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Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice Review

Updated on March 25, 2016

There have been many words used to describe Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice ever since reviews became public Tuesday night. The phrases I’ve seen associated the most are “dark”, “grim” and perhaps most frequently “no fun”. Allow me to add another word; amazing. While Zack Snyder’s union of the two greatest superheroes ever is flawed, the critical lambasting of the film is not only wrong, it’s a travesty. The reality is that Dawn of Justice is the most ambitious superhero film ever made, a bold, epic, wounded monster of a film that asks big questions and paints these Teflon characters in ways we’ve never seen. What a shame that the film will not be remembered for that but instead the fact that its polarizing director just cannot win.

Rightfully so Warner Brothers has kept the plot of Dawn of Justice close to the chest in order to prevent spoilers from leaking out. As even a detailed synopsis would reveal too much I’ll try to make this brief as possible. Eighteen months after the events that took place in Man of Steel, Superman (Henry Cavill) has become the most polarizing figure in the world. To those like Lois Lane (Amy Adams), he’s a symbol of hope. To others like Senator Finch (Holly Hunter), he’s a potential time bomb who must be kept in check. And then there’s Batman/Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck); already wracked with more issues than a glitch filled video game, the events of Man of Steel have shaped Bruce firmly against Superman at the cost of all reason. His quest to take down his rival are only matched by that of Lex Luther (Jessie Eisenberg), a young billionaire who is either the smartest crazy man ever or the craziest genius ever.

Ben Affleck as Batman
Ben Affleck as Batman

One thing everyone will agree on is that, from a technical standpoint, Dawn of Justice is an achievement. No one can ever accuse Zack Snyder of being a wizard when it comes to putting shots together and he does a marvelous job again, from the heartbreaking opening sequences (featuring the murder of Bruce Wayne’s parents and the Zod-Superman fight from Man of Steel told from Bruce’s point of view) to the pulverizing fight sequences to the finale. The biggest drawing point Dawn of Justice has is the highly teased brawl in the trailer between Batman and Superman. Those going for just that match up alone will not be disappointed; unlike some major film clashes that failed to live up (looking at you Optimus Prime vs. Megatron from Transformers), Batman and Superman deliver in a no holds barred match that features a level of unpredictability even the most cynical fan boy wouldn’t expect. Snyder and cinematographer Larry Fong hit all the right beats in scenes like this, and the score from Hans Zimmer and Mad Max: Fury Road wizard Junkie XL assists them with pulse pounding numbers that would be right at home in a rock opera.

Of course, all the fight scenes mean jack compared to the characters and story, which is where the criticism for Dawn of Justice has largely come in. There are definitely things that could be done better here; the film at times suffers from underdeveloped scenes, attempts to cram too much in and falls into the ever reoccurring danger of trying to provide too much fan service (Snyder has said the DVD release of Dawn of Justice will feature 30 extra minutes, which may explain why some things aren’t as tight or free flowing). But on the whole, these flaws are minor at best and the script by David Goyer and Chris Terrio may be one of the deepest I’ve ever seen. Nothing comes easy in Dawn of Justice; the film takes a serious look at superheroes, pulls no punches in making both Batman and Superman complex characters that aren’t as heroic as one would normally think and isn’t afraid to tackle ideas (the themes of “man vs. god” and people fighting over whether an alien is welcome amongst us play into a lot of things going on in the word today). Can these issues sometimes lack subtly? Sure. Is the film fun in the same spirit of the Marvel Cinematic Universe? No. So what? Film critics seem to have forgotten that not every film is supposed to be entertaining (they certainly remembered that when The Revenant, a film which was considered one of the grimmest of 2015, was being critically acclaimed and nominated for Best Picture) or that superhero stories should can be complex whether they’re playing it close to the chest or wearing their issues on their sleeves. Dawn of Justice isn’t perfect, but it’s always trying and more often than not succeeds at presenting poignant, moving moments. Most importantly, the story is never confusing and never loses its focus, even when the film escalates into the climax.

A hint of things from Batman's past
A hint of things from Batman's past

The performances of Dawn of Justice have also been controversial. The supporting roles all work for the most part; I was particularly impressed with Lawrence Fishburn as Perry White and Jeremy Irons as Alfred Pennyworth. Both breathe new life into famous supporting roles in comic book lore and Irons in particular brings some new depth to Alfred, who has gone from the largely supportive butler/father figure of old into a disillusioned old man who seems bitter at what Bruce has become. Gal Gadot has gotten a lot of notice for her portrayal as Wonder Women and rightfully so; she may not have a ton of time in this film, but she’s a force of nature every time she’s onscreen (I wouldn’t be surprised if there was more to the role left on the cutting room floor). Ditto for Amy Adams, whose Lois Lane remains as feisty and curious as ever despite being put in some of the film’s least developed subplots. The most polarizing player coming out of this film will be Jessie Eisenberg as Lex Luthor; some will see him as one of the most brilliant villains ever created while others will find him to be Chris Tucker levels of annoying. I personally felt he was the former. Choosing to portray Luther as a Mark Zuckerberg/Joker hybrid and impeccably written by Goyer and Terrio (trust me; no character has more going on than Luther), Eisenberg crafts a memorable villain who beneath his weird tics has a rage about him that’s almost frightening. This isn’t a bored billionaire with a simple scheme; it’s a young man with anger towards almost everything who won’t be satisfied until the world sees things the way he does.

Jessie Eisenberg as Lex Luthor
Jessie Eisenberg as Lex Luthor

As for Ben Affleck and Henry Cavill, you can chalk both performances up in the win column. It wasn’t too long ago that Affleck, much like every other actor taped to play the Caped Crusader before him, was being rejected by everyone for the role. He proves everyone wrong here, perfectly capturing the brooding nature of Bruce Wayne/Batman while adding even more layers of rage than previously seen. Never has there been a darker Batman than this one. By contrast, the less flashy Cavill holds his own as a man without country (or in this case planet) who slowly begins to lose grip with his humanity as he fails to grasp why the world may not want him. There’s a little bit of Dr. Manhattan in this Superman (no coincidence considering that Snyder directed Watchmen once upon a time), and it goes a long way in continuing to modernize him from the boy scout of old into a fully dimensional character. Snyder has been accused of trying to shoehorn Superman into a Batman film here, but that couldn’t be farther from the truth. The character that changes and ultimately grows the most is Superman, not Bruce Wayne, and the fact that critics have both missed that (and Cavill’s excellent work in doing so) is one of the gravest injustices thus far.

Henry Cavill as Superman
Henry Cavill as Superman

Final Thoughts: Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice isn’t a perfect film; it’s also nowhere close to a 30% film on Rotten Tomatoes, and those who miss this film because of that are making a massive mistake. It may not be the most fun you’ll have in a movie theater this year, but Dawn of Justice is as deep a superhero film as has ever been made, littered with great performances, strong characters, amazing fight scenes and some of the ballsiest, most moving scenes you’ve ever encountered in the genre. As such, the film serves as both a reminder that film criticism can be a very flawed process and that and the beginning of the DC Cinematic Universe. Going off Dawn of Justice, I’d say it’s off to a great start.

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