No matter what ends up happening, Warner Bros. only have themselves to blame. They took a good, hard look at the response to Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel (2013)—the underperforming box office results, the critical revulsion, the furious and heart-broken fan reaction—and said, “Yes, we’d like more of that, please!” So three years later we return to the clumsily titled DC Extended Universe for the even more clumsily titled Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, the latest in Warner Bros’ ongoing mission to suck all the levity, fun and color from the superhero genre.
I joke, of course, but watching the film, one can’t help but be nearly suffocated by the production’s glowering sense of purpose. If the Marvel Cinematic Universe seems at times to be trapped in the Silver Age of Comics with their flashy palettes, expansive casts and enthusiastic embrace of all the silliness and absurdity that makes comic books so much fun, then the DCEU has its sights set on the late 80s when comic books “grew up” and became “important” with such revisionist masterpieces as Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen and Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns. It’s no surprise that a film so heavily informed by a period of comic books which helped popularize the term “grimdark” would itself bear upon its audience with the emotional weight of a gravitation slingshot around the sun. It’s not that BVS is serious or dark, it’s that the film isn’t interested in being anything but. The few moments of levity and humanity—best exemplified in a frankly touching scene near the beginning where Clark Kent/Superman (Henry Cavill) climbs into a bathtub with Lois Lane (Amy Adams) while fully clothed—ring hollow and superficial.
Perhaps this is why the third act introduction of Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman is easily the highlight of the film. When she appears onscreen in her Themysciran finest to the sound of a screeching heavy metal riff, it’s like the clouds parting and letting in a blessed ray of sunlight. Finally! A character who smiles in the thick of battle! Who seems like she’s having fun even in the throes of mortal combat! Her few minutes of screen-time outshine any number of preceding fights between Superman and Batman (Ben Affleck). Why are they fighting? Who cares? Their reasons are dumb, contrived and transparent: Batman is afraid of Superman being a power he can’t control, Superman needs Batman’s help to fight Lex Luthor and decides the only way he can get it is by rearranging his face.
Truthfully, despite all my grievances, I rather liked BVS. Unlike nearly all of the Marvel movies, it feels like the work of an actual filmmaker instead of a glorified television production. Many people might find the dialogue corny and overbearing, but I found it somewhat charming in a goofy Golden Age of Comics sense even at its most laughably contrived (“At a young age I learned that if God is all good he couldn’t be all-powerful and if God is all-powerful then he couldn’t be all good!”). I guess a steady diet of Jack Kirby/Stan Lee comics will do that to a guy.
I found Jesse Eisenberg’s performance as Lex Luthor inspired. I’ve heard Eisenberg’s Luthor described as “the Riddler meets the Joker,” but that was kind of the point. I know I’m in the minority here, but I never liked Gene Hackman’s Luthor. Eisenberg I could buy as a narcissistic global megalomaniac who would be threatened by the presence of a benevolent sun god. Hackman always struck me as a particularly flamboyant stock broker.
But now for the million dollar question: is Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice any good? Well, it certainly isn’t the train-wreck heralded by critics who attended advanced screenings. But it’s clumsy, overwrought and much too padded. There was no reason for the film to be two-and-a-half hours long: they could have easily lost 15-30 minutes by taking out the preposterous four dream/hallucination sequences, unneeded slow-motion and retelling of Batman’s back-story. Henry Cavill can be downright charming, but he spends the film in a perpetual woe-is-me funk, monotoning his grim and serious lines with short, clipped sentences. The action scenes could have been edited better, but they never devolve into shaky-cam hysterics.
Here’s my suggestion: ditch Snyder and screenwriter David S. Goyer and hire people who appreciate superheroes as four-colored marvels, not gloomy gods-among-men with the world on their shoulders. What the DCEU needs now more than anything is a shot of adrenaline and pure, unadulterated fun.
In short: in David Ayer we trust.