Movie Review - Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice
By Ben Gruchow
March 29, 2016

I'm not sure he understands the core concept of the Bat Signal.

Among all of the objective strengths inherent to Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies, one of the more subconscious ones is the nature of the sound design, and specifically the score by Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard. The Nolan pictures are intense, focused pieces of work, and the score has the effect of unobtrusively but constantly underlining every scene. Go back and watch any of the three, or all of them. There’s scarcely a moment where there isn’t non-diegetic music playing at varying levels of volume. This unending pitch of percussive music has the effect of tying each scene to the one before and after it, which helps with building tension, but it also operates - for me, at least - as a contemporary version of the Greek chorus.

With the events onscreen taking pains to be realistic, the music thrums and intones in the background with a decisively mythic feel being the result. My personal favorite instance of this took place in 2012’s The Dark Knight Rises, when Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s verbal discovery of an imminent terrorist act is all but drowned out by the overpowering impact of the score. I’m convinced that it’s the juxtaposition of these two - lucid, straightforward visuals and feverish, schizophrenic sound - that’s responsible for these sequences being invigorating and rhythmic rather than tiring to watch.

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, which is about as useless as its pitch and advertising leads us to believe (but a lot less fun to actually sit through than it is to speculate about), tosses the idea of that balancing act over its shoulder inside of the first few minutes: it not only brings in an insistent and overbearing score, it overcranks and overheats the visuals to match it. The result is depressing and insulting to the intelligence. Dawn of Justice takes place in a dim, ugly world full of misanthropes stuck in perpetual adolescence. The spore of a thematic statement about how quickly and easily we rush to judgment without the proper context is alluded to and briefly developed. Thematic conclusion is left to the winds. To call the plot overstuffed and lumpy and shapeless is to simply look at it, with no deeper analysis required.

In its opening moments, the movie decisively wipes this universe clean of the prior Batman series; we are again privy to the shooting of Thomas and Martha Wayne in front of young Bruce, played by different actors with a very slightly different take on the event. We have seen this in the Tim Burton 1989 film, and in the 2005 Nolan film. It is not done better in any way here, but it certainly takes more time to tell it than it did before; director Zack Snyder employs slow motion to communicate everything from an anguished scream to a spoken word to a light walk in which nothing of any significance happens. In the previous iteration of this scene, Bruce’s father tells his son with his dying breath not to be afraid, alluding to that film’s ultimate theme of fear. Here, Bruce’s father speaks his wife’s name. This will be important later on, but there’s no need to remember it; such little confidence does the film have in its audience’s perception and smarts that it will helpfully repeat the sequence when necessary. In slow motion.

The story…but must I really talk about the story? Is that why the movie’s sizable opening-weekend audience showed up? Did anyone at Warner’s finance department greenlight the film on the expectation of receiving a nuanced and complex exploration of heroism and judgment? No more so than anyone at New Line greenlit Alien vs. Predator on the concept of exploring the mystique of ancient civilizations, I’d wager.

We are reintroduced to an adult Bruce Wayne/Batman (Ben Affleck), who inhabits a Gotham City a scant few miles and one river away from Metropolis - the Hoboken to Metropolis’ Manhattan, I guess. Wayne/Batman is upset with Metropolis’ own hero, Clark Kent/Superman (Henry Cavill), which is understandable given the gigantic amount of destruction caused at the end of the latter’s last movie. Also in the mix here is Lex Luthor (inexplicably played by Jesse Eisenberg) and a mysterious woman who will, of course, end up being Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot, and her rather late entrance makes for one of the movie’s best moments).

Superman, for his part, is dealing with a sizable public rift over the human cost of his last film’s climactic exploits; spearheading the investigation of this is a senator played by the luminous, invaluable Holly Hunter - given short shrift here by the bottleneck of the movie’s plot, and permitted only a few choice lines. It’s a testament to her acting that nothing further than her halting line delivery is responsible for the movie’s other best moment - or should I say, one of the only other times where the editing and sound design and timing seem appropriate for the moment at hand. And here I’ve gone and given a story description anyway.

These two moments are not the only effective ones in Dawn of Justice, although they are considerably the most eye-opening. There are intermittent moments where the cinematography by Larry Fong happens upon a composition that’s striking or lovely or foreboding, like a shot of a stranded family on a flooded rooftop. Snyder goes out of his way to try and screw this up, of course - he employs color correction and digital intermediate pervasively, tilted toward the orange and yellow spectrum, and the effect is mostly that we’re watching the movie through a dirty window - but I am absolutely willing to spot the movie that it bears the hallmarks of professionalism and occasional creativity, given that they are comparatively few and far between.

Mostly, we’re watching barely-literate theatrics and stern looks and baleful ultimatums and grim pronouncements, which feint at deeper meaning and come off instead like a petty rumination on psychological damage crossed with political allegory, as written by an angry 13-year-old boy who understands very little of the realities of either. The characters in Dawn of Justice do not behave like adults; they behave like shallow ciphers of masculinity and femininity as embodied by the worst of the steroidal ‘80s comic-book aesthetic. Snyder and writer David S. Goyer (where did the guy who wrote Dark City or even Blade go?) are clearly trying to adhere to and celebrate this aesthetic in both character work and visual design, and on these grounds Dawn of Justice can theoretically be called loyal to the source material. Well, bravo and a sarcastic slow clap; in that case, the source material sucks. Or it has lost something fundamental in the transition from page to screen.

There is one element of the film that is wholly successful and even satisfying, and that is Hans Zimmer’s thunderous score work. It’s a natural evolution from both Snyder’s previous film and the Nolan Batman films (which creates an unsteady rift with the fact that this movie clearly exists outside of that universe, but whatever). I may not be much impressed by the sight of Wayne/Batman seeing an unusual photo and e-mailing the subject of the photo with a plainspoken question off the bat (what detective work!), but I can certainly remember the pounding, aggressive percussion section that gears up when the subject discovers larger details of the story. Zimmer likes to produce leitmotifs in his superhero films, and what he’s given us here makes the grade. So much of this score is marginalized or neutralized by the visuals operating at the same level of “GRAND. EPIC.” but credit given where it’s due.

Consider what has been produced here. This is two and a half hours of posturing and sophomoric brutality posing as complicated emotion. Much of the film is built and marketed around two or three action sequences that seem designed to appeal strictly to the reptilian part of our brain, the one that reacts to body-crushing and bone-breaking violence with appreciation and glee. Vast sums of money have been poured into a project designed to appeal to a subhuman desire to see people destroy each other and swaths of property.

That this has happened in the context of a “superhero” film is not necessarily an indictment. That it’s been done with such a dim level of intellect and such an insistence on being “serious” while faintly pretending to be about anything challenging is annoying and juvenile, but whatever. Listen, I like movies that toy with expectations for the genre. I have no issue with grim films that depict suffering and violence, as long as it’s treated with the right amount of empathy and humanism. This is not that. It’s a sideshow meant to consecrate a world where the good guys are bodybuilders, the bad guys are skinny geeks, and the women are either damsels or sexualized and scantily-clad warriors, all of it executed with a staggering amount of misplaced self-righteousness.

On the level of technical craftsmanship, acting, special effects, and set design, Dawn of Justice is busy and unexceptional. On the level of music, it’s accomplished. On the level of what it represents and what it claims to be about, it’s something we should collectively and culturally turn away from and ignore the existence of.