“Nobody cares about Clark Kent taking on the Batman,” the Daily Planet‘s editor dismissively remarks early on in the lumbering steamroller that is Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice. But Warner Bros. devoutly prays that this sentiment is not the case. The studio has a great deal riding on this battle of culturally imperishable superheroes, the launchpad for its proposed series of “DC Extended Universe” tentpoles that it hopes will prove viable rivals to Marvel’s vaunted cinematic gold mine of comic book figures turned film franchises.
Opening this weekend on roughly 4,000 screens domestically and 30,000 worldwide, this dramatically dark and physically gigantic venture is estimated to need to haul in $1 billion at the very least to justify itself financially and pave the way for the flood of WB/DC outings already set for release over the next four years. With significantly stronger international than domestic results likely, it may well earn its keep. But after Man of Steel three years ago, the studio had to know what it was getting with director Zack Snyder; the film may be imposing, but it’s not fun.
Big but not fun.
The main issue facing the writers of a superhero smackdown like this is concocting a reason why, given all the evil out there, they have to fight each other — as well as, in this case, coming up with a way to level the playing field when one hero is essentially immortal and the other is just a really buff rich guy with a costume and lots of gizmos. Screenwriters Chris Terrio (Argo) and David S. Goyer (all three of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight blockbusters) have sort of solved this by devising ways to make Superman more frequently vulnerable than he’s ever been before. But the villain here, Jesse Eisenberg’s Lex Luthor, is so intensely annoying that, very early on, you wish Batman and Superman would just patch up their differences and join forces to put the squirrelly rascal out of his, and our, misery.
The story does take an epic, rangy perspective, as the long setup jumps from one far-flung locale to another to establish pockets of evil while also dramatizing Bruce Wayne’s backstory, here conceived as seeing his parents gunned down in the street after emerging from a theater showing Excalibur. Seemingly disconnected worldwide events — Metropolis being destroyed as a huge spacecraft with claws hangs overhead, Lois Lane (Amy Adams) on assignment in Africa, criminals threatening wider destruction with a dirty bomb — are mixed in with Bruce (Ben Affleck, fitting the role just fine) brooding over his place in the world and his legacy, to which his butler Alfred (Jeremy Irons, who could use more to do) replies with perhaps the film’s best line: “Even you’ve grown too old to die young.”
The solemn, grandiose atmosphere is severely disrupted by Luthor, portrayed by Eisenberg as a privileged tech guru who makes the actor’s take on Mark Zuckerberg look like the epitome of style and manners. Loaded with vocal tics and gushing with smarmy ripostes and threats, the character is loathsome without an ounce of insidious charm; if the legacy of the studio’s Dark Knight films might have suggested anything, it should have been in the area of great villains, but here there is just a great vacuum.
For his part, Batman is provided with plentiful backstory and psychology, but the mature character, as written, never comes into full bloom; all the same, one can look ahead with some hope to Affleck in the role in future installments. Cavill is also likeable enough but, again, hamstrung by the twisty, convoluted inventions designed to limit his abilities during long stretches.
Stylistically, it’s clear that Snyder felt the weight of responsibility entailed in setting the visual and tonal template for Warners’ DC universe to come; with all the ominous foreboding and hues much darker than the director worked with on Man of Steel, one senses him and cinematographer Larry Fong (in their fourth collaboration, although Fong did not shoot Man of Steel) figuratively looking over their shoulders in the direction of hovering executive producer Nolan to make sure it’s all black and bleak enough. This applies as well to Patrick Tatopoulos’ envelopingly gloomy production design as well as to the score by Nolan regular Hans Zimmer and the latter’s collaborator here, Junkie KC, who have come up with a number of very effective musical passages that seriously enhance the mood of impending doom. The look of the bat suit keeps evolving, and Michael Wilkinson’s costumes impressively meet a wide variety of requirements.
Based on these proceedings, it’s hard to say what ought to happen between Batman and Superman in the future, even, indeed, if they actually should share the screen again. Obviously, if they fight, it would always have to be to a draw, so for the most part they should collaborate. If Warners does end up making more stand-alone Batman and Superman films, the most enjoyable solution would probably be to have the superheroes drop in for surprise visits to the other’s world from time to time, just to help out.
As other DC characters are rotated into the Warner Bros.’ big-screen world, it’s to be hoped that they are introduced and integrated into the flow of events more gracefully than is Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) here. It’s as if the filmmakers have simply thrown up their hands at the challenge; after having been briefly glimpsed earlier, she’s tossed into the epic final battle, between the two heroes and a raging giant that burns as hot as the sun, only to quickly assume battle posture with her sword and shield. Good luck with that.
Production companies: Atlas Entertainment/Cruel and Unusual Films
Distributor: Warner Bros.
Cast: Ben Affleck, Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Jesse Eisenberg, Diane Lane, Laurence Fishburne, Jeremy Irons, Holly Hunter, Gal Gadot, Scoot McNairy, Callan Mulvey, Tao Okamoto
Director: Zack Snyder
Screenwriters: Chris Terrio, David S. Goyer, based on characters from DC Comics
Producers: Charles Roven, Deborah Snyder
Executive producers: Christopher Nolan, Emma Thomas, Wesley Coller, Geoff Johns, David S. Goyer, Steven Mnuchin
Director of photography: Larry Fong
Production designer: Patrick Tatopoulos
Costume designer: Michael Wilkinson
Editor: David Brenner
Music: Hans Zimmer, Junkie KC
Visual effects supervisor: John ‘DJ’ Desjardin
Casting: Kristy Carlson, Lora Kennedy
Rated PG-13, 153 minutes