Review: Batman v Superman Is Not a Movie

By Dan Cava

March 24, 2016

If the arrival of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice tells us anything, it’s that these blockbuster, universe-serving movies have created a criteria all their own. I mean, just look at that title for a moment. It’s nearly endless, with six words, a legal conjunction, and a colon. It conjures up two classic comic book/movie franchises (or are they characters? or is there a difference?), while attempting to usher in a third. It signals in its word order and word choice both what will happen in the movie (the nature of the conflict, then the result) and what will not happen in the movie (dawn = beginning, so the story won’t completely conclude). All of that and more, just from the TITLE.

Folks, if it isn’t clear by now, we’re way outside the conventional routines of movie adaptations here. There’s a whole new grammar emerging involving inter-media dynamics, multi-movie momentum, and para-narrative character arcs and story structures. We’re still discovering by what qualities we should measure these non-linear universes, in part because this mode of movie is still being invented.

I bring all of this up because if I hope as a film critic to give you the reader a sense of the experience and quality of movies like Batman v Superman, it’s becoming more and more necessary to leave the time-tested ways of describing and evaluating movies behind. Normally you look for things like story, performance, theme, and style, and you see whether these things all point in the same direction. I’ll go through each of those elements below, not to measure their quality, but more to give you a sense of how these movies resist “reviewing” in a classic sense.  Anyway, you’ve probably already decided whether you are going to see it (which is a whole other quandary for film critics, i.e. why write a review at all), so in the very real face of my opinion literally not mattering we might as well talk about something.

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So, story.  First of all, is this one movie or is it one-seventh of a series? Batman v Superman feels like seven movies rolled into one, five of which are pretty good. But to say this movie has a story compromises the otherwise simple linguistic legacy of the word “a” being another word for “one.” Many, oh-so-many things happen in this movie. Something is always happening and things are never not happening. But one thing that is certain is that everything that happens has great special-effects. And by the way, what is a “series” now? We’re using the word “universe” because, like the actual universe, these movies are ever-expanding and it’s hard to find the edges. Looking back at the ancient past of three years ago, the Dark Knight trilogy may have been the end of an era, the last and best of the closed-ended, one-after-another comic book movies, in which a story begins and ends in a straight line. Nowadays, comic book movies don’t end; in fact they actively resist ending, opting for post-credit sequences (which BvS doesn’t have) or dangling clues (which BvS does have) to keep things moving. These movies don’t resolve, they evolve — moving plot lines and actors until the apocalypse or until people lose interest, whichever comes first.

Next, the actors. Let’s be frank, there is very little room for what we traditionally think of as “performances” in movies like this. There is plenty of pathos to go around, but it’s all spelled out through camerawork and dream sequences, so as long as an actor can pull off anxiety and physicality at the same time, they’ve done their job. A lot has been made of Ben Affleck as Batman, and he does just fine keeping up the sophisticated grimacing that is allowed, nay, required by the narrative. Henry Cavill looks great as Superman, and boy does he look troubled when he’s in trouble. Amy Adams keeps the spunk and intelligence of Lois Lane at a nice simmer when she’s not waving a flashlight looking for the next alien artifact/plot device. Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman stands, walks, and fights very nicely, and says the word “encrypted” with wonderful conviction. And Jesse Eisenberg does Jesse Eisenberg if Jesse Eisenberg was criminally insane. All of this works really well for the movie, because the characters here don’t really need to develop, they just need have the potential for development. Also, there are a lot of special effects.

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Jesse Eisenberg

Thematically, like narratively, there’s a lot going on. BvS starts off with whiffs of the gravitas of Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies, then moves into the self-seriousness of Man of Steel before ultimately landing where I suppose these movies must go: kill the monster. The nature of the issues that bring Batman and Superman into and out of conflict changes from political to philosophical to personal to accidental to whatever-they’re-both-good-guys. There are elements of religion and national security to the Superman story, and post-9/11 counterterrorism and vigilantism to the Batman story, but ultimately all of these are forced to collapse into fanboy fantasy as radioactive mutants and meta-humans start arriving. The transition from serious to sci-fi-silly-seismic is pretty rocky, but once it happens, it’s not hard to give into the concussive spectacle of it all.  But if you see any think-pieces on the internet about what it all means, you can confidently ignore them. BvS affirms the one fact that only Christopher Nolan has managed to transcend, that these are, after all, characters that will appear on lunchboxes.

Style is perhaps the one area in BvS that comes closest to a singular approach, as in there only three or so styles, and three is as close to one as we’ve come. Director Zack Snyder has clearly labored over his camerawork, and the framings are meticulous and beautiful when they aren’t meticulous and explosive. One of the triumphs of the  film is that it achieves a special effects extravaganza whose size, scale, and style feels totally distinct from Marvel. There’s something painterly about the manipulated colors, the grainy textures, and the half-realistic lighting.  There’s a layer of visual panache that Marvel’s paint-by-numbers approach don’t even seem to attempt. The score is a sometimes clever and always colossal combination of Hans Zimmer’s previous work with these characters and the battle scene music from Return of the King: choirs and synths and drums upon drums. The bombastic images demand a mountain of sound design, and the movie provides powerful, loud, and detailed audio support. As a gritty, darkly kaleidoscopic sensory experience, BvS is really something to behold.

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Ben Affleck

Because in the end, “experience” is, I think, the only word left that has any relevance for folks like me, who don’t have the quasi-religious attachment that fans bring to these characters, and who don’t care how faithfully the stories have moved from the comic book panel to the screen. If I don’t think too hard about whether Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice was a “good movie” or even a “movie” for that matter then, you know, I really liked it. Maybe you will, maybe you won’t, but how about this:  Since I said five of the seven movies in BvS were good, let’s do 5 divided 7, which is 71%.  Five stars times 71% is about 3.55 stars.  That doesn’t makes sense to the critic in my head, but it feels right. And since experience is all that matters for these “movies, “and now for this “movie review,” we’ll just leave it at that.

Star Rating: 3.55 out of 5 stars

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