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Batman v Superman: Dawn Of Justice

Year: 2016
Studio: Warner Bros
Director: Zack Snyder
Producer: Zack Snyder, Deborah Snyder, Geoff Johns, Charles Roven
Writer: Chris Terrio, David S Goyer
Cast: Ben Affleck, Henry Cavill, Gal Gadot, Amy Adams, Jesse Eisenberg, Laurence Fishburne, Diane Lane, Holly Hunter, Scoot McNairy

There's always been an inherent challenge to overcome in any movie about superheroes, and a movie that features both Batman and Superman highlights one of the biggest a movie studio has faced yet. Chris Nolan's Batman series was very dark, very dramatic, very adult and very embedded in the real world – if a skilled, highly resourced billionaire playboy really did dress up in a cape and hunt criminals at night, the Dark Knight trilogy seemed the closest to what it would really look like.

But get closer to the territory of the comics where caped superheroes occupy each others' stories and you skirt closer in tone to the goofy, smiling superfriends of Saturday morning cartoons, clobbering criminals and then telling us to do our homework or brush our teeth – hardly the dark, moody tone DC comics is probably hoping to bring to the screen.

Zack Snyder isn't as much of a pragmatist as Chris Nolan (his Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice producer) was – the climax is still an orgy of flashing CGI lights and smashed-down landscapes where you can't really see what's going on – but he does what feels like the best possible job of giving the two best-known superheroes in the world their own movie.

Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice makes you realise you've spent the last 10 years looking through a specific lens – Marvel's. Where the Kevin Fiege-led MCU feels increasingly like something dreamed up by a committee deploying a marketing strategy, Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice feels like the work of a director who wanted to make a cool, exciting movie for its own sake rather than following some predetermined agenda of its corporate owner. Though late to the superhero party, DC feels with this film like it's going to be the better big screen comic book universe.

The plot deals with something the studio and Snyder both say they intended to address from the get go – consequences (ie those of Superman's destructive battle with General Zod in Man Of Steel). You can believe that if you like, though it's just as likely the story of Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice was written partly as a response to the backlash after so many people hated the way Superman and Zod's battle killed so many innocents.

The film opens during Man Of Steel's final smackdown, buildings toppling left and right and clouds of dust billowing through city streets to contemporise the story to September 11, like so many films have done before.

Among the people racing through the maelstrom to save loved ones or employees is Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck), staring hatefully at the figure of Superman (Henry Cavill) for all the suffering and destruction he's caused.

Eighteen months later Wayne, with the help of his butler Alfred (Jeremy irons) is tooling up, having decided to bring Superman down before he causes any more death and chaos. This is the Batman from Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns series – older, battle weary and cynical after a neverending fight against crime (as he says at one point; 'criminals are like weeds...')

Superman himself is facing his own challenges. A crusading senator (Holly Hunter) is leading a governmental effort to decide whether his powers are a threat to the world or not – manipulated from behind the scenes by Lexcorp owner Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg). Luthor – son of the greatest criminal mind of all time we're familiar with, is an Elon Musk-like billionerd with a suite of nervous verbal tics who does a terrible job at public speaking but who's far more dangerous than he appears.

The innocuous-seeming Luthor, a sneakers-wearing, basketball-playing industrialist is actually trying to acquire a chunk of kryptonite retrieved from the South Pacific ocean (where the second Krypton world engine crashed after the events of Man Of Steel) to sell a weaponised defence system that can defeat Superman if necessary to the US government, using a human trafficking operation to cover his tracks.

But Superman is also gunning for Batman in turn. As Daily Planet reporter Clark Kent, he's trying to convince his acerbic boss Perry White (Laurence Fishburne, with less to do than he had in Man Of Steel) to let him pursue a story to hold Gotham City's masked vigilante to account for his actions.

The stage is set for the fight promised in the title, but both Batman and Superman are less active in their fates than they realise as Luthor's evil plan stokes the fight into being. It's also not long before the seeds of the Justice League are formed when they battle a far deadlier foe, Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) joining in at the best possible moment after drifting through the background of the story in her guise as society babe Diane Prince.

Like any comic book movie worth its salt from the last 15 years it boils down some very solemn themes like unchecked power, collective versus individual will and even domestic terrorism, the media (watch for Anderson Cooper, Neil De Grasse Tyson and Charlie Rose among many others) on hand to give it all real-world credibility.

It's not perfect. For one thing, you might prefer the Marvel approach for its sense of humour. Unlike the moments of all-out comedy in The Avengers movies or Ant-Man, there are only two light snickers to be found in Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice's entire two hours-plus running time. More than one sequence – particularly the light-show climactic battle – is also way too overblown, the excess of destruction, noise and movement offering little respite from the excess of profundity in the script.

There's also a bizarre dream sequence halfway through that lurches awkwardly away from the plot and tone and doesn't seem to have anything to do with the rest of the story. A fan that knows the comics explained it afterward as a kind of flash-forward to a far-flung Justice League storyline, but it'll mean nothing to the casual filmgoer.

But it's thrilling and modern – Snyder (from a script by Argo writer Chris Terrio) isn't a slave to the cheesy 1930s tropes that could easily derail the mythology in the wrong hands. Most iterations of Batman have followed the traditional rule that he doesn't kill, one Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice throws resolutely out the window.

There's a lot of story, a lot of character, a lot of action and spectacle and it feels less like an ad for a toy than superhero movies have for along while, so after losing ground out of the gate with The Green Lantern, DC is finally on a decent footing to offer some counter-programming to the MCU juggernaut.

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