MOVIE REVIEW: ‘Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice’ Gives Us the Zack Snyder Film We Don’t Need And Don’t Want
The Snyderverse is a grim and dark place. Nothing escapes it, not even light, not even the one-time (and now former) symbol of idealism, optimism, and hope, the Man of Tomorrow (Today), the Son of Krypton, Kal-El/Clark Kent/Superman (Henry Cavill). Under Zack Snyder (Sucker Punch, Watchmen, 300, Dawn of the Dead), the “Superman” in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (a lawsuit between comic-book icons decades in the making) isn’t the lead; he isn’t even the co-lead in a film with his name in the title. He’s just a supporting player in what was supposed to be his own sequel. For Snyder, Superman functions as something else entirely, representing everything Bruce Wayne/Batman (Ben Affleck), a ruthless, conscienceless vigilante who’s rejected the “Don’t Kill” policy of comic-book superheroes, consciously and subconsciously fears. Superman isn’t just a super-powered “alien” from another planet, but a nearly omnipotent alien who will one day end the human race.
Snyder tips his hand about where his sympathies and interests lie from the first shot/scene, the murder of Bruce Wayne’s parents outside a movie theater by a random mugger, a first and for Wayne foundational life lesson: Nothing, not even the billions Wayne’s father leaves him, can immunize anyone he loves or cares for from violence. With Wayne/Batman’s origin story covered in a thankfully brief montage (we get it, every filmmaker who’s made or will make a Batman-themed film, so let’s get on with it) and a reprise of the Battle of Metropolis between Superman and the Zod-led Kryptonians (Snyder once again indulges his near-obsession with 9/11 iconography), Snyder shifts focus from Batman to Superman. Almost two years after the Battle of Metropolis, Superman continues to save the day, flying at supersonic speeds, saving random strangers, government property, and, of course, Lois Lane (Amy Adams), a globe-trotting, danger-seeking reporter for The Daily Planet.
Not everyone wants Superman saving the world, of course. Besides Wayne, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice introduces a U.S. Senator, June Finch (Holly Hunter), concerned with the unilateral, unsupervised exercise of superhero power, and Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg), a billionaire brainiac with serious sociopathic tendencies (imagine Mark Zuckerberg without a conscience and you’re almost there). Luthor also distrusts the Big Blue Boy Scout, putting a plan into action that sets Batman and Superman on a collision course. It’s not just superhero versus superhero, though. It’s a conflict between ideas, ideologies, and restraint (or lack thereof). Superman fights with self-imposed limitations, essentially putting himself at a disadvantage. Batman goes all out, using every trick, every scheme, to beat the more the physically formidable Superman.In war, Snyder would presumably argue, winning at practically any cost is all that matters. Self-imposed limitations (i.e., a love for humanity, compassion) will inevitably lead to defeat. There’s a lesson, probably not a good one, for American foreign policy (the more violent and brutal, the better). The also engage in an epic, pre-fight staredown contest to see who can out-brood the other. Spoiler: It’s a tie. Both Cavill and Affleck are at their best when they’re brooding and staring and at their worst when they’re forced to exchange more than two or three lines of dialogue. At their best, they’re perfectly adequate as Kent/Superman and Wayne/Batman, but that’s more than can be said for Eisenberg’s hyperactive, manic performance.
Their characters’ big-screen punch-up may not settle the countless online arguments over which superhero would win in a fight (Here’s a hint: Your favorite superhero always wins, the benefit of their fictional nature), but to Snyder’s credit, it’s choreographed, shot, and edited to maximize onscreen, albeit bloodless, PG-13 brutality and violence. But that only gets us to the 2/3 mark running time wise. Snyder has an entirely superfluous third-act (or is it fourth?) act to unleash on moviegoers. Plot twists and turns, however, are few and far between, no thanks to Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice’s saturation-level marketing campaign. DC’s Holy Trinity, Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman/Diana Prince (a scene-stealing Gal Gadot, setting the stage for her character’s upcoming solo film), go toe-to-claw with an under-rendered, imagination-challenged CGI monster out of an ’80s’ comic book readers dreams and/or nightmares, dampening whatever pleasures moviegoers will get from seeing the Big Three together for the first time. Apparently sensitive to repeated criticisms of Man of Steel’s seemingly callous approach to city-wide destruction and mass casualties, Snyder sets the climax in lightly populated or depopulated areas of Metropolis and Gotham City. Unfortunately, it’s still the equivalent of watching friends play video games.
And since it’s the Snyderverse, moviegoers know (or should know) to expect the usual, self-conscious seriousness. We can’t laugh with superheroes, let alone with them when they make the occasional, tangential joke. To be fair, tonal differences between Marvel’s approach to superheroes and DC’s shouldn’t be a problem, at least not in principle. After all, they’re a matter of subjective taste, but what isn’t subjective (or shouldn’t be) is where Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice fails: In trying to tell a Superman sequel story (he’s still a brooder), in trying to tell a Batman reboot story, and in trying to tell, however briefly, a Wonder Woman story, setting up the extended DC Cinematic Universe (DCCU), introducing potential members of the heavily foreshadowed Justice League (set to hit multiplexes next year), Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice suffers from an all-too-common ailment of universe building, forgetting to tell a coherent, cohesive, compelling standalone story.
For all of its problems (they’re not quite legion, but they’re pretty close), Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice deserves credit for taking the superhero-as-god idea to its inexorable, logical conclusion: With Superman worshipped as a near omnipotent deity, divisiveness, controversy, and conflict would almost surely follow. Intentionally or not (probably the former), Batman represents a reactionary mindset, fearful and distrustful of anything new or foreign, willing, even eager, to eliminate potential threats preemptively (ex-Vice-President Dick Cheney’s “1 % doctrine” receives an unqualified, unreserved defense). Alfred Pennyworth (Jeremy Irons, in MVP mode), Wayne’s butler, one-time guardian, and weapons maker, functions as Wayne’s counsel and conscience, the voice of reason and wisdom Wayne/Batman rejects repeatedly. Ultimately, however, the faults lie not with the (comic book) stars, but with Snyder’s unrelentingly grim, dark vision and the moviegoers who embraced the Snyderverse in the first place.