Zack Snyder’s long-awaited Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice may be the closest thing fanboys and fangirls will ever get to a heavyweight title fight like the Thrilla in Manila or the Rumble in the Jungle. Since it was first announced in 2013, the movie wasn’t merely hyped as the launching pad for DC’s expanded universe (bringing in the likes of Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman, Aquaman, the Flash, etc.). It would also serve up a superhero smackdown for the ages: the Dark Knight vs. the Man of Steel. As these things go, it’s hard to imagine a bigger event.
Dawn of Justice is big, all right. The brawls are busy and brutal, the story is sprawling in scope, the effects are an embarrassment of pixels, and the performances (well, some of them, at least) couldn’t be broader. If it’s just size you’re after, you won’t be disappointed. But at this point in Hollywood’s superhero cycle, is that really enough? Snyder has built his career on the supposition that it is. In films like 300, Watchmen, Sucker Punch, and Man of Steel, he’s proved to be the kind of filmmaker who cranks every knob as far to the right as it will go. Modulation, economy, and nuance may not be his thing, but at least his movies always look like a billion bucks. And this one does too.
As every Batman story must, Dawn of Justice opens with a flashback to Bruce Wayne’s defining childhood trauma: the murder of his parents. While we’ve all seen this tragedy rendered before, whether in the panels of a comic or on screen, Snyder gives it the haunting visual power of a primal myth. And the good news is, Ben Affleck is a solid successor to Christian Bale, even if he’s a better Bruce Wayne than Batman. His innate air of cockiness syncs up perfectly with Wayne’s spoiled playboy-scion persona.
The movie kicks off with the twin cities of Gotham and Metropolis trying to make sense of the destructive arrival of Superman (the film picks up on the heels of 2013’s Man of Steel). As Henry Cavill’s square-jawed hero grapples with his role as a protector of both mankind and Amy Adams’ Lois Lane, Affleck’s brooding vigilante (along with confidant Alfred, now played by Jeremy Irons) wrestles with the question of whether Superman is a friend or foe. Enter Jesse Eisenberg’s Lex Luthor to manipulate our dueling heroes’ anxieties and play both sides against the middle, pitting them against each other.
I get that this mano a supermano story line is a sacred text among comic-book aficionados, but Dawn of Justice doesn’t do the tale any favors. It’s overstuffed, confusing, and seriously crippled by Eisenberg’s over-the-top performance. As the megalomaniac tech mogul hell-bent on bringing our heroes to their knees, the actor is a grating cartoon of manic motormouth tics. He might as well be wearing a buzzing neon sign around his neck that says “Crazy Villain.” (If you don’t want to know anything more about his nefarious plot, stop reading.) Luthor schemes to weaponize some Kryptonian relics left behind by General Zod in Man of Steel and create a rampaging monster named Doomsday that, to my eyes, resembles a giant turd. Dawn of Justice starts off as an intriguing meditation about two superheroes turning to an all-too-human emotion: hatred out of fear of the unknown. Two and a half hours later it winds up somewhere very far from that—but at the same time, all too familiar. It’s another numbing smash-and-bash orgy of CGI mayhem with an ending that leaves the door open wide enough to justify the next 10 installments. Is it too late to demand a rematch? C+