Film Review: Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice

Zack Snyder’s wearying superhero opus may be slugged “Dawn of Justice,” but it’s the twilight of any hope that the filmmaker will find the fun in the DC Universe.
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If movies were judged solely on the quality of their first scene, Zack Snyder would be one of the best directors in the business. Going back to his very first (and still best) feature—a wholly unnecessary but entirely entertaining remake of George Romero’s genre-defining zombie picture, Dawn of the Dead—the burly director of even burlier blockbusters brings a level of visual brio to his opening sequences that instantly commands your attention and makes you eager to see what happens next. Think of the gritty, graphic way 300 recounted Spartan king Leonidas’s violent childhood or the darkly beautiful, near-wordless prologue to Sucker Punch.

To date, Snyder’s pièce de résistance is the five-minute credit sequence that kicks off his divisive adaptation of Alan Moore’s beloved graphic novel Watchmen, which presents an alternate history of 20th-century America told in a series of carefully arranged tableaus and scored to a jingly-jangly cover version of Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin.’” But the opening set-piece of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice may just top it. Not the title sequence, which depicts the death of the Caped Crusader’s parents for the umpteenth time. No, I’m talking about the scene directly after that, in which Snyder drops us back into the climactic battle from Man of Steel, his 2013 franchise reboot that pitted an all-new, all-grim Superman (Henry Cavill) against Kryptonian menace General Zod (Michael Shannon).

In that earlier film, audiences observed their fight alongside them high above Metropolis, as they reduced that grand city to rubble. In Batman v Superman, though, we witness the destruction from the street-level perspective of Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck). As skyscrapers collapse and citizens run screaming—the resemblance to 9/11 imagery is certainly not accidental—Snyder conjures the terrifying reality of a full-on superhero brawl, as well as the fear and uncertainty that experience would instill in the public’s imagination even after the ostensible “hero” has triumphed. It’s very much a direct response to the Battle of New York that served as the climax to the maiden adventure of Marvel’s The Avengers. Where that fight was carefully choreographed to distract audiences from the rampant destruction, this one refuses to let you look away from the cost that accompanies a clash of titans.

Snyder has certainly picked a bold, provocative place to begin a comic-book movie. Unfortunately, it’s also the last scene where Dawn of Justice demonstrates a clear narrative and thematic focus. Mid-movie stumbles are par for the course with Snyder, whose films frequently collapse in on themselves when it becomes clear that there’s nothing substantial propping up his specific brand of highly stylized imagery. (This happens even when the source material is as impeccable as Watchmen; ideas that were subtly embedded in Moore’s text and Dave Gibbons’ artwork vanished amidst Snyder’s fussy visuals.) Even by his standards, though, Justice stumbles early and continues sliding downhill for the bulk of its two-and-a-half hour runtime.

To be fair to the director and screenwriters Chris Terrio and David S. Goyer for a moment, they’ve been assigned the Herculean task of assembling a grab-bag of franchise-launching elements into a cohesive whole. Thus, Batman v Superman isn’t just the story of Batman battling Superman; it also has to set the stage for an entire universe of heroes and villains that will be springing out of the pages of DC-published comic books and onto the big screen between now and 2020. That means shoehorned-in cameos for such soon-to-be solo stars as Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), Aquaman (Jason Momoa), The Flash (Ezra Miller) and Cyborg (Ray Fisher), as well as allusions to a formidable cosmic enemy for the planned Justice League team-up outing. Apart from Gadot’s Wonder Woman—who has an intriguing, if severely limited, role in this film’s events—most of these shout-outs are jigsaw pieces that have been inserted into the movie with little concern for its overall pattern. Marvel’s slow march to The Avengers might have been tedious (particularly in the case of the first Thor), but at least it took the pressure off having to build a whole world from the ground up in a single movie.

Even without the added pressure of introducing viewers to the wider DCU, Batman v Superman is built on shaky ground. Having established off the top that the root of the conflict between previously retired Dark Knight and the Man of Steel is the latter’s destruction of Metropolis and the former’s brutal vigilante methods, the movie proceeds to muddy that clear narrative throughline via the convoluted machinations of a self-interested third party, Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg). Played by Eisenberg as a daffy wild card with a barely latent sadistic streak—he’s channeling Cesar Romero’s Joker rather than Gene Hackman’s disaffected real estate maven from the Richard Donner Superman era—Luthor injects himself between the two title characters in theory to manipulate events, but in execution to function as a roadblock to cohesive storytelling.

Batman and Superman become so distracted by Luthor, as well as by their own private dramas, that it takes an hour for them to meet face-to-face for an encounter that lasts mere seconds, followed by a one-on-one battle roughly a half-hour later that goes on somewhat longer. In both cases, these face-offs underwhelm because the movie has lost the thread of what makes their animosity interesting. They’re no longer different sides of the same heroic coin, they’re stone-faced pawns who are easily shoved into a schoolyard brawl.

Doubling down on Man of Steel’s controversial reimagining of the platonic ideal of Superman, Justice also gives us a Batman who goes beyond even the grimmest version of the character glimpsed in comics like Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, which Snyder has repeatedly cited as a major influence on this film, and liberally raids for lines of dialogue and Bat-imagery. Beyond his disconcerting comfort with using heavy artillery (a longstanding no-no in the comics, since his parents were killed by a gun), Affleck’s Dark Knight comes across as a reactive bully, rather than the logic-minded detective or well-intentioned protector he’s been portrayed as in the past. It’s ultimately as valid an interpretation of a decades-old, oft-reinvented character as any, but for some viewers (myself included) this version of Batman is profoundly uninteresting. Cavill’s Superman isn’t any more dynamic, but at least he comes equipped with a built-in “stranger in a strange land” perspective that contextualizes his aloofness.

The plodding first half of Dawn of Justice, made almost interminable by its jumbled structure and pent-up aggression, makes it all the more imperative that Snyder give the audience some kind of release when the heroes finally come to blows. And he’s delivered that kind of rousing action in the past, most notably in 300 where he used slow motion and a virtual camera to prolong the impact of bone-crunching contact or fluidly direct the viewer’s eye from one blow to the next without having to cut away. There’s nothing as visually striking here; the long-awaited fight between Batman and Superman is directed rather gracelessly, with lots of grunting and close-quarter punches. But that’s almost a masterpiece of action choreography compared with the climactic battle, in which DC’s so-called Holy Trinity—Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman—join forces to fight a CGI blob while digital mushroom clouds detonate every few minutes. The characters, let alone the action, are so difficult to track amidst the visual and aural cacophony, it’s hard to feel anything besides impatience. Dawn of Justice begins with a bang by asking us to contemplate the potential perils of a universe populated by super-beings. It ends with the whimper of exhausted audiences shrugging off those same beings’ relentless destruction masquerading as entertainment.

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