Director: Zack Snyder
Writers: Chris Terrio and David S. Goyer
Starring: Henry Cavill, Ben Affleck, Amy Adams, Gal Gadot, Jesse Eisenberg
March 24, 2016
There are two ways to enjoy a viewing of Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice. The tack Zack Snyder probably hopes you take is going in with an open heart willing to embrace any and all pretensions that are handed to you. The second way is to embrace how utterly bizarre it chooses to be — tonally, thematically, characterization-wise — and laugh, because there’s no other way to process it. While I tried to embrace this film with an unbiased heart, it demolished my credulity in the literal opening sequence. So, while I can honestly say Batman v. Superman was entertaining, I cannot honestly say it was good.
The film is over-serious and self-important, a man’s puffed up chest in a too-expensive suit. There’s death happening here, the movie wants to remind you, over and over again, despite side-stepping some much needed emotional resonance in relation to it. There are only a few shining beacons of interest, like Laurence Fishburne Perry White, which manage to break through the dismal tone of everyone around him. Ben Affleck’s Batman storyline is by-the-numbers: the Waynes are murdered, Martha Wayne’s pearls are strewn across the alleyway as music plays, he gets a lecture about his increasingly unethical crime-fighting tactics from Jeremy Irons’ underused Alfred, he growls, he punches, he makes some terrible plans to defeat Superman. Affleck’s Bruce Wayne is, at least, a departure from Christian Bale’s increasingly unhappy obsessive. He gets in a few cocky grins, and Batfleck is honestly a character I wouldn’t mind watching in a different film. In this one, however, Bruce is mostly kind of a dick. This would be fine if he also had a thoughtful motivation — but he doesn’t. Instead of motivations, he has dreams filled with visuals that make for nice trailers but do very, very little to advance the storyline.
The film is over-serious and self-important, a man’s puffed up chest in a too-expensive suit. There’s death happening here, the movie wants to remind you, over and over again.
Superman himself spends most of the movie either grimacing or being forced into poses meant to invoke religious iconography. Henry Cavill isn’t given much to do other than feel bad about doing good — as a reporter, populist Clark Kent has an almost-explored point about vigilantism, but he has to go about it in the most dour way possible. Though he’s supposedly experiencing the emotional repercussions of his heroism, he never gets to articulate what exactly he thinks he should be doing as Superman. He doesn’t even get to show off his hard-earned muscles; the one romantic scene that isn’t also mired in a near-death experience for Lois Lane has him falling into a bathtub fully clothed. Amy Adams spends most of the film with glittering tears in her eyes, hitting plot point after plot point which seem pulled out of a hat filled with damsel-in-distress scenarios. It’s not that I don’t buy their romance, it’s just that I don’t care about it at all.
Synder can create an enticing shot, but forges ahead with his war against bright colors and saturation in Batman v. Superman. The cities of Gotham and Metropolis hang in a perpetual grey season, and no one has adequate lighting except for LexCorp. The editing is erratic, leaving the audience feeling disconnected from the characters as the story hops from Superman to Batman to Lex Luthor at seemingly arbitrary moments. Snyder creates a few real enjoyable moments, most often when the Trinity is together, but he fails to ever create a sense of urgency or momentum. The movie lurches along in a way that suggests the rewrites never quite coalesced as they should. The plot twists are predictable and dull, and only two scenes managed to really catch me by surprise and stir real interest in the proceedings. The Hans Zimmer/Junkie XL score is as self-important as the rest of the film, adding another layer of bombast that makes scenes harder to take seriously. Snyder also manages to double-down on disaster imagery, invoking not only 9/11 this time, but also Hurricane Katrina and the Challenger explosion. None of this feels earned, because Superman himself seems to be sleepwalking through his heroism as though each good deed is equivalent to having a tooth pulled. Despite saving astronauts, he’s crushed by guilt that also feels unearned, going through the motions of brooding until the plot calls him back to the frontlines again. Superman essentially exists, but he never has a distinct point of view.
Snyder also manages to double-down on disaster imagery, invoking not only 9/11 this time, but also Hurricane Katrina and the Challenger explosion. None of this feels earned, because Superman himself seems to be sleepwalking through his heroism as though each good deed is equivalent to having a tooth pulled.
On the villain side, Jesse Eisenberg plays Lex Luthor as an effete eccentric genius, but there’s no real sense of what’s driving him. He plays Luthor as a collection of twitches, tics, and menace, but it never quite reaches the full potential. It’s also quite a strange take on Luthor, especially in a movie that all but exudes machismo; the dichotomy of Luthor’s limp wrists as he speaks and Clark’s crushing handshake would be questionable in a better movie but definitely made me pause during this one. However, at least Eisenberg seems to be having fun with his role, and he gives Luthor a manic energy amidst a cast that barely sparks at all, even if his actions aren’t particularly grounded in logical consistency. The Final Boss of the film holds no emotional resonance, but at least gives the Trinity a big fight scene where they at least look like they enjoy each other’s company. It’s the part of the film that seems the most stripped of pretensions, and while the fight is nothing we haven’t seen before, I was fully engaged in it.
However, at least Eisenberg seems to be having fun with his role, and he gives Luthor a manic energy amidst a cast that barely sparks at all, even if his actions aren’t particularly grounded in logical consistency.
Unsurprisingly, the movie has some race and gender issues, the most glaring one being its treatment of Asian women as sexualized props. Tao Okamoto is given literally nothing to do as Mercy Graves, and other Asian women in the film are victims only given voice in subtitles. Asian men appear as nameless, violent henchmen, there to be thrown around by Batman. Lois Lane is on shakier ground here than Man of Steel, and Martha Kent is given exceptionally poor treatment. People of color fill the ranks of nameless extras being saved, nameless extras crying next to destroyed property, and nameless extras lifting up their white Khaleesi, Superman, in a scene that made me wonder if perhaps Zack Snyder and David S. Goyer are really and truly unaware of the ground they can’t stop retreading.
For another example, Batman v. Superman literally opens with Batman’s origin story. It’s a bad, derivative start to a wider franchise, one I was really expecting would be better than this. I hope these three characters are given something — anything — more interesting to do in the future, but the current Dawn of Justice (League) is bleak.