There are a number of elements in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice that I think are great, and that fill me with hope for the future of the burgeoning the DC Extended Universe. Which makes it that much more frustrating that the latest superhero throwdown is such a jumbled misfire, such a bloated, tedious slog, that it’s ultimately just not good. Maybe it’s time that we, as a people, stop letting Zack Snyder do things.
Ben Affleck as the latest big screen incarnation of the Dark Knight, and his alter ego, Bruce Wayne, is a great addition to the character’s cinematic legacy. He’s brooding and bitter and broken and droll and driven, but at the same time he’s everything we expect from Batman, he’s also very, very human. And his relationship with his butler, Alfred (Jeremy Irons), is wonderful, and much different than we’ve ever seen it portrayed before. That solo Batman movie he’s rumored to direct can’t get here fast enough. Gal Gadot’s Diana Prince/Wonder Woman only has a few minutes of screen time, but she’s mysterious and intriguing, not to mention totally boss when she needs to be. We don’t get a ton from her, but what we see makes the prospect of Wonder Woman next summer even more enticing.
Even Jesse Eisenberg’s supervillain Lex Luthor starts out strong. In the early going he’s gleefully diabolical, scheming, and manipulative, a sinister puppeteer pulling strings, pitting two great forces against one another. Ultimately, however, he devolves into cackling caricature, endlessly spouting bits of Greek mythology and empty platitudes about the nature of power, and unleashing one nonsensical goal after another (why does he create an uncontrollable killing machine?). Along with Bruce Wayne/Batman and Clark Kent/Superman, Lex completes a triumvirate of central characters with serious daddy issues.
Once again, Superman is a wooden bore. In last summer’s surprisingly fun The Man From U.N.C.L.E., Henry Cavill proved he can display personality on screen, but none of that is on display here, and the Man of Steel is more a permanently furrowed brow and shellacked hair than anything resembling a character. At times it feels like Zack Snyder and company don’t actually like the Superman—he’s either a dull living statue or a total dick—or at the very least they don’t understand him, what people love about him, or have any clue what to do with him.
The result is that this is much more of a Batman movie than a Batman and Superman movie. While every other character spends all of Batman v Superman talking about who Superman is and what Superman means, Superman has no drive, no aim, nothing to do but stand there and be a symbol, which is a waste. The central idea is that he doesn’t know how to handle being a hero, with the adulation and the simultaneous antagonism that comes with such visibility. While everyone else has the chance to react to this, Superman just scowls and gazes into the distance instead of engaging. The one scene where he has a chance to speak on his own behalf, where you think, just for a second, Snyder will actually let this happen, the rug is pulled out from under him by an obvious, tasteless twist.
Lex’s arc is a good metaphor for Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice as a whole. It begins with an interesting premise, the initial build up is involving, if scattered, but it continues far too long, tries to do far too much, and spirals out of control too quickly. And the film isn’t even bloated because of the attempts to cram in set up for the impending Justice League movies. With one exception, and a few shoehorned-in foreboding hallucinations, that’s handled well enough. As the film progresses, it’s possible to feel it slipping through the grasp of the filmmakers.
Zach Snyder has a certain aplomb as a visual architect—I argue that it’s overwrought, but he’s got his thing he does, and there is some fantastic imagery to be found in Batman v Superman. As a storyteller, though, he’s not great, and that’s where Dawn of Justice’s biggest problems lie.
Told more or less in chronological order, with a few flashbacks thrown in for good measure, the narrative flow is haphazard, lurching from scene to scene in random fashion. Bouncing between Batman, Superman, Lex Luthor, and Lois Lane, there’s little to no connective tissue between these moments, and once it builds to a certain point, Batman v Superman never progresses beyond a series of moments that form a kind of disjointed montage.
Eventually this all gives way to the hero-versus-hero battle promised in the title, which plays out in the most expected fashion. Even the clash with Doomsday is straightforward, unimaginative, and instantly forgettable. In the wake of the destruction of Man of Steel, which forms the impetus for the entire film, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice does, again, level large swaths of major metropolitan areas. Because it’s night, the film is careful to point out that the area is mostly deserted, which leaves only the invisible people who work night shifts in these buildings, and who cares about janitors, cleaning crews, and security guards anyway?
As is his jam, Zack Snyder stages one dark, rainy, mist-covered battle after another—my kingdom for a well-lit, daytime fight scene comprised of something more than lightning edits that leave you wondering what the hell you’re watching. The best action sequences show Batman tussle with various street goons and human hoods, which, though over-edited, are more grounded, realistic, and less awash in CGI.
As long as Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is, and it is long—you feel every one of its 151 minutes, and then some—there is still apparently not enough time to adequately render these characters. There’s just too much to do with the overly complex plot that occasionally takes unnecessary side trips, like Lois Lane pursuing a story into the desert solely so she can be rescued by her Super beau and there can be a subplot about a new kind of bullet. Honestly, Lois Lane could be removed from this movie without much impact, which is a shame because the damsel in distress role is a gross misuse of Amy Adams. Instead of infusing every scene with weight and meaning, as is clearly the intention, the convoluted story bogs down and moves at a snail’s pace, and an overbearing score pounds home the straight-faced seriousness until it reaches absurdity.
Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice wants so badly to be an operatic modern mythological tale, but it mistakes great length for epic stature. At its core, that’s the issue; the filmmakers just don’t ever seem to get it, or to understand their source material. The Batman side—much of which was reportedly rewritten by Ben Affleck himself on set (I do live the idea of Affleck, dressed as the Dark Knight, on a break, pounding away on a laptop)—is strong, but everything else is weak, half-baked, and sloppily constructed. [Grade: C]