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Saturday
Mar262016

Review: Batman v Superman (aka the Dawn of Wonder Woman)

This review originally appeared in Nathaniel's column at Towleroad

Just over a hundred years ago the movie serial was born. The stories were divided up into small chapters and kids would return each week to the movie theater to see how the cliffhanger endings were resolved. And then they’d watch the feature presentation. Cut to: March, 2016. Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is now open in theaters. There’s no serial preceding it but it is one. While Warner Bros, the studio that owns the DC heroes, has several superhero shows on television and stresses that they’re unrelated to the movies, the lines are ever blurrier betwen the two mediums. In fact, Batman and Superman actually both had movie serials in the 1940s. The most popular movies seventy years later are all what you’d call “franchises”. That’s code name for a very expensive serial which doesn’t air weekly but annually. And you have to see them in movie theaters.

With serials/franchises/TV shows you’re perpetually aware that there will be another episode. So the heroes are never really in danger; contractually they’ll be back next episode/season. But let’s not leap tall buildings in a single bound into the future. Is Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice a worthy movie or satisfying episode on its own?

Spoiler alert: It’s not. Many reasons why come after the jump...

Just what you always wanted in your superhero movies. Politics and Regret!

Batman v Superman begins, as anyone who loves good economical storytelling feared it might, by rehashing Batman’s origin story. You know it by heart already. It’s become the sisyphean orphan-making tragedy of pop culture. Filmmakers will continue to make us watch Thomas and Martha Wayne die over and over and over again on a grim-reaping loop. Once the new film is done rehashing that, it moves into a lengthy “previously on” segment focusing on Man of Steel (2013) which was itself another big screen rehash of Superman‘s own excessively familiar origin story. With those two things out of the way in the first, oh, five hours of this interminable movie, it’s free to tell a new story.

What follows is a series of events in which Superman (stone-faced Henry Cavill) and Lois Lane (weary Amy Adams) get into trouble, as they do, and evil genius Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg) preys on Batman’s (grim, greying Ben Affleck) natural pessimism. He plots to turn them against each other for a battle royale. 

What Lex doesn’t expect and what we probably wouldn’t had we not seen clips and trailers is that it’s not so much a nonstop battle as a repeat stare down, both actors trying to out-scowl each other in the Depressive Sweepstakes of Superhero Angst & Self Loathing.

Batman doesn’t need much of a push to get there, it being in his nature. But Director Zack Snyder and star Henry Cavill continue to fundamentally misrepresent and misunderstand Superman as a cultural icon. The original superhero is far closer to the corny retro goodness and ‘be your best self’ optimism of Captain America (fully realized and true to his essence, with no small effort, by Marvel Studios and the exceptional Chris Evans, perfectly cast). But Zach Snyder and Warner Bros are still trusting that the current obsession with anti-heroes is the way to go. That trust is misplaced.

the single greatest photo from the set of Man of Steel

The movie’s plot hinges on the destruction of Metropolis from the end of Man of Steel and clues us in that thousands of people died in the battle offscreen (via all those falling city buildings). Making moviegoers focus on civilian casualties in a fantasy, unless it's by way of the heroes trying to prevent them, is a self-sabotaging move. As a result, every cataclysmic moment in the fight sequences that follow, the money shots of superhero films if you will, has you adding up possible deaths occurring out of frame from every hurtled weapon, falling structure, or giant explosion.  With both of our heroes gloomy duds, the color self-consciously drained out of the picture (as if to say, “we’re more serious than simpleminded comic books for kids!”), endless ponderous shots and slow-motion details as if each scene is the climax, and distracting nonsensical dream sequences that are shot the same way as the rest of the picture, this is one sad sad movie.

 All that miserablism AND it forces the audience to confront its communal love of visual effects disaster porn? The result is that Batman v Superman is a stupendous overachievement in the arena of boner killing. It should but it doesn’t help that all three leads (Affleck, Cavill, Adams) get shirtless scenes or that the hyper performative masculine costuming wouldn’t be out of place if Nasty Pig had a cosplay line… with armor.

It’s left to the supporting cast to liven things up. And, to be fair, they try. Holly Hunter is terrific as a no bullshit Senator who is nervous about the superheroes but even more suspicious of Lex Luthor. Her verbal duels with Jesse Eisenberg are riveting. Eisenberg tries his damndest, too, albeit by playing Superman’s most famous arch enemy as if he’s The Riddler by way of Batman’s Rogues Gallery. Finally, and most importantly, there’s Gal Gadot as the long-awaited Amazon superheroine. It's a great relief that she’s magnetic -- you want her leading the picture rather than popping up here and there -- but she doesn’t have much “acting” to do just yet. We'll find out if she can carry her own movie next year.

Just over a hundred hours into this depressing movie, Wonder Woman is born. Figuratively speaking. (Can you believe we’ve never had a Wonder Woman on the big screen before?) Her arrival is telegraphed in multiple scenes where she appears as a mysterious goddess in evening wear. We are blissfully spared an Origin Story (for now). Even the heretofore unremarkable but bombastic score by Hans Zimmer (in collaboration with Junkie XL who scored Mad Max Fury Road last year) knows that this is the moment people will remember. The music is suddenly energized rather than bombastically sour, shifting keys into something abruptly sharp, even taunting, if you’ve dared to fall asleep. (If so, no one blames you).

the big audience moment, fans seeing DC's big 3 sharing the screen for the first time

But just as the movie comes to life — she’s a wonder, Wonder Woman  — it’s time to wrap up. The truth is that you don’t even need Superman’s x-ray vision to see this movie’s true nature. Batman may still wear a mask but with Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice they’re not even trying to hide the movie’s true identity. This is the painfully obvious midseason tryout of The Justice League Show (using Man of Steel as its retrofitted pilot). The first full season is coming to a theater near you on November 17th, 2017. This movie even takes time out to introduce Aquaman, Cyborg, and The Flash in fan service bits that are alright but so awkwardly placed that they throw the movie’s lack of momentum into even sharper relief.

Origin stories are the dullest so it’s safe to skip this movie. Especially since, beyond Wonder Woman’s arrival, you’ve basically seen it all before in other Batman and Superman and even team up movies (see: anything from Marvel Studios who are so much better at this game). Even the final monstrous threat in the movie feels like a direct lift from The Incredible Hulk. If you’re going to rip off a superhero movie, should you really choose one that no one likes all that much?

"The Justic League" can’t help but be better in 2017!”

 I found myself thinking with the sort of dutiful pre-sold ticket brainwashing the studio counts on when funding these efforts. Or at least that’s how Batman himself would see it. I’d prefer to think of it as optimism. That’s something Superman himself would endorse if he were the real deal and not a manic depressive alien from a dead planet.

GradeD
Oscar Chances: Unlikely since Man of Steel wasn't their bag. Unless the Academy's love of Batman convinces them to honor the visual effects or sound.

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Reader Comments (31)

Not really planning to see this, but I'm fascinated that the reviews have been SO savage/exasperated, yet audience response seems... okay? It apparently has a B CinemaScore right now, although of course that's polling people who were already invested enough to see it opening weekend. Critics and audiences don't always agree, of course, but this feels like an especially big departure, especially given all the critiques of the film's incoherence, slow pace, etc.

March 26, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterDave S.

Nat: They're not going to give a VFX nod to this thing. Based on directors, actors and writers, the one's with the strongest chances of something worthwhile are Suicide Squad and (if anything past mid 2017 even gets made) The Flash. Wonder Woman has Gal Gadot having to deliver a Jason Fuchs script with Chris Pine as her love interest. Even Martin Scorsese would balk at those odds, let alone a B-list director most acclaimed for a biopic, a genre critics are often too soft on. Aquaman has Jason Momoa and Amber Heard as Aquaman and Mera (oh bleep, that's going to be such a charisma vacuum that it's going to make Wonder Woman's romance scenes look like It Happened One Night in comparison), directed by James Wan and written by friends of Wan and Snyder. Note: Even if the post 2017 stuff gets made, I'd bet that if Suicide Squad is commercially AND critically successful? You'll be seeing Wonder Woman hastily re-edited into a Cheetah or Ares movie, Justice League turned into "Apokalips Invades Part 1 and 2", The Flash into Captain Cold and the Rogues, Aquaman into Ocean Master and Cyborg into Deathstroke. If I were cynical, I'd almost say that would be giving Zack Snyder the keys to the ACTUAL candy store he's been wanting to let loose with from the beginning and that that back-up plan is most of the reason why Suicide Squad is positioned this early.

March 26, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterVolvagia

Dave,

1. Cinemascore is extremely unreliable, a farce that the internet has somehow convinced people of

2. If we pretend it does matter, a B cinemascore is actually mediocre. It means there were many high scores but also many low scores from the sample size

March 26, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterTr

Dave S: I never entirely trust Cinema Score, but, for comparison's sake, "B" is a lower exit poll reading than all four Bayformers movies.

March 26, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterVolvagia

Well if I can't trust an arbitrary marketing tool, what CAN I trust?

March 26, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterDave S.

But anyway, I knew that was kind of a random pull, but you're right that I didn't realize how comparably low that actually was. IGN is pointing out that other B Cinemascore titles include "Catwoman" and "The Green Lantern".

March 26, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterDave S.

Well if I can't trust an arbitrary marketing tool, what CAN I trust?

LOL. Good one Dave.

Yes, i'm hearing that a B cinemascope is the audience shrugging. so I expect a huge first two weeks and then a big drop off as there'll be less repeat visits than a lot of superhero movies.

March 26, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterNATHANIEL R

Cinema Score in practice measures how much a film meets audience expectations. An A means it's what the audience wanted to see going in, while a C means that the marketing made them feel misdirected/betrayed (due to misleading trailers or whatever, even if the film is otherwise good). I think a B means 'disappointment'.

March 26, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterDietrich

Reading the first few paragraphs my contribute to the comments section is this: He didn't get out of the cock-a-doodie-car!

March 26, 2016 | Unregistered Commenter/3rtful

Amy Adams get a shirtless scene?! Nat is there a sex scene in this film or something like that?

March 26, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterMilton

I am seeing it for Holly Hunter does that make me a real actressexual.

March 26, 2016 | Unregistered Commentermark

Milton: Yep. In a bathtub. Unfortunately, because of the sludgy, ugly aesthetic, sex belongs here as much as buckets of blood belong in Salad Days. There's three moments in this, though, that will, generally, be absolutely INFAMOUS. 1. The "Both our moms are named Martha!" trivia being used to instantly get Batman and Superman to bury the hatchet. 2. Grandma Lex's Peach Tea. 3. Introducing Jimmy Olsen only to freaking murder him.

March 26, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterVolvagia

Volvagia thank you. Something tells me that all of the comments in this review, will be more riveting than the entire script of BvS:DoJ. I top will only watch this for Holly Hunter. And Gal's Wonder Woman.

March 26, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterMilton

mark it makes you a masochist for beloved actresses.

March 26, 2016 | Unregistered Commenter/3rtful

Thank you for saying that Eisenberg feels more like The Riddler than anyone else, which is such a weird scripting choice, and for singling out Hunter as delivering a pretty great performance even as she visibly doesn't want to be in this movie. And for saying Gadot is such a highlight despite how little acting she actually gets to do.

And that CinemaScore thing kind of makes sense? Like I never hated it in the theater as much as I have just thinking about it and talking about it. And even during the showing, if you leave on that big fight and the promise of more Wonder Woman, you definitely leave on a comparatively high note, if only next to the pretty forgettable (hopefully) nonsense preceding it.

March 26, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterNick T

Can we now just accept the fact that Zack Snyder just plainly fucking sucks?

March 26, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterSteven

Nathaniel, doesn't this make you nostalgic for the Tim Burton "Batman Returns" with Michelle Pheiffer? I remember when Batman and Superman movies were a bit of colourful fun. What a shame DC versions have been turned into this "artistic" dark vision.

March 26, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterLadyEdith

Saw it on Thursday. Probably need another viewing to settle my feelings but man was this all over the place. In saying that, I don't think what Snyder was TRYING to do was inherently wrong. While I hated seeing Bruce Wayne's parents getting killed again (and the bull shit contrivance it fosters later in the film), I actually thought seeing the destruction of Metropolis from Bruce's perspective was one of the stronger story points of the film. It's the one moment in the film that gives Batman's motive for wanting to take down Superman some depth.

Hell, the whole question of how Superman could fit into the real world - and the ramifications of his actions - is actually something worth exploring. Unfortunately, Snyder is woefully out of depth in terms of telling a coherent story; and there are too many plot-points, characters and fan-service moments thrown in that muddy the waters. Again, I don't think SOME of the things the film was trying to be was wrong (some of it definitely was)... It's just the wrong person was tasked with executing those ideas.

March 26, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterDaniel Armour

I didn't hate the entire film, but I *did* hate the final forty minutes or so. That entire battle sequence with the freakin' troll monster thing? What the hell was that? Was that a famous beast that we were meant to know about as lore or just some random ugly monster the WETA people made up out of fuzzy script descriptions? So hideous and who the hell could follow that final action scene? Thank heavens for Wonder Woman and her lasso. Ultimately the film really did feel like a filler franchise flick. We all know what Batman and Supes are gonna end up fighting for the same team.

Zack Snyder is a c-grade director at best who lucked into big franchise properties and somehow became an a-grade director. He's even worse than Michael Bay. Snyder's best movie remains to this day his surprisingly effective and well-done DAWN OF THE DEAD remake.

March 26, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterGlenn Dunks

Glenn: That was supposed to be *SPOILER* Doomsday, the monster that originally "killed" Superman.


This was Zach Snyder tries to be David Lynch and gets reflective so MORE slow-mo and MORE sfx. I can't believe how they screwed up the reason that Batman and Superman would ever fight, rather than a clash of ideologies (the vigilante vs. the boy scout) we go to the old tired well of blackmail. And what the heck was up with Eisenberg? Did he lose out to Leto for the Joker or something and decided to project it on to this movie? :/

March 26, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterSanty C.

its so strange to me that Zach Snyder started out so strong (Dawn of the Dead) and looked like someone who really knew where to put a camera and how to build momentum and keep audiences hooked for a whole running time and then quickly became such a bad director.

it still weirds me out.

March 27, 2016 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

Henry Cavill: so beautiful and yet so, so BLANK.

March 27, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterSteph

its so strange to me that Zach Snyder started out so strong (Dawn of the Dead) and looked like someone who really knew where to put a camera and how to build momentum and keep audiences hooked for a whole running time and then quickly became such a bad director.

it still weirds me out.

Sounds like you never read an interview with him. Directors tell on themselves all the time especially the talkative ones. He was never in the running to be anything more than another Michael Bay.

March 27, 2016 | Unregistered Commenter/3rtful

I do ask that people not jump to conclusions about the people who live in both Georgia and North Carolina. Both states are currently controlled by an extreme fringe of the radical right wing of the Republican party, and their decisions DO NOT reflect the wants and needs of the citizens of their states.

March 27, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterTyler

LadyEdith: Unlike what Teo says, my view amounts to: There are great movies with Batman's name or nickname in the title (Returns, Begins, The Dark Knight), but there hasn't been a great live-action Batman adaptation. Will there ever be? The story of the comics version of Batman, when you get down to it, is not about "Darkness! No Parents!" (Snyder, Nolan & Burton) or police corruption (Nolan) or the flashy villains (Burton & Schumacher), but ultimately about a flawed man trying to build and maintain a family out of whatever spare parts come his way. Schumacher gets closest to that (as in he's the only one you could even argue tried it), but it's a bad version of it (that casting, for a Robin origin, basically kills it) and it's still focused too much on the villains.

March 27, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterVolvagia

I'm curious about Ben Affleck as Batman but the top reason i'll watch this is Holly Hunter. I miss her so much on the big screen !!! And i guess Diane Lane just has a cameo in this and Adams is just here for the paycheck so i just hope Hunter's appearances will keep me awake for two hours and a half !

March 27, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterClément@Paris

Volvagia,

That's awfully reductive. Batman is decades-old. There are parts of that history that deal with the loss of his parents and corruption plenty.

Just because your favorite version of Batman hasn't made it to the screen doesn't mean the character hasn't been properly translated.

I can guarantee we will never see a more accurate portrayal than what we saw in the Nolan trilogy.

March 27, 2016 | Unregistered Commentertonytr

I think Nolan's trilogy has made a case for why Burton's movies are wonderful as they are and we lost something when he was no longer making them.

March 28, 2016 | Unregistered Commenter/3rtful

The movie is a giant-sized mess, and over-stuffed to say the least. Like Man of Steel, it's first 10-15 minutes are actually well-done and seemed to promise a better movie than what follows. Like Man of Steel, there are a few great visual moments. Like Man of Steel, it collapses under the weight of it's own bloated and problematic structure and Snyder's desire to be as "cool" as possible. Wonder Woman is a highlight because the movie tells you she is in all caps with her (admittedly awesome) score theme. Jeremy Irons gives the best performance in the film with nothing to work with.
The movie literally stops itself in it's tracks at one point to show what in essence are three teasers for future Justice League projects.
I remain intrigued by the prospect of a Ben Affleck controlled Batman movie, but otherwise I'm ready for Warner Brothers to scrap current DC-Verse plans and start again at ground zero after executives are forced to watch the entire MCU canon.

March 28, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterTheCinescape

The CineScape: You mean, after being forced to read All-Star Superman, Batgirl: Year One and Robin: Year One back to back to back?

March 28, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterVolvagia

It is frustrating when having endless possibilities (and money) studios end up doing movies that are no more than rubbish. Particularly, I feel there is a very distressing trend in Hollywood to turn what are supposed to be nice action movies into these grandiose debates about the big issues of life. Seriously, action flicks are not the place for this, there are already genres that deal with it. Hence, we viewers end up watching this dull and cliches movies drained of all the action.

August 26, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterMr Charles

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