The critics have not taken to Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016), and Twitter is resounding with chatter about their verbal jabs. Vox’s Alex Abad-Santos calls the movie a “stink bucket of disappointment” and “a home invasion perpetrated on comic book culture.” Screencrush‘s Matt Singer describes it as “a bloated, frustrating superhero serial featuring a protagonist crowded out of his own movie by a second star, a bunch of villains, and the obligation to lay tons of cinematic universe groundwork.”
The second installment in the DC Extended Universe, after previous Superman movie Man of Steel (2013), Batman v Superman‘s epic showdown between the Dark Knight (Ben Affleck) and Man of Steel (Henry Cavill) has a lot of money riding on it. Warner Bros. Pictures is counting on Zack Snyder’s movie to usher in welcoming receptions for the next releases in the media franchise and fictional shared universe: Suicide Squad (2016) and Wonder Woman (2017), followed by the first Justice League movie. Fans are looking forward to the blockbuster and may still show up in droves regardless of what critics say.
So what bones are these reviewers picking? Even if the premise sounds like a gimmick, there is a potentially strong idea lurking in this movie’s material: an ideological clash between differing views of what constitutes “good” or “heroism.” Unfortunately, the consensus tells us this battle of philosophies never materializes. Instead, the blockbuster is a free-associative montage of misunderstandings and dull action sequences that add up to a long trailer for future Justice League films.
Here’s a round-up of the critics’ beefs.
(Or: Why are they fighting again?)
One of the obvious questions that arises for anyone who hears the movie’s title is: why are these two lovely superheroes fighting? Has it really come to pass that these strapping beacons of humanity and heroism can’t find any seriously bad villains to eliminate and have to duke it out with each other?
Vox explains that the source of the battle stems from Frank Miller’s influential 1986 comic The Dark Knight Returns, in which “Miller, bending the comic book rules of time and space, makes Batman an older man living in dystopian Gotham City. Superman, meanwhile, is the obedient muscle of the government. Miller uses this backdrop to contrast their very different ideologies of justice and goodness.” Miller’s story “sets up the very real idea that two good men, perhaps the very best men, can have vastly different views of what a good world looks like.”
This is a strong basis for a clash, yet reviewers complain en masse that Zack Snyder’s film fails to pursue this ideological battle with any depth or coherence. Instead, the movie leaves audiences wondering at the end what they asked on entering the theater: wait, why are they fighting again?
Vox writes, “There’s a great Batman v Superman film to be made about how we mythologize our heroes and why our trust in them depends on how human we think our enemy is, but whatever Snyder created here is not it.”
Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016)
SFGate’s Mick LaSalle points out that Snyder’s story is based on misunderstanding, not real difference of belief: “Basically, Lex Luthor is the villain, but because of press reports, Superman and Batman develop a negative impression of each other… There are few things less interesting than watching people carry on stupidly, when everything would be fine if they’d only talk for five minutes.”
Meanwhile, critics observe that the battle is littered with confused political messages attempting a statement which doesn’t come across. Variety’s Andrew Barker summarizes, “Scripters Chris Terrio and David S. Goyer provide kernels of philosophical and theological quandaries throughout, while their nods toward contemporary political debates are more complex than the scattered visual gags (such as an anti-Superman protester waving an ‘Aliens Are Un-American’ placard) might seem to imply. Yet the essential clash of ideologies promised by the central conflict — vigilante justice vs. self-sacrificing restraint, night vs. day, Dionysus vs. Apollo — never develops quite as forcefully as it should.”
SFGate notes that Snyder “attempts to fashion a kind of commentary on the media and the current geopolitical situation. What he has crafted instead is a grotesque expression of modern emptiness… the story itself is like meaninglessness in search of meaning. There’s an almost spiritual hunger in the hope that a meeting between Batman and Superman might amount to something, but there’s nothing there.”
Superman appears before the U.S. Senate in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016)
The film’s emptiness seems to follow from Snyder’s lack of belief in heroism as a real possibility. Screencrush argues that Snyder’s superheroes “don’t act very heroic,” adding, “In Snyder’s formulation, protecting the world from evil isn’t a gift or a calling; it’s a burden. And that feeling is reflected in the movie itself, a burdensome 150-minute slog about two men fighting over who is in the right when both are very clearly in the wrong.”
Did Warner Bros. Pictures really put their picture in the hands of a director who doesn’t buy into the very essence of superhero-dom? “There are big weighty themes at work here, and even more than in Man of Steel, Snyder grapples with the psychological scars of 9/11 and our society’s all-consuming desire for security in an uncertain world,” Screencrush continues. Unfortunately, Snyder’s simple answers to surface questions don’t follow through on the potential: “Instead of playing up the differences between the Man of Steel and the Dark Knight, Batman v Superman flattens them… Batman and Superman have no reason to fight. These two ‘heroes’ deserve each other.”
Devin Faraci of Birth. Movies. Death. makes a bold statement about the source of the problem: “it isn’t that Zack Snyder misunderstands Superman, it’s that he actually hates the character.” He goes on, “Snyder doesn’t believe in what Superman stands for. He doesn’t believe in the idea that he’s just a guy trying to do right by the world, and that he doesn’t have to learn to do right or be convinced not to quit, that this just is how Superman is. It’s as integral to him as his Kryptonian powers. Because Snyder can’t understand that aspect of Superman he undermines it at all times.” As a result, this version of “Superman is an asshole, a pompous and condescending jerk who makes threats. Even the scene where Superman might have a chance to deliver a heartfelt explanation of himself in front of a Senate committee hearing is cut short - the film robs Superman of the chance to deliver the sort of speech that belongs in a Frank Capra film. But Snyder wouldn’t want to have a Capra moment. That shit is old fashioned.”
Henry Cavill as Superman in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016)
Others give Cavill more credit for his charm and performance but agree he doesn’t have much to work with in the script. Vox writes, “As a spy in 2015’s The Man From U.N.C.L.E., Cavill showed us he can manifest all kinds of charm — but Batman v Superman doesn’t ask him to use that skill, or even to flash a wry smile, while playing the god from Krypton. Batman v Superman‘s Superman is more weepy than inspiring.”
While this is technically a Superman sequel, it’s Batman’s movie.
So what kind of Batman does Ben Affleck deliver? According to Birth. Movies. Death., “The one bright spot in the film is Batman, played by Ben Affleck as the one character who has any sort of character at all… when Bruce finds himself an obsession in the form of Superman, Affleck morphs into what may be the best screen Batman of our time. His version of Batman reminds me of the classic Jim Aparo years, even if he’s modeled on the Frank Miller end-of-career take… and this Bruce Wayne feels like an adventurer and a bit of a scoundrel. When Affleck’s Wayne gets distracted by a pretty face you don’t feel like he’s just putting on a show to hide his identity - he’s a man of appetites, not the driven ascetic played by Christian Bale. There’s a lot of James Bond in this Batman.”
SFGate observes that, while controversy surrounded the choice to cast Affleck due to the recent media coverage of his marital problems, the actor’s current persona serves the character: “The guy exudes moral inexactitude and misplaced certainty. He makes you believe he could really think that Superman is not a nice person.” According to Variety, Affleck’s Wayne is a “winningly cranky, charismatic presence even when out of costume,” and Vulture summarizes his performance as “weighty.”
Across the board, Affleck’s Batman gets the highest consensus of at least moderate approval.
It’s notable how many critics take major issue with the messy, disjointed story structure of Batman v Superman. Given that reviewers don’t tend to hold comic book movies to an impossible standard of clean storytelling, the repeated censure suggests a notable lack of pacing and narrative cohesion.
Birth. Movies. Death.‘s Faraci reveals that this is “the film that finally drives home to me the reality that Zack Snyder is not particularly great at storytelling.” While the director is “a first rate visual stylist (and who conjures up some excellent images in this film)... Zack Snyder, left to his own devices, cannot tell a story. It’s almost crazy how flimsy and poorly constructed the first hour of the film is.” He points to haphazard inclusion of sequences and “no flow from one scene to another.”
Vulture writes, “you can’t build a coherent myth out of fragments.”
Despite story criticisms, Variety acknowledges, “As a pure visual spectacle, however, Batman v Superman ably blows the hinges off the multiplex doors,” and in battle sequences “Snyder gets closer than ever before to the chiaroscuro palette of classic comics.”
Indiewire’s Eric Kohn echoes,“filled with motion-heavy sequences rich in light and color, Batman v Superman doesn’t lack for inspired visuals. The palette is rich with engaging contrasts… The climax erupts in a symphony of neon light and shadows. At no point, however, do those elements imbue its spectacle with brains.”
Still, while Uproxx‘s Mike Ryan calls Snyder “one of the interesting visual directors working today,” he finds Batman v Superman “visually, Snyder’s least-interesting film.”
Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016)
Birth. Movies. Death. unpacks why the underwhelming action sequences offend: “Of course, the open secret is that no one should have to care about the themes in Batman v Superman because its fight scenes should be good enough to make us forget their deeper meaning. Getting hung up on themes in a movie like Batman v Superman is like going to a steakhouse and getting miffed with the asparagus. You only start to notice the little things if the stuff you’re there for isn’t up to par. Therein is Snyder’s ultimate failure.”
“And when there’s nothing there, what else can you do but blow things up?” Vulture laments. “It’s just buildings and people getting hit and disintegrating in silver bursts, and it’s nothing but depressing.”
The worst critique is that, battles included, the movie is just boring. According to Uproxx‘s Ryan, “About halfway through this over two-and-a-half hour movie, I had to stop my brain from thinking about other things, like what groceries I needed to pick up at some point… I am gobsmacked by just how dull this movie turned out to be.”
Critics seem to like Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) — yet another superhero who happens to be running around the place. Reviewers agree she hasn’t been given enough backstory or fleshed out as a character. Still, many praise Gadot’s performance as one of few refreshing and engaging elements of the movie. All the same, if her only tasks are to exude feminine mystery and kick ass in great outfits, it’s unclear whether her admirers are enjoying the actor’s performance for more than her sex appeal.
Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016)
Screencrush writes, “she doesn’t have a lot to say, but in a movie where no one else ever shuts up, that’s a refreshing change of pace. More importantly, she exudes an alluring aura of mystery and power whether she’s flirting with Bruce Wayne or beating the crap out of Doomsday.” Vulture observes, “The good advance word on Gadot has centered on her wowza appearance, but she preens more than acts.”
According to Vox, “Wonder Woman is the best goddamn thing about this movie” and “a spellbinding combination of Amazonian brawn and a gliding, regal sylph.” Still, Vox acknowledges, “I just wish she had more to do, because she’s excellent with what little material she’s given.”
While her script is lacking, her charisma has left reviewers excited enough for her solo feature, which hits theaters next year.
Most critics responded with vitriol to Jesse Eisenberg’s broad, throwback performance as Luthor. Birth. Movies. Death. writes, “Eisenberg is next-level terrible as Luthor,” continuing, “Eisenberg delivers every line like he thinks the villains on the 1966 Batman show were too nuanced.” Screencrush agrees that the “broad, Schumacheresque performance belongs to an earlier, goofier era of superhero movies.”
Vox writes, “By the end of the film, you’re itching for Lex Luthor’s death” just so that “the subsequent Justice League movies won’t have to deal with him.” Vulture was more positive: “Eisenberg is ham with a side of ham, a blend of the Joker and his Mark Zuckerberg, but I liked his energy. He makes a choice and goes with it, at one point letting loose with a patented supervillain falsetto giggle.”
According to SFGate, Eisenberg is not the only actor adrift. Aside from Jeremy Irons and Holly Hunter, “Everyone else tries to compensate, as though thinking, ‘I’m going to ignore this really awful material and act even more.’”
One repeated critique is that Batman v Superman feels like a long trailer for future DC comics movies. Indiewire writes, “Zack Snyder’s flashy, cacophonous follow-up to 2013’s Man of Steel is basically one long teaser for the next installment.” Kohn adds, “So obviously beholden to the next stage in its story, Batman v Superman barely has the patience to linger on its current one.” He notes that near the end “comes an abrupt final twist that so clearly sets the stage for future installments that it may as well end with a link to buy more tickets.”
Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016) Poster
Birth. Movies. Death. writes, “People complain about Marvel’s servicing of its connected universe, but the Justice League set-up in this film makes Iron Man 2 look like a strongly structured work of a single vision.” Vox notes that, even more disappointing, “The movie is supposed to set the tone for an entire slew of DC Comics superhero films… And while on one hand Batman v Superman should leave us worried for the future, on the other it’s already made those upcoming films look better… because it, and Snyder, discovered the floor.”
In some ways, the poor story structure and lack of resolution in Batman v Superman follow directly from its function as a set-up for a whole coming “universe” of movies — “universe” being the new one-up to the now common “franchise.” According to Vulture, “For a studio to move beyond the ‘franchise’ and ‘tentpole’ stages to the vastly lucrative ‘universe,’ a comic-book movie must at every turn gesture towards sequels and spinoffs, teasing out loose ends, cultivating irresolution. The movie wanders into so many irrelevant byways that it comes to seem abstract.”
While the critics have been loud and definitive, the box office has not yet spoken, and fans still appear to be eager.
USA Today’s Brian Truitt (who wrote one of few more glowing reviews, saying Snyder “proves he just might be the biggest fanboy of all by creating a superhero movie suitably epic” for its all-superhero cast) writes that the film will please fans of the star players and “for the nerdier crowds, a fleeting glimpse at other superheroes hints this is the Dawn of something potentially sensational.”
Variety reports that, reviews aside, the movie is still expected to gross as much as $300 million this weekend, and Fandango has said its ticket pre-sales are unprecedented. But Variety quotes box office analyst Jeff Bock on the intense pressure for this movie to perform: “This is basically their Avengers (2012)...There’s a ton of buzz about it. They need to open bigger than any DC Comics film ever has.”
It may not come as a surprise that a Batman/Superman mashup to launch a connected comic-book universe hasn’t wowed the critical sphere. By now we’re used to the never-ending franchise and the reboot-masking-remake culture; still, the damning objection that Batman v Superman is a no-fun slog points to a disconnect between the movie’s topic and its underlying beliefs. To make a big superhero movie that attacks the very possibility for a person to be good, let alone heroic, could be too rebellious a goal for a movie that (for multiple reasons) couldn’t upset safe formulas, even if its creators were more skilled at crafting a sharp critique. But as audiences grow ever more savvy and conscious of storytelling technique, the pressure may be rising, even for spectacular action-heavy fare, to meet a higher level of smarts.
As reviewers noted, audiences forgive a lack of thematic depth if the action sequences are innovative and the storytelling keeps up a momentous pace. But how much innovation and true entertainment is possible when the same material is regurgitated, processed via committee for broad appeal and forbidden from reaching any narrative resolution, lest potential sequels or spin-offs are ruled out?
Fans and their wallets will answer these questions for the DC Extended Universe.