The absolutely disastrous reception to Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel follow up and opening to the DC equivalent of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, had prepared me for what seemed to be an irredeemable superhero movie. Terrible reviews and a mad scramble by Warner Bros to assure everyone that every future DC movie would take a different tone suggested a complete mess. However, although in some respects BVS lives up to that toxic reputation, there is plenty in it that keeps it, moment to moment, entertaining enough that I cannot entirely dismiss it. It pulls off its immense battles with panache, and Ben Affleck’s take on Bruce Wayne and Batman proves a worthy successor to Christian Bale, even if the film he’s in is not in the same league as Nolan’s trilogy.
18 months have passed since Superman’s (Henry Cavill) destructive battle against General Zod levelled a good portion of Metropolis, with hundreds of Wayne’s employees killed when their building was destroyed. Seeing this sequence through Wayne’s eyes is an early highlight of BVS, selling the terror of the normal humans on the ground as two gods clashed throughout their city. This event, so controversial amongst fans when Man of Steel first came out, has created a world that simultaneously fears and worships Superman and caused Batman to start planning for a contingency in which he has to kill the Kryptonian.
Snyder’s take on Batman is just as dark as one would expect from the man who brought us a pensive, angry Superman, branding criminals after interrogations and haunted by ceaseless Very Important Dreams. Unremitting bleakness seeps into every corner of Dawn of Justice, from the muted colour palette to Batman’s apocalyptic visions and, although this is already a widely derided critique of the film, with a title like Batman v Superman, one would expect a little more fun. Tackling important themes like absolute power and vigilante justice is all well and good, but Chris Terrio and David S Goyer’s script doesn’t have the smarts to explore these ideas in any meaningful way. Instead, philosophers and religious figures are namechecked before being tossed aside for another element in what is undoubtedly an overstuffed film.
Jesse Eisenberg suffers most from the script’s worst tendencies, his Lex Luthor a bizarrely twitchy shouter of quotes that sound grandiose but end up meaning nothing. Most of the time, it seems like Eisenberg is playing the Joker rather than the canny and domineering businessman from the comics, a baffling decision that does nothing to silence the initial critics of Eisenberg’s casting. Fortunately, the other new elements fare a lot better. Ben Affleck is a great Batman, and his scenes of taking down buildings and convoys full of goons are the best parts of the film. Jeremy Irons is also great value as loyal butler Alfred, taking a more hands-on role in Batman’s crime fighting than any previous iteration of the character. Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) isn’t given much in the way of lines, but her action sequences are exciting enough to make her 2017 standalone movie an attractive prospect. She’s also backed by the best theme on what is a very good score, Hans Zimmer and JunkieXL (of Mad Max: Fury Road fame) producing something both epically sweeping and heart-quickeningly energetic.
Getting entirely lost in the crush of new characters and universe-building is Lois Lane (Amy Adams), who is stuck with a pointless and pace-sapping subplot, only contributing to the main story by getting into situations where she needs saving. In general, the women of BVS do not fare well, lacking any real character moments and generally just providing a reason for the men to be anxious or angry. Obviously, this is a general problem with the superhero genre, but it’s particularly notable in a film where the longest sequence of dialogue involving a woman talking has her doing so while naked in a bath.
The necessity for setting up the next four or five years of DC movies makes for very weird pacing. Snyder steams through as much story as possible in the first hour, before slowing down completely to let us watch four ‘found-footage’ introductions to the characters we’ll be seeing more of in the Justice League films in a slightly stagnant second act, before ramping up for the final showdowns. If you hated the heavily CGI-based final fight of Man of Steel then Superman fighting Batman and, later, Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman taking on the all-CG monster, Doomsday, will not appeal to you. However, if, like me, you appreciated the epic scale of the Superman/Zod fight, but just wanted less repetition, then the way Snyder stages these conflicts just about makes all the confusing stuff that comes before worth it. Lifting some sequences frame by frame from their comic counterparts makes for some really striking visuals, and the immense budget is constantly visible on screen.
DC’s rush to catch up with Marvel’s shared universe definitely damages Dawn of Justice, forcing the film to attempt to do in 150 minutes what Marvel did over five separate movies. Characters from Man of Steel are essentially forgotten about, with new ones introduced with very little context. At no point was I anywhere near as invested in the stakes of BVS as I was in either Avengers film, but the triumphant return of Batman and terrific technical displays make Dawn of Justice a worthwhile cinema trip for a genre fan.