You may recall, I was quite effusive in my praise of director Zack Snyder's Man of Steel when it was released three years ago. I took no end of grief for that, but I still stand by that initial assessment. Sure, I had some quibbles with Warner Bros.' second try at rebooting their Superman property for the big screen (following 2006's failed franchise-starter Superman Returns), but I still left the theater satisfied, and was confident that any issues would be ironed out in the inevitable follow-up whenever it materialized down the pike.
Of course, that was before the film's $668 mil global haul proved substantially less than the billion dollar bonanza that was no doubt hoped for. Thus, early in the development cycle they hit a bat-shaped panic button to quickly shore up their nascent franchise. And so, here we are with Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, a mega-budgeted mess of a movie that betrays all the telltale signs of a studio at war with itself. It tells you something about how little confidence Warners has in Superman when the character is essentially a supporting player in his own sequel.
But then, Dawn of Justice (again directed by Snyder) isn't just meant to build on a moderately successful blockbuster. No, we're way past that. In the new era of the cinematic shared universe, either you're in the game or you're not. But while this is meant to kickstart several years of interconnected superhero franchises (a la Disney's assortment of Marvel heroes), all it manages to demonstrate is that Warners has no idea what to do with any of their prized DC Comics properties that don't have pointy ears and a scalloped cape.
The story (with script by Chris Terrio and David Goyer) establishes our point-of-focus from the beginning with a prologue taking us back to the closing moments of Man of Steel. Superman (Henry Cavill) and General Zod (Michael Shannon) are laying waste to the city of Metropolis as they do battle with one another, but this time we're seeing it from the on-the-ground perspective of playboy/industrialist Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck), who has a building in the city, and watches it come down (in clear visual echoes of 9/11) in the wake of the aliens' battle. Thus is a rivalry born.
Cut to two years later, and Superman is hailed as a hero, even as plenty of folks are wondering if the Man of Steel should be able to act with impunity wherever he pleases. Bruce Wayne is concerned ("If we believe there's even a one percent chance that he is our enemy we have to take it as an absolute certainty," he says, channeling his inner Dick Cheney). Meanwhile, genius billionaire Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg) sees an opportunity to enhance his own bottom line. And so the stage is set for the title bout, but by the time they've finished interminably laying the pipe to get us to the super-destructo third act, you're so worn down you just want it to be over with already.
Make no mistake, Batman v. Superman is a joyless, tedious slog. It goes out of its way to create a superhero universe so weighted down in portent and pomposity, so awash in grit and grime and nastiness, that it forgets to make it a place we'd actually like to visit every couple of months. What's always made the Superman-Batman pairing work in either comics or animation is the essential contrasts between them, and how those contrasts bring out the best in both. So the decision to have Cavill's Superman spend most of the film with his eyebrow knitted in existential anguish is a head-scratcher.
Cavill (who I loved in Man of Steel as well as last year's The Man From U.N.C.L.E.) still does a good job with what he's given, but he surely deserved better than this. Superman's role in this film is Warner Bros. essentially taking sides with everyone who's ever written off the character as being lame or one-note, which is a heck of a way to treat one of their prize IPs. There's also something seriously damaged about Superman and Batman and Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) together in live action for the very first time in a movie you probably shouldn't take your kids to.
Of course, the problem goes much deeper than what sure feels like a fundamental misunderstanding on Snyder's part as to these characters' enduring, evergreen appeal. The film is about taking Superman's essential goodness, his entire raison d'etre, and saying, "Nope. Wrong." It's about bringing the world's greatest hero down to our level because the filmmakers are uncomfortable with someone being selfless for its own sake. And, mind you, it's not like they're setting up this moral dilemma so they can resolve it in Superman's favor.
After spending much of the time angst-ing, Superman declares, as if finally understanding the realities of Snyder's DC Universe, "Nobody stays good." Well, that's nice. And the "Must there be a Superman?" thread is just one of many potentially intriguing elements set up and swiftly abandoned. When I talk about the studio being at war with itself, you can see that in plot digressions that eat up valuable minutes of the not-insubstantial 151 minute runtime, completely incongruous with everything else except as set-up for the various Justice League spin-offs on the way.
In terms of the cast, all do what they're asked, and they do it well. Man of Steel returnees, Amy Adams as Lois Lane, Diane Lane as Martha Kent, and Laurence Fishburne as Perry White, are welcome presences who it's nice to see again. New addition Jeremy Irons is terrific as Bruce Wayne's loyal manservant Alfred Pennyworth (last played by Michael Caine in Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy). And as far as Eisenberg, while I can't say I like this particular take on the Lex Luthor character, I do think the actor makes some interesting choices with it, and he's always watchable.
While Gadot does manage to make a strong impression, we've seen 90% of her performance in the trailers. The real star of the show here is Ben Affleck. The Internet nearly broke in half when his casting was announced three years ago, but he's absolutely terrific even when the plot contortions required of him strain credibility. He gets some action beats that are probably the truest depiction of the character we've ever seen in live action. Also, making this an older, worn-down Batman was a smart choice, providing rich turf for an actor whose weathered countenance adds gravitas even when the movie itself lacks it.
You'll note that I've gone this many paragraphs without mentioning the Marvel Studios shared universe, but the one thing those films (for as much as their quality can vary from franchise to franchise) understand is taking pride in the source material. They're unapologetic about what they are, and show that it's okay to have fun. I understand the desire on the part of Warners and DC to have their shared universe go down a more serious path, but when your movie looks like a nightmare, mirror-image version of the one in the comics, a little reassessment might not be a bad idea before asking us to commit to several more years of this stuff. D
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