Even though I didn't go to this film expecting to like it and went in with very low expectations, even as a story, very little made sense and felt creatively bankrupt. I walked out of the cinema thinking too much story was missing and the theatrical version provided very little context to justify what was an otherwise stupid brawl between two of DC's iconic heroes. As it was, there was really nothing to talk about.
Last week, the Ultimate Edition of the film was released on Digital HD. The thirty minutes that were cut from the theatrical version? Those scenes were actually crucial to the story the film was trying to tell. I don't understand why Warner Bros. decided to cut those thirty minutes from the film, but I'm assuming it was to keep it from being three hours long and to avoid the R-rating. However, I would've preferred getting the three hour film that was saved for the Blu-Ray over the hack job that was the PG-13 theatrical cut because it tells a more complete story even if it wasn't the story I would've liked for these characters.
Additionally, there was very little in the Ultimate cut that justified the R rating. For the most part, the additional sequences of violence that were reinstated for the Ultimate release were not as intense or graphic as described in the description for the R. I have seen far more triggering depictions of violence in DC comics that were rated T for teen than anything that was shown in this film. Even the brief blood splatters that were shown from people getting shot were pretty tame compared to what you see depicted in mainstream superhero comics, or even the R-rated Deadpool film that came out earlier this year.
If those brief blood splatters were the 'intense sequences of violence' that triggered the R for the MPAA, those blood splatters could've been easily edited out and no one would've noticed. Not even (spoiler alert) Jimmy Olsen's execution scene was actually shown on camera in the R-rated film, and that was the scene that I was expecting to trigger the R. Other deaths that were depicted in this film were also, again, not graphic or triggering, nor anything different from what was shown in the PG-13 theatrical version.
Other things that could've potentially triggered the R that were still not intense enough for an R were (spoiler alert) Ben Affleck's brief nude scene in the shower in which his full back was shown, and the one F bomb that was dropped. That was it. PG-13 films tend to have those too, which makes the R rating for this film all the more baffling. James Cameron's Titanic from 1997 had more swearing and graphic depictions of nudity than anything that was shown in this film and that still made the PG-13 rating. So I don't understand why the more complete version of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice was considered an R movie by the MPAA. I guess Warner Bros. decided to experiment with the idea of an R-rated DC film to see how many people would buy the Blu-Ray and inform their decisions for future films?
Either way, my thoughts on this film will be based on the R-rated Ultimate cut since it, once again, tells a more complete story from what was shown to us in the cinemas. If you haven't seen either version of the film and don't want to be spoiled, now is your chance to exit this page until you do see it. I will be talking about the scenes that did get cut from the theatrical version because those scenes are what's going to inform my opinion on the overall film, which is considerably different from my initial thoughts on the theatrical version. You have been warned!
The overall plot for this three hour movie can be easily summed up in one sentence: Lex Luthor wants to discredit and destroy Superman, and everything that happens in this movie is orchestrated by Luthor to achieve that goal. Everything from the African civil war scene to pushing all of Batman's hot buttons to the creation of the Doomsday monster are all orchestrated by Luthor to provoke the 'gladiator fight' between Batman and Superman, resulting in both of their deaths. Doomsday was his backup if these two guys didn't end up killing each other like he wanted.
A motivation for Luthor's hatred of Superman isn't explicitly established in the film, but based on the fact that he's been keeping tabs on Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, Aquaman, Cyborg, and the Flash, the basis for his actions throughout this film seem to come from a place of fear and not wanting to feel vulnerable in the presence of beings more powerful than himself. The catalyst that fuelled those feelings of fear and helplessness was the Superman vs General Zod fight that demolished Metropolis in Man of Steel, which made him realise for the first time that more powerful beings exist in the known universe, and that terrifies him. This also seemingly sets him up as a potential villain for the upcoming Justice League film as he was the first to discover the existence of all these other superheroes before even Batman was aware of their existence.
Lois and Clark. One of the major reasons Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice wasn't a great film in the theatrical release is because too much of their story arc was cut. A lot of Lois and Clark's scenes that were reinstated for the Ultimate Edition were actually crucial to the overall story, and they were the characters that were the best written in the film. Huh? What? But Superman was moody and mopey throughout this film! Why would you say this is a good depiction of him? Hear me out.
I totally understand that most people prefer the version of Superman who smiles and brightens up every room and landscape that he is in. I do too. Superman is, in my opinion, the character who makes you feel hopeful when you see him, and his presence makes you feel like you can trust him. You feel like everything is going to be okay. But we're also used to seeing Superman as an established superhero in most DC films and we're never really shown the journey. The journey is, I think, what Zack Snyder has been trying to show between Man of Steel and this film. Now, did Snyder make tactical errors with Superman between both films? Yes he did. Did he also make errors with characterisation? Absolutely. However, the themes he wanted to explore with Superman were not, in of themselves, bad ideas.
The themes Snyder wanted to explore with Superman were most evident in Man of Steel. I believe one of the themes he wanted to explore was what it was like for an extraterrestrial refugee who looks human to exist within the context of a planet in which its human population is prejudiced against people who are different. That is not a bad theme to explore considering that Superman was originally conceived as a power fantasy for two Jewish boys who were the children of Jewish immigrants in the early 20th Century. As such, xenophobia and antisemitism were part of their life experience, and Superman does embody those experiences in a more fantastical way. Instead of being an immigrant from another country, Superman is an immigrant from another planet. Instead of his race being his most identifiable trait, the fact that he has powers and abilities no one else possesses are his most identifiable traits that can induce fear in people.
Snyder wanting to explore how the real world would react to the existence of someone like Kal-El upon learning of his existence is actually a new and interesting concept with very strong story potential. Exploring how Clark becomes aware of his extraterrestrial origins, his powers, and how he wants to shape his place in the world as a person who belongs to two worlds is also a new and interesting concept with strong story potential. How Kal-El gains the trust of the people in his adopted world as a super-powered alien, how this builds his self-esteem, and his subsequent identity as Superman are also interesting journeys to take the audience on. Where Snyder fell short on all of these fronts was in the execution.
Snyder successfully established the seeds in Man of Steel that could lead to the development of the Superman we all know and love from the reserved and anxious guy we met at the beginning of that film, but fell really short on fleshing those ideas out further to get Superman to the more iconic hero we know. Snyder did establish in Man of Steel that Clark does want to use his powers to save people, and that he is not okay with just letting people die, which is very much in character for Superman. Batman v Superman further establishes that Clark is also not okay with vigilantes using violence to exercise control over other people, and especially takes issue with violence being used as a way to intimidate the poor. Both are, again, in character for Superman.
Throughout Batman v Superman, Superman is preoccupied with two things: first, he wants to regain the trust of the people of Earth by using his powers to save as many lives as he can, and to provide feelings of hope to people by letting them know he is there to protect them. That is a very Superman trait. Superman does achieve this goal as he is a universally celebrated hero throughout the world, but there are still people who hold him accountable for the deaths in Metropolis two years earlier, and even the ones in the African civil war he intervened in earlier in the film, both of which logically affect Superman. This is the other thing he preoccupies himself with in this film because he does feel bad about his failure to prevent the deaths in both Metropolis and Africa. He does accept responsibility for his actions by both attempting to reach out to the people he hurt, and by showing up to the court hearing he was summoned to in Washington DC.
Other things that Batman v Superman does well with Superman is how he is characterised as Clark Kent. Throughout the movie, Perry White wants him to report on sports and other events that are seemingly trivial to Clark. When Clark becomes aware of Batman and the violent ways in which he exercises control in Gotham, that concerns him greatly and even pitches to Perry that he report on that story instead. Perry tells him 'no,' but Clark pursues the story anyway because in his mind, the lives of people are far more important than who won the football game between Gotham and Metropolis. Clark strongly feels that it is the media's responsibility to provide voices to people who are otherwise invisible in society, and to show the world that these people do matter. Again, this is in character for Superman.
Even when Superman becomes aware of Lex Luthor's plans to discredit and destroy him, Clark still refuses to play by Luthor's rules and even attempts to form an alliance with Batman to keep Luthor from murdering more innocent people, including Bruce himself. Again, this is in character for Superman because his first instinct isn't to fight, it is to talk. That is exactly what Clark tries to do with Bruce in the scenes leading up to the titular fight, before Bruce succumbs to his own anger and blindness, leading him to unwittingly do exactly what Lex wanted him to do. The execution wasn't perfect, and there were still issues, but the overall characterisation of Clark as someone who values human life and wants to protect those human lives throughout this movie was on spot.
The other character that was most well written in this film was Lois Lane who, in my opinion, turned out to be the real hero of this film. In true Lois Lane fashion, Lois was the character who has been unearthing Lex Luthor's scheme from the very beginning of the film. Although she was initially duped by Luthor like everyone else was, she was actually the first to discover what was really happening. For Lois, it all started with what she thought was her covering a story on the African civil war, only to find out that there was more to the story than everyone was being led to believe.
One of the first pieces of evidence that Lois recovered from her trip in Africa was the bullet that was lodged into her notebook. She noticed right away that this was not an ordinary bullet and set out to find out the manufacturer and buyer. She asked all of the right questions that led her to all the right people, including Swanwick from the last film (Man of Steel), who confirmed to Lois that Lex Luthor had manufactured the bullet. In learning Lex Luthor's connection to the African civil war at the beginning of the film, Lois discovered that Luthor had personally arranged for Lois to be there in order to draw Superman to that conflict. He also planted his own henchmen in that conflict in order to make Superman look responsible for the deaths in Africa, leading to the court hearings later in the film.
In addition to the staged African conflict, Lois also discovered that Luthor had acquired a large chunk of kryptonite that he salvaged from the Kryptonian wreckage in the Indian Ocean in order to forge a weapon to use against Superman. She subsequently discovered the role that Luthor played in tricking Bruce Wayne into killing Superman, namely by triggering Bruce's anger in the form of reminding him of the destruction of Metropolis. He specifically reminded Bruce of the employees that were killed during the destruction of Wayne Financial in Metropolis, and even killed one of his former employees, Wally Keefe (who was left an amputee), by providing him with a wheelchair that contained a bomb. Luthor detonated this bomb during the court hearing in Washington DC to once again make Superman look accountable.
Throughout this movie, Lois turned out to be the better detective than Batman. She put all of the pieces together, and was the character who ultimately foiled Luthor's plans. Without Lois, Bruce would've successfully murdered both Superman and Martha Kent, and he would've learnt the hard way that in being tricked into murdering one innocent person, he facilitated the death of the other. Without Lois, Lex would've never been exposed as the mastermind behind many of the deaths he tried to frame Superman for. It was Lois who stopped Bruce from murdering Superman, and it was Lois who ultimately saved Martha by informing both Bruce and Clark of Luthor's plot. It was Lois who used her journalistic skills to expose Luthor, resulting in his arrest. It was Lois who ultimately got Bruce and Clark to form an alliance by exposing the truth, and her actions even led Bruce to form an alliance with Wonder Woman, whom he barely met earlier.
Without question, Lois was the hero who saved the day at the end of the film, and her role in this story was too crucial for the theatrical version to cut. While Luthor was at the heart and centre of the film's conflict, Lois was at the heart and centre of its resolution. Had this movie been shown at the cinemas completely intact, there's a very good chance the film could've done better at the box office.
The last thing the film did well was Wonder Woman. While she wasn't featured too prominently in the film, her only meaningful appearance in this story was also the most important one that setup for her upcoming solo film in 2017. The Wonder Woman that we meet in this movie is jaded with humanity, but is ultimately persuaded to help stop a conflict that was orchestrated by Luthor. She stepped in at the right time to save Batman from being killed by Doomsday, and she bought Superman enough time to acquire the weapon that would kill Doomsday. When Superman sacrificed his own life to put an end to Doomsday's brief reign of terror, Wonder Woman felt compassion for Lois for her loss. That was a great preview of the character we'll be seeing in her solo film next year.
By far, the biggest casualty of this movie was Batman and he was the character that ruined the film for me. Everything from the way he was used in the story to the way he was characterised was too far off the mark for the character I recognise as Bruce Wayne, even in ways that not even Dark Knight Returns (the inspiration for this film's version of the character) achieved. The biggest issue that I had with Bruce's characterisation in this film is that he was written more closely to Marvel's Frank Castle (aka the Punisher), which was a real wrong turn for the character. Like Frank, this movie's Bruce is much more brutal in his fighting style, has very little regard for human life, and very casually kills his enemies without batting an eye. Batman's primary purpose in this film is to function as an antagonist for Superman, which includes his plotting to kill Superman leading to the titular brawl.
Batman's role in this movie spectacularly misses the point of who Bruce Wayne is as a character, and especially fails to honour the primary reason he became Batman. The murder of his parents (shown in the film) was the traumatic event in Bruce's life that led to the formation of his Batman identity and triggered his obsession with waging war against crime in his city. It is also worth remembering that in addition to the anger that fuels his activities as Batman, Bruce is also a man who has compassion for other people, especially the poor. In fact, a lot of what Bruce Wayne does in his civilian identity is to benefit the most vulnerable members of his community. It was also Bruce's compassion that led him to acquire Robins in the form of Dick Grayson, Jason Todd, Tim Drake, and eventually his own son, Damian, who was raised by his mother to become an assassin.
Compassion is as much a part of Bruce's character as is his anger, and his compassion is the one thing that is glossed over in this film in favour of presenting Bruce as an angrier, less rational person than he actually is. So instead of getting a more nuanced character who happens to come from a dark place, we have a murderous lunatic who was easily duped by Luthor, and we are somehow supposed to buy this character as Bruce Wayne. Not even Ben Affleck's nuanced portrayal of his character could salvage how terribly written he was in this film.
Even when you ignore Frank Miller's AU interpretations of the character and acknowledge Batman's history going as far back as the Golden Age, even then, the character that appears in this film bears little semblance to the character we've seen in the comics. Even when you acknowledge that Bruce was originally characterised between 1939-1940 as a street-level vigilante who actually did kill his enemies, it was still not the same as what we saw in Zack Snyder's film. To start with, the few people Bruce actively killed in the Golden Age were mobsters, and at least one vampire, which was the only time he used a gun. His method of killing was done either via strangulation or actively punching or kicking mobsters to their deaths from high altitudes. In at least one occasion, he snapped a man's neck when he swung by his window.
With all that I just described into account, Bruce still did not view Superman or other heroes in the Justice Society as his enemies or dangerous people during the Golden Age, and actually saw them as his allies. What's more is that he was still presented as a compassionate human being as shown by his decision to take in Dick Grayson as his ward when his own parents were murdered during a circus act and raised him like a son. Bruce actually stopped killing his enemies around the time that he acquired Dick Grayson as his ward. He was also very compassionate towards Selina Kyle (Catwoman), whom he later married and had a daughter with. He was not abusive towards either his wife or daughter (Helena Wayne) and he actually did learn to move past his need of Batman as he aged. The Golden Age Bruce's better qualities overshadowed his more murderous past in ways we don't see happen with the Bruce Wayne that we meet in this movie as he is both disproportionately murderous and very misanthropic in his middle age.
There is, of course, still the mystery of how Robin (alluded to be Jason Todd) died within the DC Extended Universe, which may provide context for this Bruce's murderous, misanthropic personality in this film. Unfortunately, however, without that context, the viewer has nothing to go on for justifying a story arc that is otherwise out of character for Bruce. His role in this story presented him as unheroic and unlikeable to the point where I couldn't care for the fact that he redeemed himself at the last minute by saving Martha Kent (minutes after he nearly murdered Superman) and assisting Superman with taking down Doomsday. Even I rolled my eyes at Batman telling Martha that he was a 'friend of [her] son's' when--literally--minutes earlier he nearly sent him to his death.
At this point, I hope Ben Affleck and Geoff Johns develop a better origin story for the DCEU Batman's solo film that provides better context for the way Affleck's character was depicted in this film. As he was presented, I couldn't sympathise with him at all and he didn't win me over for the Justice League film. Either that, or establish the existence of Earth-2 in the DCEU, and have him meet his Earth-2 daughter in a Justice League/Justice Society crossover film to help him see what his future could be like, and correct course with him in this regard.
Another character I didn't enjoy in this film was Lex Luthor. Obviously, there have been various interpretations of Lex in all media that range from zany (like the Gene Hackman and Kevin Spacey portrayals) to more nuanced (ala Michael Rosenbaum and Clancy Brown). However, there was nothing about the way Lex was written and portrayed in this film that screamed Lex Luthor to me. At best, he was still depicted as calculating, but he didn't come off as a respectable business man who at least looks trustworthy in the eyes of the public. He was instead characterised more closely to the Batman's Joker, complete with an insane demeanour and a twisted sense of humour. I may have probably enjoyed Jesse Eisenberg's performance more if he was playing the Joker because at least his idiosyncratic behaviour would make more sense. But as Lex, he lacked nuance and didn't embody any of the character traits that I associate with the character. Jesse's Lex was basically the Joker in every respect except for possessing the physical appearance of the Joker.
The last thing I didn't enjoy about the film was the overly serious, cynical tone coupled with a ridiculously dark colour palette. I get that the movie was going for a depiction of superheroes within a more 'real world' context, but the film also felt like it was overcompensating for the fact that it is a superhero story. Even the marketing felt like it was trying too hard to make the general audience take this film seriously in a 'hey, this isn't a silly film about people in colourful costumes' sort of way. I think the overtly serious tone not only made the movie feel joyless for a lot of people, but I also felt it heavily overshadowed the parts of the film that were actually done well. For example, I think audience members would've probably found Superman less brooding and mopey if his scenes were at least more brightly coloured to help convey the message of hope acknowledged in this film, and if the amount of attention that was spent on people who didn't trust Superman was equally given to the people who did believe in Superman to provide a better balance in tone. Unfortunately that didn't happen, with the cynical crowd heavily overshadowing the more hopeful crowd, effectively creating the mood of joylessness in a Superman film.
Overall, I didn't love or hate this movie. There were things that the movie did well, there were things the film could've done without, and there were things that could've definitely been done better. If I had to rate this movie like I do my comic reviews, I'd give it three stars at best. It's a halfway decent film that fails to capitalise on its full potential as a consequence of the filmmakers not trusting their own audience with the source material. I completely understand Warner Bros wanting the DC Cinematic Universe to stand out tonally from the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but there are better ways to achieve this that don't involve doubling down on the very problems audience members had with the first film. I strongly feel the DC Universe is different enough from the Marvel Universe in both its history and the kinds of stories both companies tell that developing faithful stories with DC characters shouldn't be a problem. All that needs to happen is for the studio to have more faith in their audience, and embrace the conceptual originality of each of these characters while telling the stories they want to tell, using the themes they want to use. These characters have endured the test of time for a reason. They don't need 'fixing' as much as they need to be handled with both care and respect. That's really the only 'advice' I have to give.