What is a super hero? How does a super hero behave? How do they exist in a world with its already established rules and politics? These are questions that Director Zack Snyder has been asking since 2009’s Watchmen, a film that deconstructs the superhero myth to explore what these heroes would mean if they existed in the real world. It’s no surprise then that Snyder has chosen to carry these themes into his DC ventures. Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is a movie trying to do many things, but one central piece is its examination of the above questions. Unfortunately at thi
s, as with everything else, it fails spectacularly. Dawn of Justice is not only a bad Batman and Superman movie, not only a bad comic book movie, but just a really, really bad film.
Picking up right where the previous movie left off, Batman v Superman opens in the midst of the controversially destructive fight between Superman (Henry Cavill) and Zod (Michael Shannon) that ended 2013’s Man of Steel. Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) rushes to the Metropolis division of Wayne Enterprises. It is here that he witnesses the destruction of his building and the death of his employees due to some poorly aimed Kryptonian eye lasers (Snyder LOVES the eye lasers). This, along with 20 years of battling criminals in Gotham galvanises the middle-aged Batman to treat the alien as an absolute threat, even as the rest of the world worships him. For his part, Superman is wrestling with his own demons as he questions his desire to help people against the inadvertent results of his heroism. This puts him at odds with the Batman vigilante, a man who violently brands criminals with his symbol after beating the shit out of them. The stage is set for a confrontation between these two epic heroes.
Or is it?
Batman v Superman clocks in at 151 minutes long, but feels much longer as it meanders through an overly convoluted plot. The problem is that this is a film trying to accomplish three separate things. It’s trying to tie up Superman’s story from Man of Steel, it’s trying to establish an all new Batman character, and it’s trying to set up the eventual Justice League movie. There’s so much going on here that instead of a flowing, rhythmic plot, we get a series of disconnected scenes. Superman’s story really has nothing to do with Batman, until it suddenly does. Lex Luthor’s plan seemingly has nothing to do with ANYTHING, until it suddenly does. Lois Lane is in this movie, but really has nothing to do with the rest until the film bends over backwards to make it so. Wonder Woman is here as well and as much as I love Gal Gadot’s take on the character, she just doesn’t have anything to do in this film.
It’s amazing that a film as overly stuffed as this one can also feel so bare. There are many times in the film, that I wish it would take a second to explain what was going on. What was Lex Luthor’s plan? Why? How does anything he did further establish his goals? It feels like there are a handful of scenes that are just flat out missing from the film as presented.
Speaking of Luthor, Jesse Eisenberg’s take on the character has to be the single worst thing about the film. His performance is neurotic and incomprehensible. At some point he seems like a charismatic genius and in the next scene he’s an awkward rich kid with daddy issues. In each, Eisenberg is playing a different character and in all of them the performance doesn’t match up to the dour, dark tones of the rest of the film. It’s almost as if he’s acting in a completely different movie from the rest of the cast.
The rest of the performances range from pretty good (Jeremy Irons as Alfred) to surprisingly great (Ben Affleck). There was much wailing and gnashing of teeth when Affleck was originally cast as the Caped Crusader, but his work here is some of the best of the movie. Snyder’s version of Batman is much more psychologically damaged than we’ve seen before. He’s a borderline alcoholic who obsesses over Superman and literally quotes Dick Cheney in an effort to explain his actions. And it works! Sure, this version of Batman violently and unapologetically murders people, both with guns and his fists, but I found myself wanting to see more of him regardless. If the rumors of an Affleck directed Batman film are true, sign me up!
Unfortunately, this doesn’t gel into the rest of the world. The exciting thing about an epic battle of Batman and Superman is that they’re two super heroes with opposing styles and ideologies. Batman is dark and brooding, a damaged rich guy with a personal vendetta. Superman is a boy scout, a country-raised alien who above all wants to use his powers to help people. Seeing how the film would pit these two against each other and the results of that confict, was the entire draw of the story. Except in Snyder’s universe Superman is not the comic book character we know and love. He’s not the ‘aw shucks’ boyscout of yesteryear. Superman is a cold, moody, angry, sullen jerk. He’s just like Batman! Because there’s no real difference between these two we don’t actually care about their conflict. When Superman and Batman finally do fight (almost 2 hours into the film) it’s just a couple of assholes punching each other.
While I’ve admitted that Snyder has had storytelling issues in the past, his visual flair always managed to present an enjoyable cinematic experience. 300 practically invented an entirely new film style and as much as I take issues with Man of Steel, I can’t help but admit the film looked neck-snappingly beautiful. But even here, Snyder fails. The action scenes in Batman v Superman are dark, dull, and boring. There is a Batmobile car chase midway through the film that’s shot and edited with such lack of pacing and coherence that it’s basically just: “shot of tire, shot of explosion, shot of Battfleck, repeat” until the sequence is over. I’m still not actually sure what happened. There are some beautiful vistas and picturesque Snyder imagery here and there, but for the most part the film is flat and uninteresting. Even the climactic action set piece can’t manage to induce any excitement, another slugfest against a CG character with no drive or motivation. I know Snyder can do better. I’ve seen it. But it’s not present in this film.
The bottom line is that nothing works in Batman v Superman. Not the story, the characters, the themes, none of it. It’s a slog of a movie where character motivations are as unclear as the filmmaking. It’s hard to believe that someone could screw things up this badly. Putting Batman and Superman together in a movie seems like a recipe for success. Just stay true to the characters that everyone knows and loves and things will come together. But Snyder can’t help himself. He has to keep trying to deconstruct the myth of these heroes, and in doing so destroys them. He is his very own Doomsday.