Night and day: D.C. Comics' two most iconic, contrasting heroes face off in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.
Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice ★★★
Opening Friday, March 25
A millennium hence, our descendants might try to decipher our current superhero obsession the way we study ancient Greek legends. Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, which conflates modern religious and mythological allegories, will be rich material. In a span of minutes, eccentric nemesis Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg, too manic by half) positions Kal-El, Superman’s Kryptonian name, alongside Zeus, Yahweh, and Horus. A messianic parable, the film explores how mortals might really react to the arrival of an omnipotent being.
Eighteen months have passed since the calamitous climax of Batman v Superman director Zack Snyder’s 2013 film, Man of Steel. While many on Earth now embrace Superman as a savior, others view him as an uncontrollable force. One of the arch skeptics is Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck), shown in flashbacks charging helplessly into 9/11-like imagery during the battle royale between Superman and General Zod, which wiped out half of Metropolis along with thousands of innocent lives, some of them Wayne’s employees.
This grizzled Bruce Wayne has grown “too old to die young,” sustained by a diet of pills and booze—and by his faithful, wizened servant, Alfred (Jeremy Irons). Wayne’s tenure as Batman has left behind a crime-ridden Gotham City, a derelict Wayne Manor, and a trail of death: his parents, his sidekick, his soul. This isn’t the gun-averse Caped Crusader we know from the comics and the Nolan trilogy; it’s a very Dark Knight who literally brands criminals as targets for prison justice.
Wayne and Kal-El are both orphans trying to draw meaning from their wrecked lives. With some Joker-esque manipulation from Luthor, they are propelled on a collision course with each other. Its gradual buildup lends a crazed credibility to their contrasting positions on justice. Superman rightly sees Batman as a nihilistic vigilante. Batman rightly sees Superman as a solipsistic borderline sociopath who embraces a duty as humankind’s all-powerful protector without caring much for humanity.
In short, Superman is Doctor Manhattan, which is the closest of many genetic links between Batman v Superman and Zack Snyder’s Watchmen. Both films are dire appraisals of heroes and hero worship, with self-sacrifice as the only means of redemption. When Batman decides that ridding the world of Superman is his legacy and builds a cache of Kryptonite-filled weaponry, it rings with a fevered logic.
Batman v Superman is littered with great moments. The title bout is exhilarating and poignant. Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) eventually arrives like a forerunner of Furiosa and her Furies, destined to save us from the men who broke the world. And concerns about Affleck’s casting are misplaced—this is really more of a Batman reboot than a Superman sequel, and Affleck’s world-weary countenance carries both a fully formed character and the film.
Still, it’s not a great movie. The two-and-a-half-hour slog through multiple nightmare sequences—including an intriguing scene, featured in the trailer, in which a shackled Batman is confronted by Superman and his armed minions—is all for naught. The final-act arrival of an overly digitized, colossal Prometheus represents a bloated storyline that bludgeons the viewer with bombast.
With Hans Zimmer’s Wagner-esque chords blaring, the script sails past its provocative premise and begins shoehorning in elements of the upcoming Justice League universe. The film becomes overbearing and overstuffed, capped by a Christ analogy that will pay off only if what’s born from Batman v Superman isn’t just another superhero franchise, but also a Man of Steel who grasps mortality after being chastened by a mortal. It can’t be a coincidence that the movie opens on Good Friday.