4-Color to 35-Millimeter: The Great Superhero Movie Rewatch

Doomsday Schlock — Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice

The first time Batman and Superman teamed up in the comics was in 1952’s Superman #76 by Edmund Hamilton, Curt Swan, & John Fischetti (hilariously retold in 2006’s Superman/Batman Annual #1 by Joe Kelly and a host of artists). While both characters had been appearing in World’s Finest for years, that was an anthology comic that would have solo Superman and solo Batman adventures.

Since then, the pair have teamed up a ton of times, and been portrayed as best friends, as reluctant allies, as bitter rivals, and as enemies. Besides being teammates in the Justice League, they’ve had their own team-up book twice (World’s Finest and the Superman/Batman series of the 2000s). They also paired up in DC’s various animated adventures quite a bit.

But while they’d both been adapted to live-action since the 1940s, it wasn’t until 2016 that they appeared together in that format.

While Man of Steel was a very polarizing movie with viewers and fans (as a quick perusal of the comments to my rewatch of same will provide a nice sampling of), it did make money, and DC was committed to following Marvel’s lead with a cinematic universe. To that end, they brought back director Zack Snyder, who brainstormed the plot with MoS co-writer David S. Goyer (and in consultation with MoS co-writer Christopher Nolan). The story was inspired by 1986’s The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller & Klaus Janson (particularly in its portrayal of Batman), Man of Steel #3 by John Byrne from the same year (the first post-Crisis on Infinite Earths reboot meeting of Bats and Supes), and the “Death of Superman” storyline in the various Superman comics from 1992. Chris Terrio was hired to rewrite the script when Goyer was busy with other things.

In addition to being a sequel to Man of Steel, this movie brought in an older, crankier Batman—inspired jointly by Miller’s older Batman in Dark Knight and by the older Bruce Wayne in the animated Batman Beyond series voiced by Kevin Conroy—played by Ben Affleck, thirteen years after Daredevil, and ten years after he swore he’d never play another superhero again. Jeremy Irons was cast as Wayne’s butler/aide Alfred Pennyworth, with Jeffrey Dean Morgan and Lauren Cohan making cameos in flashback as Thomas and Martha Wayne.

On the Superman side of things, this film introduces the DCEU versions of two of Superman’s iconic bad guys: Lex Luthor, played by Jesse Eisenberg, and Doomsday, a CGI creature with voice and motion capture done by Robin Atkin Downes. Back from Man of Steel are Henry Cavill as Superman, Amy Adams as Lois Lane, Diane Lane as Martha Kent, Laurence Fishburne as Perry White, Harry Lennix as Swanwick (now the Secretary of Defense), Christina Wren as Carrie Ferris (promoted from captain to major), Kevin Costner as Jonathan Kent (in a hallucination), Rebecca Buller as Jenny Jurwich, and Carla Gugino as the Kryptonian A.I. voice. Michael Shannon’s likeness is re-created via computer imagery on Zod’s corpse. We also get a character named Jimmy Olsen, played by Michael Cassidy, who is a CIA agent posing as a photographer.

Also debuting in this film are Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman and, in cameo form, Jason Momoa as Aquaman, Ezra Miller as the Flash, Ray Fisher as Cyborg, Chris Pine as Steve Trevor, Said Taghmaoui as Sameer, Ewen Bremner as Charlie, Eugene Brave Rock as Napi, and Joe Morton as Silas Stone, all setting up future movies. We also get Holly Hunter as Senator June Finch, Scott McNairy as Wallace Keefe, Callan Mulvey as Anatoli Knyazev (the real name of Batman villain the KGBeast in the comics), Tao Okamoto as Mercy Graves (Luthor’s assistant), and Patrick Wilson as the voice of the U.S. President.

Affleck and Miller will next appear in Suicide Squad. Gadot, Pine, Taghmaoui, Bremner, and Brave Rock will next appear in Wonder Woman. Cavill, Irons, Adams, Lane, Momoa, Fisher, Morton, and Eisenberg will next appear in Justice League.

This was the first adaptation of Batman to appear after the estate of Bill Finger won its court case, requiring that the creator credit for Batman now be listed as “Batman created by Bob Kane, with Bill Finger.” Finger co-plotted and scripted the early Batman stories that were co-plotted and drawn by Kane, and his receiving credit for his work was long overdue.

 

“Maybe it’s the Gotham City in me—we just have a bad history with freaks dressed like clowns”

Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice
Written by Chris Terrio and David S. Goyer
Directed by Zack Snyder
Produced by Charles Roven and Deborah Snyder
Original release date: March 25, 2016

Screenshot: Warner Bros Pictures

We start with a dual flashback to 1981, to Bruce Wayne at the funeral of his parents, and also to their deaths at the hands of a gun-wielding would-be thief while walking home from a showing of Excalibur. He runs away from the mausoleum where his parents are being interred and falls into a cave filled with bats.

Cut to eighteen months ago, at the climax of Man of Steel, which we see from Wayne’s POV as a WayneTech building is destroyed, the head of security killed, when Zod and Superman crash into it. He rescues a little girl, and pulls an I-beam off of another employee, Wallace Keefe, whose legs are crushed.

Eighteen months later, Superman is considered a hero in Metropolis. Meanwhile, across the bay in Gotham City, in his costumed identity as Batman, Wayne has become more violent, as he’s started branding criminals with heated batarangs. (At one point, we also see Robin’s costume in a case with graffiti on it, strongly implying that the Joker killed his sidekick.)

In the Indian Ocean, divers working for LexCorp find a large green rock in the wreckage of the World Engine that Superman destroyed in Man of Steel.

In Africa, Lois Lane and a photographer, Jimmy Olsen, are interviewing a dictator. The dictator’s chief of security opens up Olsen’s camera and removes the film canister and exposes the film, at which point I wonder if the people who made this film are aware of, like, the world, since most cameras these days are digital. But if it was a digital camera, the Russian security chief couldn’t find the tracking device inside the film canister and then shoot Olsen in the head after he is revealed to be a CIA agent. The dictator takes Lane hostage.

As soon as that happens, Superman shows up to rescue her. At the same time, the security chief starts shooting his own people.

Back home, Superman is soon blamed for an international incident, even though he didn’t actually kill the people. (You’d think the fact that they were shot would be a clue.) Nevertheless, a woman from the African nation testifies before a Congressional committee run by Senator June Finch that Superman endangered her people. Lane is worried about Kent, though he is not as concerned. He also joins her in the bathtub, which is kind of adorable.

Lane’s notebook took a bullet, and she sends it to the crime lab for analysis, which comes up empty—the bullet matches nothing on file, which means it’s a brand-new design.

In Gotham City, Wayne is chasing down a human trafficker called “the White Portuguese.” After a brutal interrogation of one person who is holding several women prisoner in order to sell them, Batman learns that the ring is run by a Russian named Anatoli Knyazev (who’s also the guy who was the security chief in Africa who led the coup). Knyazev runs an underground fighting ring, and Wayne sponsors a fighter in order to get close enough to clone Knyazev’s phone. He discovers that the White Portuguese is a boat, and that Knyazev has made many phone calls to Lex Luthor.

Kent asks Perry White if he can do an exposé on the Batman, but White refuses, giving him a sports story instead.

Luthor meets with Finch and her aide and requests an import license to bring the Kryptonite from Asia. Finch refuses, but Luthor works on his aide, who gives him the license and permission to explore the wreck of the Kryptonian ship in Metropolis, as well as Zod’s corpse. Why the aide gives in to Luthor is never explained.

Wayne needs to break into Luthor’s place and steal the data from his mainframe, and Alfred points out that he doesn’t need his bat-suit to break in, because Wayne has been invited to a gala for the public library that Luthor is holding.

Kent is assigned to report on the gala, and he meets Wayne and they have a conversation about Batman. Wayne finds it a bit hypocritical that a reporter from the paper that writes near-hagiographies of Superman is complaining about a costumed vigilante, but they’re interrupted by Luthor. Wayne wanders off, pretending to search for the bathroom, but really putting a device that copies Luthor’s computer files from the mainframe.

With his super-hearing, Kent hears Alfred in Wayne’s ear-bug. He starts to follow Wayne, but then sees a news report about a fire in Mexico, and so he flies off to save a little girl from burning to death (resulting in the accolades of the people in the town). Back at Luthor’s, a woman catches Wayne’s eye—particularly when she steals the data drive before Wayne can retrieve it and drives away.

Wayne tracks the woman—an antiquities dealer named Diana Prince—down, and asks for his property back. She says the encryption is strong and she couldn’t break into it—there’s a picture that Luthor has that she wants back. (Since it’s a digital file, it’s not clear how that works, exactly, since it can be copied over and over again, but whatever.) She informs Wayne that she left the drive in his glove compartment, and then buggers off.

The drive retrieved, Wayne starts his own decryption. He also ambushes the White Portuguese as it brings the Kryptonite in, but he is unsuccessful in retrieving it, mainly because he’s interrupted by Superman, who gives him a warning. “The next time they shine your light in the sky, don’t answer.” He wants Batman to retire. Wayne, for his part, ignores this sage advice and checks the tracker he put on the truck.

Keefe, now a paraplegic, vandalizes the statue of Superman at the memorial for those who died when Zod attacked Metropolis. His bail is posted by Luthor, who offers him a new wheelchair and also has him visit Finch at her office.

Finch calls for Superman to testify before her committee and account for himself. Keefe is testifying, also, as is Luthor. Lane is also in D.C., talking to Swanwick, who is now Secretary of Defense. Swanwick informs her off the record that the bullet she found in her notebook was made by LexCorp for the CIA. She heads to the Capitol Building in time to see her boyfriend enter it. Before Superman can testify, however, the bomb that somehow got past Capitol security in Keefe’s wheelchair explodes. (Luthor’s seat has remained empty the whole time.) Superman, despite being super-strong, super-fast, and with enhanced senses, not only doesn’t notice the bomb until it’s too late, but just stands there in the conflagration looking pained instead of, y’know, trying to possibly rescue people. Meanwhile, Wayne is shocked to learn that all the checks that Wayne Enterprises sent to Keefe were sent back with snotty notes on them.

Guilty over not noticing the bomb, Superman goes on walkabout to collect his thoughts, which starts with his mother Martha Kent telling him that he doesn’t owe the world anything (picking up on Bad Superhero Parenting from her dead husband), and continues to walking around the Arctic and hallucinating his father. While Kent contemplates his navel, Batman breaks into LexCorp and steals the Kryptonite, making grenade rounds and a spear from the alien material. Wayne decrypts Luthor’s data, and finds detailed dossiers on Diana (which includes a picture from 1918 with Diana in it, looking exactly the same as she does now), as well as Arthur Curry (who can breathe underwater and swim very fast), Barry Allen (who moves at lightning speeds), and Victor Stone (who was badly injured and his father Silas is trying to save him, using alien technology). In addition, Allen, wearing a mask, shows up apparently from a future with a cryptic message saying that Lois Lane is the key and that Wayne was right.

Wayne e-mails Diana the files, as well as a query as to who or what she is, exactly, given that she was around a hundred years ago. For her part, Diana is planning to fly back to Paris.

Meanwhile, Luthor explores the Kryptonian ship, gaining access to it, er, somehow, and uses Zod’s corpse mingled with his own blood to genetically engineer and animate the corpse into a big giant monster because SCIENCE! The ship starts to let off electrical bursts and is pulling power from Metropolis’s grid.

Dressed in armor and armed with his Kryptonite grenades, Batman shines the bat-signal into the sky over Gotham to call out Superman.

Luthor kidnaps first Martha Kent then Lane. He throws Lane off a roof, and sure enough, Superman appears to save her. Luthor then makes it clear that he’s been behind upping tensions between Batman and Superman on purpose, grooming Keefe, setting up the thing in Africa (because he knows that Superman will always save Lois Lane), and so on. He wants Superman to kill Batman or he will kill his mother.

Superman tells Lane what’s happening, and then flies off to try to convince Batman to help him. But Batman wants nothing to do with him, and they have a brutal fight. Batman uses his Kryptonite grenades on Superman, which enables him to have a chance in the battle. When they wear off, Batman goes for the spear, and is about to stab Superman in the heart when the latter pleads that Luthor will kill Martha. That gives Batman pause, as that’s his own mother’s name, also. Lane shows up there, and the knowledge that Superman has a mother and a girlfriend makes him realize that he’s not an alien thing, he’s a person.

He also realizes that Luthor has played him. Lane says that the ship is becoming a danger to Metropolis and Superman has to stop it. Batman promises to save his mother.

Batman rescues Martha. (“I’m a friend of your son’s.” “I figured—the cape.”) Superman confronts Luthor, but instead faces the monstrosity he has created from Zod’s corpse, which he calls Doomsday. Superman flies it into orbit, and the president reluctantly—and over Swanwick’s objections—orders a nuclear strike on both of them.

This backfires completely, as Doomsday feeds on energy, so the explosion just makes him stronger. Doomsday crash-lands on Striker’s Island, which is uninhabited. Batman goes after Doomsday while Superman hovers half-dead in orbit. Batman lures Doomsday to the abandoned Gotham Port, where he fought Superman, and where he left the Kryptonite spear.

Diana sees news footage of Doomsday’s rampage as she boards her plane, and she disembarks, showing up just in time to intercept Doomsday’s blast with her bracelets, saving Batman’s life.

Exposure to the sun’s rays restores Superman, and he rejoins the battle. The three heroes fight Doomsday valiantly, but futilely, as he regenerates any damage and absorbs any energy attack. Kryptonite is their only hope, and so Superman grabs the spear and flies it toward Doomsday (how he can fly while being hit with Kryptonite radiation is left as an exercise for the viewer), stabbing him fatally, though Doomsday does likewise to the now-weakened Superman, and they both die.

A big-ass military funeral is held for Superman in Metropolis, while a much less ostentatious one is held in Smallville for Clark Kent. Martha gives Lane a gift that Kent had sent to Martha in the mail: an engagement ring to give to Lane. She wears it as she tosses dirt into his grave.

Wayne and Diana vow to carry on Superman’s work, including gathering the other three heroes Luthor was keeping tabs on, because that’s the only way this cinematic universe will come together. For his part, Luthor is in jail, shaved bald, and ranting and raving about how “they’re coming!”

 

“Nobody cares about Clark Kent taking on the Batman”

Screenshot: Warner Bros Pictures

There are parts of this seemingly endless movie that are brilliant. When Batman rescues Martha, it’s the single best depiction of Batman engaged in hand-to-hand combat in live action in the eight decades of the character’s existence. To be fair, the bar is pretty low—the fight choreography in the 1940s serials was hilariously awful, the 1960s TV show’s fights were deliberately stylized and comical, and the less said about the incomprehensible jump-cutting during fights indulged in by Tim Burton, Joel Schumacher, and Christopher Nolan the better.

Ben Affleck is perfect in the role of the older Batman. While I know everyone involved in this film points to the older Bruce Wayne in The Dark Knight Returns, Affleck’s performance truly reminded me of the cranky old Wayne we saw voiced by Kevin Conroy in Batman Beyond—which is a great compliment, mind you. This is a Batman who is old and tired. Yes, he’s been more brutal and violent and murderous, but the news stories we see on the subject indicate that this is a new thing. He lost his partner to his greatest enemy, and now there’s this alien who can wipe everyone out, and did kill and maim several of his employees. Affleck’s Wayne is suffering from some serious post-traumatic stress disorder. His rant to Alfred about how Superman has to be destroyed if there’s even a 1% chance that he’ll turn on humanity is unhinged to say the least, but he does come around eventually. Affleck plays him as a person in serious pain—but you also buy it when he comes back to himself right before he almost stabs Superman, remembering that he still stands for something. I also like that he’s older (he’s explicitly in his 40s at this point) and trying to compensate for a body that is not going to get better with age (because they never do).

Jeremy Irons joins the great pantheon of live-action Alfreds, from Alan Napier’s dignified performance on the 1966 TV show to Michael Gough and Michael Caine in prior live-action films, to Sean Pertwee’s superlative turn on Gotham. Irons plays him as a polymath, more tech support than butler, and also acting exactly like the person who raised Wayne and who is the only person not willing to put up with his bullshit.

Honestly, this movie’s existence is worth it just to introduce us to Gal Gadot’s superlative Wonder Woman. She absolutely owns the role, from her amused look at Wayne as she drives off with his data, to her crowning moment of awesome when she arrives to fight Doomsday, to her smile as she fights the monster. (Her theme music is also fan-damn-tastic, and used beautifully throughout the movie.)

In this movie, Superman is allowed to at last be a hero, at least on paper. The movie talks about how he’s a hero now, and how Metropolis and the world love him. Senator Finch’s concerns about his taking the law into his own hands are legitimate, but also approached sensibly and calmly. As she says more than once in the movie, the essence of democracy is to have a conversation.

But aside from his rescue of Lane in Africa (which was a setup by Luthor to make Supes look bad) and his saving of the little girl in Mexico, we don’t actually see Superman be a hero. He’s only been around for eighteen months, but David S. Goyer, Chris Terrio, and Zack Snyder present it as if he’s been a hero for a long time, counting on the character’s pop-culture footprint to fill in the blanks.

Except it doesn’t work here because we don’t have a Superman who’s been around since 1938, we have a Superman who’s been around for eighteen months, and who introduced himself to the world by levelling two cities. The opening of the movie does a certain amount of work to provide a human cost to the carnage of Man of Steel, which is too little too late, though the effort is, at least, appreciated. And then we’re told that Superman’s a hero now, but we don’t see any of what he’s actually done in a year and a half. And that’s not a long enough time for him to be as lionized as he is.

We also trade down in villains, going from Michael Shannon’s awesomeness to Jesse Eisenberg’s whiny weirdo on speed, giving us the single worst live-action Lex Luthor imaginable, paired up with a tiresome CGI monster. Doomsday was a terrible villain in the comics when he sorta-kinda killed Superman in 1992, and he’s worse here. Luthor’s creation of the creature is never in any way convincing—seriously, why does the Kryptonian ship let him take over, exactly? doesn’t this super-advanced planet have any kind of security on its technology???—and the fight against the monster is spectacularly uninteresting. (At the very least, they make a point of having the fight take place in an abandoned location.)

So much that occurs in this movie happens, not because it makes sense, but because it’s necessary for the plot to work, starting with Jimmy Olsen being the only photographer in the 2010s who uses film rather than digital. Why does Mercy Graves let Wayne just wander around near Luthor’s servers twice? How did Luthor manipulate Keefe into sending the checks back when Luthor didn’t even meet Keefe until right before he sent him to blow up the Capitol? Why does Finch’s aide give Luthor everything he wants in order to further his evil plan? How does Luthor know that Superman always saves Lane? (Yes, that’s an old cliché in the comics and in past adaptations, but Superman’s only been around for eighteen months, that’s not long enough for the pattern to emerge.) How does Superman not know there’s a bomb in the Capitol, and why the hell doesn’t he move to at least try to save somebody, anybody using his super-speed and stuff? Why is Martha telling Superman that he doesn’t owe the world anything, beyond continuing the notion that this version of Kent has the worst parents ever? Why is Luthor smart enough to engineer this whole plan but dumb enough to leave unique bullets lying around that would raise red flags if examined? And most importantly, why is the guy who is made completely vulnerable by the spear the one to wield it instead of one of the other two heroes on the scene? Sure, Wonder Woman or Batman might also have died if they wielded the spear, but they have other skills they can bring to bear against Doomsday, while Superman, by the nature of what he’s wielding, has had those skills taken away from him.

Screenshot: Warner Bros Pictures

Most of the acting in the film is, at least, top-notch. There’s the notable exception of Eisenberg, of course, and Henry Cavill is not great, but that’s not really his fault. He’s saddled with a Superman who is indecisive and confused and annoyed and not allowed to actually be a hero for more than ten seconds. Honestly, his best scene is as Clark Kent when he first meets Bruce Wayne. In fact, that conversation is one of my favorites in any superhero movie, with the two of them laying their cards on the table without actually revealing who they are. (Then Eisenberg interrupts the conversation and utterly ruins the scene.)

But the rest of the cast is excellent. Besides Affleck, Gadot, and Irons, you’ve got Amy Adams as a supremely confident Lane. (Okay, one other thing Cavill does well is convince me that he loves Lane. Their scenes together are lovely.) Also Laurence Fishburne puts in a fine turn as a Perry White who is cynical and embittered about the state of print journalism, but still tries to do his job (and also keep his problem children, Kent and Lane, in line as best he can), and Holly Hunter is superb as the impressively nuanced senator.

It’s a pity they’re stuck in this slog of a movie. While there are individual scenes that are well done, the movie as a whole just takes forever and is a big mess. The movie just goes on and on and on. As glorious as she is, Diana is superfluous to the film—you remove her, and it changes not one bit of the story. She’s only there because this movie is painstakingly setting up a cinematic universe. In fact, it spends so much time doing that in a clumsy and obvious manner that it’s just sad. Wayne’s speech at the end is contrived as hell. (“I have a feeling.” Right, a feeling you got when you signed your contract for several films.)

This should have been an epic movie that brought icons together. Instead, it’s an unfocused, unholy, almost unbearable, sometimes unwatchable mess.

 

Superman’s death will have significant fallout, including a government team of semi-reformed super-villains. Next week, Suicide Squad.

Keith R.A. DeCandido will be an author guest at HELIOsphere 2019 this weekend in Tarrytown, New York, alongside some nifty guests of honor: authors Charlie Jane Anders and Laura Antoniou, artist Alan F. Beck, and singer/songwriter Tom Smith. Keith will be spending a lot of time at the eSpec Books booth selling copies of his books (including new releases Mermaid Precinct and A Furnace Sealed) and also doing programming. His full schedule can be found here.

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