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To be sure, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is a grand, epic film of great style and visual mastery, a sometimes powerfully effective genre movie that is dark, moody, and heavy, with several great performances. But it is also disappointingly shallow, recycling much of what we already know and have seen, learning no lessons from its predecessor.
It starts at the end of 2013’s Man of Steel with the titular Superman (Henry Cavill) engaged in a fight with criminal General Zod (Michael Shannon), the main villain who has come to Earth to destroy the son of his captor. The difference now is that we see the battle from the ground up, particularly through the eyes of Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) who has a Wayne Enterprises building downtown in the middle of the action. He is desperately calling the staff, telling them to evacuate (an order that seems unnecessary). Of course he is too late, and the already terribly destructive fight levels the Wayne tower. Bruce, frantically driving toward the chaos, abandons his car and runs straight into the plume of smoke and debris, finding a little girl in the crumbled concrete, her mother lost in the floors that have been destroyed. From here, as Wayne watches the alien warriors continue their reign of terror, he silently vows to end them.
In the two years following, the US government decides to take action as Superman becomes both a praised demigod and a reviled monster. His actions, and his involvement in the protection of the people has consequences, especially when he suddenly shows up to save Lois Lane (Amy Adams) from an apparent terrorist, killing some innocent people long the way. Meanwhile, Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg), a young corporate mogul thinks Superman needs stopping and convinces seasoned Senator June Finch (Holly Hunter) to fund a salvage operation to recover shards of kryptonite from Zod’s earlier schemes in hopes of crafting a weapon that can destroy Superman. He also wants to use Zod’s remains but this is where Finch draws the line and withdraws support. This doesn’t slow him down though, and through some devious manipulation, not only gets what he wants, but is responsible for another horrific incident that turns the public even more away from Superman. This also further assures Wayne that his actions are warranted and he schemes to steal the kryptonite from Luthor to make his own Superman-proof battle armor and weapon, running afoul of a beautiful woman who steals something from him. She is Diana Prince (Gal Godot) who is also after something Luthor has, a set of files that prove she is an ancient immortal warrior. You can bet that’ll be advantageous before the movie ends.
Directed by Zack Snydor, from a script by David Goyer and Chris Terrio, Batman v Superman is actually a good comic book movie, simply because it is just that, a gothic novel come to life. And like a comic book, it has very little in terms of dialogue, relying mostly on a lot of action. The script is purposefully trim, with exchanges barely lasting much more than a few lines, a conceit international ‘blockbusters’ adopt in order to make them more accessible to foreign language markets. The paper-thin plot doesn’t have much going for it and fails to really explore the promise of the title nor the premise of the setup. We sit through another Batman origin story that has been done so often and is so familiar, it almost elicits laughter. That said, Affleck is very good, and dispels any and all complaints about his casting. There is a reason Batman is the first name in the title. This is his story with Superman barely more than a supporting character. Affleck is intense, and even if we question his motivations, we get behind his actions. That has a lot to do with Affleck.
Cavill is good, too, despite the limited screen time. He spends much of his time as Superman rather than his alter ego Clark Kent, swooping in and proving he is unstoppable. What comes off best though his is relationship with Lane. This has always been a superficial element in any Superman franchise, one that has never explored the emotional burden these two people would naturally share. Batman v Superman does a good job of changing that, over the length of the film giving the bond between him and Lane a surprising effectiveness. When he confesses to what she really means to him, it suddenly feels right and his actions prior make more sense.
Sadly, Eisenberg, who is one his generations’ more talented actors, is terribly miscast and is at every turn, uncomfortably out of his element. In a spectacle as big as this, he is a tiny, tiny presence and his constant hamming and ticks only devalues whatever authority he is able to create. Smarmy and irritating, his smirking and kitschiness ruin nearly every potentially impactful moment, never once instilling the menace absolutely required of the part. Both Affleck and Cavill tower over him, which was probably the intent, but he doesn’t make up for that with any sense of power, even though the end tries very hard to do just that. The quibble here is that at any time in the film, Superman is able to pinpoint Lois Lane by hearing her cry for help, yet can’t do the same when his mother is is trouble. It’s lapses like this that have long plagued Superman movies.
Other issues are the constant appearance of real celebrities seen on television newscasts commenting on occurring events. Most of the CNN major anchors show up, as does Charlie Rose and Neil deGrasse Tyson among others. While it is meant to make the film seem more authentic, it actually does the opposite, reminding us that there is a real world we live in that does not have superheroes. It only serves to distract, yanking us out of the fantasy. But this is minor compared to the lack of confidence the film has in itself and the audience. At more than two and half hours, it manages to fill most of that time with endless things slamming into each other, and utterly demolishing everything in its path. It does this while steadily making repeated efforts to seemingly address the complaints of the previous film that had most troubled with wanton destruction of the city with no consequences. With every fight, a newscaster is heard reporting how they are in a sparsely populated area or that everyone has been evacuated. This happens a lot. It feels especially maddening while the screen is filled with a level of demolition that is practically apocalyptic.
Worse are the women, once again peripheral and cast mostly as ones to be rescued rather than be anything of significance. I say that even as the third prong in the final good guy’s attack on the film’s major antagonist is Wonder Woman. While Gadot is a sensual beauty, she has little to do and arrives to the party as the Amazonian goddess with nearly no depth. Sure, we are getting her planned origin story next year, but what is meant to be mystery here is simply empty as we just don’t have any care for her as she is, like the entirety of the production, a building block for a coming franchise. Lois Lane is also bereft of any personality, a one-dimensional character that is literally saved from death by Superman three times. Diane Lane shows up as Clark Kent’s mother and is promptly kidnapped, her name, a plot point that is so prominently pounded over the audience’s head, when it is revealed, it lacks any surprise. And that it utterly and instantly shifts the direction of the movie is itself hugely disconcerting.
Still, as much as Snyder is to blame for what is wrong, he is also responsible for much of what is right. The film looks glorious, a visually astounding work that is often breath-taking to look at. The brooding, darkly lit city is wonderfully realized and there are many moments of great artistry. Accompanied by another exceptionally effective Hans Zimmer score, there are some truly stirring set pieces that often reduce the frustration of what brought us to them. With the great opportunity to take what should have been learned from Man of Steel, Batman v Superman is a disappointment, retreading where it should be trailblazing. If you’re expecting mindless, loud action, and enjoy hours of inconsequential fighting between combatant that can’t be defeated, than this will satisfy. And speaking of defeat, the final frame is probably the most insulting, a cop out to a premise that by any standard in Hollywood is and cannot be happening. It’s an emotional manipulation that just feels cheap.
Director: Zack Snyder
Writers: Chris Terrio, David S. Goyer
Stars: Ben Affleck, Henry Cavill, Jesse Eisenberg, Amy Adams, Gal Godot, Laurence Fishburne, Holly Hunter