[SPOILER-FREE REVIEW:] "Bruce Wayne meets Clark Kent—I love it!" Most of the world will agree with Lex Luthor's exhortation in Warner Brothers' new monster tentpole movie Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. Wayne (a.k.a. Batman) and Kent (a.k.a. Superman) have met before, of course: on radio (1945), in comic books (starting in 1952), and in animation (1973-present). But the two have never before met in movie theaters...until now. And wait a minute...isn't that Wonder Woman? This is not a drill, comic-book geeks.
Batman v Superman is, more or less, a direct sequel to Man of Steel and, as such, tips to Superman as the protagonist and Batman as the antagonist. Playing off of fan reactions to Man of Steel's devastation and Superman's arguable corruption, Zack Snyder's sequel pits Superman (Henry Cavill) v Batman (Ben Affleck) as two sides of the vigilante coin, neither ceding accountability to any authority but his own, and both fielding nagging, if quickly sublimated, self-doubts about certain of their choices. Egged on by murky external forces, each hero lay plans to contain the other until, inevitably, a more sinister threat forces them to join forces. (And wait a minute...isn't that Wonder Woman?) If Man of Steel dragged Superman—in tonal terms—into Christopher Nolan's world, Batman v Superman drags Superman into Batman's world: a dark, dour, brooding space defined by shadows literal and figurative. Somewhere, Tim Burton is chuckling, "They fired me for being too dark? Man, things have changed."
At one point, Batman's trusty butler Alfred (Jeremy Irons) mutters, "How best to describe it?" and critics now face the same task. Opinions will vary based on the filter applied to the film. Should we judge it as serious film, as movie entertainment, or by how it adapts its comic-book source material? There are cases to made in favor of Batman v Superman by all yardsticks, though not in equal measure. There can be no argument about the film's epic scope, and that Snyder has a lot on his plate here, making it (and the audience of diners) stuffed but not quite overstuffed. To cap a film-ful of universe-building ("Dawn of Justice" teases that this film ties in to next year's multi-hero Justice League) and mythic imagery that extends to angels and devils, Snyder drops a series of climaxes that bring new meaning to "doomsday scenario."
Chris Terrio's rewrite of David S. Goyer (both share credit) finds surprisingly smart dialogue proffering competing philosophical approaches to life and death (particularly tragic death), psychoanalysis (Alfred warns Bruce of "the feeling of powerlessness that turns good men cruel"), and personal and social concepts about whom we put our faith in to make the big decisions: government, parents, God, ourselves? If those ambitions don't smoothly gel with clanging action, we can at least credit the D.C./WB brain trust for tickling the intellect at the risk of some box-office shekels. By the same token, effectively putting heroism on hold for most of the film's 153 minutes, showing Superman burned in effigy, and hearing everyone's favorite red-caped Boy Scout lament, "No one stays good in this world" beg the question of what today's eight-year-old will think of this anti-adventure, this tamped-down escapism, this coloring book slathered with oil paint and handed over with no white space left to fill in. Move over kids, these seats are reserved for Peter Pans.
What else? Jesse Eisenberg as a Lex Luthor reimagined as a diabolically insane Mark Zuckerberg (and a third "orphan boy" who thinks he's above the law). Rising star Gal Gadot as a suspiciously Amazonian gentlewoman thief. A convincing "Batfleck," grayer and brawnier than the previous model. Around twenty minutes of IMAX footage, mostly reserved for the showdown Luthor calls, "Black and blue. Fight night...God versus man." And the inescapable shadows of twin towers (not just the title characters, but the World Trade Center) and domestic terrorism. Is Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice perfect? Nah, there's plenty for fanboys to scoff at and nitpick, and those who've never set foot in a comic-book shop may not feel very welcome. But this is the sort of marquee popcorn movie at which the studios throw every available resource and every dollar stockholder-responsibility allows. And wait a minute...isn't that Wonder Woman? Oh, let's just call it a night and meet back at Justice League.