Warning: This review contains spoilers.
Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is the child of two parents. On the creative side, there is a tradition of DC's two flagship superheroes who sometimes fight. On the business side, there is the invisible presence of Marvel's cinematic Avengers franchise, which has produced blockbuster after blockbuster, tying several successful sub-series together to build a massive, shared audience of devotees – and revenue. DC's superheroes have had success on the big screen only as individuals, and only occasionally. Unmistakably, Warner Brothers is now trying to build on the success of 2013's Man ofSteel as the anchor of a multi-hero megafranchise like Marvel's cinematic Avengers (and, for that matter, X-Men).
In the world of BVS, Superman's debut took place in a world where an elder Batman has been fighting crime in Gotham City for twenty years now and sociopathic businessman Luthor are already prominent, as had been hinted via allusions back in MOS.
BVS provides two strong impressions: First, it is for most of its ample running length absolutely magnificently scripted, directed, and acted. The photography is gorgeous. Characterization is well-rounded yet recognizable as versions of the archetypes from comicdom. This is a very well made movie. The second impression: This movie contains perhaps the least fun of any superhero movie ever. Astonishingly, it begins and ends with funerals.
To a considerable extent, those two outstanding aspects of the film hold most true for the first hour and a half. Then, as the careful setup turns to climactic action (there is plenty of non-climactic action earlier) the script tosses some red meat for fanboys and fangirls to cheer, and the film turns into a movie. This is perhaps a good thing, because, to fulfill the goal of launching a major cinematic universe, BVS needs to convince moviegoers that it's not going to be a bleak, depressing (albeit well-written) cinematic universe.
No one will leave the theatre complaining that there wasn't enough movie or love for DC source material. BVS covers the themes of three or four landmark DC works. It has about a half-dozen lines from The Dark Knight Returns, which is unquestionably the central source from printed media, but it also features a dream scene right out of Red Son, a massive plot to frame Superman a la Lex Luthor: Man of Steel, and then launches right into the Death of Superman story while introducing the Justice League-to-be very economically. There is even a scene where Lois Lane dives into water to recover some kryptonite just like Miss Tessmacher did in Superman: The Movie. Perry White mentions Superman's origin year of 1938 in some canny dialogue, and there's a kidnapping in Smallville reminiscent of the early Byrne issues of Superman.
Despite the heavy borrowing, the overall plot is original. About half of it had already been communicated in the trailers. The film opens with cinema's nth retelling of the Waynes' murder. At their funeral, young Bruce falls into a cave at Wayne Manor and – this part is just a dream – bats swirl around him, flying him back to the surface. Then we see a second defining trauma in Bruce Wayne's life: His physical presence in Metropolis during the Superman-Zod battle that killed some people Wayne was close to.
We flash forward 18 months: Superman has become the world's greatest hero… but nobody whatsoever seems to be happy about it. Awed, sometimes grateful, but nobody in the movie is happy, so they aren't happy when Superman saves someone's life, either. Batman, meanwhile, has become darker in his operations, branding the criminals – the news calls them his victims – with a hot bat symbol. Superman and Batman intensely dislike one another from afar – Superman loathing the cruelty that Batman shows and Batman loathing the lack of controls in place to stop Superman. This is a sentiment shared exactly by a U.S. Senator and a giggling, rich, brilliant, and mentally ill Lex Luthor. All three – Wayne, Luthor, and Senator Finch – undertake plans to take control back from Superman. As it turns out, Luthor is the master chess player directing the others like pieces on his board. Knowing that he can't hurt Superman directly, Luthor gives Wayne and the world more reasons to fear Superman, using his own gunmen to cause collateral-damage deaths during a Superman mission in Africa. When Superman arrives in Washington to testify before Congress, the film unleashes one of its biggest surprises when a massive explosion caused by Luthor kills the committee and many civilians Superman is unharmed, but the world wonders if he somehow caused it.
Batman is, in the meantime, playing the world's greatest detective, working on a case that leads towards an unknown master criminal who turns out to be Lex Luthor, importing kryptonite via ship from MOS's Indian Ocean battle site back to Gotham/Metropolis. Batman infiltrates Luthor's headquarters, stealing the kryptonite for himself, which was Luthor's plan all along. Bruce Wayne keeps catching sight of a gorgeous, elegant, and mysterious Diana Prince who is also investigating Luthor. While following the breadcrumbs that Luthor intentionally left in order to drive Batman into battle with Superman, Batman also finds Luthor's computer files indicating the existence of four meta-humans – Wonder Woman, Cyborg, Flash, and Aquaman. Batman also sees the Flash in a dream and/or interdimensional interlude reminiscent of the Flash speaking to him early in Crisis on Infinite Earths, in which Flash gives Batman a warning – one that's hard to hear, but apparently useful. Meanwhile, Clark Kent has become Batman's biggest detractor, which leads to Superman zooming down and threatening Batman, telling him to end his bat career now, or else.
Luthor plays his first plan to kill Superman just past the film's midway point. To summon Superman, he throws Lois Lane from the top of the LexCorp building. She's safe, but Luthor shows Superman photos of a bound and tortured Martha Kent. Luthor tells Superman that Martha Kent will die unless Superman kills Batman. With no choice, Superman goes to Gotham to try to talk to Batman, who is ready for him in a battle a la Dark Knight Returns. Sonics and machine guns slightly irritate Superman, but kryptonite powder/gas has its intended effect, allowing Batman to pummel Superman for a while. The gas wears off, giving Superman the upper hand, but Batman fires a second dose at him, beats him for a while, then lifts a kryptonite spear over him. Begging for his life, Superman tells Batman that he has to save Martha. Here the film catches one of the DCU's least-noticed quirks – that Martha Wayne and Martha Kent share a first name. Hearing his late mother's first name, Batman becomes insane with curiosity – why did Superman say "Martha"? Lois Lane arrives in time to tell Batman why, and this intel ends the fight, making the two men allies.
While Batman saves Martha Kent, Superman goes to corral Luthor, who unleashes his Plan B – a creature he created by combining his own DNA with that of General Zod. This is sort of a combination of the origin stories of Kon-El and Bizarro, but the result is unmistakably Doomsday. This raging, superpowered behemoth begins to pummel Superman in a battle reminiscent of MOS's Superman-Zod battle. Suddenly, Wonder Woman shows up, and the two superpowered heroes swap blows with Doomsday while Batman manuevers around the battle scene, looking to make a blow of his own. Wonder Woman's skill and zeal in fighting Doomsday is one of the lightest moments in the film, but only manages to hold the monster off for a while. Superman retrieves the kryptonite spear that Batman crafted and, after resisting Lois Lane's pleas for him not to do so, flies in to plunge the weapon into Doomsday's heart. At the same time, the monster plunges a massive, bony spear into Superman's chest, killing him. Wonder Woman and Batman stand over the two dead combatants.
Now Superman is dead and the world knows that Clark Kent was his alter ego. Superman has a glorious funeral with, suddenly, America's gratitude. Bruce Wayne tells Diana Prince that they must find the other superheroes and prepare to fight as a team. Luthor, from a prison cell, gloats to Batman that by killing Superman, he has "rung the bell" to summon a new, dark force, which seems to introduce Darkseid as the next Justice League film's villain. Bruce Wayne and Lois Lane mourn at Superman's funeral, but in the film's final moment, we see Superman's coffin and get a sign that there will be a resurrection.
There are virtually no missteps in Batman v Superman. It's wonderfully crafted: Every scene, every shot, every line of dialogue achieves just what the creators intended. It's also relentlessly dark and brooding, with sex trafficking, child molesters, torture, and terrorism just part of the background. This cinematic DCU, even with superheroes, is worse than our own world. Warner Brothers is betting that people will enjoy visiting this dark place one or two times a summer for the next few years. I'm not sure of the audience they are hoping for, but they seem to be intent on an audience closer to that of The Godfather than Superman: The Movie. Serious comic book fans may enjoy seeing their heroes in such realistic fight scenes. Families and couples on dates may find themselves watching Avengers movies at the next movie screen over.