Considering the mixed critical and commercial reception – and endless pro/con fanboy soapboxing – garnered by 2013’s Man of Steel, a sequel was never really a sure thing. But Zack Snyder, returning director and main architect of this new DC Comics Cinematic Universe, got crafty. By not just including Batman in the follow-up film, but actually having the Dark Knight throw down against Superman in a titanic slobber knocker that draws its inspiration from Frank Miller’s seminal graphic novel “The Dark Knight Returns”, Snyder and the folks at Warner Bros ensured that rabidly excited fans would turn out in hordes for this comic book clash years in the making.
But then Batman v Superman suddenly morphed from just a Man of Steel sequel to the de facto launchpad of an entire movie universe, and people – myself included – started worrying. Just looking at the newly christened title alone, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice was over-stuffed, ungainly and embarrassingly clumsy; could the actual movie, with its butt-numbing 150 minute running time and gallery of rumoured cameos, be following suit as just as over-stuffed, ungainly and clumsy?
The short answer: Not quite. The slightly longer and more descriptive answer: Batman v Superman delivers like a superpowered Kryptonian punch to the face, with all the subtlety that entails, although Ben Affleck’s Bruce Wayne/Batman and Henry Cavill’s Clark Kent/Superman both get a bit more narrative depth to work with than previous iterations. This is mainly due to the script by screenwriter Chris Terrio (fresh off an Oscar win with Affleck for Argo), which cleverly takes all the Man of Steel criticisms about collateral damage and transforms it into the core dramatic force underpinning this conflict in a believable fashion. That and also dropping a third act bombshell into the mix that left me slack-jawed not just for how brilliantly it ties together these two iconic characters, but also in how damn obvious it was, and yet which, in my nearly three decades of comic book reading, I had never seen anybody do before.
The self-referential adjustments don’t stop there though, as there are several one-liners tossed out by characters directly addressing several of the negatives thrown Man of Steel‘s way – the minimization of destruction, Superman behaving more heroic, etc. They’re just sly enough to not be fully-on-the-nose, but there’s no denying Snyder and co are indeed speaking directly to the audience in this case. They’re also speaking directly to that lizard part of the brain that gets all excited when things collide in spectacular pyrotechnic fashion as Snyder orchestrates some of the most utterly gobsmacking superhero action beats I’ve ever seen, ranging from epic widescreen godly slugfests to brutal close-quarters fights courtesy of the Dark Knight’s vicious limbs.
And as the Caped Crusader, Affleck comfortably silences the naysayers with a performance that is both physical and psychological, giving us a believably troubled Bruce Wayne and one of the best Batmen ever both in terms of straight-off-the-comic-book-page looks and and bone-breaking badassery. And finally doing proper detective work! Much like his much derided disguise, Cavill’s Clark Kent is almost non-existent, while his Superman is still not exactly the most exciting or inspiring – compounded by Snyder’s unerringly and insipidly morose messiah approach to the character – but he does get a few key moments and sells them well enough, even if he does almost end up a bit player in his own sequel.
As primary villain Lex Luthor, Jesse Eisenberg turns in a performance that is luckily not just a copy of his role in The Social Network but something entirely new. Actually, this Lex Luthor is unlike any version of the classic character we’ve ever seen, sitting somewhere between the almost corny mad scientist Lex and the deviously manipulative businessman Lex, with a dash of millennial neuroses thrown into the mix for good measure. There’s a brokenness to him that is both tragic and maddening, and which may irk some traditionalists (which is sort of silly as there have been so many different versions of this character already), but which also dovetails snugly with the overwhelming daddy issues that permeate so much of our two titular heroes’ tales.
Moving on from the gentlemen, the two leading ladies in the cast also hold their own. Amy Adams as reporter and Superman love interest Lois Lane proves her Oscar nominated acting credentials with just about every frame she finds herself in, even though she doesn’t exactly have to do the heaviest lifting around. But it’s Gal Gadot, making her debut as the final member of DC Comics’ vaunted heroic Trinity as Wonder Woman, which deserves the biggest ovation. It’s a cinematic bow that has been unforgivably long in the making, and while fairly thrifty it definitely doesn’t disappoint. As both her civilian alter ego Diana Prince, and as the demigod warrior Wonder Woman, there’s an unmistakable raw vitality and exoticism to her that just lights up every scene.
Hers is also a much needed enervation in a movie that is almost comprehensively grim, with not much in the way of levity throughout its running time – though here, with the prominence of the traditionally dark Batman, it feels far more tonally appropriate than it did in Man of Steel (and all bolstered by a fantastically dramatic score by Hans Zimmer and Junkie XL).
But if you had a huge problem with some of the morality in Man of Steel, then a few of Snyder and Terrio’s character choices are going to possibly rub you up the wrong way, as it kind of did me. Even though there’s a definite logic to it in the context of this universe (which slightly softens the blow for me), hardcore comic book purists are undoubtedly going to have a conniption as Snyder once again butchers defining traits of characters – and one in particular – all in the pursuit of post-modern grittiness.
And while the film’s final two acts delivers some seriously bombastic action, and Snyder treats us to two very different, but both equally impressive opening sequences, the script’s first hour then develops a helter-skelter pitter-patter feel to it, as we rapidly jump from forced plot point to plot point to get this narrative ball rolling. It does admittedly strike a good balance of info dump hand-holding and respecting the audience to just figure it out, but there’s a definite lack of logical narrative structure as things just happen followed by other people doing other things with no coherent logic other than to setup the next Thing That Needs To Happen. I can also see that complete comic book newbies are going to be scratching their heads at some of the “big reveals” just foisted on them. And yes, those include the rumoured cameos and Justice League setups, which are luckily brief enough to not feel shoehorned into the plot but rather feel like glimpses into this wider universe, but is still about as setup-y as you can get. If you even know who and what you’re actually looking at, that is.
You may have noticed that we’re more than 1000 words into this review now already (sorry), and I’ve yet to actually mention the film’s plot. This is intentional, as the woefully mismanaged trailer campaign already spoiled so much of it, and I just don’t want to add to that bungling. I will be unpacking some of the film’s finer narrative points in detail on Monday, but for now I will just say that what Snyder has given us here is a film that improves on its predecessor in nearly every way – even retroactively making it better – but then repeats its previous fumbles in critical character aspects, while adding new problems with extremely muddled character motivations. And its examination of differing ideologies underpinning this conflict as well as its ruminations on theology and mythology, while initially a highly engaging argument as to why these heroes would come to blows, eventually also just devolve into a series of violent misunderstandings.
That being said, on the whole, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice still offers enough gawking comic book spectacle to stand as a viscerally enjoyable if monumentally grim while not feeling as butt-numbingly long or over-populated as many had feared, even though it does indeed double down on setting up what’s to come in the future DC Comics Cinematic Universe.
Last Updated: March 23, 2016