Starring: Ben Affleck, Henry Cavill, Jesse Eisenberg
Directed by: Zack Snyder (“Man of Steel”)
Written by: Chris Terrio (“Argo”) & David S. Goyer (“Batman Begins”)
After nearly three years of fanboy hand-wringing and prognostications of disaster, Warner Bros.’ and DC Comics’ attempt to reverse-engineer the formula Marvel and Disney have used to build a filmmaking empire, “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice,” has finally arrived. Big, bold, grim, overstuffed, overcooked, smart, stupid, and loud, the first live-action on-screen pairing of the two biggest titans in comic-book history teeters on the brink of outright disaster for a good chunk of its runtime, yet somehow manages to shake a mostly-enjoyable adventure out of a screenplay that introduces three major new characters and packs in jumping off points for at least five superhero movies that are scheduled to follow, all while acting as a quasi-sequel to 2013’s overwrought “Man of Steel.”
A prologue unnecessarily re-familiarizes us with the death of Bruce Wayne’s (Ben Affleck) parents that serves as the beginning of his journey to becoming Batman. Thirty years later, we find Wayne rushing around Metropolis during the climactic, destructo-porn showdown between Superman (Henry Cavill) and General Zod (Michael Shannon) that capped off “Man of Steel” and left thousands in the city dead, including some of Wayne’s employees. Two years later, the U.S. Congress, led by Senator Finch (Holly Hunter), is looking for ways to rein in Superman’s destructive potential and discussing his penchant for saving only the people he wants to save—namely Lois Lane (Amy Adams, wasted again). When Lois finds herself in a terrorist den in Africa, facing down a machine gun as her photographer Jimmy Olsen (Michael Cassidy) is revealed as a CIA spy (!!!), Superman comes to her rescue after the terrorists are taken out by private security officers. An experimental bullet is found in Lois’ shot up journal, Superman is blamed for the terrorist deaths (for some reason), Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg) is asking for an import license for Kryptonite so he can build a weapon that could potentially stop Superman, Batman is tracking Luthor’s criminal dealings while also figuring out how to take down Superman, and Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) is lurking around the fringes for most of the runtime–and then a whole bunch more stuff happens and even more characters are introduced over the course of two and a half hours.
When the digital dust settles, why does this all work? Wisely, the film plays more like a Batman movie than anything else, and Affleck’s take on the character is the Batmanliest yet, zipping around on grappling hooks, whipping out neat gadgets and awesome vehicles, and actually doing a little bit of detective work over the course of the film. His Batman is just driven and crazy enough to make his quest to take on this superhuman god seem like the most refreshing take on the character in years–apologies to Christopher Nolan’s “Dark Knight,” but the realism that grounded that series put a damper on the more fantastic elements of Batman’s mythology. Gadot’s Wonder Woman also shines in her debut, shedding the exposition she’s saddled with halfway through the film to come out swinging in the film’s final battle, sure to leave the audience hungering for the character’s upcoming solo film. Cavill, once again donning the red and blue tights as the Man of Steel, is still a dud, though. The filmmakers, led by “Man of Steel” director Zack Snyder and writers Davis S. Goyer (“Batman Begins”) and Academy Award winner Chris Terrio (“Argo”), still haven’t cracked this dark, brooding Superman and what his motivation is. With the knowledge of a “Justice League” movie starting production next month, along with upcoming solo efforts from a whole slate of DC Comics characters (next up is “Suicide Squad” this August), the events of “Batman v. Superman” ultimately become inconsequential, echoing 2015’s “Avengers: Age of Ultron.” Warner Bros. and DC Comics needed to make a big bet to get into the shared universe superhero game, and their first giant splash is a push rather than a win or loss.