In 2012 fans and critics left Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel with mixed feelings of shellshock, awe, and bewilderment. Criticised for the scale of its collateral damage and an overly severe tone, it formed an unsteady foundation for the DC Extended Universe (DCEU). Years of hype and scepticism later, director Zack Snyder nails his colours to the mast with Batman Vs Superman: Dawn of Justice.
A visceral opening sequence shows the horror of Man of Steel’s climactic battle from the ground-up perspective of Bruce Wayne (Affleck). Witnessing the devastation first-hand convinces him that Superman (Cavill) is an absolute threat which needs to be eliminated. From there the film bubbles towards the inevitable confrontation of God versus man, threading together elements of the DC mythos into a pre-existing world while expecting audiences to keep up. It’s a tact that sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t.
Cameos teasing future Warner Bros. properties Cyborg and Aquaman simply waste time and add nothing to the story, but a glimpse of the vandalised Robin suit on display in the batcave hints at a rich, dark history for a new take on Batman. Affleck proves the perfect choice for a character unhinged by twenty years of fighting crime and unspoken tragedies. His Bruce Wayne is a charming alcoholic whose fury simmers beneath a charismatic veneer as if the Batman is about to burst out from under his skin. He broods over the batsuit like an addict and visibly relishes the pain he metes out to the criminals he so clearly disdains.
This Batman is morally reprehensible, but that isn’t necessarily bad. In the hands of another director, a definitively adult Batman movie would make for fantastic viewing. Unfortunately, it was directed by Zack Snyder, and it isn’t a solo Batman movie.
Henry Cavill’s second outing as Superman is admirably worse than his first. It is a wooden performance that’s less likeable whenever he shows a flash of emotion. He smirks at the opportunity to punch a man through a brick wall with the speed of a Harrier Jet. Amidst the flames of a bombing, surrounded by the dead, he frowns as if to say: ‘I just can’t catch a break’. Fans argued that the decision for Superman to kill General Zod was intended to instil in him an aversion to murder and an appreciation of life, which would be more in-keeping with the traditional character. Obviously not.
For all its allusions to religious imagery – and there are a lot – Dawn of Justice is a film about powerful men with unresolved problems taking issue with one another because they do things differently. Jessie Eisenburg’s twitchy Lex Luthor is a maniacal take on the character who will certainly not be to everyone’s tastes. His visible twitches and outbursts are convincing and he’s often very funny, but his over-riding motivations are unclear. He doesn’t like Superman because of some theoretical religious paradox he concocted during an abusive childhood. This motivates him to – not all that subtly – manipulate events so that the world will despise Superman, giving him the opportunity to create a Kryptonian-deterrent.
Amy Adams’s Lois Lane is chasing this story in the background, if only to make her relevant to the plot other than needing to be rescued by Superman. As an award-winning, globe-trotting investigative journalist, who used to catch her when Superman wasn’t around?
An exorbitant montage of Bruce Wayne doing pull-ups with a truck tyre chained to his waist then hitting the same tyre – I assume it was the same, he is a billionaire, he can afford more than one tyre – with a sledgehammer. This sets the tone for the final act. It’s macho, it’s visual, and it’s a little bit dumb. Arguably that’s Snyder in a nutshell. The titular fight is a slog of violence. It’s almost satisfying to see Superman’s head get bashed in with a sink, but Batman’s enjoyment comes off as sadistic. It’s a much more complicated fight than any superhero brawl to date; one that lingers on pain and the weight of an impact.
Marvel’s films are much lighter in tone because they rarely dwell on grit, choosing instead to crack a joke or make a fist-pounding speech. Dawn of Justice doesn’t undercut its battles with zingy one-liners so much, because real violence isn’t really funny. Some moments of Dawn of Justice’s final battle are desperate and dirty and each hero is given the opportunity to pummel the other. It’s quite often beautiful, with some fantastic one shots and extended moments making fantastic viewing. But while the nuclear missile going off above the clouds is a brilliant special effect, it’s story-telling overkill just to incapacitate Superman for all of three minutes.
It’s impossible not to pick bones with DC’s marketing. They revealed almost everything. Doomsday. Wonder Woman. The team-up itself. Why they needed to reveal that line-up of the three heroes side by side in a trailer is baffling. Their alliance was a certainty, making the preceding two-and-a-half hours of conflict next to pointless. The only real question then was what forces the two to put aside their differences and join forces. The answer is laughable.
There is one brief surprise which is so wrapped up in a convoluted hallucination / dream that it’s impossible to tell whether or not it actually happened. Then there’s its bold ending of course, but I won’t go into that here.
Dawn of Justice is an unfortunate film in that there are some really brilliant things floating around in the clumsy story and over-saturated CGI of Snyder’s world. Gal Godot is briefly brilliant as Diana Prince who brushes off Bruce Wayne’s advances and operates with murky agency throughout the film. Her time as Wonder Woman comes so late in the film that her appearance in costume would have carried much more weight had it not already been revealed. Jeremy Irons isn’t given time either, but his brief snatches of sarcasm over glasses of neat whisky could prove to be an iteration of Alfred perfectly in-keeping with the booze-soaked Bruce Wayne.
It also deserves a lot of credit for being so starkly different to the Marvel formula, whose twelve films all follow roughly the same pattern. It’s become stale. Something needed to break the status quo, and if Dawn of Justice doesn’t do it, then at least it sets a precedent for future Warner Bros. films to do something genuinely dramatic. At any rate it has set the stage for the DCEU and it has done so to commercial success. Time will tell if other directors can avoid the pitfalls which have plagued the first two entries in the universe.
David Ayer’s Suicide Squad is up next with Michelle MacLaren’s Wonder Woman to follow. Astonishingly this will be the first female-fronted superhero ever, and Dawn of Justice has done a decent job of leaving audiences wanting more from the Amazonian Princess. As a self-contained film however, Dawn of Justice mostly stumbles in its attempt to tell a story, settling for aesthetics over form. Then again, explosions make money, and money makes movies. Who am I to criticise Zack Snyder for grossing over $200 million worldwide?
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