Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is an angry, violent, chaotic superhero movie for an angry, violent, chaotic world. Despite the presence of caped heroes in colorful costumes, it does not offer a fantastical escape from the realities of life, but instead slams our faces down in the mud and continually reminds us of how ugly people can be. Our world is suffocating, and our leaders choose to fight bitterly with each other rather than seeking to find common ground. This film's world is suffocating, and their heroes choose to fight bitterly with each other rather than seeking to find common ground. Though both have their supporters, Batman and Superman are as intensely hated by large segments of the population as Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton.
The story begins where Man of Steel ended, as Superman (Henry Cavill, The Man from U.N.C.L.E.) and General Zod (Michael Shannon, Bug) brawl their way through Metropolis, killing thousands of people in the process. One of the buildings Superman topples belongs to billionaire Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck, The Sum of All Fears), who watches in agony as his employees become collateral damage. Yes, Superman's victory against Zod saved the world, but that doesn't really matter to Wayne. As far as he's concerned, Superman is entirely too powerful to be permitted to roam free. He's an alien menace who must be dealt with.
Eighteen months later, quite a few other people have started to voice similar concerns. One of them is eccentric billionaire Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg, Adventureland), who is urgently attempting to persuade Senator June Finch (Holly Hunter, Raising Arizona) to help him retrieve some Kryptonite – the only substance Superman is vulnerable to - that has been found overseas. After all, isn't it a good idea to have a back-up plan? Y'know, just in case ol' Supes has a bad day and decides to do some more damage? Meanwhile, Bruce Wayne – who spends his evenings prowling streets of Gotham City as Batman – begins making headway on his own plan.
This is a promising starting point, and one that directly addresses one of the most common complaints about Man of Steel. A righteously angry Batman going after a well-intentioned but dangerously careless Superman? Sign me up. Unfortunately, that fairly smart idea is increasingly muddled by a movie that tries to do too many things at once, struggles with figuring out how to define some of its characters and makes some fairly critical narrative missteps.
In considering the way Snyder treats the costumed figures of Batman v Superman, it's important to remember that he's also the guy who gave us the big-screen version of Alan Moore's Watchmen. That film offered a vastly more complicated portrait of superheroes than your average summer blockbuster fare, and while the characters in BvS aren't quite that dark and tormented, they often run closer to that side of the spectrum than to the relatively uncomplicated heroism of most Marvel movies. They're often depicted as dense, arrogant, foolish and sulky, which both makes them fairly interesting and makes them feel like violations of more traditional interpretations.
This particularly applies to Batman/Bruce Wayne, who initially looks sort of like Frank Miller's increasingly sadistic take on the character (he doesn't just beat up criminals, but brands them with a bat-symbol that all but ensures they'll be murdered in prison), but quickly reveals himself to be something else entirely. This Batman is angry and psychotic, yes, but he's also sort of stupid, getting continually duped by villains intent on taking advantage of his easily-manipulated rage. He's as tech-savvy and skilled in combat as you'd expect the character to be, but he's no longer the World's Greatest Detective (he probably doesn't even rank in the top 20%). When he speaks, he echoes the irrational and unsettling rhetoric of Dick Cheney: “If we think there's even a 1% chance that he's our enemy, we have to treat it as an absolute certainty.”
Superman is an entirely different story altogether: a man – well, alien – who feels increasingly frustrated and boxed-in by a world that seems increasingly less appreciative of him. Not long ago, he was a savior from the sky. Now, the thrill has worn off, and though he still has plenty of admirers, people have grown a lot bolder about criticizing the difficult split-second decisions he's made. Superman doesn't talk very often, instead listening and trying to look stoic as increasing shades of fear and panic begin to creep onto his face. There's a touching childishness to the way he uses Lois Lane (Amy Adams, Junebug) as a stabilizing security blanket of sorts, and a less touching childishness to the way he bolts during moments of crisis.
This is not the Batman and Superman I know and love, and it's understandable if DC comics fans find these less-than-flattering versions of the characters thoroughly unappealing (I cringed a little every time the movie stuck a gun in Batman's hands, and it seems determined to do that as often as possible). Even so, I sort of admire what Snyder is trying to do, which is to give us outlandish superheroes as they might actually be rather than as we'd like them to be. When our leading presidential candidates behave like petty reality television stars and spout all sorts of ill-considered dumbassery on a daily basis, is it so difficult to believe that superheroes – be they all-powerful aliens or wildly wealthy vigilantes – might have critical character flaws and make foolish mistakes?
Snyder is doing admirably ambitious work here, but it might have been easier to appreciate in a film less sloppy than this one. This is a darker, thematically richer work than I expected it to be, but for every decision that feels like a bold departure from comic book movie conventions, there's a moment that makes you bury your head in your hands. If Clark can save Lois from any kind of peril at any place on the globe with only a second's notice, why doesn't he pick up on the fact that [redacted] is in grave danger? Wait, that blob of generic-looking CGI junk is what you've been saving for the grand finale? Hold on, you chose that as the reason Clark and Bruce finally decide to stop fighting? Good grief.
Frustrating as those moments are, none of them come close to being as spectacularly awful as Jesse Eisenberg's turn as Lex Luthor, which is a strong early contender for the year's worst performance. I've enjoyed Eisenberg's work in a lot of movies and think he's generally an actor with pretty sharp instincts, but this is the most bewilderingly miscalculated work of his career. While the notion of Lex as a bratty millennial whiz kid has some promise, Eisenberg seems entirely too determined to serve up something as memorably eccentric as Heath Ledger's iconic turn in The Dark Knight (there are times when it almost feels like an impression). He starts as a big, broad caricature and only gets sillier as the movie proceeds (even as the screenplay attempts to make him more serious), causing colorful monologues about the nature of God (a lot of Lex's theological thoughts sound like the bitter rants of jaded ex-believer) and “daddy's fist and abominations” to fizzle (he also comes across as a poorly-motivated villain; most of what he does boils down to “vague psychological issues”). Watching him, I was reminded of Tommy Lee Jones in Batman Forever: a good actor delivering a career-worst performance as a result of attempting to mimic the work of an actor who played Joker. Pro-tip: only play Joker when you're cast as Joker.
The other key problem is that the film is also attempting to set up Snyder's Justice League movie, a storytelling burden that continually weighs BvS down. While it's fun to see Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot, Furious 7) turn up for a few minutes here and there – first to flirt with Bruce Wayne, then to kick some monster butt – there's absolutely no excuse for the lengthy, momentum-killing sequence in which the movie just hits the brakes to make us watch low-resolution video clips of characters we'll be introduced to later. The only thing the sequence is missing is an announcer barking, “We'll be right back with the big fight right after these messages!”
Speaking of the title fight: it's pretty good, though it only occupies a fairly small piece of the film. Snyder's action work work is generally sharper and more distinctive than it was in Man of Steel, and he gives Batman an aggressive, brutal fighting style that feels different from anything the other Batflicks have served up. Snyder frequently reminds us of what a strong visual stylist he is, particularly during an extended dream sequence containing some striking imagery (parademons!). Still, this is yet another blockbuster that saves its worst for last, serving up a bland action climax that feels as forgettable as the big fight at the end of Thor 2 (for the record: I have no memory of what happened at the end of Thor 2). The lame grand finale is followed by an even lamer coda, which goes through the motions of a tiresome, manipulative plot development that we've seen in every other superhero movie ever made. C'mon, Zach... let's take it easy on the bagpipes. There's roughly as much good as bad in the film as a whole, but so many of its worst moments take place in the last half-hour that it leaves an awfully unpleasant aftertaste.
Affleck is the easy standout of the cast, and his combination of cluelessness and rage makes this performance feel like a natural continuation of his exceptional work in Gone Girl. Never has the line between Bruce Wayne and Batman been thinner: they're both arrogant and angry. Cavill does solid work, too, bringing a bit more definition to Superman this time around than he did in Man of Steel. Amy Adams once again does competent work in an underdeveloped role, and Laurence Fishburne (Hannibal) seems to be having a good time as Perry White (an editor-in-chief who seems to spend most of his time promoting terrible ideas and shooting down good ones).
This is a dark movie: visually, thematically, morally. The film has been mocked for its grim posturing, but the only reason the grimness feels like posturing is because Snyder doesn't have the nerve (or the studio-approved authority?) to follow through on the darkness of the film's earlier scenes. The first half of the film contains some remarkably bleak stuff. It's one thing to suggest that superheroes might not be able to rescue this suffering world; it's another thing to suggest that the presence of superheroes might not even be a net positive. Poor old Alfred Pennyworth (an effectively world-weary Jeremy Irons, Dead Ringers) has a trace of spitefulness in his voice when talks to Bruce; a quiet disgust that is only held in check by a sense of duty. The film flirts with genuinely risky material, but then hastily backs away: the frequent criticism about all of the collateral damage in Man of Steel seems to have made Snyder nervous, so the third-act action extravaganza is filled with laughable little bits of dialogue in which reporters or other supporting characters repeatedly remind the audience that the city has been evacuated and absolutely no innocent characters are being hurt.
Hans Zimmer and Junkie XL collaborated on the film's score, and it's unsurprising that Zimmer rarely quotes his memorable Man of Steel theme. That melody is full of hope and optimism, which is something Batman v Superman very rarely engages in. When Bruce Wayne delivers a little inspirational speech about humanity's potential, it feels like a half-hearted counter-argument to the nihilism at the film's core. This is a movie that seems to wants to address the way we allow hatred and fear to inform the way we address our problems, but it can't do that very effectively when it also has to go about the business of launching a mega-franchise. This movie is a mess, but it's an interesting mess. There are parts of it I loathe more than anything in any Marvel movie... and yet it's fascinating and engaging on a level most of those movies aren't, making the notion of revisiting it much more tempting. At the very least, it ensures that I'll be sticking with this frustrating, messy, ambitious franchise until one of us defeats the other.
Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice
Rating: ★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 153 minutes
Release Year: 2016