This review was previously published in The National newspaper.
While Marvel continues to play around in the more colourful side of the superhero field, DC now has its sights set firmly on the dark with this lumbering but nevertheless stylishly gritty and unabashedly theatrical franchise starter.
After some flashbacks that quickly establishes Batman (Ben Affleck) and Superman (Henry Cavill) as part of the same world, we pick up 18 months after the events of Man of Steel with Metropolis recovering from the damage done by Superman bringing down half the city (resulting in the deaths of many thousands of citizens) during his fight to defeat General Zod.
In the aftermath, the governmental powers-that-be are trying to make sense of what happened and what that means going forward. Some still see Superman as an empowered saviour figure, while many others view him as an all-powerful alien threat that simply can’t be allowed to go unaccountable for his actions.
Chief among them is Bruce Wayne who is convinced that Superman is a threat that cannot be tolerated. As the Son of Krypton and the Bat of Gotham prepare to do battle, a new threat begins to emerge.
Director Zack Snyder’s behemoth versus behemoth match-up is the very definition of a mixed bag superhero blockbuster, as ambitious and unrelenting in its world-building and stylised action as it is po-faced and ham-fisted in how it approaches its underlying themes and juggling of the titular superhero worlds.
It’s pleasing to see past actions – such as the eye-watering death toll at the end of Man of Steel – dealt with head on here. While not always convincing, that attempt at a moral underpinning makes it feel part of a bigger entity with overarching dilemmas rather than a throwaway piece on its own.
The characters themselves are less defined by the script – which is often clumsy to say the least – as they are by the actors, most of whom elevate the material. Cavill still fits the bit well as Clark Kent/Superman, now having to deal with the fact that a lot of people not only blame him for what happened but see him as humanity’s potential downfall rather than its hero.
Affleck firmly puts the naysayers in their place as the character of Batman fits him like a tailor-made superhero outfit; importantly he’s just as convincing as the billionaire playboy as he is the black-suited hero now world weary after two decades of fighting crime on the streets of Gotham.
However, it’s Gal Gadot who is the real ace up the film’s sleeve, exhibiting real presence as Wonder Woman. It’s hard to imagine this is the very first time she’s been portrayed on the big-screen in live-action form and with relatively little screen-time and even fewer words gives great hope for her upcoming solo outing.
It’s only Jesse Eisenberg who lets things down on the cast side of things with a rather overbearing and annoyingly twitchy performance as shady businessman and one of Superman’s most famous foes, Lex Luthor. The action ranges in quality as much as it does in type; for every well-executed sequence of bone-crunching hand-to-hand combat or exhibiting of superpowers there’s a muddled car chase or lackadaisical over-reliance on the kind of one-upmanship CGI carnage found in so many of today’s Hollywood blockbusters.
But in the end, of course, this is all about kicking off the Justice League – essentially DC Comics’ darker and more dramatically super-powered equivalent to The Avengers. The hinting at what’s to come in that respect – while exciting in principal and sure to send a wave of gleeful anticipation through diehard comic fans – is quite awkwardly handled here. The film irritatingly feels far more interested in what’s to come rather than what’s happening in the moment.
Was it even possible that a film that pits together the two titans (certainly most well-known) of the superhero world was ever going to live up to the hype? Evidently not. But while it’s far from the sort of mighty blockbuster that one might be hoping for, there’s still something inherently exciting in seeing these two finally standing face-to-face.