Directed by Zack Snyder, 2016.
Starring Ben Affleck, Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Jesse Eisenberg, Jeremy Irons, Laurence Fishburne, Gal Godot, Holly Hunter, Diane Lane.
The Man of Steel finds enemies on all sides, including a vengeful Dark Knight and a doubting populace; but the greatest foe may be yet to come, as billionaire Lex Luthor gets his hands on Kryptonian technology, and unleashes an abomination which could wreak untold havoc and destruction….which would be bad.
KING KONG VS GODZILLA. Freddy vs Jason. Alien versus Predator. The clash of fan favourites, so enticing in theory, inevitably fails when bought to life. ‘Versus’ is not a plot, it’s a main event, and these films strain to build up to a titular bout which can only ever disappoint. Besides – who do you cheer for?
‘Versus movies’ never work.
Following up 2013’s Man of Steel, Dawn of Justice isn’t a ‘versus’ movie. Not really. It’s a superhero team-up in the age old tradition, adhering faithfully to a formula a thousand comics have used beforehand. You’ll find it in half the stories Stan Lee ever wrote.
It goes like this: scheming supervillain (in this case, Jesse Eisenberg’s hyperactive boy-billionaire Lex Luthor) contrives to bring two superheroes into opposition, hoping to remove one or both in order to go about his latest sinister plan uninterrupted. The heroes clash – but soon realise they’re on the same side, then teaming up for a climactic confrontation with the cackling puppet master.
A more accurate title would be The Last Temptation of Superman. There are varying degrees of Biblical allegory throughout the Man of Steel’s cinematic history, but rarely this full-on. ‘The sky cracked, he came down, then there was fire,’ is how one witness describes him, and even Batman (Affleck) displays wide-eyed, slow-motion astonishment the first time he encounters his caped rival.
This is a flawed messiah however; Superman (a dignified Cavill) soars into situations without considering repercussions, and has no dialogue with the authorities. Now-girlfriend Lois Lane (Adams) strains to make him realise there are always consequences, as does a vision of his dead father, a cameoing Kevin Costner.
Supes, like Jesus, is undermined and assailed from all sides. He’s mocked as a ‘false God’. He’s effectively put on trial for ignoring earthly laws. Luthor tempts him into killing Batman to save Martha Kent’s life. And he’s brutally beaten by a certain non-believer, who intends to finish him off with a kryptonite Spear of Longinus (imagery which also appeared in Superman Returns) in an abandoned and rundown church.
You weren’t expecting the japes of Iron Man, were you?
Director Zack Snyder doesn’t stop there; he takes these characters incredibly seriously. While populist rival Marvel Studios have perfected a blueprint of fun and energetic superhero adventures, Snyder is aiming for weighty themes and mythological power. Alongside the Christian motifs, he also draws on Roman and Greek heroes; far beyond humanity in their power and will, but equally epic in their flaws. Like Achilles or Hercules, these caped crusaders are both great and terrible, saviours and destroyers at once. Affleck’s Batman is pure focused rage, causing untold property damage, injury and even death in pursuit of his goals; while the tyrannical possibilities of Superman and made evident in a nightmare vision of the future, and his tendency towards heavy-handedness to protect loved ones escalates throughout.
There are varying degrees of Biblical allegory throughout the Man of Steel’s cinematic history, but rarely this full-on
As with Snyder’s previous comic-based feature Watchmen, Dawn of Justice questions the very idea of superheroes. The soundtrack by Hans Zimmer and Junkie XL notably lacks a commanding, triumphant march, instead offering a series of ominous and brooding themes throughout. News reports and chat shows are used to offer varying perspectives on Superman’s effect on the world, asking if he causes more problems than he solves.
Onto Batman, this is a world-weary, aging crime fighter, darker than any Dark Knight we’ve seen onscreen before. Based on a 1986 re-invention of the character as a violent vigilante, but lacking it’s back-from-retirement angle, Affleck’s Bat is instead motivated by loss – not just the ever-present memories of his murdered parents, but also a display in the Batcave commemorating a fallen Robin. When he witnesses first hand another child orphaned during Superman’s city-devastating battle with Zod – a scene heavy with 9/11 imagery – red mist descends and he sets his sights on the last remaining Kryptonian – in the belief they are all as bad as each other. Oh yes, there’s political allegory here too.
“If there’s even a one percent chance he is our enemy,” spits Affleck, “we have to take it as an absolute certainty.” Ignoring sage advice from his Man Friday Alfred (Jeremy Irons, keeping it classy), he then precedes to arm up and go to battle, in a sea of self-justified fury. This is a Batman who brands thugs with his symbol, ensuring they won’t last long behind bars, and blows away his enemies in air-strikes with military grade weaponry.
This war-mongering, reactionary Batman is hard to stomach; and Superman shows unfamiliar and uncomfortable traits too. Snyder is determined to show us our heroes at their lowest points, lacking belief and wisdom, and giving in to their base instincts. Often these don’t feel like the characters we know and love. Batman eventually realises his hamartia, but it leaves a sour taste in the mouth. Adam West has never seemed further away.
It’s heavy stuff – not helped by the early death of a beloved albeit minor character – and makes for almost oppressive viewing at times. Downbeat, ominous action movies can work – see Terminator 2: Judgement Day – but Dawn of Justice doesn’t have momentum of that movie, instead settling for a measured, epic tone, and, for the first half at least, too long between action interludes.
Nevertheless, Bats and Supes were put together on the screen for a reason, and it’s not to harmonise like the Carpenters. And when the Caped Crusader and the Man of Steel eventually come to blows, of course it’s not as good as it should be, not as good as it is in your head, and not as good as numerous comic book clashes between the titular titans. Neither is it the gleeful, ultimately harmless hero vs hero fisticuffs of The Avengers series; instead it’s a nightmarish vision of two heroes at their lowest points ready to kill each other. There’s even a thunderstorm for good measure.
But what follows more than makes up for it. Once the aforementioned face off is out of the way, and we’re back to good old good versus evil, the film achieves a level of emphatic comic book mayhem on a scale rarely seen before. This isn’t just an epilogue with the now-friendly heroes snapping the cuffs on the villain; this is an epic third-act that contains all the action and spectacle you could hope for. You want to see Batman in a fight scene worthy of The Raid? It’s here. You want a beloved iconic superheroine thrown in? Sure, how about Gal Gadot’s ferocious Wonder Woman? You want notorious comic book monster Doomsday wreaking havoc? Done. He’s even been supersized for you. How about a nuke in space?
Snyder finds new ways of presenting the character’s awe-inspiring abilities in action. When a terrorist holds a gun to Lois’ head, Superman simply tackles him faster than the eye can see, leaving three demolished walls in his wake and a shocked Lois gazing on. Wonder Woman’s metal bracelets don’t just deflect mere bullets anymore, they absorb energy beams and release them back at her attacker as a shockwave. Batman is as wily and strategic as he’s always been in the comic – although he’s not above dropping cars on his foes, which he does more than once.
Aside from bombastic action, Snyder’s other great talent is creating evocative and awe-inspiring imagery, which he does here alongside cinematographer Larry Fong. The first stunning glimpse of Batman, hanging in the corner of a dark room, like his namesake; Superman surrounded by crowds at the Day of the Dead festival, reaching out to him like a messiah; in fact every scene, every shot, is beautifully composed, lit and filtered. Against the grainy, shadowy stock, and a palette of deep earthy colours, elements like the glowing green Kryptonite or the blue glare of the armoured Batsuit’s eyes become intense and otherworldly. Visually Batman v Superman is far beyond the output of, say, Marvel Studios.
Aficionados will applaud Batman’s comic-faithful design, ditching the black rubber of the 90s movies, or the overly-intricate SWAT-look of the more recent Christian Bale incarnation. They’ll also be pleased to see further DC Comics characters either introduced or hinted at, including Aquaman, Cyborg and the Flash, laying groundwork for the Justice League movie to follow in 2017.
Dawn of Justice certainly tries to give the viewer a twelve-course meal of super heroics. Whether you want many dishes of heavy religious and political allusions (and very few laughs) before you get to the action-packed dessert is the question. Certainly it’s hard to see children sitting through this (try animated mini-classic The Batman/Superman Movie) and there are better movies questioning superheroes (try Watchmen or Super). But Dawn of Justice, in portraying comic book crusaders as hubristic demi-gods, has vision and ambition that makes it worthwhile – if not always perfect popcorn munching entertainment.
Review by Betamax Sandtheft