After several decades of fan anticipation, Zack Snyder’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice barges into theaters offering us the greatest comic-book confrontation of all time. The question of course is whether or not the movie can actually live up to its own rich legacy and ambitions, which include being a sequel to 2013’s Man of Steel, a set-up for DC’s upcoming Justice League, and finally, a satisfying clash of the titans between its two titular heroes.
Unfortunately for audiences, Snyder’s Dawn is largely a yawn, slinking in like that moody kid in art class whose much-touted final project was clearly thrown together in haste mere hours before the due date. At a rip-roaring 151 minutes long, Dawn is a distended behemoth that dishearteningly resembles those fan-made YouTube trailers for properties that don’t yet exist, a disconnected collage of scenes literally ripped from other movies and TV shows without any attempt to seamlessly merge them.
Of course, the set-up is a good one. Although I wasn’t the biggest fan of Snyder’s Man of Steel, it did confidently set the stage for this story. Superman (Henry Cavill) has presented himself to the world but he’s yet to become confident in his own moral underpinnings; he’s living among the humans but still behaves with the reckless good intentions of a god who doesn’t quite grasp how fragile we really are. While Metropolis and the rest of the world debate the safety of having such a super-powered savior, across the comic page in crime-riddled Gotham, a weary Batman (Ben Affleck) hardens his own methods, preparing for the day when he might have to go to war with vaster forces than a psycho in clown make-up.
The early moments of Dawn do show promise, and unsurprisingly play to Snyder’s strengths as a live-action painter of comic-book milieus that retain their distinct illustrative quality. Whether he’s changing the point-of-view on the first film’s apocalyptic city siege or adding a moment of perceived magical realism to Bruce’s first awakening in the bat cave, Snyder knows his way around a frame and how to intersect multiple character perspectives. The best sequences involve Bruce Wayne’s paranoid visions of what a fully-powered and vengeful Superman could look like. Where Snyder is weaker is in assembling the various tableau he’s concocted into a contextual narrative that allows the characters and their emotions to outshine the drab, monotone brooding darkness he visually and tonally slathers on the film. Many of the images here are conceptually brilliant but end up being marred by the visual aesthetic which mishandles the action scenes, including a final, scorched-earth miasma that plays like an addled video-game and the bone-crunching but dramatically stilted central showdown everyone presumably came to see.
Stage-managing the intended title bout from afar is Alexander Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg), a young billionaire who questions the sanity of allowing a being such as Superman to roam free and unchecked among us. Of course, sanity isn’t very high on Lex’s personal bucket list; he’s the kind of manic nut-bag who can’t resist giggling maniacally during a big public speech or hand-feeding a Jolly Rancher to a high-ranking official with whom he’s just made a deal. Lex’s end-game isn’t really entirely clear, but he seemingly wants to lay waste to Superman and believes positioning him against Batman will provide an opportunity for the boy in blue to sound the trumpet that will turn the world against him. Eventually the two heroes come to blows, and Lex’s schemes take on a darker, more cataclysmic bent, which requires the presence of another hero, one who spends much of her time on the sidelines of this movie.
Gal Gadot’s Diana Prince (aka Wonder Woman) receives a back-story even more scant than her alter-ego’s costume, even though the movie does find time to show us (twice!) how Bruce Wayne’s parents died. In the first hour and a half, she’s mostly there for flirtatious banter with Affleck’s Bruce, where she ironically points out that boys don’t like to share. When she literally springs into action later for the climactic finale, she’s arguably the best thing onscreen. Most of the females in Dawn are treated with similar after-thought. Amy Adams returns as Lois, but an overstuffed plot ends up inadvertently pushing her back into the classic damsel-in-distress mode. Diane Lane is also back as Ma Kent, and both she and Adams provide the brightest supporting work to Cavill’s conflicted alien demigod; their scenes contain a tenderness highlighted by the few moments where Clark is willing to let his guard down. Meanwhile, Holly Hunter is entirely wasted as a U.S. Senator trying to find her way through the political quagmire Superman’s presence has created.
Of course, there’s equal opportunity discounting in Dawn; Laurence Fishburne’s Perry White gets a handful of dud jokes and a few choice scowls while Jeremy Irons does what he can with a severely underwritten Alfred Pennyworth who doesn’t even have the comfort of warm exchanges with Affleck’s growling Bats. We have the obligatory peeks at future Justice League members, but these are merely glimpses, not performances; of their introductions, Jason Momoa’s Aquaman surprisingly fares best. Among the headliners, Cavill and Affleck deliver strong work as the two opposing icons, although Superman’s presence here is so reductive that Cavill often comes off as the narcissistic, detached outsider many of the film’s characters fear he is. Affleck is all steely-eyed resolve and pessimistic resignation, but he does an effective job of melding Wayne and his Batman persona into a solidified whole, even if Snyder’s cherry-picked interpretation gives him little room to explore the character’s psychology the way Nolan’s Dark Knight saga afforded Christian Bale. This Bats seems borderline psychotic, with none of his detective qualities translating to the screen.
Gal Gadot absolutely looks the part of Wonder Woman, but it’s apparent that the studio jumped the gun with her inclusion, holding back everything for her origin film to the point that she’s about as eloquent as the pull-string action figure version of her character. The film’s acting nadir comes in the form of Jesse Eisenberg, who is both hamstrung by a poorly constructed take on the comics version of Lex Luthor, and by a directorial approach that can’t seem to separate Lex’s loony behavior from Eisenberg’s schizophrenic mugging. Like the rest of the characters, Snyder fails to really integrate Lex’s purpose and drive with his internal psychology; essentially, we never know exactly why he’s doing what he’s doing or what he hopes to achieve, eventually ceding that he’s simply a nutter, which is another unfortunate reduction of a once compelling character.
Although it’s obvious that most of the team working on the film actually do care about these characters and the source material they are drawn from, very little of that admiration and passion translates to the screen. Snyder has committed himself to a darker version of these characters—one largely justified by the existence of Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns—but in concentrating and channeling those elements without properly considering why Miller and others used them, he makes a mistake that is spiritually similar to the choices that gave us two DayGlo Batman pictures and a Superman movie that co-starred Richard Pryor.
Just as an earlier vanguard of superhero movies wrongly deduced that garish style and one-note character dynamics were the earmarks of the comic book genre, Snyder’s hoarding of classic comic moments leeched of their individual context and content also suggest that he has little regard or understanding for the literate quality of those stories he covets. The grave, desperate conflict of Miller makes little sense when it is removed from that one-off take (more deconstructionist satire than expanded cannon) and layered onto a more traditional adventure where Batman and Superman are merely the victims of bad communication. When the big battle comes, there’s no conflicting ideology at play, or a confluence of events that would force the hand of what should be smart, crafty characters who use their minds just as much as their muscles. When Snyder pulls the monstrous Doomsday from another iconic story-line, he’s ill-equipped to handle him as anything else than an overwrought CGI menace.
Snyder pushes so many comic benchmarks into the film that these well-known and largely clear-cut characters barely seem to resemble their core essence. The pieces are clearly here for a great entertainment—even a great piece of pop art that could linger in the imagination—but Snyder and his writers mix all the choice ingredients with so much banal filler and bitter seasoning that the cumulative result is hardly worth consuming. You come looking for an interesting take on the characters you love, but are left with The Dark Nut and Super-Ham for comfort.
Nathan’s Rating: 1.5 out of 5 stars
Rating: PG-13 (for intense sequences of violence and action throughout, and some sensuality)
Directed By: Zack Snyder
Written By: Chris Terrio and David S. Goyer
In Theaters: March 25th, 2016 Wide
Runtime: 2 hr. 31 min.