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Film review: "Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice"

Of gods and men


I can't help feeling as though I should shake Zack Snyder's hand. For a man with little to no apparent interest in Batman or Superman as characters, it's impressive that he's somehow managed to convince the suits at Warner Bros. that he's the right guy to be in charge of establishing the cinematic universe for DC's famous stable of heroes.

Snyder is obviously intrigued by superheroes in concept, though his enthusiasm seems to lie solely in exploring how mankind might react to the existence of these godlike titans. While this obsession made the director a decent match for his adaptation of Alan Moore's "Watchmen" -- which dealt explicitly with the concepts of power, responsibility, and sacrifice -- it makes him a curious fit in the world of more traditional comic book action flicks.

With 2013's "Man of Steel," Snyder established his much darker take on the Superman character. This Superman, as portrayed by Henry Cavill, is weighed down by his considerable power, constantly questioning whether he owes it to the world to be the hero it wants him to become. He's every bit as anguished as Batman (a very good Ben Affleck), which sort of takes the excitement out of seeing the diametrically opposed heroes clash.

An angsty Superman may not have been the version of the character fans wanted, but it's the version we're going to get with Snyder at the helm. He's molded these characters to fit the story he wants to tell, and in certain ways I have to respect that. And as long as you can accept Snyder's perspective, there are provocative ideas, striking images, and unexpected characterizations to appreciate in "Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice" -- though they eventually end up buried beneath a bloated mess of extraneous and illogical plotlines.

The titular conflict is orchestrated by Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg), here reimagined as a twitchy tech billionaire with daddy issues. Eisenberg goes big with the role, and his performance is fun to watch -- hammy and over-the-top as it is -- but he's saddled with a nefarious scheme that doesn't make a lick of sense. The entire plot hinges on Luthor's plan to get Batman and Superman fighting one another, but his motivation is nonexistent and seems to basically come about because the film requires that something happen.

Ostensibly, Batman's beef arises out of his belief that Superman's power is a threat to the world; the film opens with Bruce Wayne's ground-level perspective of "Man of Steel's" climactic battle, during which he's forced to watch helplessly as an entire building full of his employees is leveled. But writers David S. Goyer and Chris Terrio don't trust that this is enough, so they toss in Luthor's manipulations to really get things cooking. Hilariously, the conflict between the heroes could be (and eventually is) solved by exchanging a few simple words before they let their fists fly, but first we're given the sight of them behaving like petulant children. They may be a "god" and a billionaire playboy, but they're just as petty as the rest of us.

The big fight might be what sells tickets, but it's also the point when Snyder's more intriguing ideas get shoved aside in favor of the same building smashing that concluded "Man of Steel." Sure, there's a certain thrill in seeing the heroes side-by-side on screen for the first time (joined by Gal Gadot's Wonder Woman, who gets a decent introduction in this film), but at this point, a CGI heavy, city-leveling confrontation is precisely the most boring way to end a superhero movie.

If you have any doubts about just how little interest Snyder has in the studio-mandated table setting for their upcoming slate of interconnected superhero stories, witness his shoehorning of those elements into his film. A lengthy dream sequence from Batman (coyly) establishes DC's big bad, but has absolutely no connection to the rest of the film; while later on, another character views Lex Luthor's security footage of the remaining future members of the Justice League in a scene which plays like a set of teaser trailers were dropped into the film at random. It's almost jaw-dropping in its laziness. It does, however, allow us to appreciate Luthor's considerable graphic design skills, as he apparently took the time to create snazzy logos for all the superheroes he's keeping tabs on.

"Superman v Batman: Dawn of Justice" distinguishes itself with a dark (bordering on nihilistic) take on some beloved characters, giving us a set of heroes as angry, uncertain, and flawed as the world in which we live. In what it sets out to do, the film is nearly successful, but eventually loses its way when it resorts to the same massive battle sequence we've seen a dozen times before.