Seriously. I’m going to be discussing, among other things, the end of the movie. Which I don’t ordinarily do, but it relates squarely to the film’s major weakness. You’re warned.
The people applauded at the end.
I should mention that first. At the packed Thursday screening I attended, the audience applauded. They didn’t applaud any Marvel films. They didn’t applaud “X-Men: Days of Future Past.” But they applauded BvS because…well, I guess because they had never seen anything quite like it. They believed that they had seen a true rarity in superhero films: a genuine epic.
This was a story of gods and men.
Which is its strength and its problem.
Let’s face it: Superman has always been something of a god. Going all the way back to the first film, as Marlon Brando intoned, “And so I have given them you. My only son.” He was a Christ substitute and the concept of him being a god on Earth could easily have been raised by the citizens of Metropolis. But they didn’t, because Chris Reeve was so human, so affable, so perfectly Smallville cornbread, that not only would it have seemed preposterous to raise him to that level, but his Clark would doubtless have considered it sacrilegious.
But in BvS, that’s entirely what the film is about, with all the pluses and minuses that having a godlike being walking around amongst us would undoubtedly entail. And that is ultimately the problem with the film.
No, the acting isn’t the issue. Ben Affleck, defying the haters, is brilliant as Bruce Wayne and formidable as Batman. His personal enmity toward Superman is understandable as he witnesses first hand the destruction that Supes inflicts on Metropolis in general and his own employees in specific. And Gal Gadot…my God, what a great Wonder Woman. Whether she is quietly informing Bruce that he’s never met a woman like her, or actually SMILING as she faces off against Doomsday–SMILING–Godot is a terrific 21st Century inheritor of the role from Lynda Carter.
As for Henry Cavill…well, there’s the problem.
It’s not that he’s a bad actor. He’s not. He even actually has a scene where he gets to act like a human being and climb into a bathtub with Amy Adams’s Lois Lane. He seems to enjoy that. Who wouldn’t? I’m happily married with four children, but I’d climb into a bathtub with a naked Amy Adams if given the opportunity. So would you, so don’t judge.
The problem is that since Superman is a god, he can’t be human. And as a movie goer, there’s a simple truism which is that your personal involvement with a character is determined by his humanity. Ninety percent of the time that Cavill is on screen, he’s in Superman mode, even when he’s Clark. As Superman he never cracks a smile, never cracks a joke, never cracks his facade. Even when a building explodes around him, killing everyone but him, he is just left standing there looking bummed out. He doesn’t try to find out if anyone survived, he doesn’t do anything. He just stands there, like God observing just how idiotic mortals can be.
The plot doesn’t serve him, or anyone, especially well. He is blamed for the deaths of people in a desert city for no reason. When Lex Luthor kidnaps his mother, Martha, he can’t find her for no reason (even though he can find Lois Lane anywhere at the drop of a hat.) Lex Luthor wants to kill Superman for no reason other than that he’s nuts. He’s like a demented Twitter-head on acid. For no reason. Maybe he hates Superman because Superman is God and being a scientist, he doesn’t believe in God and so must drag Superman down to mortal levels.
And Batman wants to get rid of Superman because he likewise perceives him as a God who has the potential to destroy humanity. Because, well, that’s what God does. Why do you think they call earthquakes, hurricanes, floods, etc., acts of God? Let’s face it, if God Himself descended from on high, Batman would probably want a piece of him. It’s only when he discovers he actually has common ground with Superman that he stops trying to kill him. But that’s okay because, as anyone who watched the trailers know–which is everyone reading this–Lex has Doomsday lined up to pick up where Batman left off.
Man, I am so sick of trailers ruining films. In this instance, every major story beat is in the trailers. They literally tell us everything except the last ten minutes, and anyone who was reading comic books twenty years ago KNOWS what the ending is. Superman vs. Doomsday. You know how it ends.
Yes, that’s right. Doomsday kills Superman.
And that’s the culmination of the problem:
I didn’t care.
If Chris Reeves’ Superman had died in “Superman II,” I’d have been devastated (although then we’d have been spared the sequels, so that would’ve been a benefit.) Hell, if Brandon Routh’s Superman had been killed in “Superman Returns,” I’d have been upset.
But when Cavill’s Superman died, I felt absolutely nothing. Indifferent. I wondered if they’d bring him back in future films as they did in the comics and realized that if they didn’t, I’d be fine with that. It would make the JLA films better because let’s face it, if Superman is on your side, you don’t really need anybody else (that’s why he was often off on some space mission in the old days, because otherwise he could’ve solved the JLA’s problem by page six.)
I didn’t care that Superman died because he was so utterly devoid of humanity that his fate was of no consequence to me. Because in the real world, we don’t care about gods. In the Marvel cinema universe, Thor is not a god. We know this because Odin says, “We are not gods,” so that’s pretty much that. So we care about Thor. We care about Jesus because he was human. We care about Hercules because he’s half human. But Cavill’s Superman is treated like a god and acts like a god, helping where and when he sees fit, but largely outside of humanity, as if life is some great party to which he is not invited. He doesn’t get us, he doesn’t understand us, he doesn’t see where his place in humanity is supposed to be. How am I supposed to care about someone who is so detached from the race among which he was raised?
Ultimately what it comes down to is that Marvel has set the tone and style for superhero films. The characters are consistently human (even when they’re raccoons.) The films are replete with humor. (There are exactly two jokes in BvS and they’re both in the trailers.) There is a sense of absurdity that you’re dealing with people in costumes, but the stakes are real enough that you gloss over that, as opposed to BvS where Gotham manages to clear out an entire section because the heroes are going to have a grudge match.
Is BvS worth seeing in a movie theater? Not sure there is any point in telling you that because chances are you’ve already seen it. If you ARE going to see it, then yes, see it in a theater. It’s big, it’s splashy, it’s insanely overblown, and your TV set is simply not large enough to contain it. But be prepared to see that the script does not serve one of its titular characters well, because as much as Luthor may declare that we’re going to see a battle of light vs. dark, day vs. night, we don’t really. At their core, Batman and Superman behave in identical fashion. They are both grim and gritty, both creatures of darkness. The only difference is that one of them cares too much and the other doesn’t seem to care enough.