“The greatest gladiator match in the history of the world.” That’s how Jesse Eisenberg’s maniacal genius Lex Luthor describes the super-powered slugfest at the heart of this sort-of follow-up to 2013’s Man of Steel.
It should be an understatement. Who would win in a fight between Batman and Superman is a question argued over by kids in playgrounds since 1939. It’s bigger than King Kong vs Godzilla. Bigger than Foreman vs Ali. It’s even bigger than Joe vs The Volcano. The answer should be epic.
Unless, of course, you put it in the butter-fingered hands of director Zack Snyder and writer David S. Goyer who somehow manage to turn this superheavyweight bout into a dour, powerless bore unworthy of America’s most iconic heroes.
If you thought Man of Steel was grim, prepare for things to get a whole lot darker. Dawn of Justice is a Superman film containing barely a shred of sunlight – despite the fact it’s the source of all his power. No wonder every character walks around bearing the same mirthless grimace when all they get to do is skulk in the shadows fretting over the fate of humanity.
Even the rare action beats lack any sense of fun, with Snyder’s increasingly overbearing infatuation with speed ramping and colourless tones failing to liven up what amounts to a miserable whirlwind of CGI carnage.
The seeds of a powerful story are all in place. Having watched helplessly as Superman’s battle with General Zod destroyed his employees’ lives 18 months prior, Ben Affleck’s ageing Batman embarks on a reckless mission to take down what he sees as an alien threat, fearing the damage his power could wreak if left unchecked. Meanwhile, an awkward young billionaire named Alexander Luthor sets in motion his own plot to destroy Metropolis’ ‘false god’ once and for all.
While there is a compelling story to be told around how fear can turn good men cruel and the dangers of absolute power, the script is too unfocused and underfed to do it justice. The presence of an older, battle-scarred Dark Knight should be intriguing, his fear pulling him further down to road from vigilante to villain, but the motivation behind his actions is never made clear – all we know is it relies on a very shaky understanding of percentages – which makes it hard to accept his choices.
Without this driving force, the tension between our heroes and their opposing methods merely simmers rather than building to the inevitable showdown, which, when it does finally arrive, is as overblown and lifeless as the rest of the film. With no real purpose behind it, we have no reason to care who wins or why they are even fighting, and the clunky choreography ensures it’s not even an entertaining spectacle for the eyes.
The actors involved are almost entirely blameless. Far from the catastrophe his detractors predicted, Affleck is a worthy Batman, possessing all the necessary playboy charm and seething intensity to play the Caped Crusader and his billionaire alter-ego Bruce Wayne. And pairing him with Jeremy Irons’ Alfred Pennyworth proves a masterstroke; the latter’s sardonic put-downs providing many of the film’s few moments of levity.
Henry Cavill, sadly, is once again wasted as the Man of Steel. Lacking both charisma and personality, Cavill is given very little to do other float around with a look of moody introspection as both Superman and Clark Kent. So much so, when his big emotional beat comes towards the end it feels more like a gentle stroke than the gut-wrenching wallop intended.
And while Eisenberg’s eccentric, Mark Zuckerberg-esque take on Superman’s primary foe might be an acquired taste, he at least attempts a different interpretation of the character and still packs the required menace of a true supervillain – even if his grand plan is complete bunkum.
The film’s brightest spark is Gail Gadot’s introduction as Wonder Woman – who is set to become the first female superhero to headline a film when her origin story hits screens next year. That Gadot stands out despite her limited screen time says a lot about the film’s wider characterisation flaws, but it’s also testament to her strong performance as she excels in the fight scenes and poses an elusive, formidable challenge to Affleck’s Wayne.
But while we can all now look forward to Wonder Woman with a sense of hope, the same cannot be said of the forthcoming Justice League movie. Cyborg, The Flash and Aquaman are all teased here, but the film doesn’t give us a reason to want to see them team-up. It just tests our patience and bores us senseless – hardly the stuff befitting this Clash of the Titans tale.
Runtime: 151 mins; Genre: Superhero; Released: 25 March 2016
Director: Zack Snyder; Writers: Chris Terrio, David S. Goyer;
Cast: Ben Affleck, Henry Cavill, Jesse Eisenberg, Amy Adams
Click here to watch a trailer for Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice