***1/2 our of 5 stars
“And there came a day unlike any other—”
Oops. Wrong company and franchise.
Anyway, the DC Comics’ much-hyped new superhero movie, “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice,” has hit theatres with force more powerful than a locomotive. Unfortunately, it’s hampered by some kryptonite.
In the wake of the destruction in Metropolis, Batman (Ben Affleck), distrusting of the benignly powerful Superman (Henry Cavill), sets out to destroy the Man of Steel. Meanwhile, a darkly eccentric young billionaire (Jesse Eisenberg) discovers a glowing green mineral that could kill Superman.
“Dawn of Justice” is both a sequel to 2013’s “Man of Steel”—regardless of what Warner Bros. has said in the past—and DC’s first expansion into creating a shared movie universe, a la the MCU. Unlike Marvel, however, DC seems intent on making a cinematic universe as big as Marvel’s in half the time. Besides adding Batman, Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) makes a less prominent but impactful appearance in a subplot. Several other iconic DC heroes and future Justice League members the Flash (Ezra Miller), Aquaman (Jason Momoa), and Cyborg (Ray Fisher) all make cameos. Thankfully, Wonder Woman actually contributes to the story and the cameos don’t seem forced. However, it still does feel a little rushed including them here instead of giving them solo films first.
“Rushed” is the operative word with other things in “Batman v Superman.” While “Man of Steel” bypassed the issue of brilliant reporter Lois Lane (Amy Adams) never figuring out Clark Kent is Superman by having her discover his identity halfway through that film, she and Supes developed a romance fast even by Hollywood standards. That continues here, where they are now living together and considering marriage. This was obviously done to add emotional potency to the ending, which arguably adapted a popular storyline prematurely.
That being “The Death of Superman.” This won’t be a surprise to most comic readers since the spoiler-ific second trailer showcased Doomsday (and it is him because Lex Luthor dropped that name), the raging monstrosity who killed Superman in the comics in the mid-1990s. This is only the second movie in DC’s cinematic universe, and they’ve killed their most recognizable character. On the surface, it seems like they jumped the gun, but if they have a larger plan for their storytelling like Marvel does, this seemingly bad move might be retroactively elevated. The problem is Marvel has earned the respect to pull something like this given their body of work, and DC has yet to prove themselves. Only time will tell.
As with “Man of Steel,” DC continues to sometimes reinterpret their characters when transitioning them to the big screen. While Snyder is an undeniably visual director, the color scheme for all the superheroes is drastically muted. This makes sense for Batman, who skulks in the shadows, but Superman’s primary colors aren’t as bright and Wonder Woman has all the color drained from her iconic costume. Admittedly, not everything that looks good in a comic book looks good on the big screen, but as Marvel has shown, not all the color needs to be removed.
More drastic, though, is the characterization of Batman. Gone is Christian Bale’s brooding but moralistic Caped Crusader. Ben Affleck channels Frank Miller’s old, gritty, and angry Batman from The Dark Knight Returns. Casting Affleck was controversial, but he proves himself in the role, to say the least. This is easily the scariest Batman ever seen on screen. Given that in this universe he’s been fighting crime for 20 years, it’s no surprise he would as hard as he is. But in a move that veers Batman away from the Christopher Nolan trilogy and more toward Tim Burton’s hyper-stylized 1989 classic, this Batman has no qualms with killing bad guys. He doesn’t go out of his way to do so, but if they’re in a car that explodes while he’s chasing criminals, he’s not bothered. Many fans will say, “That’s not my Batman!” In some ways it makes Batman’s hatred of Superman somewhat hypocritical since Supes refuses to kill (although, he did kill Zod, which isn’t addressed).
On the other hand, Henry Cavill’s does the opposite and becomes more like his comic counterpart. This Superman is inspirational. He’s cool under pressure. He’s madly in love with Lois and will do anything to save his mother (Diane Lane)—even kill Batman, if he has to. Does he reach the same levels as Christopher Reeve? No, but it was a good direction to go in.
As for Lex Luthor, DC tries to cheat a bit by saying this is Lex Luthor, Jr., who in the comics was an alternate universe version of Superman’s archenemy, but aside from the name, he’s essentially the primary universe’s Lex. Eisenberg was another unusual casting choice, but unlike Affleck, his character seems a bit off. He plays Luthor as slightly more unhinged and insane. While his big screen predecessors Gene Hackman and Kevin Spacey played Lex as an eccentric evil genius, Eisenberg often teeters on darkly comical brat. Sadly, he’s not bald until the end of the movie when he has his head shaved in prison. In their defense, Lex Luthor had hair when he first appeared in Action Comics #23 in 1940. Yet at the same time, he provides most of what little comic relief is in the movie, most of its most memorable lines, and a large sum of thematic material.
Speaking of which, themes was the one area the movie held the much potential but no guarantee it could deliver. For the most part, though, it succeeds. The first ten minutes are remarkable in that aspect. The climax of “Man of Steel” is shown from ground level as Bruce Wayne tries to save friends and civilians, only to see them die. He even comforts a little girl whose parents perished in the devastation. One wonders if this was done to address one of the criticisms lobbed at “Man of Steel,” that being that it was full of destruction brought on by a reckless Superman. Regardless, it arguably legitimizes that decision by showing there was a human toll to what at first just seemed like Snyder opting for a set piece. It turns Superman into a divisive figure with some loving him for saving the world and others distrusting and even hating him because of the power he possesses.
Snyder once again uses many religious images and themes when exploring this. Lex likens Supes to God, even going so far as to say, “If God is all-powerful, he can’t be all good. He if he’s all good, he can’t be all-powerful. And neither are you.” There’s talk of mankind being humbled by evolution and now by the presence of an alien. Yet others crowd around Superman just to touch him as if he was Jesus Christ. Snyder wisely presents reactions from both sides of the religious spectrum, leaving it up to the audience to decide for themselves who is right.
As hinted at, this is a dark movie. Perhaps “bleak” would be a better description. It has more in common with Zack Snyder’s “Watchmen” than it does Marvel’s “The Avengers.” Some would say that’s because it’s being realistic, but if one wants a realistic superhero film, watch Nolan’s “Dark Knight” trilogy. Snyder’s vision is somewhere between Nolan’s realism and Burton’s hyper-stylization. Regardless, it’s far from a feel-good movie.
Ironically, up until the last twenty or thirty minutes, the movie is arguably a smaller one compared to “Man of Steel.” While Superman and General Zod (Michael Shannon) leveled entire skyscrapers, the much-hyped fight between Batman and Superman just has them knocking each other through a few walls and ceilings. Then Doomsday shows up and it turns into a Michael Bay fantasy: lots of explosions, loads of CGI and constant fighting. Depending on someone’s tolerance for such things, they may or may not like it.
Like Marvel, DC is now hinting at bigger things to come with this movie. Specifically, indirect references to the coming of Darkseid and Apokolips (Parademons are seen in a dream sequence) and the formation of the Justice League. It was surprisingly well-done given how rushed much of it seemed.
In the end, “Batman v Superman” is clash of style and substance. It’s a movie that wants to tackle big ideas related to belief, religion and control, but also one with a director known for his violent visual flair. One wins out over the in rapid-fire succession for the entire two-and-a-half-hour running time. One might have to flip a coin to see which wins.