One thing about being paranoid — sometimes it can actually give you a little bit of, believe it or not, clarity.
Take, for instance, the advance reviews for Zack Snyder’s heavily-anticipated Batman V Superman : Dawn Of Justice that have been appearing online over the last few days. After literally years of hype, the movie itself is finally here and so, it would seem, is the moment of truth — not only for it, but for the entire nascent DC cinematic universe. Only truth seems to be pretty hard to come by, at least as far as this flick is concerned, among the self-appointed arbiters of public opinion working the digital plantation.
To be sure, the vast majority of critics out there seem to either mildly dislike or actively loathe it (for proof of this look no further than its current 32% score on Rotten Tomatoes), and most for the same nebulous-at-best reasons : it’s “too dark,” they say, or “not much fun” (complaints which seem to have resonated with the “suits” at Warner Brothers, who are already busily assuring the masses that the forthcoming Justice League film will have a “lighter tone” to it — despite the fact that it will be overseen by the same director). But a little bit of legwork shows that many — shit, maybe even most — of these same self-appointed judges of artistic merit (hey! Kinda like me!) were only last week lauding to high heaven the sadistically grim, pessimistic, joyless, 13-hour bloodbath that was season two of Marvel’s Daredevil on Netflix, and a few months back were equally effusive in their praise of the just-as-dour (and frankly sexually, racially, and politically repugnant) Jessica Jones, another product of the so-called “House Of Ideas.” Dis/Mar have been called out on their “whisper campaigns” against competing “product” (and let’s face it, that’s what super-hero movies are) before — most notably those directed against studios that held the cinematic rights to their own characters like Spider-Man and the X-Men — and it doesn’t take any great genius to see that the same thing could easily be going on here. Film critics, by and large, are an even cheaper investment than politicians, and for the price of a free pass to your next blockbuster or, better yet, the promise of a set tour should they ever happen to be in Hollywood, most of ’em will say just about anything.
On the other side of the coin, though, a scant few minutes of “assignment prep” reveals that some of the (admittedly few) voices of support for Batman V Superman, particularly in the comics press, are coming from people who give positive write-ups to even the most blatantly and obviously lousy DC comics (in other words, most of them). I won’t name any names, but when I found that one of the most glowing reviews of BvS I came across online was written by someone who also had nothing but terrific things to say about the painfully creatively bankrupt Dark Knight III : The Master Race, I was hardly surprised.
And so that aforementioned paranoia of mine has, I think, paid off, since it allowed (or forced, take your pick) me to actually go into this movie today trusting no one’s opinion, and with absolutely nothing in terms of expectations one way or another. I have to say — it felt kinda good. The “good vibes” didn’t last, though — but maybe that’s not necessarily such a bad thing? Bear with me as I attempt to explain —
Plenty of movies can leave you feeling emotionally drained, psychologically confused, or even a scarred, blubbering wreck, but with Batman V Superman : Dawn Of Justice, Zack Snyder has crafted something that may very well be the first of its kind — a film that leaves you feeling physically exhausted. You have no real reason to be, of course, since all you’ve been doing for the previous two and a half hours is sitting on your ass, but seriously — this isn’t so much a movie as it is a full-scale sensory assault that just so happens to use celluloid as its weapon of choice. Snyder knocks you flat on the mat within the first few minutes and never lets you catch your breath, much less get up. There are points where one is tempted to do their best Roberto Duran impersonation and simply say “no mas,” but truth be told there isn’t even time for that. Between DP Larry Fong’s almost-overly-arresting visuals, Hans Zimmer and Junkie XL’s insistent, percussive musical score, David Brenner’s breakneck-paced editing, and a script by Chris Terrio and David S. Goyer that clearly suffers from an acute case of ADD, the word we’re looking for here is relentless.
And yet, believe it or not, I say that with a certain degree of admiration. Snyder has always been about spectacle over substance, and in many ways is the perfect blockbuster director for the overly-media-saturated “information” (insert loud snorting sound here) age we live in. His film adaptations of 300 and Watchmen were essentially straight-up visual Cliff’s Notes translations of their comic book antecedents and the sophisticated sleight-of-hand he developed working on those projects to conceal the fact that he literally had nothing (or at least nothing new) up his sleeve actually serves him quite well here. That’s because the story for BvS is a paper-thin affair — although even at that there are still plot holes large and obvious enough to plow the new, muscled-up Batmobile through — that is, at its core, a confused mash-up of the classic Batman story The Dark Knight Returns and the 1990s-speculator-market-driven Superman storyline Doomsday (or The Death And Return Of Superman, if you prefer) that sees an older, more world-weary, decidedly more brutal Batman/Bruce Wayne (played by Ben Affleck) conclude that Superman (Henry Cavill) is an existential threat to the human race that he’s going to end, until the two of them realize that they’re both, to one degree or another, being played for suckers by ruthless billionaire Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg), who resorts to “Plan B” — a standard-issue CGI monster, wouldn’t ya know — when his “Plan A” of getting ’em to kill each other off doesn’t work out. Fortunately, at the hour of our heroes’ greatest need, a new and unexpected ally turns up in the form of Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), and the day is saved — but at a decidedly heavy cost. There are a handful of nods thrown in the direction of purported “real-world issues” like, I dunno, what we’d do if there actually were a super-being, but they’re not examined with anything like genuine depth since Snyder and his screenwriters clearly have a firm opinion on the matter, anyway. And why not? Said super-being is one of the stars of their movie, after all.
That’s probably about as deep into “spoiler” territory as I care to get, but I will say this much: Snyder-bashers can take heart — the same shortcomings he’s exhibited in previous efforts are on full display here, as well. His actors are left largely to “do their own thing” while he concentrates on assembling his frenetic, hyper-stylized symphony for the eyes. With a veteran cast such as the one assembled for this production that’s really not much of a problem — Affleck doesn’t deliver a performance anywhere near as good as Michael Keaton’s definitive turns under the cowl from nearly 30 years ago (goddamn but I suddenly feel really old) but is probably the best Batman and Bruce Wayne we’ve seen since, Eisenberg is a frenzied whirlwind of tech-billionaire menace as Luthor (think of an even more ruthless, amoral, and mentally unbalanced version of his take on Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network), Amy Adams radiates quiet confidence and capability as Lois Lane, Jeremy Irons uses Michael Caine’s portrayal of Alfred as a jumping-off point for his “Q from James Bond” interpretation of the character, and solid pros like Laurence Fishburne and Diane Lane turn in, well — sold pro work as Daily Planet editor Perry White and Martha Kent, respectively. Both Scoot McNairy and, especially, Holly Hunter knock it out of the park in supporting roles clearly beneath their talents, though, and while that, sure, is a good thing on paper (and on screen), when each of them is so obviously better than the material they’re given, it shines a bit of a light on how lackluster that material actually is.
The two names missing from that laundry list of actors, though, offer stark evidence of both the pluses and minuses of Snyder’s “spectacle above all” approach : Henry Cavill just doesn’t seem to be asked to do much as Superman other than show up and look perfect and he responds accordingly, while Gal Gadot, whose directives were probably more or less the same, doesn’t just steal, but robs, beats, and runs away with her scant few minutes’ of screen time. It’s the most stark difference between “just doing your job” and “doing your job to the very best of your ability” that I’ve seen in recent memory. Bring on 2017’s Wonder Woman already! No rush on that Man Of Steel sequel, though — and funny enough, there’s not one currently planned, either.
As I’m sure the previous paragraphs have no doubt ably demonstrated (and if not, my bad) Batman V Superman : Dawn Of Justice is a mixed bag. But at least it’s an exhilarating, breathtaking one. Nowhere near the trainwreck its probably-purchased detractors would have you believe and nowhere near the triumph its probably-purchased cheerleaders are fighting against the tide to convince you it is, at the end of the day it’s a brutally operatic demonstration of the best and worst of modern Hollywood blockbuster filmmaking (particularly Zack Snyder’s version of modern Hollywood blockbuster filmmaking) duking it out right in front of your pinned-open eyes : as cinema it leaves a lot to be desired, but as pure spectacle it’s hard to imagine how it can be topped.