Unless you’ve been living under a rock, I am sure you know that the highly anticipated Dawn of Justice movie came out. I am also sure you know that it was brutalized by most critics: It currently has a 29% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. However, among the general audience, it’s rating is 70%, and it has a 7.5 rating on IMBD. I myself watched it at 1 a.m. on the first Saturday morning, and I will readily say that the movie is not nearly as bad as the critics are making it out to be. In fact, I would say that the movie was mostly entertaining, though flawed in many important respects. So the question is: What gives? Why is there such a massive distance between critics and the general audience (to be fair, the way RT aggregates scores isn’t very nuanced)?
I’ll eventually review the movie itself, but I want to address this question first because I found many critical reviews frankly to be a bit off the mark. It gets even worse that Iron Man 2 and 3, objectively mediocre to terrible movies, astonishingly have a 72% and 79% rating on RT, respectively. In fact, I would have no problem saying that BvS is a better movie than those as well as other Marvel movies such as Thor 2 (66% on RT), and it’s not any worse than Age of Ultron (75% RT). I think there are a few illegitimate reasons why critical reviews were so incredibly negative:
- Conditioning by Marvel movies. In multiple reviews, critics complained that BvS was bleak, depressing, and overly dark. “Shouldn’t superhero films be fun?” they asked. “Will it kill you to have some upbeat tones and jokes? This is just Superman and Batman being mad at each other.” Since the Dark Knight trilogy, Marvel movies have taken off and have set the tone for superhero movies, and they are known for lightheartedness, incessant jokes, and bright colors. It really does seem like critics were looking for something that simply was not going to be there: This was not going to be a Disney Marvel flick, even if Snyder had ironed all of the film’s real flaws.
- Conditioning by old Superman films. Another source for critical expectation of positive feelings seems to be the old Superman films with Christopher Reeves, particularly Superman I & II. Fans of those movies are going to get mad at me for saying this, but it’s true: Those movies have not aged well, and I am not talking about the understandable limitations of special effects of that time. I’m talking about an overall cheesiness and campiness to them that will make a modern audience cringe. Man of Steel didn’t have that same tone and critics and some fans weren’t happy, and BvS simply wasn’t going to be that either. Critical expectation of cheese and feel-good nonsense became even clearer to me when multiple reviewers stated how delighted they were with the Flash and Supergirl crossover last Monday and how they wished BvS copied that tone. That episode featured horrific writing that sounded like it was written by emotional teenaged girls, corny acting, and a stupid climax. Yet we have people who get paid to write about entertainment actually say that they preferred that?
- Inconsistent standards. This is related to #1: Because the MCU has now built a brand, it seems like reviewers give those films a free pass even though there are some truly curious decisions when it comes to writing. Give Marvel credit for building that brand, but critics who are using their brains should resist passing out good grades to Marvel films simply because they have built a reputation. There are some legitimate criticisms of BvS, but some of those same criticisms can easily be applied to other Marvel movies, such as trying to cram too much into one movie while setting up other movies later (cough, Age of Ultron).
That said, as I have hinted, this does not mean that BvS did not have real problems, problems with choppy editing, incomplete storylines that were haphazardly “resolved” without real thematic unity, and one particularly bad casting. Still, the film has much to commend to it, such as amazing visuals, some good casting choices, and introduction to some surprisingly mature concepts (that they again dropped halfway through the movie, unfortunately).
****SPOILERS AFTER THIS****
I’m going to again do the good, bad, and ugly divisions.
-Most casting choices. I didn’t like some ways that wrote Batman, but that was not Affleck’s fault. Overall, I think he did a good job. Many people don’t like Henry Cavill and think his Superman is way too mopey, but again, he didn’t write the character, and he definitely commands a presence as Superman. Of course, the breakout star is Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman, who stole the scenes that she was in and made one awesome entry into the final battle. Even people who hated the movie admitted that Wonder Woman was pretty impressive, and this is coming from a guy who has always been a bit skeptical that a live action Wonder Woman could really work.
–The score. The music for the movie was quite good, especially Wonder Woman’s theme. This is to be expected, though, from Hans Zimmer.
–Visuals and fights. The visuals were mostly impressive, and The Batman/Superman fight was much more believable than how it is portrays by Frank Miller’s overrated The Dark Knight Returns because it correctly shows that Batman’s armor and traps are 100% useless against Superman unless he uses Kryptonite (and even then, Superman needed to play nice and get hit by multiple doses of Kryptonite gas for Batman to have any chance). Of course, I have long argued that even with Kryptonite, Batman should logically lose in .001 seconds to Superman because human beings are simply way more fragile than movies and comic books portray, but I get it, it’s a movie that needs them to fight.
The Batman-only fight at the end was quite good, if not a bit violent, being much better than the ones in the Dark Knight that featured a bit too many camera shaking and tricks. And again, Wonder Woman’s entry into the final battle with Doomsday definitely got the adrenaline going.
–Interesting philosophical and political questions. The movie had a lot of interesting elements that could have been explored with great success. One thing that I wished it really dove into is the question of how much a being like Superman should do. This is a different question, mind you, than the one Marvel is asking in its upcoming Captain America movie because Superman is so much more powerful than any current hero in the MCU. As Batfleck correctly states in the movie, Superman could, if he wanted, destroy everyone on earth and nobody could stop him. A being like that raises many questions about how power should be used, and it is understandable that people would be fearful. These are not only questions for others; they are questions for Superman himself as he struggles with the consequences of his actions (this is why I did not mind a more self-reflective and somber Superman). The only “dream” sequence that was remotely interesting to me was when he talked with Jonathan Kent again, and his earthly father told him a story of how he and Clark’s grandfather saved the farm by blocking flooding water, only to inadvertently flood a neighboring farm by redirecting the water there. This drove home the point that Superman has to consider that his actions can have drastic consequences that he cannot always foresee, as he saw when he unintentionally created an international incident by saving Lois early in the movie.
This is a nuanced but very interesting question that the movie brought up, and it is certainly one that makes Bruce Wayne very wary of Superman. This is why I was not that annoyed when Lex Luthor brought up the simplistic problem of evil argument against God because he basically epitomized the typical angry atheist who hates God because he cannot stand that something is greater than he is. An egotistical maniac like Luthor of course will hate Superman because Superman’s very existence is a blow to his ego, as it can be a blow to many other people’s egos and countries’ sense of power. I could have done without some of the more overt liberal political messages that Snyder sneaked into the movie, but the difficult and divisive question that Superman would pose was good to bring up.
Not only that, the philosophical differences between Superman and Batman was something that was good to explore. Superman, as written above, is struggling with how to use his powers in a way that doesn’t frighten people, but Batman is all about using fear, and this version of Batman has become so cynical to the point that he brutally beats up bad guys and even kills a few without hesitation (before you freak out, Tim Burton’s Batman killed quite often). Superman is still new and trying to learn how to play by the rules as much as possible; Batman has been at this hero business a long time and thinks that the rules are often flawed and stupid. Even in other stories of DC where Batman and Superman are close friends, there remain deep philosophical differences between them that often lead to argument. Throw in Wonder Woman’s apparent loss of faith in mankind, and there were many interesting questions that were hinted at. To me, these were far more interesting than Marvel’s insistence in making cheap jokes.
Unfortunately, they were only hinted at. Their final execution was not good.
-A bumbled story ending. The last fights were impressive. The resolution of the interesting questions I talked about above was not; in fact, it was downright lazy and senseless.
The question of the consequences of Superman’s power and actions? It disappeared halfway through the movie, and the movie surprisingly ignored the mass destruction Metropolis had undergone during Man of Steel after the opening scenes. The real philosophical differences in fighting evil between Superman and Batman? Also disappeared. Instead, Lex Luthor somehow finds out who Superman really is and captures his mom, forcing Superman to fight Batman. However, instead of immediately telling Batman, “Hey, Lex has my mom and that’s why I’m fighting you!”, Superman is unnecessarily unclear and even pushes around Batman like a rag doll for good measure, as if that’s going to make him listen. That fight ends when Batman finds out that Superman’s mom has the same name as his, Martha… and then they become allies. What? First of all, if Batman is the world’s greatest detective, surely he could find out who Superman is if Lex Luthor can, and thus he should already know this. Secondly, even if he didn’t know, it’s not like he wouldn’t know that Superman probably has a mom somewhere, so why does it matter what her name is? You only remember he probably has loved ones and is a pretty good dude just because his mommy shares your mommy’s name? I mean, seriously, this was such a lazy way to get them fighting and to resolve that fight that I had to try not to roll my eyes.
It was clear that a true sequel to Man of Steel was needed along with a standalone Batman film to set up this movie so that all of those interesting things I talked about could be more fully explored. Instead, DC looked across at the MCU’s growing universe and tried to take a shortcut, and they consequently cheapened what could have been a movie better than anything the MCU has produced. Unfortunate.
–Silly dream sequences. Too much Age of Ultron-like nonsense to set up new movies. The Flash showed up briefly to give Batman a message from the future while Batman was dreaming (not sure how that works)… and it felt out of place, random, and dumb.
–The irrationality of Batman. I don’t mind a cynical Batman that doesn’t go out of his way to spare criminals, but his insistence on killing Superman was nonsense. He knows Superman is not a bad guy but only dangerous, and yet he wants to just flat destroy him… why? It’s very Batman-like to make contingency plans, but to get easily manipulated by Lex Luthor into trying to kill Superman out of anger and fear really made Batman look like an idiot. It makes it even worse that he changes his mind because Superman’s mommy is also named Martha.
Oh, and a Kryptonite spear is dumb. Absolutely no rational reason to build such a thing.
–Choppy editing and useless plotlines. For a long movie that tried to cram too much into it, it sure spent some time on some uninteresting parts, like a man angry at Superman for being injured during the Battle of Metropolis.
–Kryptonian technology easily accessed. This is a problem for many movies, but seriously, Kryptonian technology is not only alien (complete with alien language), it is supposedly centuries if not millennia more advanced than anything on earth. Yet Lex Luthor waltzes in Zod’s ship and fools it easily to give him command.
-The death of Superman was not earned. This is what I mean when I say that they needed a true Superman sequel. Cavill’s Superman is likable enough, but we’ve seen him in two movies where he struggles more about finding his place in the world rather than being the great symbol of hope he normally is. Because the audience has not yet attached themselves to this Superman yet, his death just did not have the impact that it’s supposed to have. In the comics, when he died, the entire world and the entire Justice League mourns for him. Here, it just seemed too early for a storyline like that. Granted, since Superman is so absurdly powerful, it could be a way to let other heroes shine, but that does not excuse how rushed all of this feels.
And really, he had to be the one who used the dumb Kryptonite spear on Doomsday? And it’s not like he needed it; he’s Kryptonian himself and can kill or defeat Doomsday without it. He was even smartly taking Doomsday into space until the US government stupidly nuked them both.
-Lex Luthor’s character stunk. I just do not understand how writers can screw up a character that is gifted to them on a silver platter. I’ve said many times before that I do not think Lex Luthor is a believable villain for Superman for modern audiences, but if you’re going to use him, my gosh, just use the source material; heck, use the animated cartoons because those versions of Luthor are well done. It’s not hard: Find a 6’0+ white dude with a deep voice, shave his head, and tell him to be calm, calculated, but sinister. Instead, they write some idiotic, twitchy, and altogether unthreatening version of Lex that makes him more like a little brat. Jesse Eisenberg was just not good for this role, and it looked like he tried to channel too much Joker into it. The writing for this character, the acting, and his role in the story was just absolute garbage. It floors me how directors and studios can make such mind-boggling mistakes on things that should be easy.
By the way, Gene Hackman’s Lex is garbage too. Sadly enough, the best live action Lex Luthor we’ve ever seen is probably Michael Rosenbaum’s on Smallville because the movie-makers are too stupid to get it right. Yep.
There are real problems with this movie, but it was not that bad, nor is many of its criticisms all that convincing. Warner Bros. and DC should have slowed down and patiently built this world, but they clearly did not; in that regard, I’ll cut Zack Snyder a little bit of slack because I’m sure that he, like Joss Whedon, was pressured by the studio to make this movie a certain way. Maybe his director’s cut will be great, but though this movie was entertaining, it really felt like a missed opportunity for making some great.