The long awaited Warner Bros./DC super-hero mash-up, ‘Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice,’ arrives in theaters this weekend with an ominous build-up and a promise for a bombastic showdown between comic book legends. While it delivers the smack-down in painstakingly rendered detail, leaving all of its’ reportedly $200 million plus budget on screen, the motivation for said gladiator match comes across as a bit anticlimactic and devoid of emotion, where it should be powerful and emotionally provoking. ‘BvS’ contains some interesting themes of messianic worship in the modern age, corruption of power, and a legacy of regret, but ultimately gets overshadowed by forced studio franchise-building and half-baked character motivation.
Director Zach Snyder (‘300’, ‘Watchmen’) continues to build the bleak and cynical vision of the DC Universe initiated in his 2013 film ‘Man of Steel’, now nodding to the brilliantly grim and jaded 1980s ‘Dark Knight Returns’, Frank Miller version. His Batman, as played bracingly by Ben Affleck (not embarrassing himself here), is a vigilante force/symbol who has been operating in the Gotham shadows for over twenty years – a grizzled, angry, aging billionaire, forged by the murder of his parents and haunted by alluded personal tragedy. The film opens by showing the destructive events of the arrival of Superman from the perspective of a powerless Bruce Wayne, reacting to a world that has quickly spiraled out of control. From here, the narrative jumps ahead to present the most interesting theme of the film, how human beings in the modern age would react to a god among men.
The vignettes of Henry Cavill’s Superman performing miracles around the world, juxtaposed with his attempts to live a normal life as Clark Kent with live-in girlfriend Lois Lane (once again played by Amy Adams, still doing all she can with an underwritten character) are the most powerful pieces in the movie. Superman/Clark reacts to both extremes of negative and positive public attention with an incredulity that the audience can sympathize with. Again though, as in ‘MoS’, Snyder and Co. take the fun out of the Superman mythos – his rescues and missions take on more of an uber-man, just-shy of threatening posture – while interesting to ponder, this take is devoid of the wondrous heroism most associated with the character.
As with the worst elements of newer superhero films, the weakest moments in the film come from the forced shoe-horning of franchise-building. As opposed to the organic world-building of the beginnings of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the call-outs to other meta-humans here seem tacked on to a story with otherwise no room for them. They are also only relevant for those with a knowledge of the DC Universe – neophytes will have no clue what is going on in these scenes. In particular, there is a jarring post-apocalyptic desert scene, with ties to cosmic big bad Darkseid, crowbarred into the middle of the film that makes absolutely no sense and has nothing to do with what is going on in the main story. While promising in design, the extended sequence fails to ignite excitement for future endeavors. Rather than have a brilliant deductive Batman maintain dossiers and keep track of these ‘threats’ through the years that he could then reveal, he is clumsily handed a tidy summary compiled by Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg) through the inexplicable moves of Gal Gadot’s unnamed character (who has already been conveniently revealed as Diana Prince/Wonder Woman through marketing as opposed to story-telling).
It’s Eisenberg’s portrayal of Lex Luthor that veers furthest from his comic book counterpart and provides the biggest detriment. In this interpretation, Luthor is a spoiled millennial corporate dynasty heir with daddy issues, rather than a self-made man enslaved by his own hubris. While the machinations in the script to sully Superman’s reputation and draw Batman out of the shadows to do his dirty work are vintage Luthor, Eisenberg’s portrayal and further development is jarring and should belong to a different type of villain. It is utterly unconvincing that Lex, as presented here, is capable of forming a complete sentence without losing it in front of people, let alone maintain a global empire supporting the betterment of mankind. As a result, any drama or stakes that could have built to a satisfying third act hinging upon the misdirection and misunderstanding between the titular titans, dissolves the support of what is an impressively staged, mightily choreographed, satisfying battle for the ages . . .
Directed By: Zach Snyder
Written By: Chris Terrio & David S. Goyer
Running Time: 151 min.
* * 1/2 (out of 4 stars) -OR- C+