I can’t forget that moment in 2007’s I Am Legend where Will Smith’s character Robert Neville is roaming the post apocalyptic wasteland of New York City with his dog, and in the background there is a movie marquee for a “Superman vs Batman” movie.
The easter egg sent fans into a Pavlovian frenzy, giving volume to the din around an on-screen super clash that began in the comics. Well, almost a decade later fans are finally getting the big screen battle in Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice, the sequel to 2013’s Man of Steel.
The contest is compelling for many reasons, chief among them is an innate belief that a superior mind is a match for god-like might. Over the years the different permutations of their bouts (both mental and physical) have played out across several mediums. And that is part of why DOJ, despite many redeeming qualities, ultimately proves to be a letdown.
As I watched the 2/12 hour epic unfold I found that I wasn’t as mad at the movie as I was at the build up leading into it. This wasn’t matching up with what I’d imagined in my head. At all. On the plus side Ben Affleck is the most relatable Batman/Bruce Wayne we’ve had on screen since Michael Keaton’s and his Batmobile is the militarized Matchbox racer every Gen-Xer wishes they had in their garage. However, Jesse Eisenberg’s Lex Luthor is far too unstable and comes across more like that emotionally damaged kid from 7th grade with his first chemistry set than an evil genius. Overall, the film had entertaining moments but was bloated. Like an expansive buffet it offered too much of what the chef liked to make and not enough of what people like to eat. And on my commute home from the screening I began to unpack why I felt this way and came to the conclusion that these are the things to blame:
1. The D.C. Animations
Watching years of the Justice League cartoons exposed me to the evolving friendship between Batman and Superman, providing layers and nuance that a 2-hour film simply can’t capture. Also, the stand alone animated film “The Dark Knight Returns 2” featured a Super/Bat showdown that you either copy badly or abandon for a different angle. Somehow DOJ manages to do both.
In “Justice League: War” neither Batman or Superman is blinded by irrational anger and fear which consumes them in DOJ, so we actually see them play to their respective strengths; cunning and raw power.
2. The Comic Books
It’s hard to reveal exactly why the comic books spoiled this film for me without spoiling the film, but one thing I’ll say is that this Lex Luthor is inferior to every Lex Luthor you’ve either read or seen. Eisenberg’s Luthor is manipulative but lacks any vision. Just imagine if the Riddler ran around spouting answers instead of asking questions and had a way more conservative wardrobe. But the most disappointing thing is that it feels like his ambition peaks at beating Superman and that feels so small compared to the Lex from the comics and cartoons.
3. The video Games
In 2013 the fighting game “Injustice Gods Among Us” was released to consoles and a fantastic fighting engine was paired with one of the best cut scene storylines in recent gaming. In an alternate reality a Regime Superman is drugged by The Joker and kills Lois Lane and his family, sending him over the edge, killing the clown. It’s darker than anything you’ll ever see in a theatrical release. (Yes, that is Superman killing Captain Marvel with his heat vision.)
For the past year I have been frantically massaging my iPad screen playing the mobile version of “Injustice: Gods Among Us” in my free time. As mobile games go it’s A+ and you get more variations on Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman and Lex Luthor than there are Jordan 6 colorways. I’ve kicked Batman’s ass with Superman and vice versa. As part of the integrated promo for the film we’ve been given special versions of the heroes to unlock and a cut screen featuring Batman plays every time you load it. There is no way you don’t know this movie is coming out if you’ve been playing this game at all. Which leads me to…
4. The Trailers, etc.
Between the multitude of trailers, the Dodge and Jeep commercials and the cut scenes in the mobile game I felt like I’d already seen the movie by the time I sat in my seat. At least all of the good parts. And sadly, some of those really good parts still don’t make sense after seeing the film.
5. “Daredevil Season 2”
This isn’t fair or controllable but the timing for this really sucks. I’ve been binging on season 2 of Netflix and Marvel’s “Daredevil,” about a dark, blind vigilante squaring off against an even darker gun-toting vigilante with no morals. DD lacks the fantasy and spectacle of the meta-humans in DOJ obviously, but it highlights the part of the film that worked: The Batman half. DOJ gives us all of the muscles, shiny costumes and flowing hair but none of the substance that makes Superman and Wonder Woman more than overpowered reflections of each other. And as villains go, Lex Luthor doesn’t hold a candle to Jon Bernthal’s Punisher.
Actress Holly Hunter plays Senator Finch, who has a bone to pick with Superman and his own brand of ungoverned peace keeping. Hunter is also the voice of Helen Parr/Elastigirl from The Incredibles and every time she spoke I just kept thinking 1) “You’re on the wrong team!” and 2) “You were in a much better super hero movie.”