At one time, DC ruled the super hero genre uncontested, from the creation of “Superman” in 1938, to the Caped Crusader’s debut a year later. Both ruled short film and TV kingdoms from “Adventures of Superman” (with George Reeves) in the 1950s to the campy, but entertaining “Batman” (starring Adam West, which ran from 1966-68). In 1978, the first real super hero feature (with Christopher Reeve, Marlon Brando and others) appeared, along with its superior sequel in 1980 (the less said about parts three and four, however, the better).
As far as Batman, Tim Burton created the first franchise in 1989 (starring Michael Keaton and Jack Nicholson), but it went downhill from there. Attempts to revitalize the series were very successful under director Christopher Nolan (although the last,“The Dark Knight Rises,” did not live up to the first two). The Superman movie history has sputtered with the last two efforts, “Superman Returns,” an utter disappointment from 2006, and Zack Snyder’s 2013 pyrotechnic, yet heartless display, “Man of Steel.” Since then, however, Marvel has taken over as the epitome of the genre, beginning with 2002’s “Spider-Man” and hardly stopping since (I know, I know, there’s always “Fantastic Four” . . .).
Well, like the old adage says, “two are better than one,” so the plan to combine this pair of the most successful DC standard bearers into one picture that ultimately leads to the inclusion of others in a Justice League attempt to push the Avengers aside, if even for a few hours each in upcoming productions in 2017 and 2019. In this effort, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, it is a hit at times, but mostly a miss. The film, which sounds almost like a Supreme Court case, is a sequel, but again, it goes an entirely different direction with the addition of another character in the company’s galaxy. Henry Cavill (“The Man from U.N.C.L.E.”) returns as the brooding Christ-like figure who isn’t really sure why he is in the position he is in. Treated now like a demigod (with statues and other idolatries in his honor), he finds himself being called out by various people, including Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck, “Gone Girl”), who somehow crosses his path in a loud and extremely confusing sequence where Superman destroys his Gotham City skyscraper.
We see a few minutes of Wayne’s familiar backstory, with his parents shot after coming — not out of a fancy theater this time — but from a showing of the 1981 film, “Excalibur.” Like “Batman Begins,” he then falls into a bat cave, but that is all glossed over quickly to get to the main plot, and within minutes, Wayne is soon working with his faithful manservant, Alfred (Jeremy Irons, “Race”), on an invincible suit of armor as well as a computer-generated Batmobile, among other gadgets.
A subplot featuring an injured Wayne Foundation employee (Scoot McNairy, “Black Sea”) who blames Superman for the loss of his legs, as well as the Man of Steel’s killing of several Middle East terrorists who kidnapped Lois Lane (Amy Adams, “Big Eyes”), as well as a snooping senator (Holly Hunter, “Manglehorn”) and the scheming son of Lex Luther, named, ironically, Lex Luther (Jesse Eisenberg, “American Ultra”) make Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice 30 minutes longer than it should have been, with Snyder’s famed explosions and destruction of hundreds of huge buildings (as well as thousands of deaths — unseen of course) giving way to unnecessary exposition until near the conclusion, which is ultimately not a very positive achievement.
Motivation for hating (and just as quickly) loving Superman the way he does is a bit murky, and with both characters carrying so much history and baggage, even the longer running time does not allow much development. Also, the inclusion of a Wonder Woman/Diane Prince (Gal Gadot, “Furious 7”) hero is more of an annoyance than a blessing, and even the return of the deceased General Zod (Michael Shannon, “99 Homes,” but in a more monstrous, mutated form) is not much of a satisfying endeavor. Furthermore, the addition of real news broadcasters Anderson Cooper and Charlie Rose (plus retired senator Patrick Leahy) do not add any more genuineness to the proceedings and an unfortunate bombing scene reminds one of what just took place last week in Brussels (I know that’s not the movie’s fault or intention, just a distraction to this scribbler).
Still, the acting prowess of the individuals in this film is certainly a plus. With Academy Award-winner or nominated stars, including Affleck, Adams, Kevin Costner (who makes a cameo as Clark Kent’s late father stacking rocks in Alaska), Shannon, Irons, Laurence Fishburne (as gruff Daily Planet editor Perry White), Diane Lane (as Clark’s mum) and Eisenberg, the pedigree is certainly there for some fine work, but only Eisenberg as the smarmy villain really shines here. To be fair, though, Shannon is dead and then revived into a huge demon, but the others do not make much of a dent.
Comments heard upon leaving the screening ranged from “so-so” to “average” to “worse than the first,” but I usually do not listen to such quick opinions. I do believe that the inclusion of the Batman angle makes Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice better than the first (which really turned the tale on its ear), but time wasted in long drawn-out conversations could have been better managed. Like I wrote after “Man of Steel” two years ago, the hundreds of millions spent on the impressive graphics will no doubt lure the young and uninitiated to the box office and, perhaps, break records. But for those who remember the original films, these two productions will leave one with an earnest admiration, yet they will no doubt sadly miss the fun and innocence and soul of those earlier, less costly, efforts of the late 1970s and early 1980s. Yes, today’s superheroes are a dark and introspective bunch, but is it asking too much for a little lighthearted fun (oops, I guess I forgot “Deadpool”)?