Batman Cinematic Universe Retrospective: Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice

Could Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice have been better? Could it have avoided becoming the first official DCEU disaster with a few tweaks to the pacing and adding some more character development? It’s tempting to answer that question with a yes, but that would only come from completely ignoring the style and filmography of its director, Zack Snyder. After watching it the first time, I was happy to call the film a dud: The Heaven’s Gate of superhero films was the most fitting description that I came across from the enraged critical community. Zack Snyder’s reputation as a visual filmmaker, who believes the image is more important than having a coherent story and characters to inform those images, finally had nowhere to run. Then I watched Batman v Superman for this series, and a strange, extremely distressing thing happened: it was much better than I remembered.

I’m not about to write a full article on why Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is actually a masterpiece as I’ve not gone off my meds and drilled a hole in my skull. There is absolutely no chance that this is a good movie, it just isn’t as bad as I remembered. The reason for this is very simple: Dawn of Justice is a really interesting Batman movie. That’s right, the homicidal manic version of Batman, known as Batfleck, is easily the best thing about this mess of a movie. I realize that many critics praised Affleck’s performance despite hating the movie, so this opinion is by no means a new one, but Dawn of Justice really worked for me because Batman, unlike every other character in the movie, has a defined character arc. I understand why so many Batman fans hate this version of the character, and Dawn of Justice is the only movie featuring a Batman in this failure of a shared universe that has any consistency.

As I was approaching this movie, thinking about all the ways I could tear it apart as a Batman story, my main point was how Snyder wanted to introduce this older, crazier version of the Caped Crusader without putting the work in. He has previous in this respect, as Snyder’s Superman is not only a bad version of the Man of Steel, he’s a bad character full stop. Man of Steel tried to deconstruct our understanding of Superman by supplanting him into a modern America where he doesn’t quite fit, yet never makes him feel like three-dimensional person. Superman, despite having an idyllic upbringing in Smallville, never stopped feeling like an alien. You can’t build a cinematic universe by deconstructing the two heroes that are supposed to carry it forward, and with Superman this is still true, but my mind has been changed on Batman. Re-watching Dawn of Justice made one thing abundantly clear: Zack Snyder, and his writing team of Chris Tierro and David S Goyer, only cared about Batman – leading to them forgetting to give Superman any more characterization.

While I’m not Zack Snyder’s biggest fan, I can admit that there are times when he comes across as someone who knows what he is doing. This can be seen in the way that he opens both Man of Steel and Dawn of Justice. Both movies introduce the origin of DC’s biggest heroes, with the fall if Krypton in Man of Steel (easily the best part of the movie) introducing Superman in an event that would come to define who he is, and Dawn of Justice opening with the murder of Bruce Wayne’s parents. While we have seen the Wayne’s die so many times before, Snyder manages to add a new wrinkle to it by focusing on Bruce’s mother, Martha, instead of his father Thomas. While the first movie in this franchise started with the complete destruction of an alien world, Dawn of Justice puts the same amount of importance on the death of two people outside a movie theater as their son watches. Even if it’s overly familiar, it is good storytelling.

Much like Man of Steel, the opening scenes of Dawn of Justice are the best part of the whole movie. From Bruce’s recurring dream of how the grief of his parent’s death led to him becoming Batman, we switch to him driving through a chaotic Metropolis as Superman fights Zod. This is a bold way to introduce this version of Batman, in broad daylight as Bruce Wayne, rendered helpless on the ground like every other human. This scene is so well-constructed, and well-acted by Affleck that you can see that Bruce has snapped. She the carnage cause by Superman and Zod has rendered him as helpless as he was when his parents where murdered, even trying to comfort a little girl whose mother was killed in the battle. The point of this sequence is clear, and Snyder doesn’t smack us over the head with it: Batman has snapped, because in the face of Superman he is nothing more than just another human.

From here Bruce begins to put together a plan for defeating Superman, sharing the notion with a big portion of the population that Superman is too dangerous despite his heroic deeds. Bruce looks at Superman and all of a sudden, the likes of The Joker and The Ridder are small potatoes, and two decades of fighting crime hasn’t made as big a difference in Gotham as Bruce wanted – so defeating Superman becomes a way for Bruce to regain the legacy of Batman as a force for good. He’s misguided, but it isn’t hard to see his point of view. What’s a few dead criminals if defeating Superman could save the world? Batman is a villain in this movie, and Affleck manages to convey the obsession, and again, misguided, attempts to defend his city, and his planet.

So, let’s talk about the Martha scene. The culmination of the title fight of Man v God is one of the main things that is used to ridicule this movie. The frustrating thing is that I understand what Snyder was going for here. Batman is snapped out of homicidal mode by recognizing the humanity in Superman as asks the man who is about to kill him to save his mother, a mother that has the same name as his own. This should be powerful: not only does this show Superman’s humanity, it also reminds Bruce of his own. Except the way this scene was executed deserves the ridicule. It’s proof that a powerful moment can be ruined by a complete failure to communicate it, and Henry Cavill’s now-legendary delivery of the line is fucking hilarious.

While Batman is the only character with a full and satisfying arc, it could have been so much better. The problem with this, and something that only adds to the problems in the Martha scene, is that Batman and Superman barely share any screen time. Apart from the dull fight, and the even duller Doomsday battle, it’s still a bit of a reach that Bruce would be affected by Clark’s sacrifice. The way to fix this is easy: have them fight earlier in the movie and completely remove the sequence where Clark runs away from being Superman because some people don’t like him. Fill that time with Bruce and Clark coming up with a plan to defeat Lex, give them the kind of scenes that The Avengers gave Cap and Tony. Just having these two characters fight is not good enough to inform Clark’s fate and the consequences of it which cause Bruce to change his ways. Dawn of Justice is at its best when it focuses on Batman. Despite fumbling the ending, Bruce’s journey from seeing Superman as the enemy, to emerging as the future leader of the Justice League is the strongest part of the movie.

While Dawn of Justice mostly sucks, there are still some aspects of the movie that I really enjoyed. The score from Hans Zimmer and Junkie XL is excellent, and Lawrence Fishburne’s entire performance as Perry White is a joy. Jeremy Irons is great as Alfred and I especially like his more hands-on approach to Bruce’s crimefighting. Then there is Amy Adams as Lois, an actress almost too perfect for the role, but instead of being a great character in her own right, she is merely walking characterization for Superman. Still, Adams rocks. Finally, and apart from the hacky computer attachment scene, Dawn of Justice utilized Wonder Woman very well, and Gal Gadot was brilliant in her first appearance. Like Bruce, Diana had an interesting arc, mainly about the choice of staying in self-imposed exile, or fighting against evil. She made the right choice.

Now we get to the dregs. While Dawn of Justice is an interesting Batman movie, it is a fucking awful Superman movie. two movies in and I still couldn’t tell you who this version of Superman is, what he is like, apart from loving Lois. Oh, and he is a mopey bastard who decides to abandon being Superman after Lex Luthor blows up a senate hearing which makes him look even more guilty than he already does. Snyder and DC’s long-term plan is obvious: if the only thing we know keeping Superman interested in the human race is Lois, then taking her away further down the line will lead to evil Superman. This is interesting in theory, but it keeps Superman from being a full-fledged character, something that Justice League didn’t improve on. What’s so frustrating about this version of Superman is his reluctance to start a dialogue with the human race. His day job is journalism, for fuck’s sake – surely he knows how important reaching the public is, and how to do it effectively. He didn’t need to die to get us to like him, he could have just had a conversation. A bit more communication and a lot less dream sequences is exactly what the doctor ordered. Also, Jesse Esienberg’s Lex Luthor is an abomination and the action scenes look like they came from a Playstation 2 game. That’s also broken.

Dawn of Justice is an ambitious movie that fails mainly due to understanding the direction they wanted to go with one character while completely misunderstanding another. Yes, this is a different version of Batman than we are used to- though the only real difference is that he doesn’t feel bad about killing people than the other cinematic Batman’s do- but Dawn of Justice does find some interesting results from that change. The pity is that it’s all downhill from here.

If you enjoyed this retrospective, please be sure to tune in next week for our look at Suicide Squad. You can also take a look at our other cinematic universe retrospectives, for the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the Jurassic Park movies! And, as ever, if you enjoyed this and want to see more stuff like it, please consider supporting us on Patreon.

(header image courtesy of Youtube)

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