"How about you don't shoot the good guys?"
How to explain the whirling, swirling vortex that is the career of Zack Snyder? There's no way to do it adequately, other than to say he makes movies almost exclusively for 14 year old boys, full of musclebound dudes, busty babes, cool editing tricks, and a non-stop barrage of special effects to take over when he's exhausted his storytelling potential. The film of his I actually admire the most is Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole, because he was at least trying for something different and succeeding. One thing you can always count on with Snyder is that he's consistent. You can feel him really trying his best to give the fanboys the greatest possible experience, often at the expense of the characters those fanboys came to see in action.
This is where Snyder often can't maintain his footing, and it's on display throughout Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. The thing of it is, this film is far from unwatchable, especially if you, like me, have accepted Snyder's limitations as a filmmaker before walking into the theater. Man of Steel was such a colossal disappointment, not least of all because Snyder chose to focus on grounding Superman in this world that didn't seem to want his help, that my expectations couldn't help but bottom themselves out before entering the theater. And here's the strange thing... I enjoyed watching it. It’s a really, really, really, really stupid movie. Really stupid. But I don't regret watching it.
The minute I got home from the theater and started really thinking about the film's many problems, my head began to hurt. It's a mess of a movie, but it completely held my attention, which was a real surprise considering the bloated two and a half hour running time. Overall it just suffers from too-muchness, a common problem in superhero movies of the last five years. There are so many subplots and side quests happening in this film, many of them feel to me in retrospect like they came from another film entirely. Perhaps the best thing about the film is that there's some real meat in those subplots, particularly Batman's entire arc. This comes, of course, at the expense of the big picture which seems to just keep fanning the flames that will lead the to the titular showdown.
The film opens with what is thankfully clarified as a dream where a young Bruce Wayne first discovers the Batcave during his parents' funeral. I say this because when this young boy finds the batcave, the bats fly him to the surface. I was instantly infuriated, thinking that this was the dumbest addition to Batman's backstory ever, compounded by the fact that it occurs as Zack Snyder's directing credit is flashed across the screen. As boneheaded as the attempt is, Snyder is at least trying to establish that this Batman will be prone to frequent daydreaming.
I must also admit that I appreciate the reverse engineering that seems to have gone into DC and WB's Justice League plan, provided that it's to establish the characters in these bigger movies and then send them off on a side adventure or something that's not another god damned origin story in their solo films. If this is accurate, I can't help but give them credit for figuring out how to do things differently than Marvel. Whether or not it actually pays off, however, remains to be seen. While all of the additional superhero setups in this film seemed strange—as does the fact that Lex Luthor seems to have sketched up some sweet logos for each of them—I get why Snyder thinks the fans want them there. I don't agree with him, but I get it.
Ben Affleck manages, for the first time in a long time, to be the best thing about a seriously troubled movie. He clearly spent time with his Argo screenwriter Chris Terrio crafting and reshaping his scenes for maximum impact. They don't all land, but his rapport with the fantastic Jeremy Irons is the highlight of the film. Henry Cavill does what Snyder and Goyer require of their Superman, which will certainly be a letdown for many, but I find him to be more a victim of lackluster writing and directing than a bad actor. Gal Gadot kills it in her handful of scenes, nicely setting up the character and making her the most interesting person in any room in which she finds herself.
The film's treatment of every other female character, however, is problematic. Holly Hunter shows up basically to drink piss and look like she's thinking about the addition on her house this movie's paycheck is going to buy her. Diane Lane's Martha Kent and Amy Adams' Lois Lane are essentially plot devices who are constantly put in peril to draw Superman out of hiding. I don't think this makes Snyder a misogynist or anything, I think he's falling into the same moral trap that Brian DePalma found himself in throughout his equally troubled career. He subscribes to the age old—some might say sexist—adage that a female character in distress helps the audience to react more viscerally to the situation. Hitchcock did this all the time too, but no one accused him of sexism. It's all in the execution, and that's where I think Snyder's harshest critics pounce, and rightly so.
Now, about the stringy-haired elephant in the room, aka Jesse Eisenberg. What they had was a really interesting concept for the character, at least the way I read it. Luthor was trying to prove conclusively to his overtly religious father that he is more powerful than God. This seems to be what Eisenberg is going for, but it was too buried in a number of other muddled actions that made his character seem like an unmotivated lunatic. I'll say this... I think Eisenberg knew this was a bad movie and pitched his performance accordingly. It's the only plausible excuse I can muster. I get why the general public and the critical community can't stand him in the film, but I think he was almost always the most interesting person in any of his given scenes.
I've basically exhausted my praise at this point, simply to say that virtually everything else about the film just doesn't work. It's a catastrophic mess of ideas and conflicting viewpoints, all of which dissolves into a cacophony of noise in its final hour, but none of which I found disengaging. I'll get into more specifics of what didn't work in our spoiler filled discussion tomorrow, but please know that I'm not ignoring this film's many, many, many problems. I'm simply saying that for a film for which I had very little hope, I found it to be an entertaining, mostly engaging flick that didn't bore me while I was watching it. It's not the rave of the century, but it's much better than its reputation suggests.
—Senator Purrington: The Senator to Holly Hunter's right during the Trail of Superman is named Senator Purrington. Bonus points to anyone who names their cat this.
—Additional bonus points to anyone who takes the soundtrack off Ben Affleck's homoerotic P90x commercial of a workout sequence in the middle of this movie and replaces it with Frank Stallone's "Far From Over."
—Shostakovich's Jazz Suite, Waltz 2, Zack Snyder? Really? The same music Kubrick opened Eyes Wide Shut with? Come on, dude.
—Forget "Run Pee," here's all you need to know: Anytime you see Scoot McNairy on screen, it's a good time to go to the bathroom.
—Did anyone else hear Lex say, "Ahoy hoy," like Mr. Burns when we first meet him?
—The White Portuguese? Someone's been watching too much True Detective while writing their superhero movie.
—The guy the kids bring the kryptonite to at the beginning of the movie shall henceforth be known as "Not Rutger Hauer."
—Throwaway lines about the places they're fighting being uninhabited are a nice touch, even though they reek of backtracking.
—Did Ben Affleck work in a Winnebago Man reference when talking to Superman?
—Zack Snyder and David S. Goyer must have been watching Se7en, Fight Club, and Take Shelter on a loop when crafting Batman's storyline. Busting up illegal prostitution rings in green lit rooms? Check! Bruce Wayne chatting up a criminal at an underground fight club? Check! Batman haunted by near constant visions of an apocalyptic future? Come on guys, stop being so obvious with your references.
—Also, did we need to see the kickback on Joe Chill's gun snap Martha Wayne's necklace like that, Snyder? Batman's mom taking a bullet at point blank range doesn't belong in a PG-13 movie, I've got kids here! (In fairness, I didn't, but there were LOTS of kids at my Saturday morning screening)
—I could watch an entire movie where Jesse Eisenberg drags that Michael Shannon dummy around on adventures. Someone at DC needs to slot that one on the release calendar.