Batman v Superman, Warner Bros. attempt to set up an extended DC Comics universe to rival Marvel’s movie empire, suffers from a curious form of blockbuster malady. It tries to give us too much in some areas and not enough in others, expecting that the extravagances and the restraints will balance each other out to create a satisfying flick. But that’s not how movies work, and I feel like there’s enough talented people backing this project to know that. Still, the result is a movie that feels like it will end up pleasing no one.
The this-is-all-too-much side of the equation comes mostly in the form of the story. Penned by David S. Goyer and Chris Terrio, the plot begins intriguingly, with an excellent opening focused on the destruction caused by Superman (Henry Cavill) during the climactic battle in Man of Steel. It turns out that Bruce Wayne aka Batman (Ben Affleck) was in Metropolis when the chaos was raining down on the city, and a building filled with his employees was destroyed. Wayne sees Superman as a powerful and destructive force that answers to no man, and vows to destroy him.
Meanwhile, Superman’s alter-ego, Clark Kent, sees reports of the increasingly brutal vigilante justice being metered out by Batman in neighboring Gotham City. He sees Batman as the true threat to justice. But humanity, reeling from the fact that a god is walking among them, is much more concerned with Superman. A senator (Holly Hunter) has begun holding hearings about Superman in an attempt to hold him accountable for the destruction he has caused. And in the middle of it all is the wily Lex Luthor (played with unambiguous glee by Jesse Eisenberg), who sees the bad blood brewing between the two superpowers and immediately begins concocting a plan to exploit it in the hopes that the two will take each other out for good.
The first hour or so is mostly engaging, with a clear, compelling conflict and character motivations. The film raises some provocative questions about the nature of justice and the relationship between god and man. Even as the film goes on, the plot doesn’t get any more overstuffed than your average comic-based film. But the structure of the story is immensely problematic. It’s hard to remember a big-budget tent pole flick this lazily constructed. Some scenes seem to be dropped haphazardly in random sequence. We jump back and forth between characters, sometimes mid-conversation, which disrupts any sort of flow the movie is trying to maintain. Odd dream sequences frequently take us out of the story, and some character decisions later in the film seem rushed and poorly developed. At 2.5 hours, this bad boy could have used some major cutting.
Director Zack Snyder, who also helmed Man of Steel, has never met a metaphor he couldn’t bludgeon to death, and so we get lots more painfully obvious religious symbolism surrounding Superman. We also get tons of ridiculous dialogue from Luthor which sounds like it was written just to make the trailer sound EPIC (bludgeoned even further by Eisenberg, who seems like a really wrong choice for the character). Add in bombastic sound effects and an overbearing Hans Zimmer score (who disappoints after his excellent work on Man of Steel) and you have a senses-draining headache on your hands.
The filmmakers attempt to rein in some of this grandiosity by exercising restraint in key areas. Unfortunately, these areas are important, and so the film’s glimpses of excellence aren’t given the depth or care they deserve. Fans were concerned when Ben Affleck was cast as Bruce Wayne, but I love his portrayal as an older, wearied Bruce pondering his legacy. As a man with little left to lose, it’s easy to understand why he would put himself in so much danger to take down what he sees as a menace, even if said menace is an unstoppable god. He has some nice scenes with his perennial butler Alfred (played here by the always-welcome Jeremy Irons). I wish Bruce, and especially Aflred, had gotten more screen time, because once Wayne dons the bat suit, things go south. This version of Batman is reckless and seemingly has no issue shooting at bad guys and blowing up their cars. For a guy attempting to rein in an all-powerful alien’s destructive habits, he sure doesn’t seem to care much about his own collateral damage. He even gets to help smash some buildings that (for all we know), may still have people inside during the film’s climactic fight (we do get a throwaway line from a newscaster claiming that downtown is “deserted” after working hours, but how could he know that for sure?).
We are also introduced to Diana Prince aka Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), who I suspect will be the favorite character in the film for many. Since we’ve never had an adequate big-screen version of this iconic character, I enjoyed every second of her all-too-brief appearances. She totally kicks ass.
But characters like Wonder Woman reveal the film’s biggest deficiency: it’s that darn subtitle. No one here is masking that the film is one grand set-up for the upcoming Justice League movie. As a result, Batman v Superman is the very definition of a placeholder (albeit a very expensive one). About halfway through, I resigned myself to the fact that the film would be dispensing with character development almost entirely. The vast majority of plot developments and character motivations exist to get a person from one place to another so that they can do a thing that will set off another thing. Stuff happens, things explode and bad guys are defeated. We gain precious few insights into why characters are the way they are, or how the events of this film changed them. They’re all pawns in a very long chess game (returning characters such as Lois Lane and Perry White may as well not be in the film at all).
It’s a darn shame, because this story had great potential. But the sum total is a gorgeous looking, expensive production almost entirely bereft of meaning, one that raises provocative questions it doesn’t feel equipped to explore. Batman v Superman reminds me of those dark days in the mid-00’s when most superhero movies were overly gritty, mostly terrible and no fun at all. Let’s hope the sub-genre’s future isn’t content to turn more cool ideas into dull slogs like this one.