Ever since Marvel Studios gave its serious mission statement for a connected universe with Iron Man eight years ago, DC has been playing catch-up. Admittedly, The Dark Knight remains possibly the greatest superhero movie made and The Dark Knight Rises is impressive in its own right, but garbage like The Spirit, Jonah Hex, and Green Lantern still practically ruined the comic behemoth’s name.
By the time Man of Steel arrived on the scene to launch DC’s own connected universe of characters in 2013, all of Marvel’s heroes had already assembled for the first Avengers movie, making the character who’s faster than a speeding bullet feel very late to the scene indeed.
With plans already laid out for eleven more movies over the next five years, DC is making up for lost time with Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, a sequel to Man of Steel. And a Batman movie in its own right. And an introduction to future Justice Leaguers like Wonder Woman and Aquaman. And a reflective indictment of superheroic violence. As well as a mindless endorsement of superheroic violence. Plus, Kevin Costner.
Having shown first-hand how Superman (Henry Cavill) and Zod’s (Michael Shannon) fistfight demolished half of Metropolis at the climax of Man of Steel, Batman v. Superman starts off with the same scene from street level, as Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) races to save innocent civilians caught in the path of the Kryptonians’ battle.
This is not the Batman you’ve seen before, living a playboy lifestyle or designing fancy products in his toy-laden lab; this is a Batman who’s been so beaten down over two decades of grappling with psychopaths and criminals, he now maliciously brands the baddies he catches. (“Criminals are like weeds,” he says. “You pull one up and another grows in its place.”)
Partially out of vengeance against Superman for the danger he puts Earth in and partially because he’s manipulated into it by Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg), Bruce goes on a bat-vendetta against the “son of Krypton.” Superman tries to handle him, but is also caught up in one of several other plots piled upon him, including the Kryptonite-wielding Luthor and a senate committee looking to make Superman pay for the innocent lives he took during his Rumble in Metropolis.
Despite director Zack Snyder’s spotty-at-best track record, quite a number of scenes in the first hour are really good. But then the movie keeps going. And going. And then continues some more.
It’s not just overly long, but needlessly so. There’s wouldn’t be enough space in a normal movie’s running time to juggle so many plot threads normally, which would make for an aimless movie of one-dimensional characters. To combat that problem, Batman v. Superman gives you two-thirds of a full storyline for each character, which may be better than in something like Spider-Man 3, but still results in the movie having one of the longest-feeling closing acts of anything since The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King.
Even more so than in a Marvel movie, there are really no stakes here. If you actually think that Batman will ultimately kill Superman or vice versa, you’re kidding yourself. Regardless of the fact there are already-announced future releases of Man of Steel 2 and a stand-alone Batman movie starring Affleck, the very subtitle of Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice spells out its existence largely as the preface to next year’s Justice League, Part One. Even the ending, which is treated as if it’s supposed to be an incredibly shocking turn of events, feels so obvious as to be downright predictable.
While Batman v. Superman (and, by virtue, Man of Steel) has assembled a very impressive cast, it wastes much of it. Diane Lane is there to tearfully watch news stories about her adopted son while pouring coffee. Laurence Fishburne spends his five or six scenes yelling at or about Clark Kent, occasionally pointing at people for emphasis. Kevin Costner shows up on a mountaintop for four minutes and a paycheque.
Jesse Eisenberg, doing the same twitchy thing he always does when portraying characters whose minds race faster than their mouths can keep up, is enjoyable enough as Luthor, but more for his own eccentricities than for the character himself. Other than a few good lines seemingly scripted to voiceover trailers, his character exists merely to manufacture a reason for two superheroes to fight when there wouldn’t otherwise be.
Affleck and Gal Gadot (as Diana Prince/Wonder Woman) are both fantastic, especially together. Everyone who bad-mouthed the casting of Affleck two years ago is bound to change their opinions faster than you can say Heath Ledger. As for Cavill… Well, he’s awfully good at furrowing his brow. Already gone, though, is the spark he found in last year’s The Man from U.N.C.L.E. Here, he’s just angry.
Everyone is. Batman v. Superman is an angry, angry movie with an angry alien fighting an even angrier vigilante. All the characters in this movie are mad about something, unless they’re sad, which just serves to make other characters madder. Even Jason Mamoa’s Aquaman, in the movie for barely 15 seconds and purely to set up future films, spends every second of his screen time being angry.
There are a number of entertaining parts to Batman v. Superman, but it’s basically one fun movie grafted onto another three or four others, ranging from dour to misanthropic. It’s so busy setting up a dozen other films that character arcs and subplots are shoehorned in, simultaneously slowing down and overloading the movie.
In being so desperate to copy Marvel’s model, Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice feels more desperate than it should. It comes off defensively apologetic for the disappointing Man of Steel, overly reassuring that it can deliver a post-Christopher Nolan Batman movie, and sloppily anxious to advertise DC’s upcoming slate of titles. If the DC movies don’t figure out their own identity soon, though, one wonders how many audience members will still bother showing up.