Batman V Superman is DC’s Iron Man 2 – an okay movie that prioritizes shared universe setup over developing a coherent story and layered characters.
In the aftermath of Superman and General Zod’s catastrophic battle in Man of Steel, sister cities Metropolis and Gotham begin picking up the pieces – as global leaders try to make sense of this new world where aliens threaten and protect Earth. Despite his role in the devastation, some see Superman (Henry Cavill) as a super-powered protector who intervenes whenever innocent life is in danger – while others view the Kryptonian as an unchecked alien warrior who is not accountable to anyone and, depending on the circumstances, could even pose an unparalleled threat to humanity in the future.
Chief among Superman’s critics is Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck), billionaire owner of Wayne Enterprises by day, ruthless Bat vigilante by night, who is convinced the Man of Steel is both a magnet for otherworldly threats as well as a liability, should the Kryptonian ever turn on the people of Earth. At the same time, in his efforts to neutralize lawbreakers (big and small) around the world, Superman determines that Batman’s choice to operate outside of the law does more harm than good – and vows to put an end to vigilante justice in Gotham City. However, as Batman and Superman prepare for a physical (and ideological) grudge match, a new threat rises to stoke the fire – and send the well-intentioned heroes into full-on war.
Director Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel was an incredibly divisive film – splitting fans and critics, alike. For some moviegoers, the movie was a refreshing change of pace from Marvel’s comparatively light-hearted superhero adaptation monopoly, while others felt Snyder delivered a flashy but hollow film (and simply wasn’t the right person to adapt Superman for the big screen). As a result, it should come as no surprise that the director’s follow-up Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice is even more controversial than its predecessor – considering Snyder and Warner Bros. have doubled-down on everything that fans liked and detractors hated about the first movie. Batman V Superman is dark, and grim, with flat characters and an unwieldy shared universe story to setup (in order to pave the way for future DC Extended Universe films); yet, it’s also packed full of moments (big and small) that will thrill comic book fans and casual filmgoers, alike.
More Watchmen than 300, Batman V Superman spends a lot of time establishing this DC world post-kryptonian invasion – especially as it pertains to how its inhabitants (from everyday people, to politicians, to vigilantes, to sociopathic tech moguls) each view Superman’s very presence on Earth. Viewers going into Dawn of Justice hoping that a significant portion of the film’s runtime is dedicated to the titular fight, or other sequences of superhero action, will likely be left wanting – and, at times, outright bored by Snyder’s overly-ambitious effort: to introduce three iconic characters (Batman, Wonder Woman, and Lex Luthor), explore the ideological differences as well as similarities between the Man of Steel and the Dark Knight, set the stage for future DCEU installments, carry forward Man of Steel thematic through lines, and pull all of this material together for a third-act finale that delivers visual spectacle as well as emotional gravitas. In his aim, Snyder only partly strikes his mark – meaning that a large portion of viewers will, for good reason, be disappointed or underwhelmed by what they get in Batman V Superman.
It’s an easy film to nitpick apart and, given how directly the movie is connected to Man of Steel, it’s surprising to see Snyder and Warner Bros. make familiar mistakes in the sequel. Minor plot holes aside (an aspect that many reviewers have leaned too heavily on), characterization is actually the film’s biggest shortcoming – because Snyder successfully establishes a compelling frame for his titular duo. Unfortunately, the filmmaker spends so much time attempting to build-up the larger DC shared movie universe that his central heroes are reduced to one-note outlines – despite the fact that audiences will appreciate and understand both of their struggles and viewpoints.
This isn’t to say that Zack Snyder doesn’t understand the characters, as some have claimed, or that Ben Affleck is a bad Batman and Henry Cavill should hang up his supersuit; on the contrary, the actors and the fundamentals of this version of these characters are compelling – but Dawn of Justice doesn’t ultimately do much with them. They’re locked into a collision course – and every aspect of the story around them is pushing to make that fight happen, often at the expense of nuanced character development and the layered ideological banter that makes Batman and Superman crossovers in comic books so rewarding. In Dawn of Justice, they aren’t as differentiated as they might seem, they actually see things very similarly, arguably too similarly: specifically, both Batman and Superman believe the other is operating above the law and without accountability.
For that reason, die-hard comic book fans could find that, while it’s pleasing to see the characters on a big screen together and there’s reason to be excited for future DCEU team-up movies, Dawn of Justice doesn’t dig deep enough below the surface of Batman and Superman’s complicated relationship to be a stand-out World’s Finest story or serve as a particularly insightful philosophical juxtaposition. Still, Snyder offers a lot of fan service and world-building that should amuse those same viewers; but, at the risk of overwhelming casual attendees who came for super-powered CGI spectacle, not shared universe setup.
The external drive that pushes the movie toward setting up the title fight and overarching DCEU world is most apparent in Snyder’s positioning of Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg). An already controversial casting choice, Eisenberg lays an intriguing foundation for Lex but the character (and LexCorp itself) are mostly used to move the plot forward – with only minor references and quirks to frame this Lex as a new take on a beloved villain. Fortunately, while Lex’s eccentric personality will require time (and more film appearances) to unpack, his actual plan in Batman V Superman is far more shocking and downright sadistic than any of his previous big screen counterparts (making him all the more terrifying) – even if his motivations, this round, get lost in a shuffle of grandiose quotables.
Similarly, Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) is a scene-stealer – both as Diana Prince and as a fully-armored amazonian warrior. Where Lex drives the heroes toward their inevitable grudge match, Diana serves as an entry point for viewers to learn about the bigger DCEU plot (both its threats and its heroes). In spite of comparatively little screen time, Wonder Woman is Batman V Superman‘s most nuanced character – a subversive breath of fresh air in the testosterone-fueled film (as well as the male-dominated superhero genre as a whole). Even for viewers who don’t care for what Snyder has delivered in Dawn of Justice, Wonder Woman should still make it easy for skeptics to get excited for future adventures in the DCEU.
As suggested, Cavill is solid but underused in his Man of Steel role – and isn’t given enough in Dawn of Justice to win-over critics who felt his take was too dull in first solo outing. The one area that could have significantly livened-up the character, his alter-ego Clark Kent, is weighed-down by the same frustrations as his superhero persona and is near-indistinguishable from Superman (read: possibly the least convincing disguise of any live action Superman). Yet, the actor continues to inject necessary humanity into Kal-El – ensuring that, in spite of his abilities and alien ancestry, Superman is a relatable person first and foremost.
Aside from the face-off with Batman and final climactic fight, the film is pretty light on Superman action – especially after those eye-popping kryptonian-on-kryptonian battles in Man of Steel. Instead, Snyder shifts the focus of his DCEU storyline onto Ben Affleck’s aged Dark Knight – who, after initial Internet backlash to the casting back in 2012, could be the best and most exciting Batman ever put to film (though, fans who were bothered by a neck-snapping Superman will likely be bothered to find that Snyder has made similar revisions to Batman’s moral code). While Affleck’s time as Bruce Wayne is mostly spent brooding, his Batman is nimble, efficient, and calculating – providing several of the coolest Batman brawls in live-action (complete with slick implementation of bat-gadgets). Similarly, as a testament to the success of this iteration, the actual fight with Superman should put questions of how Batman could beat Superman to rest – as Snyder makes smart use of his tech-savvy Caped Crusader to deliver a memorable and believable fight between man and god. Like other elements of the film, Dawn of Justice mostly lays a foundation for future adventures with the hero – but that foundation is a sturdy one.
Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice is also playing in 3D and IMAX 3D – and fans who are all-in on the superhero showdown won’t regret springing for the extra screen space and higher fidelity sound. Thanks to a rich visual flair, and striking cinematography, Snyder’s films have always looked great on a big screen in 3D, so it’s no surprise that Dawn of Justice clears that bar too – especially since several of the movie’s slickest action set-pieces were shot for an expanded IMAX-exclusive picture ratio. Nevertheless, the final battle is a near-non-sensical piece of CGI overload that is even more disconnected from practical environments than the final brawl in Man of Steel. The third act serves up plenty of comic book-inspired adrenaline, especially as the heroes team-up to take down a larger (mostly mindless) physical threat, but the sequence moves so fast, with so much shaky camera work, that it isn’t always easy to appreciate everything that is going on (at best) and all too often crosses into incoherent CGI mayhem.
Ultimately, Batman V Superman is DC’s Iron Man 2 – an okay movie that prioritizes shared universe setup over developing a coherent story and layered characters. There is a lot to enjoy in the film, especially for comic book fans, and Snyder has set an inviting table for future DCEU directors and viewers. Regardless, as a story that should be able to stand on its own, Dawn of Justice is an uneven mix – with some truly great moments and, on the other side, plenty of room for refinement and improvement. The gritty Warner Bros. approach to superhero films is still a worthwhile change of pace but in its ambitious aim to service comic book die-hards and casual action-lovers alike, Batman V Superman struggles to cover the basics – and, even more disappointing, never quite captures the complex dynamic between the Son of Krypton and the Bat of Gotham.
Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice runs 153 minutes and is Rated PG – 13 for intense sequences of violence and action throughout, and some sensuality. Now playing in 2D, 3D, and IMAX 3D theaters.
Let us know what you thought of the film in the comment section below. If you’ve seen the movie and want to discuss details about the film without worrying about spoiling it for those who haven’t seen it, please head over to our Batman V Superman Spoilers Discussion – or check out our breakdown of Batman V Superman’s Biggest Spoilers & Reveals.