WASHINGTON, April 9, 2016 – “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” is ostensibly the sequel to Zach Snyder’s 2013 Superman reboot, “Man of Steel.” Meant to help remedy Warner Brothers’ disastrous 2006 Brian Singer-directed Superman revival, entitled “Superman Returns,” “Man of Steel” was Snyder’s and screenwriter David Goyer’s updating and/or retconning of the Superman mythos—one generally viewed as a success despite some flaws.
The hope riding on the 2013 film was Warner’s hope to relaunch Superman in a way that would bring to fruition its longstanding desire to create an interconnected universe of superhero movies similar to the successful Disney/Marvel cinematic approach to Marvel Comics’ super characters – this time, however, with the stable of DC superheroes popularized by DC’s intermittently long-running “Justice League” comics.
With “Batman v Superman” now in theaters, it seems like all systems are go for that plan to at least proceed to the next stage.
Re-shaping the legends
Not only was “Man of Steel” a reboot of the Superman origin story, it was also an attempt to bring more contemporary reality to the very concept of Superman. For some people, it was gritty and modernistic take on a character that was often seen as too perfect to craft any sort of interesting movie around. For others it was a gloomy film that didn’t do this iconic 75+ year old character justice. In a sense, “Man of Steel” was a polarizing film. “Batman v Superman” doesn’t alter that view, though it adds at least one major character to the superhero fray.
The new film begins in medias res, with a different view of the climactic battle that concludes “Man of Steel,” in which Superman (Henry Cavill) left a wake of destruction throughout Metropolis as a result of his epic battle with his super-evil super-counterpart, General Zod. “Batman v Superman” picks up the action as the Kryptonian battle is still raging, but offers it from a completely different field of vision, the way it must have been viewed by the thousands of human beings caught up in the rolling disaster.
In the new film, billionaire business mogul Bruce Wayne, aka Batman (Ben Affleck), lands in Metropolis just in time for the Superman v Zod destruction derby. Concerned for the safety of his employees there, Bruce races around the city amidst the ongoing chaos, trying to reach the building where they work.
But he’s too late. The building is destroyed and many of his employees’ lives are lost, though Bruce manages to rescue a little girl from tumbling debris. In the aftermath, he directs the blame, as well as his rage, at the man he views as responsible for all this mass death and mayhem: Superman.
Now we have the premise behind the current film’s title, whose presumed focal point is a confrontation in some ways inspired by the final installment of Frank Miller’s classic 1980s graphic novels grouped under “The Dark Knight” banner.
For Bruce Wayne, Superman, as portrayed in this new cinematic continuity, represents everything that’s wrong with the world of today. Over the next 18 months he devotes much of his time to defeating Superman or at the very least making sure Superman is permanently no longer a threat to mankind. It’s a pretty bleak outlook even for a man who dresses in black armor that makes him resemble a large and terrifying bat.
In both the previous and current films in this new continuity, Snyder attempts to give the Superman concept a new and more realistic take. By placing Superman in a “real world” eerily similar to the one we inhabit today, he creates a reality far less optimistic than even the one we live now.
The resulting physical and social darkness that surrounds “Batman v Superman” is meant to give the movie a sense of gravity and seriousness. But in this, the film overplays its hand. There is little nuance and subtlety to be seen anywhere in this movie, and its relentlessly negative vision makes the entire effort feel depressing and hopeless.
How much darkness is too much?
The first problem “Batman v Superman” encounters is that it’s not a particularly attractive from a visual standpoint. Ever since Snyder released “300,” he’s demonstrated a tendency to go with visuals that seem perpetually washed over by a dark, murky gloss. In theory, this is supposed to be part of his films’ gritty appeal. But its relentless darkness ends up making everything in this film look as it it has been dunked in a mud puddle.
Having a visually dark film isn’t inherently a problem. But when those colors fail to have a real purpose, then the “feel” of the film loses a lot of its visual impact.
The most noticeable elements of any composition in this film are the blacks and greys. But even those are at best muted because no additional colors serve to accent the darkness, rendering many scenes lifeless and flat.
What hurts the visual aesthetic of “Batman v Superman” even more is the bizarre way that Superman is generally lighted. The idea of having Superman appear frequently against an illuminated background makes a lot of sense, but not when the light of the sun overpowers nearly everything in the frame, including Superman. To really grasp Superman visually, viewers will frequently find themselves squinting.
The polar opposite problem plagues the climactic and lengthy action scene near the end of the film – the rain-drenched battle between Batman and Superman that is then followed by an even greater battle. Having the confrontation occur at night makes a certain kind of sense: Batman is, in a way, dictating the confrontation. But because so few light sources are available to illuminate this epic confrontation, the driving rain in the scene ultimately pushes the visuals into a sodden, visually flattened mess.
Jittercam v narrative flow
Murky, flat visuals aside, there are other problems with the way this film was shot. Due to the lighting and color issues, a fair bit of the action in this film remains either unfathomable or indistinct. One of the more important things to do during an action sequence is to create an establishing shot. This helps create a map of sorts for the eye, so when the action moves in we have a sense of place that helps put us in the scene. That rarely happens in this film.
Worse, other camera movements seem almost indiscriminant in terms of where they end up. Snyder is never able to settle on a specific camera shot or even a specific speed, continually moving in nonsensical ways, zooming in and out, slowly up and down at random split-second intervals.
Chaotic camera work can be useful in small doses to create a sense of frantic hyperactivity. But when it’s used all the time, it results in exasperation and visual confusion.
What’s with the confusing edits?
Can things get worse? Yes, they can. The very way that the final theatrical cut seems to have been put together is a mystery. The movie currently runs 155 minutes. Rumors are swirling about that a longer cut of the film being released on Blu-ray after its theatrical run concludes.
If this rumor proves true, it would be as astonishing as it would be absurd. That’s because the current theatrical release is often confusing to the point where there seems to be no coherent narrative. Momentum starts and stops on a whim and narrative threads are followed until all of a sudden they’re not.
This film is clearly overstuffed, a problem that exists in other overly ambitious superhero films. That means that some cuts had to be made. But what we end up with in the theatrical release are jumps and cuts that leave big holes in the narrative structure, as if the final edits were simply made to get the running time down to an arbitrary, specific amount of time as opposed to making the film coherent.
There rarely seems to be any sort of through-line between scenes to give “Batman v Superman” a sense of narrative cohesion. In a larger context, this gives us a sense that nothing really matters in this film.
Although we are conditioned to understand that this film’s opening chaos is what drives Batman to feel justified in going vigilante against Superman, there never seems to be a real justification for his misdirected rage, given that Bruce Wayne-Batman would clearly have understood that Superman was engaged in a life-and-death battle with an evil fellow Kryptonian.
The poor visual and technical decisions and the bizarre narrative cuts that damage this film may be the cause of its severe box office drop-off after its first week in theaters. But our complaints here as well as those of others don’t seem to have been enough to keep fans of the film’s characters from seeing this largely disappointing movie.
Those who were already hyped up for this film made up their minds a long time about what was really important to them: the promise that the two most iconic superheroes in the history of the genre would be duking it out, just as the film’s title promised. That’s ultimately what they got. But they got a whole lot more as well, and much of it fell short of the mark.
Next: Character development? What character development?