(Zack Snyder, 2016)
Forced to try to make super-hero movies in a different way to Marvel, Warner Bothers and DC have gone all-in on grim and gritty. That might be in part an attempt to duplicate the success Christopher Nolan experienced with his Dark Knight trilogy, which embraced the darker aspects of Batman mythology, largely eschewing any humour, campness or fun along the way.
Snyder already aped that approach with Man of Steel, and here he brings in his own interpretation of the "Bat of Gotham" to set up the extended Universe DC presumably feels is their right, looking at the industry-altering success Marvel has enjoyed with its unending flow of Marvel Universe product.
And that approach has its strengths. Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice (explicitly nodding to the hints of the coming Justice League in a few scenes here) is positively stuffed to the gills with stuff. With easter eggs, characters, gadgets, dialogue, cgi, mythology, action, exposition, technobabble, ephemera, spectacle: just stuff. It also has more ideas than any Marvel film, which may be another of the legacies left by Christopher Nolan.
It's just that in his films, the ideas are foregrounded. Indeed, if his Batman trilogy has a major flaw, it is an inability to balance the demands of an action spectacle with his own desire to engage with big themes. Well, Zack Snyder can do the action spectacle in his sleep. But the big themes are a different story. He allows his characters to expound upon the nature of heroism and power, but that's it. The film doesn't pursue these ideas in any meaningful way. Instead, Snyder flicks through them en route to another big slugfest action sequence. And so the tone isn't earned by the story it frames, and it just seems slightly, unnecessarily grim.
But then perhaps this is the perfect superhero film for the modern world; teetering on the edge of anarchy (glimpsed in a Batman nightmare filled with more Darkseid-shaped easter eggs), split between those who worship powerful figures (Snyder conjures one lovely scene where revellers at a Mexican Day of the Dead festival bow and stretch to touch the Kryptonian) and those who despise them (Batman is feared and seen as a myth), mired in bureaucracy (a surprising amount of plot is spent dealing with import permission) and secretly run by the powerful mega-rich.
Snyder is as visually assured as ever. This is perhaps best seen in the way he shoots Batman - an early encounter with two beat cops treats him like a horror character; seen in blurred background and shadow. The later take-down of a warehouse full of armed thugs is the closest approximation of the Batman I grew up reading I have ever seen. Mixing tech and fighting acumen, it is easily the best action scene in the film; thrillingly shot and cut without resorting to slo-mo, Snyder's personal visual tic.
The cast is strong, which helps carry some of the more shockingly badly written scenes. Ben Affleck makes for an appealingly tired and sombre Bruce Wayne, (a somewhat underused) Cavill is more confident as Clark/Superman, and Amy Adams makes Lois more vulnerable than she was in Man of Steel. Jeremy Irons is a nicely sardonic Alfred, while Gal Gadot is magnetic and does well with no real part in her handful of scenes as Wonder Woman. Jesse Eisenberg plays Lex Luthor as a damaged manchild, a super villain in word and gesture before ever becoming one in deed, all titters, furies and whimsically murderous asides and impulses.
The plot is an awkward thing. It shows that this was a movie conceived in a panic just days before it was announced as a way to combat the empire-building of Marvel. The narrative hoops screenwriters Chris Terrio and David S Goyer jump through in order to get the two titular heroes face-to-face feel formidable, and the first act is a wonder of fleet exposition and character introduction. After that though it starts to grind a little. Too much going on, too little of it as interesting as it should be. Affleck is good in all of his scenes, but then he has the best character to play. The climactic confrontation is impressive, but instantly gazzumped by the arrival of the cgi Doomsday and Wonder Woman to complete the "trinity" at the heart of the DC Universe.
The cosmetic debt to Frank Miller's the Dark Knight Returns is outweighed by the debt to the (terrible) Death of Superman by Dan Jurgens, which may just sum up the issues with Snyder's film.
But its issues, such as they are, are interesting. This film is a fascinating mess.