It’s been a strange week for Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. When the first few reviews hit the Internet on Tuesday, things weren’t great, but the smattering of boos quickly built to a unified chorus—by Thursday, the movie’s Rotten Tomatoes rating had slipped from the mid-40s to 31% (29% if you count just “top critics.”) Worse, there was a barely concealed glee suffusing the snit parade. “Laborious.” “Baffling.” “Humorless.” “Dead on arrival.” It felt, honestly, as though people had gone in ready to pan the movie. This can’t be right, we thought. Some people must have liked it. But sending just one person to review the movie seemed like we were unnecessarily limiting the sample size. So we sent two! And, as we’d hoped, they had differing takes on the superhero epic. Were either of the takes positive? Depends what your definition of that word is. Forthwith, though, your two takes on BvS—for better or for worse. (Or at least for not-quite-worse or for worse.)
Review 1: Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice Fights a War with Itself—and Loses
Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is a misnomer. It’s not about one hero fighting another, not about the Dark Knight trying to pummel the Man of Steel. No, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is a movie at war with itself. And it loses.
But really, it couldn’t win. Before it was even filmed, fans were picking apart this movie. People on Twitter had a field day over the casting of Ben Affleck as Bruce Wayne. Others—probably those who had seen Sucker Punch—wondered why the keys of the DC kingdom remained in director Zack Snyder’s cold, dead hand. Others simply wondered: “Why is Jesse Eisenberg here? Was there a going-out-of-business sale on Awkward Guy roles and he missed it?” As a result, Batman v Superman plays out like a movie painfully aware of everything squaring off against it, and in stiffening its jaw to take every blow becomes too tense to enjoy the fact that it’s a popcorn movie. No film with a mad scientist (Eisenberg’s Lex Luthor), a Batmobile, and a budget the size of a Powerball jackpot should be trying this hard to be entertaining—especially not one with three superheroes on its side.
It would be easy to say those three heroes are the problem—that in trying to give each of them their arc, BvS gets overstuffed. Yet, that’s not it. In fact, Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman, the one hero largely unconflicted about her hero-ness, is the one thing that actually livens up the movie. When she shows up, her bring-on-Doomsday moxie reminds everyone that even Serious Superhero Movies should still be exciting. Unfortunately, she arrives too late; Batfleck has already appeared in umpteen “Life in the Batcave” montages, while Superman (Henry Cavill) has spent an equal amount of time wondering why Earth will never appreciate his help. This movie really does put the “bro” in “brooding”—not even Wonder Woman’s Bracelets of Submission mange to convince either actor to appear like they’re enjoying anything.
Most of the fault for this disconnect falls behind the camera. Zack Snyder clearly wants to make Great Films, and he means for BvS to be about something, to make some commentary about courage in a cynical world (or whatever). But, like any superhero movie, it can be boiled down to “honesty and courage = good,” so the ponderous shots of billowing capes and bullet casings falling in slow-mo aren’t cinematic fillips—they’re weight around its neck.
This is where Batman v Superman falls apart. By succumbing to its try-hard tendencies, it loses all spontaneity. There are moments of joy, but they are far too few. Of its 151-minute running time, about 23 are truly enjoyable. In other words, one in six moments here is worth watching. With odds like that, it’s a bad bet—no matter who’s fighting. —Angela Watercutter
Review 2: Batman v Superman Isn’t as Bad as the Pile-On Around It
Rumors of Batman v Superman‘s demise have been greatly exaggerated. Snyder’s film is getting clobbered like it’s a disaster of Fantastic Four proportions. But it’s more thematically ambitious and memorable than many other superhero movies. Man of Steel, Thor: The Dark World, The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man 2, and maybe even Age of Ultron come to mind—all of which may have been mediocre, but received critical leeway we’re apparently not willing to extend to this film.
Both DC and Marvel are mired in trying to tell stories about fantastical heroes in a modern world, one full of terrorism and fear. Charlie Jane Anders at io9 smartly laid out how both Batman v Superman and Captain America: Civil War both look to grapple with how America has changed since the golden age of these comic superheroes. But where Marvel endeavors to keep its films brighter both visually and tonally—to often excellent effect—Warner Bros. and DC let Snyder dive headfirst into the ethical and geopolitical implications of Superman. This isn’t the first time Snyder has chosen the path of most resistance; his adaptation of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen did likewise, and was similarly—and unfairly— maligned. But as as Marvel’s more escapist take on a comic-book universe claims more and more space on the release calendar, more complex considerations are maybe more needed than ever.
There are moments of joy in BvS, though most come from the casting. Ben Affleck turns out to be a sneakily perfect Batman, the right blend of tortured psychopath and sleazy billionaire. Jesse Eisenberg plays Lex Luthor like Justin Timberlake’s Sean Parker from The Social Network turned up to 11 (and I mean that as a good thing). And Gal Godot is already owning Wonder Woman, which bodes well for her 2017 standalone film. And Holly Hunter, Jeremy Irons, Laurence Fishburne, and Diane Lane all get at least one shining moment—and in some cases several more.
With this critical pile-on, we’re focusing too much on the Batman v Superman part and missing the equal weight given to its subtitle. Dawn of Justice has to establish DC’s nascent cinematic universe just as firmly as all of Marvel’s pre-Avengers films—without the benefit of 10 hours of storytelling. Maybe that’s cheating, but the way BvS teases next year’s massive Justice League team-up is genuinely exciting, from cameos we’ve known about for months to an extended dream sequence.
Sure, the movie has glaring problems (why was Amy Adams in that bathtub to examine a bullet? How did Lex Luthor know how anything Kryptonian functioned?) and some puzzling stylistic choices (I’m looking at you, opening and closing philosophical voiceover narration). But if it fails, it’s at least a noble failure—one that puts you in a horrific nightmare and refuses to dilute the fear with an endless array of quips. Just because these heroes aren’t drinking buddies doesn’t mean the movie is hard to swallow. —K.M. McFarland