, giving many hope that his powers make him a true god among men — an actual savior — but his status is called into question when African villagers are murdered during his rescue of Lois Lane (Amy Adams) on assignment. With American leaders genuinely concerned that Superman has gone or could go rogue, Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg) leverages their fears to gain access to recovered yet restricted Kryptonian tech. What is this evil villain’s true plan?
Welcome to this quarter’s chest-thumping studio-driven must-see movie — a film released unopposed and far enough away from the actual summer blockbuster season that one can’t help but feel an executive-level lack of confidence competing against other films, particularly those in the Marvel Universe. To be fair, Easter weekend provides an extra Friday off for parents to drag their kids out to see a superhero movie (“Please, Timmy? Can your mom and I go?”) The money’s there for the taking, but will the movie accomplish its primary goal: for Warner Bros. to shortcut their way into an ensemble Justice League film franchise and scare up some of that Marvel Universe Avengers profit?
DC Comics launched a book in 1941 called World’s Finest Comics, most often featuring a team-up starring Superman and Batman fighting crime together; later on, any such team-up between these two top-tier characters simply became known as World’s Finest, a title also used in their animated 1997 team-up movie. Since Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman film successfully re-invigorated the superhero movie genre, the last twenty-five years have continuously stepped up the live-action entries, but it’s no secret Marvel’s recent combined franchise success has forever escaped Warner Bros. similar attempts with DC. With a failure to continue Christopher Reeve’s legacy with Superman Returns, it took Man of Steel to reinvent The Big Blue Boy Scout as a Christ allegory for modern audiences; with Christopher Nolan’s realistic Dark Knight films concluded, WB decided to spin what little success Man of Steel gained into Batman v Superman, Dawn of Justice while frontloading it with future film possibilites.
What most comics fans want is a live-action version of the animated Justice League — confident characters who get the job done and rarely question their worth or heroism. No one second-guesses Batman being the smartest guy in the room, Superman the strongest, Flash the fastest, Wonder Woman the boldest, and so forth. It’s a DC trait, and further complexity waters down the archetypes of these characters. Marvel, on the other hand, has always had Peter Parkers and X-men who weren’t the cool kids, weren’t looked up to, and doubted themselves in spite of being heroes. In the jump to the big screen, too many licensed Marvel characters were swapped out for DC archetypes and failed, an issue fully repaired with Jon Favreau’s 2008 Iron Man with Marvel at their own helm. Marvel hasn’t looked back since, but Warner Bros. seems to insist upon upgrading their archetypes into Marvel-flawed creatures, and it just doesn’t work for them.
Henry Cavill’s Superman began Man of Steel questioning his place on Earth, hiding from it the way his father taught him instead of enriching it; BvS has him continuing the quest but swinging in the other direction. Bottom line: he’s still questioning his personal sense of right and wrong and whether he should act — that’s not the Superman we love or even want. It’s only in the heat of combat do we see a Superman who doesn’t think and just does the best he can. The end of Man of Steel worked in spite of critics; Superman chose, and at that time, he seemed good with the decision. In BvS, the brooding is back, and it took the heat of battle again to make him stop overthinking it.
Ben Affleck’s Batman isn’t “smartest guy in the room” Batman, but he is a good blend of Christian Bale’s Dark Knight Batman and Michael Keaton’s Burton Batman. While Superman was the encouraged adopted orphan, Bruce Wayne mostly raised himself with Alfred (Jeremy Irons) as his conscience. The pairing works, especially in conjunction with an assumed twenty-year career suggesting dark memories about the Joker and sidekick Robin. “You’ve gotten too old to die young,” Alfred critiques, “and not for a lack of trying.” Seeing Superman’s involvement with the destruction of Metropolis has hardened the Bat, so to speak, so we get less of the detective and more of the vigilante. To his credit, Ben makes as good a Bruce Wayne as he does Batman, and even Wayne Manor and the Batcave reflect this similarity; it’s too bad we couldn’t actually have an Affleck Batman film first.
Jesse Eisenberg’s Lex Luthor is the third and final player in this, but in what should have been the plum role for this anticipated mashup, the portrayal come off more like Heath Ledger’s take on the Joker than anything else. Jesse’s Lex is alarming to normal people, a far cry from his animated or confident comic counterpart, a programmer who never sleeps torqued up on energy drinks but should know better than to wander up out of his parent’s basement. But what undermines his character is a complete lack of motivation; we have no idea what he wants, why he wants it, or what goal it will accomplish. Unlike Ledger’s agent-of-chaos Joker, Eisenberg’s Lex is too much of a schemer for such random machinations. It doesn’t feel mysterious; it comes off like the writers didn’t have a clue or couldn’t make up their mind.
Only Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman manages to pull off the DC archetype correctly in her too-little screen time. When we meet her as Diana Prince, she’s in control; when she’s fighting, it’s the same thing. The boys could all learn a thing or two from this lady.
There…all the good stuff has been said. No, really. On to the nitpicks.
Clearly there wasn’t a budget for Wonder Woman’s blue contacts. The filmmakers would also like audiences to know they’re very sorry for all the glossed-over civilians deaths in Metropolis for Man of Steel — in-film newscasters will mention multiple times that no civilians are in the way of any impending destruction (and S.H.I.E.L.D. will not have to be called in from Marvel for evac). Looking at the DC Universe maps of North America, who knew Metropolis and Gotham City were only separated by the Bay of Michael? Factoid: being a DC superhero gives you nightmares so cooler things can happen in the movie trailers that aren’t in the actual movie. Secret identities — what the hell are those for? Pfft.
The entire plot is one convenience on top of another, empty seeds for future back story that’s probably unwritten. There’s not one surprise or twist even a casual comic book reader won’t see coming from a mile away. Batman’s motivation for fighting Superman — that thing in the title — falls apart long before the first punch is thrown (“Well, I made all these weapons; I’d hate for them to go to waste…”) and even Lex can’t come up with a good reason why these heroes should be at odds. Less discerning audiences will get their money’s worth: forgettable technobabble reasons for action and effects to exist. For folks who need a plot to justify their cinematic superhero porn, it feels like a bullet-pointed outline that never grew much beyond a first draft — or perhaps, in typical big-budget fashion, producers ran out of time to get it all done, went with what they had, and crossed their fingers.
One thing’s for sure: you have to hand it to director Zack Snyder — viewers can see clearly now how good Man of Steel actually was.
(a two skull recommendation out of four)