At its very best, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice depicts sequences ripped straight out of an Alex Ross comic book. When at its worst, this is a cold, muscled-up film that has the feel of something written by Frank Miller, minus the irony. There is far too much on display for me to call one of the biggest superhero movie match-ups of all time bad or not worth your time, but the direction this film takes does see some of the biggest fears being realized. The story and characters fall flat in a gorgeously filmed world that, while mostly exciting, often misplaces the fun.
With so much riding on the line for Warner Bros. and DC Comics as far as creating a new cinematic universe from this film, the pressure was certainly on director Zack Snyder to get this ambitious concept right. Comic fans and anyone who plays with toys have often longed to see a big cinematic depiction of the Man of Steel taking on the Dark Knight. However, while ideas and what I assume are successful pitch meetings can be one thing, it amounts to little if the story doesn’t hit the right beats or characters amount to very little.
Written by David S. Goyer (Man of Steel, Batman Begins), with help from Chris Terrio (Argo), Batman v Superman does plenty right in its setup when it comes to naturally following up where things left off in Man of Steel. In fact, this film is probably the best Superman movie since 1980’s Superman II. Henry Cavill does his all to develop a character from very little and the turmoil Kal-El is put in actually has weight.
Having been a major factor in destroying a chunk of Metropolis, Superman is observed by many as both a savior and a threat, while continuing his mission to protect earth on his own accord. His support comes from a few, including Lois Lane (Amy Adams). Many others are more questionable of the alien, including Holly Hunter as a concerned U.S. Senator, Jesse Eisenberg as power-hungry billionaire Lex Luthor and most importantly, Ben Affleck as Bruce Wayne – the Batman.
As a version of the Batman who has been doing this work for around 20 years, Affleck is easily the most brutal cinematic depiction of the character yet. He is at a point where the life or death of villains with guns hardly matters, but ridding Gotham and other areas of deadly threats will always be a sticking point. We don’t get much of the false Bruce Wayne persona, but Affleck invests what he needs to into the role of a tormented man, with fine moments of interplay with Jeremy Irons as Alfred.
So much of this film has been shrouded in secrecy, but a big issue is how the script eventually devolves into what you have pretty much seen before in these superhero films, regardless of scale. At two and a half hours, it actually does feel like there was a lot of stalling to finally get you to the big battle between these titans. Of course, knowing that the Justice League will be coming, we automatically know the two will have to partner up in some way to take down some other, bigger threat. It was actually alarming to find the film in such conventional territory in its final stretches, while blending awesome ideas for action with very bland locations.
The stakes could seemingly not be higher for a film like this, yet when you boil down this story, it does very little to service any of the characters, beyond a general understanding of where each piece fits in this puzzle. I’ve already commended Cavill, as he gets more to work with this time around, despite being pushed aside to make room for all these new players. However, much like Man of Steel, on a character level, this film comes up very short. A lot of it plays off of assumptions of things we already know and the rest amounts to characters defined by a brief sentence.
Were the film to have been able to create deeper characters or find a way to truly match up the disparate ideologies between Batman and Superman, everything could have more or less fallen into place in a more intriguing way. Sadly, it misses the mark on both counts and so we have to rely on the strength of the performances, visuals and other directorial choices.
In this way, the film does shine. It may be confusing to understand how Snyder has become the man with the control over this massive franchise, but he does create some stunning sequences in this film. With cinematographer Larry Fong, Snyder has developed a look that feels akin to his other features, but still separates this superhero epic from the pack. The action may not be consistently great (certain highlights are undercut by other poorly-edited and ill-defined ones), but Batman v Superman does do the job of showing me a lot of things I have not seen before in this type of film.
Even in smaller-scaled scenes that rely on actors talking to each other, the film finds ways to make a lot of that interesting. There are points where I may have just been sitting in wait, because the plot halts its momentum to reexamine the same concept constantly, but at least the actors are all game to put in the effort. I wish it connected more emotionally (once again, Cavill gets the most to work with between Adams’ Lois Lane and Diane Lane as Ma Kent), but again, the film is often more interesting than not thanks to spirited work from the likes of Eisenberg, Hunter, Irons, and Laurence Fishburne.
The last thing to really consider is this film’s appeal. Beyond those who already mentally purchased their tickets the second they heard this announcement, I’m struggling to think of who this film was made for. Part of that comes from the tone, as this is a very grim picture. Not fun-grim like Batman Returns, but really grim like Christian Bale standing over the ashes of Rachel Dawes in The Dark Knight (a film that is otherwise incredibly entertaining). I don’t mind a film like this taking a darker path, but leaning on an R rating for a story featuring Batman and Superman fighting feels like going one step too far.
For all the fun of some key interactions and the inspired lunacy in Eisenberg’s work as Lex Luthor, I don’t know what the repeat value of a film like this is for the youngsters growing up with a chance to see their favorite superheroes come to life. Adding in Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman is a nice touch and she’s quite good in her limited screentime, but that kind of cool bonus element means little in a film that is so oppressively dour for the majority of its runtime.
I will be curious to see where things go from here. Like anyone else, I was excited to be seated in a theater and ready for the experience of seeing these two superheroes face off. However, regardless of how greatly put to use the budget was in developing a visually rich world, it is hard to look past a story that fails to add substance to either the characters or the ideas it teases. I am invested in this world now and will happily praise areas the film gets right for the sake of supporting Batman v Superman as a theatrical experience worth having, but work needs to be done if WB wants 10 more films similar to this one.