In a word – “operatic.”
Producer/director Zack Snyder has taken every (justifiable) criticism of 2013’s Man of Steel – mostly that it took itself too seriously and was too grandiose for its own good – and has unapologetically doubled down and bet the DC house.
More in the tradition of an old school Hollywood biblical epic than modern-day superhero movie, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice tries to be grand and important in its every frame, and for the most part, Snyder and screenwriter Chris Terrio deliver on their very lofty ambitions, crafting a wholly unique comic book movie experience, which in today’s increasingly-crowded superhero marketplace, is not an insignificant achievement.
Considering the continued unbroken success of the Marvel Studios house brand of audience-pleasing pop comic book movies, and the recent breakout of the low-budget, self-effacing Deadpool, Warner Bros. deserves credit for letting Snyder run towards and not away from his serious, ostentatious, anti-pop sensibilities. The question is, will the studio be rewarded at the box office for their faith in this vision?
Both the critical and hardcore fan reaction to this wanna-be-masterpiece will be fascinating to watch over these next few days. Batman v Superman may take multiple viewings … or at least a few hours to fully digest the experience, which may or may not be a good thing depending on your tastes. If you want Justice League Unlimited in an easy-to-swallow live-action snack, this may not be for you. If you don’t mind a heavy, multi-course meal with challenging flavors, get out your knife and fork. But indifference will unlikely be the result.
For good or bad, Batman v Superman will be heavily dissected and discussed, probably for a very long time to come.
Beginning unsurprisingly with both a brief retelling of Batman’s iconic origin and the last act of Man of Steel from Bruce Wayne’s perspective, Dawn of Justice constantly builds towards what anyone reading this knows is a no-holds-barred battle between arguably the world’s most famous superheroes, treating it legitimately in-story and out as the greatest gladiatorial match-up in history, to paraphrase its in-story architect Lex Luthor.
Simultaneously the film concerns itself with world-building the larger DCCU in crowd-pleasing ways, weaving the two objectives together with only a couple of seams showing. Though informed spoiler-welcoming fans may think they know most of the story beats by interpreting the trailers and extrapolating the teasers released over the last two years, BvS challenges expectations early and often, delivering several “continuity” surprises starting almost immediately after the two juxtaposed opening sequences and one or two frankly confounding (and soon-to-be heavily analyzed) scenes that appear to be laying seeds for DCCU films to come.
To delve into further story details would be to spoil half of the experience, so we’ll instead hit upon some hot topics of interest to our community - the major players:
- Ben Affleck easily makes the best live-action Bruce Wayne yet … but whether you agree or not is probably entirely dependent on your predisposition to Ben Affleck. But he inhabits the comic book version of Batman’s alter-ego better than Christian Bale ever did or Michael Keaton or anyone else ever could. Making Bruce an older, world-weary version of himself naturally imbues this version with the gravitas always lacking in prior big-screen attempts and Affleck does nothing to compromise his written-in advantage.
And as Batman, Snyder lets Affleck’s Dark Knight do darker things than he’s ever done before. This is certainly more ‘Frank Miller’ than the ‘Animated Series’ Batman, be forewarned.
- Henry Cavill affords himself better here than in Man of Steel, and that’s likely just due to having better material to work with. Snyder and Terrio put Superman through the ringer this time around, and by necessity Superman has to adopt a sharper, harder edge, which serves Cavill’s unenviable task well.
Superman remains an incredibly difficult character to realize on screen. Like Bruce Wayne he’s an old soul in his mature physical prime – a 50 year-old in a 30 year-old body. Superman is both unassailably earnest and honest, while at the same time keeping the world’s biggest secret that he shares with the reader/audience with a figurative (and sometimes literal) wink.
Cavill registers more on Superman’s young, earnest scale than his wise, confident, 'winking' side, and for that he remains an imperfect Clark/Kal-El. But he manages not to be swallowed whole by the showy debuts of Batman, Wonder Woman, and Lex Luthor – a feat unto itself.
- Put aside any concerns you have about Gal Gadot’s physique or acting chops. She holds her own in the latter category in her brief scenes as mystery woman Diana Prince and takes it up a notch when she finally joins the fight as Wonder Woman. She may not be large of stature or muscle bound, but Snyder and Gadot make a very wise and conscious character choice for her fight scenes that should instantly win over even the most hard-to-please fans.
- As for Jesse Eisenberg’s Lex Luthor, audiences may very well be divided. Borrowing generously from F. Murray Abraham’s Salieri in 1984’s Amadeus (we told you – operatic), Eisenberg is unlike any previous Luthor and Snyder likely chose the actor for his comparative youth and slight physical frame. Luthor is cursed with being brilliant enough to know how inferior he really is in comparison to Superman despite that brilliance, and it doesn’t make him resentful like many past depictions of Luthor, it makes him a little unhinged. He’s not the classic Luthor, but he’s effectively and intriguingly a Luthor, if you’re okay with that.
Together Gadot and Eisenberg manage to mitigate another of Man of Steel's weakness - its joylessness. BvS isn't exactly joyful, but the two new additions have enough fun to infect the film in small but effective quantities.
From its performances to story structure to action sequences to effects, cinematography and editing, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice rates between competent to great across the board, and is very often riveting along the way, constantly building and surprising. And although it may suffer from a tiny bit of excess in the third act (again), if nothing else the film is beautiful to look at and listen to (we’ll say it one last time – operatic). Whatever Snyder's shortcomings, it is not technical craft.
Is it grim? Any story co-starring a Miller-esque Batman that thinks Superman is a threat to humanity has to be, but knowledgeable fans will be able to see the strings Snyder pulls in the over-the-top final action sequence to blunt a repeat of the oft-criticized Superman-Zod showdown.
Yes, like Man of Steel, Batman v Superman is serious, grandiose, and self-important, and certainly not for kids. But whereas another retelling of Superman’s origin wasn't an ideal match for Snyder's big ambitions and directorial leanings, here in the first live-action meeting of the icons and the beginnings of the movie Justice League, its unabashed grand scale and uniquely profound tone is a much more natural – and ultimately winning and welcome – fit.