It’s the superhero throw-down of the century, the mighty matchup comic book fans have been waiting for that isn’t named Captain America: Civil War.
Too bad Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice lumbers like a man in a homemade metal suit, weighted and worried, instead of zinging like the speeding-bullet spectacle it could’ve been.
Two years after the events in Man of Steel (2013), the people of Earth must come to grips with a scary new gods-among-us reality that saw Kal-El / Superman (Henry Caville) level half of downtown Metropolis whilst grappling with evil General Zod (Michael Shannon). Should humanity fear the Superman? Do we want him interceding on our behalf? Should the governments of the world upgrade their armies (and technology) for a time when Superman—or other “meta-humans” and super-powered extraterrestrials—go bad?
Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) thinks so. His already sour mood darkened further by the deaths of countless employees and acquaintances in the real estate-wrecking Zod skirmish, Gotham’s greatest detective preps for a private war to snuff the Superman. Butler Alfred Pennyworth (Jeremy Irons) thinks it’s a death wish, but the hired help doesn’t know Wayne’s got his Bat-sights set on industrialist Lex Luthor’s (Jesse Eisenberg) secret stash of Superman-neutralizing kryptonite.
Beleaguered Senator Finch (Holly Hunter, aka Pixar’s Mrs. Incredible) heads a committee tasked with settling the Superman debate. She fields arguments from Luthor, Wayne, and sundry Metropolis victims calling for Supes to stand down, but she’s reluctant to take preventive or punitive measures against Krypton’s ordinarily altruistic orphan, even when he unwittingly bungles an antiterrorist CIA operation in the desert.
Neither Finch nor intrepid Daily Planet reporter Lois Lane (Amy Adams) realize Luthor’s been manipulating world events and mass media in a self-serving Superman smear campaign, whose ancillary purpose is to make Batman’s blood boil.
But Bruce and Louis are on the case, as are journalist Clark Kent…and mysterious socialite Diana Prince (Gal Gadot). Newspaper editor Perry White (Laurence Fishburne) is more concerned with colorful headlines than international intrigue, and would just as soon have his best writers focus on something else. Anything else.
The caped crusaders spend the first two-thirds of the 150-minute epic battling inner demons before getting around to sparring one another. Supes / Clark solicits Mama Kent (Diane Lane) for advice on being civilization’s thankless savior, while Bats / Bruce confides in Alfred—and suffers recurring nightmares over his murdered parents and subterranean cave hideout. Meanwhile, Machiavellian Luthor gains access to Zod’s alien ship and its otherworldly technology, which he perverts into a sort of plan-B should Batman and Superman fail to obliterate each another.
The touted title fight is spectacular, if short-lived: Sporting an armored suit with Indiglo eyelets (apparently on loan from Tony Stark) and wielding weaponized kryptonite gas, Batman calls out and confronts Superman on a rainy night. The musclebound men take turns upper-cutting, tackling, and tossing one another through skyscraper glass and tenement mortar as the world watches something wicked brew at Zod’s downed dirigible. Across the harbor, Luthor kidnaps key intimates to ensure the heroes remain determined to kill one another. It’s a breathless finale, to be sure—but also bombastic, and not a little sad.
Reprising his Man of Steel role, Caville convinces as nebbish Clark and confused Kal-El. He loves his mum and dotes on Lois but is way concerned with how the world perceives him, and whether he should fulfill Earth’s expectations one way (hero) or another (vigilante demigod). Affleck is alright in his Batman debut, assuming cowl and ears with inflated pecs, lantern jaw, and grim resolve—but he’s no Christian Bale, either.
That’s partly because his Dark Knight is written as a dour, grey executive preoccupied by a super-grudge rather than a party-going playboy who’s not only grown accustomed to leading the double-life, but to loving it. Affleck’s Wayne is a somber, unsmiling antihero closer to the end of his crime-fighting career than the beginning (“I’m older now than my father ever got to be,” he tells Alfred).
In the plus column, Batman’s fisticuffs with petty crooks and high-ranking henchmen are visually on par with the hyperkinetic hand-to-hand combat seen in recent Jason Bourne and James Bond films, animated and athletic. This Batman doesn’t hesitate to snap bad guys’ bones, hurl them from rooftops, or mow them down with gunfire from the Batmobile and jet (which both appear).
Superman doesn’t smile or laugh, either; he’s too busy brooding. Which is a shame, because Caville is certainly comely enough to pull off a Christopher Reeve-like smile after one of his many damsel-in-perpetual-distress rescues. A toothy grin or friendly wink might’ve added a little levity to the proceedings. Supe’s sole moment of genuine quasi-human intimacy is when he consoles flustered Lois with flowers and spontaneously jumps in the bathtub with her, fully clothed.
That’s right: Amy Adams in the tub. Easily our favorite moment.
With his scrawny frame and mealy-mouthed vocal cadence, Eisenberg always makes for a great onscreen nerd (Zombieland). Here, however, he plays Luthor as a manic Mark Zuckerberg-type wunderkind whose motivations are never quite clear (Eisenberg played the Facebook guru in The Social Network). Why, exactly, does he want to destroy Superman? What’s with his fixation on Greek mythology and Promethean prophesies? Eisenberg’s Lex draws too heavily on Heath Ledger’s Joker and Jim Carrey’s The Mask, and it’s distracting.
There’re a few themes mingling amidst Snyder’s mayhem. If Man of Steel was about sons and fathers, this sequel is about mothers—biological (Mrs. Wayne), surrogate (Ma Kent), and symbolic (Senator Finch, who must comfort a nation). The Superman hearings reference 9/11 rhetoric and Patriot Act paranoia in no subtle way, but whatever sociopolitical brain food director Zack Snyder (300, Watchmen) have on offer is buried in a maelstrom of CGI smack-downs.
The picture is loud and blockbuster big as expected, but it also feels bloated. We have no problem settling in for a little exposition and character development, but Snyder tasked with setting up the next DC installment—shoehorns superhero cameos and Easter eggs into an already compressed narrative, and it takes too long for subplots to converge and for storytelling tumblers to click satisfyingly into place.
Batman v Superman earns its PG-13 rating, so parents be cautioned: There’s some realistic shootings, bombings, and bloodshed between all the comic book violence and adrenalized sci-fi action. Younger viewers might recoil from the psychological terror…if the gravitas doesn’t bore them first.