Before we get started, I want you to picture Superman. What’s coming to mind, reader? Are you seeing the blue costume? How about those red trunks bad comedians love to talk about? Are you thinking of his speed relative to speeding bullets or that bit about truth, justice, and whatnot? Now, are you picturing Superman glowering down at another superhero, informing him that “if [he] wanted it, you’d be dead already”? If that last one is lighting up your temporal lobe with recognition, then welcome to Rooster Illusion, Zack Snyder! It’s going to be a bumpy ride for you.
The Plot: It’s been two years since Superman (Henry Cavill) prevented General Zod (Michael Shannon) from terraforming Earth, and public’s reception of the Man of Steel is mixed. While many hail Superman as a savior, others (including the government), view him as an unchecked power who shouldn’t be able to decide the difference between right and wrong. This is the opinion held by Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck), who witnessed the deaths of Wayne Enterprises employees in the collateral damage of Superman’s kryptonian brawl. Intent on taking down the hero of Metropolis, Bruce uses the resources available to him as a millionaire playboy and as Gotham’s mysterious vigilante Batman to track down an irradiated remnant from Zod’s ship that may bring Superman down, even if that means stealing it from the young, eccentric CEO of Lexcorp, Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg), who’s all too keen to help the government bring Superman in. As Batman and Superman head towards an inevitable clash of ideologies and fists, the world of metahumans grows a little larger, as a third party emerges in their battle in the form of the mysterious Diana Prince (Gal Gadot).
Watching Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, it’s unclear who the hero is. I don’t mean that the narrative, which switches between the perspectives of Batman and Superman throughout the film makes naming a clear protagonist difficult (though this is certainly the case), I mean it is not clear which one of these two combatants is meant to be heroic. Is it the dour, joyless Superman who saves people who aren’t Lois Lane (Amy Adams) with the enthusiasm of a teenager working a graveyard shift of their crappy retail job. The dude whose guiding maternal advice is “you don’t owe this world a thing”? Maybe it’s the dour, joyless Batman, whose moral stance against killing apparently doesn’t count if it’s done in the Batmobile, if the perp has a flamethrower, or if he’s intending to do the deed with a spear made from a space rock. For a movie whose title suggests it’s about the formation of a team built around the concept of heroes putting their personal differences and interests aside and coming together to solve problems facing the world at large, the heroes of BvS seem pretty dead-set on looking out for themselves.
Setting up the conflict between Batman and Superman is done at the expense of making the characters likeable or making their heroism believable. It’s telling that most of Superman’s heroics are contained within one montage and that only one of these deeds actually involves Superman directly rescuing non-Kent or Lane persons. At no point does it seem within Superman’s natural instincts to protect others, taking until the end of this second movie to embrace that role.
Affleck’s Batman physically resembles his comic counterpart more than previous iterations, but his portrayal is hobbled by the fact that he’s debuting in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. That a scene in which Batman rescues enslaved sex workers is filmed like a horror movie is par for the course with the character, but the fact that his conflict with Superman is resolved more by coincidence and pragmatism instead of a true rapport or understanding with his rival makes for a version of the character that’s pretty stellar at meting out beatings, but not one I’m particularly keen to watch. Gal Gadot is cool and confident as Wonder Woman, and her scenes are among the best in the movie, so much so that it’s easy to forget that even her arc is concerned with looking out expressly for her own interest. Your Justice League, everyone.
Of course, there’s a long way to go before these two trade blows. There are inconsequential government hearings to be attended, weird dream sequences to be dreamed (everyone loved those in Age of Ultron, right?), and a whole lot of Jesse Eisenberg playing Lex Luthor like a devious Muppet. BvS suffers the same problem as some of the Marvel movies, in that it busies itself with laying the groundwork for feature films instead of paying attention to what’s in front of it. A Batman Bat-dream teases the introduction of Jack Kirby’s New Gods into the DC cinematic universe, and the movie offers glimpses of Aquaman (Jason Mamoa), Flash (Ezra Miller), and Cyborg (Ray Fisher), but doesn’t do much to convince the viewer it should care about the heroes at the center of BvS. Plot takes precedent over characters to a degree that illuminates neither. With so many stops along the way to actually getting Batman and Superman to square off (one of which literally involves a jar of pee; have fun guessing who’s it is), by the end of the movie the root of their conflict feels faint. When the two do finally clash, it’s hard to say it lives up to expectations. Snyder, usually renowned as a visual stylist, seems intent on the viewer never getting a clear glimpse of the action. The speed ramping Snyder used for action sequences in 300 and Watchmen might seem stale in 2016, but at least you can tell what’s going on in those fight scenes.
The characters approach the shaky dialogue in Batman v Superman to varying degrees of success. Eisenberg attacks his material in a way that’s one silly hat short of being a bad Johnny Depp/ Tim Burton joint. Jeremy Irons approaches Alfred in a way that suggests he doesn’t particularly like or care for Bruce Wayne, which is perhaps understandable. Laurence Fishburne is having entirely too much fun as blustery newspaper editor Perry White and apparently didn’t get the memo that this movie is very, very serious. The script feels like it goes out of its way to make Amy Adams’ historically wry and independent Lois Lane as bland as possible.
Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is the culmination of some of the worst aspects of modern superhero comics. Mistaking dark and grim for mature and compelling, regurgitating imagery from classic comics like The Dark Knight Returns without regard for context and intent of the original work, and a preoccupation with making the characters Totally Badass first and characters second are too-frequent practices in comics and BvS‘s bread and butter. It tries to make a version of Superman for the modern era that negates everything that makes the character interesting. If you’re interested in checking out a Justice League origin movie this week, maybe check out the animated Justice League: The New Frontier instead. Heck, you might even like some of the characters in that