Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice is a two-and-a-half hour movie trailer, a Frankenstein’s monster of corporate ambition and fan service gone overboard.
The first hour or so of Zach Snyder’s new film serves its purpose well enough as a sequel to the filmmaker’s 2013 Superman reboot, Man of Steel, exploring the issues of power and accountability. In many ways a reaction to the public backlash aimed at the wanton fictional destruction at the end of Man of Steel, the opening act pits Superman (Henry Cavill) against Batman (Ben Affleck) and a senator played by Holly Hunter, with the latter side believing that no one man — or alien god — should have such unchecked ability to level cities. But about an hour into the proceedings, that plot line blows up — quite literally — and we’re then thrust into a relentless series of hat tips, winks, world-building, and distracting cutaways.
Warner Bros., which owns DC Comics, has not been shy about its big screen intentions: It wants a Marvel-style shared universe of blockbuster films, and it wants it yesterday. Instead of slowly building towards big team-up films, as Marvel was forced to do with lower-tier heroes such as Iron Man and Captain America beginning in 2008, Warner is going all-in from the start, with a whole decade’s worth of films announced before BvS was even in the editing room.
The corporate mandate means films filled with not only major icons, such as the titular heroes/combatants in BvS, but also characters for whom most casual moviegoers have no real affinity. This is where things get dicey, but you could forgive Snyder and WB for thinking that stuffed-to-the-gills geekery would be a successful strategy. Given hardcore fans’ obsession with every little detail in these films, as well as their desperate desire to see as many of their heroes on the big screen, this is a good way to guarantee people show up. Comic book fans are on a perpetual campaign to see their favorite fictional worlds realized as fully as possible.
In this case, that leads to some very awkward and head-scratching moments, especially for the casual fan, as well as anyone who just wants to enjoy the movie on its own.
Warning: The following section contains spoilers.
The first confusing sequence involves a bizarre and mostly unexplained waking dream that Bruce Wayne seems to have while waiting for some files to decrypt. He’s just sitting there, and then all of a sudden, enters into a strange fugue state that involves a wild action sequence and what looks to be the insignia for Darkseid, the big bad of the DC Universe, though the villain does not appear in this film. It was undoubtedly designed to elicit roars from in-the-know fans, but a five minute action sequence smack in the middle of a computer encryption scene is a bizarre and momentum-killing choice.
Later, Bruce spends time staring slack-jawed at a century-old photo of Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) taken during World War I. Maybe they should have run a little subtitle explaining that director Patty Jenkins’s upcoming Wonder Woman solo film will be set during World War I and explore the hero’s origin story, because without that context, the scene was a bit baffling. And even with that information, some sort of formal introduction to Wonder Woman would have been helpful — at this point most people only know her in passing. Until the end of the film, she just seemed like a mysterious woman hanging around Lex Luthor’s house.
At least Wonder Woman played some role in the film, by the end. In the case of the rest of the heroes teased in BvS, their cameos felt like they would have functioned as post-credit scenes, or maybe extras on the eventual three-hour, R-rated home video release.
Here’s where the mix of fan service and corporate impatience becomes toxic. As the video above indicates, there is a strange obsession in the fan community with seeing as many heroes in a single movie as possible, regardless of whether it actually makes sense for the story at hand. Later in the film, Wonder Woman spends a solid two minutes sitting at a computer, looking at different files on Lex Luthor’s hard drive, each of which contains a security video featuring a member of the Justice League. We get brief peeks at The Flash, Aquaman and Cyborg, though they have no bearing on the film; it’s as if WB is just trying to subliminally place them in the casual viewer’s mind, while drawing some cheers from the hardcore fan.
All of this fan service and corporate synergy hurts the film in another way: It is two-and-a-half-hours, but feels somewhat slapped together. There are few transitions, and characters jump from action scene to action scene without much explanation; it’s almost as if they are omniscient, and as several moments in the film show, that is just not the case.
Even with largely poor reviews — it’s at 39 percent on Rotten Tomatoes right now — the film has been marketed so heavily, and stars such iconic American superheroes, that it’s likely to succeed at the box office and lead to further sequels and spinoffs. Which really just makes us wish that Snyder and co. had just concentrated on the task at hand, since jamming the film with fan service moments just wasn’t required for success.