Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is a sprawling, generally enjoyable mess. The film, directed by Zack Snyder (from a script by Chris Terrio and David S. Goyer), is the official follow-up to 2013’s Man of Steel. It’s also a setup for the soon-to-lense Justice League superhero team-up movie. The main plot of this feature is self-explanatory: It’s a clash between DC Comics’ biggest icons. The internal logic of the plot—much like many of the comics that inspired it—is kind of a moot point. Let’s get ready to rumble.
The estimable Henry Cavill (2015's The Man from U.N.C.L.E.) returns as Superman, and here he’s a much more polarizing figure in the world than in previous screen depictions. Forget George Reeves, forget Christopher Reeve. (Fans probably won't have much difficulty forgetting Brandon Routh.) An early sequence finds him intervening in an African warlord’s regime; while some lives are immediately saved (read: Lois Lane), there is soon public testimony about how the regime’s loyalists retaliated against locals. Superman’s actions are seen as fraught with indirect human casualties. Cavill’s Superman is ponderous, brooding, and increasingly concerned with the vigilantism of Batman in nearby Gotham City.
This Batman—here played by Academy Award-winner Ben Affleck—is middle-aged and bitter after apparently having waged a 20-year war on crime in Gotham by the time of Superman’s first public outing in Man of Steel. In that film, the onslaught of criminals from Superman’s home planet left much of Metropolis devastated (featuring plenty of thinly-veiled allegory to 9/11). Bruce Wayne owned an office building that was leveled during the chaos, and it is on Superman that Wayne places the blame. It’s this angle that sets up Batman in a dual role—that of co-hero and as a secondary villain.
Zack Snyder's BATMAN V SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE is in theaters March 25, 2016. It features the first on-screen team-up with Batman (Ben Affleck), Superman (Henry Cavill) and Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot).
Lead villain Lex Luthor is portrayed by The Social Network's Jesse Eisenberg as a twitchy, candy-munching sociopath. That this Lex is also a Generation Y technology mogul means that he ditches Gene Hackman’s tailored suit and ascot for casual jackets, cartoon-monkey T-shirts and sneakers. This Lex isn’t content with being rich; he’s an insecure xenophobe that sees Superman’s presence, fairly or unfairly, as a living reminder of his comparative impotence. In true comic-book villain rationale, that means the alien has to go—and if it means manipulating Batman into doing the dirty work, then it’s killing two birds with one kryptonite stone.
The leading women in this film offer mixed results. Wonder Woman, played by Gal Gadot (recently of The Fast & the Furious films), has little dialogue and less to do with the overall tale than viewers might assume. Still, she makes an impression in the film’s climax. Meanwhile, Amy Adams’ Lois Lane is more substantively interspersed in the story. Having long ago learned Clark Kent’s secret identity, she now worries that his adventures as Superman—now facing serious scrutiny from the U.S. government—puts an untenable strain on their relationship. Adams continues to convincingly update the role of Superman’s plucky girlfriend—but the filmmakers still can’t resist putting her in traditional distressed-damsel scenarios.
Supporting characters get shortchanged in this narrative. Jeremy Irons as Batman’s loyal butler Alfred gets to wax wise with his boss/surrogate son, while offering prescient warnings about the risk of obsessive vendettas. Meanwhile, Daily Planet editor Perry White (Laurence Fishburne) mostly gets to offer expository dialogue to reporters Clark and Lois about the woes of the newspaper industry. They’re both kind of wasted here; hopefully there’s more for them to do in the next installment.
The film suffers somewhat because of the need to foreshadow future events. A lengthy nightmare sequence (technically, one of two) will probably just confuse casual viewers unhip to Justice League lore. Presumed future members of said League also have cameos here. The writer seemed to notice at least two or three false endings by the time of the (really) last shot. A shocking development in the climax may confuse some viewers regarding sequel possibilities, but it’s likely all part of a plan.
Batman v Superman is almost best viewed as “Justice League .5”. The first-ever cinematic assembly of this superhero team (and the immediately pending Wonder Woman feature) is bound to continue the momentum of the recently inaugurated DC Entertainment slate of films from Warner Bros. Studios. Still, based on the themes of this film, it looks like Batman and company are inhabiting a distinctly depressing, catastrophe-prone, paranoia-driven world. It’s going to take more than a team of adventurers to save it; it’s going to need a team of counselors.