Fearing the actions of a god-like Super Hero left unchecked, Gotham City’s own formidable, forceful vigilante takes on Metropolis’s most revered, modern-day savior, while the world wrestles with what sort of hero it really needs. And with Batman and Superman at war with one another, a new threat quickly arises, putting mankind in greater danger than it’s ever known before.
Unlike the Marvel superhero universe, where most of the characters evolved together under a handful of creators and so have a fairly cohesive world between them, the heroes of rival company DC each began life on their own solo turf. That’s made fitting the dark and brooding Batman into the same universe as the sunny and optimistic Superman a bit of a struggle: it’s no surprise director Zack Snyder’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice favours the Batman side of the equation when you consider how poorly Batman’s fared in the past when things turned silly.
The film begins by revisiting the city-smashing climax of 2013’s Man of Steel, only from the ground-level perspective of Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) as he choppers into Metropolis (now seemingly just across the bay from Gotham City) to rescue his staff from the super-battle overhead. He comes away from the ruins with a healthy distrust of Superman (Henry Cavill); fast-forward 18 months and a large chunk of the world (and the US government) shares his suspicion, even with Superman firmly established as a global rescue service. This time around it seems Superman’s secret identity is something of an open secret, as not only does Lois Lane (Amy Adams) know he’s Clark Kent, they’re smooching away in the bath in between dealing with African warlords.
Meanwhile things couldn’t be grimmer over in Gotham. Batman is preoccupied with investigating a human trafficking ring and has taken to literally leaving his brand on those he captures; he tells Alfred (Jeremy Irons) “we’re criminals. We’ve always been criminals”. Comic book fans will recognise that from Frank Miller’s 1986’s The Dark Knight Returns, and those aren’t the only lines – or scenes – this movie lifts from Miller’s classic comic. But while Batman merely remains suspicious of Superman, Metropolis’ own billionaire Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg, giving a messy, unbalanced, Joker-esque performance) is offering to provide a working anti-Superman defence based on some glowing green rocks he found at the bottom of the Indian Ocean – but only if the government lets him play with all the Kryptonian gear left behind after the last movie.
There’s a bunch of plot that follows before the big title fight, but it’s a mess of near-random scenes and none of it seems all that essential anyway. Oddly for a movie where the same city is destroyed twice in less than two years, this is more of a character study, with Superman struggling against a world that either treats him like a god or fears him as a monster, and a world-weary Batman (in a stand-out performance from Affleck) seemingly still fighting crime because he can’t see any other way to go on in a meaningless world. Only Gal Gadot’s engaging mystery woman (okay, she’s Wonder Woman) seems to have a clear purpose as she slinks around the fringes of the story, though that purpose takes considerable time to reveal itself. As if that wasn’t enough for one 150-minute film, this also manages to find time for a dream sequence-slash-premonition which puts Batman into a Mad Max movie (this is a brilliant idea, by the way) and clunkily introduces a handful of new super-powered characters ahead of a forthcoming Justice League film.
It’s hardly news that superhero movies have increasingly become sloppy, over-stuffed spectacles, but Batman v Superman handles it better than most. In part that’s because in spite of the garbled story the characters get plenty of strong moments that play to their core appeal; it’s also because, despite a lot of superficial bombast (the score is about as subtle as a bat-punch to the back of the head) and faux-deep musings on the nature of a super-powered being, there’s also recognition here that even at their grimmest these characters are kind of silly and fun. Batman jumps the Batmobile into a lake to enter the Bat-cave; Superman can intercept radio transmissions; when the big fight promised in the title finally arrives it features everything and the kitchen sink. It’s that kind of thing, and not the relentless city-wide destruction, that’s memorable here; you can only tear down a city so many times before only dust remains.