We review the Ultimate Edition of the highly divisive Batman v Superman.
Those of you who are fans, will dig it. If you hated it, you'll still hate it. Larry Fong, the awesomely talented cinematographer for Dawn of Justice had those words to say on Twitter recently. After seeing the vastly superior Ultimate Edition of the highly controversial film, I'm inclined to inform you, reader, of the same. I'm also inclined to inform you that much of the language used in this review will read in a way that assumes you have already seen the theatrical cut. If you have seen neither cut of the film and were waiting on our review of the Ultimate version, I have tried my best to adhere to The Movie Sleuth's strict code of spoiler-free ethics so that anyone can feel safe diving in. There is one scene, mind you, that I felt I had to address in somewhat spoilery fashion, but you'll have fair warning before I get into those details.
If you found the theatrical cut to be an intolerable knife in the back of your childhood because the characters aren't the ones you've grown up with and loved, this Ultimate Edition will likely change nothing for you except stuff these versions of these characters further down your throat. While nearly every technical issue the theatrical cut was riddled with has been "fixed" by this cut, it remains the cold, sad, slow burning, science fiction conspiracy epic it always has been whether you like it or not. However, technically speaking this is a beautifully shot, competent, gorgeously plotted, although bitter, depressing, and frankly more practical take on how characters like this might actually react if similarly wild circumstances occurred in our own world.
The arrival of the Superman is treated as an event or the dawn of a new age. It's important to note the use of the word "the" prefacing our hero's name as this is primarily a story of how our world would react to the arrival of an alien god and the destruction he brought with him. We're taken in this cut through the eyes of Superman as he connects with regular folk both as an alien god and the reporter, Clark Kent. This duality of god and man affords us a far deeper introspection into his struggle with the "who gets saved" curse that eats at his conscious. You can feel the weight of the world on his shoulders growing from scene to scene and how it alters his perspective on the government, the common citizens, and his loved ones. Thanks to Cavill's dynamic, but subtle performance as both identities, through his face and body language alone, we often see the anguish that is crushing his will to be the savior the people desire. While he holds the hands of millions in need on his left, he's battling to quell the mistrust of millions to his right. The Ultimate Edition provides us far greater context for the knots twisting in his mind and the frustration he endures on the ground and in the sky.
|"Look what you did to my little Santiago! He said he don't like Batman no more. He's mean! Where's our refund?!"|
The crux of the conspiracy plot, and much of Clark's conflict, revolves around an incident that goes terribly wrong in Africa involving Lois Lane, Superman, and some curious terrorist soldiers with darker ulterior motives. The theatrical cut unfortunately glosses over this disturbing catastrophe which left many audience members unable to grasp the gravity of the retribution this brings down on Superman. Thankfully, the Ultimate Edition sees this incident unfold in all of its gruesome glory which is crucial to understanding two of the greatest motivating factors of the story: Superman's inner turmoil and Lex Jr's motivation to see him pay for his involvement.
Jena Malone's character was originally totally excised from the film. While her role was brief— among so many other puzzling omissions—her entire deletion was particularly detrimental as she is responsible for resolving one of the hottest points of contention regarding a plot hole with Superman. While Malone's cut is easily one of the most damaging to the theatrical plot, it's not the only piece of vital information that was missing. Almost every nook and cranny has been filled with a necessary bonding agent originally carved off by Warner Bros. For those who have seen the theatrical cut will be stunned at how much just one sentence uttered, or one reaction made, or one establishing shot can do to enlighten your experience—and there's 30 whole minutes of that! Watching with a friend of mine, we could have made a drinking game out of how many times he said aloud, "I really wish we would have known that!" or "Why would they leave that out?!"
|"Sorry, Lois. I don't think you're food or sex. You'll never make it in this industry, sweetie."|
Possibly every technical issue with the film has been resolved by the reinsertion of missing material like the Africa scene. Probably every question that left you scratching your head before is answered save for the "knightmare" sequences which are understandably left a mystery. Hardcore DC fans have been able to put together several puzzle pieces already, but common movie-goers were left to decide whether they were intrigued by the esoteric scenes or put off by them. Personally, I'm happy to see these were left as is. They remind me of the strange literary bombs dropped in shows like Lost or Fringe when enormous science fiction mysteries were introduced without warning, leaving the audience with some gossipy meat to chew on until those enigmas were solved in later seasons or episodes. I find these sequences of brain candy in Batman v Superman to be just as tantalizing and I would have them no other way.
Perhaps the biggest flaws in the original cut were glaring pacing issues and jarring edits. The clunky cuts and stilted pacing of the theatrical version are now completely gone. Creative establishing shots transition every scene beautifully, providing a story flow that's smooth and engaging while putting you in every scene with a strong sense of place and tone which is consistent throughout. In fact, as we follow Kent's news story we sink deeper into this universe by seeing the connection between Gotham and Metropolis both geographically and spiritually through characters Kent interviews or interacts with. Growing up in Detroit, this tickled that same sense of home and interconnectivity when seeing Canada from across the Detroit River. Personally, I adore films that imbue the viewer with a sense of culture and place. Thankfully, this quality has been restored in the Ultimate Edition, seeing more landmarks and diversity which provided a better sense of the contrasting cultures of the fictional sister cities.
In chorus with a grander sense of world-building, character motivations overall are crystal clear and assemble at a brilliantly even keel. Like Henry Cavill's Superman, Jesse Eisenberg's Lex Jr. gets some needed expansion as well. His string-pulling is seen in greater detail in this cut as we witness each of his manipulative little fingers poking and prodding our icons into conflict. Even a certain strange leap in character logic by Lex Jr. towards the close of the theatrical cut is explained now by a restored interaction with Batman that's sure to delight fans. As a side note, it might be my imagination, but it seemed like there were more overt references to his father this time, possibly alluding to the fact that a more faithful Lex Sr. still exists out there for the fans still miffed over the replacement by his eccentric son.
While both Superman and Lex Jr's motivations are fleshed out more in the Ultimate Edition, Batman remains the same with a handful more brutal shots during some of his insanely cool action segments. One might feel Bruce's anger and hatred boiling just a little hotter under the surface thanks to a better understanding how Lex, among many other factors, help push him to the edge. Otherwise, he's mostly the same unforgiving rampage of a person with a slightly clearer arc, even if he didn't necessarily need it. Let's face it, his city was eviscerated by an alien threat, the scope of which even the world's greatest detective wasn't prepared for, Robin has been clearly murdered by a maniac that he let live, Lex pulling at his strings, and the plethora of other motivating factors already present in the theatrical cut, it should be entirely obvious by now why he's lost his friggin mind and turned to the dark side, if you will. So, if you had a problem with Batman from the theatrical cut, you're still going to hate him here, but technically speaking, as far as this version goes, it's laid out as cut and dry as it can be why he's turned into the man he has become and I love every micro-second Ben Affleck is on screen as the legendary comic icon. For those wanting to read me gush more about Affleck's Batman, read my original review of the theatrical cut.
|"Excuse me? I'm blind in one eye. I can never scratch these things right. Did I win?"|
I can't go without mentioning a certain controversial scene, so if you haven't yet seen either version of the film, skip over this paragraph now. So, I've gotten this far without mentioning it yet, but what about that whole "Martha" debacle, you ask? Yes, it's still stands out like a sore thumb and yes, it's as contrived as it gets and nothing was done to really "fix" it, per se, but given the thick foreshadowing in the opening scene and the remaining character arcs built up to that point, I would hope it's inarguable by now why it gives him pause in that moment as he realizes he has become what he hates. It's still odd to me that the go-to gripe about this is that this inspires a newly realized bromance between the two because their mothers share a name. Even I can admit that while the line is the most awkward scripting choice in the entire film, a bromance over their mothers' names is far from the point being made. Once again, though, if you didn't like this scene before, you're still not going to feel much better about it. Considering the plot and character development is significantly improved leading up to it, in my book, it's a little easier to forgive this time. I understand the power behind the moment, and it's unfortunately contrived as all hell, but I get it. I can get over it, but I'm still docking a big point off the score for it. Sorry, Snyder.
This incredible Ultimate version is the bitterest of sweet experiences because the theatrical cut did a horrible disservice to the amazingly thorough creative team that spun such a massive story and balanced it so impeccably only to have it sent through the wood chipper. Even if you still come away disliking this film, I strongly believe that at a technical level, there is little bad you can say about this Ultimate Edition. True, the "Martha" scene will always be there. True, Lois Lane pulls some dumb moves for the sake of tension during the third act. Honestly, it's really hard for me to otherwise find any significant flaws in this huge experience. You could debate all day about creative choices with the characters, but that's all subjective and doesn't merit any technical critique. Batman is more brutal and deadly than he ever has been, but his motivations are literally and figuratively on display, there's no arguing how clear this is made. Superman is more "emo" and conflicted than he's ever been, but the story makes perfect sense given the grim circumstances. Lex Jr. is a strange, quirky, twisted nuisance, who's conceived with complexity and depth even if he's not the Lex Sr. everyone wanted.
It didn't really sink in fully until this version, but I realized that the reasons the controversial decisions were made for these characters is because we have seen these origins over and over again. We have seen their stories dozens or hundreds of times before in film, TV, and comics. So, how do we reintroduce some of the most iconic characters in history in a way that doesn't necessarily start at zero, but gives them something to build toward? What is an arc we haven't seen in the rest of the DC catalog that both sees a fresh progression in their roles and gives them something meaningful to achieve? How do you do that? You crush Batman down to the very animalistic core we always feared he might fall to given the right series of tragedies and build him back into the legend we've always loved, but ten-fold stronger. It's a reboot without a new origin story. Then we have the Superman who, new to the role as a God, must face how he is seen through the eyes of the government and the common folk who are forced to ask the question, "how do you decide who gets saved?" When it's all added up, this cut took DC's biggest grudge match from an OK, but clunky and heavily flawed film, to a masterful comic film deconstruction of some of my favorite icons.
|"If you're such a smarty pants, Lex, tell me under which box is the fuzzy ball?"|
The Ultimate Edition isn't going to do any favors for those turned off by this film's incessantly bleak, often gruesome tone. I argue that at this stage in the DCEU, it has to be, and it's only laid on thicker with this version. The story is about the mass destruction and death brought about by a pair of godlike aliens and what that kind of event does to human beings. It's about how Superman must face the duality of being both a man in Clark Kent and the god responsible for the deaths of thousands. It's also a story about how a man once in control of his anger and hatred lost it due not only to the death of his parents right in front of him, but then his friend and protégé, followed by the destruction of his city, his friends and employees by an alien far more powerful than anything he's ever faced. It's about the extremes he's willing to let himself go to in order to make sure that never happens again even if it disappoints the one last father figure he has in his life.
The film damn well should be very bleak. At least this film should be. It's the classic phoenix tale we needed before we rise from the ashes for Justice League and the remaining films in the franchise. As much as a lot of us are put off by this film, I believe it was a necessary evil in a way that gets us back on the track fans have always wanted. If you want to deal with the flack they got from Man of Steel, the repercussions of mass destruction has to be resolved in a practical way that doesn't pull any punches or beat around the bush. They could have laughed it off or forgot about it, but at least they had the balls to address the issues head on and give us a legit reason for the "rebirth" of these heroes and a return to form. Like I said, it's a phoenix tale. If there wasn't a show of flames and ashes, we would call bullshit on the next film because the massacre wrought by Zod and Supes' fight in Man of Steel would not have been given the respect it needed to be resolved. Without the serious, dark tone of BvS, it would have felt disingenuous. For this fan, I think it's exactly what we needed, like being told by a doctor of the horrifying diagnosis no one wanted to hear, but that there is hope on the horizon. This is Zack Snyder giving it to us straight. It might not be what we wanted to hear, but it's exactly what we needed to move forward.
Review by J.G. Barnes