Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice arrives onscreen nearly three years after it was announced, freighted with the weight of expectations and the tense air of a massive, all-or-nothing gamble. Warner Bros. Pictures (which owns DC Entertainment) and director Zack Snyder have multiple objectives with the film: to right the perceived wrongs of its predecessor, the introductory Man of Steel; to introduce a new and different Batman not even a full four years after the character was last seen in theaters; and most importantly, to lay the groundwork for the DC Extended Universe, a series of major motion pictures that will bring DC’s most iconic heroes to the screen in an interconnected fashion that looks eerily similar to what the Disney/Marvel Studios factory is doing just down the street in Burbank (literally – the two studios are a few minutes away from each other).
Does it achieve those goals? The answer is mixed. Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is a big, unwieldly mess of a movie, but it is not an un-entertaining one. There are elements that are surprisingly strong – notably in the casting – and other aspects that suffer either from a patchwork script or the need to jam a whole lot of world-building into one movie, even one that runs 150 minutes. It’s very much a Zack Snyder movie in many ways – there are a lot of interesting ideas left to sort of flounder on their own that he still manages to imbue with gravitas, yet never completely follows through on because he’s too busy moving on to the next thing. And yes, it’s dark: there are maybe three jokes in BvS, and the atmosphere is relentlessly ominous and oppressive.
The plot, on the basics, is simple enough and the essential conflict is already well documented: some time after the events of Man of Steel, the world is still wary of Superman (Henry Cavill) and his abilities because of the destruction he inadvertently wrought upon Metropolis in his battle with General Zod (Michael Shannon). Congress, in the person of Holly Hunter’s Senator June Finch, holds hearings while the public divides into two camps about this crisis.
During this national soul-searching, Gotham City billionaire Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) seethes with rage over the death and injury of employees in a Wayne building destroyed in the Metropolis catastrophe. He decides he must stop Superman himself, using his considerable years of crime-fighting experience as Batman to defeat the most powerful enemy he’s ever faced.
But there are more players on the field, chief among them being Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg), a brilliant and megalomaniacal scientist and industrialist who wants to bring Superman down. He begins a complicated plan to embarrass the Man of Steel and manipulate the public, and the Batman, against him. Also lurking around the edges of the chess game between these three men is the mysterious Diana Prince (Gal Gadot), who crosses paths with Batman while on her own mission that involves both Lex and Superman, and who offers the Dark Knight a glimpse of a far stranger world than he ever imagined.
Batman v Superman finds its most clear success in its cast, proving once again that hysterical fan overreactions are meaningless when it comes to A-list, professional actors practicing their craft. Ben Affleck is an excellent Batman/Bruce Wayne, bringing an organic darkness, intensity, and world-weariness to the role while cutting a commanding figure in both a three-piece suit, and the cape and cowl. Equally top-notch is Jeremy Irons as Alfred, and the interactions between the two crackle with chemistry and intimacy – you really feel the weight of the years between them.
The other standout among the new players is Jesse Eisenberg as Lex. While he has moments where he appears to be in another movie – he brings a touch of joviality to an endlessly somber film – Eisenberg radiates intelligence, cunning, a sadistic sense of humor, and in several instances a deeper psychosis that is hinted at merely with a change of expression. In some ways, his Lex may be the most faithful adaptation we’ve seen yet.
Henry Cavill exhibits more confidence and ease as Clark Kent/Superman this time out while Gal Gadot creates an exotic presence as Diana/Wonder Woman. Both are good – Gadot is impressive, in fact, and offers a lot of promise for her upcoming standalone film – but are less served by a script that prefers spending time with Affleck’s Batman. Cavill’s Superman is both active and passive; we are shown a montage of scenes of him doing heroic deeds during the 18 months following the events of Man of Steel, yet in all that time, does he never even attempt to make the case for himself in any other fashion? (Hell, even Christopher Reeve’s Superman gave an interview to the press.) He also does inexplicable things like leaving the ruins of a Kryptonian world engine rotting in the Indian Ocean where anyone with the resources (hello Lex) can grab a chance to plunder its secrets. Cavill’s Kal-El remains a frustrating figure in some ways, and Superman’s characterization in this movie suffers next to that of Batman.
As for Gadot’s Wonder Woman, she’s onscreen for very little time during the movie’s first two hours, and her big moments in costume are obscured by a blitzkrieg of CG smoke, explosions, lightning, and other pyrotechnics in the action-heavy but mostly incoherent climax. While not giving anything away, just know that the finale is a noisy, pull-out-all-the-stops orgy of destruction that takes up less time than the climactic battle in Man of Steel but doesn’t quite deliver the emotional gut punch that it thinks it does.
This is because the movie becomes increasingly nonsensical as it barrels toward the third act, and one can feel almost a sense of desperation as one Easter egg after another is jimmied into the plot. A dream/vision sequence endured by Batman makes no sense in the context of the story – and will baffle non-DC fans – while the much-vaunted introduction of other members of the Justice League is done in an almost perfunctory fashion. There also comes a point where the movie makes you feel as if all this drama could have been avoided if Batman and Superman simply took a minute to talk things through – while the reason they eventually do form a bond has got to be one of the more contrived we’ve seen. Until then, they both kind of act like jerks when it comes to trash talking about the other.
Other things about this universe are also left unexplained: why is Wayne Manor in ruins? Who inhabited the empty, Joker-vandalized Robin suit we glimpse in the (very sleek and cool) Batcave? Has Batman been in retirement all this time? Why are Batman sightings seemingly treated as something new when he’s clearly been around for a while? The script (credited to Chris Terrio and David S. Goyer, with Terrio doing a lot of ground-up rewriting) is largely to blame for this, leaving a lot of blank spots and feeling more like a random collection of sequences than a unified whole.
The biggest problem with Batman v Superman is that it attempts to bring together these two very different superheroes without laying enough groundwork beforehand. We’ve only just met this Superman one film earlier, we’ve never met this Batman before, and we’re also just figuring out how they fit together into this world. It’s hard in this sense to avoid comparisons to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which has done a much better job of planting seeds and developing characters before bringing them together or crossing them over with each other.
There’s also no sense of a guiding hand or singular point of view behind Batman v Superman – Zack Snyder simply does not think along those lines. He’s just a cog in the DC/Warner Bros. machine who wants to make things look cool. Whatever you may have thought of Christopher Nolan’s take on Batman or Kevin Feige’s handling of the MCU, they bring a philosophy and vision that is curiously lacking from this film.
As we said at the outset, Batman v Superman is entertaining in many ways. No matter what, it’s a thrill to see the Bat onscreen again – and handled with respect – and the film benefits from the presence of Irons, Eisenberg and Gadot, as limited as the latter is. The returning players – Amy Adams as Lois Lane, Laurence Fishburne as Perry White and Diane Lane as Martha Kent – also provide welcome continuity and solidity. I cannot say I’m a fan of Larry Fong’s muddy cinematography this time around, but I did enjoy Hans Zimmer and Junkie XL’s more-bombastic-than-ever score.
The issues that drag the film down are a script as tortured as its title and the overall sense that the movie doesn’t quite know what it wants to say and how to say it. With Suicide Squad coming this summer, and both Wonder Woman and Justice League Part One on tap for 2017, the DC Extended Universe is finally here. But whether there is an intelligent design behind the whole thing remains to be seen.
Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is in theaters Friday (March 25).