Medical science remains uncertain whether a cure exists for "superhero fatigue," but 2016 has offered two rival remedies. One is the R-rated irreverent black comedy, manufactured by Twentieth Century-Fox as Deadpool and by Warner Bros. (for release later this year) as Suicide Squad. The other is the DC Cinematic Universe, which actually has the R-rated irreverent black comedy remedy built into it but is prescribed initially on the theory that superhero fatigue is really Marvel fatigue; offer something different from Marvel Studios' now-familiar product, the theory goes, and the problem is solved. Each remedy comes with the usual list of potential side effects, the most daunting of which, should you consider taking Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, is "no fun." This warning is issued by people who seem more certain about what fun is than they should be. When they talk and write about fun in movies, they often mean what should be fun, or what we should consider fun. If I say I had fun watching Dawn of Justice some may judge me depraved or write my opinion off as that of an uncritical comic book fan. But I can just as easily say that many reviewers who haven't had fun at the movie didn't want to have fun, or didn't want to have the sort of fun the film offers. How can you tell? If a reviewer says the two main action sequences run on too long, you know they're not having the fun Dawn of Justice is selling. Now, if they want to complain about stuff running on too long, they should focus on after the big fight scenes, when director Zack Snyder succumbs to epic-itis, the inability to actually end a movie succinctly (see also The Lord of the Rings; The Return of the King, so notorious a case that we could call this condition Jacksonitis). Dawn really does terminate interminably without really setting things up for future films any better than the film had already. That's criticism, folks, and there will be more below, because Dawn, to be honest, has some serious flaws. But it succeeds, or so I think, in establishing a cinematic brand different in tone and scale from what seems by now an over-familiar Marvel product that will next be seen, ironically enough, imitating the perceived essence of the DC film with a desperation justified only by Marvel's historic perception of itself as No. 2 to DC. If Dawn is being judged unfavorably for not being like a Marvel film -- in fact, Dawn may help us clarify what makes Marvel work in its particular way -- then it's a strange moment for Marvel to squander its advantage by aping the competition with heroes fighting heroes.
Marvel certainly tells its stories with more clarity than Snyder, David S. Goyer and Ben Affleck's personal writer Chris Terrio do in Dawn of Justice. I don't recall any Marvel leaving you as uncertain for any period of time of what exactly is going on as Dawn dares to. The connection between Lois Lane's (Amy Adams) African misadventure and the main plot remains mysterious for quite a while, for instance, though one can guess that it has something to do with Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg), who's in a race with Bruce Wayne (Affleck) to acquire a large hunk of Kryptonian mineral that dropped into the Indian Ocean during the events of Man of Steel. Both billionaires want the stuff for the same reason; they want to be able to kill Superman (Henry Cavill). For Wayne it's personal -- when is it not with this guy? -- because a Wayne Financial building in Metropolis was a casualty, along with most of its occupants, of the big fight between Superman and the hostile Kryptonians from the last picture. But it's also a matter of principle; someone with Superman's power is inherently a threat to the world as far as Wayne, an embittered twenty-year veteran of apparently futile crimefighting, is concerned.
Luthor's motivation is harder to pin down. The real weakness of this film's Luthor isn't Eisenberg's manic performance but the writers' failure to give Superman's arch-enemy any agenda beyond destroying Superman. If that sounds weird, let me explain that traditionally Luthor becomes Superman's arch-enemy because Superman was sticking his nose in Luthor's business of mad science and world conquering. His objection to Superman is that Superman is in his way. But there's no sense here that Luthor has any agenda for Superman or anyone else to interfere with. Instead, like Bruce Wayne, Luthor objects to Superman on general principles, as skewed by the unfortunate upbringing Lex hints at: the abused child of a refugee from East Germany who's grown an anti-authoritarian streak of almost Miltonic intensity. "The demons come from the sky," he says, thinking of Kryptonians, yet he thinks of Superman, resentfully, as a God to be overcome by man -- either himself or possibly Batman, so long as mutual destruction is assured -- or by "the devil," by which he means Doomsday, the imperfect clone of General Zod (and hence, to make him three classic villains in one, a Bizarro) further tainted with Luthor's own blood to make obvious that the "devil" is a surrogate or projection of Luthor himself. That's a thin margin of differentiation between Luthor and Bruce Wayne, who may as well be co-villains for most of the picture given Wayne's increasingly pigheaded opposition to Superman, only dimly reflected by reporter Clark Kent's obsession (also arguably a form of projection) with denouncing "the Gotham Bat," whose practice of branding defeated enemies doesn't seem enough to make him a monster in Clark's eyes unless you see Kent's disapproval as an urgent way of saying "That's not me!" I'm not sure it's a good thing to go through most of the picture letting people ask what the difference is between Wayne and Luthor, and it's probably even worse to have the crucial difference emerge in as corny a way as the writers conceive -- it has all too much with the heroes' mothers having the same first name. But the story of the film is Wayne's change of mind, so of necessity he has to start in a dark place where Luthor must remain. In the end, the difference between the two is that Wayne never sees Superman as "God" -- in fact he implicitly sees the Kryptonian as less than human before reconciling with him -- while Luthor, who does see Superman that way, feels compelled to play the devil. But a person could watch the film and see Luthor as a jittery idiot-savant. Since Luthor has a stance rather than an agenda, Eisenberg is left with little to work with but mannerisms. If he is the most-criticized actor in the picture, it's really because he's the one most ill-served by the script. But if he doesn't pull off the miracle that so often chastens the literal-minded comics fans who reflexively criticize unpredictable casting, he may have himself to blame to whatever extent that he refused to imitate the performance in The Social Network that made me, at least, confident in his capacity for Luthor.
While much of Dawn of Justice is a three-way competition of Superman, Batman and Luthor, there's a fourth party lurking at the periphery, one whom the film takes its sweet time identifying but is known to everyone thanks to the movie's generous advertising. Diana Prince (Gal Gadot) is in a race with Bruce Wayne to steal information from Luthor. Luthor has dirt on her, and in the nearest thing to an agenda he ever gets it develops that Luthor has been investigating the existence of "metahumans" all over the world. The film regrettably stops dead just before the first big fight as Diana browses Luthor's files, giving us our first glimpses of characters destined to join DC's Justice League. Diana herself, of course, is sort of a metahuman, though what gets Bruce Wayne's attention is that this hot chick -- the old horndog apparently enjoys one-night stands and claims to have known women like her (since he considers her a thief when he says this you can guess who he means) -- is over 100 years old and a veteran of World War I. Not wanting to answer questions and resenting surveillance, Diana is about to leave the country -- she's actually on the plane -- when hell breaks loose in Metropolis. That looks like a job for Wonder Woman, and Dawn of Justice does nothing better than advertise next year's Wonder Woman movie. I'd read that audiences almost everywhere break out in applause when Gal Gadot appears in full costume, and damned if that didn't happen in my theater, too. Gadot earns that applause. She was easy on the eyes before, and now she kicks ass like a goddess. Based on what I saw in the final fight, I'd like her chances with Doomsday one-on-one. And to be honest with you, it seems pointless to have the final fight end the way it actually does -- remember, this is Spoilervision! -- with Superman sacrificing himself by running Doomsday through with the Kryptonite spear Batman had built -- when Supes should have simply tossed that thing to Wonder Woman and let her finish the beast at relatively little risk. But I suppose the writers thought that if they were bringing in Doomsday they might as well let the other shoe drop like it did in his original 1990s comics. Don't worry, though; Superman's inevitable return is foreshadowed at the end of the picture.
As for Wonder Woman, the only way her solo debut can fail after this build-up is if the period setting -- a generation earlier than her canonical appearance in Man's World, motivated most likely by a reluctance to look like Captain America: The First Avenger -- renders her adventures anticlimactic after Dawn of Justice's epochal battle. For now, I'd like to think a star is born, but if Gadot steals the picture without really being challenged as an actor, the rest of the cast (arguably excepting Eisenberg) hold up their tentpoles admirably. Affleck brings unprecedented intensity to Bruce Wayne, compared to Michael Keaton's introversion, Christian Bale's role-playing and the hopelessness of the two other guys, while his stuntmen deliver the energetic, acrobatic Batman fans have longed to see in earlier tech-obsessed movies. He also has an excellent unpretentious Alfred in Jeremy Irons. While Affleck may get more screen time than Henry Cavill, this is still a Superman movie at heart, and Cavill gives the film that heart, as well as a conscience. As well, kudos to the filmmakers for finding stuff for Amy Adams to do and recognizing that in the scrum of super powers and super wealth Lois Lane remains as canonical and important a figure as any of the heroes.
Dawn of Justice is a far more digressive, self-indulgent (and, yes, self-important) movie than anything Marvel has made.It gets downright eccentric with its preoccupation with dreams and premonitions. Bruce Wayne gets several dream sequences (Clark Kent gets one, sort of), some of which seem intended to be prophetic, most notoriously the dystopian desert scene with soldiers wearing Superman shields, supported by what look like parademons from the evil planet Apokolips, and even Luthor, in his last scene, lapses into prophetic mode, warning that "the bell has been rung" for Someone out there to hear. Awkward moments like these have inspired fresh appreciation for Marvel's efficiency and clarity, but I wonder whether those positive qualities have made Marvel Studios pictures too formulaic for their own good, or recognizably formulaic enough to induce superhero fatigue, in reviewers if not in audiences. Compared to Marvel movies Dawn is a loose baggy monster, but as with Man of Steel Zack Snyder invests the film with a wild, raw power that no Marvel movie, even with the Hulk rampaging, has achieved. The best thing Dawn did to differentiate itself from the Avengers films was to make its final battle a fight with one mega-powerful antagonist instead of having the DC "trinity" plow through faceless video game-style hordes of inhuman aliens or robots. The fight with Doomsday brings Dawn closer to the kinetic energy of authentic comic-book action than ever -- the titular fight has its moments, both impressive and silly, but is eclipsed by the final battle -- and that may be what reviewers don't like about it: the duration, the refusal to be glib, etc. That would be funny, if true. Ever since Man of Steel came out, debates have raged in comics fandom over whether it was true to DC Comics or not, the film's decision to have Superman kill Zod coming in for inquisitorial criticism. Ever since Marvel rolled out its cinematic universe, fans have tried to explain why DC didn't do it first instead of compartmentalizing Batman and Superman movies, aborting every attempt at a "universe" until Marvel had shown the possibility and profitability of doing that. Fans often complain that the current management at Warner Bros. and DC Comics, not to mention Zack Snyder, David S. Goyer and perhaps even Christopher Nolan of not understanding or respecting comic books and superheroes. It would be supremely and, yes, grimly ironic if word of mouth ends up killing Dawn of Justice at the box office after its critic-proof opening weekend because it is, if nowhere near the best superhero movie, arguably, the movie that's truest in design and spirit to superhero comics.