Review – Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016)
Director: Zach Snyder
Starring: Henry Cavill, Ben Affleck, Amy Adams, Jesse Eisenberg, Jeremy Irons, Holly Hunter, Gal Gadot, Diane Lane, Laurence Fishburne
“Who would win a fight between…” has long been a favourite hypothetical of young comic book fans around the world. So for those boys and girls Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice must have sounded like a dream come true. Unfortunately though, if there is one audience this film is not for it is kids. In bringing together the world’s two most iconic superheroes Zach Snyder has made the darkest mainstream blockbuster in recent memory. It is a serious film without an ounce of lightness or humour that seeks to pose ethical and philosophical questions about power, but poor execution leaves it falling short of its lofty goals.
Batman vs Superman is in a number of ways a reactionary film. At an industrial level it is absolutely Warner Brothers and DC’s panicked response to the outrageous success Marvel Studios have had with their interwoven Marvel Cinematic Universe. What was originally supposed to be a straight sequel to 2013’s Man of Steel was seemingly co-opted by the studio to become the launching pad for the DC Expanded Universe. The attempt to do in one fell swoop what Marvel took five films to set up results in a ham-fisted effort to introduce all of those other characters who will make up the Justice League in the film slated for release in 2017 (mostly this is achieved by having a character watch clips of known metahumans on a laptop).
In a more interesting sense, the narrative is also reactionary, responding to the audience backlash against Man of Steel and the city levelling destruction of its finale. Batman vs Superman begins by recapping the end of Man of Steel, but rather than being up in the skies watching Superman (Henry Cavill) and General Zod duke it out, we are down at street level with Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) watching in terror as skyscrapers crumble and collapse, aware that each is filled with thousands of people. While the evoking of 9/11 imagery has been done before it is still effective and this strong opening provides a solid departure point for the film.
While Snyder initially presents Batman as the film’s conscience, we quickly swing away from him as he arguably becomes the primary villain. This Bruce Wayne is a darker, more disillusioned figure than we have seen on the big screen before. After 20 years of fighting criminals only to see new ones pop up in their place his moral compass has shifted. He has become angry and cruel. This is a Batman who brands his opponents, who shoots and stabs people. This is a Batman no longer conflicted about killing. So we understand Clark Kent’s concerns that Batman is a brutal vigilante operating outside the law as judge, jury and executioner. However, one of the strengths of the film is the way it allows you to see multiple perspectives. While we agree with Kent’s concerns about Batman and struggle with the extreme nature of Batman’s methods, we also see the logic behind Wayne’s distrust of Superman. After witnessing the destruction at the beginning of the film, he is fearful of a self-appointed overlord wielding unilateral power when the people do not possess the ability to keep him accountable for his actions.
Batman vs Superman explores the ideological differences between these two and this central conflict is quite interesting, but the premise gets muddied by a clumsy and overburdened narrative and a glut of characters. There is a congressional hearing, headed up by Senator June Finch (Holly Hunter), into an incident in the Middle East in which multiple civilians were killed during a standoff between Superman and a group of terrorists, an incident Lois Lane (Amy Adams) is also investigating. There is Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg) – here imagined as a millennial tech millionaire, and an intensely annoying one at that – who is trying to get Senator Finch’s backing to bring kryptonite into the US so he can weaponise it. There is a giant Kryptonian monster, Doomsday, who threatens to level Metropolis. There is Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), an intriguing presence who crosses paths with Bruce Wayne on a few occasions but for whom you will have to wait until next year’s standalone film to get some fleshed out character. In short, there is a lot going on and with unnecessary narrative threads, inadequately motivated character actions and about four too many dream sequences, it doesn’t quite hold together.
Batman vs Superman has been gleefully savaged by numerous critics, with many of them seemingly prepared in advance to do so. This may come in part from the frustrating knowledge that Batman vs Superman is one of those critic proof movies that is going to make huge money regardless of if it is any good, regardless even of if people like it, and the opening grosses seem to be supporting this. But the fact of the matter is Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice is not as bad as people are saying. It is undoubtedly messy, makes some poor choices and amazingly after two films Snyder still hasn’t found the character of Superman, but there are some interesting ideas there and with expectations now well and truly in check as pure spectacle there is still something to be found.
Review by Duncan McLean
Have you seen Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice? Leave a comment and let us know what you thought.