According to most involved in the production, when “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” was formerly announced by director Zach Snyder at Comic-Con 2013 there was no formal storyline for what immediately became a highly anticipated blockbuster. Snyder’s “Man of Steel” had just debuted a month earlier to boffo box office and for Warner Bros. it was an open door to finally bring DC Comics’ superhero universe to the big screen in an integrated universe just like Disney’s Marvel heroes had achieved across town. The concept pretty simple: Take the next step to a “Justice League” movie – DC’s version of “The Avengers” – through a Superman sequel that featured a legendary fan friendly showdown between two comic book icons. The need to justify that super fight is at the root of “Dawn of Justice’s” problems.
Comic book writers and artists have revisited the first meeting between DC’s “World’s Finest” heroes time and time again and, for the most part, were able to justify each character’s intentions. For “Dawn of Justice,” its all a clumsy set up to the battle of super powered alien and everyday human (as much as Batman could ever be seen as a regular Joe) that fans have supposedly been craving to see on the big screen. Before we can get to that, however, the picture awkwardly gives us yet another slow motion reenactment of Batman’s origin.
In a slight homage to Tim Burton’s 1989 “Batman,” we see young Bruce Wayne and his parents, Martha and Thomas Wayne (Lauren Cohan and Jeffrey Dean Morgan) gunned down during a hold up outside a Gotham City movie theater. The pearls are ripped off Martha’s neck and dramatically fall to the ground just as they had in previous comic book origin stories and in the aforementioned Burton film. While this moment is included to pay off later on in the picture (a plot point so necessary and silly it’s hard to believe) it’s also so familiar and uninspired that is provides zero emotional impact. Probably doesn’t help that Christopher Nolan’s more contemporary take from 2005’s “Batman Begins” is light years better and that even FOX’s “Gotham” re-staged it with those same falling pearls last year. In fact, having Bruce Wayne lose his family at the beginning of the picture without any other context almost ensures that it doesn’t.
Fast forward to only 18 months prior to present day and a grown up and fortysomething Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) is jumping off a Wayne Enterprises helicopter in Metropolis (audiences will eventually figure out – maybe – that Gotham City is right across the bay from Metropolis). As depicted in “Man of Steel,” Superman (Henry Cavill) and Zod (Michael Shannon in line for a nice residual check) are destroying half the city while Zod’s Kryptonian space ship does its best to destroy the other half. Dodging falling debris, Wayne jumps into an SUV and races to his corporate headquarters that is dangerously close to the battle of gods taking place in the sky above him. He’s too late to evacuate enough of the building and watches it get decimated in the crossfire as thousands of his employees die in the collapse. There are moments when Snyder can create compelling cinematic sequences and this in particular is one of the picture’s best (frankly, it feels very Nolan-esque). At this point Snyder has set up the ground-level horror of what’s to come and you begin to understand Wayne’s anger and distrust of Superman. That being said, is it enough for Wayne to eventually want to kill him? That might be a bit of a stretch stretch.
As the picture moves to present day we discover that in the two years following Superman has become a somewhat controversial figure. Many people love him for his heroic deeds, others actually want to worship him and just as many are concerned his actions are going unchecked including a congressional panel led by a surprisingly ethical Kentucky senator (a very welcome Holly Hunter). Things reach a fever pitch when innocent civilians in an unnamed North African state are killed in retaliation for a mission where Superman rescues Lois Lane (welcome back Amy Adams) from the clutches of a renegade terrorist (one of the film’s more intriguing ideas that is never fully explored). Looking to take advantage of this ripening conflict is none other than Alexander “Lex” Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg).
Luthor could have been one of this cinematic universe’s more interesting interpretations of the DC cannon but instead he’s sort of a mess. It’s slightly confusing as it’s communicated through quickly discussed exposition but like Bruce Wayne the scientifically astute Luthor seems to have inherited his company from his father and helped grow it into a global power. What he wants to do with it now remains to be seen. His opposition to Superman is probably the least justified of any big screen Luthor this writer can remember and the decision to make him slightly off kilter (i.e., losing his mind) is a little too Heath Ledger and Jim Carrey for comfort. Moreover, the idea Luthor’s justifications could not have been more properly clarified in a two and a half our movie is simply ridiculous. Sadly, Eisenberg is clearly game to try to bring something new to the table. You just wish Snyder and credited screenwriters Chris Terrio and David S. Goyer knew what they wanted that to be.
Meanwhile, and much to the dismay of his boss Perry White (always ready for a quick quip Laurence Fishburne), Clark Kent (the secret identity of everyone’s favorite Man of Steel) becomes conveniently obsessed with the actions of the mysterious “Bat of Gotham.” In a dramatic departure from even the dark recesses of Nolan’s acclaimed interpretation, this is a Batman who brands criminals with his emblem and has no problem killing or blowing up his adversaries to justify his goals. Considering its alluded to that Batman has been active for quite some time (the use of the Batsignal is a recognized form of communication, the Joker is referenced, Robin’s costume stands in effigy in the Batcave) it seems odd he’s just popping up on Superman’s radar now or that Luthor would have not seen him as a threat years before…considering he’s as close as San Francisco is to Oakland.
Yes, “Dawn of Justice,” a movie that prompts more questions than some of the most illogical superhero movies of our time (and, yes, we’re looking at you “X-Men Origins: Wolverine” and “Thor: The Dark World”).
Eventually Luthor constructs a mechanism to entice the two heroes to battle each other even if it seems awfully similar to a plot point in “The Dark Knight,” but then again aren’t most comic book stories regurgitating the same story over and over? Still, this is the mano y mano confrontation we’ve been told moviegoers have been clamoring for (have they?) and the eventually cage match might be worth the ticket price if that’s your thing. It’s when Luthor’s backup plan arrives where you begin to wonder if this was all just a bit too much for one movie. Then again, it’s arguably when the most successful part of the picture has her moment in the sun.
One fact that is not in universally agreed upon is that comic book fans have been patiently waiting over half a century for one of DC’s trinity characters, Wonder Woman, to take centers stage. Thankfully, a solo Wonder Woman movie is already in production, but her introduction here is flat out superb. Portrayed with charisma and swagger by Gal Gadot, this Wonder Woman is the fully realized female super hero (and we mean super) that audiences have been dying for. Every time Gadot appears on screen, and she has two earlier sequences with Affleck as her alter ego Diana Prince (at least it sounded like that was her name), she steals the scene right out from under him. And when she transformers into her gladiator garb in the film’s gigantic climax (spoiler: she’s never referred to as Wonder Woman in the picture) she appears almost as powerful as Superman and the demi-god Amazon warrior you’d expect her to be. One of “Batman V Superman’s” biggest faults is not finding a way to integrate her more into the story.
As for the other new addition to this expanding franchise, Affleck’s Batman is unfortunately problematic. We’ve already mentioned how jumbled Bruce Wayne’s backstory appears and that would be fine if the filmmakers had simply tried to justify most of it (they don’t). The screenwriters do Affleck no favors in his attempts to reinterpret the character by having Wayne dramatically declare that “criminals grow like weeds” and there will always be more that sprout up. If he really believes that’s the case then why exactly is he still dressing up as Batman for? Compared to Bale’s portrayal this is a melancholy Wayne who can’t even pull of the charade of a convincing charismatic playboy at a swank charity event (even Michael Keaton’s version could put on the Wayne mask when he needed to). It’s hard to blame Affleck for this, however. It’s indicative of the film’s problematic script (or would that be scripts?).
Superman, on the other hand, is still in the hands of Cavill for better or for worse. The Brit is still at his best when playing Kent and often seems stiff when dawning the cape of his super alter ego. That being said, Cavill does have one wonderful moment with Adams towards the end of the film that reminds you he actually has legitimate acting talent. (On the other hand, what’s the deal with Kal-El’s chest hair constantly protruding out from the top of his costume? Doesn’t Superman know how to man-groom?)
As for the rest of the cast, Adams has a larger than expected role this time around and tries to make the presence of Lois in this adventure as grounded as possible. Jeremy Irons gives his Alfred Pennyworth an even drier sense of humor and less sympathetic ear than Michael Caine did. And, notably, Scoot McNairy makes a strong impression in an important role as a disgruntled Wayne Enterprises employee.
Despite the script’s shortcomings the film lives and dies on Snyder’s vision. As one of the few critics who thought “Man of Steel” was a successful reboot of the Superman mythos “Dawn of Justice” proves Snyder is not at his best when there are too many storylines to juggle. His biggest strength is that he can fashion iconic images even when they are mostly homages to classic comic book renderings (most notably in his depiction of Batman). Unlike some of his tentpole-producing peers, however, he’s also often willing to let the camera hold on an image and let it soak in with a viewer (a rarity these days). In this case he’s hindered with a film that feels like it takes place almost completely at night (hard to believe there was many more daylight in any one of the Nolan Batman films). Moreover, the brightness in “Man of Steel” helped soften that picture’s dark themes and almost cavalier disregard for human sacrifice (instead in “Dawn of Justice” we hear news reporters constantly reminding us that this building is empty, this port is mostly deserted, etc.). And as for a moment of levity, a joke or some tease of humor? You won’t find it here. But we’ll give credit where credit is due, Snyder brings Wonder Woman spectacularly to life and that’s more than a pleasant surprise.
For those wondering if the hints of other famed super heroes work you can rest easy. They may be quick teases, but Snyder and company make sure you leave more satisfied than by many of Marvel’s post credit scenes. And for many viewers those moments may end up being the biggest thrill of all, a glimmer of something that could be better and more interesting than what they just saw on the big screen. Is there anything more of a backhanded endorsement of a movie than that?
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