You’ll already have opinions about Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice, but after years of anticipation and discussion, what it boils down to is the two and a half hours spent in the dark and whether or not you feel like you enjoyed them. After all, it’s only a movie.
Or in the case of Batman V Superman, it’s three movies, or one movie grappling with the various roles it needs to play. It’s the follow-up to Man Of Steel, and it’s a new take on Batman courtesy of Ben Affleck’s embittered Bruce Wayne, and it tees up the genesis of the Justice League, mostly by introducing Gal Gadot’s enigmatic Diana Prince. It’s a lot to get done and a lot to get right, so the delays and talk of an extended director’s cut are hardly surprising. Writers Chris Terrio and David S Goyer had a hell of a task.
But did they pull it off? Yes and no. There’s a lot that works well, but there’s plenty that doesn’t, and the bulk of its failures are in the plotting and tone. It’s obvious that Snyder, Terrio and Goyer are well aware of the pitfalls, and do their best to avoid them, but in doing so they create entirely new problems. Worried about an Age Of Ultron-style overstuffed clip show? So are they, but what we get instead is a film that works so hard to stay grounded and coherent that it forgets to be fun.
‘Not much fun’ is an obvious stick to beat the film with after Man Of Steel; it’s quite clear that fun isn’t really what it’s going for. Snyder is aiming squarely for Eighties dark, violent, unapologetic Batman, with his Superman somewhat unsuccessfully folded into that tone.
The Dark Knight Returns has been a key text for each filmmaker who takes on the World’s Greatest Detective, so it’s not surprising to see it heavily referenced here, but we get a grab-bag of Batman and Superman greatest hits: Miller, Moore, Millar and even Morrison. It’s a pick ‘n’ mix that doesn’t work for both. Furious Batman works, and Affleck has a ball with it, but an already slightly sidelined Superman who’s feeling very judged is less successful, despite Cavill’s best efforts.
It’s hard to shake the feeling that Snyder is more excited about Bats than Supes, particularly as the film opens with the Thomas and Martha Wayne shooting and the discovery of the future Bat-Cave, before launching into Bruce witnessing the destruction of Metropolis. It’s a strong opening, and a great reminder of how potent those moments of Bruce’s history are on screen, and the sequence of him racing into the heart of the carnage to do what he can is undeniably powerful. Not only does it drive home the human cost of Superman’s battle with Zod, it shows just how perfect a choice Affleck was for this.
What it also does is set up the debate about the big Boy Scout, which occupies the bulk of the rest of the film. Bruce is convinced that Superman’s a threat, while the American government wants to put restrictions on him. Meanwhile, brilliant billionaire Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg) wants to create a ‘silver bullet’ deterrent that could take him down if necessary. Naturally, Lex being Lex, he’s got his eye on that Kryptonian tech as well.
The plot strand that sounds the least compelling is the one that is most over-served. The film is so determined to keep us grounded in the nearly real reality of Man Of Steel that it feels afraid of the capital CB Comic Book stuff it’s going to have to put in. So we’re given senate hearings, burning Superman effigies and Batman branding his victims. The gloominess isn’t a surprise, but it is surprisingly grim, with some moments feeling like they should have been left in the R-rated director’s cut. While this may work in the film’s first half, it actually does the opposite of what it was intended to do when the shit really hits the fan and the film’s monstrous big bad emerges. It’s jarring, while the very brief obligatory nods to the Justice League feel like a pen-slip, or at best a reluctant box-tick.
But for all that, there are definitely places where Batman V Superman succeeds. As mentioned, Affleck is great casting, showing how Bruce could have found himself in this dark place while selling the action completely. We love a good villain, and Eisenberg’s Lex Luthor is a swaggering, twitchy joy. His casting had its critics, but he’s a great choice, his hipster tees and cheerful manner masking a callous disregard for everyone around him and a totally ruthless nature. It’s a performance that is comic book enough to be entertaining, but dangerous enough to fit the tone.
Crucially, the Batman fight sequences are excellent, and those coming out for the titular smack-down won’t leave disappointed. This desire to root everything in reality means that we have to wait while they’re both pushed to the point of Not Backing Down, but it’s brutal and bruising stuff. Snyder knows how to make mythic combat look cool, and only the most cynical moviegoer could claim to not feel a rush of excitement as they go toe to toe.
That’s also true of Wonder Woman’s appearance when it finally arrives. Gadot only appears periodically throughout the film, establishing Diana Prince as someone who knows a lot more about the grander scheme of things than Bruce Wayne (there’s a nice scene where she stops him mansplaining an ancient sword in a museum), but she really shines in the film’s final action sequence and it’s a powerful reminder of how freaking overdue this is.
The film’s other women don’t fare as well, sadly, with Amy Adams’ Lois Lane repeatedly requiring rescue in service of the plot, and another character that would be spoiler-y to mention getting some rough treatment. They don’t exactly get the best dialogue either. Hmm.
If you’re getting the impression that the film is a mixed bag, you’re exactly right. How much you get out of it will depend on what you’re hoping to get. The action’s good, the cast is great, and the first half manages to keep all its balls in the air. But it’s oddly sluggish in places, too self-serious and overstuffed to be nimble, and there’s a lot that could have been cut. We didn’t even talk about the terrible dream sequences. It is intermittently rewarding, but ultimately a bit disappointing.