With two uneven super hero movies under his belt (“Man Of Steel” and “Watchmen”), Zack Snyder steps up to a bigger plate and takes wide swings worthy of the larger-than-life heroes in “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.” But his second flight with the Man of Steel, which now adds the Caped Crusader, is full of false confidence and misses more often than it connects. Skipping character development in favor of heaps of ponderous symbolism and metaphor, ‘Batman v Superman’ pays lip service to cultural philosophy about man’s relationship to God without ever digging deep into the concept. Superman’s characteristic message of hope is replaced with an aura of fatalism and fear. This sequel pushes extremist versions of familiar characters in a tonal mishmash that undermines the film’s wild highs and indulges in more thunderous conflict than it can wrestle into coherence.
Launching right into an alternate angle on the battle ravaging Metropolis at the end of “Man of Steel,” this film purports to be a continuation but plays more like a defensive maneuver to justify Snyder’s previous vision of Superman. Where the prior movie saw the alien hero learning to wear a hero’s mantle, this story finds him disinterested in all but the most grand heroics, with no sense that Superman has any relation to common people except as an icon to be worshipped.
If originally designed as a second Superman vehicle to follow Snyder’s “Man of Steel,” Batman wrestles controls away from the Kryptonian, to decidedly mixed results. Bruce Wayne, played by a dour but very capable Ben Affleck, provides the film’s dominant point of view as he drives the action forward right through the final third, when everyone gets dirty in a long, loud string of cacophonous set pieces. Snyder imports the fighting style from the “Arkham Asylum” video games — non-players might envision a ninja who is also a pro wrestler — and imbues the Dark Knight with aspects of horror that work well in encounters with street-level thugs. Yet this never feels exactly like a Batman movie — just as the title promises a battle between characters, while the film doesn’t commit to truly exploring either superhero.
Leaping straight from the pitch meeting for a ’70s Superman comic book story, we see Lex Luthor driven to destroy the Man Of Steel by outlandish means. Lex is motivated by not-even-vaguely repressed Daddy issues, drawn equally from memories of his overbearing human father and the very concept of a Heavenly Father. Jesse Eisenberg plays Luthor as Mark Zuckerberg-meets-sometimes-abrasive-screenwriter-Max Landis. His chief virtues as CEO of a giant tech company are amorality and an unwillingness to take “no” for an answer. He’s a manic motormouth, but at least he has desire and a plan, which are a vague substitute for character.
That plan involves Kryptonite, the crashed spaceship left behind at the end of “Man of Steel,” and the easily manipulated Batman, who seems to be losing his grip on reality thanks to his paranoid fear of dirty bombs and the potential for Superman to ascend as a malevolent leader. (Set in motion years ago, this film nevertheless presents a Batman that would appeal to both Ted Cruz and Donald Trump.) Perhaps Batman was once a hero, but now his thuggish tendencies, and a love of weaponry, have taken over.
Snyder relies on bombast, outsized actions and dense imagery to tell much of his story, with great swaths of the film churning on with little to no dialogue. It’s an ambitious approach, but one with no time for nuance or the exploration of those minor details that make characters feel whole. At times ‘Batman v Superman’ is a polemic about relying on icons rather than intrinsic human nature, with Holly Hunter as a U.S. Senator spelling out ideas about how the presence of an actual God could make life difficult. Additionally, Batman, Superman, and Luthor all stand in for key conservative interests (military action, religion, and commerce) but the film never commits to one structured vision of the world as it tries to shift allegiances and coerce ploys between characters.
Playing an embittered Wayne employee maimed in the battle between Superman and General Zod in “Man Of Steel” — an event that has taken on tragic 9/11-like ramifications for the world — Scoot McNairy‘s character might provide some crucial down-to-Earth detail. But he’s ultimately wasted in a subplot that motivates action without actually having any emotional effect on the audience. And for all the reliance on Frank Miller‘s mid-’80s classic conception of Batman (the seminal graphic novel “The Dark Knight Returns”) and the dark story tone that began to dominate comics in that era, Snyder’s version is more like the stereotypical conception of comic books prior to that point: colorful, superficial, and juvenile.
Logic also often frustratingly takes a back seat to spectacle: this Bruce Wayne is set up as an aging, weary Batman, but the Ben Affleck presented here still appears to be in his prime. Moreover, Batman appears to have had no public impact on Gotham or sister city Metropolis despite having been active long enough to build his own Hall of Failures, complete with what appears to be the costume of a deceased Robin. Finally, the entire Batman v Superman battle ultimately involves an inconsequential detail common to both characters — one that has never held any weight in prior stories. But here, it’s presented like the grand reveal of a Rosetta Stone that finally unlocks the secrets of each character.
Batman’s fears are laid out in nightmare sequences, one of which features the film’s most striking images, set in an apocalyptic Metropolis, even as it feels almost wholly out of place, like the proof of concept for an entirely different movie. The core story of ‘Batman v Superman,’ however, is a long series of “and then” incidents laid out like mile markers on a dead-straight Texas highway. There’s no doubt where it is going, even without the giveaway of the title.
Thinking isn’t this Superman’s strong suit, just as reporting isn’t this Clark Kent’s forte. At times he’s more interested in making out with Lois Lane (Amy Adams) than saving anyone or considering the repercussions of his actions. The hero — actually, let’s use “figure” instead — hovers above a flooded disaster scene inspired by images of Hurricane Katrina, basking in adulation rather than racing in to help. There’s little sense that this Superman races anywhere, unless Lois Lane is in danger. Played by Adams with slightly worn determination, Lois Lane is more active than Superman, interviewing warlords in Nairobi and racing after a weapon in the film’s final battle. And yet she’s still made to be a damsel in distress, more than once, as is another major female character, who becomes bait in a particularly gross manner.
As for Gal Gadot, she strides through the film, a stoic observer in vaguely militaristic couture, eventually to be revealed as the warrior Wonder Woman. The actress does well with the role, which is fairly tangental to the primary action yet benefits from being one of the film’s few aspects allowed to retain any mystery. Batman and Superman are so well-known that any particulars unexplored by Snyder are merely curiosities, but Gadot has the chance to define Wonder Woman for the big screen. In battle, the Amazonian is devastating and capable, even if her scenes are as overblown as the rest of the action. She looks right at home amid this bulked-up characters, and stands out as a unique force.
However expensive this movie is, there’s reason to wonder how much money actually landed on screen. The effects are certainly big, but some of the digitally-enhanced and expanded scenery looks, well, a bit hand-drawn, almost charmingly out of place against the seamless effects of even a film like “Deadpool.” Richard Donner‘s original 1979 “Superman” boasted “you’ll believe a man can fly,” but in flight this Superman is less convincing. Perhaps it’s that he does so little flying he’s just not got the hang of it yet. But the movie’s big bad, Doomsday, fares worse, conceived as a mess of CG gunk that could have been copy-pasted from any of a dozen other movies.
“Batman v Superman: Dawn Of Justice” is an extraordinarily odd, idiosyncratic movie that presents aggressive, even warlike concepts of Batman and Superman without entirely justifying the eccentric visions. The bold concepts from Snyder and screenwriters Chris Terrio and David Goyer have potential value as reflections of modern America, but devising a new vision of Batman (which occasionally works quite well, thanks in large part to Affleck), dealing with the fallout of “Man of Steel” and moving all these characters forward with nearly an hour devoted to an bloated, overwrought battle proves to be too much weight for the movie to bear. [C-]