Ever since “Iron Man” took the world by storm in 2008, Marvel’s comic-book movies have been tearing up the global box office with a mix of witty writing, vibrant visuals, A-level actors and an undeniably fun spirit. While the movies had lots of PG-13 level action violence, “The Avengers,” “Thor,” “Captain America,” “Guardians of the Galaxy” and “Ant-Man” were also filled with a joy, pizzazz and sense of solid moral values that made them films the whole family could enjoy together.
Meanwhile, Marvel’s main competition in the comics world – DC Comics – hasn’t put out near as nearly as ambitious a slate in the past decade, though Christian Bale’s “Dark Knight” trilogy starring Batman proved extremely successful, and 2013’s “Man of Steel” centering on Superman did OK domestically and cleaned up overseas. DC’s films nonetheless couldn’t be more different than Marvel’s, as they are dark, largely joyless affairs that rarely elicit a chuckle or a genuine smile of surprise while offering grim visions of dystopian societies.
This weekend, DC puts those two giant franchises together with “Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice,” and the result is a mixed bag. The movie has a propulsive storyline that does an impressive job of weaving together multiple plotlines for much of its duration, but it’s so relentlessly grim that it’s hard to feel like you’re actually having a good time.
So is it Dateworthy? Sort of. It’s exciting but rarely funny, and so harsh in its biggest showdowns that some might cringe. But if you both love superhero movies, it’s a no-brainer, and in general for anyone it is inventive yet tough to watch at times..
The story kicks off in overdrive with a quick and compelling offering of the Batman origin story, along with a quick recreation of “Man of Steel’s” climactic Superman-General Zod showdown that destroyed much of Metropolis. The wow-inducing twist on that battle footage is the fact that director Zack Snyder manages to weave heroic billionaire Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) into the imagery, cutting him both into existing scenes and adding extra moments, all of which depict him racing through the city trying to save his beloved staff from their impending doom.
The die is cast for an eventual showdown between Wayne, as his alter ego Batman, and Superman (Henry Cavill), when in a fantastic moment, Wayne watches his skyscraper crumble while he sees Superman and Zod wrestling in the sky above the destruction. Wayne misunderstands the context of their battle, and assumes Superman has deigned himself a cocky and ruthless new god rather than living up to the public’s perception of him as a benevolent alien hero.
Meanwhile, Superman/Clark Kent watches news of and writes his own investigations into who Batman is, because he thinks the Caped Crusader is an overheated vigilante who has the potential to turn evil amid the squalor of Metropolis’ rival city, Gotham. Leave it to young billionaire inventor Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg) to step in and invite both men to the same party, where Kent comes to realize that Wayne is Batman and Wayne discovers a mysterious and super-hot woman named Diana Prince (Gal Gadot), who turns out to be Wonder Woman.
Luthor is a megalomaniac and wants the sick thrill of crushing Superman just to prove his own power. Knowing that Batman and Superman hate each other, he devises a ruthless plan to turn the two against each other in a real battle royale and have the Dark Knight kill the Man of Steel – but will they kill each other, or wind up joining forces together? And what will Luthor concoct next on an even more grandly evil scale?
This sounds somewhat more fun than it actually is. The screenplay by Chris Terrio and David S. Goyer has almost no wit, just a heavy darkness that sucks the zing out of many of even the best scenes. Meanwhile, director Zack Snyder – who helmed “Man of Steel” and made it an oppressive bore – manages to do a much better job here, but still chooses such a nonstop sense of gloom and shadow, and makes the superhero showdowns so violent that parents should really think twice about letting their kids under 10 see this.
There is no foul language in the form of F words and just one S word in this movie, although there are about five blasphemous uses of Christ’s and God’s names. On the positive side, prayer is used by characters at several key moments, and one man kisses his Cross while praying for mercy on his soul as he’s about to die in the Metropolis disaster.
But the violence is intense, though not bloody, and the final showdown with an incredible villain is certain to terrify young children.
One final thing to point out is that Snyder really uses our collective fears and anguish over 9/11 to draw emotion over the destruction of Metropolis in both “Man of Steel” and this film. In “Steel, “ watching the city’s towers fall and its citizens run from giant, fast-moving smoke clouds seemed distasteful and exploitative because the Superman-Zod showdown was ugly and overdone itself.
Here, however, he and the writers have created such a broader universe for the story and raise impressively deep questions about the nature of good and evil, what makes a hero or a vigilante acceptable rather than simply dangerous, and the timeless quandary about the tension between God and man that the 9/11 subtext works. “Batman vs. Superman” may forget to have much fun, but it might actually make viewers think about some important issues.