Surely we were meant to have more fun than this.
Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice
Like Paul Bunyan, Bigfoot, and Pecos Bill, the heroes and villains of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice are more mythical than super, writing a new page in American folklore as they split the skies with each thunderous blow. Director Zack Snyder‘s approach to DC’s now timeless characters is apt—few modern myths stand taller than Batman and Superman—but, as usual, the Watchmen and Man of Steel director gets lost in the grandeur, delivering a solemn, overly studied, slog of a movie.
The super-brawl promised in the movie’s title is as spectacular as anyone could have dreamed, but before we reach the main event melee, there’s a two-hour-long preliminary bout that sees Snyder pitted in a sweaty grappling match against complex themes of ideology and theology. Spoiler: he loses. Consequently, we lose too. By the time Batman and Superman (and a few surprise guests) get all bashy-bashy, stabby-stabby, we’re bored to tears by Snyder’s glorified lecture on man v god.
Henry Cavill returns as alien do-gooder Superman, who, at the story’s outset, is the subject of worldwide debate. His city-levelling battle with General Zod (Michael Shannon) at the end of Man of Steel cost the lives of thousands, calling into question whether his actions were justified and whether his presence on earth is a benefit or detriment to the future and well-being of mankind. Some see him as a messiah; others, an omnipotent pariah who could reduce our planet to dust should we refuse to bow down.
One man who has no plans of kneeling to “the Superman” is billionaire brooder Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck). One of the buildings decimated by Superman and Zod was Wayne Enterprises, which toppled right in front of Bruce’s eyes, hundreds of his employees’ lives blinked out in what some would call “collateral damage.” It’s a tragedy that haunts Bruce almost as much as the memory of losing his parents to a mugger in that classic alleyway scene we all know so well from countless movie, comic book, and TV iterations of the Batman origin story (which Snyder mercifully zips through in the opening credits). The story picks up 18 months later, with the Bat keeping a watchful eye on the bulletproof Kryptonian as he patrols the skies, above all men and above the law.
Bruce and the rest of Superman’s detractors are given more fuel to feed their fire when more lives are lost during a rescue of his beloved Lois Lane (Amy Adams). A reactionary congressional hearing is held, calling for him to appear in court to consider the consequences and ethicality of his actions. As fear and paranoia surrounding the continue to spread, tech genius Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg) offers a solution to the world’s Superman problem in the form of Kryptonite weaponry. All he needs is to get his hands on a chunk of the extraterrestrial rock, but his political maneuverings to do so are blocked by Senator June Finch (Holly Hunter, unexpectedly one of the movie’s strongest assets). As Superman is increasingly viewed as more of a threat than a savior, however, Luthor’s scheme begins to fall more easily into place.
For what seems like ages, Snyder and writers David S. Goyer and Chris Terrio bat around big ideas like the ever-evolving nature of homeland security and, most predominantly, the fraught relationship between man and god. The movie’s got the “god” part down: Batman, Superman, and the debuting Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot, a delightfully entertaining ass-kicker) come across as all-powerful goliaths, striking the most epic superhero poses this critic has ever seen (Snyder’s signature slo-mo, while as excessively implemented as ever, lends itself to characters of this magnitude).
As for the “man” half of the “man v god” thing, the movie drops the ball with an earth-shattering thud. The story’s obsessed with outlining the principles and lofty motivations of its heroes and villains without giving us a sense of what they are like as people. We’re so drowned in doom and gloom and planet-sized moral quandaries that we have no real grasp on what these heroes are actually fighting for. Clark’s got Lois and his mother Martha (a returning Diane Lane), and Bruce has got his butler Alfred (Jeremy Irons) and the memory of his parents, but all of these side characters are presented more as plot devices and pawns rather than living, breathing, relatable people. Snyder paints in such broad strokes that the nuances and details of our world are lost in the monstrous swirl of dark, folkloric imagery and ham-fisted dialogue.
When Batman and Superman finally fight, it’s so brutal and well-staged and irresistibly geeky that, while it doesn’t make up for the disastrous bulk of the movie that preceded it, it at least wakes us up from our stupor. Things get even better when Wonder Woman arrives to help them fight the Big Bad that eventually arrives to crash the party, and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t enjoying the hell out of the climactic battle. If there’s a criticism, it’s that much of the dichotomous intrigue of Batman and Superman’s comic book confrontations is lost. When the two have battled on the page, the hook is that Superman should be able to crush Batman, but the fact that Bruce Wayne is not a good person (and is willing to cheat to win) gives him an unexpected edge. In the movie, Bruce is indeed a bad person; problem is, Clark doesn’t seem to be one either. He acts decidedly un-heroic on several occasions, flexing his super powers with a smug smirk on his face as he tosses Bats around like a ragdoll.
The character work is flawed all around, but this incarnation of Lex Luthor is the most confusing of the bunch. He’s more of a lunatic manchild cut from the same cloth as classic Bat-villain The Riddler than the imposing intellectual bully we’ve seen in the past. Is that a good thing? Sometimes. Eisenberg puts on a good, charismatic performance, and his wiry frame is an interesting visual juxtaposition to the heroes’ bulky physiques. But a part of me would rather have a supervillain who’s more menacing and less of a mischievous meddler.
Batman v Superman is a bonafide letdown, but the blame doesn’t rest on the shoulders of the actors. Everyone’s game and looks great, especially Cavill and Affleck, who are both black belts in the art of chin-jutting, come-at-me-bro machismo. Adams, Lane, and Irons are invaluable as they try valiantly to ground the story in some sense of realism. But alas, the script doesn’t give them enough room to work (the movie’s 153 minutes, for goodness sake). If the aim was to offer a more mature, “serious” superhero experience than Marvel Studios’ Avengers movies, Snyder and his team overachieved; this is as cynical, depressing, and emotionally hollow a blockbuster as we’ve seen in some time, a filmic representation of the adulthood misery that’s pushed the wonder of childhood fantasies out of the hearts of crotchety old-timers everywhere. Surely we were meant to have more fun than this.