As someone who felt like they were on a roller coaster throughout all the hype surrounding Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, it should not be surprising that opinions surrounding the film are mixed. It’s equally unsurprising that the people responsible for Man of Steel (a polarizing film in its own right) have again created something controversial. However, the split appears most pronounced between the critics who solidly hate the film and the audience that has enjoyed it. This is an experience that carried over into my own showing. As someone who went into the movie with not too many expectations and ended up enjoying it, it will be revealed whether the critiques of the film have any water (spoiler: mostly no).
Let’s establish expectations for the film: Critics literally watch movies for a living. I can’t speak to doing this professionally (i.e. getting paid from a mass media conglomerate to write a review) but their perspective on critiquing movies differs from the audience. Average Joe/Jane Movie-Goer is not looking for films to reinvent the cinematic landscape, they are looking to enjoy some entertainment, possibly even with friends/family. Even people who read critical reviews before going to see something have someone they trust who, rather than bore them with nonsense, answers their one simple question: Is going to see this worth my time?
To answer that question, I have to establish my expectations. After seeing all the wanton destruction in Man of Steel, I wanted someone to kick Superman’s ass for not trying to save innocent lives (the whole “he’s a rookie Superman who doesn’t know how to control his powers yet” excuse never worked because there’s nothing stopping Superman from taking the fight out of a densely-populated area and the one time they do end up in space, Superman brings him back to Metropolis!). So, when the Dawn of Justice hype established that someone was going to be Batman, hell yes I got excited! Now, that anticipation was tempered with the “Dawn of Justice” subtitle because one of the smarter (not to mention lucrative) things Marvel did was have a bunch of individual movies lead in to the big team-up. This fear led to a feeling that the film will try to do too much, especially when it only has 2 or so hours to work with…which wasn’t helped when talk of a R-rated Director’s Cut surfaced.
In order for Dawn of Justice to work, it had to address that Man of Steel was a flawed film, Batman needed to thoroughly beat the shit out of Superman and restrain itself from indulging in too many Justice League characters and/or subplots. With these expectations in mind, the film turned out pretty good.
Man of Steel deserves a post itself but for brevity, its flaws center around the aforementioned destruction, poor characterization (particularly Pa Kent) and over-usage of Lois Lane. Superman and Zod completely leveling Metropolis was the biggest critique and the fact that played into the plot was the movie’s biggest draw. This complaint is addressed in the movie, almost painstakingly so. Numerous times it is mentioned that the area heroes are fighting in are “abandoned” or “post-working hours so very few people are likely to be around.” While it would have better to see Superman punch Doomsday through a mountain instead of a skyscraper, Dawn of Justice does a sufficient job of addressing the “wanton destruction and disregard for civilian life” problem Man of Steel has.
Dawn of Justice also had to answer for Man of Steel‘s poor characterization. It’s a fair point: If Man of Steel couldn’t characterize Pa Kent correctly, how can they be trusted with Batman, Alfred, Wonder Woman or Lex Luthor? Instead of course-correcting itself, Dawn of Justice voices Pa Kent’s concerns in Man of Steel better than Pa Kent did in Man of Steel! Essentially, Pa Kent had reservations about Clark using his powers because the best intentions don’t often bring the best results. There’s an infamous scene in Man of Steel where Pa Kent tells Clark he should have thought about letting a group of kids who are drowning in a school bus die. Dawn of Justice has a scene where Superman hallucinates talking with his “dad” and Pa Kent tells him how he tried to save the family farm from a flood, only for the diverted waters to ruin another farm instead. Such a scene explaining Pa Kent’s logic behind his beliefs would have done wonders for Man of Steel.
Not only does Dawn of Justice repair Pa Kent’s character but the movie itself is incredibly well-cast. Ben Affleck’s Batman and Jeremy Iron’s Alfred (as well as the interaction between them) are some of the film’s highest points. Gal Gadot doesn’t have a lot of dialogue but it’s a good omen for the Wonder Woman movie that she makes the most of her plentiful screen time (her interactions with Wayne and fight with Doomsday got some of the audience’s loudest applause). Jesse Eisenberg is really good at playing Lex Luthor like a mad genius but as someone who grew up on the DC Animated Universe, Clancy Brown’s menacing businessman will forever be the definitive portrayal. The returning cast from Man of Steel is mostly excellent (notably Laurence Fishburne’s Perry White) with the exception of Lois Lane.
Unfortunately, the one thing Dawn of Justice didn’t correct is how overabundant Lois Lane is to the plot. In Man of Steel, Lois was asked to go on Zod’s ship for no particular reason when he really only wanted Superman. She can even talk to the Krypton ship computer and Jor-El even formally addresses when he should have no idea who she is! Later in the movie, she’s able to virtually teleport from one end of Metropolis to the climax where Superman breaks Zod’s neck. While Dawn of Justice does a better job utilizing her journalism skills, it is rather annoying that she can just get a helicopter from a news agency and fly to Gotham to stop two superheroes from fighting in about 15-20 minutes.
With my expectations mostly met, it’s no surprise that the film ended up being pretty good. So, let’s focus on the critics, whose criticisms boil down to two salient points: (1) The movie’s too serious/not fun enough and (2) it’s too imposing/bloated for its 2.5 hour run-time.
For a moment, let’s indulge in the critical consensus and make the movie more “light-hearted” and/or “fun”. Then people would be bitching about DC copying Marvel’s template and having no identity! These critics also forget that the “fun” studio is having its two biggest characters not only fight but recruit other heroes (!) to fight for them in Civil War! To more seriously address the point, the movie has more than enough levity between Lex Luthor, Perry White and Alfred. And in a movie that’s literally titled Batman v. Superman, two of the world’s most renowned heroes, how much fun should there be in a fight?
The “film’s got too much going on considering its run-time” argument will have more merit, if only be default. Dawn of Justice follows the same plot trajectory Man of Steel did, where the first 1/3 of the movie introduces all the characters and provides an origin story while the 2/3 leads to the 3/3 big action climax. Thus, it inherits the pacing issues although the opening scene where Bruce Wayne is on the ground in Metropolis is absolutely riveting. It was also a treat seeing all the talking head bits in the middle part discussing Superman, asking some rather poignant questions for the viewer to think about. The movie does seem a little over-complicated (Lex Luthor doesn’t really need to manipulate both Batman and Superman into fighting each other) but once the action-filled finale starts, most people won’t care.
So, is Dawn of Justice worth the time and money? Before that can be answered, it’s worth asking another question: What do you want/expect from it? I wanted the film to address the flaws inherent within Man of Steel. The heroes’ disregard for civilian life and wide-scale property damage had to be reined in. Superman needed to get his ass kicked by someone who he had hurt through that disregard. Because DC/Warner Bros. had eschewed the Marvel method of individual hero movies leading to the big team-up, the movie needed to not be a gigantic cluster-fuck of Justice League cameos. On those counts, Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice succeeded tremendously.