Second, I don’t claim to be any sort of film critic. I do think I have a decent idea of what makes a film ‘okay’, vs what makes one pants – but what follows is less a proclamation of judgement upon Batman vs Superman, than it is a discussion borne out of an inexplicable fact that has me intrigued: that while the rest of the world seems to think this film is horrible, I actually quite enjoyed it.
Let me explain. Though never a true comics ‘fan-boy’, I’m a Marvel kid: I began reading comics with a number of Jack Kirby’s works, which inexplicably somehow made it to my aunt’s house in a rural area in the deep north of Australia in the late 1970s (his 2001 adaptation in particular is burned into my memory). I later got into the X-Men, and perhaps my favourite teenage comic book memory is the (1984) Secret Wars series.
While there was no shortage of DC comics available also, Batman and Superman never really resonated with me. Batman was too mundane, Superman was too godly. In both cases, I pitied the story writers who had to work with each.
What this should tell you is: I enjoy comics, but I have little knowledge of the D.C. ‘canon’, alternative histories or many other elements of this film that might particularly enrage a true fan who thought the film-makers diverged from core elements of the Batman and Superman mythos. And when it comes to voicing any positive opinions on this film, it’s not exactly one that I’ve had high on my list of ‘must-views’.
But it’s currently school holidays here, and a new cinema has opened nearby that finally makes movie-going an attractive option for my wife and I, so I booked tickets in advance for the whole family to go see the opening marquee film: Batman vs Superman.
And then the reviews started rolling in. Review after review, calling it: one of the worst, if not the worst, superhero film ever made.
We’re a busy family, so I seriously considered just not going and chalking the lost money down to a bad call. But then, the reviews for Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy were glowing, and I really didn’t like those films at all. So why trust other people’s reviews?
And as it turned out, as the credits rolled (and after a quick check there were no post-credit scenes), I sat there thinking: “umm, I kind of enjoyed that…is there something wrong with me?” With some trepidation, I asked the rest of the family their thoughts. My wife, not usually one for big budget smash-em-ups, voiced her approval. All three children (10, 12, 14) gave it a thumbs-up, with perhaps the biggest movie cynic of the three remarking “that was a great film”.
I wouldn’t go so far as to say that. It’s got its share of plot flaws. Some of the casting was off for me, including the villain of the piece in Jesse Eisenberg’s Lex Luthor (though not the much-maligned Ben Affleck…in fact, in my book he probably goes the closest to nailing the Bruce Wayne/Batman combo of all that I’ve seen). The end boss-fight is an overblown mess.
But let’s also get this straight. It’s a comic-book movie, and I walked in with that knowledge in hand, ready for my popcorn enjoyment and little more. And I got the former, and plus more than a little extra on top.
So why are my thoughts completely out of sync with most other reviewers? This is the mystery I’m trying to solve.
Some have complained that it’s too slow-moving until the action at the very end of the film. I’m kind of at the other end of the spectrum: I enjoyed most of the film, but didn’t enjoy the big mad-action scenes at the end (not the titular confrontation; the subsequent boss fight). The world-building was a bit wrongly-paced for mine – fairly quick cuts between two storylines inhibited the ‘flow’ of the movie – but apart from that solid, with minimal obvious exposition, letting the audience work things out visually (case in point, Bruce Wayne’s greying temples and world-weariness) and from dialogue through inference.
Others have complained that it’s too dark and grim; that Superman should be an exemplar of everything that’s good, and that Batman goes beyond just a vigilante to become a cruel sadist. I can understand both those points: for me, Nolan’s Batman series was not just grim, it’s characters were all so unlikeable, or 1-dimensional, that I had no empathy for any of them. And as a parent I like the idea of Superman up there on the screen as a shining model of truth, justice, and the…well, truth and justice will do I guess. So when reviews mentioned the dark, scowling, vicious portrayal of Superman and Batman as being a major negative, I agreed on principle.
Instead though, in BvS I saw a portrayal of two characters wanting to do right, but who are haunted by two different ‘realities’…but do eventually find redemption. For Batman, no matter what resources his wealth affords him, and the skills and toughness he possesses, he’s only a man – and for every criminal he knocks down, another pops up in their place. His growing violence and sadistic nature feels like an outgrowth of frustration from the fact that he’s getting older, but not really making progress toward a resolution. Alfred remarks “you’ve gotten too old to die young”, and in one scene we see a Robin suit, preserved with Joker graffiti written across it – does this signify the death of his crime-fighting ally at the hands of his nemesis? So he now thinks the only way forward is through increased violence against the larger scale threats – whether a crime boss, or what he sees as an out-of-control Superman.
For his part, Superman slowly realises that even in saving someone, the way fate unfolds his own actions – no matter how virtuous – could well still cause harm to others (the vision he has of his father recounting a flood story outlines this explicitly). And that his own presence on Earth, too, could be the cause of harm – such as the conflagration that resulted from his fight with General Zod.
I do wonder whether the fact that these ‘realities’ are major foundations of the movie might be part of the cause of people’s angst towards the film. Most of the criticisms I’ve seen – jinky plot, overblown CG fights, ‘unrealistic’ plot devices – apply equally to, for example, the Avengers films. And yet, critics and fan-boys largely swooned at the debut of those films. But in Avengers films, when people die, it’s a comparatively light-hearted affair. Agent Coulson delivers a snappy response as he expires; Hawkeye mutters “it’s been a long day” (or some-such) as Quicksilver lies dead beside him.
In BvS, death and destruction seem very real…and let’s face it, when superheroes fight, we should expect plenty of d&d. Aliens attack a city in the first Avengers film, but still the heroes are delivering one-liners as thousands are, we can only imagine, dying off-screen. I’m not saying that’s necessarily a bad thing – I’d probably rather my children be watching that film – but I’m not sure either that a superhero film that portrays a more realistic side of what happens when ‘gods’ go to war, and how superheroes might be affected by the real-world results of those battles, is a bad thing either – just perhaps deserves a different audience. I thought the opening to BvS, in which the Superman-Zod confrontation is played out through the mirrors and side-windows of Bruce Wayne’s car as he rushes through the city to try and save his employees, was a great way of re-framing the battle (which was severely criticised, when the original film came out, as an example of superhero films ignoring the real-world destruction that such battles would cause).
Another criticism I have heard is that Zack Snyder’s stylings are too heavy-handed, and includes over-wrought, yet ultimately superficial, symbolism. His 2007 film 300 is perhaps exhibit A for the prosecution when it comes to the former criticism, and it has to be said does make a solid case. I can only say that I rarely felt this while watching BvS, apart from minor, though still irritating examples (yes I’m looking at you, slow-motion cannon shell fired during a funeral). On the other hand, perhaps my least favourite part of this film was the boss-fight at the end, which was straight out of the Marvel movie-style playbook (CG city battle, uber-monster, collapsing buildings etc).
Where there were allusions to gods and religion, I liked how they were done (e.g. the near-death experience elements of a tunnel and bright light when the young Bruce Wayne falls into the cave filled with bats). And when it comes to superheroes, I come from the camp that thinks comparisons with myths and legends of gods is not just a gimmick, but almost a necessity. In that particular respect, Batman vs Superman may be more ‘Marvel’ – or maybe that is actually “the most ‘Jack Kirby’” – than the recent Avengers films, even though it’s the DC universe. What I mean by that, is that one of the central themes of this film is an exploration of the topic of superheroes as gods (a favourite topic of King Kirby). Though, while many have seen Snyder’s portrayal of Superman as ‘Christ-like’, I think the closer comparison is with the Greek pantheon: epic battles, falling in love with a human, and ultimately, a being of unimaginable power struggling with all-too-human feelings and desires.
In the end, though, I’m still left confused as to how opinions on this film can diverge by such a large amount. Maybe it’s the the movie equivalent of ‘the dress’. When it comes down to it though, here are my takeaways for anyone contemplating whether they should spend money in going to see BvS:
- It’s a big tent, big brand superhero blockbuster. If you’re going into it looking for Oscar material, there’s no way to see it but in a negative light. Manage your expectations, bring popcorn.
- If I compare it to movies within the genre, I can’t say it has any worse flaws in terms of plot, acting, or production values than any of the recent (acclaimed) Marvel films. The Marvel films to me though are more aimed at a ‘juvenile’ view of comics (not meant as a pejorative), with bright, colourful sets, lack of real-world consequences to characters and added jokes and slapstick. (Probably a much better set of movies for my children really. Having said that, my kids enjoyed BvS too.) So, if you enjoy light-hearted fare, you might want to skip this.
- When it comes to comparing this film to the previous Batman, I don’t see a whole lot of difference in tone (dark and ugly world, serious Batman), just a much older, far more jaded superhero who is only just hanging onto his sanity. In this film, Batman is almost a lost cause (to the point of being willing to kill Superman), only to rediscover his soul at the last minute. Perhaps it’s a reflection of my own personality, but I empathised much more with the main characters in this film than I did with Nolan’s Batman, or with any of the Marvel movies. And that’s one of my main criteria for enjoying a movie, to feel what the characters are feeling.
- If you’re a true comics fan, you may have issues with canon/characterisation that someone like myself doesn’t see, which could give you a different (negative) view of the film compared to an ordinary movie-goer. I can’t say either way.
- Didn’t get a mention in this article up till now, so have to say: Wonder Woman FTW!
Capsule review: Enjoyed it, felt the characters were interesting, had some great popcorn moments. As would be expected of a movie in this genre, plenty of flaws too. But overall, happy to pay the money for this level of entertainment and post-movie thinking. Your mileage may – and based on other reviews, will! – vary. Let me know your own thoughts in the comments.