Review: Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice

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If the movie sounds as self serious yet obnoxious as the title, you’re not far off target. And yet, for all of the dour pretensions that seep through most of Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice, there’s just enough narrative and thematic justification to warrant the morbid tone. The purported greatest throw down between two comic book icons comes more or less as advertised, but also invests a surprising amount of story to not only build up this climactic face-off, but the inevitable conflicts to come. Even with an overblown third act and several unnecessary story tangents, Batman V Superman is fairly straightforward in providing simple yet logical motivations to ignite its clash of titans.

Thankfully, the very worst scene of Batman V Superman is its first, as director Zack Snyder gives us yet another iteration of the deaths of Bruce Wayne’s parents, edited in parallel with Bruce falling into pit and becoming baptized by bats. Cut over the opening credits, there’s little that this montage adds to the film, and worse, feels like a direct lift from Batman Begins. Much stronger is the very next scene, perhaps the film’s best, in which the apocalyptic climax from Man of Steel is seen from the eyes of the adult Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck). One of Wayne’s towers in nestled right in the heart of Metropolis, and so he drives headfirst into the city, hoping to prevent it from meeting the destruction brought upon by the warring Kryptonians. As he helplessly watches his tower come crumbling down, Bruce looks to the skies. It’s clear to him that Superman (Henry Cavill) poses a threat to not just the safety of the nation, but, as another character puts it, to “planetary security.” That other figure is Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg), whose seemingly endless resources have uncovered Kryptonite from the fallen Kryptonian vessels in Metropolis and India, perhaps the key to defeating the Man of Steel. As public opinion of Superman grows more divisive, Luthor sees a perfect opportunity to bring a god to his knees.

As DC races to catch up with the multi narrative form of storytelling that Marvel began, it’s clear that it has no problems borrowing certain templates from its rival. Batman V Superman is quite clearly doing it’s own spin on the Avengers narrative, in which an outside malevolent party seeks to put our heroes in conflict rather than unite them. The three key points of view here are fairly clear if not equally as strong. Batman’s personal vendetta against Superman carries weight given the strength of the Metropolis destruction flashback, and so his preemptive strikes are a justifiable consequence. Affleck makes for a respectably solid Wayne/Batman, favoring underplaying and simplicity over texturing the billionaire vigilante. There’s another motivation for Wayne in the form of a bizarre dream sequence, but its inclusion is excessive, solely existing to foreshadow future DC film installments.

Henry Cavill continues to do a fine if unremarkable job portraying Superman, but the character himself is less fascinating than the public perception of him. The contrast between those who deify Superman and those who despise him comes to a head in a Congressional hearing which is graced by the Man of Steel’s presence, and whose outcome deserved to have greater consequences than the film ultimately explores. It’s during one particular shot in this hearing that one can see Kal-El questioning whether anything he does on Earth will have a positive outcome. As to his own conflicts with Batman, those motivations are murkier. As Clark Kent, he intends on investigating Batman’s vigilante methods further, much to the chagrin of Daily Planet head honcho Perry White (Lawrence Fishburne). If anything, Superman simply becomes a pawn in Luthor’s schemes in order to incite further catastrophe upon the world.

Lex Luthor isn’t really looking out for the world. In fact, he’s just out to raise his own profile. Jesse Eisenberg’s performance is likely to be one of the film’s most divisive elements, but he gives the character an erratic petulance that works as a nice foil to the masculine stoicism on display from his two muscle bound opponents. Luthor’s ultimate plans are to create a new weapon from his own blood and that of the fallen General Zod. In the process, he births Doomsday, a fairly generic, forgettable humanoid monster that our heroes must defeat. Despite the tired, over the top third act, Eisenberg’s jangled performance is one of this self serious film’s eccentric highlights.

All of the other supporting cast function strictly in terms of moving the story along without much developing much themselves.. Jeremy Irons’ take on butler and apparent tech expert Alfred doesn’t bring much new to the table other than questioning Wayne’s moral decisions. Lois Lane (Amy Adams) is mostly relegated to investigating a subplot which the film might have been able to do without, and her relationship with Clark doesn’t develop much beyond love interest. Gal Godot’s Wonder Woman pops up here and there throughout the film, but her involvement doesn’t add much beyond the inevitable third act. Her full and proper introduction is memorable, but Wonder Woman’s inclusion feels obligatory to future films rather than organic to this one.

Zack Snyder has never been known for his subtlety, and his style has only become more fanciful and outlandish with each passing film. Thankfully, he saves most of his theatrics for the film’s final half hour, only peppering a couple of action sequences throughout the film’s first two acts. For as many characters at he has to juggle, Snyder and editor David Brenner keep the story moving at a propulsive clip, even if they’re too reliant on fade outs and cuts to black to move in and out of scenes. Larry Fong’s photography is largely monochromatic, whether that’s in envisioning the grey remains of Wayne Manor or the nighttime blues of the climactic Gotham showdown. Hans Zimmer and Tom Holkenborg’s score delivers all the sound and fury expected from a film of this scale, while not quite delivering anything as memorable from previous Batman or Superman outings. The actual tussle between the two title characters is quite entertaining if  shorter than expected. What makes it work best is that both combatants become increasingly exhausted with each punch and footfall, not merely two unstoppable forces pummeling each other endlessly. The final outcome of that fight may be contrived, but it has far greater impact than the glazed messiness that pervades every frame of the final Doomsday battle, perhaps a final nihilistic display of nothing less than CGI pornography.

Ultimately, Batman V Superman is both unwaveringly serious and yet irrepressibly or unintentionally goofy. Maybe it’s worth embracing that dichotomy. It’s reliance on referencing myths or legends of past millennia remind us that those stories were also as outlandish in their time, but of course, they had the benefit of being told in simpler visual or literary terms. Like so many of these expanding cinematic universes, Batman V Superman is just another stepping stone to telling the larger DC mythology. Even as it tries too hard to needlessly forge complexity, Batman V Superman strives to bring the elemental conflicts between gods and men into our modern era.

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~ by romancinema on March 28, 2016.

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