It’s impossible to write about “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” in a vacuum, because your enjoyment of the film will depend on just what itches you want scratched by your average comic-book film. It’s no secret that “Dawn of Justice” introduces a slew of new heroes, but the title remains true to the focus of the film. Their introductions are merely subplots whose screen time is disruptive to the flow of the main story. This sounds like a complaint, but by giving the audience just a taste of what is to come instead of full-blown exposition, director Zack Snyder maintains the pace and tension of Batman and Superman’s rivalry.
What rivalry? Well, after spending the vast majority of his adult life fighting murderous freaks of nature, who could blame Batman (Ben Affleck) for being maybe just a teensy bit skeptical about this Superman fella (Henry Cavil)? Unable to resolve their respective versions of vigilantism with one another, the two clash, allowing other forces to gather strength and assume their new roles in the DC universe. These forces come in the form of Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg) and Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), as well as a (thankfully abbreviated) sneak peek at the future of DC blockbusters.
To the common eye the decisions in personnel often seemed bizarre and ill-conceived, but on paper, everything fits together perfectly. Casting Jesse Eisenberg as Lex Luthor actually does make a lot of sense. After all, he has a history of portraying neurotic geniuses quite well, (he received an Academy Award nomination for his depiction of Mark Zuckerberg in 2011’s “The Social Network”). Eisenberg smartly compensates for his somewhat undersized casting by forgoing the emulation of the formidable performances of Gene Hackman and Kevin Spacey. Instead, Eisenberg’s Luthor is more childlike. In his best scenes, Eisenberg comes across as a disturbed young prodigy with an anthill, a magnifying glass, and either too much or not enough Ritalin. Eisenberg cranks the campiness factor just a smidge too high with some of his louder dialogue, but delivers a fun and effective performance nonetheless.
The apprehension in the casting of Affleck is understandable, as his best roles usually involve him playing some version of the working class everyman (“Good Will Hunting,” “The Town.”) Too bad Bruce Wayne isn’t from South Boston. However, Affleck is undeniably good at portraying a man who has a serious grudge against someone. Fortunately for him, that’s as emotionally nuanced as Snyder’s Batman gets. This applies to the other heroes as well. Cavil’s Superman and Gadot’s Wonderman are largely unremarkable, but they don’t have to be remarkable at all. The actors serve as completely serviceable, stylish avatars for your favorite members of the Justice League. No performance is poor enough to shatter the viewer’s sense of disbelief, which is more than enough for a quality comic-book blockbuster.
Once again, Snyder does a great job of reminding the audience that Superman was destined for modern CGI. “Man of Steel” was especially successful in reminding the audience how much fun a fight scene can be without any rules or laws of physics to slow it down. Again, this is where personal preference comes in, but personally, I would rather watch two Kryptonians throw each other through skyscrapers than watch Hawkeye roll around on the floor with a bow like a jackass. However, by introducing heros with more human limitations, Snyder no longer affords himself that luxury.
Thankfully, it’s clear to see that Batman’s fight choreography has taken heavy cues from his videogame counterpart in the Arkham Asylum series. It’s fantastic to see Batman fight like he isn’t wearing a diving bell. After the Nolan trilogy, it’s refreshing to see a director more willing to prioritize a good fight scene over the moral logic of Batman. By taking a more, shall we say, “aggressive” disposition towards his enemies, Batman’s fights hold higher stakes than just about any other superhero fighting on the big screen today. There is also something delightfully cathartic about watching Batman simply take a criminal’s gun and shoot him back with it.
Whereas Nolan focused on atmosphere, character development, and slowly building to conflict, Snyder focuses all creative energy on the conflicts themselves. The heroes and villains of Dawn of Justice are playing on uneven terrain. After all, there is a clear underdog on the main marquee (one hero is an indestructible alien, the other’s just a ripped rich dude, which is also pretty sweet, but hey–). Herein lies Dawn of Justice’s biggest strength, as Snyder makes sure to establish a clear set of rules to govern each fight before it takes place. Taking said rules and DC’s history with repeatedly rebooting its franchises, no hero truly feels safe in “Dawn of Justice.” It is surprising that in 2016, of all the comic-book blockbusters, the movie featuring Superman would be the one where mortality actually plays a factor. Marvel movies often feel too safe, with each hero representing a franchise too valuable to put in permanent harm’s way.
Snyder’s work is usually met with mixed reviews. Say what you will about the man’s filmography, but he has clearly proven himself to be among the best directors in Hollywood when it comes to putting an adaptation on the big screen. Those skeptical of such a statement need only watch 2004’s “Dawn of the Dead” remake, which possibly holds the rare distinction of being superior to the original (think John Carpenter’s “The Thing” or Steven Soderbergh’s “Ocean’s 11.”) Though “Watchmen” and “300” had flaws, they were for the most part ruthlessly faithful to their respective original works. Snyder’s best trait as a director is also his biggest problem: his choice of projects. “Watchmen” was infamous for the sheer complexity of the source material, and its natural predilection for the graphic novel format over that of the Hollywood blockbuster. “300” on the other hand, suffered because the source material sucked in the first place. Now that he has seemed to find some middle ground in the DC universe, the prospect of new, Snyder-led Justice League movies is exciting, and isn’t that all we want from our comic-book movies in the first place?
I think my transitions are too abrupt, the review is too long, and has too many parentheticals. It was a ton of fun though, I’d love to do this more often.
Photo courtesy of Warner Bros