*** out of ****
Rated PG-13

for intense sequences of violence and action throughout, some language, and some sensuality
Released: March 25, 2016
Runtime: 151 minutes
Director: Zack Snyder
Starring: Ben Affleck, Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Jesse Eisenberg, Gal Gadot, Jeremy Irons, Laurence Fishburne, Diane Lane, Holly Hunter

That was one badass movie.

I’m not prone to casual profanity – in reviews or otherwise – but there’s no better nutshell descriptor (for good or ill, depending on your perspective) of Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice. Sure, there are easy targets to nitpick here, not the least of which is that the film’s best superhero isn’t even in the title. But for those who’ve long since grown tired, and cynical, of Marvel’s increasingly generic Universe machine (full disclosure: ME), this burgeoning response from DC is much more alive, bold, and risky…even if not quite as deep as it earnestly strives to be.

Playing much better than its worrisome trailers (although not entirely dispensing of their obvious weaknesses either), Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice is a vast improvement over the garish origin re-hash bore Man Of Steel. If that initial chapter from DC’s answer to the Marvel Universe was a bloated attempt at making a blockbuster, then Batman V Superman is, by comparison, an actual film. One with artistic vision, even ambition, and (in spirit) a graphic novel to its core.

That tone, which is arguably even darker than Christopher Nolan’s still superior Dark Knight trilogy, will prove to be BvS’s most polarizing dividing line. Nolan’s films were gritty crime movies that happened to have Batman at the center. Director Zack Snyder’s Batman V Superman, however, is the truest cinematic fulfillment of graphic novelist Frank Miller’s more stylized, and oppressive, take on Batman, Gotham and, by extension, the world – not only to the degree of violence leveled, but also in the horrors of Bruce Wayne’s nightmares. The DVD release will include an R-rated cut, and it won’t take much to get there.

This is not a movie for children, and for parents who (understandably) gauge a superhero movie on that primary metric, BvS is a major disappointment. But if you’re willing to go a step further, and take the movie on its own merits (and not simply “can I take my kid or not”), I’d say this: while dark, Batman V Superman is not a movie that promotes darkness. It’s about how darkness corrupts.

We see this most directly in Bruce Wayne/Batman. Darkness hasn’t corrupted Bruce himself, per se (although it further justifies his vigilantism), but he assumes corruption is inevitable. This is what crime-ridden Gotham has taught him: that even the best people will eventually go bad. And now with Superman, Bruce fears – even expects – the same trajectory.

After Superman’s mammoth battle with General Zod left a wake of destruction and casualties (it capped off Man Of Steel, and now opens BvS from Bruce Wayne’s perspective), Bruce sees Superman as nothing more than a ticking time bomb, not simply because the Kryptonian’s power is indestructible, but because it’s unilateral. Ungoverned. And for a man formed by Gotham, absolute power will only corrupt absolutely.

Credit Snyder and script writers Chris Terrio (Oscar winner for Ben Affleck’s Argo) and David S. Goyer (Batman Begins) for exploring these themes – both political and moral – through character (although the God-metaphor is strictly surface level), but the leads aren’t entirely up to the task. Henry Cavill once again dons the cape as Superman, and he remains the same uncharismatic stiff he was in Man Of Steel. Clark Kent is at a moment of existential crisis, but Cavill just can’t sell a tortured soul. His screen presence is extremely labored, and his Superman is neither inspiring nor iconic.

Affleck fares a little better as Bruce Wayne, waffling back and forth between credible performance and smoldering “pose”, but a lot better as Batman. He doesn’t threaten Keaton or Bale’s status as the best, but he serves the role well with room to grow. Jesse Eisenberg’s Lex Luthor is as manically over-the-top as the trailers suggest, unfortunately. It’s too much, and he starts to grate.

The rest of the supporting cast, however, grounds this propulsive spectacle, most notably Gal Gadot (the Fast & Furious franchise) who debuts as Wonder Woman. While her character remains on the periphery, Gadot still makes an impact. She plays confidently (and naturally) in this stylized world, and is reminiscent of the powerhouse heroines J.J. Abrams has plucked from obscurity (Jennifer Garner, Star WarsDaisy Ridley). Jeremy Irons and Holly Hunter provide the gravitas they were hired for (Irons especially, who’s less paternal than Michael Caine’s Alfred; he’s more a strategic partner, and ethical sounding board), with an understated-yet-strong conviction you wish the leads could rise to.

At two-and-a-half hours, Batman V Superman surprisingly never drags, keeping us rapt with its operatic scale and scope, and is the rare blockbuster that actually benefits from having (essentially) two finales. It packs a lot in, but it bites off exactly how much it can chew (wisely cutting Jena Malone’s secret role, which was shot, as well as nixing the Joker and Riddler at the script stage). And it doesn’t just chew; it devours. The last hour, especially, is an absolute assault on the senses, but unlike the finale of Man Of Steel, the dramatic stakes fueling this assault are much more compelling, with an outcome more uncertain, and makes for action that thrills rather than bludgeons.

It’s enough that Snyder has made a marked improvement over Man Of Steel, but he then goes a notch further by making the DC Universe intriguing. The building blocks are all there, expertly placed and revealed, but Batman V Superman doesn’t exist simply to build out its ever-expanding universe (which is how Marvel films too often feel, and are). It exists unto itself, while doing just enough to set the stage for the bigger whole.

That I’m actually fascinated by the possibilities is a welcome surprise, and I’d be tempted to give BvS an extra ½ star for that achievement. But that’d be sort of like giving a President the Nobel Peace Prize at the beginning of his term, and nobody would be that foolish.

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