For years, DC Comics has struggled to successfully adapt its characters into movies. With the exception of Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, they have had a spotty track record with ambitious, yet flawed efforts like V for Vendetta (2006) and Watchmen (2009), and outright commercial and critical failures like Jonah Hex (2010) and Green Lantern (2011). Meanwhile, DC’s rivals, Marvel Comics have been enjoying unprecedented success beginning with Iron Man (2008) and haven’t looked back since. In terms of franchises, they designed it so that all their movies exist in the same cinematic universe, which allowed characters from one movie to appear in a supporting role in another. This culminated with The Avengers (2012), which was a massive success.
Naturally, DC wanted to replicate this success and decided that Man of Steel (2013) would be the first installment in what has become known as the DC Extended Universe. Unlike previous Superman movies, it took on a decidedly darker tone to reflect the post-9/11 times in which we live in. While it made some fascinating tweaks to the Superman mythos, it courted controversy with its climactic showdown between Superman (Henry Cavill) and General Zod (Michael Shannon) that some felt was a betrayal of everything the superhero represents.
Man of Steel’s follow-up, the awkward-as-ass title, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016), not only addresses the fallout of Superman’s actions but also ambitiously opens up the world by introducing Batman as well as several other superheroes (and villains) in what is seen as a lead-up to a Justice League movie, which will be DC’s version of The Avengers. This all rests on the financial success of Dawn of Justice and so a lot is resting on this movie, which may explain the all or nothing, go-for-broke scope and scale of the world it depicts.
I like that director Zack Snyder uses the movie’s opening credits to masterfully and succinctly sum up Batman’s origins. By now, most people know it and so it was a nice way of depicting it without holding up the narrative of the movie, much like how he did a great job of establishing the world of Watchmen in its opening credits. Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) witnesses first-hand the wide-scale destruction of Metropolis as Superman and Zod duke it out. All he can do is watch as a good chunk of his office building is destroyed killing or maiming many of his employees.
More than a year after the climax of Man of Steel and the world is still reeling from the aftershocks of what happened. A United States Senator named June Finch (Holly Hunter) feels that superheroes like Superman need to be regulated lest they unleash more carnage. She temporarily allies herself with Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg), a genius billionaire that has found enough Kryptonite to weaponize it so that he can stop Superman.
Meanwhile, Wayne is pursuing a Russian arms dealer in the hopes of finding out the man behind him, which maybe the same person that Lois Lane (Amy Adams) is investigating when she travels to Africa and is nearly killed for her troubles. Meanwhile, Clark Kent is concerned with Batman’s vigilante tactics and keeps tabs on his activities. This all builds to an epic confrontation between Batman and Superman that draws inspiration from the classic showdown between the two in Frank Miller’s Batman: The Dark Knight Returns complete with the former donning an armored suit to give him half a chance against the latter. Their fantastically choreographed battle royale in Dawn of Justice is all that I hoped it would be – epic and visceral. This is merely an appetizer for an even bigger climax as Lex unleashes a destructive force so powerful that it takes Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) to stop it in a glorious CGI-intensive slugfest that is on par with anything seen in both DC and Marvel movies.
Ben Affleck is well-cast as an older, more world-weary Bruce Wayne, obsessed with stopping Superman to the point of being tormented by nightmares of being unmasked and killed by him. For Wayne, it is deeply personal as the battle of Metropolis opens his eyes to a much bigger threat than the two-bit crooks he’s been combating for 20 years. He is afraid of Superman’s power and what will happen if it continues to go unchecked. Anybody can be in the Batman suit but it takes something else to play Wayne that few actors have done it well. Affleck does an excellent job of conveying Wayne’s obsessive drive that is crucial to the character – better than anybody since Michael Keaton in Tim Burton’s two Batman movies. He brings the right amount of gravitas required for the role, playing him as a tortured individual without overdoing it. The actor understands the anger that fuels Batman’s need to punish criminals and shows how this blinds him towards the bigger picture.
Henry Cavill continues his solid work as Superman, which tends to get lost in the larger than life portrayals of Batman and Lex Luthor. As the movie progresses, Clark beings to question why he should continue to help humanity when some don’t want it or want to regulate him. The actor continues to have nice chemistry with Amy Adams who returns as Lois Lane but this feels less like a second Superman movie than an exercise in cinematic world building as Snyder inserts visual references to future Justice Leaguers and, as a result, Superman feels marginalized to a certain degree. Maybe the numerous dream sequences (that visually echo Snyder’s Sucker Punch) could have been removed or limited in favor of more screen-time for Clark? Wonder Woman is peppered throughout a decent portion of the movie. Her enigmatic presence and Gal Gadot’s tantalizingly brief performance has me looking forward to her upcoming standalone movie.
I was pleasantly surprised by Jesse Eisenberg’s take on Lex Luthor. The trailers suggested a comedic manic performance that would be grating but instead he delivers a jittery, off-kilter performance, presenting a psychotic genius. Superficially, the actor channels his take on Mark Zuckerberg from The Social Network (2010) and does provide much welcome levity in this ultra-serious movie. He also brings a wonderfully unpredictable energy to every scene he’s in. For example, there’s a scene where Lex delivers a speech in front of many people and as it goes on he begins to trip over his own words as if his mind is racing faster than his mouth can utter the words and he eventually gives up. For all of his nervy, jovial nature, there is an ominous contempt Lex has for most people because he thinks he’s smarter and better than everyone else.
If you liked Man of Steel than welcome to more of the same but that being said, Snyder has toned down his energetic style by largely foregoing his speed-up/slow down action sequences in favor of a more kinetic approach that works much better, especially late in the movie when Batman cuts loose on a room full of henchmen that includes a snazzy visual homage to The Dark Knight Returns, which should please fans. Even though it repeats the CGI-intensive large-scale destruction of Man of Steel’s climax, whereas that felt excessive, in an odd way it feels earned in Dawn of Justice. It is also nice to see that the filmmakers make a point of having all this carnage take place in areas devoid of innocent life. At times, the movie feels a bit overstuffed and could have used some judicious trimming here and there, but it’s a minor quibble because there is plenty I liked about it.
Ultimately, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is a refreshingly provocative movie that has had a polarizing effect on viewers with some upset at how much liberties Snyder and co. have taken with the Batman and Superman mythologies and others having no problem with the radical changes that have been made. I’m of two minds about this movie. On one hand, I am of the generation that feels protective of what came before and how the past mythology should be honored, and on the other hand, I admire how the filmmakers pushed the envelope with the representation of these two iconic characters to the point that their origins are faithful to the source material on only a basic level, used as a springboard to go off in different directions than what came before. Some would argue that as a result, the filmmakers don’t understand these characters, but on the contrary, I think that Dawn of Justice dares to stray that far from the comic books, utilizing their basic elements as a foundation to then go and reinvent Batman and Superman for a new generation in a way that pushes buttons, stirs things up. This is something that Marvel has yet to do (if they are even interested in doing so) and makes these new DC movies distinctive from their rivals. Love or hate Dawn of Justice, people are talking about it and arguing passionately about its merits or lack thereof. When can you say a big budget comic book movie provoked that kind of reaction?