In the wake of Zod’s assault on Metropolis, Superman (Henry Cavill) is eyed by many with suspicion, not least Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg) and Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck). Both formulate schemes that could see the alien destroyed for good.
In The Lego Movie, Will Arnett’s Batman sang an ode to being glum in Gotham, which included the lyrics, “Darkness! No parents! Continued darkness! More darkness, get it?” But even he’s out-moodied by the iteration in Batman v Superman: Dawn Of Justice. For those who thought Man Of Steel was too gloomy and navel-gazing, we have some bad news: the addition of Bruce Wayne to the franchise has not lightened the mood any.
Horribly scarred both inside and out, Ben Affleck’s grey-templed Darkest Knight is so morally burned out that he not only subdues foes, but tortures and brands them like cattle. His dreams are plagued by screeching, man-sized bats. Not even the very pleasant water feature in his lakeside cave cheers him up. There’s nothing wrong with a little angst, but here it’s doubled down: pitting him against an insecure and self-doubting Superman, Zack Snyder’s movie is a spectacle that proves heavy on visual pizzazz but markedly light on fun.
For those who found Man Of Steel gloomy, there's bad news: the addition of Bruce Wayne has not lightened the mood any.
As with other ‘versus’ films — Alien Vs. Predator, Freddy Vs. Jason, Kramer Vs. Kramer Vs. Godzilla — the title carries a charge of giddy promise. Two titans of pop culture will, we are assured, rearrange city streets with each other’s faces. And once it arrives, the fight is a tightly choreographed, berserkly overwrought treat. But talk about delayed gratification: Snyder makes you wait, and wait, and wait for the championship bout. As the colon in the unwieldy title suggests, this is really two movies squished into one. Besides another run-through of Bruce Wayne’s tragic backstory (including an odd nod to John Boorman’s Excalibur), Dawn Of Justice strains to both set up a plausible conflict between the two superheroes, and shift pieces into place for future sequels and spin-offs. It’s a film with a lot on its mind.
The main plot starts well enough. A Rashomon-style replaying of Man Of Steel’s finale through the eyes of Bruce Wayne, as he slaloms through Metropolis in a tiny black car in an effort to rescue his employees, helps us buy into his rage when it comes to Superman. (Could it be that Snyder is channelling all the angry comments he got on message boards about his previous film’s destructive finale?) Wayne’s pissed, he’s paranoid, he’s going full Trump. Affleck underplays the role nicely, exuding rumpled world-weariness like only a man who’s survived Gigli can, and dispelling any lingering memories of Daredevil. Then along comes Jesse Eisenberg’s Lex Luthor. Sporting a Banksy T-shirt, chomping on Jolly Ranchers and throwing random “Mmm!”s into his maniacal monologues, the character is going to be an acquired taste — it’s not difficult to imagine him popping up in one of the Joel Schumacher Batman films. Less up for discussion are his schemes, which are both numerous and not massively well thought out, despite the fact he frequently appears to be omniscient. One explosive set-piece, in particular, is visually impactful but has no real effect on the story.
Affleck underplays the role nicely, exuding rumpled world-weariness like only a man who’s survived Gigli can.
For most of its run-time, the film focuses on talk over action — a Sucker Punch-ish nightmare sequence, in which Batman takes on Kal-El’s super-troopers and flying, shotgun-toting bug-men (one of several nods to as-yet-unseen mega-bad’un Darkseid) is a fun if slightly pointless exception. Jeremy Irons proves a fine Alfred, sternly ticking off Bruce and even making lines like, “You are to deception as Mozart to the harpsichord,” sound good. Holly Hunter spars with Eisenberg in the thin role of a US Senator, while Scoot McNairy plays a former Wayne Enterprises employee with a grudge against Superman. There are too-short interludes with Clark Kent, who we learn has signed up to Dropbox. It’s all very solemn, very operatic, and a bit dull.
It’s with an hour to go that Dawn Of Justice goes nuts. Following a wonderfully camp training montage in which the Dark Knight furiously pumps Batbarbells and chucks a tyre around, he and Supes go cape-to-cape through the slums of Gotham, a sight to justify the slow and gloomy build-up. There are ultra-sonic blasters, machine-gun turrets, kryptonite grenades, everything but the kitchen sink. (Our mistake: a sink gets smashed on someone’s head, too.) It’s here at last, amid the crumbling masonry, that the movie discovers its joie de vivre. Which is why it’s a shame that Snyder feels the need to throw in a hulking, city-smashing Uruk-hai afterwards. A climax to a climax, it’s CGI overkill, making for a generic and exhausting denouement.
As for the DC world-building, there’s a lot to take in, though much of it amounts to a superhero watching clips of other superheroes on a laptop. Metahumans are glimpsed — hastily setting the table for next year’s Justice League, doing in four minutes what took Marvel four years — though, with one trippy exception, they don’t actually interact with our principal characters. That honour goes to Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman, a character invented in 1941 and only now making her big-screen debut. Gadot’s dramatic powers remain to be tested, but she at least makes a big impact in the final reel’s showdown, unleashing her Lasso Of Truth and power-sliding all over the place. It’s a landmark moment in cinema, executed well. Still no sign of Dawn, though.
There are moments that make the whole enterprise worthwhile, and introduces an intriguing new Batman. But it’s also cluttered and narratively wonky; a few jokes wouldn’t have gone amiss, either.