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Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Review: BATMAN v SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE sacrifices storytelling for table-setting

I really like Zack Snyder. I'm not afraid to admit it.

I think both Dawn of the Dead and 300 are solidly enjoyable films, the latter likely being his best effort on the big screen. It certainly had enough impact that it secured him not one, but three major DC-based adaptations. Both Watchmen and Man of Steel are tremendously flawed films that I enjoy anyway. I am especially fond of his and David Goyer's reinvention of the Superman mythos, even when those innovations work better on paper. The man simply has a skillset that I admire, particularly in how visually pleasing a landscape he generally paints from, barring some duskier tones in Man of Steel that take some of the bite out of the sheer cacophony of destruction and chaos that the film eventually turns towards.

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, releasing this weekend, feels like a reaction: both to critics who held a disdain for Superman's perceived carelessness in Man of Steel's final act, and to fans of the DC universe who want Warner Bros. to rush out a cinematic universe that can quickly equal Marvel's. For a while, it almost feels like Snyder might pull off the very difficult task in front of him, and then those odds quickly evaporate with each increasingly maudlin scene and bombastic action sequence.

If you've watched any of the trailers, you know the basic set-up. Months after the destruction of a significant portion of Metropolis by Zod's hordes, Bruce Wayne/Batman (Ben Affleck) is at odds with the idea that someone with Superman's (Henry Cavill) abilities can be allowed to exist. Conversely, Clark Kent is growing concerned with the increasingly hostile vigilante tactics of the Batman in Gotham City. Between them is the meddling visage of Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg), younger and with more hair than we're used to, and has plans of his own involving a concerned Senator (Holly Hunter), the corpse of Zod, and other things that are best left for you to discover if you choose to do so.

Easily, the biggest praise I can give Batman v Superman is that it's the best looking superhero film I've ever seen. The visuals feel like they're ripped right out of the comics page, and while that doesn't necessarily make for satisfying drama at all times, as a creature of aesthetics, I was enamored with how beautifully Snyder and cinematographer Larry Fong captured the events of the film in a way that feels more vivid and enticing than its predecessor.

In addition to its visual appeal, Batman v Superman employs a bevy of skilled performances. Ben Affleck, especially when operating in the solo Gotham City-based method in which we're used to seeing this character, is one of the best Batmen we've ever had. Gal Gadot steals the show as Wonder Woman though, both in the way the character is developed and her performance therein. These pieces on their own made me wish I was watching a solo film that developed either of these characters further, and I'm excited at the prospect of Gadot's upcoming solo film especially. Lastly, Jesse Eisenberg's Lex Luthor will surely be one of the more divisive elements of the film, given his manic and "playing to the backrow" approach, but I found myself in the "loved it" camp.

All of that said, the sum of these parts is not as satisfying as you might hope. While Man of Steel wasn't perfect, it at least felt refreshingly different from a Marvel film, given the onslaught of big screen superhero properties every year. My biggest bone of contention with Marvel Studios is that rather than focusing primarily on solid storytelling, the greater concern is often setting up the pieces of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Batman v Superman falls into a similar trap as seen in films like Iron Man 2 and Avengers: Age of Ultron (but worse) where the focus is pulled away from character development, of which there's very little present to begin with, and instead placed on egregiously cramming in as much connective universe tissue as possible. I am excited for some of the pieces that were set-up, but I'm sad to say this movie was sacrificed in order to do it.

While Marvel is saved from those problems with snappy dialogue and crowd pleasing moments, Batman v Superman doubles down on the "grim-dark" approach from Man of Steel, and the combination of these problems makes the film feel like more work than it should. It also doesn't do any favors to the already lengthy two and a half hour running time, and scenes that are intended to have weight can't be felt by a fatigued and numbed viewer. By the third act, everything just feels like punishing white noise. (Side-note: if you're wondering if this film is appropriate for children, the answer is no.)

This is, unfortunately, a case of a potentially intriguing story trapped in the body of a bloated and poorly edited film - I was stunned at how haphazardly some scenes transitioned from one to another. There's clearly a strong core and moral conflict in a script that had too many producers' notes crowding the margins and defeating its own purpose at almost every turn. As a result, we may very well be facing the last film Snyder ever makes within the confines of the DC Universe, box office results pending. At this point, some change may do everyone some good.

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