Two pillars of modern mythology finally share the big screen. Find out if the seventy seven year build up has been worth it in my review of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.
The genesis of DC comics relies on two names; Superman and Batman. These heroes have accrued so much resonance in the last three quarters of a century that I suspect that the amount of people on the planet who are not even vaguely aware of them could be contained within a large sports stadium or two. To find figures that are more universally recognisable than these you have to start digging into legend and folklore going back hundreds of years, Robin Hood, King Arthur, Odysseus, Achilles. This is the grand company these two caped crime-fighters now keep. One, a modern saviour standing for all that is good and bright in the world, the other a dark avenger who rules the night with an iron grip of fear. Both on the side of the angels, but with wildly differing ideologies about how to go about bringing justice to this broken world of ours. So the scene is set for them to clash in a battle, the kind of which we have not seen since the inhabitants of Olympus decided to have words with those pesky Titans. Everyone has been waiting for them to finally share the screen. Now the time has come and the question is; have DC and Warner Brothers managed to do them justice? Unfortunately the simple answer to that question is no, but, as with all the most divisive movies its not quite that straight forward.
This is a film that has many issues, but the most glaring one is that it is packed to the gills with so many strands of story that it rapidly becomes a bit of a mess. The thing about this that annoyed me is that there is clearly the seeds of a good movie underneath the mess of interweaving plots and twists. It is no secret that this film was originally conceived as a straight forward Superman sequel to Man of Steel. Unfortunately that film did not do as well as it was intended to do so Warner Brothers stepped in and asked for the sequel to be spiced up in some way to attract a bigger audience. Initially this meant that DC’s big gun, Batman, was included in the tale, but throughout development more and more facets have been added and now we have a film that seems to want to include as many characters and forward references as possible. Although I do like a good reference I do not appreciate watching large sections of a film that feel very much like a “coming soon” sizzle reel. This problem is compounded by the fact that most of these will not make a lick of sense to anyone who does not have a fairly good handle on the comic-book history of these characters. If DC manages to make all of the movies it has planned between now and 2020 I suspect that these references will all eventually make sense to the general audience, but for the moment they serve to mainly confuse the initiated and make those in the know wonder why the hell they are dropping these hints into a film that is really only the start of a brand new shared universe.
This leads me into the next problem with having this many story angles in a film; no one really gets anywhere near the amount of screen time they need to build any real emotional resonance. Unfortunately without this the film’s eventual climax is robbed of a lot of its punch and becomes nothing more than an impressive visual spectacle, rather than the mythical clash it was clearly intended to be. You will notice that I am being very vague about exact plot points and that is because in a film this crammed with possible future references I find it very difficult to point out precise moments without stumbling over spoilers for not just this film but probably the next three or four movies in DC’s future line up. I will say that I thoroughly enjoyed the opening sequence of Bruce Wayne being in Metropolis on the day of Superman and General Zod’s battle at the climax of Man of Steel. Seeing the sheer destruction from ground level and the complete feeling of powerlessness that it gives the victims carries a surprising amount of weight. It also provides a solid link with the previous movie and a nice feeling of continuity, which is then almost completely ignored in favour of another plot line that is shoe-horned into the opening of the film and is then finished off abruptly with seemingly no consequences about mid-way through the movie. Had the story then continued down the route it initially seemed to be going down and concentrated solely on Wayne’s growing paranoia that Superman was a threat to the human race to be eliminated we could have had a very taut thriller that climaxed with a show down between two diametrically opposed heroes who are both trying to achieve the same goal through very different means. Sadly we get bogged down in Senate hearings, Lex Luthor’s machinations and Superman’s angst that no one likes him. All of these slightly superfluous plot lines add massively to the film’s already stretched run-time of over two and a half hours and slow large chunks of the film to a crawl. This means that the pacing of the movie shifts from the excitement of the first ten minutes to a huge amount of exposition until the last half hour jumps into a high gear with almost no warning. Apparently there will be a 15 (R for our American friends) rated extended edition that clocks in at around three hours coming out on Blu-Ray. Part of me winces at this idea but I do wonder if a lot of the connective tissue of the longer parts of the movie, which make the pacing a lot more natural aren’t contained within this half hour, and if it will actually end up making it a much better film as the extended versions of the Hobbit movies did.
The thing that stops me from completely writing this movie off however is that I really enjoyed the performances from pretty much everyone and the visual stylings of director Zack Snyder are spectacular as ever! Given the sheer amount of people in this film it is impossible to go through the whole cast, so I will just touch on those that made the biggest impact on me. I still love the confidence and sadness that Henry Cavill brings to his Superman (though there were many times where I found myself wishing he could just be cheerful for once), Jessie Eisenberg’s twitchy and impotently raging take on Lex Luthor will not be for everyone but I found myself enjoying it quite a lot. I found Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman to be intriguingly mysterious and warrior-esque enough to make me buy into her and look forward to seeing her stand alone movie next year. However, there is one man who steals the whole movie and that is Ben Affleck. He inhabits the roles of Bruce Wayne and Batman with a world-weary charm that I found to be thoroughly enjoyable. I would go as far to as to say that he is currently the best on screen Batman I’ve ever seen. Again I am really looking forward to seeing him in a stand alone movie that gives him a chance to let this character breathe a little. Jeremy Irons backs him up nicely by bringing a new take to Alfred that nicely mixes the long-term family servant with a man who is not afraid to take Wayne or Batman down a peg or two with his trade-mark sarcasm. I also enjoyed both Holly Hunter’s Senator Finch and Amy Adam’s Lois Lane, despite the fact that I found both of their plotlines to be relatively superfluous to proceedings.
This leads me to the other bug-bear I have with the stories this film is trying to tell; I don’t feel as though a lot of them have been earned yet by the characters. There are some huge plot lines running through this film that are based on some of the most successful comic story-lines of the last thirty odd years, but the problem with that is that we have only known a few of these characters for more than a couple of hours of screen time. For example; when Captain America and Iron Man clash in May’s Captain America: Civil War, we will have been following both of them for the best part of ten hours of screen time each. That is a long time to build up an attachment to each of their screen personas. This lack of familiarity with these incarnations of Batman and Superman left me noticing bits of stories from some of my favourite comics in an academic fashion, rather than buying into them on the visceral level that I was hoping for. Zack Snyder brings his trade mark visual flare to the proceedings and turns the madness up to eleven during the climax, but without the depth of feeling for the characters it turns into visual noise that I was waiting to finish rather than keeping me on the edge of my seat. The climax also suffers from a lot of CGI overload, which is a pity because the spectacle that is on display is often reduced to something that is a lot closer to a good video game cutscene. There is also the problem of some unforgivably stupid actions on the behalf of several characters, particularly in the last half hour of the movie, that nearly had me shouting “Oh, come on!” in frustration at the screen. One of them even earned a weary eye-roll!
To sum up; this is a film that is riddled with issues that get in the way of the great performances that are on show. This movie deserves some respect for trying to go big and grasp the mythical and operatic nature of these characters, but unfortunately overreaches itself in nearly every aspect and ended up losing me along the way. This is not the triumphant film that these heroes deserved, but it shows promise for the future of the DC Extended Universe.
Two Moons out of Five.