By Travis Trombley
As an adult, that’s exactly what I was hoping for from this movie: explorations of justice, acting outside the law, and man’s hero worshiping tendencies. Sadly, despite what are clearly some sincere attempts by all involved, neither the genre-demanded action nor the more cerebral themes (mythic and political alike) really pay off. With the exception of some visually striking storytelling beats, the film isn't able to hold up under it’s own weight.
An answer to the high casualty finale of 2013’s Man of Steel, Dawn of Justice jumps 18 months ahead to catalog the world’s varied reactions to having an alien savior inhabit their world. Some see him as a god, and others a threat. Enter Ben Affleck’s Bruce Wayne and Jesse Eisenberg’s Lex Luthor, members of the latter group who propel the plot.
Much of the film’s 2.5 hour run-time is spent unraveling a drawn out conspiracy plot which ends with the titular showoff. Luthor capitalizes on Wayne’s vendetta-prone personality to bait him along while simultaneously planting doubt in Kent’s mind by slowly turning public opinion against him. Meanwhile, Amy Adams’ Lois Lane follows clues to Washington (because we needed something for her to do), slowly sniffing out the conspiracy only to, ultimately, accomplish nothing but become a damsel in distress to summon the Man of Steel.
And it’s in this contrast, despite its attempts to weave so many threads together in a thematically poignant epic, that the film missed a very simple but very rich opportunity only briefly explored. Our first exposures to the two heroes in the film illustrate their fundamental differences.
While Superman flies around the world saving girls from burning buildings and flood survivors waiting on roofs, Batman hunts, interrogates and brands sex traffickers. Superman protects the good. Batman pursues the evil - the threat.
And this leads us to the final act, which - as trailers have already spoiled - is composed of two rounds: Batman vs Superman, and later Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman vs Doomsday the CGI mess. The former of these two is slightly more exciting. Superman is strong and fast. Batman uses technology and tricks to even the playing field. Hans Zimmer scores crescendo. We get it. Aside from a sink being bashed over a hero’s head and a throwaway line about attributing meaning to tragedy, nothing too exciting happens. But at least it was interesting.
When Doomsday - a CGI giant reminiscent of one of Peter Jackson's uruk hai - is released, the screen becomes a dark, albeit kinetic, mishmash of flying punches, slashes, laser beams, and - of course - explosions. This is sad considering some of the more memorable fight scenes in Mr. Snyder’s resume from Watchmen and 300.
In addition to a chase scene with the new Batmobile (more dune buggy meets indycar than tank, now) earlier in the film, these Bat-scenes steal the show in terms of eye-candy. They are tense, well-shot, and relatively innovative, in contrast to the unimaginative, unmemorable brawls that mark the movie’s conclusion. Mr. Snyder clearly flourishes when he can manipulate one protagonist against a number of “real” combatants. Just as actors struggle with tennis-ball acting, Mr. Snyder seems to have difficulty with tennis-ball directing.
What I did enjoy was the film’s emphasis on one’s past as a means for making meaning. Without ever becoming pandering, Mr. Snyder spends some time on these characters’ pasts and their understandings thereof. In ethereal shots reminiscent of the same ilk seen in films like Aronofsky's Noah and Inarritu's The Revenant (as well as in the skull scene from Man of Steel), these characters confront their pasts. Bruce sees a giant bat burst from his mother’s tomb, and Kent listens to his deceased adoptive father tell a touching parable of zero-sum gain. And in the moment that matters, it is in fact these heroes’ pasts that bring them together.
Unfortunately, the many other explorations didn’t fair as well. Like the many allusions to Christ in Man of Steel, themes, allusions and character arcs seem to left alone towards the end. The religious imagery and discussion from Lex never amounts to narrative influence. There’s no invocation of mercy or sacrifice. Though such acts occur, they seem disconnected from those discussions or unaffected by the audience's’ experience of that symbology. Maybe there’s something there to be discovered upon future viewings, but I feel like I’m simply doing too much work on my end with the film’s content that I can’t attribute my conclusions to the skill of the film’s creators.
In end, the film’s sin - like that of the Satan character it evokes through Lex’s painting reminiscent of Paradise Lost - is Pride. It tries to do and be too much. There’s a lot to like here, don’t get me wrong. The story has potential. The characters’ struggles resonate (at first). The theological and mythic themes are awesome. But like a kid at a buffet, the film stuffs its pizza, sushi, chicken dumplings, and mini tacos on the same plate and learns that they simply don’t work as well together as they would separately.