Review: “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice”

That ‘Dawn of Justice’ works as much as it does is a surprise. From the get-go the film has been saddled with immense pressure to right the wrongs of the often tedious “Man of Steel,” to smash together two iconic characters normally on the same side, and to serve as the launchpad of a new cinematic initiative in a genre that many have labelled overworked. More recently it has also taken on the charge of helping save a studio suffering from an extended slate of weak films and facing troubled times.

The two-and-a-half hour result is an ambitious mess, an exhilarating chaos of visual flare and strong drive that’s also in desperate need of direction, objectivity and restraint. Brimming with bravado and often nowhere near as smart as it thinks it is, on occasion its go for broke mentality results in moments that fans – especially of DC Comics as opposed to the previous “Batman” and “Superman” films – will find breathtaking. For those not up on those storylines, the bombastic narrative can be borderline incoherent and lacking accessibility or any real level of engagement.

Character development is decidedly on the thin side here, both heroes portrayed at extremes in an effort to both enhance and steer them towards their titular conflict. Understandably that approach works better for Ben Affleck’s Batman, taking a familiar character and re-introducing him squarely in the thuggish Frank Miller “Dark Knight Returns” archetype which he suits well and which hasn’t really been done on film before. Affleck’s performances are always divisive, but he plays the world weariness here fine, albeit a little dour in order to fit the film’s tone which remains consistently grim and glum throughout.

We effectively have half a Batman film here which actually works in its favour as it doesn’t try an exposition heavy approach – if you’re coming into this you’re expected to have basic knowledge of all things Batman. Wayne Manor is a burnt shell, a graffitied Robin outfit sits encased, Alfred Pennyworth (this time played by the always dependable Jeremy Irons) is a tech genius, the Batcave now has a practical and ‘Arkham Asylum’-style feel to it, and Batman himself has taken to branding crooks like cattle. Very little of it is explained, it asks you to accept the situation as is which is a welcome approach.

Losing what little nuance “Man of Steel” established, Superman remains the bit player in his own movie. Snyder could’ve gone with the more interesting “For Tomorrow” Superman approach with him feeling guilt over his actions, instead he adopts a more familiar ‘increasingly distant God’ trope which was tackled better with Doctor Manhattan in “Watchmen”. Whether it be the continuing struggle to make the character feel relevant, or Henry Cavill himself who remains a glorious physical specimen but a bland screen presence under Snyder’s tutelage (his non-Superman work is far better), the Superman and Daily Planet scenes are the obvious weak link of the chain.

Case in point is Amy Adams’ Lois Lane who has gone from being redundant in the first film to the worst kind of damsel-in-distress here, making often stupid decisions and requiring constant saving. Adams manages to save the part with a few early scenes in a bathtub and on a balcony in which she seems self-aware of her tenuous place as one of the few anchors in this world for Clark’s humanity. Diane Lane and Laurence Fishburne reprise their “Man of Steel” roles for short appearances, mostly to espouse sage advice, chastise reporters who don’t seem to do much in the way of actual work, or serve as plot tools. They get a better shake of the stick than Tao Okamoto whose Mercy Graves is pure window dressing of the first order.

More time is given to Holly Hunter as a U.S. senator, Scoot McNairy as an injured Wayne Enterprises guard and Callan Mulvey as a Russian criminal – all delivering solid but unmemorable turns. Much of the character development that would’ve helped flesh out these people has been dropped by Chris Terrio’s script in favour of surface only diatribes and breathy monologues touching upon mythology and metaphysical pondering of man’s relationship to God(s). Some of these are interesting big ideas discussed, albeit only in sound bite form, by real life pundits like Charlie Rose and Neill DeGrasse Tyson.

Most though are ponderous musings espoused by Jesse Eisenberg’s Lex Luthor. It’s an understandable choice with the character bluntly portrayed as a twitchy amoral entrepreneur, that kind of insufferable angry young man with overt daddy issues who thinks quoting Nietzsche and, in this case owning a Milton-esque painting, makes him a philosophy major. It’s often so on the nose you are surprised he doesn’t at one point bite into an apple while patting a pet python in his garden.

It’s a recurring issue here. Snyder and Terrio want to tackle some big ideas about idolatry, power, fear and community in a post terrorism (or rather post exo-terrorism) America – but even with the film’s bloated runtime there’s no real room for any of it to breathe, most getting cursory lip service at best. The same goes for the action – Snyder’s set pieces are often gigantic with whole shipyards and oil refineries reduced to fireballs in seconds. However, it becomes so much CG noise that there’s often no real weight to much of it.

Similarly problematic is the film’s possibly planned but likely reactionary approach to mass destruction in the wake of the heavy criticism lobbed at “Man of Steel”. There’s an admittedly thrilling opening sequence which looks at the Superman & Zod fight from an on the ground perspective, less effective is the final act in which an often shifting massive battle is regularly interrupted by military captains or news readers talking about how the combat area is uninhabited or has been evacuated.

Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman is a welcome wild card in all the mess. Stealing the show out from under the men in the film with only a few scant scenes, this detached observer ultimately becomes a key player and works precisely because she remains almost as enigmatic by the end as when she first appears. Captivating in her dialogue scenes and a more than capable performer in her action ones, she’s not only well cast but works best as she’s treated more like a distinct character with her own agenda rather than one driven by political or idealistic motivations.

The fight scenes are impressively designed and choreographed, especially when the FX elements are scaled back such as Batman taking on a bunch of goons both early on and towards the end, but they often finish on an awkward note. Even more impressive in design, but often more awkward in execution is several nightmares, flashbacks and potential premonitions of what lays around the corner. Some, such as Bruce’s flashbacks to his parent’s death and the Batcave discovery, are exceedingly well done. Others, like a post-apocalyptic nightmare vision, are daring but also jarring and feel out of place.

Tying into that, many forget that “The Avengers” build-up elements in the likes of “Iron Man 2,” “Thor” and “Captain America: The First Avenger” were often sandwiched in to the detriment of the rest of the film around them. The opposite is true of ‘Dawn’ where the flashes of setup for ‘League’ come as welcome breathers from the cobbled together and unrelentingly bombastic narrative. More frequent and ballsy than you’d expect, these suggestions of the larger world around this action offer excitement – and in one particular nightmare downright confusion at first.

Compliments to the score as well with Hans Zimmer and Junkie XL’s work delivering a solid albeit less memorable soundtrack than their usual fare, a score trying to fuse multiple themes whilst still retaining the best and often soaring elements from “Man of Steel”.

Overall ‘Dawn’ proves a mixed bag. Snyder goes big on imagery, symbolism and scale – but it’s all about the spectacle at the cost of nuance and often straight up logic. It’s not a soulless endeavour like so many blockbusters of this scale, there’s too many ambitious ideas and obvious thought put into it to be that dismissive.

What it does lack is focus and real direction, a steady hand to wrangle an overly jumbled and bloated narrative struggling to fit too many ideas into a united whole. It’s moments of joy come mostly from the promise of what this cinematic universe could achieve when the shackles of both Superman and Snyder are left behind. “Suicide Squad,” Affleck’s solo “Batman” and Patty Jenkins’ “Wonder Woman” film now look more appealing than ever in the wake of this. “Justice League”… not so much.