Given both its exhaustive, exhausting pre-release coverage and the painfully on-the-nose nature of its title, it seemed somewhat strange that Warner Bros. cracked down on critics as completely as they did for Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice, brandishing NDAs prior to the embargo date and all but begging them to refrain from revealing plot points after it broke.
As it turns out, there’s only one big spoiler that the studio’s measures were trying, desperately, to keep under wraps: namely, that the film, while an undeniably monumental risk in the arena of superhero filmmaking, is also a catastrophically failed gamble, a mess of devastating proportions.
Taken as a purely cinematic work (without giving consideration to its linchpin role in launching the DC Movieverse), Batman V Superman is shockingly shoddy. A leaden and lethargic movie that somehow features a sickening excess of plot points without any narrative drive or through-line, it doesn’t feel directed so much as cobbled together in the dark. There’s no flow from scene to scene, no basic logic to the order of sequences; it’s no longer avoidable that director Zack Snyder, while a very talented visual stylist (who turns some shots here into museum-worthy tableaus of slow-motion carnage), is an extraordinarily inept storyteller.
To give you one of far too many examples, the film features a scene in which perpetually tetchy Daily Planet editor Perry White (Laurence Fishburne) prowls around the office, searching for an AWOL Clark Kent (Henry Cavill). “Where does he go?” White asks, harangued, musing that he’s probably taken off for Kansas. Instead of cutting to that character, the movie next shifts to Washington, D.C., to show Lois Lane (Amy Adams) meeting with a governmental source for a story.
Then it’s off to Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg), scheming away out of deep-seated fears over Superman’s god-like powers, then to Bruce Wayne/Batman (Ben Affleck), brooding and also very hostile toward the Man of Steel. None of these sequences relate to one another, and the experience of watching them unfold on the big screen is like watching a fatally overlong trailer for a movie that never arrives, or a slideshow of fan art accompanied by a score so punishing it makes you long for Interstellar.
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An overload of truly gonzo dream/multiverse (?) sequences, including one in which a desert-storm Batman fights a Superman militia against a backdrop of flying gargoyle creatures, eat up more of the budget and runtime, but given that they ultimately have next to no impact on the plot, their inclusion is a mistake of the what-the-hell-were-they-thinking variety.
It doesn’t help matters that the first half of this horrifically overlong film is an astounding bore. An early-on chase involving the Batmobile is so jarringly, sloppily edited that it makes the finale from Man of Steel seem coherent by comparison. But the movie for the most part keeps its heroes out of costume and taking tiny steps forward, as a procession of talking-head politicos (including a Southern senator, played by Holly Hunter, who’s foolish enough to stand in the way of Lex creating a Kryptonian weapon from the wreck of that Man of Steel ship) gravely intones that Superman is dangerous and in dire need of oversight (as if that were up for debate given how much damage he caused Metropolis in his last cinematic outing).
Why Snyder and his pair of scribes (Chris Terrio and David S. Goyer) spend so much time hitting this same point is beyond comprehension – they’re seemingly going for some kind of allegory about humanity’s need to believe in a higher power, the fallacy of mere mortals taking on (or trying to replace) gods, and how modern society creates idols just to tear them down, but none of those thematic layers feel so much as half-formed.
Superman doesn’t even get to advance his own personal ideas about his purpose – Batman V Superman features countless scenes of Lois, Martha Kent (Diane Lane, taking on a larger but less interesting role this time around), Batman, and Lex weighing in on his momentous abilities, but there’s almost nothing from the guy himself.
Some interpretations of Man of Steel, perhaps analyzing its tone more than Snyder did, have compared Superman to a military drone, a physical embodiment of the American military industrial complex’s unchecked influence, and he’s about as communicative as one of those destructive weapons of war in this follow-up. There’s an interesting thread to follow about the ethics of someone as mighty as Superman, but it’s abandoned almost immediately beneath mounds of exposition that should have been excised from the get-go. “Must there be a Superman?” One unseen pundit asks Hunter’s senator. She pauses, dramatically, then shrugs: “There is.” And that groan-inducing sequence, everyone, is the pinnacle of this film’s philosophy.
Thematic tedium aside, the plot of Batman V Superman doesn’t work on a basic narrative level. There are massive holes in its logic, with characters suddenly knowing things they couldn’t possibly know and showing up places without any explanation as to how they knew where to go.
Lex at one point turns into a soothsayer from a second-rate horror flick, wailing about some alien monster’s impending arrival without the film explaining how he would possibly know such a thing. And there are aggravatingly nonsensical touches with less bearing on the plot, too, like how quickly the government gives the nakedly insane Lex keys to a downed Kryptonian ship, or how a LexCorp flash drive reveals that Luthor has not only discovered other “metahumans” like Wonder Woman and the Flash (Ezra Miller) but neatly filed archival footage of them in folders that – I kid you not – bear their DC Comics symbols. Because in addition to being a loon, a rich entrepreneur, a mad scientist, a megalomaniac who seeks massive destruction, and an end-of-days conspiracy theorist, the dude is also apparently a branding savant.
Come to think of it, a lot of Batman V Superman‘s problems revolve around the characterization of Lex, whom Eisenberg plays as a scattered, twitching weirdo, a corporate-playboy Joker with none of the depth and all of the tics. It’s a profoundly irritating feat of overacting, especially when held up against Cavill’s square-jawed, straight-faced acting and Affleck’s gruff, angry portrayal of Batman as a hardened, hateful vigilante out of touch with his own moral boundaries. Many of Lex’s actions are nonsensical, and his motivations swing wildly back and forth until they’re basically non-existent. He’s less cartoonish villain and more villainous cartoon.
What’s doubly amusing is that Eisenberg, whom industry insiders were calling a highlight of the film months ago, is unbelievably terrible, yet Affleck, whose casting provoked a hitherto-unprecedented backlash from fans, is actually great. His world-weary Batman, despite being saddled with some exposition-dump scenes that are unmitigated stinkers, is this movie’s ace in the hole.
The actor sells Affleck’s fear and rage over Superman’s destructive powers even when the script gives it disparate motivations, and he handles the physicality of the role so effortlessly that it feels like he’s been playing the character for years. And when he’s out of costume as Bruce Wayne, Affleck turns on the charm and even leans, with great results, into the character’s comic-book history as a daring undercover detective of sorts.
Playing butler Alfred, Jeremy Irons is also wonderful, if visibly grimacing at some of the ostentatious tripe he’s being forced to recite (you’ve already heard the worst of it in the trailers). That both he and Wayne/Batman emerge unscathed from this toxic affair bodes extremely well for the planned Batman solo pic.
The other gem in this movie is Gadot’s Wonder Woman. Though she blows through the story with about as much explanation as tumbleweed got in old Westerns, the actress nails her heroine’s mystique and lays any fears to rest that she can brawl with the best of them. A lot of work went into refining Wonder Woman’s look and feel, and it shows.
Returning from Man of Steel, Cavill and Adams continue their chemistry-free back-and-forths, neither actor finding much by way of passion or energy in their roles. To be fair, Snyder and the writers make the decision to leave Superman on the sidelines for much of this movie, which means he gets a lot of time to glower and look generally miffed that the world doesn’t value his superheroics but, as mentioned earlier, no opportunity to show what impact Superman courting controversy has on the character’s psyche. Even when he’s throwing punches, there’s no urgency or real force behind them.
It was always more than a little silly to imagine the Caped Crusader, a billionaire with fighting skills and some nifty gadgets, going more than five seconds in the ring with an alien who shoots laser beams from his eyes and can punch someone half a mile without so much as winding up. So it’s both unsurprising and still deeply disingenuous from a marketing standpoint that, once the movie actually gets to all the fisticuffs, Snyder’s staging of the titular characters’ fight makes for the least interesting and entertaining instances of two men clobbering one another since Pacquiao v. Mayweather.
Simply put, Batman V Superman doesn’t give fans what they were promised, instead padding a dull, 8-minute sequence with two hours of numbing build-up and shrouding it in oppressive shadow. Snyder and his scribes come up with a way to rein in Superman so he doesn’t immediately melt Batman’s face off, but it’s flimsily, inconsistently executed and – the horror – expects audiences to accept that these two titans can both be critically impacted by the fact that their mothers share the same name (I’m serious – this is a crucial aspect of their characters).
And that disappointing battle is just the first of what feels like about ten climaxes. There’s a Batman sequence that actually works – on a visual level – like gangbusters, in which he storms a warehouse filled with goons, moving more elegantly and acrobatically than any previous on-screen version of the character. At one point, the Caped Crusader smacks a guy down so hard that his head actually goes through the floor. It’s amazing. But such moments of comic-book grandeur are few and far between.
The climactic (read: most explosion-heavy) sequence also pulls a tragically underdeveloped but nonetheless fearsome Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot, dispelling all notions that she’s too dainty for the role of an Amazonian warrior with a single battle cry) into the mix to combat an egregiously ugly-looking antagonist whose identity needn’t be revealed here but whose presence in the movie is as unnecessary as it is moronically, nonsensically, pathetically contrived. And their actual brawl is brutally handicapped by an overload of CGI and amounts to one shot after another of the three superheroes taking turns punching, shooting, or slicing their enemy. Somehow, Snyder makes what should be the money shot to end all money shots look downright dull.
And that, above all else, is the biggest problem with Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice: its bombast is devoid of meaning, its plot is monstrously incoherent, and, given that, in terms of it functioning as actual cinema, the film is entertaining for perhaps 10 minutes out of its 153.
Snyder slavishly recreates some iconic comic-book images, and he makes some of them (Batman zipping away from an explosion with his grappling hook, Superman being swarmed by awestruck humans who’ve just witnessed him in action) look properly majestic. But he labors to create such shots, and the evocative, gloomy aesthetic the director adopts for most of the film is suffocating in its intricate self-seriousness. Snyder, it seems, learned all the wrong lessons from Man of Steel – he’s an artful composer of vivid frames who fails to retain within his shots any semblance of soul or stimulus. This is, in the end, a superhero movie muffled so completely that it feels lifeless. The plot is atrocious because Snyder isn’t focused on it nearly as much as he is establishing a narrow, confining tone for WB and DC’s now jeopardized world. And that miscalculation should – if there’s any real justice in this sorry situation – prove as ruinous to the future of the studio’s superhero slate as it does to this bloated, banal, and block-headed whiff.
Moments of visual splendor can't save Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice, a comically, cosmically terrible waste of a blockbuster budget, from its disjointed, dreary narrative and vacuous treatment of its central, long-anticipated conflict.