“Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice”
How it has taken this long for Warner Bros. to jump on the opportunity to feature both Batman and Superman within a single live-action film, let alone see them duke it out, is a mystery to me. However, in the year of our Lord, 2016, we have finally gotten what comic-book readers have been begging for as well as an answer to what all superhero fans alike have been debating about for years: Who would win in a fight, Batman or Superman? It’s a question that has been answered on multiple occasions within the comics and animated adaptations, but it isn’t until now that we have finally gotten a live-action blockbuster to tell us whether the man of steel can overcome the dark knight or, perhaps, vice-versa. To give you a definitive answer within this review as to who arises victorious would be in violation of my moral critic code, and would constitute as one of the harshest spoilers a human being could possibly muster. Such an act should only be punishable by death. You’ll just have to see it for yourself; you won’t regret it.
Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice expands upon what people thought was possible within a superhero film. It doesn’t necessarily redefine the genre, like 2008’s The Dark Knight did, but broadens the craft and technical prowess to lengths that many people, including myself, didn’t know possible. This is epic, state-of-the-art superhero filmmaking if I’ve ever seen it, and even for those who wouldn’t be caught dead watching a superhero film, this is truly something to behold.
After a brief look into the origin of the Batman (yes, again), the film begins where 2013’s Man of Steel (the first film in this new Marvel style DC cinematic universe) ended: with the destruction of the fictional city of Metropolis during Superman’s brutal battle with his first foe General Zod (Michael Shannon), only, this time, it’s from the point of view of Bruce Wayne/Batman (Ben Affleck). To see the devastation created by an almost limitlessly powerful being, who lacks the necessary restraint and sensibility towards his abilities, battle another of his kind was not the easiest sight to swallow back in 2013, and apparently Bruce Wayne was feeling just as uneasy as the audience. As Wayne drives through the streets of Metropolis, swerving out of the way of falling debris and crumbling skyscrapers, towards the Wayne Industries’ Metropolis office, he witnesses the worst of the decimation, including the deaths of hundreds of his professional “family” as the office building is blasted to smithereens by Superman’s heat vision in a fruitless attempt at defeating his enemy. The scene ends with Wayne looking up at Superman hurtling Zod through the sky as buildings are smashed by falling debris, an expression on his face that could only be described as pure, unadulterated hatred towards the being who is supposed to be earth’s mightiest hero.
One of the main criticisms of Man of Steel was its inclusion of the destruction of Metropolis. How could Superman be so callous as to disregard the massive repercussions of his so-called “heroics?” Should he answer for the destruction that he inadvertently caused? These are a few of the questions that Batman v Superman tries to answer, and the key word here is “tries.” The fact that it never truly gives a definitive answer is not a criticism. These are not the colorful heroes we have come to know in other superhero films, but flawed, confused, self-destructive individuals just trying their best to do the right thing in a bleak, manipulated world. It is something I have not seen done before and a rather daring choice by the studio, but one that is fascinating and extremely refreshing.
There is a line in the film that states, “We have gotten so caught up with what Superman can do, that we have forgotten to ask what he should do.” Bruce Wayne believes that he should be stopped, even killed, because, if he set his mind to it, he could potentially exterminate the entire human race, and even a 1% chance of him being earth’s enemy should be taken as an absolute. However, to some Superman is a beacon of hope, and since the events of Man of Steel, Superman has developed quite the record of good deeds and acts of bravery throughout the world, albeit a few slipups along the way in pursuit of some more selfish heroics. He is still having trouble containing his power, however, and it is due to this that some believe he should be controlled by a governing body rather than allow him to fly freely.
Some of these details may seem boring to some, and if this describes you, then this movie is not for you. While there is plenty of action, especially in the third act, this is a very dramatic, politically tuned comic-book film. One could even consider this a political drama as it challenges the viewer with questions concerning humanity’s need for hope and the dangers of absolute power, and this can either make or break the experience, depending upon the viewer. For myself, it made it. The tone director Zack Snyder and writers David S. Goyer and Chris Terrio have created for this universe is a fascinating one. It is a brilliant mixture of dialogue-driven drama and stunning action, which is a blend that is surprisingly difficult to perfect. It’s scenes of political discussions and philosophical debates are nevertheless enthralling, the points the characters bring up being uncommonly challenging and thought-provoking, some of it even provoking contemplation over some current bureaucratic issues, e.g. the current immigration crisis.
A source of controversy within the comic-book/superhero fan-base has always been the casting of superheroes–in 1978, the idea of casting a nobody as Superman seemed absurd. Michael Keaton as Batman in ‘89? Franchise suicide! And don’t even get me started about Christian Bale’s Batman casting in 2005–yet, almost every time it seems it turns out alright in the end. I believe that this current cinematic interpretation of these superheroes is the most interesting in history, especially when comparing past Supermans. Yes, I love Reeves as the titular hero, but no matter how fun that movie may have been, the whole boy scout Superman lacks the proper depth that is necessary within the modern superhero film.
My praise mostly comes from the acting, which was the highlight of my viewing. Ben Affleck and Henry Cavill deliver performances of unique power and intensity, offering immense emotional depth that would have been lost if the same dialogue had come from two different actors mouths. Both of their respective takes on the caped crusaders are disturbed brooding, and the fire in their eyes says it all. Affleck’s work is especially impressive as he crafts an aged Bruce Wayne, battered, exhausted, and empty from years of fighting crime in Gotham, time and time again going toe to toe with despicable villains and watching good men fall into the hands of evil. There is a masterful line said by Affleck along the lines of “…the world only makes sense if you force it to.” This line perfectly sums up this character’s weary, demented psyche. It brings the classic foreshadowing of The Dark Knight to mind: “You can either die a hero, or live long enough to see yourself become the villain.”
The supporting cast of characters also do an excellent job in each of their respective roles, primarily Jeremy Irons as Bruce Wayne’s butler Alfred, Gal Gadot’s intriguing Diana Prince/Wonder Woman, and, surprisingly, Jesse Eisenberg’s eccentric, antisocial Lex Luthor, who also sets his sights on destroying Superman. Some have found complaints with Eisenberg’s interpretation of the multimillionaire business tycoon, especially since it differs so heavily from past performances by Gene Hackman and Kevin Spacey, but I found Eisenberg to be extremely entertaining in the role. He isn’t the bald, intimidating figure that Spacey was, or the confident, devious evil genius Hackman portrayed–albeit they have similar hair–but a villain Eisenberg can call his own, even though he obviously channels the likes of the Joker and the Riddler in his performance.
As I said before, this is a rather talkative comic-book film, but, of course, when the action sequences do inevitably arise, they are undeniably gorgeous. The cinematography by Larry Fong (Watchmen, 300) is stark, stormy and haggard, taking inspiration from Darius Khondji’s work on David Fincher’s Seven, where the sun never seemed to shine. Then there is the direction from Zack Snyder which, on a technical level, is indisputably awe-inspiring. Snyder has always had a way with visuals, but he has surely outdone himself here as he crafts one of the most visually spectacular films I’ve seen. The outings with Batman are particularly visually distinct as we witness the dark knight swing from the dimly-lit ceilings and walls like some sort of black cloak clad demon, rising from Hell to deliver fear into the souls of criminals when his bat-symbol spotlight is stamped upon the overcast sky.
Now, of course, I must talk about the sequence for which the film gets its title: the battle between Batman and Superman. This scene is one of the most thrilling, beautiful and emotionally draining cinematic experiences in years. The idea of seeing the two most iconic superheroes of all time battle to the death in live-action is already any superhero geek’s fantasy, but add on the intense, haunting atmosphere, the pitch-perfect performances from the two actors, and a moonlit, rain-drenched, abandoned landscape and you have the ingredients for a stellar action scene. The sight of Batman in his bulky, armored batsuit fortified with the most advanced tech imaginable face to face with Superman (a shot straight from Frank Miller’s graphic novel The Dark Knight Returns) gave me goosebumps, and the monologues from Batman were stunning and powerful.
While the review up to this point may seem like it says otherwise, Batman v Superman is no perfect movie. As much as I enjoyed my viewings, there were a few aspects I just couldn’t get over. One such aspect was the shaky third act, which wasn’t as infuriating as Man of Steel’s, but it was more boring, redundant, and it felt like overkill. This third act includes the battle with the villain Doomsday, which is a towering, bony creature created by Lex Luthor from Zod’s Kryptonian DNA and that of a separate species: human. While it is as visually impressive as ever, it lacks the humanity and inspiration that the rest of the movie was populated with. It felt cold and seemed as if it were just an excuse to see Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman fight side-by-side. This third act may have fit more if it weren’t for the few storytelling issues throughout the film and the overall bloated feeling you get from the whole Dawn of Justice narrative. Everything else is just so damn cool that it hardly matters, however.
As I said several times over the course this review, this is a dark film, even rivaling The Dark Knight in tone. It is bleak, grim and brutal, yet not without a sense of hope. Some scenes could even be considered frightening, especially for smaller children, and some aspects of Batman’s vigilantism is particularly vicious–branding of criminals and, yes, he is not afraid to kill–but it all fits in within this world that Snyder and his writers have crafted. (There is an R-rated ultimate cut being released with the Blu-ray that I am very interested in taking a look at.) This not escapism, but a warning, and it opens up possibilities for this new cinematic universe in an unforgettable fashion.