Zack Snyder’s second installment in the DC Comics cinematic universe, three years after “Man of Steel,” needed to do just one thing: set itself distinctly apart from the seemingly never-ending stream of Marvel superhero movies. In that regard, “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” was an outstanding success. The movie brings together two of the world’s most iconic superheroes, but from an entirely different angle than audiences have seen before. With excellent performances, spectacular special effects and thematic ingenuity, “Batman v Superman” is a promising preview of the planned Justice League series.
The opening scene shows Bruce Wayne, played by the controversially casted Ben Affleck, tearing through the streets of Metropolis as the city crumbles around him during Superman’s battle with General Zod, as seen in 2013’s “Man of Steel.” Here, Snyder shows audiences the human story — not Superman fighting evil and saving the world, but the orphaned children, the innocent victims and the untold devastation left behind when a god fights among men.
This focus on the implications of the superheroes’ actions becomes the central crux of the story. You never fear for Superman’s physical well-being — after all, he is indestructible — but you do worry how the world will react to his presence. A reccurring theme in the original Superman comics is that people of all religions have been waiting for a messiah for millennia, and when one drops from the sky, the ramifications on politics, religion and philosophy must be explored. Though Snyder’s direction is by no means perfect, his vision does reach beyond the popcorn flick. This darker, more serious approach to the superhero story is exciting, especially compared to Marvel’s previous movie magic, which is beginning to wear thin. Wisecracking superheroes saving the world and casually risking life and limb were novel six years ago, but innovation has seemingly stalled in favor of a working formula.
Indeed, this ambitious approach manifests itself in what is usually Snyder’s strength: the film’s visual presentation. “Batman v Superman” is packed with visual symbolism, striking images and mythological allusions, all contributing to the grander scale of the movie. However, this occasionally detracts from the story, as Snyder sometimes sacrifices realism and logical continuity for a cool image or a neat metaphor. This is most obvious in Wayne’s dream sequences, in which appearances can disorient and confuse the viewer. Perhaps Snyder intended to further plunge the viewer into the absurdity of the world created, but the effect seems to have been lost on viewers. Regardless, the film captures the visual translation between comic book and film, creating a world that is simultaneously believable and fantastical.
There is no question that the movie’s acting is its strongest element. Henry Cavill and Gal Gadot, of “Fast and Furious” fame, fill their roles as Superman and Wonder Woman convincingly, though their parts were limited in range. Jesse Eisenberg puts forth a solid performance as Lex Luthor, though his twitchy, psychopathic genius is a little too reminiscent of Heath Ledger’s unforgettable Joker in 2008’s “The Dark Knight.” However, the real star in the film is Affleck, who gives comic book fans the truest Batman to have ever played the role on screen. He dominates the role with terrifying authenticity, filling rooms with a muscular, commanding presence that demands attention. Affleck’s Batman has been fighting Gotham criminals for 20 years, and Affleck’s physical presence is matched only by the cunning and preparation that has quintessentially defined the Batman character. If Superman is the movie’s messiah, Batman is a demon loosed from hell.
Ultimately, however, the movie’s greatest flaw is its occasionally weak execution. The story arc is strong and compelling, but it is often marred by campy dialogue. Movie characters should not talk like comic book characters, and some lines were physically painful to hear, housed as they were by strong acting. Furthermore, the frequently overdramatic score highlighted the exaggerated dialogue. The only character who seemed immune was Wayne; this dynamic may arise from both Affleck’s close relationship with the film’s screenwriter Chris Terrio, who also wrote the Affleck-directed “Argo,” and what I suspect is Affleck’s guiding hand in the direction of his own scenes.
Like Snyder’s similarly ambitious “Watchmen,” “Batman v Superman” tackles larger issues and sweeping moral conundrums usually unseen in other comic book adaptations. With a goal so lofty, it can hardly be blamed for the occasional trip. Even so, the movie generally delivers on visual impact and acting, creating a comic book world that feels true to the source material.