Review: Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is the boldest superhero film yet with some of the choices it makes. A few quibbles aside, it delivers the goods and then some. See it. The ending alone is worth it.

Eighteen months after much of Metropolis was destroyed during the conflict between Superman (Henry Cavill) and General Zod (Michael Shannon) in Man of Steel, public opinion of Superman is polarized, and Batman (Ben Affleck) is driven by anger toward Superman because of the destruction and deaths (which included a Wayne Enterprises building and employees). Into this mix comes Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg), who begins to manipulate things to bring about Superman’s downfall, including engineering the creation of Doomsday (Robin Atkin Downes). Will Luthor succeed? What role will the mysterious Diana Prince (Gal Gadot) play?

Director Zack Snyder (300, Watchmen, Man of Steel) has made a career of bringing the conventions of comic book visual storytelling to the big screen, and when he has something of substance to work with, he can soar. This is Snyder at his best, delivering outstanding action sequences and an overarching visual sensibility, but it’s a surprisingly character driven film, too. He spends much of the film exploring who his Superman and Batman are, and what could lead them into conflict, and then he caps it off with some thrilling action. Batman vs. Superman. Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman vs. Doomsday. Then he hits you in the gut at the end while laying a strong base for the future of DC Comics’ cinematic universe to build on. I’m interested in seeing how the R-rated extended cut, which will be released later on DVD and Blu-ray only, will differ from this PG-13 theatrical cut. At any rate, he makes several bold choices, all of which serve the film quite well, and help it stand out within the genre (it certainly throws down a heavy gauntlet to the similar heroes vs. heroes Captain America: Civil War to try to pick up in May).

The screenplay by Chris Terrio (Argo) and David S. Goyer (Batman Begins, Man of Steel), with rumored on-set rewrites by Ben Affleck, is clearly influenced by Frank Miller’s seminal Dark Knight Returns comic book miniseries from 1986, and quite a few plot points are lifted directly from it, as well as by a noted Superman storyline. It’s not a true adaptation of either as much as a reimagining bringing together the Trinity of DC Comics’ legendary heroes for the first time, while looking forward to future Justice League films with cameos by the Flash (Ezra Miller), Cyborg (Ray Fisher), and Aquaman (Jason Momoa). The writers construct an emotionally believable way for Superman and Batman to be brought into conflict and then to resolve it by becoming allies. They also make the boldest move in a superhero film yet with how they end the film, which I won’t spoil because it simply needs to be experienced. It’s a darker film for sure, with several moments that are quite shocking when they happen, but never truly bleak. There are moments of hope and inspiration, and even some humor.

Here’s one of my quibbles: these aren’t the Superman and Batman I grew up with. Superman isn’t a figure of hope. Batman’s intellect is overruled by his rage. But even in the story’s darker shadings, maybe we begin to see Superman finally becoming that figure for the world, and we certainly begin to see redemption for the rage-consumed Batman.

Cinematographer Larry Fong (300, Watchmen) matches the tone of the film with a muted palette and a textured lighting scheme, which comes most alive with the color of fire during action sequences. Production designer Patrick Tatopoulos (Dark City, 300: Rise of an Empire) brings the story vividly to life, from the rebuilt Metropolis to the decay of neighboring Gotham City and the ruins of Wayne Manor, using shooting locations in Chicago and Detroit. Costume designer Michael Wilkinson (300, Watchmen, Man of Steel) adds to his previous Superman costume (modified here to be more colorful) with a Batman costume much closer to a comic book version than any seen on the big screen since 1966 and a warrior-themed Wonder Woman costume that works quite well. Visual effects supervisor John Des Jardin pulls together hundreds of effects shots into a cohesive whole, and even the CG has some heft to it, making it seem more grounded in some kind of reality. The score by Hans Zimmer (The Dark Knight, Man of Steel) and Junkie XL (Mad Max: Fury Road, Deadpool) carries the story’s themes well, even if it doesn’t deliver anything iconic for the main characters (another quibble from a fan of John Williams’ famous Superman theme).

Henry Cavill is once again good as Superman, albeit a Superman who faces questions and challenges past screen Supermen haven’t. One senses that if his Superman develops into a figure of hope, he’ll be able to play that aspect well, too. Ben Affleck erases memories of Daredevil with his intense take on Batman. Fans were harsh when he was announced in the role, but he totally owns it as an older, angrier Batman (but still a more human one than the one Frank Miller wrote) and as playboy Bruce Wayne. Gal Gadot’s Diana Prince/Wonder Woman doesn’t get much dialogue or screen time (though the latter increases in the third act), but she’s good at what she does get to do here (banter with Bruce Wayne and engage Doomsday in combat), and she gets to keep her Israeli accent, which makes her appropriately sound like she’s not from around Metropolis or Gotham City. But she’ll make fans of Wonder Woman cheer each time she’s on screen, and I can’t wait to see more of her in the Wonder Woman solo film due out next year.

Jesse Eisenberg is hit-or-miss as Lex Luthor. When he’s asked to play eccentric young genius billionaire, he nails it, but when he’s asked to be menacing, he’s not quite up to it and comes off somewhat campy in his line deliveries. Only in his final scene, presaging the arrival of Darkseid in a future film, does he come across as chilling. Jeremy Irons, however, stands out as the latest screen incarnation of Alfred Pennyworth. Alfred is tough, sarcastic, handy in more ways than as just a butler, and frequently the voice of reason, seeing things more clearly than the emotion-driven Batman.

The all-around good cast includes Amy Adams as Lois Lane (now in a relationship with Clark/Superman), Diane Lane as Ma Kent (Kevin Costner also returns as Pa Kent in a dream sequence), Laurence Fishburne as Perry White, Holly Hunter as US Senator June Finch, Tao Okamoto as Lex’s assistant Mercy Graves, Harry Lennix as General (now Secretary of Defense) Calvin Swanwick, Scoot McNairy as an injured Wayne Enterprises employee manipulated by Lex, Watchmen’s Jeffrey Dean Morgan and The Walking Dead’s Lauren Cohan as Bruce Wayne’s parents in flashbacks (is anyone surprised the son of the Comedian and Maggie turned out kind of messed up emotionally?), Robin Atkin Downes as the voice and motion capture actor for Doomsday, Michael Shannon as Zod’s corpse, and a blink and you’ll miss him appearance by Michael Cassidy as Jimmy Olsen (another quibble is how this key character in the Superman mythos has been ignored since the franchise was rebooted).

If it’s not quite on the same thematic level as The Dark Knight or The Dark Knight Rises, or The Avengers in terms of sheer fun, it’s certainly not far behind thanks to some bold creative choices (the ending in particular) that set it apart and lay down a challenge to Marvel. Yes, I have some quibbles, but overall I came away quite impressed by Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, and I can’t wait to see how the groundwork laid here pays off in 2017 in Justice League: Part One. Recommended. That said, I think it’ll be a polarizing film for audiences and critics alike.

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