Not My Batman V. Not My Superman
I didn't like Man of Steel.
I'm not talking about the 1986 DC Comics miniseries by John Byrne, which is, to the contrary, revelatory in nature. That book brought Superman singlehandedly into the modern era and paved the way for hundreds of terrific tales. (It's also, as I pointed out before, the starting point for my own Superman collection, recently begun anew with the resurrection of the Post-Crisis iteration of the character.)
Rather, I'm talking about Zack Snyder's 2013 film that endeavored to reintroduce Krypton's Last Son to modern audiences. I liked the trailers and I even was excited enough to attend a midnight screening of the movie. I started out really enjoying the scenes that took place on Krypton, displaying the conflict between Superman's father Jor-El (Russell Crowe) and General Zod (Michael Shannon). But the Superman of this narrative contrasts starkly with the version I know and have enjoyed for the last few decades. Gone was the optimism that's often encircled the character, replaced by cynicism at best and pervasive xenophobia at worst. (I shouldn't have been surprised, as executive producer Christopher Nolan always was more at home in Gotham than Metropolis.) Add in enough property devastation to make even Michael Bay blush, and I might have considerable pause. But then--then--give Superman, the very same guy who always, always finds a way to win, an unwinnable situation where the narrative forces him to kill Zod. I checked out like Mark Waid (a writer whose work on Superman: Birthright and other tales I enjoyed).
So when DC announced the "sequel" to Man of Steel would be a battle with the Darkknight Detective himself, as a pitstop between the original and a Justice League movie, I should've known better. When I saw the film back in March, I dismissed it as an unmitigated disaster that got so, so much wrong about both lead characters as well as the villains of the piece. Batman (Ben Affleck) saw everything in terms of absolute good or absolute evil and was a frequent accessory to murder (with the bat-brands on criminals he caught serving as, essentially, a death sentence). Superman (HEnry Cavill) was a man of few words, and those he did say he growled in ways more accustomed to Batman. Lex Luthor Jr. (Jesse Eisenberg, horrendously miscast) was just a lunatic. And Doomsday could fly, shoot heat rays out of his eyes, and explode over and over again like a bomb because, well, I'm not quite sure why. The narrative was a mess, the characters were a mess, and by the time Superman died in the final battle, I was nauseatingly numb.
Of course, like a fool I decided I absolutely needed to watch the "Ultimate Cut" released on July 19. Could the additional 30 minutes of footage turn my opinion of the film around? Putting aside the fact that an R-rated version of a Superman movie shouldn't even by rights exist, I watched.
The verdict? Although the film is still deeply flawed and especially wrongheaded in its treatment of Superman, the Ultimate Cut is a leap forward when compared to its theatrical predecessor.
Others have given more thorough reviews of the films as a set, so I won't go into much detail. The strongest bit re-inserted into this film is the lengths to which Luthor went to manipulate the characters, from Superman and Batman on down to Senator Finch (Holly Hunter), Wallace Keefe (Scoot McNairy) and Kahina Ziri (Wunmi Mosaku), the latter of whom has the most expanded role. What could have been believed as too many coincidences in the theatrical version is spelled out as Luthor's machinations in this version. Granted, very few of the additional scenes actually involve Eisenberg's Luthor himself, so there's an even greater disconnect between the actor's portrayal and what we know the character has done. But putting forth the idea that Luthor knew who Batman and Superman really were from the beginning puts everything in perspective, just as making him direct prisoners to kill other prisoners with bat-symbols exonerates Batman in a way, and makes the opening sequence and the bullet sub-plot have a more sensible connection to Superman.
However, there are things besides Luthor that remain problematic or become even more so as result of the added footage. Batman's visions of an "Apokoliptic" future and the cameos of all Justice League members still stick out like sore thumbs. The explosion at the Capitol Building gets a bit of a tradeoff, as we find out Keefe's wheelchair was lined with lead which prevented Superman from seeing the bomb. However, nothing in this film or Man of Steel shows why Luthor would have any knowledge of this particular weakness of Superman's. (Filmmaking 101: Set 'em up and knock 'em down.) And Snyder really, really doubled down on the bleakness and carnage of the prior film's denouement, using it to form his basis of this one.
The biggest problems of the movie are still, sadly, the biggest problems. Batman still reacts nuttily toward Superman's exclamation that they're going to kill Martha, and Doomsday is still a big gray deus ex machina meant to give all three protagonists something to punch and hit since Luthor's body can't take that kind of punishment. But what was worst of all was the entire sub-plot making Superman out to be some kind of god being worshiped by the people of the world. True, he never actively encouraged any of them, but he never discouraged them, either. Snyder takes pains to dismantle the myth, at least in Batman's eyes, by making him see that he's not a god--that he's just a man, in the "Martha" scene, and then impresses it upon everyone else in the story by having Doomsday kill him at the end. He can die just like the rest of us! O, sad day!
This is all well and good, of course, so long as you don't consider that, in order for Superman to appear in Justice League, he's going to need to be restored to life. And, if you think the huddled masses were going ga-ga over Superman before, just wait until they see that Christ parallel in action! The very direction of the narrative decimates any statement Snyder (or screenwriters Terrio and Goyer) attempts to make.
So, Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice has a better version in the Ultimate Cut; however, there's still much to overcome. Seeing this cut gives me a little hope in Justice League. Maybe, at the very least, they'll resurrect Superman with the ability to smile, laugh, and see the best in people? After all, Henry Cavill has really looked the part in these last two films, and I know from films like The Man From U.N.C.L.E. that he's got charisma to spare. So why not let him, you know, actually use it?