If you thought the wave of superhero movies had peaked, think again. This Easter's big film release could herald a decade in which the genre doubles in size.
Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice arrives this weekend in a hail of publicity and just as the film charts the battle for supremacy between two warring heroes, its release marks the beginning of a war in Hollywood between the two most iconic publishers in comic book history.
For the last few years, comic giant Marvel's movie development factory has been spinning into overdrive, churning out a series of film franchises spread across several studios. There have been seven X-Men movies (an eighth is nearly upon us); we've lost count of the number of Spiderman reboots, and that's not even taking into account the gargantuan Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), the interweaving series that's introduced us to an evolving cast of Avengers.
Understandably, Marvel's old rivals over at DC Comics haven't taken kindly to seeing the former sweep to global dominance. While DC have had a few hit-and-miss movie adaptations of their own over the years, the fact that today's children are probably most likely to think of a Marvel character when they hear the word 'superhero' is testament to how much ground they've lost.
The comeback begins here, apparently. With the release of Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice, DC is fully launching its own multi-strand film universe (Superman origin movie Man of Steel being the tentative first step). Assuming audiences engage, Easter's biggest movie will herald a string of interconnected follow ups: Wonder Woman, The Flash, the villain-focused Suicide Squad and DC's multi-hero version of The Avengers, Justice League. Don't imagine that a crowding of the marketplace will slow Marvel down, however; there are at least 10 further films slated for release in the MCU too.
This superhero overload is causing writers to have to think a little more carefully about the stories they want to tell. The origin sub-genre is now crowded beyond capacity; likewise the thrilling crossover movie and the twice-as-explosive sequel. As it enters the marketplace then, DC is at least breaking fairly new ground by pitting one hero against another. They're not just any two heroes either; arguably DC is playing both of its trump cards in one hand with Batman vs Superman, an intriguing setup that's had fans of the genre bristling with excitement since it was announced.
The plot is an awful lot more linear and straightforward than most. Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) decides, along with many others, that Superman (Henry Cavill) is a danger to humanity, rather than the protector he appears to be. The two clash, meet scene-stealing Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) along the way, and have their feud interrupted by an evil megalomaniac. Since this is a Zack Snyder film, lots of bullets fly, buildings collapse and indeterminable objects explode. But essentially that's the whole story, all 150 minutes of it.
On one level, Dawn of Justice delivers on the promise of its high-concept premise. The clashing of two legendary titans is a thrilling spectacle and the film's many action sequences contain enough pulse-racing moments to keep fans happy. Yet in the light of the maturing MCU franchise, which manages to marry high-octane action with genuine character development, the movie falls short. The characters in Dawn of Justice don't really grow or change. They're not relatable people with whom we can in some way identify. Instead, director Zack Snyder delivers a cinematic video game, where simplistic characters appear either side of the latest explosion.
That's not to say the film isn't interesting, or that it doesn't have things to say. In fact, it asks some pertinent theological questions, even against the backdrop of its godless universe. Superman is a divisive Messiah figure, loved by his devotees and rejected by others: arch-enemy Lex Luthor (a brilliantly unbalanced Jesse Eisenberg) sees him as the 'god' which humanity needs to overcome in order to maintain control. The questions Luthor raises around whether this 'God' can be both good and all-powerful could come straight out of a theology textbook. And without giving too much away, the film also leans heavily on the passion narrative, a fact that makes its release at Easter rather timely.
Dawn of Justice isn't bad. The core cast members, including Amy Adams as the still-not-particularly-liberated Lois Lane, all do well, and Affleck manages to bring something different to a role which has already been played by so many others. Ultimately it's held back by a clunky script which finds no place for Marvel-style light relief and a directorial style which seems all-too fascinated by apocalyptic fireworks. I suspect that the target market – teenagers and those of us who still haven't quite outgrown their sensibilities – will lap it up.
And if you've still not had your fill of all these soaring, warring superheroes, you won't have long to wait before the next helping. Not only does the next instalment of the MCU's Avengers series arrive next month, but – in that strange tradition Hollywood has of duplicating itself – it sees Captain America square up to Iron Man in a Civil War. We can only hope that, compared to Batman vs Superman, it places a little more emphasis on plot over pyrotechnics, and character over comic-book violence.