“The worst two and a half hours of my life.”
Whoa! Before the entire Justice League and their army of pitchfork-wielding, torch-baring fans come to kick down my door, THOSE AREN’T MY WORDS!
But I’m sure you can imagine the sinking feeling of dread which settled in the pit of my stomach when, while queuing up outside my local IMAX, the first person to exit the previous screening declared that nothing they’d experienced in their twenty-some years compared to the disappointment they’d just felt.
The second guy didn’t really help, either. He just sucked air through his teeth and said, “I’m not really sure what to make of that film…” I think I actually began to grip my disposable 3D glasses just a little bit tighter.
In a panic, I scuttled to hide behind the concessions stand for fear of hearing any massive spoilers from the exiting crowd – (oh, while we’re on that note – SPOILERS AHEAD!) – but part of me feared that I’d already heard too much.
It was the first Tuesday after the film was released, so almost a week after the carpet-bombing of poor reviews had begun to drop. By now, it was safe to say I was going into the film with no expectations whatsoever. I didn’t really get swept up in the excitement leading up to the film anyway, because (and having seen the film, the irony is now not lost on me) the only Batman or Superman comic books I’d ever read were The Dark Knight Returns and The Death of Superman, so the whole draw of the Justice League was a bit of a mystery to me.
Don’t get me wrong. I wanted to like it. I may not be well-versed in the DC lore, but I’ve been watching their films for virtually my whole life, and there is nothing more disappointing than a poor Batman film or Superman film (damn you, Batman & Robin; damn you, Superman IV…). Yeah, I really wanted to like it, but wow, everything I’d heard so far seemed to portent otherwise.
When the film started however, any misgivings were swept away by the gorgeous cinematography of the opening sequence. Even my amazement at how many times we’ve seen Thomas and Martha Wayne gunned down – and my pondering of who’s taken more bullets on-screen, them or Peter Parker’s Uncle Ben – couldn’t detract from the beautiful, beautiful imagery. I don’t think the visual style waned for the entire film. Not a single shot was wasted, each was its own work of art.
The start of the main story takes us back to the end of Man of Steel, as Zod and Superman wreak havoc in Metropolis while the World Engine brings down everything around it. This sequence worked in two ways for me. Firstly, most importantly, it answers the obvious (for non-aficionados) question of why Batman – not only one of DC’s, but one of the world’s most iconic superheroes – would initially be enemies with Superman, who is – let’s be honest – the most iconic, archetypical superhero ever drawn. If I was looking at things from Bruce Wayne’s perspective, I’d be pretty pissed off too.
Secondly, these scenes help to alleviate what I felt was a flaw in Man of Steel. Yes, Superman wins in the end, and yes, he saved billions of lives – but still at the cost of thousands. When so many people died, it made the final victory feel meaningless to me. Zack Snyder has spoken at length about how the mass destruction was essential for him, because that would be the true cost of having two gods fighting amongst mortals. I cannot fault his logic, but for me it also ran against the feel-good factor of the superhero genre: In the end, the hero saves the day. In Man of Steel however, there were thousands of people that Superman failed to save. But now though, with the destruction of Metropolis being thrust right into the heart of Dawn of Justice’s story, it at least gave the events purpose, meaning in the grander scheme of things.
And it does seem to be a grand scheme that Snyder is setting up, which from the feel of it delves deeply into much of the DC lore. For the casual film-goer however, I worry that it might delve a little too deeply. As someone who doesn’t know a great deal about the DC universe, other than the Batman and Superman films, and the CW television series (Arrow, The Flash, Legends of Tomorrow), I would pick up on parts of the film and kind of know that it was alluding to something deeper or referencing an important part of the lore, but at the same time, I’d kind of feel like the only person in the room who doesn’t get the joke that’s just been told. Expand that out to people who know even less than I do, and I can understand complaints that parts of the film, the dream sequences in particular, simply don’t make sense.
The film takes quite a gamble here, and one which I think will pay off as the story unfolds. Wayne’s dreams seem to be more visions of things to come further down the line, rather than just random sojourns into his near-broken psyche. The appearance of The Flash in one particular dream certainly seems to be a warning from the future, and one which I imagine (or at least hope) we will see played out in later films. When we do, I think that many people will look more kindly on Dawn of Justice, seeing it as merely the start of a much larger story in which all of the seemingly indulgent, digressive elements are actually important plot strands.
“The Greatest Gladiator Match in History.”
Henry Cavill – who does a fantastic job, I have to say – comes into this film with Superman having the weight of the world on his shoulders. All he wants to do is make things better, but at every turn he’s met with distrust and animosity. It’s a great reflection of the cynicism of our modern world that, no matter what he does or who he saves, he’s still viewed by half the planet as having some deeper, self-serving motive for his actions. The problem here for me though is that he spends a great portion of the film wrestling with his angst and fathoming his place in the world, with little time left for him to actually act the hero. That’s not to say we don’t see glimpses of his heroism – the rescue of a young child in a Mexican tenement fire, the saving of a space capsule when its rocket explodes on the launch pad, etc. – but in the grand, sprawling scheme of the film, these acts are all-too fleeting, and ultimately forgettable.
That said, of course, I’d argue that this is made up for in the final act, as Superman sacrifices his own life in order to destroy Doomsday. (See, SPOILERS!)
As I said, I really enjoyed Henry Cavill in this film, but Ben Affleck was certainly the high-point for me. I find it particularly satisfying, given the nerd-rage permeating the internet when his casting was announced, that he performed above and beyond my hopes. His worn, disillusioned Batman, a hero who has become so weathered by the corrosive insanity of Gotham, is to my mind the best depiction of the Dark Knight since Michael Keaton (whose casting, ironically, was also met with much rage-of-nerd – albeit pre-internet). In fact, the only thing stopping me from saying that I thought he was better than Keaton is that it feels somehow sacrilegious to do so. And, when coupled with Jeremy Irons’ wise, grounded, hands-on, tech-savvy Alfred, it really did make a remarkable team.
In fact, my hands-down favourite scene of the film is the nod to the opening pages (if I remember correctly) of The Dark Knight Returns, where we see two GCPD officers investigating an apartment block basement full of imprisoned, trafficked workers. Here we see officers who, unlike some of the more camp Batman movie outings, aren’t emboldened by the presence of ‘the Bat of Gotham’ (I don’t think the word Batman is ever used in this film), but are absolutely terrified. In this universe, Batman is, to most, a monster – even referred to by one of the aforementioned prisoners a ‘the demon’. The scene was so well-crafted that, as one of the officers searches the dim apartments, led on by the cries of Batman’s victim, I was genuinely scared. Horrified, even. I’ve never been scared of Batman before, but the more I think about it, the more I realise that that’s exactly how it should be.
For a film with such a heavy, oppressive tone though, Jesse Eisenberg’s take on Lex Luthor Jr. was actually really refreshing, adding a tinge of maniacal fun to a story which at times made Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy look like a merry romp. I know that he left many viewers divided by his portrayal, and I can’t really comment on that, this having been the first time I’ve seen this particular character, but I guess you’d have to be a particular kind of insane to kidnap Superman’s mother in order to get him to fight a death-match with Batman, and I genuinely felt he had that brand of crazy nailed securely to the wall.
In fact, one of the movie’s faults (yes, I said the F-word) was that they had such a great villain in Lex Luthor, yet in the final act they resorted to a battle with a giant CGI monster for the film’s climax. (Although, for what it’s worth, it’s nice to see the cave troll from Fellowship of the Rings is still finding work). Don’t get me wrong. I understand why they did it. Firstly, Superman had to die. It felt necessary for Superman to perish in order that Bruce Wayne could be – for want of a better word – reborn from Kal-El’s example, launching him on his new quest to seek out the metahumans who will become the Justice League. “I failed him in life. I won’t fail him in death,” I believe were Bruce Wayne’s words. So yes, Superman had to die. And to kill Superman, you’re going to need something like Doomsday, who has a track record of… well… killing Superman. I was just left a bit disappointed that Zack Snyder spent two hours building up Luthor, only to have him peripheral to events once Doomsday had been unleashed – although many may argue that by that point, he’d contributed more than his fair share to the impending carnage.
Which brings me to the one, the only, massive f-bomb of a fault I found with the film:
Even as I typed those last two words, I winced, imagining the ire which is no doubt already cascading towards my Twitter feed. But before anyone gets too angry, let me explain myself.
I don’t have a problem with Wonder Woman, as such. I’m just not entirely sure she was necessary, or at least used well, in this film.
As Luthor himself said, here we have “the greatest gladiator match in history”. Batman. Superman. You don’t get much bigger than that. With these two comic book deities facing off against each other in the same film, it’s hard to imagine there’s much room for a third hero, and I’m not sure there is. Diana Prince’s presence felt strained, with a weakly-concocted plot device of her trying to retrieve a photograph of herself from Lex Luthor’s pen drive. Okay, it may have been a photo which reveals that she has aged really well for a woman that was around in 1918, but… why? Firstly, the damage has been done. Luthor has seen the photo, knows her secret. But seriously, does she not know how easy it is to copy a jpeg from one hard drive to another? Luthor certainly looks like the sort of tech-nerd who would back up all his photos to the iCloud. So what’s the point of trying to steal it back?
Don’t get me wrong. I’m really looking forward to the Wonder Woman origins film next year. I think it’ll be great, but in Dawn of Justice, it felt like there was only just enough room for Diana Prince to run into Bruce Wayne a couple of times, act all seductive and mysterious, and then turn up as Wonder Woman and gate-crash the final fight scene.
Not only did this feel unnecessary to me, but I found Wonder Woman’s musical accompaniment entirely jarring too, as Hans Zimmer and Junkie XL unfathomably bulldozed over their near-perfect orchestral score with what can only be described as some sort of 1970s electro-funk guitar lunacy.
But you know what, I’m not going to dwell on it. I really, really did enjoy the film. Did it have faults? Yes. Was it too long? Perhaps. There were a lot of elements that the film could have survived without. Lois Lane almost drowning as the burgeoning Justice League fought Doomsday? I don’t think it added anything, and the film could have gotten where it was going without it. The glimpses of The Flash, Aquaman, Cyborg? These were fun, but again, not essential to the story, and not so visually exciting that the film couldn’t survive without them.
But did the film deserve the absolute mauling it received from the critics?
It’s not the best superhero film ever made. In fact, it’s only April, so it may not even be the best superhero film this year. But it looks great, it sounds great, the performances are fantastic and watching Batman beating Superman half to death with a bathroom sink is something that I don’t think anyone would ever expect to see, but I also don’t think anyone should ever live without seeing it, either.
And so I come back to where I started. “The worst two and a half hours of my life.”
If I could utilise the Speed Force to travel through time like The Flash, I would go back to that particularly cold Tuesday evening, to my local IMAX – Screen 6 at 8:30pm – and grab that first person walking out of the theatre. Before they could even utter a word, I would tell them this:
“If that was the worst two and a half hours of your life, you have had the BEST. LIFE. EVER.”