I’m going to admit something right up front and acknowledge that I, like most film critics, am on Walt Disney/Marvel’s payroll. To be fair, the checks did stop coming after I named Avengers: Age of Ultron 2015’s most disappointing film and praised 20th Century Fox’s Deadpool adaptation, but I’m hoping to get back on their good side with my honest and agenda-free (heh) review of DC/WB’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice below.
Director Zack Snyder‘s follow-up to his own Man of Steel opens with that film’s final battle between Superman (Henry Cavill) and Zod raging in the sky. This time around though we’re watching it from the ground alongside Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) as he races towards the destruction and against the tide of fleeing civilians. He’s angered and disgusted at the carnage and casualties in downtown Metropolis — one of the destroyed buildings even belongs to Wayne Enterprises — and two years later that rage has helped shape him into a brutal crusader.
Halfway around the world Lois Lane (Amy Adams) is flexing her damsel in distress muscles amid African terrorists, and when Superman arrives to rescue her he once again leaves destruction in his wake. It’s literally a few holes in some walls, but the American people and U.S. Senate, fans after his defeat of Zod, turn on him and demand accountability. Clark Kent chooses to ignore them and instead focuses his attention on the masked vigilante operating unchecked across the river in Gotham.
Both Batman and Superman feel a moral superiority and obligation to bring the other down, and while it’s an artificially inflated grievance that rings hollow to even the slightest inquiry it’s enough to set them on a path of destruction. Sitting in the wings meanwhile — well, in full public view anyway — is Lex Luther (Jesse Eisenberg), a billionaire wunderkind with too much time on his hands, an unreasonably strong dislike for people in capes, and access to the remains of both Zod’s ship and corpse.
That’s pretty much the gist of the setup, but disappointingly for a two and a half hour movie it’s also pretty much the gist of the entire story. The duo’s conflict is stretched ridiculously thin — a near impressive feat as their beef is already a nonsensical, nonexistent disagreement — with multiple scenes of them griping in the most superficial terms possible to anyone who’ll listen (Alfred, Perry White, etc) about the threat posed by this other supposed hero. Their motivations are suspect, but they appear positively laser-focused next to Luthor’s inexplicable efforts.Warner Bros.
More time spent exploring what’s driving their actions would have gone a long way towards adding depth and purpose to the characters and to the film, but it’s clear early on that neither of those things are the goal here. Instead Snyder and writers Chris Terrio and David S. Goyer have crafted a 153 minute setup for DC’s upcoming Justice League features. The film’s bloat comes primarily from this aspect as we’re given too many scenes offering peeks at upcoming heroes — they feel like post-credits sequences that were accidentally edited randomly into the movie — but the past also intrudes unnecessarily as we’re made to revisit Wayne’s youth via multiple flashbacks and dreams. This may come as a surprise to you, but it turns out his parents were gunned down by a mugger right before his eyes when he was just a child. Also, he fell into a bat-filled cave.
The script works overtime to address the complaints regarding the casual carnage in Man of Steel‘s finale, but it does so in ways every bit as hollow as the fight between our titular heroes. Batman criticizes Superman’s destructive power while Superman denounces Batman’s crime-fighting methods — the caped crusader kills more than a few bad guys here — but both take part in this film’s CG mosh pit of a third act. Happily though we’re told three or four times that the buildings being decimated in these fights are empty because the work day has ended.
This is a messy movie. It’s too long yet feels like entire scenes of motivation and explanation are missing, not even Batman and Superman know why they’re fighting, and it’s in such a hurry to set up the next movie that it neglects to fill in the blanks on this one. There’s an entire dream (?) sequence here that has no bearing on this particular movie and instead teases things to come in the next few years. Like a teenage boy touching a girl for the first time the movie rushes towards completion seemingly unable to slow down, find its rhythm, and bring the audience to orgasm. Okay, that analogy got away from me, but the film so badly wants you to be excited for Justice League that it forgets to keep you excited about Batman v Superman.
It’s messy, but there’s something to it, something buried beneath the blubbery fat that makes you yearn for the leaner, far better film within. It’s visible in Affleck’s serious and grim Batman as he proves himself a worthy Dark Knight with a grit and physicality that suits the hero well. Cavill is given even less to work with, but Superman’s struggle towards humanity occasionally pokes through the nylon. The script drops the ball on the follow through, but the questions of accountability and responsibility it initially raises have merit. And to no one’s surprise, the movie looks damn good. Snyder’s eye has always been more in power than his mind, and the visuals here showcase that yet again with attractive slow motion, colorful CG, and creatively choreographed action. The score by Hans Zimmer and Junkie XL is a fine mix of lively and majestic too. It’s an overall sensory treat and worth seeing in IMAX if possible.
The film’s greatest strength though and its secret weapon is Gal Gadot‘s presence as Wonder Woman/Diana Prince. She’s in it only briefly, but Gadot nails the fiercely capable Amazon as well as she does the sultry socialite Prince. An in-film photograph of her in period-centric action paired with the score’s killer leitmotif accompanying her appearance is a goosebumps-worthy combination, and while the film as a whole tries desperately for two hours to build our interest in the Justice League movies she manages in just a few minutes to leave us immensely excited for the stand-alone Wonder Woman.
There’s a not-bad-at-all movie here — one that would probably only run about 90 minutes — but it’s buried beneath the bloat of DC’s past and future. Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is hurt by the wrong kind of ambition as Snyder and company try taking shortcuts to attain Marvel-level success with detrimental results, but hey, it’s still a better movie than Avengers: Age of Ultron.
The Upside: Wonder Woman & Gal Gadot; visually attractive; Ben Affleck’s Batman; some solid action
The Downside: Heavily bloated; narrative/character gaps; core conflict is severely lacking; not even Batman can recognize Superman in glasses