The first big-budget Hollywood blockbuster of 2016, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice also represents the second entry in the new DC Extended Universe of films (the first was 2013's Man of Steel), which brings superhero characters from DC Comics into a shared cinematic world. If that sounds familiar, it's because the DC Extended Universe was launched in hopes of replicating the success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which similarly throws together characters from Marvel Comics in an ongoing series of blockbuster movies.
Established in 2008, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has become the most successful film franchise in history, taking in a staggering $9 billion worldwide with its first 12 films. Well-crafted and engaging movies like Iron Man, The Avengers and Guardians of the Galaxy make that success look easy. But Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice shows just how tough it can be to create satisfying large-scale entertainment, even with treasured, time-honored characters.
Director Zack Snyder began his career directing award-winning TV commercials before building a specialty in sci-fi and superhero features like 300 and Watchmen. His Batman v Superman is simultaneously overstuffed and underdeveloped. The film starts out well enough, with an appealingly dark (if inconsistent) aesthetic. But over the course of more than two and a half hours, it builds uncontrollably like an avalanche coming down a mountain, gaining speed and collecting debris tossed off by other, better movies.
It's unlikely that Batman v Superman will disappoint the legions of DC Comics fans anticipating their own series of interconnected films. The DC-Marvel fan rivalry has raged for decades with passionate adherents on each side. But where Marvel's The Avengers, for example, takes great care to make the story accessible even to those unfamiliar with its half-dozen superhero characters (each with its own complicated backstory), Batman v Superman assumes far too much knowledge among viewers. Why is that green smoke, apparently derived from kryptonite, enough to bring Superman to his knees? A more carefully written script would prevent those kinds of questions.
The story is set 18 months after Man of Steel, in which Superman (Henry Cavill) saved the world from invading aliens from his own planet Krypton but caused mass casualties in the city of Metropolis. Simmering public disapproval of Superman contributes to a growing animosity between Superman and Batman (Ben Affleck). Meanwhile, villain Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg) plots Superman's demise. The story acquires minute detail needed to push things along but glosses over major plot points that would have provided a solid foundation. It also lacks the element of satire that powers the best superhero movies and connects them to the real world.
You can't blame the cast for the movie's shortcomings. Affleck silences the naysayers as the best movie Batman yet, wisely underplaying the character's brooding, world-weary nature. Jeremy Irons is an ideal choice for the gently sardonic Alfred, Batman's butler and confidante. A manic Eisenberg pushes Lex Luthor a bit too far, but transforming a classic DC villain introduced in 1940 into a smug digital-era entrepreneur may be the best idea found in Batman v Superman.
There are nine DC Extended Universe movies planned for the next five years, six of which will be directed or produced by Snyder. (Amazingly, the Marvel Cinematic Universe will produce 14 films over the same period.) If Batman v Superman is any indication, there may be a long and bumpy road ahead.