There are so many superheroes that people in Fresno and all over the world may root for, be they light and fun or dark and gritty, male or female, powerful or merely mortal. But within the broad lexicon of superhero icons know all around the world, there are perhaps no two characters that are more iconic than the original two: Superman and Batman.
The Man of Steel was created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster in 1938 in Action Comics #1 and with his introduction the character created the superhero genre and set the bar by which all of these characters are measured today. The following year Bob Kane, with help from Bill Finger, followed up that success by creating Batman in Detective Comics #27, and from there the Dark Knight set another gold standard for these characters to be measured.
These two heroes sat at the top of the DC Comics roster as more and more characters were introduced, but despite being so famous and by the same company, the two characters have always been very different. One was an alien survivor from another planet that floated down to Earth like Moses on the River Nile and under the ray of our yellow sun was granted superhuman abilities far beyond those of mortal men; the other in fact was a mortal man that rose up from a traumatic childhood tragedy and trained himself to the peak of human physical and mental perfection to fight the forced of evil in a disguise meant o strike terror into their hearts. One was human, the other inhuman. One worked in the shadows, the other literally got their strength from the sun. The parallels go on and on. The two of them were so different that for decades DC Comics made a point to keep the two as separate from each other as possible. Sure there were Worlds Finest comics where you got both a Superman and a Batman story in the same issue and they may both appear on the cover, but other than that DC would not allow the two of them to meet.
That is, until 1952’s Superman #76 where, in a pretty goofy but fun story by today’s standards, both Batman and Superman end up crossing paths together and also discover each other’s secret identities before joining forces to save the day. From then on the two characters have essentially been portrayed as…well, Super Friends for lack of a better term.
But then, in 1986 everything changed once again with writer-artist Frank Miller released The Dark Knight Returns, the groundbreaking four-issue miniseries set in an alternate 1980s America where and older and far grittier Batman comes out of retirement to restore order to the utter chaos of Gotham City once and for all. Within that story, readers were told that Superman now protected the world under the direct authority of President Reagan, thus the world’s greatest champion was now nothing more than a government tool, putting him in direct opposition to the vigilante activities of Batman. The final climax of that issue was a titanic showdown between both characters, fulfilling a dream that comic book fans have had for generations: to see who would win if Batman and Superman ever fought each other.
This question still resonates and is the subject of intense debate to this day. Ever since The Dark Knight Returns‘s publication, other writers have gone with the new concept of both of the world’s greatest superheroes not getting along, at least not when they first meet. But in our hearts what many of us truly longed for was to see the two heroes finally be aloud to come together on the silver screen. Several attempts at a “World’s Finest” movie have been pitched and put into the works for years, but ultimately none of those efforts even saw the light of day…Until now.
Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is simultaneously a sequel to the 2013 blockbuster Man of Steel and an early prequel of sorts to Warner Bros. upcoming two-part Justice League film. First announced in the wake of Man of Steel‘s release, the film is the second installment of what is now called the DC Extended Universe, a shared universe franchise of films based on DC Comics characters that Warner Bros. is crafting to provide direct competition to the success of Marvel Studios.
Ever since this film was announced at Comic-Con three years ago, word of mouth and public speculation of this project has been nearly endless, with some announcement, such as the casting of Ben Affleck to play Batman, the decision to push the film’s release date back an entire year, or even just the title of the film becoming extremely controversial. In the wake of Man of Steel‘s heatedly divisive response, BvS had an awful lot to live up to if it hoped to impress and finally get the ball rolling on a new DC Universe on the big screen.
But does the film itself succeed? Well…lets talk about it.
It has been two years the destructive battle in Metropolis seen in Man of Steel, and in the aftermath of that tragedy Superman (played by Henry Cavill) has become a controversial figure, with many seeing him as a Christ-like savoir, while others see him as a godlike being who uses his power irresponsibly and someone who needs to answer for the things he’s done. One of those haters is billionaire Bruce Wayne (played by Ben Affleck), who has spent nearly two decade covertly operating in Gotham City as a vigilante known as “Batman,” after he was forced to watch his parents be murdered in front of him as a child. Wayne was actually in Metropolis on business on that fateful day and now he blames Superman for the mass casualties that resulted from his fight with General Zod, including several of his friends and Wayne Enterprises associates located in Metropolis. Superman, in his public identity as Daily Planet journalist Clark Kent, in turn sees Batman as dangerous and ruthless and seeks to expose him. Meanwhile, LexCorp’s young but brilliant mogul Lex Luthor (played by Jesse Eisenberg) also sees Superman as a threat to the world’s safety and convinces Senator June Finch (played by Holly Hunter) to help him recover a radioactive green rock called “Kryptonite” from Zod’s failed terraforming attempt from the Indian Ocean. Finch later stonewalls Lex’s efforts to use DNA from the corpse of Zod and the Kryptonian scout ship recovered from the battle to create a biological weapon.
Superman himself is under more fire after an incident he puts a stop to in Africa to save the life of his girlfriend Lois Lane (played by Amy Adams) results in further deaths, causing him to seriously question his role in the world and whether he really is doing the right thing or not anymore. It is during a Metropolis fundraiser promoted by Luthor that Bruce and Superman, under his secret identity as Daily Planet reporter Clark Kent, finally but unknowingly meet in person. Bruce has gone there to infiltrate the fundraiser to retrieve data from LexCorp’s mainframe, but his drive is stolen by mysterious antiques dealer Diana Prince (played by Gal Gadot), who learns that Luthor has files on herself, as well as certain “gifted individuals that could play a significant role in our planet’s future.
But none of that is Bruce’s to priority at the moment as he dons his Batman identity in an attempt to retrieve Luthor’s Kryptonite, but it is here where he is intercepted by Superman, who orders him to cease his activities. Batman’s response is to promise that Superman will soon learn how to bleed. Later, Finch summons Superman to a Congressional hearing to debate the validity of his actions, where machinations are put into place that only serve to further the growing hatred of the Man of Steel, especially the Dark Knight’s hatred. Conspiracies are hatched, plots are made, and it all builds up to the ultimate gladiatorial grudge match as the world’s two great superheroes go to war with each other in a battle for the ages, all the while Lex Luthor has something even more sinister waiting in the wings, and a unexpected ally may be waiting nearly to step into the fray.
For a film that promises to be all about one big superhero on superhero fight, there is a lot else that this story tries to do. For example, when I reviewed Man of Steel back in 2013, I lauded the film for finally giving me the gigantic, monumental level of super powered action that I always wanted to see in a Superman movie. However, the rest of the world did not all see it that way. The sheer amount of collateral damage in that movie was off the charts! The entire city of Metropolis was utterly decimated right before our eyes to ridiculous levels, and Superman himself was presented as being just as much at fault for that immense loss of life as General Zod and his cohorts were. This collateral damage was widely decried against for being overblown, irresponsibly handled, and because Superman himself did not seem to do enough to minimize any of it himself. That, and his extremely controversial decision to outright murder Zod to save the day at the end, something that I unfortunately was not able to spoil or disgust in my original weekend-or release review.
This stuff had a specific impression on me when I originally saw it in theaters, but in the three years that have come since I have found that I support it less and less the more times I see it and truly regret that more direct acknowledgement of the sheer scope of the tragedy and the out-of-character defeat of the the villain in particular was not paid better lip service by the film’s end. It was a viewpoint that many had after seeing that movie…and thank goodness that Zack Snyder and his team chose to listen when crafting this follow up.
Right from the beginning, we see that BvS is crafted very much to be a reaction to the backlash against Man of Steel. After an opening credits sequence recounting the murder of Bruce Wayne’s parents in Snyder’s familiar and visually striking manner, we the begin the story during that same climax, only this time we get a man on the street perspective as we see that Bruce Wayne was apparently in Metropolis the day of Zod’s attack. Many people died that day and Bruce got to experience it first hand. As he sees Superman and Zod fighting each other in the sky, we know that he blames Clark for all of this and that sooner or later he would have to pay.
It doesn’t just end with Bruce however. Congressional hearings and endless television debates are held about whether Superman’s presence on our planet is a good or a bad thing. At the end of Man of Steel, Superman promises that he us here to help us all, but he insists that it has to be on his own terms. That is essentially what we see at the start of this film; Clark clearly wants to do good in the world and to use his powers responsibly for the good of everyone, but for every action he takes he triggers an even greater reaction, the incident in Africa just being the most recent example. We see the world split right down the center on how they see Superman; in some scenes he literally has people he’s saved literally reaching out to touch him like he’s their savoir (yet another of this portrayal of the character’s often criticized over-abundance and unsubtle Christ metaphors), and then in a key scene at the United States Senate we see a mob of anti-Superman protesters crying fowl at him, not to mention an employee of Wayne’s that lost his legs during Zod’s attack now being confined to a wheelchair and spray painting the words “False God” on a giant Superman statue erected in the city park. This is a fitting controversy given the last movie was meant to be about Clark winning the world’s trust and in this film it is clear that he has not fully succeeded in doing so. This dilemma is what makes Clark the really heart of this story.
And yet, for all of that, the true star of BvS is, perhaps not surprisingly, Batman. It is telling that instead of allowing Superman to redeeming himself to us on his own with another solo film, the studio instead chose to pair him against the character that has, so far, been their one true success in feature films. Coming off of Christopher Nolan’s epic trilogy that ended with 2012’s The Dark Knight Rises, this latest incarnation with Batman was always going to be something different than the most recent incarnation and one that fans could recognize and embrace in this DC film franchise going forward. This latest Batman has a lot of the more grounded elements from Nolan’s version, but is also much more comic book accurate, to the point that BvS marks the first film in Warner Bros. franchise to finally showcase Batman in his traditional comic book gray and black outfit rather than an all black rubber suit of body armor. Batman’s gadget have distinct bat iconography to them, the Batmobile feels like it has more a bat motif to it compared to the Tumbler, and there is even a clear indication that at some point in the past this Batman did run around with at least one incarnation of Robin at his side.
But the differences in this new Batman go beyond just those things. For one, this Bruce Wayne is clearly much older than we’ve seen portrayed on screen before, obviously to accommodate Affleck’s real age and also to imply that this Batman has been working in the shadows of Gotham for a long time. Because of that, he seems to have a more cynical, uncompromising point-of-view than previous depictions, almost like Rorschach from Watchmen. Affleck’s vision of Batman may likely be the must complete and literal depiction we’ve seen yet; he runs the full gambit as a physical powerhouse, the dapper playboy, the serious businessman, an obsessive authoritarian, and a relentless detective. Furthermore, this is easily the most brutal Batman we’ve seen on screen to date. I could not believe the kind of fight move he was pulling off in this movie, particularly in a scene in the third act where he has to save someone from a bunch of criminal that looks so nasty and so ruthless, not just from Batman but from the criminals that are all coming at him at once also. I am going to say right here that despite all the praise I’m giving Affleck, easily the best performance in the film, there is still one huge problem with his interpretation. If you ever had a problem with Tim Burton’s Batman apparently killing people, then you might want to stay away from this film because this Batman seriously brings that into question! Something has seriously warped this character (or maybe he has always been this way, we’ll have to wait and see) because there are several scenes in this film where he is acting totally ruthless and murderous, the worst of any Batman we have ever seen so far!
But as we all know, Batman and Superman are not the only superheroes that turn up in the movie. This film has also garnered a plenty of hype for being the first cinematic portrayal of Wonder Woman, the greatest of all female superheroes and the last of the DC Trinity. Gal Gadot, as it turns out, is a perfectly acceptable casting choice for Wonder Woman; I particularly liked her foreign, almost Amazonian look and the slight accent she did to her voice. I do agree with IGN that the decision to introduce Diana Prince into this story as a Woman of Mystery was a smart choice and she has good chemistry with Affleck. The unfortunate downside is that her screen time is noticeably limited and she doesn’t have a whole lot to do except pop into a few scenes in civilian clothes, check her e-mail at a key sequel baiting scene, and then join in the big final battle. Furthermore, while her scenes with Affleck are fine, she doesn’t have any interactions at all with either Clark Kent or Superman until said the final battle. Still, her look is very cool and a fitting update on her classic design from the comics, and seeing her is action was really cool, even if was was really only for one key sequence.
Unfortunately, not everything I have to say about this film can be good, which brings me to Lex Luthor. I do appreciate the decision to get away from the corrupt real estate swindler and self-proclaimed “Greatest Criminal Mind of Our Time” portrayal that Gene Hackman made famous (even though I do love that version from my youth) and to instead go more for the Post-Crisis approach with more complex motivations and a worldview that is more interesting and heady, with a more theological bent than we have been aloud to see Lex showcase in film incarnations. The problem is that Eisenberg plays Lex as a painfully obvious villain; he is clearly brilliant, but he’s also crazy, as if he is suffering from a psychological disorder rather than just being greedy, evil, or driven by ego. As a result, this portrayal of Superman’s arch nemesis is very tic-y when he speaks and is manic in his behavior. That, coupled with the decision to play as a dramatically younger character (a decision this examiner still does not understand) and plots and scheming that become very muddled and by the end virtually nonsensical, makes for a very flawed and disappointing portrayal despite the potential of the actor.
Another frequent criticism of this film is that its running time is very long. Clocking in at 151 minutes, this movie spends a lot of time meandering about as we get into both Bruce and Clark’s heads, while the big fight that we all really came here to see is naturally saved until the end. Kids coming to see nothing but nonstop superhero action all the way through will likely have their patience tested, but the wait is worth it…more or less. It wasn’t a problem for this examiner though as I was grateful for the opportunity to get into the character’s heads more and follow the admittedly very busy and convoluted story line…even if, again, a lot of it didn’t make total sense and some smarter writing and more rational thinking from some of the characters could have solved a lot of these issues.
Yes, this story is very, very cluttered with a lot of different threads going on. I equate this to some poor editing and plenty of material that was left on the cutting room floor. I feel I’m justified in that assumption as it has already been confirmed that we well be seeing an R-rated director’s cut when the Blu-ray comes out. Man of Steel suffered from some lapses in logic too, big ones, so I can only hope that this will not be the ongoing fault of this franchise in the future. For instance, there is a whole sub plot about Lois Lane investigating a bullet she uncovered in Africa that is somehow connected to Lex’s plot. I have no recollection of that story going anywhere by the end…Honestly, Lois doesn’t really have a whole lot to do at all but to get herself into trouble so Superman can keep saving her.
There has also been all of the hype surrounding the world-building for this new DC Extended Universe, with this film marking not only the first film portrayal of Wonder Woman, but also of Aquaman, Cyborg, and the Flash, all of whom will be appearing in the upcoming Justice League films as well as their own solo films in the near future. I am pleased to say that the story handles this stuff much better than I feared it would when their casting was announced, limiting their appearances to brief cameos only. But anyone going into this film taking the Dawn of Justice subtitle literally should be prepared because its only a tease. I am grateful for that because this movie really needed to make sure to keep the focus on Batman and Superman, which is does, with Wonder Woman popping in and out of the narrative until her big contribution to the final battle.
In speaking of which, lets talk about the last, big new character whose inclusion was so foolishly spoiled by the trailers: Doomsday. Yes, the hulking gray monstrosity made famous for his role in the Superman comics of the early 90s is featured here as the big final boss character for our heroes to face. Normally that would have been a massive spoiler from me but, again, the trailers already did that for me. My problem with the character is not necessarily that he is used as just a final obstacle without any personality, as the Doomsday of the comics really isn’t much different. Nor am I going to be up in arm over the brand new origin story the film give him. The problem is that when Doomsday appears, the CGI looks utterly awful! I’m not kidding, I could not believe how fake the computer model on this creature looked, especially in the early part of the fight. When he grows those boney spikes out its a little bit better, but not by very much. There is a sense of this emotional disconnect from the actors as a result of this, and while the spectacle of this living comic book was able to hold my attention, I fully recognize this it simply won’t do it for a lot of other people.
Maybe that is the film’s biggest flaw of them all: a sense of emotional disconnect. Sure we get Batman’s resentment of Superman, but that comes and goes and when its there is super extreme and arguably irrational. Cavill’s portrayal of Superman has been criticized for blandness, but while I appreciate him more than some others he is definitely playing it really dead serious and lacks much of the charm of Christopher Reeve’s version; seriously, would it be too much to ask him to crack a smile once n a while?. We we finally see the trinity of Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman together on the big screen after all these years, the result is initially pleasing but not not as much as you might expect. These three really don’t know much of anything about each other by the end so there’s not a lot of emotional investment between them, with the marketing already giving away what was meant to be the most joyous and exciting moment of the movie where those three are standing together ready for battle.
The action in this film, like in Man of Steel, is utterly off the wall! Snyder seems to go out of his way to tap into fans’ deepest desires to bring what we secretly all want to see and put it on the big screen, regardless of subtlety or logic. Some have complained that the action in the climax is just as catastrophic as it was in Man of Steel and that these filmmakers have learned nothing at all from that backlash. I respectfully disagree. The big battle with Batman and Superman that we all come to see is brutal, powerful, and full of raw emotion as we all expect, but the whole thing takes place in and around one building where no lone else is around to get hurt. Even the gigantic battle with Doomsday at the end, as the film makes clear, is located on an abandoned island with no one around. Does the fight look like a living video game? Yes. Is it totally over the top? Absolutely! But I am not seeing civilians running from collapsing skyscrapers or Superman recklessly thrusting his opponent into populated areas like he did last time; in fact, at least once he deliberately tries taking the fight into space to avoid collateral damage. Clearly Snyder and company have learned a lesson in three years, even if not by much.
I’ve talked a lot about this film already, but the last thing I’ll discuss is the performances. As I’ve said, Ben Affleck, like Michael Keaton before him, was a hugely controversial choice when cast, and yet he turns out to be the best performance in BvS as Bruce Wayne, a.k.a. Batman. He plays the role with an aged gruffness and a very bitter temperament, and channels all the familiar aspects of this character–the physical powerhouse, the dapper playboy, the serious businessman, the obsessive authoritarian, and the relentless detective–all in one performance. Is he my favorite Batman ever? No, that honor will always go to Kevin Conroy, but Affleck may be the best live action Batman yet…Who knew? Henry Cavill is is similar form as last time as Clark Kent, a.k.a. Superman, which depending on who you are may be a good or a bad thing. As I said he is no Christopher Reeve, playing the part very serious and straight, but I do not find him as boring as some others do and his presence does project the biggest and most macho Superman we’ve seen on screen so far. I do like his human drama this time around and where it ultimately brings us by the end, even if it is kind of forced. It may also hurt that his Clark Kent persona at the Daily Planet has no apparent deviation form his Superman persona, kind of like the classic George Reeves vision of the character as opposed to the duel role approach of Christopher Reeve. Amy Adams returns as Lois Lane, also playing it similar to last time. She has a spunky attitude to her and a sort of understated romance with Cavill (save for an unnecessary and diaphanous bath tub scene), but sadly there is not much for her to do this time around except to get into danger. Jesse Eisenberg joins the cast and Lex Luthor, and as I’ve said he is probably the most problematic performance, playing the role too young, too crazed and too bizarrely for this examiner’s tastes, in spite of the more complex motivations he has in the writing…or at least what the writing thinks its giving him. Diane Lang returns as Martha Kent and she is a nice addition to bring back, even if she ends up as a damsel-in-distress by the end. Laurence Fishburne also returns as Perry White, a welcome return as, like in Man of Steel, he is probably one of the most energized and vocal performances in the cast. Another really solid performance is Jeremy Irons as Alfred Pennyworth, who inherits this iconic role and plays it with decidedly older and less refined portrayal than from previous actors like Michael Gough or Michael Caine; it felt more in line with Gotham‘s portrayal of Alfred than anything else. Holly Hunter appears as Senator June Finch and while we don’t spend a whole lot of time with this character, Hunter makes her argument well enough and serves as the voice of the people…or of the Man of Steel critics at least. Gal Gadot also makes her debut as Diana Prince, a.k.a. Wonder Woman, playing the part with an air of mystery, strength, and intrigue that keeps us captivated, before going into full warrior mode for her big battle scene at the end. It was enough to convince me of her potential and I look forward to seeing what she is able to do in her solo film net year. Other performances include some more returning faces from Man of Steel, such as Harry Lennix as Secretary Calvin Swanwick, Christina Wren as Major Carrie Farris, Michael Shannon as the deceased General Zod, and Carla Gugino as the Kryptonian A.I. Kelor. Further new additons to the cast include Tao Okamoto as Mercy Graves, Scoot McNairy as Wallace Keefe, Callan Mulvey as Anatoli Knyazev, Jeffrey Dean Morgan as Thomas Wayne, Lauren Cohan as Martha Wayne, and Robin Atkin Downes as the voice of Doomsday. The film also features cameo appears from three more future Justice Leagers: Ray Fisher as Victor Stone, a.k.a. Cyborg, Jason Momoa as Arthur Curry, a.k.a. Aquaman, and Ezra Miller as Barry Allen, a.k.a. the Flash.
Overall, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is a big, dark, psychological and political exercise coupled with an enormous superhero grudge match we have waited decades to see. It is a film with a lot of flaws and which clearly has more visual splendor than emotional resonance or even internal logic. It never becomes a completely awesome movie experience, but it can be more fun and the people who made it are not as incompetent as the haters have predicted and which the critics would currently have you believe. There is no doubt that this screenplay needed a few more rewrites to sort out the problems, even with the release date pushed back a year. Still, IGN was right that those who have already made up their mind about BvS will find that seeing the film itself won’t do much to change your mind one way or another. This is a movie that is great on a fanboy level if anything else, but assuming this new DC Extended Universe really does overcome its difficult hurdles and becomes something solid then, at worst, this will go down as a stain on the franchise, but at best, I think time may look back on this film as sort of the Iron Man 2 of the continuity for its flawed storytelling and many conflicting plot lines and the emphasis on world building to ensure we make it to the end goal that the studio has in its sights.
This was a really tough film for this examiner to grade, and given my background and interests in superhero fiction, it may be impossible for me to judge this film totally impartially. I really do think there are better portrayals of Batman and Superman coming together out there, such as the still expertly crafted “World’s Finest” episode from Superman: The Animated Series in the 90s, but this film is at least an occasionally fun, turn-your-brain-off romp if nothing else. I likely enjoy it better than Man of Steel on a fan’s level, and the themes it deals with, though not nearly as well as it thinks it does, helps make film better for me in hindsight. But the flaws in this film are undeniable and could have been that much, much better, and I am predicting that, like Man of Steel, that fun I am having with it now will likely wear off over time I I will see its faults for what they are in time. For that, while it pains the inner fanboy in me to do it, I’m giving it an enthusiastic two out of five stars.