Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice – Review (***)

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Sure to be one of the most divisive tentpoles of the next few years, Zack Snyder’s superhero grudge match boasts exuberant, almost overwhelming style, but unfortunately falls down massively when it comes to script and characters.

It’s 18 months after Superman (Henry Cavill) accidentally decimated Metropolis as he fended off an attack from General Zod (Michael Shannon), and Bruce Wayne aka Batman (Ben Affleck) is none too happy about that. After billionaire genius Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg) manipulates a fight between the two, the pair ultimately have to put their differences aside to face an altogether more imposing threat to humanity.

If you’re going into Batman v Superman expecting much in the way of surprises, you’re set to be gravely disappointed. This is precisely the feature-length version of the trailers we’ve been inundated with over the last few months, and speaks to Warner Bros. wanting to play relatively safe as they attempt to establish the DC Extended Universe, leading to the upcoming two-part Justice League saga.

Predictability is really a lesser issue, though, as what’s most shocking here is that the script, co-written by Oscar-winning scribe Chris Terrio (Argo) is so frequently flimsy, bloated and unconvincing. The central scenario bringing the two heroes to blows is needlessly convoluted when the streamlined simplicity of “Batman hates Superman because he wrecked Metropolis” is plenty fine; instead we get a peculiar subplot early on set in Africa that seems to exist more to justify Lois Lane’s (Amy Adams) appearance in the film rather than the titular showdown.

Worse still are character motivations; Luthor for one never outlines a clear motive for hating Superman beyond vague daddy issues, Superman gets convinced to fight Batman by way of an enormously lazy plot device, and there’s the inevitable controversy surrounding Batman’s body count in the movie. Perhaps had Terrio and David S. Goyer explored Bruce Wayne’s psychology, that Superman had pushed him to the brink somehow, then his drastic, murderous measures might have gone down a little easier.

So, what works? Ben Affleck is inarguably the MVP here, working well with some fairly clumsy material at times, pulling off an entertaining double act with Alfred (Jeremy Irons, who is superb yet under-utilised here), and presenting the most imposing screen Batman to date. Though he’s already proven divisive, Eisenberg is also a fun, unique spin on Superman’s most iconic villain, though sure to irritate just as many as he tickles.

Sadly, Superman meanwhile feels fairly under-written, and Cavill’s line readings verge on the wooden side, which is a shame given his more robust work on Man of Steel. In fact, he’s overshadowed at the movie’s climax by Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), for though Gadot clearly struggles with some enunciation and her thick accent is a bit off-putting, she nails the physical demands of the role and pretty much quashes all criticism that she’s “too thin”.

But what about the action? Well, what’s there is great fun, though you’ll be left waiting until act three for the main fight, which lasts less than 10 minutes, a disappointingly scant length when most fans were surely expecting at least two separate fights ahead of the added-value team-up against Doomsday, which is enjoyable if overly smothered in generic CGI.

Conclusion-wise, the pic also struggles; it takes a bold narrative risk that really isn’t that bold at all when even the most casual viewer contemplates it for a moment. That the various Justice League cameos feel incredibly shoehorned into the final product also makes the film feel more like a feature-length trailer rather than a complete movie on its own merits.

Yes, it’s a harsh review, but such is the result of high expectations. Snyder is catching a fair amount of flak for the film, and to me this seems somewhat unfair; the script and the sloppy editing are the chief issues, while Snyder does a mostly solid job delivering the visceral thrills audiences expect. Though the film is an almost irresistible sit for any comic book movie fan, it’s really just OK when it should have been so much more, and will leave audiences in varying states of excitement (or anything but) for next year’s Justice League.

***

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is in cinemas now

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