The Ultimate Edition of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice—directed by Zack Snyder, written by Chris Terrio and David S. Goyer, and starring Ben Affleck, Henry Cavill, Amy Adams and Jesse Eisenberg—has, after a great deal of teasing and anticipation, finally been released for public consumption. It is, without question, superior to the theatrical version: where the original release was disconnected fragments of a narrative caboosed by an interminably long Doomsday battle, this final cut is a fully realized narrative about Bruce Wayne, Clark Kent, Lois Lane, and Lex Luthor… still caboosed by an interminably long Doomsday battle, but at least one that has more emotional heft and doesn’t take up such a brutal percentage of the movie’s running time. So I think it’s time that we, as a culture, look back a couple of months at this movie’s life so far and all agree on one thing:
Jesus Christ, what a clusterfuck.
I’d never really taken a trip to another city to see a movie I had no expectations of enjoying before, but the opportunity presented itself, and I wanted to see my New York friends anyway, so what the hell? I bought some tickets and caught the Thursday night preview showing of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice at the AMC Empire 25 in Manhattan. I’d been drinking pretty much all day, the advance reviews were atrocious, but fuck it, in for a penny, in for a pound: I’ll see the most-talked-about, most-maligned movie of the year twice in theaters in the space of 24 hours while on vacation in New York City. I mean, why not, right?
I’m not quite sure how to describe the initial, visceral reaction to a movie this overwhelmingly confident and weird. Watching Batman v Superman for the first time with no idea what you’re about to see is like smoking a joint and then someone telling you it’s laced with cocaine: you really thought you knew what you were signing up for, but the unadvertised ingredients end up being your favorite part. I was expecting a laborious Zack Snyder CGI punchfest, but did not expect (and was thrilled and horrified in equal measure to find) hero cake, Jimmy Olsen getting shot in the head like a hairless Harambe, Lex Luthor mocking a disabled dude with a Rascal scooter, or Lex Luthor (again) tormenting a senator with a jar of his own piss before bombing Washington, D.C. These oddities elevated what would have been a fairly bog-standard nonsensical superhero movie into something bizarre and mindboggling and, most of all, rewatchable. Still, though, I figured the movie a curiosity—a particularly uniquely ambitious failure that utterly misjudged its reach/grasp ratio.
Here’s the thing about the theatrical cut of Batman v Superman, though: it’s not a complete movie. It has the bones—there’s a plot, basic character motivations, there’s an outline here that, in its barest form, makes the version shown in theaters. It has the muscle—the special effects, the endlessly long Doomsday fight that could honestly have taken the majority of the cuts, the iconic shots and the Dark Knight Returns jerk-off homage lines. But there isn’t a goddamn tendon in sight. It suffers, brutally, from a hatcheted Act One that leaves the movie’s protagonists’ motivations completely inscrutable for the remainder of the film. How can you side with Superman or Batman when the movie doesn’t even tell you what the fuck they stand for?
Still, though: it was weird. It was weird and unexpected in a way no other superhero movie had been before, and the very next night I saw it again, with a significant chunk of the Deadshirt crew, and almost as entertaining as the movie itself was the reactions: when you know that Bruce is about to freak the fuck out about his mom and Clark’s mom having the same name, and you know nobody else knows this, the anticipation and joy at seeing the realization hit your friends’ faces is pretty incredible.
So it’s with considerable joy that I can report that the newly-released Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice: Ultimate Edition restores the movie’s tendons—the character moments that allow the plot skeleton to make sense and the action to have emotion to back up its muscle—while maintaining everything that made BvS such a damn quirky singleton of a superhero movie. First of all, it’s far more of an actual sequel to Man of Steel, following up on the traditional Clark & Lois At The Daily Planet status quo with some great scenes of the two of them hitting the streets and doing honest-to-God investigative journalism in both Gotham and Metropolis. An entire subplot not only exonerates Batman of the worst excesses of the Bat-branding, but also exposes how early and effectively Lex Luthor has been pitting these two personalities against each other, while allowing Clark Kent himself (the character most sidelined by the theatrical cut) time to shine as the righteous social crusader he’s always been, as well as strengthening his relationship with his mother.
Clark isn’t the only character who gets much-needed room to breathe: Bruce gets to be charming and witty (and surprisingly sincere in the process); Lois is way closer to the hyper-competent analytical mind she was in Man of Steel, with an almost-supernatural gift for discerning bullshit; Lex gets off a few truly incredible puns; and Henry Cavill and Ben Affleck finally get a chance to show off, in full glory, the results of all their Crossfit training. Meanwhile, the movie’s first half feels less like a “Previously On” and more like a complete narrative.
Many elements of the original cut—Batman’s search for the White Portuguese, what exactly happened with Superman in Nairobi, the full context behind the Senate hearings and Lex Luthor’s betrayal, the convenience of the evidence that put Bruce and Clark at loggerheads, Perry White giving Lois a helicopter because she said it was personal instead of a work matter—actually make sense in the complete version. The theatrical cut is filled with setups with no punchlines, and punchlines with no setups, cutting out just enough to make a pretty straightforward investigation into a supervillain plot seem like a series of disconnected scenes, almost indistinguishable from the interspersed dream sequences. The final cut works on its own, but also feels like a smack in the face in terms of contextualizing seemingly nonsensical elements of what they showed in the cineplex.
As a matter of fact, by filling in these gaps, the movie’s ambition—which is, basically, a story of America (as Batman) dealing with becoming more and more cruel after 9/11 (Superman and Zod fucking up Metropolis) and rediscovering hope (Superman’s sacrifice and Batman feeling really bad about it)—remains admirably kooky, but it’s buttressed by a story about understandable characters who’ve had their strongest moral principles manipulated by an external force to see a friend as an enemy. Thematically, this is a tighter Batman movie than any other, with the exception of The Dark Knight. It never made sense that Chris Terrio, who wrote the excellently methodical Argo, created a nonsensical fever dream for his superhero debut, and the Ultimate Edition clears up this mystery: he never did. He made an overly ambitious but heartfelt and timely superhero movie that, for reasons we can only speculate on (theater turnaround economics and the running time of 70mm film), Warner Bros. hatcheted into a movie that’s all bones and muscle but no damn heart.
The theatrical version sucker punched me in the face and I liked it, but this version decked me and I understood it.