Minor Spoilers Ahead
The reviews seem to be in. The critics hate it. The fans like it, if not love it. Why the disparity? Part of it I believe is confusion. "What is this movie about?" Wonder the critics. "What are we to expect?" Dutifully doing their research, I suspect most critics turned to the seminal Batman vs. Superman story, “The Dark Knight Returns,” by Frank Miller back in 1986. It’s about a lot more than B v S, of course, but that’s the part that stands out, and it’s the source material that critics assumed that Dawn of Justice is based on. They can hardly be blamed, as Zack Snyder was certainly influenced by Miller and there are several elements in the film that pay homage to DKR.
The problem is that Dawn of Justice is NOT based on The Dark Knight Returns, it’s based (loosely) on “The Death and Return of Superman,” a classic DC “Event” from 1992. The fans will have figured this out very quickly, but there are enough elements from “Dark Knight” (An older, angrier Batman, although not quite AS old or angry, an anti-superhero government, although this government is anti-Superman, not anti-Bat, a scene here or there pulled from a classic DKR moment), that the critics will have had no idea what they were supposed to be looking at.
That doesn’t excuse the movie entirely. A film of this scope (and cost) should appeal and make sense to just about everybody. This one definitely doesn’t, in large part because of the apocalyptic, doomsaying dream sequences that the architects of this film choose to insert. Zack Snyder loves these types of set pieces – part Kafka, part Michael Bay, that feel like some kind of fascist steampunk fever dream, and I get why, but they so rarely seem to fit anywhere.
I think some critics will say that the film is too dark and grim to be fun, but some parts are too ludicrous to be taken entirely seriously. That being said, I thought there was a lot to like about it, and in fact, I think if they started the movie about an hour in, fans and critics alike would be upholding this one as a success.
Here’s how all superhero fights go in the comics. Hero A, who has never met Hero B, or doesn’t know them very well, either: 1) Mistakes Hero B for a villain and attacks 2) Sees Hero B doing something that looks bad, assumes they have gone rogue and attacks or 3) is tricked/coerced/forced or otherwise manipulated by Villain A into attacking Hero B.
Hero B either 1) Mistakes Hero A for a villain and responds in kind 2) Assumes Hero A had gone rogue and responds in kind 3) Doesn’t know what the hell is going on but is damn well not going to stand there and get his ass kicked so he, you guessed it, responds in kind.
Despite the fact that a two minute conversation would clear things up with no property damage or broken bones necessary, and despite the fact that these guys never seem to shut up when fighting their ACTUAL villains, Hero A and Hero B then silently go to war, doing battle all over town, each seeming to get the better of the other at various points like a typical WWE wrestling match until finally, when each has barely an ounce of strength left, someone finally decides to say “hey, does anyone know what all this fighting has been about?” Then the two shake hands and band together to fight the real enemy.
It doesn’t work all that differently in this movie, and if we had just seen one of the above plotlines (I won’t say which one to keep the spoilers down), without an hour of buildup, I promise you not one critic or fan would have said “but wait, why are they fighting? I need more motivation!” Sorry to mix companies, but Stan Lee, who was the master of Superhero vs. Superhero fights will be the first to tell you: “Just get to the action!”
Once that happens, the movie IS fun, and the plot is abundantly clear. It just takes us so long to get there that many will be extremely frustrated by the time it rolls around.
As for the performances; I’m still not entirely convinced by Henry Cavill as Superman, but I’m not as distracted by it as I was in Man of Steel. He’s settling into the role, even if he wouldn’t have been my first, second, or third choice. Ben Affleck actually makes a serviceable angry Batman, although his Bruce Wayne was a little too smug for me, which is to say, every time he smiled, I couldn’t help but think that he was thinking “hell yeah, I’m Ben Affleck,” which I’m sure is not what he was going for. But again, as Batman, this actually fades away, and it works better than I expected.
I don't know anything about Gal Gadot and she doesn't get much screen time, but she seems to have the angry Amazon Warrior thing down.
You’re going to love or hate Jesse Eisenberg as Lex Luthor. I loved this take on the character. Basically Eisenberg plays him as a Silicon Valley Joker without the makeup. He’s clearly off his rocker, but smart enough that he can function in society anyway. Some people will find it too over the top, but it worked for me.
Although the way it ended made me yearn for a “Reign of the Supermen” sequel, I know that’s not what we’re getting. However, now that all the Superman fighting Batman hype is out of the way, I think there’s a clear path for the next movie featuring these characters (Justice League, as I understand it) and I have much higher hopes for that one.