In 2006, Marvel/Disney launched the first building blocks of their cinematic universe, ultimately paving the way for a vast array of interconnected stories that would pack cinemas and expand into television. Warners/DC, on the other hand, seemed to be more at home in keeping their characters on the television screen quite separate from not only movie versions but often from each other. With the release of Batman Vs Superman: Dawn of Justice, there’s the distinct impression that the ‘dynamic competition’ is playing catch-up, seeing the highly-effective blueprint that Marvel created and deciding they want their own, multi-layered, multiverse slice of the pie. Though this week’s film IS a sequel to Man of Steel, it’s essentially the debut of Warners/DC attempts to build a universe for themselves. Dawn of Justice may have their iconic holy trinity (Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman) but in the years to come, they will interact with big-screen versions of The Flash, Green Arrow and even Aquaman to create the Justice League.
Some early reviews painted the film as a disaster of epic proportions, echoing the early concerns that had dogged it from the beginning. Many of the criticisms voiced are fair and apparent for all to see, but to be fair, it is not the epic disaster that some have complained about or foretold However, painted as it is in far more grim and darker hues than Marvel‘s angst-tinted but more shiny heroes, Dawn of Justice has two major flaws that act as cinematic Kryptonite.
One is that despite genuine ambition and some inspired moments, the whole enterprise is far too dour to sustain its bloated 150 minute plus running time. The whole enterprise yearns to be epic and heavy with metaphor, homage and iconography – every moment believing it has something profound to say about the human condition, every decision a balancing act worthy of Atlas. It rocks the furrowed brow and the heavy sigh like it’s going out of fashion, but there is absolutely no sense of fun to be had. I think I raised a smile twice and there’s nary a glimpse of unclenched teeth from the cast throughout.
The second hurdle is that the film is not so much plotted as mix-and-matched. So many things are thrown at the screen, foreshadowing for further DC/Warner projects including Justice League, that the film hurtles from one scene to another with no sense of blueprint but sheer momentum. Anyone not aware of certain DC Comics mythology will likely come unstuck at some point and even die-hard fans will wonder if a momentary diversion will prove important or a mere easter egg.
Once again, Snyder and Co dazzle the special-effects budget but the flipside is that once you’ve seen a few hundred explosions and bolts of lightning they lose their impact. Laws of physics and the nature of energy defy all known logic for the sake of a knockout blow…. but ‘comics’.
The end of Man of Steel saw a ‘battle royale’ between Superman and fellow Krypton survivor General Zod (Michael Shannon) one which left Superman snapping Zod’s neck and the city in ruins – countless killed in the onslaught. Snyder insisted in turning the ultimate boy-scout into a killer for Man of Steel. His reasoning – that Superman must kill so that we know why he swears to never kill again – was something of a bizarre, dysfunctional use of logic and one that turned off many critics who claimed that the director had forced the iconic character into a story rather than built a story around the icon. Dawn of Justice does not ignore that ending and pays lip-service to the consequences… using it as one of the first wedges to come between Superman and Bruce Wayne (the latter sees the alien and his battles as a clear and present danger to the average citizen). But rather than steering the ‘Man of Tomorrow‘ back onto the iconic road promised, Snyder instead doubles-down and makes the ‘Son of Krypton‘ a Republican wet-dream of possible ‘might-makes-right‘ warrior and unapologetic messiah metaphor. Yes, dialogue has been added in several places to mention that the collateral damage is happening to empty buildings, but the wholesale destruction continues.
On the positive side, the action quotient pays off – the inevitable visual slugfest between Bats and Supes works well in the short-term and there IS a certain satisfaction to seeing the dynamic duo together on screen at last . There’s nothing wrong with either Cavill or Affleck’s performances per se and they supply the gravitas the script insists if not the heart… though Gadot’s Wonder Woman is far more sketched than drawn – gliding through with style but lack of charisma… but at least she’s there. Amy Adams walks the requisite line between reckless reporter and damsel in distress. Jesse Eisenberg’s Lex Luthor is… just scattershotly annoying, so let’s leave it at that. There also are cameos from the first film, some which work better than others – one mountainside visitation remains bafflingly pointless. However some kudos at least is due for making me realise the maternal connection between the two heroes – after stupidly missing it for forty years – and making that element pay-off importantly towards the climax.
All in all, this is a different beast to the mighty world of Marvel‘s movie-theatre experience – far less polished and fulled more by pure testosterone. It’s an ambitious yet aimless adrenaline rush that wants to be worthy and epic and ends up being more ‘wham, bam’ and thank-you-ma’am’ with its trio of names – style and scale over heart. (At least Marvel keep their ad-breaks until after the credits, here you can expect a car commercial or sequel plug about every twenty minutes).
Yes, it is probably worth seeing if you’re a comics fan, though the casual viewer may find it tougher going. For a film about a red-white-and-blue costumed character that is supposed to personify the American dream… it’s a joyless, humourless trip through a pretty but pouty post-apocalyptic PTSD trip that starts with a 9/11-esque bang and ends with a petulant whimper, deconstructing the heroes before we’ve had a chance to construct people we can care about. It’s Easter-launch is no coincidence, very much playing to a ‘Passion of the Kryptonian‘ subtext. Along the way there’s genuine visual diamonds to appreciate in the rough if that’s what you want to see – it’s not a film without some merit – but it remains at best a glorious mess of askew intentions aimed only at an adult audience of fan-boys and intellectual theologists (kids will be bored senseless) and at worst an unreliable, vastly over-extended foundation on which to build a new universe.