BATMAN V SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE

In 2005, something remarkable happened.

Eight years removed from 1997’s disastrous Batman & Robin, director Christopher Nolan made the transition from acclaimed mid-level crime films such as 2001’s Memento and 2002’s Insomnia to big budget blockbusters with the release of Batman Begins, a film that both easily won over audiences as well as coining the now oft-used term “reboot”.  No longer could a filmmaker simply remake a classic property-it was now possible to take a damaged franchise and resurrect it with a new cast, new director, new writer(s) and an overall new take on an existing story.  Thanks to Nolan, Batman Begins kicked off a trilogy of superhero epics, each in many ways better than the last, simultaneously telling the story of the Caped Crusader from start to finish while at the same time creating an untouchable level of an adapted comic book many similar films strive to reach to this day.

Grounded in realism, The Dark Knight Trilogy was always meant to be just that-a trilogy of movies with no plans to introduce other characters from the extended DC Universe nor continue the tale of Gotham City beyond the final frames of 2012’s The Dark Knight Rises.  Nonetheless, that still didn’t stop fans from wishing, hoping, even in some cases pleading for a model that echoed Marvel’s highly successful Cinematic Universe-an interconnected network of films with characters that seamlessly crossed over into each other’s films with the greatest of ease much like the comics on which they were based.

The Marvel Cinematic Universe has proven immensely fruitful since the release of 2008’s Iron Man-why couldn’t DC do the same?

Following the largely lethargic response to 2006’s Superman Returns and the conclusion of the ten-season strong WB series Smallville, director Zack Snyder was eventually hired to helm yet another re-telling of The Last Son of Krypton, and with a resume that included such page-to-screen hits as 2007’s 300 and 2009’s Watchmen, Snyder seemed like a logical choice for the job.  Furthermore, bringing in the aforementioned Dark Knight mastermind of Christopher Nolan to both produce and help write the film as well as frequent Nolan collaborator Hans Zimmer to craft a new Superman theme, this new portrayal felt like a safe bet for box office glory.  Entitled Man of Steel and starring British actor Henry Cavill, Snyder’s version flew in to cinemas in June of 2013…and immediately met with a wave of indifference, with audiences the world over divided over the dark tone and gritty depiction Snyder created for Superman. 

Personally, I enjoyed the film, even if the opening scenes on Krypton were lackluster at best and some of the dialogue was delivered a bit from the amateur side of an Uta Hagen acting workshop.  Those, however, are different thoughts for a different day.

Despite said mixed reviews, Man of Steel was enough of a triumph for Warner Brothers and DC to instantly green-light a sequel, and less than two months following Man of Steel’s release Zack Snyder took to the stage at that summer’s annual San Diego Comic-Con to announce just that.

But would this be a traditional sequel? Not quite.  With the dimming of a few lights and the shimmer of a movie screen, a logo appeared behind Snyder depicting…wait for it…the Superman logo intertwined within the Batman logo.

The response was instantaneous.  Were we, at long last, getting a movie that finally showcases two of geekdom’s greatest heroes engaged in the fight to end all fights? 

Over the next few years, more questions as opposed to answers began to surface.  Chief among them was the casting of Ben Affleck as Batman/Bruce Wayne and Jesse Eisenberg as Superman’s notorious nemesis Lex Luthor, moves that sent shockwaves throughout the fanboy/fangirl community not unlike when news materialized of Heath Ledger’s hiring to portray the Joker in Christopher Nolan’s 2008 classic The Dark Knight.  Nolan himself appeared to take a lesser role in this new film’s development, while Hans Zimmer returned once more alongside new-ish collaborator Junkie XL to compose the score, unquestionably an interesting move on all fronts.  Zimmer had produced the music to not only Man of Steel but the entire Dark Knight Trilogy as well, meaning he was now faced with the considerable task of creating a new theme for Snyder’s Batman, one that was different from the work he did for Nolan, in addition to further developing his now-legendary Man of Steel soundtrack for inclusion in the new film as well.

Furthermore, with each trailer release throughout 2015 and every scrap of news from the set, public reaction began to look decidedly more uncertain at the film, now-entitled Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.  A widely disputed director, a packed cast list that now also included Wonder Woman, and an overall look that appeared even darker than Man of Steel gave the impression to indicate that this movie just might suffer that same fate as similarly-bloated superhero films such as 2014’s mishandled The Amazing Spider-Man 2.

Early reviews from the fan community began to indicate that Dawn of Justice just might be worth seeing, however following the lift of the official review embargo on March 22nd, 2016, the general consensus amongst critics was that this film severely lacked in more areas than one.  Despite having sifted through countless pages of torrid back-and-forth online message board debates, this reviewer, with his tendency to be easily swayed by such things, took to his seat on Thursday, March 24th, to at long last see this anticipated movie and, quite simply, see what all the fuss was about.

Quite simply, I loved it.

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice serves a variety of purposes, not only acting as a pseudo-sequel to Man of Steel but also a reintroduction of Batman, now transferred to a certain degree from the standalone Dark Knight Trilogy into the theatrical DC Extended Universe activated by Man of Steel.  The film also borrows a wide variety of elements from Frank Miller’s renowned 1986 comic miniseries The Dark Knight Returns (similar components were also used in The Dark Knight Rises) and its acclaimed 2012/2013 animated adaptation, both of which prominently featured a well-known battle between Batman and Superman as its centerpiece.  A comparison can also be made in this case to 2014’s excellent X-Men: Days of Future Past, which had to not only adapt the Days of Future Past graphic novel but also continue the story that began in 2011’s X-Men: First Class as well as wash away the bad taste left behind by 2006’s mediocre X-Men: The Last Stand.  When a movie is put in a position like this, the results can be viewed as a delicate balancing act in an attempt to accomplish every goal while managing to deliver a solid, compelling story at the same time.  It doesn’t always work, but if a film can pull it off, the resultant product may not just be great, but absolutely exceptional.

Complaints have been made about the plot, which does tend to spiral off in different directions quite frequently.  Snyder seems to have used the entirety of Dawn of Justice’s 151 minute run time to touch on far more than the plot points mentioned above, with an assortment of nightmare/flashback/hallucination sequences that tend to plague both Bruce Wayne and Clark Kent from time to time in addition to some fairly useless tangents such as Lois Lane’s (Amy Adams) investigative reporting on Lex Luthor’s company LexCorp’s involvement in illegal arms dealing (?).  Admittedly, the latter does eventually find some resolution, but the journey to get there didn’t exactly hold my attention for long.  Nevertheless, the core storylines-Bruce Wayne despises Superman for the aforesaid reasons, Clark Kent sees Batman as a dangerous vigilante, Lex Luthor views the Man of Steel as a threat to mankind-all work well to generally complement each other, tie things to one another and move Dawn of Justice right along.

The cast that helps to hold Dawn of Justice together works extremely well, not only individually but in every scene where interaction is required.  Operating somewhat from the Avengers playbook, seeing Clark Kent speaking with Bruce Wayne, Lex Luthor sparring with Superman, Superman and Batman trading lines and other related scenes all hold an intensity that serve to drive those parts of the movie forward where the action takes a rest.  The action itself is spaced out nicely-from the opening scene, which showcases Wayne relentlessly driving through the streets of Metropolis in an attempt to save the lives of the workers trapped inside a Wayne Enterprises office tower during Superman’s climatic battle with General Zod at the end of Man of Steel, to an exciting Batmobile pursuit a bit later on, to the eponymous fight scene…every time the action picks up steam, it feels natural.

As Bruce Wayne and Batman, Ben Affleck inhabits the role in a manner that not only surpasses Christian Bale’s portrayal in The Dark Knight Trilogy in many ways but also recalls Michael Keaton’s best moments in 1989’s Batman and 1992’s Batman Returns.  His character is worn, showing his scars and at times evokes a presence not unlike Sylvester Stallone in Rocky, akin to an aging prize fighter who doesn’t know when to quit.  Moreover, his anger towards Superman further brings about a different Batman, one more willing to use more than just a few punches to make a statement.  Affleck and Snyder’s Batman applies a bat-shaped brand to the bad guys, isn’t afraid to get his hands dirty and is probably the most unstable version of The Dark Knight we’ve seen yet.  The way he moves in costume is an added treat-this, truly, is a Batman taken right from the finest pages of comic book history. 

As Clark Kent and Superman, we get to see more of the difference between Kal-El and his secret identity that Henry Cavill was unable to convey in Man of Steel.  One might argue that Superman as we know him didn’t even exist yet in Man of Steel, rather it was always Clark Kent/Kal-El simply trying to figure things out (see Mike’s analysis of this in his look at Man of Steel here).  In Dawn of Justice, small moments emphasizing this dichotomy are captured, usually during scenes showing Kent on duty at The Daily Planet.  When he dons the red cape, Cavill and Snyder’s Superman possesses far more confidence, while still conflicted with the reconciliation between his obligation to all of mankind and his ability to provide in that regard.  Plus, we do get a trademark moment or two when Kent prepares to remove his glasses, unfortunately always stopping short of the classic tearing open the dress shirt to reveal the Superman logo underneath.

As Lex Luthor, Jesse Eisenberg delivers an unorthodox interpretation of Superman’s most infamous villain, one that leans more towards a subdued form of Jim Carrey’s Riddler or (shudder) Tommy Lee Jones’ Two-Face, both having appeared in 1995’s Batman Forever.  He’s slightly manic, somewhat prone to vocal tics and always appears to be teetering right on the edge of full-blown insanity.  Fortunately, Eisenberg does a serviceable job of holding back the floodgates from allowing Luthor to completely lose his mind, and it’s in this restraint that makes for an interesting performance.  It may not be Gene Hackman or even Kevin Spacey, but Eisenberg’s Lex Luthor is just different enough to work, for the most part. 

However, it’s the introduction of actress Gal Gadot as the legendary Diana Prince/Wonder Woman into the theatrical world of DC that provided the biggest, most pleasant surprise.  As Ms. Prince, she provides just enough of a low-key, sultry persona that makes her eagerly awaited appearance as Wonder Woman later in the film all the more exhilarating.  If ever there was a benchmark for how Wonder Woman is to be presented on-screen, this is absolutely it.

The supporting cast does a fine job of rounding out the action onscreen as well.  Jeremy Irons as Bruce Wayne’s faithful butler Alfred Pennyworth plays the part admirably, with just enough coarseness to give some unexpected energy to his exchanges with his boss.  Amy Adams does a passable job once again as Lois Lane, with Laurence Fishburne and Diane Lane both sufficiently reprising their roles as well from Man of Steel as, respectively, Daily Planet editor Perry White and Martha Kent, while Halt and Catch Fire’s Scoot McNairy enjoys some decent screen time as a disgruntled former Wayne Enterprises employee severely injured in the opening attack on Metropolis.  Plus, fans of Snyder’s Watchmen will enjoy the numerous cameos from that film’s cast as well. 

The music of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is a character in and of itself.  The team of Hans Zimmer and Junkie XL have created a score that propels the action and adds gravity to some emotional moments strewn about the film as well.  With enough callbacks to the Man of Steel soundtrack, an eerie, Danny Elfman-esque motif for Batman and the debut of Wonder Woman’s theme, the music may sound generic when listened to by itself, but when paired up with the events of the film, gives the audience a different experience than heard in Zimmer’s work on The Dark Knight Trilogy and Man of Steel.  If this be the music of the Justice League, I’m sold.

Finally, what about the direction, and that influence on the movie overall?  Snyder has always been a visual director, and his reliance on slow-motion and an abundance of CG once again find a home in Dawn of Justice.  Luckily, Snyder knows when to reign it in and let the story, as scattershot as it may be, do the work, saving the effects for when absolutely needed.  Combined with the return of editor David Brenner from his work on Man of Steel, the bulk of Dawn of Justice moves and flows quite nicely, especially when the moment arrives for The Bat and Supes to finally go head to head.  The fight is, without question, what we’ve all been waiting for.   Make no mistake-this is a dark film, darker than Man of Steel, but still bursting with intensity, like a beaten-down Batman mustering up his energy to generate one final, devastating punch.  That energy is this movie.

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is far from flawless, but also far from the trainwreck critics have made this film out to be.  If the opportunity presents itself to see it in IMAX, take advantage.  Fans will have a blast re-watching this film for the many Easter Eggs hidden throughout, as well as to see so many incredible moments come alive that have only existed on the pages of DC for decades.  A welcome diversion from the Marvel assembly line, Dawn of Justice takes a number of well-executed risks with story & the characters themselves and helps to further establish DC’s world in film, one I'm eager to continue exploring in the coming years with the release of this year’s Suicide Squad, next year’s Wonder Woman and Justice League Part One, 2018’s The Flash and Aquaman, and beyond.  They may call it Dawn of Justice, but it’s also the dawn of something even more exciting, and I for one can’t wait.