Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice begins where its 2013 DC-Comics predecessor, Man of Steel, ended: The titular Kryptonian is fighting his nemesis, General Zod, over the streets of Metropolis and, in the process, laying waste to much of the city. What we didn’t know before is that down there, amid the rubble, is the billionaire Bruce Wayne, trying with limited success to rescue workers at a local branch of Wayne Enterprises from the collateral destruction.
There’s the germ of an interesting idea here. The Man of Steel director Zack Snyder took a fair amount of grief for the way that movie casually depopulated an American city, however fictional. In Snyder’s retelling here, Bruce Wayne (a.k.a., obviously, Batman) essentially becomes the voice of those critics. Is Superman really a hero? Or is he just some alien interloper who brought his extraterrestrial vendettas to our humble planet, knocking down an entire urban skyline in the process? In the hands of another director—the Christopher Nolan of the Dark Knight movies or the Bryan Singer of the X-Men films come immediately to mind—this and other moral quandaries might have been drawn out in intriguing ways.
Instead, alas, we have Snyder, whose idea of a moral quandary is should I make this scene grim—or grimmer? Loud—or louder? Violent—or more violent still? It’s thus no surprise that after all its early, ostentatious handwringing, Batman v Superman ends almost exactly as its predecessor did, with another dull, city-smashing duel between super-beings. The only surprise is that the movie recalls its animating premise vaguely enough to bother explaining that the neighborhood being leveled this time around is “uninhabited.” No harm, no foul.
Such thematic carelessness is on constant display, which wouldn’t loom as nearly so large a problem if Snyder’s film didn’t advertise its aspirations to Moral Seriousness in almost every plodding, humorless frame. There are endless disquisitions about whether Batman is good for Gotham and Superman good for the Earth, and tedious evocations of the roles of “gods” and “men.” Yet the actual characters themselves never come to life as anything other than symbols to be clumsily bickered over.
We know, for instance, that Lex Luthor (played by Jesse Eisenberg as a young tech magnate) hates Superman (Henry Cavill) primarily because we knew as much before the movie even started. And other than a kind of whiny, inchoate envy, that’s all the motivation he evidently needs. Likewise, we know that Lois Lane (a thoroughly wasted Amy Adams) loves Superman because a) she keeps saying so; and b) that is her principal plot function. (Well, that and requiring the Man of Steel to rescue her from certain death at frequent intervals—there are times when it’s hard to believe that this movie was made in 2016.) As for Lois’s heartfelt question, “I just don’t know if it’s possible for you to love me and be you,” I would refer her to Larry Niven’s dispositive 1969 essay, “Man of Steel, Woman of Kleenex.”
And when it comes to Diana Prince (a.k.a., Wonder Woman, and played by Gal Gadot), over the course of two and a half hours we learn precisely nothing about her other than she fought in World War I, became disillusioned with mankind’s senseless cruelty, and has now reappeared 100 years later with a taste for high-end couture that displays large, strategically selected expanses of bare skin. (She reserves her famous red-and-blue one-piece for the final act.)
Which brings us to Batman/Bruce Wayne, played with grumpy intensity—and poor shaving habits—by Ben Affleck. The idea of the clash between him and Superman is loosely lifted from Frank Miller’s seminal 1986 comic series The Dark Knight Returns. In that telling, Batman was a bitter, 55-year-old super-retiree, whose vigilante methods were of such concern to the U.S. government that it enlisted Superman to rein him in. This time around, however, the roles are mostly inverted, with Superman as the potential threat to order—a U.S. Senator played by Holly Hunter pops up periodically to raise this question—and Batman the potential remedy.
But following the initial loss of life at Wayne Enterprises, Batman’s motivations become vague bordering on incomprehensible. The closest he comes to articulating them is when he explains to his butler Alfred (now played by Jeremy Irons, in a perhaps inevitable passing of the generational torch from Michael Caine): “He has the power to wipe out the human race. And if we think that there’s even a one percent chance that he’s our enemy, we have to treat it as an absolute certainty.” This may be the most ostentatiously shoddy logic deployed by a theoretically brilliant character in recent movie history.
Make no mistake: Batman doesn’t want merely to limit Superman’s super-prerogatives, or to come up with a contingency plan in case he goes rogue, or even to confine him somewhere. He wants, quite explicitly, to kill Superman. Again, in the proper hands (such as Frank Miller’s 30 years ago), the idea of a quasi-insane Batman might bear interesting fruit. But Snyder’s Batman is all over the map, suave and rational one moment and snarling belligerent threats the next. At one point, he taunts Superman like an overly theatrical WWF heel: “Tell me, do you bleed? You will.” What has Superman done to merit this degree of hatred? Leveled another city? Killed the president? Declared war on puppies? Nope. Alien monster that he is, he’s messed up the Batmobile.
I will not go further into the plot of the movie, in part because Snyder has made an explicit plea that reviews avoid spoilers and in part because the screenplay, by Chris Terrio and David S. Goyer, is a tangled mess of awkwardly entwined storylines. Even on questions as straightforward as whether this Batman is a continuation of Nolan’s Dark Knight or a reboot, the movie seems unable to decide. On the one hand, it presents us yet again with the robbery-murder of young Bruce Wayne’s parents, perhaps the scene in all popular cinema that least needed to be portrayed anew. (This time, though, his mother’s pearls tumble to the ground in slow motion.) On the other, it presumes that we already know all about Alfred, the Bat Cave and so on.
As its subtitle announces, Batman v Superman is a setup for Snyder’s upcoming Justice League movie, in conscious apery of the world-building that Marvel Studios has been undertaking for almost a decade. But whereas Marvel produced five superhero features before assembling its heroes in The Avengers, Warner Bros. has no such patience with its DC properties. (Justice League Part One is due out next year.) Nowhere is this impatience more evident than in a remarkably lame narrative shortcut in which Bruce Wayne happens upon a “metahuman” supercut of footage that introduces Wonder Woman, the Flash, Aquaman, and Cyborg in the course of approximately two minutes. Glad that’s out of the way, guys!
Such shoddiness is characteristic of the entire script. Though there are several scenes illustrating the extent of Superman’s super-speed, he never seems to use it when it’s most needed—for example, as he stands around watching Batman prepare to hurl what he already knows to be a deadly kryptonite grenade. One crucial plot twist depends entirely on the coincidence of two characters having relatives with the same first name. (Though the moment is intended to be one of profound emotion, there was open laughter in the screening I attended.) And the biggest twist of all is one that was rendered implausible by a vision of the future that Batman had already experienced—a vision, incidentally, that will be utterly incomprehensible to all but the most devout DC fans.
Affleck is solid as Batman, at least insofar as the script allows him to be. Cavill, though, again fails to sell the Man of Steel persuasively, and Gadot makes almost no impression at all in her underwritten role. But it’s Eisenberg who really stands out in the film, and not in a good way. I’ve been a fan of the actor dating back to 2002’s Roger Dodger, but his twerpy take on Lex Luthor is almost unwatchable: Petulant, melodramatic, hyperactive, and entitled, he comes across like an improbable—and thoroughly unappetizing—blend of Tracy Flick and the Joker. One almost wonders whether Eisenberg’s mocking sendup of film reviewers in The New Yorker last December was intended as a bit of critical inoculation.
Ultimately though, the central flaw of Batman v Superman is Snyder’s trademark tone, which alternates between angry and maudlin with little in between. Almost the entire film seems to be set at night, as if it were taking place in Mordor, or perhaps Anchorage in December. And Hans Zimmer’s clamorous, punishing score was still reverberating in my fillings for hours after the movie was over. In the end, Batman v Superman is a tiresome, ill-tempered film, and one too lazy even to earn its dismal outlook.
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