Batman v Superman pits Gotham City’s Dark Knight against Metropolis’ Man of Steel

by Michael Aushenker

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice
Directed by Zack Snyder
Starring: Ben Affleck, Henry Cavill,
Amy Adams, Gal Gadot
Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action throughout, and some sensuality
2 hr. 31 min.

Adapting iconic comic book superheroes to film is a tricky proposition that few filmmakers have mastered. Richard Donner elevated DC Comics’ flagship hero with 1978’s Superman. Sam Raimi had already nailed the comic-book aesthetic in non-comics stuff like Darkman and Army of Darkness when he delivered the original Spider-Man in 2002. Christopher Nolan topped himself in 2008 with his second Batman feature, The Dark Knight, while Bryan Singer’s X-Men movies get better and better.

Enter Zack Snyder, whose track record is shakier. People still debate whether his Watchmen movie failed or improved on aspects of Alan Moore’s classic source material; and 2013’s Man of Steel, his reboot of Superman, was polarizing, a humorless exercise of CG overkill that gave us more of the character’s sci-fi flourishes but less of the Donner version’s humanity and romance.

Now comes Snyder’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, a quasi-sequel to Man of Steel and the set-up for the inevitable Justice League superhero team movies. BvS picks up where Man of Steel left off, with Superman (Henry Cavill) besting General Zod and his killer spacecraft in a battle that just about decimates Metropolis. One of those destroyed skyscrapers belongs to Wayne Industries, as in Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck), alter ego of Gotham City’s nocturnal vigilante Batman. Taking down Wayne’s building and his employees with it becomes the first emotional seed in Batman’s quest to kill Superman.

Despite his do-gooder intentions, Superman, who as baby Kal-El was rocketed to Earth from the doomed planet Krypton, has alien-ated (pun intended) the people of Earth, who are mistrustful of his unregulated powers. “He answers to no one. Not even, I think, to God,” a rattled African woman tells a U.S. Senate committee after a deadly incident in Namibia.

As Batman is on the warpath, Lex Luthor (a smarmy Jesse Eisenberg) has been hunting down a cargo of Kryptonite when he stumbles onto something bigger. It leads Luthor to discover the perfect emotional trigger to coerce Superman into combating the Caped Crusader.

In dreams, back stories are revisited: Kent’s upbringing in his adopted Smallville, the traumatic mugging incident that robbed the boy Wayne of his parents. Kent and Wayne have things in common. Anyone who has made sense of the movie’s subtitle or who has seen the trailer knows that, by the film’s climax, Superman and Batman have become allies against the common enemy Doomsday, with Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) entering the fray to help the boys out.

As these DC superhero epics advance down a Marvel-esque road of crossovers, Warner Bros. appears to be defiantly staking out a different palette than Marvel’s comparatively cheerful, banter-filled fare. Snyder’s movies are grittier and grimmer, with muted tones and less spandex color than their Disney/Marvel counterparts. The Disney/Marvel movies, however, have largely been underserved by their overrated humanistic tendencies and freighted by a tedious ongoing thread featuring Nick Fury and S.H.I.E.L.D., the Avengers Initiative, the Tesseract, etc. BvS may be overlong and not entirely successful in delivering a tonal alternative to happy-go-lucky Marvel, but there is something admirable about its flair for drama and darkness, even if it sometimes takes itself too seriously.

BvS has its positive aspects. On a fan-boy level, the Batmobile is pretty cool and there is at least one Dark Knight smackdown scene that is better than anything staged in Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises. Cavill may not be Christopher Reeve, but he does deepen his Clark Kent characterization here. Affleck is an effective Batman, playing the tragic hero with confidence and grizzle. Gadot is intriguing as Diana Prince/Wonder Woman. While her acting can be wobbly, she shows much promise, radiating beauty and strength. Eisenberg’s Luthor is effective, simultaneously functioning as the film’s villain and comic relief — even if he is playing yet another stripe of his patented fast-talking, adenoid, intense, precocious guy.

Creatively, BvS is a mixed bag. Sure, it could have been better. Commercially, BvS gets the job done, as a bookend to Man of Steel and, more importantly, ushering in the next wave of DC superhero installments which — as written and directed by other talents — will hopefully build on what Snyder has established in his uneven, ramshackle way.