I finally got around to seeing the hugely hyped Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice last night and was thrilled to write a review. Be forewarned, however, that unlike my other reviews there are major spoilers below if you haven’t seen the movie yet, given how closely a lot of the surprises and ending tied into my overall reaction.
You have been warned! Here we go!
As much as I’ve enjoyed seeing the Marvel Cinematic Universe hit it out of the park with one great movie after another of late, I’ve been just as disappointed with what Warner Bros. has done with each DC movie flop after another. A shame really, when one considers that arguably the three most iconic superheroes of all time are in their stable- Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman. And yet the studio just can’t seem to get a Superman movie right with either Superman Returns or Man of Steel, they haven’t been able to get a Wonder Woman movie made at all, and Green Lantern was so terrible it’s being rebooted after one try. The only Warner Bros. comic book hit of the last decade was of course Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy which, although successful, was not created to build into anything else and finished four years ago.
Despite not being able to build any momentum with their individual superhero movies while no doubt being spurned by Marvel Studios’ many successes, Warner Bros. decided instead to stop tinkering with each toy and dump them all into the same bin. In one movie, we get Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, Lex Luthor, Doomsday, Lois Lane, Alfred, as well as countless other supporting characters and tons of seeds for future movies. While Marvel released five films before Avengers, here all the universe building takes place in one. The movie is crammed with storylines, noise, flashing lights, special effects and runs at a whopping 153 minutes. In other words, we have skipped the steady build of the overture and jumped straight to the crescendo.
Factor in the hugely controversial decision to cast Ben Affleck as Batman and then add Jesse Eisenberg as Lex Luthor, and you have an automatic recipe for disaster.
Or do you?
Let me state again that this movie had absolutely no business being good. I walked into the theater having been completely convinced for a whole year that it would be terrible. And yet I found myself pleasantly surprised on a number of levels. First and foremost, the aforementioned Batfleck is actually… not bad! The movie begins by giving us what is, in my opinion, the best cinematic origin scene for Batman ever.
Yes, I said EVER. Better than Nolan’s, better than Burton’s.
Affleck actually plays the character well, too, and much to my surprise, doesn’t look or sound ridiculous at any point with the mask or without it. This for me was hugely impressive, given that no actor who has ever played the role has ever been able to pull off both Bruce Wayne and Batman. He doesn’t overact the grim and gritty qualities of the character, nor does he try to manufacture scariness. He lets the part speak for itself.
His counterpart, Henry Cavill, was equally good in his acting and unlike Affleck has the luxury of having been cast in a superhero role as an unknown. As a result, when I see Cavill now I don’t see an actor playing Superman, I see Superman. He simply looks and acts the part, and is visibly much more comfortable as the Man of Steel in his second time out as the character. After two movies in the red cape and ‘S’ shield, I will go out on a limb and say Henry Cavill is my favorite actor ever to play Superman. Christopher Reeve will always be Superman in the same way that Sean Connery will always be James Bond, but Cavill is perfect for the part and has filled the boots more than adequately, in my opinion.
Both Batman and Superman and their supporting casts are put back into the roles we have come to be familiar with for each of them here, and the film is better for it. Clark Kent is once again a reporter at the Daily Planet, using his talents as a writer for social justice. Amy Adams’ Lois Lane is a reporter hunting assignments while showing a tenderness from now being in a relationship with Superman, something absent from Man of Steel which it badly needed. Jeremy Irons plays a fantastic Alfred Pennyworth, with the compassion and fatherly care which exuded from Michael Caine’s performance but with a tad more class and sophistication. Perry White is even more convincing as a newspaper editor- at no point did it ever cross my mind that Lawrence Fishburne was the same actor who played Morpheus in the Matrix trilogy or any other role. Every character was back in the spot they have occupied for the better part of the last eight decades, and as we know very well, when the supporting cast is strong, the leads are that much stronger.
The movie takes its time to build to the action scenes and the titular battle and has been criticized for it by a number of reviews. I personally didn’t mind it one bit, but then again, this is coming from a guy who appreciates black and white, as well. Rather than jump into the action headfirst, we get to know this Batman and how he differs from other cinematic Batmen, we catch up with each of the aforementioned characters and where they’re currently at, and even get some apologizing for Man of Steel’s climactic battle- Batman’s entire motivation. We also get to know the third hero of the piece, Wonder Woman, albeit briefly. By the time all three team up to fight a common threat at the end, it actually feels like a pretty nice payoff.
And speaking of which, Wonder Woman’s appearance in this movie, her first ever on the big screen, was absolutely fantastic. Although I was worried about how she would be portrayed her first time out, Snyder and company actually seem to have a pretty good grasp of the character. She is elegant in her secret identity, beautiful and strong but not sexualized. She wields a sword and shield but not with graphic violence (at least in this cut of the movie). Even Gal Gadot’s Israeli accent was fantastic for the part, given that Wonder Woman’s first language is supposed to be ancient Greek! The approach to the character worked on every level for me.
In a movie about the formation of the Justice League, having solid portrayals of the Big Three is a must. Thankfully, that’s what we got.
Despite all that the movie got right, it is still glaringly obvious that this movie is being made only by Hollywood, not Hollywood and DC Comics, something which is desperately needed. As such, we once again have superheroes who don’t care at all about loss of life. I can buy Batman’s violent interrogation of criminals but I cannot buy him running over criminals with his car, which seemed to happen every other scene. Fans repeatedly complained about Superman’s ambivalence to injuring civilians when fighting General Zod in Man of Steel which the studio endeavored to change for this film, but then we have Batman repeating this same mistake. Even Nolan’s ultra-dark Batman, whose Gotham City teetered on the brink of anarchic war zone, never killed.
In the climactic battle with Doomsday at the end of the film, Superman heroically sacrifices himself to stab Doomsday in the heart with a Kryptonite spear, the only known way to harm the creature. But seeing Superman fly with reckless abandon and an expression of pure hate as he kills Doomsday could and should have been handled much differently. Did Superman, or the audience for that matter, ever know if Doomsday was alive, or some kind of lifeless organism? If alive, an acknowledgement of some kind of moral struggle over killing should have been made. For me, superheroes should always be depicted as real people but also as role models. More care needs to be taken in moments like this.
Finally, although not Jesse Eisenberg’s fault, as his acting was actually very convincing, the decision to make Lex Luthor little more than a maniacal Mark Zuckerburg from The Social Network weakened the movie. It almost felt as if the studio was too nervous to have two Superman villains as the antagonists, and wanted to pepper in a little Joker for good measure.
There are two moments in this movie where minor characters are shown to be praying before a disaster. The first was Bruce Wayne’s business partner, who before the skyscraper he was standing in collapsed, said out loud, “O Lord, have mercy on my soul.” The second was a woman at the Pentagon who crossed herself after the decision was made to launch a nuclear missile. These two scenes were likely included in the film to contribute to the overall theme of man vs. gods, in some ways carried over from Man of Steel. Unlike the last film, however, there was not as much a “Superman is Jesus” message pushed into the viewer’s face, but more of an asking of “Who are these people?” and “If they are god-like beings, what does that make us?”
Martha Kent tells her son to “Be their hero, be their angel…” as that was what the people of Earth began making Superman out to be. In Mexico, Superman is shown rescuing a child from a burning building, angelically floating down to return the child to its family, then being mobbed by onlookers. Instead of trying to grab him or hug him, however, the crowd begins show reverence to Superman. Hands reach out to touch him, yes, but like hands reaching out to touch a holy object. The people remove their hats and bow their heads to Superman. He is revered as a demigod by the people, if not a god.
By contrast, the character of Lex Luthor also looks at Superman as a demigod, but instead of reverencing and thanking him, wants to kill him. He is threatened by the power of an almighty being because he is not able to control it, and loathes that now his own life has been put in a different context. His reaction is the reaction of the Pharisees to Jesus while the crowds thronged about Him: the people saw Him as their Savior; they saw Him only as a threat to their prestige and authority.
When I was young I was absolutely dumbfounded as to how one could see a blind man healed and take exception, whether because of healing on the Sabbath day, or because a new authority was being affirmed, or for any reason. Wouldn’t a human being’s natural reaction to such an event be one of praise? The reality is that as human beings we have two sides to our coin. Depending on which side faces up, we go through our lives reacting to God in one way or the other. If we open ourselves to God’s love, mercy, and healing compassion, we respond to Him in an accepting way when we encounter Him, welcoming Him into our lives as a desert would welcome water. If however, we live our lives pursuing our own desires exclusively, whether they be status, wealth, sex, acceptance, etc, we see God as a threat, and not an answer.
In a way, this has always been a trait of humanity when encountering pure, absolute truth. We know it’s there, and we know it’s real. We can either accept it or reject it, but rejecting it carries with it the constant struggle within ourselves to run from it. A very interesting angle for a story about mythical heroes.
I should also note that, in a less highly theological point, I love movies that show people legitimately praying, as it just seems that prayer is acknowledged less and less with dignity and respect in movies nowadays. Good stuff.
This movie was nowhere near perfect. There were plot holes large enough to drive the Batmobile through, and still more of the same problems that have held back the DC movie franchise for years now. Even so, as a comic book uber geek, I just watched a movie that had Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman in it. By the last half hour I didn’t care that the movie wasn’t perfect, it was just good enough to be an incredibly fun ride. Count me in for Justice League.
A very nice, positive review of the film. I like your point about how some reject the obvious signs of the divine for purely self-centered reasons. If only Eisenberg’s performance hadn’t sucked much of the joy out of the film for me, I might have been kinder to it. Still, I’ll be first in line for Justice League.
Thanks for the comment! Great to have you. Let me clarify that for some it is indeed an intentional rejection, but for a lot of folks it’s something they don’t even realize is happening. In other words, our own appetites creep into more and more of our thought process and before you know it, God is nowhere to be found. So a “rejection” yes, but it’s often a very subtle, gradual, and maybe even unintentional one. It might even be accurate to say that this is not unlike the five foolish virgins of Matthew’s parable, who did not reject the Bridegroom when he came, but were asleep, to which the Lord said to “Watch therefore…” (25:13)
I really believe that a lot of complacency with religion nowadays happens because of this: what I like to call “entertaining ourselves to sleep,” as opposed to outright antagonism. But then again, I’d say I’m a pretty glass-half-full kind of guy. 😉
Again, great having you!
It’s funny, a few hours after you wrote this i was listening to a talk by Peter Kreeft who said much the same thing, though he didn’t reference Matthew. Sounds like with most people our approach should be “Sleepers Wake” rather than “Onward Christian Soldiers.” 🙂
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I love it!
As a fellow film/theology/comics fan, I have to say I was disappointed with BVS…more talk about the nature of God than any other major film in living memory yet all of it on such a surface level. It was like they’d decided it would be a theme, following on from MoS, but didn’t have much idea how to deal with it, so just threw a few mentions of the ‘name’ of the theme without exploring the theme itself…
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Having said all that, your blog looks great and I’ll return regularly!
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Thanks! Sorry about the delayed reply, but great having you with us!