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Batman Takes On Superman In A Dour, Bombastic 'Dawn Of Justice'


This is FRESH AIR. The character of Superman first appeared in comic books in 1938 and Batman in 1939. But it's taken more than 75 years for them to appear together in a movie. "Batman Versus Superman: Dawn Of Justice" is the sequel to the 2013 blockbuster "Man Of Steel." Director Zack Snyder returns, along with Henry Cavill as Superman while Ben Affleck makes his debut as Batman. The film also stars Amy Adams as Lois Lane and Jesse Eisenberg as Lex Luthor. Film critic David Edelstein has this review.

DAVID EDELSTEIN, BYLINE: You'd think a fight between Batman and Superman would end with one punch seeing as Batman is a pumped up guy with fancy toys and Superman is an alien from planet Krypton with powers that are virtually unlimited. But in "Batman Versus Superman: Dawn Of Justice," there are extenuating factors. One is Superman is vulnerable to pieces of his dead planet. And what if Batman got hold of kryptonite from a super villain? And what if Batman's suit were super strong so he could get thrown through walls with no ill effects, and Superman was endlessly regenerative, getting pummeled and broken and leaping back up? And what if Superman didn't really want to kill Batman, just stop him from being a nutty vigilante? You'd get a lot of loud lavish destruction to no apparent end - some fun, eh? For some people maybe.

On one level, director Zack Snyder does amazing work. His images are mythic - otherworldly - like the dark comic book artist Frank Miller crossed with William Blake. He's no slouch with content either. As a whole though, the film is just awful. It has about six opening scenes and as many subplots. It's so busy setting up sequels and spinoffs that the story seems abstract. There is, as I've said, some substance here, the kind that comic fans demand in the wake of Christopher Nolan's pretentious "Dark Knight" trilogy.

Bruce Wayne, played by Ben Affleck, witnesses in a prologue the partial destruction of Metropolis from the last Superman film, "Man Of Steel," and blames not the super villains but Superman, played by Henry Cavill. The comparisons to 9/11 are unmissable, and Bruce uses familiar language to defend his anti-civil liberties stance to his butler Alfred, played by Jeremy Irons, who doesn't do much butlering but oversees surveillance monitors while sighing over Bruce's move to xenophobia.


JEREMY IRONS: (As Alfred) You're going to go to war.

BEN AFFLECK: (As Batman) That son of a [expletive] brought the war to us two years ago. Jesus, Alfred, count the dead - thousands of people. What's next - millions? He has the power to wipe out the entire human race, and if we believe there's even a 1 percent chance that he is our enemy, we have to take it as an absolute certainty. We have to destroy him.

IRONS: (As Alfred) But he is not our enemy.

AFFLECK: (As Batman) Not today. Twenty years in Gotham, Alfred, we've seen what promises are worth. How many good guys are left? How many stayed that way?

EDELSTEIN: That 1 percent echoes the reports of Dick Cheney and fellow neoconservatives' so-called 1 percent doctrine, which he said justified post-9/11 going over to the dark side. This Batman is the darkest of dark knights. The bat mask resembles the face of an especially sour gargoyle, and Batman doesn't just stop criminals. He brands them with the image of a bat. But Henry Cavill's Superman is hardly a cheerful counterpoint, being the guiltiest savior imaginable. Every tableau in which he rescues innocence is offset by the words of a Southern senator, played by Holly Hunter, who complains of Superman's unilateral power and calls for hearings. Clark Kent's adoptive mother, played by Diane Lane, tells her suffering son he has no obligation to the world, while his lover, Amy Adams' Lois Lane, insists Superman gives people hope - decisions, decisions.

The catalyst for catastrophe is Lex Luthor, whom Jesse Eisenberg plays as a cross between his Mark Zuckerberg in "The Social Network" and the Joker. He's ham with a side order of ham, but I liked his energy. After amassing kryptonite to be used against the man of steel, Luthor goads the surprisingly malleable Batman into taking on Superman, then heralds the fight to Superman like a demented ring announcer.


JESSE EISENBERG: (As Lex Luthor) And now you will fly to him, and you will battle him to the death. Black and blue, fight night - the greatest gladiator match in the history of the world, God versus man, day versus night, son of Krypton versus bat of Gotham.

EDELSTEIN: "Batman Versus Superman" also features the debut of the new Wonder Woman played by Gal Gadot. She mostly loiters in the margins and preens more than acts, but she has good moments when she fights a giant Kryptonian monster and laughs out loud with pleasure. This dour, bombastic movie needs a touch of joy. What it really needs is a storyline that doesn't jump incessantly from subplot to subplot, like the superhero movie franchise infection I call disjunctivitis. It's all setups for "Wonder Woman" and "Justice League" movies already scheduled. And you can't build a coherent myth out of fragments and teases. OK, maybe you can, as long as audiences keep showing up - getting their money's worth in one way but starved in the ways that matter.

GROSS: David Edelstein is film critic for New York Magazine.

If you'd like to catch up on FRESH AIR interviews you missed, like this week's interviews about primary politics explaining how the presidential nominating process got to be as complicated as it is, our interview about the FBI and Apple or our interview with actress Regina King, check out our podcast. FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Ann Marie Baldonado, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, John Sheehan, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden and Thea Chaloner. I'm Terry Gross. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Edelstein is a film critic for New York magazine and for NPR's Fresh Air, and an occasional commentator on film for CBS Sunday Morning. He has also written film criticism for the Village Voice, The New York Post, and Rolling Stone, and is a frequent contributor to the New York Times' Arts & Leisure section.
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