DC Comics kick-starts its expanded cinematic universe by pitting its two greatest superheroes against one another in Zack Snyder’s hugely anticipated follow-up to 2013’s Man Of Steel.
With the Nolan/Bale Dark Knight trilogy looming large in the background, Ben Affleck dons the cowl to play a world-weary Bruce Wayne with 20 years of crimefighting already under his utility belt. Henry Cavill’s Superman, meanwhile, is facing a mixed reception from the people of Earth, with some singing his praises as a bona fide saviour, while others are growing increasingly wary of an extraterrestrial walking the Earth with god-like powers.
As its clunky title might suggest, Batman v Superman: Dawn Of Justice ultimately emerges as an unwieldy and overstuffed superhero throwdown that simply attempts to do too much with too many characters at a pace -- and volume -- that proves more exhausting than exhilarating.
Following an opening credits sequence that again recounts the murder of Thomas and Martha Wayne, Bruce (Affleck) is seen witnessing the destruction of Metropolis at the hands of Superman (Cavill) and General Zod (Michael Shannon). He is determined to hold Supes accountable, while simultaneously, the vigilante activities of “the Gotham Bat” have piqued the interest of Daily Planet reporter Clark Kent.
Meanwhile, megalomaniac Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg) has uncovered a meteorite made from kryptonite at the bottom of the Indian Ocean. After his plan to create a weoponised deterrent against Superman is rejected by Senator Finch (Holly Hunter), the unstable young tycoon orchestrates a more underhanded plan to arm himself against the Man of Steel.
The first hour of Batman v Superman: Dawn Of Justice is a relentless onslaught of set-up and exposition, as Snyder and scriptwriters Chris Terrio (Argo) and David S. Goyer (Man Of Steel, the Dark Knight trilogy) get the audience up to speed. The global reaction to Superman’s antics, Lex Luthor’s plans for world domination and Lois Lane’s persistence for getting into trouble are all laid out, as well as forcefully wedging Batman and Alfred (Jeremy Irons) into the middle of everything. There are also glimpses of Gal Gadot’s slinky Diana Prince gliding along the periphery.
The problem is, it all feels very clumsy and heavy-handed, lacking the reverence for character and legacy that Snyder employed to such great effect in Man Of Steel, or the narrative and linguistic dexterity that made Joss Whedon’s The Avengers seem so effortlessly assembled. The entire film feels overburdened by expectation and obligation -- to be bigger, louder, and more iconic than what has come before it.
Individual elements do work. Ben Affleck certainly has the dramatic chops to make us believe Bruce Wayne would be overwhelmed by his distrust of Superman, while Jeremy Irons is a more playful, hands-on Alfred than we have seen in some time. Likewise, Gal Gadot fills the role of Wonder Woman perfectly. The script wisely resists trying to explain her identity or origin -- she has her own movie next year, after all -- and instead concentrates on introducing her as a proficient warrior while establishing her relationships with the two central protagonists.
Perhaps in part because the story chooses to demonise Superman and question his motives and necessity, Henry Cavill seems less confident in his role this time out. Likewise the scenes developing his relationship with Lois Lane feel awkward and repetitive, as time and again he is forced to profess his love or save her from peril. There are also a number of Bruce Wayne dream sequences in the first half of the film that border on the ridiculous -- while admittedly featuring some horrific imagery that may legitimately upset younger viewers.
Jesse Eisenberg wholly commits to a very peculiar take on Lex Luthor, but despite his enthusiasm, the script does the character no favours. Everything that spews from his ADHD-adled lips is either an awkward riddle or hokey fortune cookie mantra. Some may argue this social ineptitude is a quirk of his character, but really it’s just bad writing. What it certainly does do is fail to make the character in any way intimidating.
When the film gets to the action, particularly when Batman and Superman eventually go toe-to-toe, Snyder seems much more comfortable and everything falls into place. The climactic duel -- shot and presented in IMAX -- looks spectacular, regardless of how you feel a “real life” encounter between the pair would unfold. Similarly, when the heroic trio inevitably unite against Luthor’s abominable creation, Doomsday, Snyder handles the exploded scale with confidence, exploring how Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman work as a team to winning effect.
There’s just too much of everything else. It seems like 153 minutes would be plenty of time to get the job done, but in its efforts to ensure secondary characters like the staff of the Daily Planet, the Senate Committee and Callan Mulvey’s instantly forgettable Russian terrorist get their allotted screentime, other moments are rushed or fumbled. Of particular concern is a crucial scene in which our principals learn of the existence of other “meta humans” -- a sequence of vital importance to DC’s plans for franchise expansion -- which is staged so underwhelmingly, it will do nothing to stoke the fires of anticipation under the fanboy hordes.
At the end of The Dark Knight Rises, despite knowing deep down that it was the end of the road for this particular incarnation, the film nevertheless left its audience with a sense of breathless excitement for what could happen next. At the end of Batman v Superman: Dawn Of Justice, Snyder lines up a series of teases for how the Justice League may eventually unite, but as the screen goes black, it does so with a sense, not of excitement, but of apprehension for the daunting task ahead.