“Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” will certainly inspire fierce debate. Too competent to be universally panned, too disjointed to be universally praised, too anticipated to be a new revelation, too beloved in subject to be easily dismissed, the film will be one people either passionately love or passionately hate.
The plot does, indeed, pit Batman (Ben Affleck) against Superman (Henry Cavill). In a refreshing turn to never-ending superhero origin stories, each superhero is older, somewhat wiser, and more settled than we usually see them portrayed.
Batman has decades of fighting the villains of Gotham under his belt and a reputation as wealthy Bruce Wayne. Superman and his alter ego Clark Kent have built a career at the Daily Planet and a life with Lois Lane (Amy Adams). They’re almost middle-aged. Fighting evil is what they do. They’ve come to accept their place in life.
However, their place in life leaves little room for each other. The film builds the rivalry and mistrust between the two strongmen, but not enough for them to erupt into war. The battle happens mainly for other reasons.
Too Many Epic Struggles to Develop Well
This is one of the main weaknesses of the movie. It builds tension, rivalries, or themes, and then turns away from them.
In the first third of the film, both characters stand in for America and her view of herself as either global superhero or vengeful brooding strength. There are discussions of democracy, even a showdown in the U.S. Capitol. In one scene, Superman leaves wealthy Americans to rescue poor workers in Juarez, Mexico, a sign that he, and by extension, America, stand for more than just self-interest. It’s a nice conceit, the tension between the idealistic and the self-serving sides of America, an exploration of our crisis of confidence that currently rocks the world stage.
But this interesting theme is gradually eclipsed and then extinguished by another: the idea of Superman as a type of god and Batman as a type of man. The battle between them thus becomes the existential wrestling of man with the divine. Much ink has been spilled, both in comics and outside of them, about Superman as a Christ figure. Seeing the concept explored on the big screen could be fascinating.
The power of stories, however, is usually in drawing on and referencing themes of the divine, not necessarily explicitly stating them. The film insists you see the parallels, even going so far as to reference the Renaissance artform of the Pietá.
The final battle, though, is about neither of these themes, and they both ultimately get lost in the movie’s cracks.
Just Try to Relax and Not Expect Too Much
Zach Snyder’s direction feels disjointed, almost a series of vignettes rather than an ongoing story. Once you, as a viewer, realize this is an artistic choice rather than a mistake and stop fighting it, it works, or at least mostly works. It brings a somberness and seriousness to the film, an arthouse quality.
Added to this, however, are several dream sequences that only serve to confuse. I am not a fan of dream sequences, as they tend to be lazy storytelling, a way for the filmmaker literally to show the inside of a character’s mind when external clues would be more telling. The dream sequences added nothing to this movie except visual gymnastics. A few veered into horror, which is dangerous ground in a PG-13 movie that otherwise keeps its nose clean. Some children who might have otherwise have loved his film will be too scared by the dreams.
The score tries too hard, sometimes distracting in its epic epicness. Like the rest of the movie, it tries to do too much.
We have already seen Cavill as Superman in “Man of Steel,” and this version adds little to the character he created. Affleck neither soars nor fails as Batman. He brings a certain brooding, slick quality that works well but does not add a new shade to the previous versions that have already created the mosaic that is the character.
Jesse Eisenberg as Lex Luthor is the same. He doesn’t ruin the character, but he doesn’t add. A superhero movie is only as good as its villain, but in this film, Batman and Superman are each other’s villains and the pressure is off Luthor.
The action is good, but often dark. The acting is passable, the effects neither amazing nor laughable. This is the tone of the film. It’s fine. It works. It does not amaze. Because of this tone, the reaction will depend significantly on what the viewer brings to it. If expectations are sky-high, you are likely to be disappointed. If you’re an optimist primed to have a good time, you likely will.