A post 9/11 reactionary screed, a relentlessly grim superhero dust-up, an ad for the next 5 years’ worth of DC movies – the ungainly titled Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is all of these things and more, resulting in one of the weirdest and most off-putting blockbusters to escape the modern studio system in years. Director Zack Snyder, working from a script by David Goyer and Chris Terrio, has created a chugging, nonsensical barrage of endless exposition and disconnected scenes that somehow makes the long-awaited battle between The Dark Knight and The Big Blue Boy Scout – arguably the two biggest superheros ever – both overwrought and anti-climactic.
The silver lining to Batman v Superman isn’t its titular showdown but the occasionally inspired insanity that Snyder laces throughout the film, as though the weird Thor dream from Avengers: Age of Ultron was stretched out to feature length in anticipation of some future installment that (hopefully, blessedly) may deliver on some of the thin promise exhibited here. It’s a wild, overlong ride that pounds the life out of audiences even more than the epic destruction at the end of 2013’s Man of Steel (which, for the record, I liked), but amid the steaming fiasco are some nourishing nuggets of corn.
After a thoroughly unnecessary prologue that shows Bruce Wayne’s parents Thomas and Martha being gunned down outside a theatre for the umpteenth time (honestly, we get it – we never need to see another Batman, Superman or Spider-Man origin ever again) we get an introduction to Ben Affleck as Bruce Wayne when the playboy billionaire witnesses the massive ground level destruction of Metropolis as Superman and General Zod duke it out (Man of Steel‘s ending). Clear 9/11 imagery is evoked and the terror of alien beings rampaging through a city is palpable as Bruce helplessly watches buildings crumble around him.
Initial fan outrage centered around the casting of Affleck as Batman, ire that seems silly now in retrospect as the actor fully embodies the older, more grizzled version of the character presented here. His Batman’s default setting is simmering rage, and that anger presents itself as Batman crossing lines (branding criminals and eventually killing them – marking another character taboo that Snyder callously shatters) as he comes to direct his fear and hate towards the alien god amongst them – the Superman.
Oh yeah, Superman! His name comes second in the title and the character often seems like an afterthought in his own film. The last living Kryptonian is introduced saving Lois Lane (Amy Adams) for the first of many times, one of the few outwardly heroic acts the supposed superhero is seen engaging in. Henry Cavill brings a swollen physicality to the role but his Superman is still conflicted and brooding, making the eventual battle between him and Batman less day vs. night and more overcast skies vs. utter darkness. Seriously, the darkness never stops.
Cavill and Adams continue to have little to no chemistry, which is odd as their characters are now living in sin and having human-extraterrestial coitus. They both still work as journalists at The Daily Planet under boss Perry White (an underused Laurence Fishbourne), a job that Superman alter-ego Clark Kent seems to be objectively terrible at as he shirks stories. Maybe Supes is feeling the pressure as Senator Finch (Holy Hunter) aggressively tries to force the U.S. government to reign in Superman’s nearly unlimited power after the near-destruction of Metropolis.
It’s a clever conceit – making the movie about the aftermath of Man of Steel‘s events and acknowledging the lives lost (which they put in the 1000s but would’ve been closer to millions with the amount of buildings that fell), bringing in gravitas and real-world implications to superfights. Alas, like many other concepts (the immigrant experience, fascist control vs. freedom, the mirroring of post-9/11 atrocities like Abu Ghraib) the plotline never fully coalesces and is left to die on the vine amidst literal explosions.
One problem is that the movie is severely overstuffed, as in addition to establishing Batman and Superman and getting them ready to face off, the film also introduces the mysterious Diana Prince/Wonder Woman (Gal Godot), tries to set up a hammy Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg) as the mastermind behind Superman’s supposed undoing, and even brings in an iconic DC supervillain to ultimately unite the trio of Bats, Supes and Wonder Woman against a common threat. As inelegant as that all sounds, it often comes off even worse on screen.
There’s little cohesion from one scene to the next, especially in the first hour as the plots flits around between characters and rational thought falls victim to some seriously poor editing. The movie always looks gorgeous though, even as beloved characters are threatened with flamethrowers and Superman grimaces like he has an impacted bowel. At times Snyder leans into the insanity, like when Batman has no less than three (!) separate paranoid delusions, including: being able to fly, narrowly avoiding being eaten by a giant bat, and envisioning a dystopic alternate reality ruled over by a maniacal and murderous Superman (which, to be fair, is a cool scene).
The eventual showdown between the titans is thoroughly contrived (Eisenberg’s inconsistent and bratty Luthor sets it up for reasons that don’t entirely make sense), but it does make for some cool images. The film is heavily influenced by Frank Miller’s much-loved comic The Dark Knight Returns and seeing Batman’s iconic bat-armour realized onscreen is an unabashed geeky joy. Also boding well for the future of DC movies – Gal Godot’s Wonder Woman shines in her few scenes, even if her very presence seems like mercenary capitulation to franchise needs.
Cavill’s Superman is not as lucky, as Snyder continues to struggle to find a place for the noble character in his dour and tarnished world. Cavill does what he can and is best when not asked to emote too much, but the ending strives for emotional impact that isn’t earned. Let’s just say that Snyder also took influence from a popular 90s Superman comic book event and the results are already proving to be divisive.
Batman v Superman will surely have its defenders, though I can’t count myself among them. Snyder’s opus is simply too uninvolving and lacks the kind of fist-pumping moments that make or break superhero adventures. Affleck’s solid as a new Batman and some (though not enough) of the action is satisfying despite being overly brutal. And whereas Man of Steel had the magnetic Michael Shannon as General Zod, Batman v Superman‘s weird and conflicted Lex Luthor doesn’t even come close to being a believable threat as Eisenberg is saddled with some of the most cringe-worthy lines in a movie full of them.
A possible Dadaist anti-art masterpiece that provokes, disgusts and offends, Batman v Superman is a quarter billion dollar gamble and an ugly reflection of what Bruce Wayne’s butler Alfred would call “good men gone bad”. The end result is a lukewarm stew of machismo and muddled messaging that’s as occasionally gorgeous as it is certifiably insane, leaving the ultimate showdown between Batman and Superman to continue to exist only in the pages of comics.
Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016)
Directed by Zack Snyder
Runtime: 151 fucking minutes