The new superhero film Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice has already gone down as one of the most controversial superhero movies to ever hit theaters. Prior to its official release there was reportedly some unease within the studio that the film's attempt at a darker, more intelligent story wouldn't connect with audiences used to Marvel's poppier, more vibrant brand of fun. The situation seemed even more bleak after the film screened for critics – the backlash was immediate and reviews were harsh. Still, amidst much handwaving by the filmmakers themselves as well certain vocal sections of the fanbase, the film has proven to be a box office smash, exceeding bottom line expectations and then some. But what about the film itself?
Let's start with the positive. Many of the performances are pretty solid, and for the most part consistent with the tone. The director Zack Snyder is very visual, and he continues to put a lot of effort into the special effects and cinematography. One of the most important rules in blockbuster filmmaking is filling the frame with cool stuff and that is one task that Snyder has mastered. Snyder composes his shots with the utmost intensity and almost every scene looks like a rich photograph. What he is also known for is his ability to choreograph viscerally satisfying action scenes. There are quite a few action sequences scatterred throughout the film and the one with Batman fighting a group of thugs in a warehouse is particularly captivating.
But even with all of that praise, there is a key criticism that continuously rears its ugly head throughout Batman V. Superman: superficiality. For all the spectacle, and iconic scenes and dialogue (most adapted from other, better work) the film feels hollow and never becomes more than the sum of its parts. Aside from moments of philosophical pontification, there isn't much depth to chew on here in both the story and the characters. The plethora of admittedly iconic scenes are mostly adapted from the comics and seem to be only in the film to spark visceral, albeit superficial feelings of pleasure from the fans. It's hard to shake the cynical feeling that the filmmakers decided not to properly develop this universe, preferring instead to jump straight to the Avengers jackpot. The film is so busy and incohesive that some scenes appear to be lacking in the basic principle of cause and effect, and the joy of seeing these characters team up is diminished when we're meeting so many of them for the first time.
Most of the characters look the part and have some of the traits of the comics but they are still written terribly. Batman has understandable motivation but there are many moments that he makes ridiculous decisions just to forward the plot. Superman's morality is completely unclear and therefore so is his motivation. The tension between the two characters is completely forced and the battle that they have comes from a flimsy cause. Wonder Woman is there just to introduce the concept of other superheroes and to help with the big battle at the end. The one character that ties everyone together is Lex Luthor, and again, his motivation is problematic to say the least. Oddly enough, it's the side characters like Lois Lane, Perry White, and Alfred Pennyworth feature the most depth. They are humans attempting to lead normal lives as they traverse through a world filled with superheroes. Unfortunately, these supporting roles aren't enough to hold up the rest of the film.
Performance-wise, the two standouts here are Ben Affleck and Gal Gadot. There are no moments of brilliance (the kind you might've seen in a Batman film directed by Chris Nolan), but overall they did a solid job given the material they had to work with. What is really unfortunate is the performance by Henry Cavill. After doing fine work in Man of Steel and last year's Man from U.N.C.L.E, his acting here comes off as wooden and stiff. And unfortunately, Cavill's is not the only offputting performance – that crown goes to Jesse Esienberg's Lex Luthor, who is simply terrible. He tries to chew up scenery but ends up an annoying embodiment of ticks and odd mannerisms that feels more like the Joker and less like the head of Lexcorp. Keep in mind, these are great actors who've done wonderful work in other films. The tone-deaf nature of the performances is more likely the result of sloppy direction by Snyder.
Overall, no one's denying the sheer audacity of the premise, nor the captivating visuals, and the handful of solid performances. Still, none of that changes the fact that the film remains one of the messiest blockbusters in years. As a fan of the comics, there are moments here that feel like an insult. The potential was all here, from the fan-savy concept to the strong cast, but the filmmakers choose instead to take shortcuts at the cost of a strong, character-driven narrative. In the end, for such a dark film, it's ironic that the final result is likely to play better to younger audiences and only the most undemanding of fans.