After more than an hour of a perfectly decent Superman origin story, the big problem with Man of Steel was its pulverizing 45-minute action climax in which cities are levelled, characters are flung like ragdolls across the screen, and the audience is bored into submission.
But it’s not only boring to watch two (presumably) immortal Gods trade blows for nearly an hour: it’s morally reprehensible to focus on their uneventful fisticuffs while hundreds of thousands of people are perishing around them in horrific 9/11 imagery.
Well, the awkwardly titled Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice attempts to correct for that in a couple ways (on a side note, I’m glad they gave it that vague Justice League subtitle, ‘cause who wants to see a mere Batman versus Superman movie, anyway?)
Just the presence of Batman (portrayed by Ben Affleck) – a human character who we know might get hurt if he’s flung through a wall – lends the film some tangible stakes that are otherwise unavailable to a movie about aliens so powerful they can withstand a direct nuclear blast in outer space.
And not only were the critics dismayed by the destruction in Man of Steel, but so was Bruce Wayne, who opens this film as a fleck in the midst of it: as he watches WayneCorp sink into a billow of World Trade Center smoke and ash, the movie may still exploiting 9/11 destruction, but it is also making an attempt to confront it in real-life terms.
Batman has all the motivation he needs to take down the Man of Steel (Henry Cavill), after witnessing his actions level Metropolis. But instead of working towards that inevitable goal that the title gives away, he spends the first half of the movie tracking down a mysterious White Portuguese, for reasons that the filmmakers never bother to explain.
Still, Bats is the best thing the movie has to offer. Affleck’s persona is perfectly suited to the character, Jeremy Irons is a treat as Alfred, the closest thing this deadly serious movie gets to levity, and there are some nice, even subtle touches that add some color without drowning us in backstory, like references to The Joker, Robin, and others.
I like that Batman simply exists in this world, but doesn’t dominate it; he’s a vigilante operating in the shadows while Superman’s city-destroying antics take center stage. It’s an appropriate presentation of the character that wouldn’t be easy to pull off in a standalone Batman film.
Even billionaire playboy Bruce Wayne isn’t the tabloid darling we usually see, not with the presence of an even bigger fish: the even-richer Lex Luthor, played by Jesse Eisenberg as his characterization of The Social Network’s Mark Zuckerberg taken to an antisocial, power-mad extreme.
Director Zack Snyder borrows a lot from previous depictions of the Batman character – especially producer Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy – to deliver a character we already know and don’t have to go through the usual setup with. It’s an approach I wish more superhero movies would take.
Batman isn’t the only one with an axe to grind against Supes: Luthor wants him out of the picture, too, though his motivations are a lot less clear; the movie seems to take for granted this classic rivalry, turning Luthor into a Joker-like maniac in the process.
Elsewhere, we get a continuation of the heavy-handed Last Temptation of Superman saga, as Kal-El questions his role as the savior of mankind. Cavill is perfect as both Superman and Clark Kent, but his soul-searching mountaintop revelations and heartfelt scenes of dialogue with Lois Lane (Amy Adams) can’t end soon enough.
Yet the film gives him almost nothing else to do. Laurence Fishburne, who makes for a great Perry White, is left with a subplot about Kent not turning in his sports story on time.
Oh, and then there’s Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), who saunters around in elegant wear in every other scene before coming out in costume during the finale to lend a hand. Who is she? What has she been doing during the rest of the movie? These questions are left unanswered.
Gadot, by the way, looks great in the Wonder Woman getup (and all the other ones) but lacks the charisma or screen presence of her male co-stars. It might not be her fault: Snyder treats the iconic character as eye candy in the same way he depicted his heroines in Sucker Punch.
Batman v Superman also features African terrorists, Russian mafia, nods to future Justice Leaguers The Flash, Aquaman, and Cyborg, an alien autopsy, congressional Superman hearings, Kryptonite weaponry, dream sequences with flying insect-men and gothic gargoyles, spaceships, the Batmobile and Batwing, nuclear bombs, and a CGI monster that feels like it was borrowed from the Hobbit films.
You might be wondering about the story that involves all these elements. There isn’t one. Batman v Superman is a collection of striking scenes and imagery that has apparently been filmed without the benefit of a coherent screenplay to tie them together.
The movie does, briefly, live up to its title, though the finale – which audiences at a preview screening were asked not to reveal – is a big ol’ tease.
After the unpleasantness of Man of Steel’s city-levelling, the filmmakers seem aware of their faults but don’t appear to have learned from them, addressing the devastation in this movie with a choice few lines of dialogue like this one from a newscaster:
“Good thing downtown is being destroyed at night, when most people have gone home.”