It is now Marvel’s 10th year of building their superhero cinematic universe. Since then, there has been a lot of talk of comic-book-movie fatigue but there has been no sign of this fatigue in box office numbers, or even with critical reception of most Marvel films (Fox has had a rougher time with some of their properties (I’m looking at you, Spidey)). It is in this environment that WB & DC have come out swinging with their own cinematic universe, helmed by Zach Snyder (who took a soft swing at the DC universe with 2013’s Man of Steel), with Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. But, critically, the film has been received very poorly, starting up the eternal battle between critics and fans. Is this the first sign of comic book fatigue, or is there something really wrong with the film?
Taking place a couple of years after the events in Man of Steel, which had Superman battling General Zod all but leveling Metropolis, BvS sees Bruce Wayne, horrified by the destruction caused by Superman and vowing to stop this vigilante menace, while Superman feels largely the same way about Wayne’s Batman. To the side of this conflict is Lex Luthor, who, behind the scenes, is trying to purchase a large amount of kryptonite (which he discovered can cut General Zod, which no other material can) to be able to battle the so-called “meta-humans” who are beginning to make their presence known on Earth. This is all also during Senate hearings about the super alien with no oversight. Also, there’s Wonder Woman. Also, a splinter cell terrorist organization. One of the main complaints so far against BvS is that it is working with way too many plot lines, and it is the best argument you can throw against the film.
Aside from being bloated, though, BvS is one of the most compelling comic book films I have seen. There is a flow to this film that is almost whiplash with its cutting, taking you from scene to scene, where the audience may or may not understand what is happening. While this immediately sounds like a bad thing for such a mainstream film, it also serves another purpose (I think), which is to distance itself, tonally and stylistically, from what Marvel is doing with their films. The whiplash editing doesn’t seem like it’s in poor form, as much as it feels deliberate. It is reminiscent of the editing Thelma Schoonmaker does for Scorcese, specifically films like The Departed and Wolf of Wall Street, where it sometimes feels like you are dumped in the middle of a scene without proper setup, but it works to cut out expository fluff and make the films that much more compelling (note, this is not to say that the editing of BvS is anywhere near the mastery displayed in those Scorcese films, just reminiscent). Using that kind of frenetic editing for a superhero movie (which generally fall into the realm of very safe plot structure, pacing, and editing) becomes something almost assaultive, where the intertwined plot seems to be all over the place, but you can never quite fit it all together. But, it works for me, at least.
I have not seen a Marvel movie since The Avengers, and the reason is because with that film something almost ethereal happened. I felt like I could see through the movie. All the muscles and sinews that made up the insides of the plot just shone through. It all felt impossibly familiar and with that came a lack of care about the characters, the world, or what the film was trying to accomplish. And with that, the film felt like it wasn’t trying to accomplish anything. It felt like so much stuffing to keep this newly formed universe chugging along, just giving enough melodrama to keep people interested in between the big, world destroying set pieces and rounded out character arcs that tend to end right where they begin. So watching BvS I felt something strange, like I had no idea where the movie was going. Even though I obviously knew it was heading towards its giant set-piece ending, I had no idea how it was trying to get there. It was a level of interest I have generally lost for the blanket-comic-book-movie formula.
I will also argue that BvS looks stunning. Where Man of Steel felt flat and formulaic, by comparison, BvS is bursting with style and simply gorgeous shots and set design. Snyder has a strong eye and he comes at this film with the color palette of David Fincher (once again, not nearly with that mastery, though), shooting between the gutter and the opulent mansion with an eloquence that makes the film look aesthetically fluid, even with some of the choppier action scenes. The acting is fine overall, with Ben Affleck’s Batman and Jesse Eisenberg’s Lex Luthor being particular standouts. There is a pathos to Affleck’s Batman, a hinted at pain and brokenness beyond his standard ‘dead parents’ M.O., that makes his character feel like much more of a human than Bales almost monk-like Wayne. Eisenberg is having a blast as Luthor, really ratcheting up his standard anxious character with a sinister God complex that slowly bubbles to the surface, and then over the edges of the pot. Also, the soundscape of the movie is inventive and effective, even down to music choices (outside of Wonder Womans strange cock-rock guitar music during the last battle).
That leads to what I think will be the most contentious argument about BvS, the religious overtones. I have no problem admitting that Zach Snyder may not be a very smart man. I also have no problem saying that most comics are not smart, either. There are obviously exceptions to the rule, but the vast majority of comics can be boiled down to serialized, supernatural melodrama. That’s why it is interesting that Snyder has aimed at something higher, that he wants to turn this story into an allegory about the societal placement of God & Man. By stripping Batman and Superman of the heroistic traits, you allow them to be discussed as concepts (which is where people are complaining about the loss of who the characters actually are, which is accurate). It doesn’t always work and some lines are simply cringe-worthy, but this film that is acting as a tent pole for what will surely be a billion-dollar industry is swinging much higher than studio executives would assume is safe. By trimming some of the edges and fat from this film, and beefing up the script, you could probably make an indie darling about Man’s existential crisis and the search for God. As it is, the film is stuck somewhere in between theological musing, fan service, and shit blowing up.
Don't let me oversell this for you, though. BvS is a strange mashup of super heroes and an attempt at gritty realism that weaves a religious allegory through its titular heroes and the wrench, Lex Luthor. It doesn’t always work, and there are definitely things wrong: any time where obvious ‘universe building’ is happening stands out as excessive and tonally wonky, the script feels like a strange mash-up of two or three scripts, and the last half hour or so really takes the wind out of the films sails. This movie has already gotten a lot of shit from critics, while being earnestly defended by the fan base, but both seem to have it wrong. The movie is not horrible, unless you want to compare it to the template that came before it. As the movie seems to be actively trying to distance itself from that template, it will obviously fail that critical test. The movie is also not perfect by a long shot. It is sloppy at times, some decisions don’t work, and the scripts heavy-hands sometimes get in the way, but overall, this film took a chance, and it made something that is at least interesting, and is gorgeous to look at (I don't think the muted color palette is as horrible as others claim it is). If the worst thing a movie can be is mundane, then BvS is doing a lot better than most of the standard fare that is shoveled out every year. The film took a chance, got overstuffed without really getting a chance to flesh out its plot satisfactorily, and came out somewhere in the middle. If nothing else, I am at least now partially excited to see if WB & DC can iron out some of the problems that came along with this film and make an interesting series of films that tries to earnestly discuss the overpowered in society and happens when men meet what must look like Gods in this strange world.