The Knight is dark and full of terrors.
That was not the line used to promote [Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice](tag:711870), but it could have been. As every review of Zack Snyder's DC Universe-launcher has repetitively observed, this movie is dark and somewhat contradictory. It features a Batman who is markedly more human as Bruce Wayne than prior incarnations of the character, but considerably more ruthless and trigger-happy in Caped Crusader guise.
The fact that these contradictions never marry seems to be a major sticking point for many critics, but the reality is that Snyder is content for both of his headline heroes to operate in a grey area. Neither is a beacon of morality; both are doing pretty much what they consider "the right thing", without having necessarily given too much thought to the ramifications of that ethos.
DC and Warner Bros. are dipping their toes into the superhero game far later than arch rivals Marvel - Man of Steel was less a proper intro to the DC Universe than a test run, after which things were rightly taken back to the drawing board - and that creates an arguably false, or at least one-sided, sense of expectation around what a superhero movie should resemble, what beats it should hit, what form a villain should take. Marvel have done many things well and created at least two truly great movies in the process of becoming a global brand name, but DC is not Marvel and, if Batman v Superman is any indication, shiny audience-pleasers with hero-villain binaries and neat resolutions are not on the agenda.
Snyder begins Dawn of Justice by taking us back, not for the first time, to that fateful night when a young Bruce Wayne watched on in horror as his parents meet their tragic demise in crime-addled Gotham. Batman's remains the classic origin story in a century of comic books, and whilst the director here doesn't tweak the details to keep this retelling fresh, he cleverly focuses his camera on the smaller details designed to give the prelude an emotional grounding. One particular shot, a recurring visual motif which sees Martha Wayne's pearls ripped viciously from her neck, is especially gorgeous, destined to form cracks in even the stoniest of hearts.
What follows is smart and confident, Snyder picking up the present-day timeline during the climax of Man of Steel, as seen from a new perspective. Whilst Superman battles General Zod in the skies above Metropolis, Bruce Wayne is attempting to evacuate his employees from the company offices and get them to safety. That doesn't quite pan out, and the big boss finds himself with a reason or two to keep a watchful eye on the hero in the red cape, successfully establishing the central conceit. Ben Affleck, more often found playing the bro type, slips into Bruce's expensive shoes with such ease that a future Batfleck solo adventure seems not just guaranteed, but necessary.
Back at home - not Wayne Manor, long since torched, but a thrillingly glassy lakeside bachelor pad replete with the single most badass underwater driveway ever put to screen - Bruce's investigation into the mysterious White Portugese, presumed to be some kind of shadowy underworld figure, intertwines with Lex Luthor's own investigation into an elite group of meta-humans (as Luthor, Jesse Eisenberg is certain to polarise, his unique brand of mania not to all tastes, but pitch-perfect for this youthful, arrogant take on the character).
Without giving too much away, the way in which Snyder introduces the audience to the future members of the Justice League is immensely satisfying, blowing away any fears about how too many heroes may have been stuffed into this hugely important movie.
Meanwhile, Senator Finch (Holly Hunter, so strong you wish she had more to do) is heading up a hearing into Superman's allegedly unlawful behaviour, weighing up the price of having a hero who both saves and endangers lives. This story strand is another example of the film's preference for flirting with the morally grey, although the impression given is that Snyder would have liked to explore this idea further than an action thriller allows. What we get instead is a twist some way into the 150-min runtime that genuinely shocks and wildly alters the movie's DNA, establishing one character as a clear menace to society and setting into motion a chain of events which will eventually lead to the much-hyped clash of egos.
The film's final hour is an absolute blast, breakneck in pace and heavy on superb action set pieces. The fight promised by the title ran the risk of being a serious anti-climax, but in fact it delivers on all scores, the choice of setting - a once-grand, now-crumbling building - proving truly genius as the backdrop to a showdown which seems destined to leave at least one of the aforementioned egos in ruins. Just as the testosterone threatens to reach peak radioactivity, a certain Amazonian warrior enters the fray, played with gusto by a very promising Gal Gadot.
Wonder Woman's arrival on the scene is scored by a truly awesome piece of music from Hans Zimmer and Junkie XL, whose soundtrack throughout matches the peaks and dips of the narrative with absolute aplomb. This is, undeniably, one of the most bombastic soundtracks you will ever have the great fortune of hearing, and in a cinematic setting it's something akin to ecstasy in its purest form.
The story is not without problems. The lengths to which Lex is willing to go in order to destroy Superman are never given much in the way of satisfying motivation, even if his manipulation of the rivalry between Caped Crusader and Man of Steel to achieve his own objective proves inspired. Superman himself, played too often with a brooding scowl by Henry Cavill, still lacks the charm with which America's favourite hero is typically associated. Then again, this Superman doesn't have an awful lot to smile about, even with Lois Lane (an impressive Amy Adams) at his side.
The transition between the more investigative opening hour and the action that follows is smoothly done, but those who go into theatres expecting a straightforward superhero flick will most likely find themselves disappointed. That said, anyone who knows anything about Zack Snyder ought to be aware by now that nothing is ever straightforward with this complicated visionary who stubbornly refuses to make movies by committee. There are moments when Snyder seems to dare us to redefine what being a superhero really means, whether anyone with such power can ever be truly good and, like the critics, some audiences simply won't be down with that.
What Batman v Superman ultimately boils down to is not a clash between heroes, but the battle of Zack Snyder’s unparalleled visual eye versus his well-charted struggle to tell a coherent story whilst paying homage to the comic strips he grew up with. Finally, this undeniably skilled director has found a way to marry his talents and his passions, resulting in a movie which functions both as an ambitious, breathless and truly epic blockbuster, and a love letter to a century of DC Comics. Even if mainstream audiences can’t find a way appreciate it, Dawn of Justice stands tall as a triumphant reinvention of the superhero genre, the kind of movie which may come along only once in a lifetime.