(For general information on my movie rating system, especially regarding adaptations, click here.)
THIS REVIEW IS SPOILER-FREE
I don’t often get to see movies on their opening weekends, just because I’ve got kids and ten thousand obligations to sports and the like, but this past weekend we were able to go as a whole family to see Batman V Superman. The lead-up to this film has been an emotional roller coaster for me. I admit I was one of the naysayers when Ben Affleck’s casting was first publicized, but then the previews looked totally awesome. I was excited about Jesse Eisenberg as Lex Luthor and Jason Momoa as a totally re-vamped Aquaman. I was holding my breath to see if Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman was going to be awesome and powerful (as she should be), or woefully objectified (as too many female characters are). All in all, I was optimistic and excited, and why wouldn’t I be, given my life-long adoration of both title characters…?
Then the first reviews and the Facebook remarks started trickling in from my friends and acquaintances who’d seen early screenings, and already the poo-pooing had begun. One friend of mine even compared it to the atrocity that was Spider-Man 3 (2007), and everyone who had anything to say was hating Eisenberg for his performance. Ironically, the only positive remarks I managed to find were about Ben Affleck. (Let this stand as a testimony to the fickleness of the mob.) Thus, I went into the theater apprehensive, worried my excitement was about to be painfully let down…
…Well, as you can see from my 5-star rating, I was not in the least bit disappointed, and despite what the rest of the angry critics might say, I propose that this was an absolutely perfect movie. Let’s get into my bullet points:
THINGS THAT DISTRACTED ME
- Violence and adult themes. There is only one thing that really broke my focus while watching—and it was because my kids were with me. I was a little worried by the brutal violence and really heavy themes of mortality in the film. While there was no blood-spatter or gore, the fight scenes were very intense, and both gunfire and killing were depicted, not to mention the issue of innocent and hapless casualties of urban destruction. These themes alone are not automatically a problem, and the movie does have a PG-13 rating, so it’s not like we weren’t warned.* Nevertheless, there is a growing trend in comic book movies to be “darker” and “grittier” and so on. Granted: I personally love it, and it certainly makes for a more serious drama and a richer story, but it’s getting more and more difficult to bring our young kids to see their favorite comic-book heroes on the big screen. (The same trend is happening to so-called “family” movies… see The Good Dinosaur.)
*On that note, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986) also has a PG-13 rating, so I’m not sure the MPAA really has much credibility.
THINGS THAT TOTALLY ABSORBED ME
- Complete suspension of disbelief. Something that has plagued comic book movies in the past was a need to explain too much—whether character origin stories or the source of their various gadgets. Batman V Superman does have the advantage of building off the Christopher Nolan Batman films (loosely so), as well as being a more-or-less direct sequel to Man of Steel (2013). Furthermore, DC has finally taken a page out of Marvel’s book and learned how to spread a complex story and a large pantheon of characters over several films rather than trying to cram them all into one, origin stories and all (see Joel Schumacher’s 1997 travesty, Batman and Robin). Whatever the cause, Batman V Superman does not waste precious screen time with exposition ad nauseum. Points that need to be established are done so succinctly, and the film is then 95% devoted to character and plot development. Meanwhile, the audience is never once left wondering, “where did that come from?” or “how does he have one of those?” No matter how unreal in nature, everything depicted on screen is entirely acceptable, and nobody questions it. Well, at least I didn’t. And as far as I’m concerned, that’s a measure of a perfectly executed fantasy.
- Performances. Ben Affleck was outstanding as Bruce Wayne and as Batman. Just outstanding. His portrayal of Wayne was visceral; the anger he felt both at his parents’ murder and at the socio-political conflict of this “Superman” bozo came off the screen in a very real way. You see what this man is going through, and you feel his anger with him. Meanwhile, his Batman was not in the least bit campy or self-indulgent (a very real danger for any boy who is finally told he gets to be Batman). He was the consummate warrior. They even fixed the former distracting problem of Batman’s voice concealment, which Christian Bale and company decided to resolve by risking throat cancer. The solution? A voice modulator. Makes perfect sense. Why didn’t they think of that before? Bruce Wayne would totally have one of those. …Affleck was not alone in his acting chops. Henry Cavill nailed it again as Clark Kent/Cal-El. Gal Gadot nailed it as Diana Prince/Wonder Woman (and without having to be sexually exploited! lo and behold women can act, too). And Jesse Eisenberg? In the coming weeks, as other would-be critics broadcast their thoughts, I’ll be interested to read more about just what exactly they’re unhappy with. I thought Eisenberg’s Lex Luthor was great: the perfect blend of rich, spoiled brat, hyper-intelligent egotist, and maniacal sociopath. I mean, what else is Lex Luthor supposed to be? All the way around: great casting, great performances. (Special shout-out to Michael Shannon, who absolutely crushed it as a naked and dead General Zod with no dialog. What a performance!)
- Religious/philosophical undertones. This is the quality for me that most often takes a 4-star movie and elevates it to a 5-star movie. For the most part, anything that’s got a huge budget, well-done special effects, and a serious and thought-provoking plot is usually going to be a 4-star contender in my book. To earn that fifth star, I want the movie to probe those questions about what it means to be human, and how we’re positioned in a cosmic reality that we struggle to understand. Batman V Superman does what too few sequels are brave enough to do: it addresses the actual consequences and aftermath of the preceding story. Too many sequels are just cash-cows that take the premises of the earlier installment(s) and just rehash them in a freshly cleaned and sanitized environment. Not so with this one. Batman V Superman follows on Man of Steel and braves the questions: What would realistically happen to society if beings like this actually came to the planet, and how would everyday people be affected by the catastrophic, war-like destruction wrought upon their cities and their lives? In what ways would their very belief systems and notions about the universe and their place in it be challenged? This is some heavy dope, marine, and these are the kinds of questions we should be willing to ask in our speculative fiction.
When the film ended, I realized my mouth had been hanging slack for the better part of the preceding two-and-a-half hours. I had been floored. I was tempted, then and there, to declare this “the best comic book movie ever made.” I still don’t know if I’m willing to say that—The Dark Knight is pretty hard to beat… but Batman V Superman is definitely the first comic book movie I have ever thought was worthy of all five stars. It is serious; the plot and character development were rich and full; the performances were entirely believable; the philosophy was deep. Not only was this a perfect comic book movie; it was simply a perfect movie.
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