Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice

The fight for silver-screen supremacy rages on.

Warner Bros has been the corporate parent of DC Comics since the 1960s, and its exploitation of that relationship – with the 60s Batman TV show, the 80s Superman films, and a slew of Batman films – made DC’s superheroes dominant in the wider popular culture for over 50 years. That all changed at the turn of the millennium with Marvel Comics finally succeeding in getting decent movies made from their intellectual property, starting with Fox’s X-Men franchise in 2000, continuing with Sony’s Spider-Man franchise in 2002, and leading up to Marvel Studios launching their own franchise with Iron Man in 2008. Since then, Marvel’s Cinematic Universe – brought to fruition with The Avengers in 2012 – has become the juggernaut of the current superhero boom.

Warner still held on to a sizeable corner of the superhero film market with Christopher Nolan’s mega-successful Batman films, but were eager to compete with Marvel’s larger scale plans. George Miller (Mad Max) was hired to make Justice League: Mortal (featuring Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman) for a 2009 release, which would have beat The Avengers to the superteam punch by 3 years if it hadn’t have fallen apart. Warner decided to slow their roll a bit and relaunch Superman with Man of Steel in 2013, but their dour reimagining of the character wasn’t the success they had hoped for.

Now we have Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, doubling down on Man of Steel director Zack Snyder (300, Watchmen) and promising a future Justice League film right in the title. The story is very loosely based on Frank Miller’s “The Dark Knight Returns” (i.e. one scene from it) and, as shown in the trailers, features the Doomsday from one of the most famous Superman stories. Both of these stories have been cherry-picked for the past 25 years of Batman and Superman films, making it increasingly clear that these are the only comics the people involved have ever read.

The heart of the conflict between Batman (Ben Affleck) and Superman (Henry Cavill) follows from the destruction of Metropolis wreaked by Superman’s fight with Zod in Man of Steel. We see the ground zero perspective of this battle, with Bruce Wayne racing towards the Metropolis branch of Waynecorp only to see the building collapse in full 9/11-referencing glory. Batman decides, paraphrasing Dick Cheney, that, “If there's a 1% chance that he’s our enemy then we have to treat it as an absolute certainty,” and begins preparing weapons to defeat Superman. However another wacky billionaire has the same idea: Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg) has already mobilised his Lexcorp resources and political connections to obtain Zod’s body, his Kryptonian ship and a hunk of Kryptonite to aid him in taking down Superman. This is all while the US government is holding a commission into how to deal with Superman and anti-alien sentiment is growing amongst the public. Nobody seems to like Superman in this film, including the people making it.

Despite all the political allusions made in the script, the promised battle between Supes and Bats ends up not being one of ideology but of failed communication. Unlike Frank Miller’s original version, where Batman was the representative of Objectivist self-reliance vs. Superman as an enforcer of state power, this fight is based on a misunderstanding that could be defused at any time with a quick conversation. Superman has been so thoroughly Nolanised that there’s no legitimate ideological difference left to create a real conflict, forcing Lex Luthor (and the scriptwriters) to engineer the fight through deception. They try to play the misunderstanding as tragic but it ends up just being frustrating, and the resolution through a coincidental detail in their backstories would be laughable if it wasn’t so dumb.

But hey! 75 years after her comic book debut, we finally get a film version of Wonder Woman! Gal Gadot is fine in what little role she has in the film, but it’s essentially a cameo that has little effect on proceedings. Unsurprisingly, Ben Affleck’s Batman is the best handled character in the film – not least because he gets the most screen time by far. It’s a strange choice, since I doubt anyone needs a refresher course on what Batman is about (did we really need to see his parents die AGAIN?) and Superman is so desperately in need of fixing. The progression of the trailers for this film, showing less and less of Superman and more and more of Batman, show that Warner Bros is happy to lean into Batman’s existing popularity rather than developing other characters.

Speaking of not using new characters: Jesse Eiseberg’s Lex Luthor is the third cinematic iteration of the character that has been the main villain in every Superman film so far. In both casting and performance he is played as Mark Zuckerberg in the throes of cocaine psychosis, and is as thoroughly annoying as he appears in trailers. The portrayal of super intelligent characters as crazy people has become a lazy cliché that allows screenwriters to avoid displaying actual intelligence in their writing. Like Batman’s status as The World’s Greatest Detective, WB seems determined to avoid focusing on smarts and more on action.

And, yes, most of the films 153 minutes is focused on action. Batman gets a particularly good scene taking down some gang members with fisticuffs and Batarangs, but this is undercut by the number of scenes showing him using guns. If he’s fine with guns now then why is he bothering punching people? Superman seems to have a perpetual sneer as he goes around threatening everyone, with his overpowered bully act only relenting when he’s with his girlfriend. Zack Snyder always prioritises cool images over logic, and this film shows how badly that instinct can go wrong when it’s not bound to a decent script. The muddled motivations of the characters saps the action of any meaning, leaving only long stretches of projectile pixel-vomit in its wake. That and the number of fake-out dream sequences makes it hard to invest in anything that’s going on.

So the real battle around this film will be Marketing v Reviews, as Rotten Tomatoes is already reading at under 40% with the critics. Variety estimates that Batman v Superman needs to make $800 million at the box office for it to break even after marketing costs, and the studio is relying on the success of this film to launch a slate of DC Comics films going into 2020. This weekend will be an interesting test of whether a film really can be too big to fail.

- Adam Raboczi

Movie Details

Title: Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice
Director: Zack Snyder