Published on March 29th, 2016 | by Brad0
Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice review
“Fight night! The greatest gladiator match in the history of the world! God vs man! Day vs night! Son of Krypton vs Bat of Gotham!” With that, Lex Luthor sets the stage for the encounter we’ve been waiting to see on the big screen since Kevin Smith’s Superman Lives script from 1997 featured a cameo from Michael Keaton’s Batman. Keaton’s Batman and Nicolas Cage’s Superman meeting may well have been an epic for the ages, but alas it was not to be. The same fate befell the planned crossover between Christian Bale and Brandon Routh, largely because Warner Brothers disastrously agreed to let Bryan Singer make Superman Returns a sequel to the Richard Donner Superman films from the late 70s and early 80s. But finally, the two greatest, most popular superheroes of all time are sharing the big screen in Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel sequel, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.
Man of Steel was released in 2013 to tepid reviews and a slightly disappointing box office return of $668m – not a disaster by any means, but when your relaunch of Superman takes less than half the money that Marvel’s Iron Man 3 made in the same year, you can understand the concern. It’s not without its flaws, but on the whole I really like Man of Steel. Just to dip my toes into the DC vs Marvel debate for a moment, where Marvel’s films all feel very safe, and spend a lot of time winking at the camera, both Man of Steel and Batman v Superman are very po-faced, very earnest, and absolutely swinging for the fences. The tone is more operatic, telling the story of a godlike figure placed into our society. Man of Steel is about the conflict between these godlike figures, Superman the alien raised on Earth arguing for peaceful coexistence and Zod the despot arguing for conquest and genocide. Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is about the human perspective, what it looks like from down here when the gods do battle in the skies.
Our chief window into that world is Batman, played here by Ben Affleck. When Affleck was announced as Batman back in 2013, the internet’s reaction was sober and considered. Or, y’know, not. Mass outcry ensued; petitions to drop him from the role were started, as it was clearly felt that this tall, chiselled, dark-haired, square-jawed actor was not a good fit for tall, chiselled, dark-haired, square-jawed Batman. I assume some of the ire was linked to the poor memories of Affleck’s turn as Daredevil ten years previous, but I wouldn’t say that movie’s spectacular failings are any particular fault of Affleck’s. He’s also improved significantly as both a performer and a filmmaker in the decade-plus since Daredevil. Predictably, people started coming around when we started to get a look at him in the role, and rightly so – Ben Affleck owns every second he’s in Batman v Superman. I do take issue with his branding and killing criminals, that’s way too far into Frank Miller territory for my taste, but on the whole I think this is probably the strongest portrayal of Batman I’ve seen on screen. Many of his scenes are shared with a scene-stealing performance as Alfred Pennyworth by the great Jeremy Irons, who provides much of the film’s humour in that dry, sardonic delivery of his.
The film opens with a very quick recap of Batman’s origin, before plunging Bruce Wayne into the heart of Metropolis amidst the chaos and destruction caused by Superman and Zod’s battle at the end of Man of Steel. That film was heavily criticised for how casual its destruction of a major populated city was; Batman v Superman seeks to remedy that by putting human faces on that death toll, and devoting a lot of time to discussing the consequences. It’s a thrilling opening, with Bruce Wayne driving through the carnage, before running headlong into the dust cloud kicked up by the Wayne Financial skyscraper being cut down by Zod’s heat vision. Having Bruce run towards that whilst everyone else is running away is an instantly heroic piece of imagery. Witnessing this destruction first hand, Batman concludes that that amount of power is too dangerous for an individual to hold, and sets about the work of destroying Superman.
Also keen to get into the Superman destroying business is Lex Luthor, played by Jesse Eisenberg. Another casting decision met with hysteria – tempered somewhat by the very sensible announcement of Irons’ casting as Alfred in the same press release – this is a much different Luthor to that which we’ve seen before from Gene Hackman and Kevin Spacey. A lot of that is for the better, as Hackman and Spacey’s Luthors felt more like glorified scam artists than Superman’s arch-nemesis, whereas Eisenberg’s Lex feels like a diabolical genius and a threat worthy of both Superman and Batman. There’s a twitchy, nervous energy to his performance which has turned some people off, but I really enjoyed him in the role, and look forward to seeing more Lex in future movies.
Rounding out the new cast is Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman, remarkably marking that character’s debut in a movie, some 76 years after her first appearance on the page. Just to put that into perspective, Howard the Duck appeared in two movies before Wonder Woman finally got a go. It’s entirely possible that you might be able to predict how the cult of negativity surrounding DC casting announcements reacted to a skinny Israeli actress being cast as Wonder Woman! As it turns out, she’s pretty damn good. Doesn’t get a lot to do in her civilian identity as Diana Prince, but as soon as Wonder Woman enters the fray in the final battle, she’s all badass, all the way.
Returning to the role of the last son of Krypton is Henry Cavill. Cavill’s a perfectly fine presence and does well with a Superman who’s still a bit too morose at this point. He’s supposed to be this figure of hope and optimism but he’s so wracked with self-doubt in these films that it gets a little lost. There are moments – at one point he breaks off his investigation of Bruce Wayne to fly to Mexico and save a woman trapped in a fire because he saw it on the news – but come Justice League, I would really like to see Superman in a more positive mood.
If your big problem with Man of Steel was the dark tone, you’re probably going to have the same issue with Batman v Superman. It takes the implications of a figure like Superman arriving in the world very seriously, and deals primarily in people who are looking at the negative impact of the things he does. The film could really do with someone arguing Superman’s case, as even Kal-El himself spends most of the thing questioning his own purpose and actions. Batman’s scarred by what he saw in Metropolis, Lex hates Superman because he sees his godlike power as an affront to Lex’s intellectual superiority, and people like Lois Lane and Martha Kent never really do much to convince Clark that he’s doing good as Superman, focusing instead on him doing right by himself. It’s all a far cry from Jor-El telling Clark he can be a symbol of hope we can all follow into the light in Man of Steel.
The action sequences in Batman v Superman are spectacular, from Batman putting down a room full of thugs to the titular showdown and beyond. Snyder really has a feel for how massive these should seem, and he and cinematographer Larry Fong have these scenes dripping with the grandeur of an Alex Ross painting whilst moving with the kineticism of a Jim Lee action scene. The final confrontation utilises the strengths of its three heroes extremely well, using the combination of powers on display to maximise the effect which is sometimes lacking in comparable films from both the Marvel Cinematic Universe and X-Men franchises.
In spite of its pronounced flaws in both character and narrative, I thoroughly enjoyed Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. It’s a visual spectacle anchored by a spectacular turn from Ben Affleck as Batman. As a DC fan the little nods towards what’s to come in future movies made me plenty happy, though I can see audiences less au fait with DC lore than I am scratching their heads somewhat. Those scenes are about as well-integrated as when Thor takes a break from the plot in Avengers: Age of Ultron to make Stellan Skarsgård watch him have a bath, but they are at least more compelling! Batman v Superman is more ambitious in its tone than your average superhero movie and more impressive visually, but that ambition is sometimes greater than its reach. But, for all that it’s slightly wobbly and disjointed, it’s a highly compelling and entertaining affair. If you have the option (and the money) I would recommend seeing it in IMAX. If not, check the movie out at your local cinema, it’s really one to see on the biggest, loudest screen you can find. Recommended.