This year, two heavyweight pop-culture titans are going head to head. Yep, Marvel and DC are both releasing sequels featuring a clash of their own superpowered good guys.
Captain America and Iron Man have at least bickered on screen before, but Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice marks the first time that these title characters (arguably the most famous in comics) have shared space in a live-action film. This creates the instant aura of a must-see, regardless of what you thought of Man of Steel, director Zack Snyder’s first Superman film and the starting point for Warner Bros’ expanded Justice League-centric universe.
Structurally similar to its predecessor, BVS:DOJ takes its time establishing its reality-grounded sci-fi setting ahead of the main-attraction dust-up. If the title clash ultimately disappoints, the world-building that leads to it has plenty to offer.
In the black (or very, very dark grey) corner is Ben Affleck’s grizzled Caped Crusader, a vigilante grown weary of the thankless, Sisyphean task of trying to clean up Gotham’s underworld. In the red-and-blue corner, Kal-El/Clark Kent (Henry Cavill) is holding down a job at the Daily Planet (tasked with covering sports when he’d rather be writing an expose on the Bat), while global opinion is divided on his alter ego, Superman: do his heroic deeds justify the collateral damage he causes?
In the second prologue, after the obligatory recap of Bruce Wayne’s tragic childhood, a Wayne Financial building (containing several storeys of employees) is destroyed during Superman’s previous climactic battle with General Zod, an event replayed at ground-level in a thrilling new perspective on the destruction. From the wreckage, Bruce makes it his mission to prevent the extraterrestrial émigré from causing any more damage, by neutralising the threat.
Jumping ahead 18 months, Snyder continues the story at pace, with Lois Lane (Amy Adams, given more to do than you might expect) chasing a story in Africa, while Lex Luthor Jr. (Jesse Eisenberg) has a particular interest in the Kryptonian vessels lying dormant in various crash sites worldwide. Meanwhile, the enigmatic Diana Prince (Gal Gadot) begins turning up at all the fancy soirées that Bruce finds himself snooping around. Jeremy Irons and Holly Hunter are strong additions to a cast already teeming with gravitas.
Christopher Nolan’s Batman films aren’t part of this canon, but that doesn’t mean their influence is not keenly felt (Nolan and Emma Thomas again exec produce here). Largely sticking with the grounded approach that made the Dark Knight trilogy so compelling, this isn’t a radical new interpretation of the Caped Crusader, so it’s a credit to Affleck – and the enduring popularity of the character – that it doesn’t feel too soon to have him on screen again.
Aided by Snyder’s visual verve, its an extremely faithful take on the character, and, alone, he’s responsible for many of the film’s best moments: from taking on a roomful of goons in a hand-to-hand scrap, to an explosive Batmobile chase.
In fact, what’s perhaps most surprising is that BVS is at its best when its heroes are apart. When it comes to the clash itself, there’s an inescapable feeling of anti-climax. Not only does the animosity between the pair never feel fully earned, but the eventual bout doesn’t quite justify the pre-release hype, or make the most of its historical significance.
Goosebumps are inevitable when the two icons finally face off, and there are some spectacular clobberings dispensed, but it doesn’t feel like, as Lex pitches it, “the greatest gladiator battle in the history of the world”. And if it sounds like Batman’s vengeance mission is in part to atone for the criticism towards Man of Steel’s destruction-porn finale, it’s not; BVS ends with a similarly numbing CG overload.
As in Iron Man 2, there’s a sense that Dawn of Justice (as that subtitle implies) is a bridging device, a platform to launch a bigger cinematic universe, and as such it might work better when viewed as part of a 10-film collection than it does as a standalone. Even if it is at the cost of its central conflict, BVS does work as a promo for films yet to come: there’s no one who won’t want to get to know Gadot’s kick-ass Wonder Woman better after the credits roll, while Eisenberg’s conceited Lexcorp heir is riddled with daddy issues, and feels ripe for further exploration.
So while Batman v Superman has no trouble quickening the pulse, it’s less effective when it comes to making you care. There’s plenty to gawp at and Hans Zimmer and Junkie XL’s score electrifies, but the emotional punches never really connect, and the gritty realism occasionally draws attention to some forehead-slapping plotholes (even in the face of giant coincidences, no one twigs Clark’s secret identity). It won’t win over staunch Man of Steel haters, but for anyone giddy at the prospect of seeing DC’s flagship stars together at last, big-screen viewing is pretty much mandatory.