Review: Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016)

There’s a shot about a third of the way into Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice that sums up my admiration for the film. After eavesdropping on Bruce Wayne’s (Ben Affleck) conversation with Alfred (Jeremy Irons) at Lex Luthor’s (Jesse Eisenberg) manor, Clark Kent (Henry Cavill) follows Bruce into the basement, only to flee the mansion after he sees news on the television of an apartment fire in Juárez, Mexico, that has trapped a small girl on the top floor. Clark tugs at his tie in the familiar manner and we cut to him in his Superman getup flying down from the apartment, the little girl cradled in his arms. He lands on the ground and gives her to her mother.

However, as Superman pulls away, the crowd envelops him. They place their hands on him like he’s a saint—or a god—believing that one touch of the symbol on his chest will bless them and justify their lives. This is the closest they’ll ever get to a divine experience. This shot, of Superman amidst a crowd of people in holy trance, is what Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is all about. The film wrestles with what the existence of Superman means to all parties involved: to the helpless person desperately needing a miracle, to the government that cannot control him, to the villain who hates his purity, to the hero who cannot accept the loss of control his existence imposes, and, ultimately, to us, the viewers, who love superheroes and superhero films but still don’t know what to make of a hero like Superman. This whole sequence is not an example of shallow, incoherent filmmaking. This is mythic imagery. It rocks you to your core—or at least, it did me.

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is full of striking imagery like this shot of the crowd enveloping Superman. It’s a film that feels more like mythology than comic book escapism. The film starts near the end of Man of Steel, although from a different perspective. Leaning hard into the criticisms of Man of Steel’s apocalyptic ending, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice reframes the destruction of Metropolis and Superman’s battle with Zod (Michael Shannon) from the perspective of Bruce Wayne, on the ground, racing to save his employees. It’s a terrifying scene, capturing the frightening consequences of the existence of beings like Superman—or “meta-humans,” as the film (and the comics) phrase it. It turns a perceived weakness of this series into a strength. It’s also the most potent distillation of the “reality” of superheroes ever caught on film.

The scene also fuels the central conflict of the film: the titular showdown between Batman and Superman. Witnessing firsthand the destruction that comes out of Superman’s unchecked powers, Batman sets about acquiring Kryptonite and personally taking down Superman lest he eventually turn antagonistic towards Earth. Wrapped in with this quest are glimpses of a hellish future where Superman is evil and the comic book villain, Darkseid, has set his dominion over the Earth. These scenes are delivered in dream scene fantasias that look like comic book panels come to life (and are especially stunning in IMAX). The destruction of Metropolis also clarifies that this Batman (much like Christian Bale’s) is primarily driven by fear. Fear caused by the death of his parents made him become Batman, and now fear of a loss of control over Earth’s fate drives him to take down Superman. Of course, like all fear, Batman’s is easily manipulated—in this case by Lex Luthor, who plays to Batman’s egomania and obsessiveness in order to create and arm an opponent worthy of killing Superman for him.

If all this plot description sounds overwhelming to you, you’re not the only one. The film’s plot can become a little burdensome at times, but thankfully it never becomes labyrinthian or melodramatic. It’s easy to forgive the few narratives stumbles of a film this ambitious. And if Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is anything, it is ambitious. It’s a film that wrestles with the nature of its heroes and the philosophical ramifications of their existence. It doesn’t settle for fanboy gratification.

No one would ever classify Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice as light (even the name is a mouthful) or even as “fun,” but there are small moments of grace to counter the film’s borderline-braggadocio. Jeremy Irons is a delight as Alfred, weary of Batman’s excesses, but still every bit his partner-in-crime. Gal Gadot is a formidable presence in her scant amount of screentime as Wonder Woman, especially when she arrives at the climax in her battle armour. The small smile of glee she lets out in the midst of the final fight with a monstrous foe (who is familiar to anyone with half-a-sense of pop culture memory) says so much about what type of woman she is, and obliterates any sexist comments regarding her physical acumen and potential as a crowd-pleasing character.

But the film lives in the big moments, whether that’s Batman pummeling Superman with sonic waves in an effort to slow him down or a crowd of people laying hands on Superman, as I mentioned at the beginning. A film that can conjure that sort of awe in imagery and thematics (and not just on one occasion) is a special film, even if its ambitions don’t erase its imperfections.

8 out of 10

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016, USA)

Directed by Zack Snyder; written by Chris Terrio and David S. Goyer; starring Ben Affleck, Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Jesse Eisenberg, Diane Lane, Laurence Fishburne, Jeremy Irons, Holly Hunter, Gal Gadot, Scoot McNairy, Callan Mulvey, Tao Okamoto.