There are different types of filmmakers.
There are filmmakers who embrace the culture of cinema, the history of cinema and the full breadth and width of what the cinematic world means. These are the Scorseses and the Tarantinos and the Coens of the world among many others.
There are filmmakers who are storytellers, big and small, whose films embody storytelling even in the most minor details. These are the Chaplins and the Hitchcocks and the Spielbergs of the world.
Of course, there are many other "types" of filmmakers and many other filmmakers we could consider.
Zack Snyder is a visual filmmaker, a filmmaker less concerned with the words on the page and more concerned with the authenticity in the world that he creates with stark visuals and an immersive design that practically demands that you watch it even when every fiber of your being is telling you to turn away.
Don't make the mistake of entering the theater for Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice expecting to travel a journey through the culture and/or history of superheroes. You will be gravely disappointed.
Don't make the mistake of entering the theater for Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice expecting to become enchanted by or engrossed in a story or a character. Again, you will leave the theater disappointed.
Drop the agenda. Drop the pre-conceived notions about the Superman you grew up with, who is only vaguely glimpsed here. Drop the pre-conceived notions about Batman, though on some weird drug-addled level perhaps the Christopher Nolan universe may have prepared you for this world, a Zack Snyder envisioned world that is darker and bleaker and less cartoonish and more real worldish.
That's the thing. Isn't it? We escape into the world of superheroes precisely because that world allows us to escape the bullshit of our everyday existence. That world allows us to forget about our fucked up lives and fucked up jobs and fucked up relationships and fucked up communities. Snyder is, essentially, saying "Fuck that." Seriously.
If you thought Man of Steel was too dark for the DC universe or the superhero realm, then there's a good chance that Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice will trigger a case of Cinematic Affective Disorder, a known psychiatric disorder triggered by exposure to too much prolonged darkness.
Indeed, in this case, 154 solid minutes of superhero-tinged apocalyptic darkness.
The only dawn in Dawn of Justice is our own awareness that this film is, in fact leading somewhere and that, in fact, Snyder has been tasked with the nearly impossible task of planting the seeds for the Justice League universe and in ways big and small that coming reality is referenced throughout the film.
While Christopher Nolan's Batman use was dipped in the darkness of an otherwise heroic light, in Snyder's world this light has been smashed to smithereens and even our superheroes seem both less super and less heroic. It is possible, maybe even likely, to argue against the film's central element of pitting Batman and Superman against one another and to argue that doing so violates the very history upon which both superheroes are founded.
In a world where the two leading candidates for a major political party's nomination for President can trade off insults about wives like third graders on an elementary school playground, it's not too far-fetched to believe that two men held up as among the most powerful in the world would have an awfully hard time peacefully co-existing with one another and working cooperatively.
Again, Snyder's world is as much Real World v. Fantasy as it is Batman v. Superman.
In this film, Batman (Ben Affleck) views Superman (Henry Cavill) through a jaded lens courtesy of Superman's battle against Zod at the end of Man of Steel that resulted in the death of friends of Batman. He's concerned about that chance, even if it's only 1%, that Superman might turn against his new home. Superman, on the other hand, perhaps realistically sees Batman as dangerous to himself and others, perhaps super yet not particularly heroic in nature.
Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg) is here to exploit this simmering conflict in a way that feels both jarring and yet strangely relevant in today's political scene.
The story that unfolds, and I use that word "story" somewhat loosely here, is definitely secondary to all the seeds that are being planted that are slated to unfold in the coming months and years.
If I were to compare Batman v Superman to another cinematic experience, it might be the feeling one has gotten one of the first halves of any number of overly long and pointlessly drawn out trilogies turned into quadrilogies such as Hunger Games or Divergent or others. Batman v Superman feels like a bridge and we can only hope that it's going to lead us to somewhere.
Batman v Superman begins with a dark night scene that has been played out numerous times before, yet it's a scene that never fails to impact me. From there, we are thrust into a revisiting of the scene that ended Man of Steel yet viewed from a different perspective - that of Bruce Wayne and others in, perhaps coming as a surprise, Metropolis. Of course, we will eventually learn that this Superman yet this introduction will always be in the back of our minds as we entertain, in a way brought vividly to life here, the troubling reality that Superman is possessing of seemingly unlimited powers and has a knack for doing seemingly unlimited collateral damage while displaying them in the name of good. Hollly Hunter is particularly effective here as a Senator who questions whether or not Superman should be held accountable for this damage.
Across the harbor, a toiled and troubled Bruce Wayne/Batman is growing increasily jaded after twenty years of fighting crime and evildoers. With his similarly jaded butler, Alfred (Jeremy Irons), he's taken to branding the bad guys he captures in a very literal way before sending them off to an ugly fate in prison.
Snyder along with screenwriters Chris Terrio and David S. Goyer seems to buy into the critical assumption that a one-on-battle between the two superheroes would inevitably be one-sided toward Superman and the playing field is leveled in a way that is simple yet makes sense.
Despite drawing skepticism upon his casting as the caped crusader, Ben Affleck is one of the highlights of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. Affleck, despite being saddled with rather fundamental narrative, is grizzled and worn and more than a little bit of a hater and a womanizer. Affleck takes the character places and creates depth where he's been given very little depth to work with despite the fact he's on the screen a good majority of the time.
The same cannot be said for Henry Cavill, whom I found unimpressive in Man of Steel and whom I find just as unimpressive here. Cavill is also given very little narrative to work with here, though he adds very little if anything to the equation. He is here to look chiseled and, in that fundamental task, he at least succeeds.
Amy Adams is charged with portraying a thinly drawn and inconsistently written Lois Lane, a woman simultaneously portrayed as a woman of strength and independence while also being rescued in scene after scene. Adams's chemistry with Cavill is non-existent, though given the lack of detail given to their relationship it's not particularly devastating here.
The presence of Jesse Eisenberg here as Lex Luthor is a bit of dilemma. I enjoyed Eisenberg's take on the character, though it doesn't feel like it was integrated well into the fabric of the film. It is the closest the film has to a cartoonish element, yet it's that cartoonish element that feels out of place even though Eisenberg's performance itself is fresh and creative.
As is no secret, Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) makes an appearance here. The appearance here feels more functional in nature, more a "have to" than a presence that actually serves the story. It's not bad, not by any means, and Gadot herself is another one of the film's highlights. Diane Lane and Laurence Fishburne show up in brief yet satisfying supporting performances.
Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice isn't a wholly satisfying film, yet I'm not convinced Snyder was aiming for a wholly satisfying cinematic experience here. This is, after all, simply the dawning of a cinematic experience and the dawn always leads to something brighter. It's not a film I would necessarily say I always "liked," but when did "liking" a film become criteria upon which to critically analyze it? I didn't "like" Schindler's List, but I would regard it as one of the greatest films ever made. Heck, I don't "like" a good majority of the Coen Brothers films, yet I'll defend them until the day I die.
It's hard, and impossible for me, to not admire the artistic integrity behind creating a darker, grittier and more realistic superhero universe in which the most powerful people are just as fucked up and flawed as the rest of us and where we actually have to contemplate the collateral damage that comes with every choice that we make. While I may wish that more attention had been given to narrative and more complex characters developed, the simple truth is that Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is kind of wonderful in a steampunk meets industrial punk sort of way.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic