“That’s how it starts,” Alfred (Jeremy Irons) warns an increasingly murderous Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck). “The fever, the rage, the sense of powerlessness that turns good men cruel.” But this fever does something else to Batman—it makes him dream. In a jam-packed movie trying to lay foundations for an entire cinematic universe, the euphemism for a profit-maximizing web of interconnected movies, Wayne dreams of all kinds of comic-book scenarios. We see dreams of horror in his mother’s mausoleum; a wacky time travel bit; a desert dystopia of demons and a dictator Superman;and the greatest, most incredible, and most absurd dream of all: the fight between Batman and Superman.
Except that last one is the actual plot. To sum up criticisms of this movie: The plot is terrible. The two demands of the title—to make the two fight and to launch a host of Justice League movies—prove far too much for this script to bear. Both the fight and the inevitable team-up against a bigger monster are forced and implausible. But then again, this is a movie titled “Batman v Superman.” Surely the main issue here is not plot but spectacle. By that standard, it should be judged a success.
“Batman v Superman” picks up at the closing scenes of “Man of Steel,” which, like all superhero movies, features catastrophic damage to life and property in the background. But this time, the camera is not privy to Superman’s high-flying fight in the skies, which registers only as falling skyscrapers and distant laser beams. It remains impotently planted in the background, watching through the eyes of Bruce Wayne as the casualties rack up.
Much is made in dialogue and elsewhere about the contrast between Wayne, the mere human, and the indestructible Superman (Henry Cavill), who seems practically divine. The still more interesting contrast, artfully drawn through excellent lighting and cinematography, is between light and dark. This grim, bitter version of Batman inhabits a shadowy world of criminals––it always seems to be nighttime. But occasionally Superman flies in, effortlessly bulldozing some obstacle, and the shadows melt away around him. Dressed in shining blue and red, Cavill’s Superman is both perfect and emotionless. Superman might be good, but he’s utterly remote and unrelatable. So when Batman finally drags him down into the shadows, landing punches with satisfying crunches, it’s viscerally satisfying.
The film does not, however, lose track of scale in the fight between the two. The lazy way to handle the fight between Batman and Superman would be to put them on approximately the same level, with Superman’s flight and super strength evenly matched by Batman’s gadgets and martial arts training (this would be Joss Whedon’s “Batman v Superman”). But that would sacrifice the grand scale of this movie. Affleck’s Batman, despite his ostensible love of CrossFit, fights Superman only by cheating constantly, and against bigger, badder villain Doomsday he spends the entire fight ducking and hiding behind cover. And so “Dawn of Justice,” more than any superhero movie yet, remains spectacularly larger than life.
This movie set out to provide a spectacle, and it more than delivers one. When Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman finally appears, armored up and backed by a stirring medley of electric strings and drums (out of the thrumming, exhausting background score by Hans Zimmer and Junkie XL, her theme is especially exciting), the audience is essentially cued to cheer. Of all the famous superheroes, Wonder Woman is particularly in danger of looking silly in the transition from comic book to live action; in this movie, however, which sees her switch dazzlingly in combat from slow motion to dizzying super speed, she is thrilling.
In general, side characters add lightness to Affleck and Cavill’s deadly serious attitudes. Gadot’s Wonder Woman, sent flying momentarily through rubble, smiles briefly, in one of the best moments of the movie. Lawrence Fishburne, as Daily Planet editor Perry White, keeps wondering why Clark Kent is skipping work. Jesse Eisenberg plays Lex Luthor like Mark Zuckerberg in “The Social Network,” frustrated by the Winklevoss-like Superman’s perfect physique. But the supporting players pale in comparison to the pulse-pounding, city-pulverizing battle at the film’s center. Really, “Dawn of Justice” is the sort of movie best watched on the largest screen possible. Ignore the plot; it doesn’t matter. Enjoy the spectacle.
––Staff writer J. Thomas Westbrook can be reached at email@example.com.
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