Movie review: Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice

Batman v Superman

I didn’t love Man of Steel, but I liked it well enough that I could see how it might serve as a capable first step to an inventive and stirring DC cinematic universe at large, assuming Warner Bros. learned from the film’s missteps and capitalized on what worked. But nope. In Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, director Zack Snyder takes the DC football and runs it in the wrong direction, across his own goal line, out of the stadium and into oblivion. This is a terrible, terrible movie, one that should effectively suck any excitement out of every other superhero movie Warner Bros. has announced.

Direct comparisons to what Marvel is doing may rile up some people, but, as Billy Jean once said, fair is fair. And the fact is Marvel’s movies feature a wide range of heroes who experience actual recognizable emotions. Depending on the character, they can be arrogant or scared, needy or selfless. Despite all the superpowers and CGI explosions, they feel like real people with relatable problems, and the audience enjoys spending time with them year after year as a result. Snyder has no interest in treating his heroes as anything other than stone-faced gods. Now, that difference in presentation between the two brands has often existed in the comics as well. But even still, I find that the best DC movies attempt to ground their heroes just a bit, be it Christopher Reeve giving Clark Kent a gentle humanity in Superman: The Movie or Christian Bale’s Batman desperately trying to navigate an impossible situation while keeping his morality intact in The Dark Knight. There’s none of that here. And even if you’re on board with Snyder’s less than ideal versions of these characters — Batman as a single-minded, one-man murder machine (more Punisher than Dark Knight) and Superman as an emotionless man-god who seems to serve the planet only out of mopey obligation — the story fails to utilize them in any compelling way.

Oh, yeah, the story. Let me attempt to sum this garbage up. The movie opens with a recap of Batman’s origin and then drops us into the Supes/Zod battle that closed out Man of Steel. Except this time we see the battle from the perspective of Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck), as he desperately tries to reach a Wayne Enterprises skyscraper that’s filled with his employees and gets blown to rubble. A grudge is born, one that is shared by Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg), a young, mentally unhinged scientist and businessman who hates Superman (Henry Cavill) because … well … I guess because he’s a super-powered alien who makes Lex feel less special. (Seriously, that’s as deep as Lex’s motivations get.) Meanwhile, a green piece of Kryptonian wreckage has been discovered at the bottom of the ocean that sends everyone scrambling once it’s discovered that it could weaken, and maybe even kill, Superman. Batman wants to use it to make a weapon. To Lex, it’s importance piece to his devious interest in all things Kryptonian. The U.S. government wants to hold hearings on Superman himself and whether the country should tolerate his unilateral meddling into world affairs.

None of this is handled with any subtlety or logic. At one point, Lex frames Superman by having a tactical team murder a bunch of African soldiers (or rebels? or maybe terrorists?) while Superman is in the vicinity saving Lois. I still don’t understand quite how this worked, nor how he was able to so effortlessly goad Batman into moving in for the kill against Clark. The movie tries to tell so many stories at once that everyone gets lost in the muddle. Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) is hiding from the world and snooping around LexCorp. Perry White (Laurence Fishburne) wishes Clark would just write up his damn football assignment instead of focusing on Batman. Lex manipulates his way on board a Kryptonian spacecraft and starts up an ill-advised science project. There’s a deadly terrorist act that will blow the doors off the back of your movie theater but that the characters all forget about five minutes later. On top of all that, Snyder and the film’s writers, Chris Terrio and David Goyer, keep interjecting odd little dream sequences and hallucinations into the film, further lending credence that all of this is for visual show and none of it much matters from a story perspective. Additionally, Snyder has attempted a thematically heavy film here by piling on the 9/11 metaphors and big questions about the nature of destiny, but it all feels so empty, like a college freshman’s first pass at a psychology paper they barely care about.

As a result, it’s nearly impossible to label any the performances as “good” or “bad.” It’s simply a matter of no one being given anything interesting to do. For those hoping that Cavill’s Superman would grow into a more classically realized version of the hero — forget it. He’s more of a symbol than a character in this movie, and not a particularly engaging one at that. Affleck is all low-boiling rage as a middle-aged Batman who is branding bad guys with his logo at the film’s start and murdering dudes by the dozen as the film carries on. Gadot seems to have great screen presence as Wonder Woman but barely registers in terms of screen time. If you’ve seen all the trailers, you’ve seen about 95 percent of what she has to offer. Those wanting teases of future Justice League members like Aquaman and the Flash get exactly that — just a quick look and nothing more. Oh, wait … I forgot about Eisenberg as Lex. Yeah, we can label that one; he laughably plays one of the most ineffective, poorly realized comic-book villains of the modern age.

There’s one brief little scene where you get a glimpse of the movie that might have been. After Batman and Superman have made up and decided to work together (which happens on a dime thanks to little bit of pop psychology that serves as an incredibly lame cheat), Batman sets out to rescue a kidnapped Martha Kent. When he gets to her and disposes of her captors, he says to her simply, “I’m a friend of your son’s.” Martha looks back at him and slyly replies, “I figured … because of the cape.” It’s a genuinely warm moment of connection between two characters who have never met but realize they exist in this same crazy universe, and, for me, it conjured thoughts of the many great Batman/Superman team-up stories that have existed in comics and in animation for years and years. And then it’s quickly over, and the film moves on to Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman boringly pounding the crap out of Doomsday, a Luthor-bred Kryptonion monstrosity who’s similar to but somehow even less impressive than The Abomination was in Marvel’s Incredible Hulk eight years ago.

I don’t know what Warner Bros. is going to do now. I’m sure people will see this movie. It’s a Batman/Superman movie during a month when there’s not much else noteworthy in theaters. If it makes a lot of money but nobody really likes it, will Warner Bros. just plug their nose and carry on with Snyder helming Justice League? Is it too late for them to drastically change course? Because, the way I see it, that’s what they need to do to save the DC franchise. Nobody wants to have to go back to the drawing board, not when Marvel already has such a big lead in terms of quality and comic-fan loyalty. But thanks to the endless ineptitude of Batman v Superman, they likely don’t have a better option. Doubling down once again on Snyder’s vision after seeing what a trainwreck this turned out to be would be absolute madness.