There’s something epic about this greatest of showdowns, between an alien creature with superhuman powers and a man so full of rage that he pushes himself to the very limit of physical endurance, then adds innovative technologies to make him superhuman. Each represents an archetype and each was born out of the Great Depression and World War II (Superman first showed up in the June 1938 Action Comics and Batman first appeared in the May 1939 Detective Comics).
The complex interplay between these two paragons of virtue and justice represent both the triumph of goodness and the dark, violent protection of the vigilante. This duality has been explored dozens of times in cinema, most recently in films like ‘X2’ (2003) where the X-Men storyline focuses on mutants versus humans and earlier in one of my favorite movies, ‘Blade Runner‘ (1982), which offers up villains who are “more human than human”.
Which brings us to Zack Snyder’s ‘Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice,’ with Ben Affleck as Bruce Wayne/Batman, and Henry Cavill reprising his role as Clark Kent/Superman from Snyder’s previous Superman movie ‘Man of Steel’ (2013). As the opening credits unspool, we see Bruce Wayne’s origin story played out again, the crook gunning down his parents in a dark Gotham alley. Pay attention to that scene, because almost immediately afterward when young Bruce falls through the earth into the cave that later becomes the Batcave, there’s a tiny visual overlap between the scenes very reminiscent of the momentarily animated photograph in ‘Blade Runner.’
‘Man of Steel’ was the Superman origin story retold, and ‘Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice’ picks up 18 months after the events of the first movie, most importantly the massively destructive battle between Superman and the evil Kryptonian General Zod (Michael Shannon) that left much of Metropolis destroyed. In this movie universe, Metropolis is quite literally just “across the river” from Gotham City. Bruce Wayne isn’t thankful for Superman saving his beloved Gotham, he’s angry at the destruction and thousands of deaths that included hundreds of Wayne Enterprises employees.
Meanwhile, billionaire bad guy Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg) is also upset with Superman but when he learns that kryptonite weakens Superman and that kryptonite was found in the ruins of General Zod’s craft, he must get his hands on it. His goal is to weaponize the deadly ore to allow America to protect itself from the alien menace that is Superman. For reasons not entirely clear, he needs permission from the government, in the person of Senator June Finch (Holly Hunter), who is against the import of this dangerous ore. Wayne learns of the efforts to import salvaged kryptonite and realizes that if he can steal it from Luthor, he can create a weapon and bring down Superman once and for all.
When Wayne attends a party hosted by Luthor and quite casually manages to clone a hard drive full of critical Lexcorp data, it’s the beautiful and enigmatic Diana Prince (Gal Gadot) who ends up with the purloined disk in her purse, not Bruce. She does eventually return the drive to Wayne and when he decrypts it, he learns that Prince is hiding her secret identity: she’s Wonder Woman. He also learns about “proto-humans” Aquaman (Jason Momoa), Flash (Ezra Miller) and Cyborg (Ray Fisher). Yes, that’s the Justice League from the DC Universe: Superman, Batman, Aquaman, Flash, Cyborg and Wonder Woman. Avengers, look out!
This all sounds like a straightforward, linear story but there are moments when the film narrative gets quite confusing as we experience both Bruce Wayne’s tortured dreams and Clark Kent’s own flashback. Both are clearly troubled with unresolved childhood experiences, a subtle nod to the bond that connects them even as they represent opposite sides of the “Man versus God” battle. Or are they really the same under their spandex and capes?
By playing on these deep-seated fears, Luthor ingeniously sets the two superheroes against each other, convincing Wayne that it’s only through the death of Superman that Gotham and the USA can really be safe, then blackmailing Superman into killing Batman. Chaos ensues as they indeed battle it out, an occasionally cringe-worthy sequence as the two superhuman men engage in their epic combat. But Luthor has also created a monster to add to the fray, Doomsday, a creature with the strength of a giant Superman.
On the side of the good guys, Diana Prince switches to Wonder Woman and shows that she can kick butt as well as the male superheroes on screen, an on screen melee that is epic, awesome and a bit hard to follow. And yes, a city is destroyed, though this time it’s Gotham, not Metropolis, so that might be director Zack Snyder trying to balance things out between his two superhero movies.
With the storyline explained, there are definitely some major problems in the film, starting with the horribly cast Jesse Eisenberg as Lex Luthor. He delivers a performance that’s reminiscent of when Gene Hackman played Luthor in the far sillier ‘Superman’ (1978): In a film with brooding, dark and troubled superheroes, Eisenberg never gets his own tonal nuances right and is the least scary screen super villain in a very long time.
Worse is the puzzling casting of Ben Affleck as Batman. Affleck is a good actor, but there’s no strength to his performances, no reason to buy into the mythos of Batman as the tortured, angry, quick tempered man. Deciding not to shave is insufficient to show that you’re a tough, pissed off guy, Ben. Fortunately, Cavill delivers a pitch-perfect performance as Clark Kent / Superman, and Amy Adams offers a plucky, fearless Lois Lane. Special props also to Martha Kent, Superman’s foster mother, as played by Diane Lane, one of the best and most under-appreciated actors in Hollywood.
The special effects, the editing, the sets, even the dream sequences, are all excellent. That’s de rigueur in modern blockbusters, however, so it might not be worth mentioning, but ‘Batman v Superman’ shouts “epic” in every frame. The story really delivers, moving forward at a rapid pace as we careen from scene to scene, simultaneously exploring a number of different elements. Unlike some other recent superhero epics (‘Avengers: Age of Ultron’ (2015), for example), this critic was never bored and never felt like scenes were unnecessary.
Though many critics have panned ‘Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice,’ I really enjoyed it, even with its flaws and recommend that all superhero fans see it on the big screen. It’s filmed as an epic and deserves a bigger screen than your smartphone or tablet. And Wonder Woman? She’s everything that the TV heroine Supergirl (Melissa Benoist) isn’t: she’s bad-ass, tough and I can’t wait to see her get more screen time in her own DC film too.