Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice - Cape and Cowl Review
A Shamefully Ambitious Adventure
By Alex Burns
Where do you begin with Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice? It's a question I'm posed as I write this review and of course, it's the one that Warner Bros. and director Zack Snyder have had to provide an answer to as the studio aims to establish a cinematic universe to rival Marvel and Disney. The answer I've had to accept, after viewing the film twice, appears to be; everything. Some of the most iconic and defining moments from the illustrious history of DC Comics are translated to the big screen in this film and while some of it works, there's the overriding feeling that it's a case of simply far too much, far too soon.
Firstly let's get a few things out of the way, Dawn of Justice is seriously engaging and delivers intense thrills and incredible superhero action on an impressive scale. It's also incredibly bitty and seriously over-cluttered, there are some enormous plot holes as well as some genuinely concerning and questionable characterisations. I'm going to attribute a lot of these negatives to the fact that Batman v Superman is burdened with the gigantic task of establishing a DC Universe to provide Warner Bros. with tent pole features for the next decade. That's the power of the superhero genre these days, it's the difference between staying on top or getting lost in the crowd, these movies keep film in those reels and ensure the cheques at the studio don't bounce. That's big, big pressure for any film to not buckle under and yet somehow, out of all of this corporate cynicism and hype machine overload, Zack Snyder has crafted a film that will achieve the studio agenda. Though money will be made, it's all very short term gain and Snyder and WB look to have counted their chickens well before they've hatched, subsequently this will absolutely make things very difficult for future directors in the DC Extended Universe.
The film itself begins in a much more fantastical fashion than a lot of cinema-goers will be used to, especially from a Batman perspective. We watch Bruce Wayne's origin unfold as the senseless murder of his parents inter-cuts with the discovery of the bats that lurk in the caves below his home. Awakening with glowing eyes the bats begin swarming uncontrollably around young Bruce, so far so Christian Bale right? Well no, not exactly, this is where the tone shifts big time and we watch Bruce ascend to the light above in a flurry of leathery bat wings, he rises higher and higher "toward the light" until the score reaches it's last crescendo and we fade to white. It's symbolic, it's iconic, it's the kind of imagery you get in a comic book every Wednesday, fans will understand it, critics will devour it and audiences will keep watching and eating their popcorn, a little confused but mostly undeterred. It's these existential sequences that communicate Snyder's vision most clearly, for better or worse, he treats the source material with a reverence that it's hard to criticise too harshly but at the same time just comes across a little dumb.
The superhero epic zips along at a pace that is unapologetically brisk, much was made of the films length prior to release but boy does the time fly. It's a dizzying watch, combining high octane set-pieces with several nuanced dramatic spectacles. Stylistically it's a visual treat and with a mega-sized budget at his disposal, Snyder has crafted a world that keeps things grounded and familiar, while also broadening the scope with larger than life elements. One troublesome gripe is that while the plot is not overly complex, the reliance on people having seen Man of Steel is bound to throw some viewers, especially in the first half. There is no pandering to explain how this DC universe is constructing itself before your eyes, and patience, evidently, is not a virtue that writers David Goyer and Chris Terrio have been instructed to convey in their long and whiffy screenplay, though you suspect it's more down to how the film has been chopped in the editing bay than anything else.
Then we come to Ben Affleck, simply put, you've never seen a movie Batman like this before. Emotionally numbed by 20 years of fighting an endless battle against crime and corruption, this is a Bruce Wayne that is ready for the final fight and views Superman as the ultimate threat that needs to be neutralised. This Caped Crusader exudes brutality, possessing a terrifying rage that makes him incredibly accomplished at dispatching bad guys. Factor in a Batmobile that is literally hell on wheels and you've got a hero that will please the masses. So how about the man under the cowl? Affleck's Bruce Wayne is a straight talking, no-nonsense vigilante veteran, he occupies his time with fast cars, fast women and hard liquor, vices that you suspect are the only means to distract from his inner demons.
The film provides some startling and scary insight into Bruce's psyche, bordering on horror at points with more of those Snyder dream moments. However, it is through the interactions with Jeremy Irons', new and entertaining, Alfred that we best delve into Batman's dark past, throw in a dead Robin, a few good guys gone bad references, the controversial "bat brand" of justice and suddenly you realise that a solo Ben Affleck Batman film is an absolute must. Now who would have said that 2 years ago?
So what of Henry Cavill's Superman? Well not much has changed from his performance in Man of Steel, he wears the red cape with aplomb continuing to struggle under the weight of the world's lofty expectations. Sadly we are yet again left to interpret who Superman is as he has about 12 lines (I exaggerate...slightly) in the film, that is simply unacceptable from Snyder and it's no wonder Cavill looks a little bored for most of the run time. Despite the silent brooding, Superman's relationship with Amy Adam's Lois Lane somehow manages to play out tenderly, as the two reporters are characterised as soul mates in seeking the truth and finding the best in people, Lois gives Superman an anchor on which to view the rest of humanity and their scenes together land some of the best emotional beats.
The film hinges on Superman's conflict with Batman and while Bruce is the aggressor in bringing the fight to the last son of Krypton, Superman is equally eager to put an end to Batman's crime fighting career. Clark Kent's investigation of Batman for the Daily Planet is a gripping idea but it's criminally under developed. It does at least bring to light Superman's willingness to not just use his powers to solve every problem he faces. The film is less successful at selling you a relationship between the two heroes, Batman and Superman spend barely any time together and when they do interact in costume, it's stifled with clunky dialogue and a focus on action doing the talking. That might work in a comic book but it doesn't fly here and Snyder seems afraid to let his heroes converse for too long for worry of looking silly. In a post-Avengers world is that really a problem?
Ultimately the two heroes want the same end but the means they use are very different, they're two sides of the same coin and the conflict is intriguing if a little under developed. Again Batman and Superman stay separated for the majority of the movie but when the two heroes finally do come to blows, It's made clear who should, would, and could win but in regards to the hero that actually does win it's a little ridiculous. Overall the title fight doesn't completely deliver, it's an unforgiving, choppy and short sequence. Unfortunately after all the years of hype it will not go down in cinema history favourably, a terrible shame considering the icons on screen. That being said, the battle does throw up a surprising and borderline comedic resolution to the fight that, most certainly, will never be forgotten but it's just for all the wrong reasons.
Establishing a conflict for these two pop culture icons is one thing but where Dawn of Justice also stumbles is on the villain front. I've already mentioned how much the film jumps around and unfortunately Jesse Eisenberg's Lex Luthor suffers the most from this. his grand scheme is baffling and confusing if only because nothing is explained, thankfully Eisenberg is entertaining enough to gloss over these shortcomings, a modern day genius with a Machievelli complex. Luthor pulls the strings in a terrifying manner and provides haunting twists that spin the story into exciting and brave new territory. It would be easy for the villain to get a little lost in all the superhero flexing but Luthor is portrayed in such an unconventional way that you want to follow him down the rabbit hole of lunacy he eventually descends. That being said, this version will not be for everyone.
Then we come to Doomsday, a product of Luthor's hatred for Superman and the symbolic manifestation of his dissatisfaction at his now limited power in the universe. The hulking monster is a simple foil to bring all the superheroes together, unashamedly added to cause the most horrific amounts of destruction seen in a superhero film yet, Snyder makes it clear he is not up for another debate about collateral damage and all the criticisms from the final battle of Man of Steel are mentioned and disproved quickly so we can get our senses pummelled by another epic city-wide brawl that is a sizeable feast for the eyes and one that will absolutely fill you up. You may have a dodgy gut the next day mind.
Dawn of Justice also introduces the wider roster of DC Comic's flagship heroes and the most exciting has to be Gal Gadot as Diana Prince/Wonder Woman. The Amazon princess is beautiful and mysterious, Gadot bringing an other-worldy quality to the role that makes her more than a match for the grandeur of Superman and dark cool of Batman. Her appearance in the finale is downright show-stealing and absolutely wonderful to watch, her signature score from Hans Zimmer and Junkie XL becoming the most memorable with each flash of her iconic tiara and gauntlets.
What isn't so successful are DC's big teases for the solo movies to come. The Flash (Ezra Miller), Aquaman (Jason Momoa) and Cyborg(Ray Fisher) all feature and it's far too heavy handed.We witness previews that completely detract from the flow of the film and are way too much like watching a teaser trailer online. It's a studio minded addition but despite the fact that it doesn't sit well narratively, I can't see audiences having too much of an issue with it, each preview is, at the end of the day, pretty cool.
I have to say a second screening benefits the viewer, but Snyder will not be so lucky with audiences who aren't invested in the characters and you have to recognise that as a failure as really, you should be hooking people in with the first viewing. There is simply too much to process the first time of asking and it's not a complex plot, it's just a story-telling minefield. There's no way this film can be a true great to stand unquestioned alongside The Dark Knight and The Avengers. Let's make that absolutely clear. It has to be said because that was most certainly the intention.
There are also several lingering and potentially uncomfortable questions that Snyder will have to answer and it all stems from his seeming inability to avoid controversy, he backs himself into a corner of his own making at points and it is exhausting to try and understand why. Take this for example; Snyder nails the comic book version of Batman on screen but as good as Ben Affleck is, Snyder has his Batman absolutely kill people, not by accident, not in a situation out of his control, it's by choice and with far too many guns knocking around than should ever be associated with the character. That is not going to sit well with fans, these decisions seem obvious to avoid, yet here we are.
Dawn of Justice is also guilty of assuming everyone in the audience has read the iconic graphic novels that Zack Snyder borrows so much from. This isn't just in relation to the action set-pieces or easter eggs littered throughout the film. No, it's in the unforgivable lack of characterisation to the central characters, Snyder has explained motivations for the DC heroes and villains in interviews aplenty but has strangely opted to leave a lot of those explanations from this theatrical cut. It's a shame, too much is hinted at and not detailed enough, it's all cryptic dialogue and foreshadowing taken to the extreme, though you have to hope that this picture will look stronger once we have a few more of those upcoming DC films in the locker.
Overall, Batman v Superman wanders the tight-rope between good and awful tentatively, there are moments where you feel the film has fallen off into the terrible abyss below but realise quickly that it's still on the kind of on the right track, if making things a heck of a lot harder for itself along the way. A confident if muddled opening, an absolute shambles of a second act and a finale that will absolutely put a lump in your throat and raise your heartbeat to dangerous levels, all combine to make Dawn of Justice a confused, brooding and divisive piece of cinema.
The Cinematic DC Universe has struggled on screen at last, Dawn of Justice is no masterpiece, it's just "okay" verging on awful. The future of DC on film is no sure thing, WB have plenty more work to do.
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