By Abe Rose
Have you noticed how almost no one refers to this movie by its actual title? I’ve only heard the film referred to as “Batman versus Superman.” That’s a good title. It gives you an idea of what the movie’s conflict is about, whom the contenders are, and whom to put your money on for going all eleven rounds. That’s the title the movie should have. But it’s not named that. Instead, it is awkwardly named Batman VEE Superman COLON Dawn of Justice. It sounds like the titles of two movies randomly cobbled together. Then again, it might be aptly named, because it feels like two movies randomly cobbled together.
The film doesn’t work, but it’s not because of the inherent flaws of the premise. If Superman is supposed to be god-like, how can a rich billionaire playboy with fancy gadgets supposed to go toe-to-toe against him? That’s like a fight between Godzilla and a Care Bear. As unfair as it can be, I don’t take issues with how they could fight, or why they would fight. There’s material out there that has already covered this territory well, like the graphic novel, The Dark Knight Returns, and even the video-game, Injustice. That video-game deals with a Superman who stops caring for the rules and simply takes over the world, pitting Batman against him. Batman v Superman does draw on some of these potential dangers that Superman poses. At one point, Batman tells Alfred, “He has the power to wipe out the human race. Even if there’s a one percent chance that he is our enemy, we have to take it as an absolute certainty.” If a Care Bear had to rely on brains and ingenuity to take on Godzilla, that would be one hell of a fight.
There is a rich well of ethical questions to draw upon. Some of the moments of the first trailer showcased images and soundbites involving people worshiping Superman as a deity, and others reviling him as a false god. The film includes a lot of talking heads discussing the existential threat that Superman poses for the human race. Neil DeGrasse Tyson points out at one point that Superman’s mere existence is like a paradigm shift akin to the heliocentric model destroying the geocentric model. If we aren’t alone in the universe, that means we really aren’t special. If Superman were really here, we would be at his mercy.
The screenwriters have done their homework and are at least aware of the juicy nuggets of ethical dilemmas posed by a world inhabited by Superman. But the film has no idea how to actually build on an idea and pursue it within the confines of the story. Having a soundbite of Charlie Rose asking a question isn’t enough. If the story is aware of the god-complex of Superman, how does Superman actually feel about this? He didn’t seem to care about Metropolis getting destroyed in Man of Steel; he even shared a kiss with Lois Lane in the ruins of its destruction. How does Superman feel about being a god? Is he modest? Does he care about the statue built in his image? How about when a protestor defaces the statue with the words “FALSE GOD”? Is he like, “Nah man, it’s cool. I didn’t like that statue, anyway,” or does he secretly think, “I’m going to go Zeus on his ass and fry that sonuvabitch.”?
The film attempts to emotionally compensate by having Superman’s mother give him some advice on what to do. Martha Kent’s advice to Clark is just awful. Just awful. When the movie has an (extremely rare) emotional moment in which Clark is confused about his feelings, she tells him “Be their hero, Clark. Be their angel, be their monument, be anything they need you to be… or be none of it. You don’t owe this world a thing. You never did.” What kind of advice is that, given the state of the world and Superman? Be their dictator, be their god, or do whatever you want? That’s a world-changing decision, and you shouldn’t act so casual about it. It’s like getting advice on prom night, “Wear a condom. Don’t mess up your lives. Or don’t. Hey, do whatever you want.”
There is no momentum building an idea from one scene to the next. Each good idea is mentioned briefly, and never heard from again. And given that the film has a sprawling run time of two hours and thirty-three minutes, you’d expect that a good portion of the film would at least deal with the conflict between Batman and Superman. Rather, the film is about 20% Batman vs Superman, and 80% vague hints to the dawn of a league of justice or something. Oh, and about 25% of these incredibly vague references are told through Batman’s dream sequences. Batman is not only a playboy vigilante billionaire, you can add bat-prophet to his resume. Would that make him a vampire…?
The pacing in this film is broken. Of those two and a half hours, the first two hours contain isolated scenes of red herrings and muddled plotting, while the last half hour is nonstop action. None of those first two hours really build any anticipation or excitement for the climax. It gets to its end like a lawnmower racing with a brick stuck in its engine. When it finally reaches the action climax, it goes all out in an attempt to make up for lost excitement. But it fails to excite. The action is stretched out like a Dragonball Z barrage of punches over the course of five episodes. There’s frankly not much meaning in a demigod fighting a giant lizard monster.
Apparently, the trailers didn’t think it to be much of a spoiler to reveal the giant lizard monster. Of course, it’s not really going to be Batman v Superman, it’s going to be Batman AND Superman teaming up to fight a giant lizard monster. Not only does this detract from the core conflict of the movie, it actually sucks out every worthwhile ethical point the movie earlier tried to bring up. Lex Luthor early on indicates that he wants to develop a kryptonite-weapon as a deterrent to keep Superman in check. So how exactly does Lex benefit from unleashing a giant lizard monster upon the Earth? That’s not brilliant, that’s just chaotically stupid. It makes Kevin Spacey’s Lex Luthor look like a mastermind in comparison. And remember, that guy wanted to make a flying Kryptonite continent a prime real estate property, or something like that.
The movie is in desperate need of a recut. Even though this was about three years in the making, it feels like a first draft. Maybe what could explain the mess is that Warner Bros. is attempting to jump on The Avengers multi-heroed bandwagon. Ever since the success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Warner Bros. has been frantically scrambling to launch a Justice League movie off the ground. But while Marvel took time to build each character’s storyline from solo films to weave into the larger tapestry, Batman v Superman tries to start at the other end. They are beginning with the completed tapestry which will build to smaller threads. Storybuilding doesn’t work like that. This film builds off of the weak foundation of Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel, and tries to make this thing carry the weight of a new Batman, a new Wonderwoman, gritty Aquaman, rebooted Flash, and some Cyborg-thing. This movie is as bloated as Galactus’s digestive system.