Batman v Superman isn’t here to apologize to you.
The most tiresome conversation in modern geek culture is the endless feedback loop of Marvel loyalists and DC devotees shouting epithets at one another over which cinematic universe reigns supreme. The MCU side loves to lob easy darts Warner Bros’ way about Man of Steel being needlessly maudlin, while the opposing fandom mocks The Avengers gang for their television-tier film craft and pandering banter. Marvel striking first with their series of films upset the apple cart to the point that DC can’t make a move without it being compared, favorably or not, to their competition. Some of these diehards are going to be pissed that the Warners haven’t followed Kevin Feige’s lead, but summing the Snyder-era up as “dark and gritty” is reductive at best and myopic at worst.
Let’s talk about what Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice isn’t. If you hated seeing Superman snap someone’s neck at the end of the last film, despised the monochromatic color palette or cringed at the apocalyptic destruction of the climax, BvS isn’t here to apologize to you. Oh, there’s some minor course correction throughout. Each set piece’s casualty rate is considerably lower, particularly in the final act, when numerous, glaring references to “abandoned buildings” and “evacuated areas” softens the disturbing 9-11 imagery of the film’s predecessor. The movie is sharper, better paced and more openly interested in making you laugh every now and again, but they haven’t waved the white flag and given into The House of Ideas’ approach to the superhero film. Snyder’s personal vision may be divisive, but he remains undeterred, going further and bolder than Man of Steel in ways that are both exhilarating and absolutely infuriating.
Rather than a straight up sequel to the last Supes outing, this movie feels a little like several backdoor pilots being filmed at once, which would be a massive criticism if one of those pilots wasn’t “Pissed Off, Mid-Life Crisis Batman.” Ben Affleck steals this show with shocking ease. Sure, there are a few angles and line readings here or there that remind you you’re watching Shannon from Fashionable Male dressed up in a batsuit, but otherwise, Affleck laps every former Dark Knight in history, bar Keaton or perhaps voice performer Kevin Conroy. Affleck’s Bruce Wayne has been operating as a vigilante for 20 years at the start of this film, which presents a very unique tone for the Caped Crusader.
He’s not the neophyte of Batman Begins, nor has he reached the levels of ornery fragility classically depicted in the Dark Knight Returns series. Even when we saw an “older” Christian Bale at the end of The Dark Knight Rises, he retired after, what, two years of being Batman? This iteration has been popping vicodin and punching crackheads for a quarter of a century. He’s gotten so good at it that he knows how utterly pointless it is. He accepts that this is a violent compulsion he needs to survive. Affleck shows off veteran chops bringing this characterization to life, and his chemistry with Jeremy Irons as Alfred is off the charts, besting even the work Bale and Michael Caine did together. This is a Batman who is presented like a horror movie monster before he’s seen as a towering hero. A Batman tortured by legitimately harrowing nightmares that double as artsy excursions from the constrictions of a big budget blockbuster.
He forms a human triangle of power struggling with the young, reluctant God of Superman and the reliable menace of Jesse Eisenberg’s Lex Luthor. Probably the most controversial casting choice, Eisenberg has a cloying screen presence that grows in power as the film’s many dramatic machinations unfold. Wayne and Luthor represent twin aspects of human achievement in the face of alien borne superpower. Wayne, with multiple training montages showing off his insane physique, is the brawny alpha, while Luthor, with his brilliant impotence, is the powerless beta. Unsurprisingly, both of these journeys are more gripping than two more hours of Henry Cavill looking moderately sad about being able to fly.
Superman himself is really the film’s biggest failing. His two primary antagonists manifest very believable reactions to suddenly living in a world where a man can fly and set things on fire with his eyes. Wayne dials up the sadism inherent to his quest, while Luthor stumbles down a backdoor in his own twisted mind. Somehow, the script never gives the titular hero an equally compelling conflict with his own abilities. There are instances where Cavill conjures the kind of aspirational awe Christopher Reeve had in spades, but outside of the shining moments, Superman is reduced to a walking, talking MacGuffin. This being a very “real world” take on the superhero myth, we see the 24 hour news network (in a very Frank Miller influenced style) tackle the central questions of the narrative. The hypothetical dialogue about metahumans spoken by the likes of Anderson Cooper and (*sigh*) Nancy Grace offers smart insight into the film’s big problem, but Superman himself seems a one-sided cypher who only comes alive when Lois (Amy Adams) or Martha (Diane Lane) is in trouble.
That souped-up realism makes Zack Snyder the only choice to usher this new world into existence. It’s clear the WB didn’t want to stray too far from the formula of Christopher Nolan, but the world of The Dark Knight couldn’t house an entity like Superman. It just wasn’t big enough. Snyder is something of a half measure. A stopgap between the grounded reality of Nolan’s world and the stylistic bedlam of a Michael Bay. Snyder’s pointed, deliberate aesthetic mirrors the hallmarks of Bayhem, albeit muted. It’s still form and feel over function and narrative harmony, but that dissonance is just right for this setting. A drab world like ours polluted by science fiction, with extra-real cinematography filtered through a pulp lens. Superman’s presence on Earth is as jarring as many of Snyder’s visual choices are out of place.
The film sprints, flat out, for about 90 minutes or so, before the sheer weight of the spinning plates at play begin to drive it to the ground. That rumination on the nature of power is a promising premise, but it takes a back seat to the far more pressing matter of hyping up the big fight this woefully misguided title has teased fans with since its inception. Scenes play out like pro wrestling promos specifically designed to get you HYPED for the final throwdown, but once that bullet gets spent, there’s still another half hour of Justice League set-up and fan service action that completely deflates all the goodwill the film has managed to scrape together.
For all the talk of Superman being a beacon of hope, the very concept is depicted so problematically that this film, for all its improvement, won’t shake the doom and gloom moniker, despite being way more batshit out there than any ten Marvel films combined. The closest thing this movie has to a clear cut hero is Wonder Woman. Gal Gadot will probably do great in the role in another movie, but she’s given so little to do here that it’s hard to really argue for her inclusion. The sure to be controversial closer wants you to be amped for the two part team-up movie headed our way, but this outing stays the course with such certainty that the likelihood of ever getting to see the clouds dissipate in future installments is nil. So, no, it doesn’t stick the landing, but no tentpole blockbuster has ever flown so close to the sun while obscuring that light under layers and layers of gray.