I have one quibble with ‘Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice’. And it’s a very minor one. Given the movie is a direct sequel to ‘Man of Steel’, a Superman film, and introduces a new version of Batman that audiences aren’t familiar with yet, I did feel slightly miffed by Ben Affleck’s name appearing first in the opening cast list. Affleck’s Dark Knight will get his solo day in the sun (and on the basis of this film, deserves to). But for now, it feels just a little bit cynical that the actor playing Batman gets top billing, presumably from a studio viewpoint that the Caped Crusader is the more popular hero among the general public. As I say, it’s a minor quibble.
Because ‘Batman v Superman’ is otherwise excellent. I’ll confess a certain interest upfront, in that I’m a longtime fan of both characters and of DC Comics in general, and so obviously would want a film about either of them to do well. But even taking that into account, I am genuinely baffled by the negative reviews this film has received. It is epic, in every sense of the word, with more gravitas than any of the Marvel movies put together (and I say that as someone who is a big admirer of Marvel’s output too, particularly its Netflix offerings).
Picking up 18 months after the ending to ‘Man of Steel’, B v S finds an aging, jaded Bruce Wayne still bitter about the destruction caused during Superman’s final battle with General Zod, including the deaths of many Wayne Enterprises employees. Discovering billionaire Lex Luthor’s plot to weaponise a substance harmful to Kryptonians found lying in the Indian Ocean, he plots to steal the element for himself and use it to bring down the Man of Tomorrow before he becomes a threat to mankind. But others are out to investigate Luthor for their own reasons, including a mysterious woman who quickly catches Bruce’s attention.
I haven’t always been a fan of director Zack Snyder’s work. The video-game aesthetic of ‘Sucker Punch’, in particular, led to one of the few times I’ve ever genuinely wanted to walk out of a cinema. But in Man of Steel, he found a happy middle ground that incorporated his undoubtedly talented visual skill with proper storytelling and plot, and this trend has carried through to B v S. ‘Dawn of Justice’ feels operatic, important (something reviewers have levelled at it as a criticism, seemingly from some misguided notion that comic book movies shouldn’t ever try to feel like they have weight). Although interpreted many times before on screen, the death of the Waynes is a truly impressive opening scene, putting to use the best of Snyder’s ability in a way that really serves story. And the choreography of the titular battle itself is excellent, with a raw feel that suggests brutality and hurt, a world away from some of the more glamourised takes on the recurring Batman/Superman conflict in the comics. Other key highlights for this reviewer include Batman’s pursuit of Luthor’s goons for possession of the Kryptonite, and Wonder Woman’s first glimpse of the other Justice League heroes in computer files sent to her by Bruce: a moment that truly sends shivers down the spine for any fan of the existing mythos.
Writers David S Goyer and Chris Terrio have crafted a movie that actually contains a plot, perhaps to the confusion of some reviewers who may have been expecting a more video game-esque Alien v Predator affair. In one of the best aspects of the movie, Lois Lane gets more to do than in any Superman film previously, driving much of the plot with her investigations. A more grizzled, cynical Alfred than we’ve seen on screen before provides moments of nicely subtle comic relief, while the movie’s much anticipated take on Wonder Woman keeps the character appropriately enigmatic for now, while at the same time throwing her into the thick of the action in the film’s final act. Perry White manages the not-insignificant feat of still making us like him while acting like a believably commerce-driven newspaper editor in the modern age (‘it’s not 1938 anymore’, indeed), while ‘Dawn of Justice’s’ take on Lex Luthor provides a truly interesting and different take on the longtime villain. Certain moments, such as the outcome of the senate committee hearing, genuinely shock, and on a minor note, it’s nice to see the return of such familiar faces from Man of Steel as the Daily Planet’s Jenny (so perilously close to death in the original), and General, now Secretary, Swanwick. If I have one reservation about a character being underused, it’s perhaps Martha Kent, although she does get a nice moment with the Dark Knight late on in the movie.
The cast here are on top form. Henry Cavill, as before, has a tough job portraying a character often seen as boring or stilted in our more cynical age, but his earnestness shines through, making us root for a being who seems to all the world to be perfect and problem-free. He isn’t, of course, and Cavill and Amy Adams do a great job of humanising the Man of Steel with believable scenes as a couple, earned by this interpretation’s genuinely refreshing decision to let Lois in on the secret identity from the start. Adams must be glad, meanwhile, that this is the version of Lois she finally got to play (having wanted the role for years, and through various earlier incarnations), as the Lois in ‘Dawn of Justice’, as mentioned before, actually gets to be a plot-driving reporter, rather than a mere damsel in distress. ‘Superman Returns’’ Kate Bosworth, this ain’t.
Ben Affleck need never have worried. He is superb, easily one of the best incarnations of the Dark Knight put to screen, arguably eclipsing even Christian Bale’s take (gone is the manically growling voice, replaced by a far more menacing robotic effect achieved by microphone), and providing possibly the most compelling version of Bruce Wayne in his civilian guise that we’ve yet seen. Taking on Superman isn’t the easy, instant, morally certain decision for him that the trailers would have us believe, and his slowburning sense of powerlessness, culminating in horror when his failure to act earlier arguably contributes to a terrible atrocity, is keenly felt. Jeremy Irons lends the gravitas one would expect to his interpretation of Alfred, while Gal Gadot is clearly enjoying herself playing Wonder Woman, sparring off Affleck nicely- it all bodes well for her solo adventure next year.
Jesse Eisenberg isn’t going to be everyone’s cup of tea as Lex Luthor, and I can understand why. It’s VERY different to what’s come before. But that, in this reviewer’s opinion, is no bad thing, and Eisenberg invests the part with a maniacal, sometimes childlike, sometimes scary energy that never fails to compel, regardless of whether one ‘likes’ it or not. I, personally, did. A lot.
‘Man of Steel’, for this reviewer, was something of a transitional film. It had the feeling of something quite different than what had come before from Superman film adaptations, but also stuck very closely to them in its own way- recycled villains, however well done, and a sense of detachment from the wider DC Universe, for example. This is now well and truly gone. Storylines from the comics are covered here in an organic, yet epic way, including a resolution that, without anyone having known it was coming, feels like the best take on one particularly famous (or infamous?) Superman storyline that fans could have hoped for; faithful, and yet different. The scene, in any case, is now very much set for a wider interconnected DC Universe on screen, and, even if the critics have seen fit to totally miss the point of the movie, audience response and approval ratings have been substantially higher enough that the train seems destined to ride on, regardless of their opinion. Suicide Squad and Wonder Woman, at least, are already well on the way from Warner Brothers, and based on ‘Dawn of Justice’, this reviewer will be first in the queue to welcome them.
Epic, operatic, and plot driven, Batman v Superman is both a crowd-pleaser and a genuinely interesting film. Superman IV and Batman and Robin are very distant memories.