As the follow-up to 2013’s dismal “Man of Steel”, the mouthful that is “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” lives up to its predecessor – in that it’s a grim, unpleasant, loud, dumb, operatic (at least as far as Hans Zimmer is concerned) mess of a movie. There’s something truly upsetting about it and what it sets out to do. The reason people will see this movie at all is the title heroes. They’re iconic and classic, the originals from an age where putting on tights was still something of a novelty. They’re modern American mythology with origins that are so well known they’re pretty much legendary.
Both represent a certain symbolic ideal; Superman’s is pretty clear and memorable as “Truth, Justice, and the American Way.” Batman veers darker, being a creature of darkness and using fear and intimidation to subdue criminals. Vengeance and the night. That said, he still has a firm moral compass, vowing never to take a life or use guns, the very weapon that killed his parents. These qualities make them heroic and lasting, something for children and even adults to root for as a fun ideal. An idea to look up to and enjoy.
In Zack Snyder’s mind there is no such thing as a hero. The deconstruction of Batman and Superman turns them both into petty, narcissistic, brooding jerks. Batman’s sole motivation in this movie is to kill Superman based on the 1% chance that he could go bad. Personally, I wouldn’t take those odds. The presence of a super human saving the day (more or less) makes him feel weak. He takes this out on criminals by branding them and killing them. What does that say about him as a person? Superman is no better. For no real reason, Clark Kent takes it upon himself to bring down The Bat of Gotham. Why? Not really clear. Batman is just a man who poses no real threat to him. There are terrorists everywhere in this world and he has plenty to do besides worry over some normal guy in a bat costume. For no good reason though, Superman hates the Batman.
Then we have Alexander Luthor, the son of (dead?) Lex Luthor. Man, oh man, Jesse Eisenberg goes out there for this one. He’s reaching for the stars and trying to gobble up the moon. The scenery just isn’t enough for him to chew. He plays this villain as a fidgety, weird little twerp, making his every shrill line delivery come across as head scratching or cringe-inducing. Going in the opposite direction, Ben Affleck isn’t much better. He’s probably so desperate not to come across like he did in 2003’s “Daredevil” that he plays it so cool it’s like he’s not acting at all. He sleepwalks through this role, his dead-eyed Bruce as cold and detached as possible. Henry Cavill’s Superman also leaves much to be desired. He’s miserable and scowling, even when performing heroic feats in slow motion. Most of his time seems to be spent hovering over people and staring down at them.
The rest of the cast is massive, with the movie jumping around every few minutes to give them all something to do, even when that something is unwarranted. Laurence Fishburne plays Perry White, the editor of the Daily Planet, much as you’d expect. He’s aggressive and sort of funny, but the movie’s grim tone makes him feel like he doesn’t belong. Amy Adams returns as Lois Lane to be everywhere the plot develops, no matter how impractical. There’s Jeremy Irons as a feisty old Alfred Pennyworth, and Holly Hunter as a baffling southern senator out to rein in Superman.
It’s a lot to take in and a lot to make sense of, and that’s not even mentioning the hyped Wonder Woman (who is never named as such). Her presence here is as baffling as it is pointless. There’s never a moment when she’s onscreen that it’s clear what she’s doing or why. She’s just there. Oh, and she fights at the end. Huzzah. Gal Gadot is hardly impressive, but since her character was given no character as opposed to being dismantled into something ugly, she probably leaves the biggest positive impression.
“Dawn of Justice” suffers from a certain set-up issue that’s become dangerous to these long-haul superhero movies. Early on, the set-up for future events was something that hampered down “Iron Man 2” and more so with “The Amazing Spider-Man 2”. Even a movie as recent as “Avengers: Age of Ultron” suffered from forced-in references. Zack Snyder performs quite the feat by doing this in what may be the clunkiest, ham-fisted and nonsensical way possible, ranging from Batman’s inexplicable psychic visions of coming events to Wonder Woman watching videos on her computer of other heroes doing stuff. None of it matters in the scope of the story and in context it makes no sense at all. Unless you at least get the references, you may be more than a little confused.
Confusion is the name of the game here, though. There’s not much of a plot to speak of – the movie plods along with many scenes of things happening where characters say things that seem poorly written and don’t often mean anything. Lex is probably the biggest perpetrator of this. If you were to narrow down the plot as his scheming, then everything falls apart. If you were to base it solely on the themes that get presented, then you’d realize those are only surface deep. Its hackneyed writing at its worst, where “serious” themes are presented by characters proposing them out loud, like “Do we need a Superman?” Good question. The movie doesn’t answer that, nor does it come up again, but, you know….glad the screenwriters thought of it.
The tone is something that makes this movie even more of a chore to sit through. Much like “Man of Steel”, it’s a cold grey-washed world where no one’s heroic and everything just sucks. No humor, no fun, no smiling even. Never have I seen a Superman so joyless, and I’ve seen “Man of Steel”. That’s not to say that all superhero movies need to follow the probably patented Marvel formula, but not every character lends itself to being viewed through a dark lens like Batman. Superman doesn’t really work that way, as evidenced here, and neither does Wonder Woman.
Batman is even taken to the next extreme, presented as sadistic, petty, and a murderer. Anyone who complained about 1989’s “Batman” for killing and enjoys this interpretation is a blind fool. We get to see Batman mow criminals down with his batmobile’s guns, blowing them up so they die in fire. We get to see him casually and savagely break necks and shoot people with guns. Is it supposed to be cool? Without his firm rules, Batman becomes a psycho vigilante, more in the vein of “The Punisher”. There’s no longer anything heroic about him or what he does, it’s just supposed to be awesome to watch him kick ass. Even if there is an odd sense of CGI to his ass kicking.
There’s no scene more encompassing of the joylessness of this movie than the titular fight. Poor build-up aside, when Batman and Superman finally come to blows it’s just sad and depressing. Neither character has proven to be likeable by this point, neither one is especially heroic, and as they just pummel each other you become numb with each successive hit. When Batman gets the upper hand, are we supposed to be excited? Should we cheer as he bashes his armored fist into Superman’s face? When Superman’s powers come back after breathing in Kryptonite, do we applaud when he backhands Batman through a brick wall? It’s as empty and hollow as anything else in this movie and the abrupt ending to it will give you whiplash.
In the end, “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” is just a big steaming mess of a movie. Not much of it makes sense. Its chocked full of Zack Snyder’s slow motion and handheld camera work, but that doesn’t help the script. It’s dull when it’s not confusing and bad when it’s just plain bad. The worst offense is still the manner in which it treats its title characters, though. The argument here seems to be that neither one is worth rooting for. There was a Superman comic written in 2001 by Joe Kelly called “What’s So Funny About Truth, Justice, and the American Way?” That’s a really good question. I wouldn’t mind hearing Zack Snyder’s answer.