Zack Snyder‘s Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice is a film handicapped from the start by two very specific things: 1) That there is no way for a movie featuring these characters together in live action for the first time to do everything everyone wants it to, and 2) Being the result of a decision made minutes before announcement at SDCC three years ago. The former is a discussion of the value of established canon for another time. The latter, however, is something that figures into almost every stage of this movie.
Ostensibly, Dawn of Justice is a Batman film, with a supporting cast of other DC mainstays to flesh out the world. Working from 2013’s questionable Man of Steel, the axis has seemingly shifted against Superman being the lynch-pin of the DCCU, and the dark knight taking over. Not altogether a bad thing, this version of Superman has been of much debate from fans since Man of Steel’s release, but it does end up rendering Man of Steel somewhat pointless.
The opening salvo follows our new Bruce Wayne right through the battles of Man of Steel‘s last act, framing it like a terrorist attack from a human level. Bruce is a much more hardened, slightly more cynical version here than what we’ve seen before. The chaos that Superman has brought upon Gotham and Metropolis is something that Bruce cannot morally abide, so he takes it upon himself to put the son of Kryton in check.
Ben Affleck‘s Batman is the wiser leading option between he and Henry Cavill‘s Superman on a sheer performance level. Affleck‘s older Bruce Wayne is weary, but still suave and sophisticated, very used to keeping up appearances and very, very adept at being the vigilante hero of Gotham’s streets, both in costume and out. This Bruce Wayne is a lot more James Bond-like in his heroism – he only uses the batsuit when he needs to, otherwise seeking out the information and items he needs by social connection and special technology. Affleck does have the added benefit of Jeremy Irons‘ Alfred, with whom he has great chemistry. Some of the film’s best moments of dialog are the two of them discussing how Batman should continue best.
But even though this Batman is largely entertaining, there’s a gulf of disconnect between setting him up for this cinematic universe and then putting he, Superman, Lex Luthor and Wonder Woman together. For a large portion of the film’s almost two-and-a-half hours, it switches almost at will between several points-of-view, rushing to get through the point where they all collide and the real meat of the picture’s title comes to pass. Each person’s actions, though, vary in actual plot relevance from beat-to-beat. Superman and Lois Lane’s plotlines, in particular, are basically just killing time in certain instances. Lane, played by Amy Adams, is investigating a conspiracy associated with Lex Luthor that becomes completely pointless by the last act. As she’s doing that, Superman mulls over his place on Earth before the movie’s screenplay decides it needs him to kick into action.
It isn’t to the film’s detriment to limit Cavill‘s time onscreen as he’s one of the weaker members of the cast. Yet, the lines he’s given are incredibly poor, feeling first drafts from a teenager’s Superman fan-fiction. His strong presence is let down by poor choices in the moments he is given time to speak, which gives the impression of just counting down until Superman will start swinging in the big fight. Again, not the worst choice, but Superman is known for poetic lines on humanity, and he’s given none here. He’s left as a crusader who can’t seem to work out why he’s crusading.
It’s Jesse Eisenberg‘s Lex Luthor, surprisingly, who provides the most significant parallel to Batman. Lex wants to be the author of what controls Superman and Batman and as the film wears on, what seems first a calculated take on the morality of vigilante justice becomes sociopathic fixation. Eisenberg is well cast as the slightly-cartoonish, twitchy, captivating genius dead set on controlling the heavens. His downfall into obsession becomes more wreckless as it goes on, using kidnapping, character assassination and even suicide bombing to his advantage.
What’s worth noting at this interval is, yes, I did just write suicide bombing. That dark tone of Man of Steel that fed into how morose many felt it was is not only present, but ramped up. Seemingly, in their decision-making process for how they were going to approach this film, the council at Warner Bros. and DC decided that Zack Snyder and David Goyer‘s want for sullen action should be the entire backdrop of the DCCU. Dawn of Justice is far from meaning hope with its downtrodden, woe-is-me attitude to superheroism. Almost every major character is given a moment to wax lyric about their place as a hero, and about what heroism means to them. Batman is, naturally, given the most time to do this, asking Alfred at one stage “20 years we’ve been doing this, how many good men are left in Gotham? And how many who were good stayed that way?”
Though this film does handle that grittiness much better than Man of Steel, its biggest issue remains the director, Zack Snyder. Despite this movie being gargantuan in plot, Snyder still finds time for meaningless slow-mo and bizarre dream sequences. Whole scenes are bloated with his obsession with making the film look “cool” – he’s making the first feature film with Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman in it, there’s plenty “cool” here already without fancy tricks. The screenplay does the job in its broad strokes, but there’s a lingering feeling that it could have been much greater if Snyder wasn’t taking the lead on the storytelling. Be under no illusion: the strength of the performances and concept makes this film entertaining despite the best efforts of those higher-up.
The moments when Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice ceases to be a rumination on how hard it is to be a hero and just lets these icons of pop culture fly are its greatest. The final hour is riveting in its succession of events. No, none of the setpieces or fight scenes are all that remarkable in their basic elements, but they don’t need to be – it’s Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman onscreen, together, in full costume, kicking ass. Even with such little screentime overall, Gal Gadot‘s Wonder Woman leaves one of the greatest impressions, too. During the movie she’s a serviceable foil to Bruce Wayne’s attempts to find out about “meta-humans”, but she really comes to the fore when in-costume as the Amazon Princess. Her theme is the most percussive – and the most memorable, next to Lex Luthor’s – which really works to up the ante and draw back full audience attention.
Not that holding attention is the biggest problem the movie might have, really, but it is an issue. With so many new moving parts to get through, Dawn of Justice is a little bit tiring by the time it feels like it’s running down. Some of the bigger storylines, like Bruce Wayne searching through the criminal underground, may have been of better use as a solo film made to lead into this one. The density of plotlines and character set-ups is very thick, especially with such a well-established endgame. And with so much of philosophical emphasis on Superman, the only other establishing shot of this universe we’ve had, Man of Steel, ends up looking like its own spinoff – ‘The Untold Story Of Why Superman Is Bad For Us’ – rather than a mainline instalment.
In a straight yes or no verdict, Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice is a yes. However, it shouldn’t be as complicated a yes as it is. The film has too many caveats for its own good. It’s not suitable for young children with all the violence and, bizarrely, one single jump scare. It’s not very positive for Superman, nor is it easy on Batman’s harsh past. There are some huge holes in logic and plot, the dark tone continues to wrestle with the subject matter and the special effects aren’t the best. Nonetheless, in the battle of Zack Snyder V the DC cinematic universe, the DC cinematic universe has managed a victory, albeit a slim one.