Directed by Zack Snyder
Written by Chris Terrio and David S. Goyer
Starring: Ben Affleck, Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Jessie Eisenberg, Diane Lane, Lawrence Fishburne, Jeremy Irons, Holly Hunter, and Gal Gadot
There is a common misconception that movies based on comic books are supposed to be light, airy and generally fun without any really serious moments. Many criticize the darkening of comic book films, saying the filmmakers are attempting to ground them in reality and therefore miss the point. These criticisms would be valid if these films would have been made 50 years ago because comics weren’t serious then. That started to change in the 1970s when DC confronted Speedy (Green Arrow’s sidekick)’s drug addiction and Marvel took on Tony Stark’s alcoholism. The whole game changed in 1986 when DC published two groundbreaking graphic novels (a new format at the time, with no ads), Alan Moore’s Watchmen and Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns. Both took serious approaches to their characters and took comics out of the sole prevue of pre-teen boys and into the hands of adults, confronting themes like nuclear war, martial law, global catastrophe, the uneasiness of aging and outliving usefulness. Since then, comics have had a much darker tone. Tim Burton’s Batman in 1989 reflected that change, but that series quickly gave way to the camp and silliness that defined the comics in the 50s and 60s. There were other attempts, but the comic book film was still largely trapped in the pre-86 mindset until Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Trilogy, starting in 2005 with Batman Begins. Since then, filmmakers that work on comic book adaptations have become unafraid to tackle real issues in their films and as a result, the films have become increasingly more adult-oriented. The trouble is the marketing, with toy tie-ins and promotions focused on kids to promote movies that, especially younger ones, shouldn’t be seeing.
That (finally) brings us to Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, the sequel/not-a-sequel to the poorly received 2013 Superman film Man of Steel (which was good, but had lots of problems). This is a film set in a darker reality than other Superman films, definitely, and gives us a picture of a tired and well-worn Batman, not a man on his first time out in a costume. The film does a great job in the beginning of setting up the question of what heroism is and if a being with immense power can be incorruptible as well as the lengths to which fear can drive a person. Once the action starts, the film gets a little monotonous, but that’s true of most action films whether or not they’re based on a comic book.
The story starts during the Superman/Zod battle from Man of Steel seen from street-level by Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck), who comes over to Metropolis during the crisis for an unspecified reason. Bruce is devastated by the carnage wrought by the battle and in the subsequent 18 months, he starts to wonder if Superman (Henry Cavill) should be eliminated to avoid the scenario of his becoming a despotic global dictator, something he could easily achieve with his powers despite the insistence from Alfred (the brilliant Jeremy Irons) that Superman is not an enemy.
Also concerned with Superman’s activities are Senator June Finch (Holly Hunter), chair of a Superman sub-committee who is determined to bring oversight and accountability to Superman, and Lex Luthor (Jessie Eisenberg) who just wants to kill him. Lex has discovered kryptonite and its harmful effects on Kryptonians (thanks to experimentation with a fragment on Zod (played in Man of Steel by Michael Shannon, here represented by a life-like dummy corpse)’s body and wants to bring a huge chunk of it into the US to prepare a ‘deterrent’ against Superman should his actions ever become less than heroic (which is something Lex is working on achieving). Things come to a head when Bruce (as Batman) steals the kryptonite and weaponizes it, leading to the titular battle and the revelation of Lex’s plan.
All of this is well and good, and really sets the stage for something truly epic. Unfortunately, due to the way everything is set up, the epic nature of all of it fails. Yes, people want to see the age-old question of ‘Who would win in a fight, Batman or Superman?’ played out on screen, but the thing that’s missing most is that the moment isn’t earned. Batman’s own paranoia (wonderfully portrayed) is manipulated so he goes to war with Superman. The reason these battles always work so well in the comics is that Batman and Superman are best friends, so it makes their fights more tragic. Here, the fight is used to forge a friendship instead of test or ultimately break it. There is another, even more epic battle with Doomsday that brings Batman, Superman and (for the first time in a movie) Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) together that has a similar feeling of not being earned. In the comics, Doomsday kills Superman after a prolonged, multi-state battle after Doomsday cuts through the Justice League of America of the time. The fight and its culmination was devastating back in 1993 because Superman was a beloved figure, not just to readers but to the people of Metropolis and the world. No such feelings exist for this Superman at this point in the DCCU (DC Cinematic Universe), so a battle with Doomsday doesn’t elicit the feelings it should.
Those points do detract from the film, but its weakest point is the pacing. Director Zack Snyder (who also directed Man of Steel) seems intent on inserting pointless dream sequences (one involving an unexplained/unidentifiable character that seems to be speaking to Bruce from the future) and explaining a lot of things the audience is already overly familiar with while leaving some more complicated things completely unexplained or undealt with (like the aftermath of the Capitol bombing, the only question is ‘Where is Superman?’ not ‘What do we do now that most of the people in a third of our Government is dead?’). There are long stretches where nothing seems to happen and if it does, it’s one important line thrown into five minutes of dialogue and another five of people milling around (this does improve on a second viewing, however). Snyder is in no hurry to get to the main event, which is fine, but once he gets there the action is non-stop and becomes dull, repetitive and grinds the movie to a halt (much like Man of Steel).
The film isn’t all bad, despite what some say though. Ben Affleck’s pitch-perfect Bruce Wayne and stellar Batman, filled with the anger, angst and determination that make the character the best comic book hero ever and his work here is one of the highlights, along with Jeremy Irons delivering an excellent performance as Alfred, Bruce’s loyal and cuttingly sarcastic butler. Iron’s Alfred is more hands-on that previous one, actually doing the wiring in the bat suits and maintaining the Batmobile. The real joy, however is Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman/Diana Prince. Just being able to see Wonder Woman in a movie was amazing, and getting to see the Holy Trinity of Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman standing and fighting alongside each other was pure bliss, even if the actual fight wasn’t.
People are already attacking the film for being too serious and not having a sense of wonder or humor, but these people are missing the point. The days of comic book hero’s reacting to a situation with a ‘Gosh, golly, gee’ attitude is long gone and we should no longer expect them to appear in the films based on those now modernized heroes. Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is far from perfect, and in truth is just a prolonged set-up for the upcoming Justice League films, but if you understand what you’re walking into and aren’t expecting Christopher Reeve (or George Reeves for that matter), Adam West and Lynda Carter’s versions of Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman, the film will play out just fine. The film has promise and gives a glimmer of hope for the DCCU and their attempt to catch up to Marvel in terms of a universe all their own (which they probably won’t do, despite having largely stronger characters than Marvel. Marvel’s set a high bar with some great movies and they have the benefit of being the first to attempt this kind of interwoven filmic universe). Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice may not a great film, and it’s not for younger kids, but it is a great first (second?) step into a larger universe that has great potential.