You might be able to hear the quivers of anxiety and sense the sweaty palms of Warner Bros. executives as their massive extravaganza Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice awaits its long-anticipated theatrical release. The pressure of mounting a massive cinematic multiverse is a daunting task and the movie, if nothing else, shows that. This is more than just a single film though – it’s a big, noisy mission statement with tons of ground to cover: (1) merge the two most iconic DC Comics characters for the first time in cinematic history; (2) course-correct the highly contentious and perceived wrongs of 2013’s Man of Steel; (3) provide a foundation for a comic-book screen universe comparable to billions-earning rival Marvel. A demanding laundry list to be sure, yet this bleak and dour epic showdown poses one major tentpole-sized question: Why so serious?
Franchise movie-making may be a slog, but the movies themselves certainly don’t have to be. Anyway you look at it, the first live-action film to feature both Batman and Superman should be a celebration, a joyous melding of two of the most beloved characters to form in American media in the last century. Yet, under the tutelage of director Zack Snyder (who previously helmed the DC-based flicks Watchmen and the aforementioned Man of Steel), the structure provided by screenwriters Chris Terrio (Argo) and David S. Goyer (The Dark Knight Rises) and the worked out physiques of actors Ben Affleck and Henry Cavill, Batman v Superman has all the mirth of a puppy funeral. I’ll play the villain here and make it snappy – frankly, Batman v Superman just isn’t any good. For all its grandeur and ambition, the movie fails to connect intellectually or emotionally and has little interest in offering in the way of, say fun – the bedrock on which the entire genre was elementally founded on. There’s certainly nothing wrong with attempting to thread grand, operatic ideas of philosophy or theology into a superhero tale (it is after all, what Christopher Nolan wrought onto the genre) or to be straight-faced about it, but there is something grandly amiss when the end result is gloomy and utterly unpleasant. C’mon Batman and Supes, try and crack a smile – just once.
Smiling isn’t cool and so it’s replaced here with blatant cruelty, mostly for audience members tickling with hope on the titular promise of Batman going one on one with Superman. That cruelty is extended most harshly towards Superman a.k.a. Clark Kent (Cavill) and, in its own way, towards Man of Steel. The filmmakers open Batman v Superman as an all but mea culpa towards the critics who took issue with Superman’s bombastic (and deathly) destruction of fair city Metropolis in the previous film. There’s a glint of promise in the beginning as a noticeably weathered Bruce Wayne (Affleck) witnesses the disaster firsthand and feebly attempts to offer aid, it’s just unfortunate that this follows a tedious, eye-rolling opening sequence of Bruce’s oft-told and needlessly repetitive origins that foreshadow his superhero calling. The theme is further exacerbated as it draws clearer that Batman’s perspective is the most dominant and evenly-handled; Superman may be sanctified by many, but must also contend with governmental and public protest. There’s certainly a fair read and feel that Batman was brought aboard to band-aid the divisive reaction of Man of Steel.
There’s bigger problems afloat, especially in the uneasy and dismally dreary first half of Batman v Superman. Snyder and his team have a great deal of difficulty establishing any sort of rhythm in the midst of doling out universe-building exposition. Most early scenes play out with little rhyme or reason and drift away to someplace else entirely, thus limiting any sort of momentum to propel the narrative. Clearly, there’s business to attend to including introducing Batman (easily manipulated on the conceit that Metropolis and Gotham City are rival sister cities separated by a narrow body of water) and setting up a Big Bad in Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg), portrayed as a sort of Mark Zuckerberg-on-Adderall sleazeball (one of his dastardly dos involves a jar of urine, for crying out loud). The cross-cutting of their developing stories, along with picking up with feisty Daily Planet journalist Lois Lane (Amy Adams) every now and then, plays with such a detached sense of purpose that it’s difficult to become fully get engaged in anything. It plays like so for the first hour-and-a-half: Superman broods, Batman broods harder, Lex twitches, Lois trembles, rinse, repeat.
Nolan helped cement the brooding initiative in superhero tales with his joke-free Dark Knight trilogy, but Batman v Superman takes it another level. Both – one a mere mortal with billions at his disposal and the other a nearly impervious alien being – appear so burdened and tortured when tasked to serve, protect or fight insidious corruption, it’s frankly difficult to root for either of them. Superhero work may be rigorous, but here its presented as a total drag. Affleck, for his part, is in a slightly better position as Wayne’s character is shaped a tad more alluringly. Trusty Alfred (Jeremy Irons) knowingly acknowledges a behavior change: “Even you’ve grown too old to die young.” Here’s an older, slightly jaded Caped Crusader with a clear chip on his shoulder, a change of pace for Batman that could have been mined more provocatively had storytelling been higher up on the agenda list here or if the somber mood been more keenly developed.
At the very least, Batman is extended a tiny platform before his death glares at Superman take over the movie. Superman, not so much, and Cavill has precious little to do but pout and gloom (a small shame since the actor expressed old school suave so memorably in the underrated The Man From U.N.C.L.E.). If I’m intentionally eschewing plot points, that’s because most are quite basic (if needlessly convoluted) and prove ever more straight-faced silly as the movie winds down its interminable running time; the trailers pretty much give the whole bag away anyhow. Lex proves the puppet master (the urine jar has a purpose) in pitting Batman against Superman and yet when the two eventually start to pound on one another, it’s hardly the thrill you might be hoping for. It all really amounts to a fickle misunderstanding anyway, a boys-will-be-boys school yard tussle between two hulky, thick-headed, angst-ridden mamma’s boys. Batman v Superman does have one ace up its sleeve, but is far too-timid to fully engage with it. That would be the eternity-and-a-day-in-waiting first cinematic appearance of Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot).
The entrance of the Amazonian warrior is instantly rousing, but lest we gong the feminist drum too loudly, it’s more than a little distressing that Wonder Woman has the scantest of screen time and is mostly presented in cleavage-bearing gowns; mostly serving as window dressing for Wayne. It would have been a treat had Diana Prince been granted a few moments of legitimate agency of her own. The same could be said of Adams’ Lois Lane or for the character of Senator Finch (played by the always-welcome Holly Hunter), who questions the unilateral missions of Superman, both of whom are saddled with equally joyless side stories of their own.
The most depressing aspect of Batman v Superman lies in its contrast between tone and style. The characters and their consistent dourness make the proceedings super unpleasant but the filmmaking palette is ambitious and meticulously crafted from a team of artisans who clearly put tremendous care into every shot. Visually, this isn’t a paint-by-numbers, blander-than-bland movie on terms of conception (in sharp contrast to how some of the Marvel features look and sound). There’s evocative flourishes that flood specific frames in sometimes fascinating ways – Snyder may not be a great storyteller but he’s nearly always an interesting visual stylist. Not everything is attractive to the eyes or ears, but there’s an acutely clear and careful consideration of all of the movie’s production elements – production design, sound mix, score, visual effects. If they had just removed the two whinny d-bags from its center, there might have been great potential here.
Verdict: 1 out of 5
Joyless and criminally too long, Batman v Superman hopes to ignite the start of a long-in-tooth DC Cinematic Universe but director Zack Snyder offers little by way of escapism. Instead, we get a relentlessly bleak and altogether off-putting variant of two of the most treasured characters in history. They brood, they fight and we all lose.