Was there ever any realistic way this movie was going to satisfy? The mere title alone suggests a weighty and wildly ambitious undertaking. It also not-so-subtly hints at the film’s position as a launching point for a new cinematic universe for DC Comics and Warner Brothers. Iconic characters are re-introduced and portrayed by a host of new people. Oh, and Zack Snyder is back behind the camera. You see, there were plenty of reasons for apprehension.
At the same time I think “BvS” was destined to be a polarizing film. It was almost guaranteed a cynical approach from critics, many of whom proudly promote their superhero fatigue and who dislike it when a superhero movie dares to take itself seriously. And let’s be clear, this film takes itself VERY seriously. It is dark, dour, and whimsy-free. And while that has been the most popular point of criticism, for me it is a strength because “BvS” offers a nice contrast to the Marvel formula which many folks measure all superhero movies by. I welcome an alternative.
Perhaps the most interesting thing (and the most off-putting for some) is how Zack Snyder shows no interest in placating movie sensibilities. By that I mean he is clearly fixated on making a film that is devoted to its comic book roots. That makes sense of the aforementioned seriousness and the overall tone of the story and its characters. But it also accentuates the few instances where Snyder wildly misses his mark – instances where his devotion to his source material all but vanishes.
While I don’t feel his previous film “Man of Steel” was nearly as bad as many think, I still maintain that Snyder is an odd choice to entrust your entire cinematic universe to. In this case Warner Bros. entrusted over $250 million to a director known to lean heavily on spectacle often at the expense of his story. “BvS” is certainly never short on spectacle but thankfully the story is never an afterthought. In fact the opposite is true this time around. “BvS” packs a ton of story into its bulging 150 minute running time.
“BvS” uses the much maligned finale of “Man of Steel” as the story’s launching point. Ben Affleck’s Bruce Wayne was in Metropolis the day Superman and General Zod battled, destroying half of the city and killing thousands of people. 18 months later he views Superman as a global threat who needs to be dealt with. He also sees conquering Superman as a cure for his frustrations with fighting a losing battle against crime in Gotham. As for Batman, thankfully the film doesn’t make us sit through another origin story. Just a brief crash course during the opening credits.
In this universe Bruce has been Batman for 20 years (At one point Alfred, played with expected precision by Jeremy Irons, chides him by saying “You’re too old to die young”). Here Bruce is even more bruised and hardened due to several devastating events in his life. Affleck is quite good as a withdrawn, moodier Bruce Wayne tormented by dreams of his past and an inner rage that is becoming harder to control. Affleck nicely handles the character’s emotional complexities, the physicality, and the mandatory Batman growling.
Across the bay in Metropolis Superman (Henry Cavill) finds himself loved by some and despised by others. In the aftermath of the Zod incident he has become the focus of public and media scrutiny as well as the target of several government inquiries. It’s a struggle for the conflicted Kryptonian who can’t seem to balance the adoration with the disdain. His alter-ego Clark Kent still pushes stories for the Daily Planet and has grown closer with Lois Lane (Amy Adams). I still consider Cavill to be a good Superman although at times he still struggles with being a tad too stiff and emotionless.
But the film’s biggest wild card comes in the form of Jesse Eisenberg. Remember when I said Snyder shows a devotion to the comics. Well, just for a moment pretend I didn’t say that. Eisenberg plays a thirtysomething Lex Luther, the heir to his father’s fortune and most notably his company, Lexcorp. Eisenberg has some good moments but he also has several cringe-worthy and jarring deliveries. But the biggest problem is with how the character is written. Snyder and company don’t give us the shrewd, conniving businessman Lex Luther. Instead we get a version which is more loopy and manic. His similarities with the popular comic book villain are few. Perhaps it was an attempt to modernize the character. Unfortunately he often teeters between tolerable and downright annoying.
And of course there is Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman. Snyder chose to reveal her as a character early and that definitely raised the hype. I would have loved to have seen the reaction if we hadn’t been told about her role or seen her in the trailers. Inevitably some will be frustrated at her lack of screen time. Personally I loved her and aside from a few shaky line readings, Gadot exudes confidence in making Wonder Woman her own and planting herself firmly within this universe.
But how does the film bring all of these ingredients together? A popular gripe is that the story is convoluted and incoherent – that the characters are thin and their motivations are cloudy. I found “BvS” to be surprisingly coherent and pleasantly methodical with how it lays out its story. The motivations are clear although occasionally questionable. Snyder and company are deliberate in putting their pieces on the board, and while I never found it tiresome, this does add to a running time that probably should have been trimmed down.
And then there is the visual presentation – the meat and potatoes of any Zack Snyder film. “BvS” gives us so many fun scenes featuring these beloved pop culture icons. Snyder’s crafty eye guides Larry Fong’s fabulous cinematography from the quietest scene to the biggest action set piece. “BvS” looks consistently great at least until the very end. The action-fueled finale has a few stumbles both visually and narratively. It becomes a back-and-forth mixture of eye-popping visual effects and glaringly obvious CGI.
But perhaps most fun is spotting the places where the film pulls from or pays homage to so many signature storylines from Batman and Superman’s comic book history. Some are actually integral parts to the story while others may be found in the form of well placed Easter eggs. And of course there are hints of what’s to come in future films. Sure some of these teases are obviously wedged into the story, but that didn’t make them any less entertaining and some are quite crafty. I had too much fun with them to nitpick about their inclusion. Fan service? Certainly, but I’m fine with it.
“BvS” does have some head-scratching moments that often clash with what you know about these characters. The finale is a bit too long and visually uneven. Eisenberg’s character and performance is all over the place and a bit of a distraction. After that I’m sure if I looked hard I could find several other things to pick apart, but frankly nothing else is near the magnitude to trump my enthusiasm for this film.
The dust is still settling from the critical lambasting as many have made “Batman v Superman” their cinematic punching bag of the moment. Thankfully my experience with the film was drastically different. I had no problem following the story, understanding the motivations, or investing in the characters. I love that these heroes aren’t copy and pasted from past films. I had no problems with it being dark, serious, and humorless. I wasn’t troubled by the dream sequences, the foreshadowing, the fan service. “BvS” left me smiling and genuinely excited for where the universe is heading. Perhaps it is the naive fanboy in me, but I can’t dismiss the fun I had with this film and I love it as an alternative to the obvious Marvel blueprint. Now I’m ready to see what is next.
VERDICT – 4.5 STARS