Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice isn’t a complete disaster.
Of course, that doesn’t mean it’s good. It’s not, and had it not been for one scene-stealing Amazonian goddess warrior and the energy she brings with her, it would’ve been legitimately bad. The one thing done right is getting the audience amped for Wonder Woman’s upcoming solo film, and, of course, the Justice League sequel.
But boy, did they do a lot of things wrong to get there.
Batman v Superman is less a “film” than a bunch of clips strung together haphazardly by some vague, overarching theme. There is almost no narrative structure, as one scene just cuts to another without transition or an attempt to orient the audience. One moment, you’re in Metropolis in the thick of the Kryptonian deathmatch from Man of Steel, the next you are “somewhere in the Indian Ocean” with some scuba-diver finding a hefty chunk of glowing green rock, with maybe a flash of a title card to guide the way. Most of the time, however, you’re left scratching your head about what’s really happening on screen.
Not much, as it turns out. Coming off the controversial carnage of Man of Steel, there was plenty to address about Superman and how he fits in the real-world, post-9/11 context that director Zack Snyder is obsessed with. Is he a messiah, or a menace? Does he deserve large granite monuments, or Senate hearings about his reckless pursuit of justice? And how does this all weigh on Superman himself? How does he feel about the collateral lives lost? Does saving people and averting crisis offer him peace or purpose in life? These are all questions posed throughout the film, and left unanswered. The screenplay and its dialogue are, frankly, atrocious. There are no discussions about who Superman is and why, just empty proclamations about power and God and responsibility that have no grounding in anything. These frustratingly broad, self-indulgent strokes extend to the character, who is never allowed to showcase any feeling about his role in the world. Instead, Superman is moody, aloof, and a narcissist. He is so out-of-character that I wonder whether Snyder and company actually like Superman.
Where Superman is cold and detached, Batman is boiling hot with rage. It allegedly stems from seeing his building in Metropolis obliterated by Superman’s fight with Zod, an experience so traumatic that it takes him nearly two years to do anything about it. Instead, he glowers, drinks heavily, and runs around branding people with his Batarang. Batman’s motivations for hating Superman would feel less shoddy if we actually saw the two interact more in the first half. Instead, the two exist in almost parallel worlds, except for an occasional scowl when the other is mentioned and some snipping banter when the two show up at a party as their alter egos.
The two titans finally reach clashing point because of a series of misunderstandings, machinated lamely by Lex Luthor. His involvement plot-wise is one of the film’s worst aspects, and every second he is on screen is an affront to the character’s legacy as a menacing super-villain. Everything he does lacks sense, has no basis in character history, and is so obvious and unclever that it’s shocking that Batman, the World’s Greatest Detective, could fall for such stupidity. There are a bunch of other things at play here, like a government conspiracy and nightmares and “meta-humans” that all serve as distractions from what the film should be about; the meeting (and beating, I guess) of the World’s Finest.
Snyder clearly has no clue who any of these iconic characters really are, and his insistence on developing thin, surface-level material does his cast no favors. Henry Cavill, returning to the roles of Superman and Clark Kent, is given almost nothing to do besides float in the sky and occasionally kiss Lois Lane. Ben Affleck, controversially cast as Batman, fares better, even if his Bruce lacks the magnetism of Christian Bale. Everything about Jesse Eisenberg’s exhausting take on Luthor is shambolic, although I’m inclined to blame the writing and direction. Everyone else is left to try and make their dreary, hollow material work, with varying degrees of success (the biggest surprise is Laurence Fishburne as Perry White, who had more fun than the rest of the cast combined).
The only character to walk away from the film truly unscathed was Wonder Woman, played by Gal Gadot. To say she steals the movie is an understatement. Her appearance, woefully short as it is, literally jolts the limp proceedings to life. While her character is as lightly sketched as the others (her plot line has to do more with setting up Justice League than anything else),but Gadot’s self-assured, regal presence is a breath of fresh air. Seeing the three superheroes together in the final act, united against Doomsday, is the kind of delight that this film is sorely lacking throughout.
So by the grace of God (and Wonder Woman, assuming they aren’t one and the same), Batman v Superman isn’t a total waste of time. Yes, it’s an empty, CGI-driven slugfest that tosses concepts like plot and character out of the window. But at least we get to see the Big Three fight alongside each other for all of 20 minutes maybe, right? For fans of the DC universe, it’s satisfying enough to almost excuse the incomprehensible crap that precedes it. And yet, there are still two hours left to consider.
The movie has no depth behind the overwhelming feeling of dread, and joy is a foreign concept here. Scenes that could’ve provided some compelling gravitas are left unfinished, and there are plenty of scenes that didn’t need to be there at all. Even the use of CGI, Snyder’s speciality, gets tiresome and lazy after awhile. Maybe, if Snyder (or not Snyder) had developed two separate movies, instead of shoehorning a Batman story into what should’ve been Man of Steel 2, it would’ve been better. Instead, we get a laborious, self-important slog of a movie that calls into question why anyone should even like the two titular characters.
Zack Snyder’s reckless disinterest is the disease threatening to destroy the DC Universe before it really begins, and the future success of this beloved franchise hedges on how the studio addresses it. If there is any justice at all, this film will be Snyder’s dusk, not dawn.