(Warning: the following list is riddled with spoilers and unpopular opinions.)
Yes, the opening dream sequence is unnecessary. Yes, it has virtually none of the slapstick we normally associate with Superman movies, and very little of the sarcasm that helps make the Marvel movies so appealing. But I’m still puzzled by the resoundingly negative bandwagon haunting a movie that actually does have some good things going for it. Such as…
1) This is the first and so far the ONLY superhero movie I’ve seen that directly and pragmatically addresses the question of how much moral obligation superheroes actually have to help others, and furthermore, whether that help is good or bad for the human race in the long run. With Superman’s abilities, he could probably hear literally every scream and call for help all around the world. So how many hours a day should he put in saving people, and how many hours can/should he spend trying to live a normal life in order to protect his sanity, the byproduct of which will be the deaths of innocents?
2) Going along with that, the scene with Superman’s scene father is a fantastic example of how this movie takes a much broader and more mature approach to superhero movies than others, including Civil War (which I genuinely liked). In that scene, the elder Kent (played flawlessly by Kevin Costner) talks about how as a kid he helped save the family farm from a flood, and felt like a hero, only to learn later that their efforts had actually rerouted the flood and drowned a neighboring farm. Kent adds that afterwards, he heard the drowning horses screaming in his dreams. He also adds that the only cure was meeting Clark’s mother, which adds a subtle undercurrent of desperation: Superman doesn’t just need Lois because he loves her; he needs her to keep the nightmares away. Yes, the Marvel movies are fun, and great at wisecracks, and tense when they need to be, but they have nothing anywhere near as chillingly human or morally complex as that.
3) Batman and Superman are painstakingly set up as mirrors of each other. We see that not only in the “Save Martha” scene, which is narratively cool but I admit plays out a little hammy on screen. We also see that in how Batman’s and Superman’s action sequences parallel each other at times (the literal manner in which Superman first saves Lois is repeated when Batman saves Martha, for example).
4) As for Batman actually killing people in this movie, not only is that realistic for a grief-obsessed vigilante with bottomless pockets, but it also creates an element of irony: Batman wants to kill Superman because he perceives him as dangerous, even though the former is one who’s unapologetically cavalier about inflicting pain and taking life.
5) Wonder Woman… with a little help from Hans Zimmer. First off, Hans Zimmer is my favorite soundtrack composer because even though he occasionally phones it in and recycles his previous movie themes, when he’s at the top of his game–as in The Thin Red Line–he’s as good as it gets. And he’s at the top of his game here, too. Superman’s themes are deceptively subtle with a powerful but vulnerable undercurrent. And consider the theme he comes up with for Wonder Woman; It’s not only catchy but unique and actually helps us get excited about a character that’s usually only slightly more well-regarded than Aquaman. Even though she has relatively little screen time, thanks in part to Zimmer’s music, she steals the show. In fact, she’s so badass (on par with Cyclops in the Marvel comics) that she hardly even needs the requisite snappy one-liner. Just her assured, withering looks are enough. Also, did you catch the part where friggin’ Doomsday smacks her down and she just laughs at him and hops back up?
6) In regards to Superman being a potential loose nuke, Batman kind of has a point. As shown in the Injustice: Gods Among Us storyline, and to a lesser degree in For Tomorrow, Superman can only take so much. And when he snaps, he’s basically a flying indestructible man-slayer who can bend almost anyone and anything to his will.
7) Jesse Eisenberg’s portrayal of Lex Luther has been the target of much criticism (“Why does he have hair and giggle like the Joker?!”) but it basically comes down to how comfortable you are with changed in the canon. This is most definitely not Gene Hackman’s Luther, fussing over his hairpiece as he launches some evil land-grabbing scheme that sheds not one drop of on-screen blood. No, this is an abused kid who grew into a brilliant, neurotic psychopath that, because he’s rich, is merely viewed as eccentric. I get how that’s not everybody’s cup of tea, and definitely skirts cliche, but it worked well enough for me.
8) Superman movies have always tended to work in a lot of religious imagery, particularly relating Superman to Christ. That’s practically a requirement for the genre. But this movie finds a slightly fresher way of doing it by showing Batman and Wonder Woman lowering Superman down from the cross–I mean, the hill where he struck down Doomsday–with a big smoking hole in his chest. Also, Superman has warts. No, I mean, he’s not just flawed; he’s occasionally smug, needy, and disconcertingly human. For instance, we see the people he rescues basically worshiping him, but we never see Superman trying to dissuade them, or seeming embarrassed by the attention. In sharp contrast to previous Superman movies, here, Superman obviously does have something of a hero complex, and even for a nearly omnipotent being, that’s a problem. Another often overlooked scene is when he’s talking to Lois Lane in the tub, and he basically says that as far as he’s concerned, the American government can fuck off. That’s alarming to hear from Superman of all people, and even Lois seems momentarily rattled to hear such a sentiment from someone who can kill things by looking at them.
9) Yes, Batman goes a bit too quickly from Superman’s enemy to his ally (not sure why, in a long movie, they didn’t even throw in an extra five seconds of him struggling to come around instead of flipping so quickly). Yes, Aquaman looks ridiculous (though he looks better in the new trailers). But the moral questions posed in this movie, which are what make it so dark, are everywhere in the Superman and Batman comics (as well as in X-Men comics), and are really only moderately flirted wit in the Avengers movies. Especially in Superman comics like Red Son, which examines what might have happened had Superman landed in communist Russia instead of Kansas, the archetype of the caped cat-rescuer is as absent as the war era’s blindly patriotic version of Captain America. In other words, this is probably the most comic book of comic book movies, which–in spite of its flaws–makes its low ratings a real puzzle. I wonder if the problem is that for all their quality, the Marvel movies are also made to appeal to those who have little or no knowledge of the actual comics, whereas this movie definitely goes in the other direction.
So yeah. Trust me, I get this this movie has problems, but nowhere near as many as other box office tripe like Star Trek Beyond
. It also has ambition and originality (which most movies don’t) and overall, does a pretty good job setting up a version of the Justice League that your parents wouldn’t have wanted you to watch.