by John S
Movie Postmortem is a monthly series that reviews certain films that showed promise but misfired (critically and/or commercially) upon initial release. Join us in our attempt to find out exactly what the hell happened.
The Casualty: Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice
(NOTE: This postmortem examines the theatrical release, not the so-called “Ultimate Edition” release on Blu-Ray, which restores about 30 minutes of story that makes the flick a tad clearer but ultimately still doesn’t save it.)
The Case History: The concept of Batman and Superman pimp-slapping and bitch-slapping each other through Gotham and Metropolis isn’t exactly new. It’s been around at least since 1986, when the comic-book mini-series The Dark Knight Returns pitted them against each other. However, it wasn’t until 2007, during a brief scene in Will Smith’s I Am Legend remake, that we unexpectedly got a glimmer of what a duel between The Bat and The Muscley Dude In Red Underwear And Blue Tights might look like on the big screen.
Smith, playing the lone NYC human survivor of a horrifying pandemic, wanders into Times Square with his loyal doggie. The place is deserted and overgrown (who the hell knew weeds grew in Times Square?) but the towering billboards, long since gone dark, remain like phantom sentinels. One of them shows – wait for it – the Bat Signal with the Superman insignia within it. Presumably the pandemic threw a serious monkey wrench in the movie’s opening weekend. After all, if your only audience is Will Smith (and his doggie) your box-office ain’t going to be one to write home about.
And so the inexorable countdown to a Batman-Beats-The-Crap-Out-Of-Superman-And-Vice Versa movie starts. Flash forward several years later and Warner Brothers, the studio behind the big-screen DC Universe, realizes that Marvel has basically done too good a job of setting up its own domain, with individual superhero flicks carefully laying the groundwork for The Avengers and its sequel. Some badly-needed catch up is clearly in order. WB announces the much-discussed BvS flick will be the follow-up to Man of Steel, the 2013 reboot of the Superman mythos that isn’t half-bad, despite a Clark Kent/Superman who is competent but not commanding and a third act that devolves into some CGI company’s endless demo reel illustrating 1,000,000-and-1 ways to destroy downtown Metropolis.
In other words, if Marvel is the strategic, methodical student carefully studying months in advance for a final exam, DC is the reckless, feckless procrastinator who shows up the day of the test without having cracked a book and expects not just a mere passing grade, but an actual A-plus. Guess which one of them gets the bracing reality check? The like-hate-like-again-hate-once-more relationship fanboys and fangals have with the successive BvS trailers and “insider” reports that the movie actually sucks adds to the lukewarm buzz and trepidation.
None of this iffy press prevents Batman V Superman from grossing over $80 million on it’s first day of national release on March 25, 2016. However, much of that bad buzz (to include increasingly savage reviews) probably contributes to the steep daily drop-off as the weekend progresses. Ultimately, BvS grosses around $166 million for its opening day weekend. Not bad, overall. However, that daily slide in business indicates not-so-good-probably-bad word-of-mouth is spreading fast.
Ultimately, Batman V Superman grosses about $330 million in North America for its entire run, not even twice its opening weekend take. Globally, it rakes in around $873 million (including North America), well short of the hallowed $1 billion mark repeatedly reached by past DC films like The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises and some of the Marvel films. With a reported production budget of over $300 million, BvS will likely break even and maybe even turn a profit. However, given the much-anticipated, long-awaited nature of this face-off between two super-famous, ultra-iconic superheroes, it should’ve performed better at the domestic and international markets, and its mass reception shouldn’t lean more to the negative. Warner Brothers reportedly even announced it would limit the number of films released in the future, to focus more on its franchises and tentpole films. Presumably, so another Batman V Superman scenario doesn’t rear its head again.
So what the hell happened?
The Autopsy Details: Oy, this is going to be a mess, much like the flick itself. In all fairness, though, there are elements of BvS that work. Some scenes and passages are interesting, even compelling. The problem is they just never coalesce into a coherent narrative. Director Zack Snyder seems to be more concerned with pretty visuals and stylish imagery than telling a full-blooded story. To be fair to him, though, he’s dealing with a screenplay that’s got way too many threads and not enough time to sufficiently weave them into something satisfying. More on that later.
For now, let’s discuss what is “good” about BvS. First and foremost: Ben Affleck, despite all the initial outcry about his casting, proves to be the anchor that holds this movie together. His Bruce Wayne is world-weary, grizzled, but with a lot of intensity and fight still in him. His version of Batman is brutal, merciless, and formidable. Also, his “batman voice” is actually intimidating and sinister, instead of borderline-ridiculous and risible (paging Christian Bale). In fact, whenever Affleck is onscreen, the film is stronger. He’s grown as an actor and that is evident here because of how well he holds your attention. I, for one, cannot wait for his solo flick which he will also direct, The Batman.
Ditto for Gal Gadot as Diana Prince/Wonder Woman. This is the first time Diana has appeared on the big screen, and her sequences do not disappoint. Gadot brings a slinky, feline grace to Diana Prince, and her initial glimpses are tantalizing. Leading Wayne on a cat-and-mouse chase through a party, then leaving him in her dust as she speeds off in a sports car, only to reconnect with him at another gala event where she cuts him down to size without trying and disappears yet again, she is like The Best Bond Girl In A Non-Bond Movie: frosty but alluring, accessible yet enigmatic. And when Diana finally steps out as Wonder Woman at the climax and turns fiery, she also delivers. Big-time. Bring on the Wonder Woman movie.
Amy Adams is another plus and continues to put a refreshingly earthy take on Lois Lane. Margot Kidder was probably more colorful and is the Classic Lois, but Adams is very good in her own right. Also, she’s far more believable in the role than Kate Bosworth from Superman Returns, who was way too young to play a tough, seasoned, savvy reporter. However, one request: can we please have a friggin’ moratorium on the kidnapping of female love interests in Superhero Flicks? Seriously. Tired doesn’t even begin to cover it. Anyhow, besides Adams we get other strong support in the form of the awesome Holly Hunter as a steely senator, Scoot McNairy as collateral damage from Man of Steel, and Diane Lane doing her usual thing of making a small role feel bigger than it is through sheer talent.
Now, the “bad” or, in some cases, just not-so-good. The least of the offenders: Henry Cavill. He was okay in Man of Steel but not exactly smashing. Sure, he had the right physique and looks. However, he didn’t really bring much to the role beyond that. As written, Kal-El / Clark Kent / Superman was supposed to be conflicted, torn between wanting to live a normal life but clearly being anything but normal. Cavill didn’t exactly make that conflict super-compelling and he continues to be one-note here, walking around with the same frowny expression suggesting he smelled something bad. The best actors bring more to the role than what is on the script page, and in both Man of Steel and Batman V Superman he doesn’t go above and beyond. He just does enough to pass. The result is a more lackluster performance than before. Or maybe it’s just more noticeable this time around because he has a co-lead who is so much more effective. Affleck pretty much outshines Cavill here.
If Cavill doesn’t bring enough to the role beyond the minimum that is asked for, Jesse Eisenberg brings far more to the role than is required, and it’s not the right stuff. His overkill take on Lex Luthor (Junior, actually) is downright irritating. It’s as if the writers forgot villains are supposed to formidable. Here, Luthor is a laughable twerp who needs to be slapped around or just outright punched in the face and kicked aside. Not sure why the decision was made to make Luthor younger, but it’s a big misstep and casting Eisenberg exacerbates the situation. Bryan Cranston was reportedly considered for the role before it was made younger. Cranston would have made a far more creditable (and credible) baddie. Instead, we get one of the worst villains in Superhero Movie History.
As bland as Cavill is, and as ill-executed as Eisenberg comes across, the real heart-stopper here is the screenplay itself. The Ultimate Edition on Blu-Ray is just a bit better because it clarifies some plot points and gives us more of Diana Prince and Lois Lane. It also gives Superman a bit more screentime to balance out the Batman scenes. However, this movie postmortem dissects the theatrical release, and that version, put simply, is a disjointed, confusing mess. (To be frank, the Ultimate Edition isn’t even close to being ultimate, just longer and little less confusing.) The central idea of Batman and Superman in conflict is an interesting one, and at least the set-up is solid: Bruce Wayne blames Superman for the massive collateral damage that claimed the lives of many Wayne Enterprises employees at the end of Man of Steel.
Unforunately, this thread doesn’t go anywhere logical or compelling. Instead of Batman/Wayne trying to find out who Superman is and confronting him, we follow multiple threads that don’t weave together well. A few of these threads are interesting by themselves: Senator June Finch (Hunter) pursuing her own quest for holding Superman accountable, Lois Lane investigating Lex Luthor’s connection to organized crime and terrorism, Diana Prince’s intriguing appearances and her mysterious agenda. Unfortunately, these and other threads are not strung together in any way that effectively creates dramatic tension and rising action. Add to that a bizarre, hamfisted dream sequence/flash-forward vision involving, um, The Flash which occurs about halfway through the film that effectively derails the story, ensuring the film never gets back on track.
In keeping with the “Keep It Simple, Stupid” rule of writing, it would have been better to jettison some of these threads and elements and focus more on the Batman/Superman dynamic. Perhaps the structure of films like The Fugitive and The Bourne Supremacy could’ve been emulated: one protagonist chases the other, believing him guilty, only for the former to very gradually come to believe in the innocence of the latter, as mutual respect and an unexpected alliance builds between the two of them, and they soon realize the real villainous mastermind is someone else whom they must work together to overcome.
But it’s not possible to keep things simple when a studio is trying to make up for lots of lost time, is it? The major problem with the script is that, in a desperate attempt to catch up with Marvel and find the fastest way to the Justice League, the writers take way too many shortcuts towards establishing a DC universe, short-changing the primary story they are trying to tell. Unlike Marvel’s careful groundwork built through several years and multiple films, Batman V Superman attempts to spin a full-fledged world without the proper set-up and the woefully half-ass results are as clear as a Bat Signal in the night sky. One hopes the Justice League movies will benefit from the lessons learned on BvS.
Likely Cause of Death: Snyder is better at dazzling the eyes than telling a tale. Cavill is The Most Gorgeous Piece of Plywood In The Galaxy. Cranston should have played Lex Luthor (not Faux Mark Zuckerberg). However, the clunky, uneven, bloated script is the real killer here. If the rumor that Warner Brothers executives gave this movie a standing ovation at an early private screening is actually true, then I guess Hollywood really does exist in a completely different dimensional plane than the rest of us. Or as a friend opined with graceful, profound eloquence when I shared that story with him: “Did they watch the same f***ing movie we did? Or are they smoking some especially potent weed down there in L.A.?”
We’ll never know. And thank goodness for that.
Next Month’s Casualty: Licence To Kill – “His bad side is a dangerous place to be.”
Before there was Daniel Craig. Before there was Casino Royale. Before we had a gritty, bad-ass Bond more likely to crush you than quip you, constantly going rogue and taking no prisoners, we had Timothy Dalton and Licence To Kill.
The heavily-competitive Blockbuster Summer of 1989 spanked this flick, but it remains one of the best in the Bond Franchise. LTK had it all: an atypically realistic story; a vicious, complex, refreshingly believable villain; two clever Bond Ladies who not only impact the plot but also (SPOILER ALERT!) both survive; and last but definitely far from least: the best James Bond after Sean Connery, Timothy D.
Yeah, I said it. Sorry, Danny: your schtick is good, but it ain’t original. Props to The Dalton who paved the way.
John S. is a Scarecrow volunteer who loves James Bond, Jason Bourne, Italian Gialli, Dario Argento, Hitchcock, Ridley Scott, Peanut M&Ms with popcorn, Julia Roberts in PRETTY WOMAN, Theo James in anything, HALLOWEEN (movie and holiday), Scarecrow Video, Russell Crowe as a villain, strawberry soda, and Karaoke – not necessarily in that order.