It was a surreal experience watching Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice, and even after leaving the theatre I must say there’s nothing else like it. On the one hand, I have always wanted to see Batman—my favorite superhero, beat up Superman—who I distinctly remember haunting my childhood nightmares, on the big screen.
Yet the film is an enormous contradiction, and what’s more—it seems to know this and gloat in it at every turn.
Step 1: Cast Ben Affleck—much maligned for his performance in Daredevil, to replace Christian Bale—universally praised for his childhood-defining turn as the Dark Knight, in a film to chronicle Batman’s return from retirement.
Step 2: Enter Jesse Eisenberg—cast against type and with a full head of hair as a high-pitched, sniveling and wisecracking Lex Luthor. He sounds like the Joker.
Step 3: Miraculously turn what by all accounts should be a low-brain, blockbuster action romp into a deeply nuanced and well-thought out philosophical treaty on the nature of heroism and godhood.
You can observe many of these steps from the previews, which ran simultaneously with the much-better marketed and prematurely leaked Suicide Squad trailer. But then the early reviews started pouring in. Affleck put on more than 24 pounds of muscle for the role and was so successful with test audiences that the studio not only sent the film back for more Batman footage, but granted him a three-picture deal with Writer/Director/Actor credit. What?
And the critics panned it. So I went in with no expectations. I mean, after all this, what kind of tone was I supposed to have prepared for?
Now, having seen the movie, there are a few things I can say confidently, without need for spoilers, from a fan’s perspective. As promised, much of Batman’s characterization in this film is based closely on the 1986 comic, “The Dark Knight Returns,” by Frank Miller, and though I don’t care for that particular take on Batman in Miller’s story, I’ll concede that Affleck embodies that version of the character. He more than meets the challenges of the role and defies expectations. If you like the source material, you won’t be disappointed, and casual fans will find that Next Gen Batman is fresh and exciting to watch. Even though he perplexingly uses a semi-automatic gun now.
The acting from the others is good as well, even Eisenberg’s Luthor. While it may be tempting to judge this film going in, an open-minded audience should be pleasantly surprised with the story’s twists and compelling story.
Watching this movie feels like reading a great comic book. It is epic, fun, and even thought-provoking. Though sometimes the ideas did get a little too heavy to keep up with, I left the theatre impressed with the range and subtle delicacy of the many questions the film provokes about the role of religion in society.
Not only does it pave the way for everyone to pass more Batman and Justice League posters for the next ten years, this messy masterpiece of popular culture managed to both entertain and enlighten.