Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice

Genuine moral questioning and beautiful compositions gives way to a meat-headed wrestling movie advertising future installments from DC's extended universe

Film Review by Josh Slater-Williams | 24 Mar 2016
Film title: Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice
Director: Zack Snyder
Starring: Ben Affleck, Henry Cavill, Jesse Eisenberg, Amy Adams, Jeremy Irons, Diane Lane, Laurence Fishburne, Gal Gadot, Holly Hunter, Scoot McNairy, Callan Mulvey, Tao Okamoto, Jeffrey Dean Morgan
Release date: 25 Mar
Certificate: 12A

Of the numerous problems with Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, one of them is quite succinctly illustrated by one scene in the film’s back half. It sees Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck, aka Batfleck) browsing some top secret files, many of which concern the mysterious Diana Prince (Gal Gadot) who’s been popping up throughout the film, mostly being all cipher-like because her solo movie isn’t out until next year. This scene includes what may be a cinematic first: a character in a film literally looking at a promo still for a real film that’s yet to come out, in this case a picture of Gadot’s Wonder Woman in her forthcoming film’s 1918 period setting, posing with various recognisable faces (Chris Pine, Ewen Bremner) that will presumably make up her posse – not just a picture of her, but a glance at the supporting cast.

The need to shoehorn any and all set-up references to future entries in the DC 'extended universe' that this movie is properly kicking off – Man of Steel didn't seem like a primer for anything but another solo Superman tale – isn’t the only major issue with the film (and it’s not like Disney’s Marvel efforts are any less guilty of it), but it ties in well with another complaint: Dawn of Justice is a needlessly byzantine mess. A lot of stuff happens, and very loudly at that, but so little of it ultimately coheres. It’s overstuffed to the point that Superman (Henry Cavill, asked to stick to scowling this time) is practically relegated to the status of glorified supporting role.

As a result, the film is not so much stirring as it is exhausting. And the thing is that it didn’t need to be this way. The first half actually has a wealth of strong moments, some of it the most interesting material posited in a mega-budget superhero movie. There’s a genuinely intriguing moral conflict regarding the place of Superman on Earth in light of his god-like powers reaping as much devastation as they do derring-do. As half-Machiavellian, half-impotent Lex Luthor (played by Jesse Eisenberg as Mark Zuckerberg meets Victor Frankenstein) suggests, “If God is all-powerful, then he cannot be all good.”

It feels like the makers of a superhero movie genuinely questioning the constrictions of the genre and of heroism itself. Exploring the actual consequences of an unchecked alien force upon a world that struggles enough with its own, comparatively simpler, brand of freak. Wayne, 20 years into the game as Batman at this point, can certainly attest to that, and the Dark Knight’s one-man war against the Man of Steel, on the grounds of the threat he poses to human life, is motivated by an awareness of the depths to which good men can sink. After all, this particularly violent, vindictive incarnation of Batman is a shining example of that.

Where things go downhill is when all those interesting questions get dropped to make way for the fireworks factory promised by the film’s title. The ethical conflict the script has established and wrestled with is abandoned without full confrontation, to make way for literal wrestling. Luthor labels this clash of the titans as “the greatest gladiator match in the history of the world,” but it’s given no weight because the thematic weight is so cowardly backed away from. What matters, it seems, is the formula and the synergy and the boom boom pow with yet another entirely CG, nondescript monster that pummels you into submission. Even director Zack Snyder’s bold compositions, which produce some arresting plays with the characters’ iconography, veer into confusing blurs come the third act – his use of colour is still far more interesting than any Marvel film, though.

So, in the end, a daft but interesting blockbuster becomes a daft and self-defeating one. At least we can now say that Ewen Bremner is in a Batman movie. Place your bets on Peter Mullan popping up in The Flash.

Released by Warner Brothers