When I go to the theater, I want to like what I see. I want to be engaged. I want the film to accomplish whatever it sets out to accomplish. If it’s a comedy, I want it to make me laugh. If it’s a drama, I want it to move me. If it’s a superhero movie, I want it to thrill me with its character development, well-staged fight sequences, and sinister threats. I want this remembered as I discuss Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, because it would be so easy to assume I went into this film wanting to hate it. I didn’t. If I’m going to spend money and give up nearly 3 hours of my life, I want it to be worth it. Alas, the film features incompetent editing, minimal character development, and sub par visual effects, making Batman v Superman more of an endurance test than a proper film going experience.
I know it’s easy to think the early buzz on the film soured me before I ever got the chance to gaze upon Zack Snyder’s cinematic equivalent of Rock ‘em, Sock ‘em Robots, and the early word of mouth did lower my expectations. However, that should have meant the film was more capable of living up to my exceedingly low hopes. I was more prone to be forgiving of its shortcomings. Instead, my low hopes weren’t even in the vicinity of being met, and I left in a blind, seething rage that rivals Bruce Wayne’s. The Usual Suspects once claimed, “The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.” I think, had Verbal Kint waited a bit longer, he would have realized the greatest trick ever pulled may have been Warner Bros pretending Batman v Superman was watchable.
Plot spoilers won’t be a problem because I am incapable of telling anyone what this film is about. Every time I start to discuss one plot strand, I realize I’ve forgotten to mention some other random plot strand that goes nowhere. The film should be called Batman v Superman: A Series of Barely Connected Scenes. Snyder doesn’t seem to care about these characters. He appears to like neither Batman nor Superman, and if you’re a female not named Wonder Woman you’re rescue bait.
As best as I can tell, the world is mad that Superman has both A) wiped out an African village to protect Lois Lane (Amy Adams, winning the prize for most wasted 5-time Oscar nominee) and B) completely demolished Metropolis during Man of Steel. Kentucky Senator Finch (Holly Hunter, leaning way too hard into her natural Southern accent) has called for a hearing about whether or not Superman (a brooding, surprisingly charisma-free Henry Cavil) really should be saving people, damn the cost. Meanwhile, Lex Luther (played with nth degree obnoxiousness by Jesse Eisenberg, acting as though he’s Mark Zuckerberg’s and The Riddler’s repugnant love child) has a plan to stop meta-humans in their tracks. His plan is…to…you know what? I don’t really know, because it never makes any sense. He doesn’t like Superman and he wants Batman (Ben Affleck, one of three facets of this film that has any redeeming value) to hate him too, and he accomplishes this through…actions? Oh yeah, and he makes a monster.
Basically, Batman and Superman are stuck in what Roger Ebert called the “idiot plot,” a device in which all the conflict between characters could be resolved if one of them would just talk to the other. Alas, meaningful dialogues have never been Snyder’s focal point.
Along the way, we’ve got Batman branding criminals (and blowing a few away with firearms), Congress exploding, dream sequences that may or may not be glimpses into the future, and Lois Lane nearly being killed over and over again.
This almost isn’t a movie. It’s a video game or a cartoon or a car commercial, or just a preview for a bunch of other movies on the horizon, but it cannot be called an actual work of film.
What frustrates me most about Batman v Superman (or BvS, if you’re nasty) isn’t its grim, glum aesthetic (for a character who’s powered by the sun, it’s hard to believe Superman can do much of anything since as far as this film’s concerned there is no sun), it’s minimal character development, or its surface-level thematic examinations. No, what pushes me into blind rage is the inescapable impression that this film genuinely believes it’s thematically deep, mistaking unyielding grimness for substance and inane character ambiguities for shading. Zack Snyder and his helper monkeys believe they’re paying tribute to Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns and honoring the legacy of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy.
The difference is Nolan is a smart filmmaker who actually did make a superhero trilogy with substance and depth. Frank Miller understood Batman and Superman’s conflict could be character-based and a reflection of their differing worldviews. Batman wants to punish the guilty; Superman wants to save the innocent. Zack Snyder….um…thought it was really cool when Batman punched Superman.
I mentioned there are three points for which I want to give the film credit: Ben Affleck’s Bruce Wayne, Jeremy Irons’ Alfred, and Gal Gadot’s criminally underused Wonderwoman (not her electric guitar theme, though. That’s absurd). Affleck remains a likable screen presence, and he’s more than capable of portraying a Batman who’s a little older and more cynical, skeptical he’s made any difference at all in saving Gotham City. He doesn’t have much to work with because the film never satisfactorily explains exactly why Batman cannot suffer Superman to live, but he makes his Bruce Wayne a compelling screen presence through his sheer charisma force.
His portrayal would work more effectively if the script allowed him to feel conflicted, aware he was taking a terrible step but feeling the ends justify the means, but instead he’s not only unconflicted about murdering, he’s downright comfortable with the moral cost of actually taking lives. As a result, Batman is unlikable throughout, but whatever emotional engagement that happens in the film occurs because of Affleck’s committed performance. He makes Bruce Wayne more interesting than the film’s screenplay does.
Jeremy Irons makes for an interesting, likable foil to Affleck’s grim, determined Bruce Wayne. Their relationship could have given the film a much-needed emotional center, as it does in Nolan’s films. Instead, Irons basically shows up, endears himself to the viewer, and disappears for lengthy stretches that make you almost forget he’s part of the narrative. Irons is one of the only likable characters in the film, mainly because he seems to be the only one who realizes how absurd the oncoming fight actually is, but the script doesn’t have any real interest in developing him.
The same goes for the breath of vibrant, fresh air that is Gadot’s Wonder Woman. She’s so refreshing whenever she’s onscreen, because she’s the only character who seems to be enjoying herself, but she has minimal screen-time in a film that really could use more of her.
The problem with a film in which 2 superheroes fight to the death is that they have to be likable before they start trying to kill each other and likable after they stop trying to kill each other. Neither of those statements can be applied to Batman or Superman. We don’t really understand why Batman jumps to murder quite so fast, and Superman is too busy brooding and complaining to appear sympathetic. It’s hard to emotionally engage with a character who is as self-fixated as Cavill’s Superman, but it’s not really Cavill’s fault. Granted, he seems to have decided frowning and wincing pretty much work for any emotion he has to convey, but I think he could be a fine Superman in a better film. He’s just playing the material he’s given, and the material isn’t giving him anything to do except lament his own misfortunes and jump into a tub with Lois Lane.
There’s almost no Clark Kent on display, so Superman’s humanity and relatability are perpetually on the back burner. A brooding, burdened Superman could be interesting, as it’s easy to understand why being thought of as both everyone’s savior and potential destroyer would feel exhausting and overwhelming. The problem is we never really get a sense of Superman’s inner workings. He’s more cypher than character.
It appears Zack Snyder feels his film’s incomprehensible narrative, joylessness, and one-dimensional characterizations could be salvaged by an epic Batman-Superman fight scene, but the film’s color palette is so dark and dreary it’s nearly impossible to see what’s going on. I’ve often thought that, whatever Snyder’s shortcomings with narrative, he’s capable of creating well-executed sequences with striking visual flair. This film, however, looks like garbage, disguised as gritty realism. There’s so much CGI that it’s difficult for the proceedings to illicit any sense of gravity, yet you can almost hear Snyder shouting, “It’s so extreeeeme” in every scene’s background.
Alas, what little tension the film has managed to accumulate between its dueling superheroes dissipates with one of the most absurd plot contrivances I’ve seen.
Batman v Superman is a film of bizarre choices. It builds to a fight scene it chooses not to showcase, it colors its world with paper-thin characters who undertake actions because the plot needs them to, and features editing so incomprehensible it may someday be hailed as a genius work of avant-garde cinema. It’s a film that feels no need to contextualize characters such as Cyborg, “Death in the Family,” allusions or a potential Darkseid reference, but does feel the need to remind audiences (twice in the same film!) that Batman’s parents were gunned down in an alley. I only wished they’d gone out on a better film than Excalibur, but I guess it’s better than having Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice be the film that shuffles you off this mortal coil. In the end, all you’re left with is a sense of grim dread for whatever The Justice League will splatter across movie screens. Here’s hoping it makes more sense than this.