No-one likes to smile in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. You can easily count the smiles in this quasi-sequel to 2013's Man of Steel, the first step towards expanding the DC Comics canon into a shared cinematic universe to match the one currently bankrolling rival comic titans Marvel. And you won't be smiling either – in setting the stage for the eventual giant Justice League team-up movie, director Zack Snyder settles on a tone so oppressively grim, it casts a shadow even the Dark Knight wouldn't want to stand in.
Batman v Superman Review
Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice has been billed as a cinematic rumble for the ages, pitting two of pop-culture's best-loved and most well known heroes against each other. Steeped in comic book lore, it's the kind of set-up that fanboy dreams are made of. But, to its detriment, it all feels built upon an apology – one to answer the critics of Snyder's excessive collateral damage during the finale of Man of Steel. And it feels horribly confused as a result, devoid of the fun such a showdown could (and should) deliver.
After the obligatory flashback to the death of his parents, we find Ben Affleck, latest owner of the cape and cowl, watching in horror as one of his megabucks business towers is obliterated during Superman's previous battle against shouty General Zod. We're meant to see that Wayne shares our incredulity at the way Superman handled the fisticuffs, causing death and destruction on a par with the Kyrptonian enemy. Which sets the jaded, grizzled Batman up nicely to question the sense in allowing Superman free reign – however good his claimed intentions may be.
On the flip, Superman (Henry Cavill), now living his double life as reporter Clark Kent of the Daily Planet, is too ruminating on his choice to serve humanity wrapped in that red cape, when all Earth's residents do is – quite fairly – scrutinise his actions. Stuck on the sports desk, he'd rather be investigating the vigilante Batman, who appears a law unto himself, and surely a greater threat to man than the Son of Krypton. Enter Jesse Eisenberg's cringe-inducing Lex Luthor, the unhinged businessman, who turns the screws to ensure our two heroes butt heads for his own (poorly explained but probably nefarious) goals.
Though the scene is set, Batman v Superman's first half plods along at a monolithic pace, piling on subplots intended to crystalise motivations that never feel clear. Our heroes spend just as much time out of costume as in, and with such a humourless tone applied to the source material, by the halfway point you're left itching to see something, well, superheroic. DC / Warner Bros. is definitely taking a more stern approach to its universe than the comparatively-bubbly Marvel filmic world, and that's not necessarily a bad thing. But there's a lack of warmth here to pull you in emotionally, even if the razzle-dazzle of the explosive effects keep up their end of the bargain. It's the best Batmobile since Keaton's, for instance, but with plot threads blowing in the wind, you might not always be sure why Batfleck is sat behind the wheel.
The film isn't without its merits. For all the slack he received when his casting was announced, Ben Affleck proves the perfect choice of star to take on the cowl as an ageing Batman. While the story makes the Bat a more brutal, murderous force than long-time Batman fans will care for (he's literally armed with a minigun at one point), Affleck is an easy match for Christian Bale. Affleck particularly excels as Bruce Wayne, both as the moodily vengeful orphan and charming socialite, more comfortable with the duality of the role than Bale ever looked – handy given that Affleck spends plenty of time here without his cape on.
Cavill remains a picture-perfect Superman in terms of his appearance, but the character's arc here is again left stewing in too much existential crisis to charm in the way Christopher Reeve ever did – if the wooden Cavill could ever draw some untapped charisma given better material, that is. As for Jesse Eisenberg's Lex Luthor, the less that's said the better – all tics, twitches manic-super-fast-talking-and-crazy-eyes-and-and-and-eviiiiil, he never comes across convincingly as the brilliantly brainy villain at the heart of DC's world. He's more like a theologically-charged Dr Frankenstein, and beyond some philosophical rambling it's never clear exactly what his beef against Bats and Supes is. It's a particular shame given that, after Heath Ledger's success in Nolan's The Dark Knight, you'd think DC, Warner Bros and Snyder would have recognised the importance of a great baddie.
Thankfully Gal Gadot's Wonder Woman delivers some joy. Though her screentime is short, it still stands as the character's best onscreen depiction to date. Indeed, when the fighting takes its destructive lunacy to heights beyond even that of Man of Steel's bombastic ending, Wonder Woman seems the only person genuinely at home (and whose moral compass hasn't spun so wildly across the film that her final battle against evil remains an unquestionably true one).
Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice isn't an awful film. But it is a very strange one. I left the cinema genuinely scratching my head. Tonally, it just feels off, while I can only imagine the cutting room floor must look comparable to the rubble strewn across Metropolis – there's no other way to explain the wild pacing or the leaps viewers are expected to make to keep up with the myriad half-baked plot turns. You desperately want to love these characters, but the film paints them in such a way to make it so bloody hard to do so. There's hope for the eventual Justice League film glimpsed in Wonder Woman's scenes, but I'm fearful now that its course is already set towards a cheerless horizon.