Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice is the long-awaited start of DC Comics’ extended universe, and so far things could not be off to a rockier start. Filmmaker Zack Snyder has tried to do in one film what the folks at Marvel needed half a dozen titles to accomplish while simultaneously attempting an exploration of themes rarely covered in comic book films, and to say it’s all too much would be an understatement. Dawn of Justice is not only the messiest film of the year, it’s the worst comic book film in recent memory. Future culture critics will look back on this film and talk about it as critics today discuss Catwoman or Elektra, and they will be right to do so.
Eighteen months have passed since Superman (Henry Cavill) battled Zod (Michael Shannon) over the streets of Metropolis, and the world is still unsure how a man capable of bringing everyone on the planet to their knees is to be treated. Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck), who witnessed the destruction flying men in capes can bring firsthand, believes people need to be prepared for the possibility that a day may come with Superman is no longer their friend. If there is even a one percent chance Superman could come to hate mankind then mankind needs a plan in place to respond. Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg) would tend to agree, noting that no one being can be all powerful and all good at the same time. Even gods have to make choices, and as he sees it the option to takeover the planet is always well within Superman’s reach.
Not everyone agrees with Bruce and Lex however, including some members of the government who have been assigned to review the events of Metropolis and assign blame for the deaths of the thousands who lost their lives. These people see Superman as someone—or something—that is above the laws of man. He is a God to some, a hero to others and an alien to pretty much everyone else. He is unlike anything we have ever known, so it doesn’t make sense to try and force him to conform to laws and cultural norms written long before the existence of beings like him was even recognized as a possibility. Something must be done, of course, but figuring out what that thing is proves to be incredibly divisive.
This is only the tip of the painfully over-plotted Dawn Of Justice. Both Superman and Batman have individual adventures that don’t involve one another until the third act, and there is an origin story for Batman that gets revisited numerous times throughout the film. There’s also the mystery of Lex Luthor, the first appearance of Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), the discovery of additional meta-humans (i.e. the soon to be members of the Justice League), the relationship between Lois Lane and Clark Kent and, of course, the arrival of Doomsday. All of this and more is crammed into 150 minutes, but somehow the bulk of Batman V Superman still feels surprisingly dull. There is so much effort put into not only establishing the main characters, but the DC cinematic universe as a whole, that the film rarely seems to care about standing on its own merit. What little story does exist appears as merely a series of haphazardly interconnected sequences that feel slapped together without quality or consistency in mind. It’s as if Snyder and company were so focused on the big picture they forgot to make sure Dawn Of Justice would work as a standalone film, and truth be told it doesn’t.
As always in his work, Snyder captures the events of Batman V Superman with high-contrast lighting and loads of CGI-heavy slow-motion shots intended to add emotional emphasis to sequences where added emphasis is not really needed. He also tries to be in too many places at once, jumping time and location over and over again to try and tell us everything we could possibly need to know about the DC universe as a whole, and while most of it is admittedly pretty to look at it largely lacks any real sense of excitement. Superman, for example, is briefly seen saving a girl from a factory fire taking place during a Day Of The Dead celebration. We see him gently land in front of a fiery explosion, set the girl on the ground and immediately be greeted by people grateful for his appearance, but at no point does the scene feel like anything more than an excuse to remind us Superman is considered a hero to many. There is no element of tension or excitement, and as a result even the most beautifully designed sequences feel largely lifeless.
The three things that work in Dawn Of Justice are, perhaps unsurprisingly, the biggest new characters. Batman, Alfred (Jeremy Irons) and Wonder Woman all steal the show in ways that leave you anxious to see them appear in films other than the one you’re watching. Affleck and Irons make a great duo, with Affleck’s violent take on the man behind the cowl being perfectly complemented by the patient understanding of Irons’ Alfred. Their relationship differs greatly from that of Christian Bale and Michael Caine in Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, and that is entirely the point. Snyder’s vision for Batman is even bleaker than Nolan’s, and because of this the way he relates to the world around him has also changed. The hope that mankind can be saved without resorting to the same violent tendencies of those Batman must battle has already frayed by the time the film’s central story begins, and it only unravels further as the tension between Batman and Superman continues to build. Meanwhile Gadot, who is tasked with the challenge of bringing Wonder Woman to life in five scenes or less, delivers a pitch-perfect performance throughout the film. One hopes an early scene where she and Bruce Wayne exchange snarky remarks will build into something greater, but unfortunately that never happens.
I won’t spoil any of the many major reveals in Dawn Of Justice, but suffice to say those twists and turns are the only surprises awaiting audiences who have already seen the film’s trailers. The big battle is good, but hardly worth the wait, and when it’s over there is still nearly an hour of story left to tell. Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice has no idea when to quit, and as such it drags on and on until you’re so exhausted from the seemingly endless exposition sequences you care very little whether or not you ever see another DC film. I have all the faith in the world that a Batman solo film can and will save the DC universe, but I am not certain there will be anyone hungry to see it after slogging through Zack Snyder’s latest overblown spectacle. The few bright moments in Dawn Of Justice, while memorable, are nowhere near enough to justify sacrificing nearly three hours of your life and $15 of your hard-earned cash. If you scrubbed away all the Justice League setup and completely removed the Doomsday element this film might’ve had a chance at being something great, but that is not what happened. For all its moving parts and expensive visuals, Dawn Of Justice is little more than a prelude to something bigger, but I’m not sure I or anyone else will want any part of whatever comes next.