As the title declares, this movie has two enormously famous superheroes, and we’re led to believe Justice will Dawn as a result of them facing off. But with a mouthful of a title, we have a little trouble figuring out exactly what kind of movie Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice is trying to be. On the surface, it’s a long one. From what I could tell, Zack Snyder wanted to fit both a Batman movie and a Superman movie into its two and a half hour runtime. Those two unraveling entities finally meet up at the end for a bombastic finale that actually gets tacked on after the fight that the title promises. Individual parts of the movie aren’t bad, but the execution of putting them together leaves much to be desired, and we come out with a movie that is, in a word, a mess.
This movie has the monumental challenge of introducing Ben Affleck’s iteration of the character to audiences while maintaining the journey of Superman’s character following his debut in Man of Steel. Unfortunately this means Henry Cavill takes a backseat to Ben Affleck, making it “The Batman Show Featuring Superman (With Special Guest Wonder Woman and Band-Leader Lex Luthor)!”
To answer the question on everyone’s mind: Batfleck isn’t terrible. In fact, he’s pretty awesome. We have to sit through yet another slow-motion recreation of the double-murder that drove Bruce Wayne to seek justice, but once we actually see that chin chiseled by the gods themselves, we find him to be a fitting Dark Knight. Batman’s plot is a detective story, and not a bad one either. Ben Affleck’s Bruce Wayne is singular in his grizzled veteran of Frank Miller lore. His banter with his butler, Alfred (an impeccable Jeremy Irons), is earned from years of partnership, even though it would have been nice to see Irons do more than defiantly disagree with Bruce only to then completely aid him. The action is fantastic. Zack Snyder, if anything, can choreograph a battle scene with passion and technical expertise. He brings us a Batman who throws batarangs and punches thugs through walls. Again, this is Miller’s Batman skewed even darker, so don’t be too shocked when he brings some hammers down pretty hard.
Snyder wants the Batman detective story, but he also wants the political commentary on Superman’s existence and his struggle with that criticism. This is where the movie fails. On the other side of the Versus, Superman has barely any room to stretch. Rather than develop the world’s love of him, the plot almost immediately frames him for a crime he didn’t commit, and he spends most of his time grappling over his undecided role in the world. A journey I thought he had already taken in Man of Steel. It’s Lois Lane who actually goes out to investigate the framing. Amy Adams does a fine job, but once she inevitably gets into trouble for searching too far, her agency vanishes, and she needs Superman to save her. Time and time again.
People will be divided on Jesse Eisenberg’s Lex Luthor, but I personally loved him. The twitchy genius who inherited his family’s billions embodies “knowledge is power” but grows unhinged in the face of Superman’s true power. We get to see how “criminal” gets paired with “mastermind,” and he adds a little bit of much-needed fun to the movie with his maniacal exuberance, as does Laurence Fishburne as Perry White, who finally gets to play the tough-as-nails chief editor of the Daily Planet.
Then there’s Wonder Woman. Introduced as the enigmatic Diana Prince, Gal Gadot does a wonderful job being enigmatic and sinewy, and when it comes time to strap on the Amazonian armor and leap into battle, she also holds her own. But we learn next to nothing about the character, which feels less like a cliffhanger for sequels and more like there wasn’t enough room to justify her existence. She’s a teaser for future Justice League movies, but that means she isn’t a full character. There isn’t even enough here to analyze how this Wonder Woman stands out from her comic book counterpart. She’s just in the movie.
Once the two “heroes” meet, there isn’t a lot of substance beyond the conflict. Snyder channels all the backlash to Man of Steel’s collateral damage into Bruce Wayne’s motive to take down Superman, a smart move that convinces us the battle is necessary. Superman believes Batman’s methods are too brutal (they are), but it takes a strong-arming nudge from the plot to get him into the fight. After all the marketing and buildup, the titular battle itself is exciting, but it’s also short. The moment that brings them together is a touching one (if you’re a romantic dope like me), but whatever connection their characters have moving forward has yet to be determined; I’m sure it will be mishandled in sequels to come. Rather than a clash of ideologies, I saw their fight as a studio’s marketing decision to appeal to our childlike delight in seeing two franchise titans glare at each other in a three-hour movie based on six pages from The Dark Knight Returns.
This review has been a hodgepodge of analysis, but that reflects the movie itself: a quilt rapidly sewn together to catch up to Marvel’s eight years of universe building. The seams show. The actors do the best they can with the parts the script allowed them to have, but ultimately it’s a packed room that tries very hard to justify making a dozen more movies that let these characters run amok. Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice is not all bad. Snyder does a decent job introducing a new Batman that would’ve worked better in his own movie, but he does another consistently bad job of telling Superman’s story and a worse job bringing Wonder Woman into the mix. We should all be nervous about the future of our heroes when the world gets grimmer in their presence. If Snyder’s Superman is about inspiring hope, then why do I feel none while watching his movie?