With the release of Justice League, the
DCEU DC Films Universe enters a new phase just as its equivalent, the MCU, did after the release of 2012’s Avengers. It seems like such a long time ago that the dust was settling following the release of Man of Steel and audiences were eagerly awaiting the next installment of DC’s fledgling cinematic universe, reasoning that no future film would be as divisive or controversial as the much-discussed Superman reboot. Oh, how wrong they were! When Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice was released last year it sparked the flames of a debate that continues to rage even as fans file into the theaters to see Justice League.
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With fans loving and hating Batman V Superman and its successor Suicide Squad with equal fervor, it seemed that Wonder Woman would have to do some real heavy lifting to right the good ship DC. Miraculously, it did! Both audiences and critics were charmed by Patty Jenkins’ timely and important superhero film. Interest was renewed in Justice League and people were once again talking about DC films with a sense of hope. Wonder Woman is an undeniably great film, but did it’s much reviled predecessor Batman V Superman do some things better?
15. SOCIAL COMMENTARY
While Wonder Woman was able to cast an enlightened 21st century eye over the gender politics of the 1910s, the period setting made for some pretty low hanging fruit when it came to social commentary. By contrast, Batman V Superman took great pains to depict how a jaded and ungrateful real world would react to the presence of a benevolent alien savior.
Juxtaposing the Man of Steel’s heroic acts with sneering televised debate from pundits on both sides of the political spectrum, as well as everyday citizens all over the world was one of its smartest plays. Likewise, Batman’s “1% chance” monologue justifying the lethal use of stolen kryptonite isn’t the first attempt by a superhero movie to challenge nuclear deterrent narratives (we have Superman IV to thank for that), but it’s probably the most potent.
Say what you will about Batman V Superman, it’s a beautifully shot film. While Man of Steel (shot by Amir Mokri) looked like Zack Snyder being told to do his very best Christopher Nolan impression, BvS reunited Snyder with long time collaborator Larry Fong. It’s a testament to Fong’s abilities that a narratively ‘old hat’ tableau like the Wayne murders can be rendered so stark and striking that it looks fresh as ever.
Snyder famously studied art history and Fong’s lighting and shot vocabulary bring Snyder’s Raphaelite sensibilities to life, casting these larger than life characters in the operatic manner in which they’re at their best. Fong’s approach to the material was so effective that Justice League DoP Fabian Wagner was very vocal about how much Fong’s influence shaped the way he shot the team up film.
13. SOUND DESIGN
Sound design is one of the most painstaking yet under appreciated aspects of cinema. It is equal parts art and science, and when it’s done right audiences don’t even know it’s there. Complain all you like about the film’s confrontational opening scene in which we revisit the “Black Zero Event”, but the sound design does a great job of throwing us right into the streets of Metropolis. The sound design engenders a real sense of peril and threat from all angles immersing us in the film.
The sound design also helps to drive character and plot, too! Did you catch the sound of the world engine in Bruce’s nightmare sequence, implying that he uses Superman’s arrival for an avatar for all his fears and insecurities?
Most critics will say (to put it mildly) that Batman V Superman‘s interweaving subplots were to the film’s detriment, and that Wonder Woman was right to play it safe far smaller and more simplistic “hero’s journey” narrative. While an argument can be made that it was absolutely the right choice for Wonder Woman to follow that structure, Batman V Superman (particularly the extended cut) should be lauded for deftly handling so many subplots.
A lot of critics are quick to dismiss the subplots as convoluted without considering how well they inform the narrative. Batman’s apocalyptic visions inform his fanatical behavior, Luthor’s manipulation of June Finch, Wallace Keefe and Kahina Ziri informs the tide of anti-Superman rhetoric. Lois Lane’s investigations give us a suitably awed and disgusted insight into Lex’s manipulations while Clark’s investigations in Gotham help demonstrate how far Gotham’s guardian angel has fallen in the eyes of its citizens.
Much of the satisfaction derived from Wonder Woman comes from seeing Diana take her place as the leader and warrior that she was born to be. One of the film’s greatest achievements is its ability to interweave elements of Greek Mythology and real history to present us of a powerful portrayal of a Goddess among men. That said, we never feel any sense of peril for Diana. Neither Ludendorff, Doctor Poison or even Ares come across as a credible threat to Wonder Woman.
It’s difficult to inject peril into your finale’s smack down when you’ve just outed your protagonist as “The Godkiller”. BvS‘ climax, on the other hand, genuinely imperils its lead characters even having the guts to kill off its chief protagonist and use it as a plot point in future films.
Batman V Superman‘s score gets a really unfair shake from the film’s detractors who seem unable to look past the deliberately bombastic and Wagnerian Batman overtures in “Beautiful Lie” or “Do You Bleed”. Even though the confrontational nature of these tracks may be off putting for some they’re quite appropriate for a violent and extreme Batman who’s lost his way.
The score is far more multifaceted than people give it credit for, especially in its ability to bring both power and humility to Superman with tracks like “Day of the Dead”. Doubtlessly the score’s greatest contribution is Zimmer’s Wonder Woman score which informed Rupert Gregson-Williams’ Wonder Woman score (especially when there were butts that needed to be kicked). Even Danny Elfman (who eschewed just about everything else that came before him in the DCEU) couldn’t resist revisiting it in Justice League.
9. NUANCED VILLAINS
Was Jesse Eisenberg’s performance as Lex Luthor small and understated? No! Was it nuanced? Absolutely. Although many fans could be forgiven for their disappointment that the film didn’t offer a Clancy Brown-esque Lex similar to what we’ve come to expect from the animated series and the post-1986 comics, but the performance is more layered and nuanced than many give it credit for.
The characterization and performance are designed to subvert our expectations of the character. Eisenberg’s Luthor is the definition of a tortured genius. He’s an adult child crippled by the weight of his own intellect. Just look at his performance during the benefit speech in which he finds himself unable to spout a media friendly soundbite about books without picking it apart and giggling at the paradox. As entertaining as Ludendorff, Doctor Poison and Ares are, the story kind of necessitates that they be comparatively cartoonish and two dimensional.
8. CHARACTER ARCS
Wonder Woman has a terrific character arc at its center, but Batman V Superman has several. The most obvious is that of Bruce Wayne. Here is a man who has dedicated decades of his life to creating a persona and become lost in it; thus has become both the violent and menacing vigilante the criminal underworld believes him to be and the hard drinking womanizer the press has deemed him.
By the end of the film he is a changed man, having re-evaluated who and what The Batman is in the wake of Superman’s sacrifice. Superman himself has an equally compelling arc. In his own way, he begins the film just as lost as Bruce, doing what good he can in a world that fears and mistrusts him. In his last act of sacrifice he realizes that for all its myriad faults, this is his world.
7. WORLD BUILDING
It may not have been to everyone’s tastes, but Batman V Superman did a whole lot of world building in its (admittedly lengthy) run time. While many cite the more on-the-nose elements like the “Knightmare” sequence or the Justice League QuickTime videos, the film does its best world building in some of the quieter moments. Take Clark Kent’s glimpse of the satirical cartoon in the Gotham newspaper, which criticizes the GCPD’s unsettling reliance on Batman as an instrument of violence.
Instantly we’re given an insight into the tacit relationship between Batman and the official law in Gotham. See also Diana Prince’s knowing but patient reaction to Bruce’s self important revelation that the sword of Alexander the Great in the museum is a fake. It reveals not only that she’s an authoritative antiquarian but hints at just how ancient she really is.
6. FIGHT SCENES
Wonder Woman took a lot of cues from Superman: The Movie, focusing their efforts on paying their dues to the resplendent nature of the characters. In both films it’s awe-inspiring to see the characters in action, but upon re-watching Patty Jenkins’ film it becomes evident that there aren’t very many fight scenes. The battle in Veld is impressive but short lived and the final battle with Ares is somewhat anti-climactic.
By contrast Batman V Superman offers not only the lauded “Martha rescue” fight but the epic battle between the trinity and Doomsday. The former is an incredibly choreographed and executed display of martial artistry, the latter a visual effects blitzkrieg (in a good way). Each of the three protagonists gets their chance to shine and watching them work together as a team is one of the most gratifying elements of the film.
5. SUPPORTING CHARACTERS
One of the many under-appreciated aspects of Batman V Superman is how well it realizes its supporting characters and gives them real dramatic weight. These are the characters whose point of view is the lens through which we view our protagonists. Lois Lane and Alfred, for example, are pivotal supporting characters in the DC Universe, and both provide valuable character growth for their respective leads.
Lois recognizes the value in what Superman does but knows the political and sociological cost as only a seasoned journalist can. Alfred, on the other hand, does what he can to subtly influence Bruce but knows that he’s too bullish to respond positively to confrontation. He can only watch as his master falls into obsession and ruin. Etta Candy, Samir, Charlie and The Chief are great characters, but the relatively pacey narrative doesn’t allow them much room to breathe.
The costumes in Batman V Superman look phenomenal, especially through Larry Fong’s lens. Michael Wilkinson, who also designed the costumes for Man of Steel, does a great job of maintaining a visual continuity from the film’s predecessor while also expanding the world outwards and incorporating the characters from Batman’s world. The changes to Superman’s costumes are subtle improvements, but his greatest achievement lies in completely redefining the parameters for a cinematic Batman costume moving away from all black latex or carbon fiber.
It manages to walk the fine line between comic book accuracy and looking plausible on film (and that’s before we get into the Knightmare and armored suits). Then of course, there’s the Wonder Woman costume that’s… simply the best ever! Of course, the costumes of Wonder Woman are also great, but since the phenomenal Amazon designs were reverse engineered from Wilkinson’s designs, BvS‘ costumes win by a nose.
Anyone who’s seen Argo will know that one of screenwriter Chris Terrio’s greatest gifts lies in writing dialogue. Terrio improves on David Goyer’s earnest but clunky dialogue from Man of Steel and injects some wit and brevity into the proceedings. The film is shot through with great lines that are not only dramatically resonant but great for character building.
Virtually everything Alfred says to Bruce is a home run, “So falls the House of Wayne”, and Superman’s two word response to Lex’s admission that he doesn’t know how to lose (“You’ll learn”) is so laden with promise that it made us all hope that we get to see these two share a screen in the DCEU again. By contrast Wonder Woman‘s dialogue is absolutely loaded with heart but often comes across as a little stilted. Fortunately, the period setting goes some way to softening the effect.
2. VISUAL EFFECTS
When Warner Bros. first decided that the Man of Steel sequel would pair Batman and Superman on screen for the first time and throw in Wonder Woman for good money, they presumed that they had a box office home run on their hands. As such, the production was lavished with some of the best visual effects money can buy. With a budget upward of $300 million, more than double Wonder Woman‘s $149 million, it’s little wonder that Snyder’s film boasts superior visual effects.
Detractors may speak ill of the look of Doomsday but the hulking villain is just the gaudy tip of the VFX iceberg. Scanline VFX (atypically the only VFX house that worked on the film) were responsible for virtually everything that takes place in the mid-movie batmobile chase not to mention bringing the comic book aesthetics of Metropolis and Gotham to life.
1. WONDER WOMAN
Diana’s character arc in her own film is a simple (yet very well told) hero’s journey archetype. Her arc in BvS is, if anything, more poignant and Gal Gadot’s performance should not be underestimated for getting audiences excited about the character faith even before Wonder Woman became a box office darling. This version of Diana starts out as an enigmatic cynic who has turned her back on the world of men.
Her interactions with Bruce hint at her age and wisdom as well as the detached curiosity with which she views the struggles of man’s world. Yet, try as she might, she cannot fight her desire to do good and ends the film as inspired by Superman as Batman is and ends her self imposed exile to be the hero that the world (both inside and outside of the DC Films Universe) needs.
Do you agree or disagree? Let us know in the comments!
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