Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is the second feature in DC Comics’ Extended Universe, as well as the second collaboration between director Zack Snyder and screenwriter David S. Goyer after 2013’s underwhelming Man of Steel.1 Not content with simply rebooting their wildly successful Batman franchise for the third time, Warner Brothers have banked on Snyder’s Dawn of Justice to both solidify Ben Affleck as a viable candidate to regularly don Batman’s signature cape and cowl and, more importantly, to ensure an influx of other licensed DC intellectual properties (cinematic, comic and action figurine-based). Warner Brothers come relatively late to the game on this front—both Disney and Fox’s Marvel incarnations have launched headfirst into shared cinematic territory across film and television—with this delay exposing them to the full brunt of contemporary superhero fatigue before they’ve even dipped their toes into the stagnant water. Although clearly distinguishing themselves from the Marvel machine, Dawn of Justice serves a more capitalistic than cinematic role, functioning proficiently as a jumping off point for an inevitable cinematic universe but falling far short of being a well-rounded or even wholly interesting film.
Dawn of Justice peaks in its opening sequence, a slow-motion, Sucker Punch-esque dispatching of the Batman origin story in three minutes or less, which sets the stage for the introduction of an older, broken Batman (Ben Affleck), who engages in increasingly violent and futile attempts to clean up Gotham City. The rest of the introductory character work sees Superman (Henry Cavill) grappling with public criticism over his actions in his last cinematic outing and the young Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg, doing his most unconvincing and over-the-top Heath Ledger Joker riff) attempting to build a weapon capable of stopping Superman. For two-thirds of the film we cut between these three interconnected yet disparate narratives; Superman and Batman’s narrative arcs are condensed into two 50-minute chunks and Luthor (thankfully) gets a much leaner screen time. Scattered throughout is the introduction of Wonder Woman (a stellar performance from Gal Gadot that should put the ridiculous fanboy criticism of her casting to rest) and the return of a few other familiar faces including Lois Lane (Amy Adams).
These storylines range in quality, with Batman’s being the strongest and Superman’s the weakest, though mileage will vary depending on where your superhero allegiances lie. As always there are plot and logic holes galore but the kinetic violence that colours the first two thirds of the film is a more than effective distraction, though when that becomes the film’s primary focus—in its wholly aggravating climax—the film topples over itself entirely.
Dawn of Justice has been on the cards for years; announced by Snyder himself almost three years ago in June 2013 with a quote from Frank Miller’s phenomenal The Dark Knight Returns—a comic miniseries that saw a curmudgeonly, 55-year-old Batman come out of retirement, culminating in a battle with Superman, who has overstepped the mark as a government lackey.2 In the following months, Snyder attempted to distance his project from the miniseries, despite conceding that it would have a heavy influence on tone. It’s interesting, then, that Dawn of Justice lands on so many of the plot beats of Miller’s work, interchanging characters and weapons but maintaining similar set-pieces and drawing heavily on Miller’s universe: this is a Batman willing to kill. Drawing on Miller’s series is a double edged sword; while Snyder captures the grime and grit of his comics with ease, he loses the potency of Miller’s social commentary, sacrificing nuance for broad strokes in its bizarre, post-9/11 conservative commentary. This strange focus is coupled with heavy-handed dialogue and an extremely overwrought score that almost reaches parody in its excesses and undermines whatever point (or lack thereof) that Snyder is attempting to drive home. That noted, this approach sees Snyder present a product that is—at least aesthetically—distinct from other Marvel films, adding some legitimate variety to the superhero market, unlike that intended by Fox with their vulgar yet fairly stock-standard Deadpool.
Discounting its unevenness, the film’s greatest flaw is its lack of tangible stakes, particularly given the subject matter. We all know Warner are not going to kill off their most important IP, which absolutely sucks the power out of the film’s two ultimate showdowns, rendering the climactic last hour almost totally inert. It’s at this point the film most strongly resembles its contemporaries, regurgitating CGI augmented battle after CGI augmented battle and revealing the film’s far more financial than cinematic make-up. For Warner this film is a box-ticking exercise: set the relatively moody tone for the DC Extended Universe features, introduce all the major players in preparation for their solo films, show off Affleck’s acting chops. While this might answer what we’ve come to expect from contemporary superhero cinema, it doesn’t make for an entertaining or even particularly interesting film, and the approach that Warner Brothers has taken to the DC Extended Universe is doing little more than alienating their in-built audience, just as much as their Batman Forever and Batman and Robin outings alienated them once before.
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