by Nathan Sacks
Everything I needed to know about Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice I learned in the pre-show warmup at the screening I attended. Publicists asked the excited crowd “who are you rooting for?” Superman got modest applause; Batman got deafening cheers. The public and the zeitgeist had spoken. This is the era of violent, amoral “antiheroes” who break the rules even more than usual and stop just short of being serial murderers of bad guys. The problem is, that era began 30 years ago in 1986 (the year of Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns, two big influences), and shows no signs of advancing.
Director: Zack Snyder
Producers: Charles Rovan, Deborah Snyder
Writers: Chris Terrio, David S. Goyer
Cinematographer: Larry Fong
Editor: David Brenner
Music: Junkie XL, Hans Zimmer
Cast: Ben Affleck, Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Jesse Eisenberg, Diane Lane, Laurence Fishburne, Jeremy Irons, Holly Hunter
US Theatrical Release: March 25, 2016
US Distributor: Warner Bros.
Pop culture trends come in waves, but right now we seem to be stuck in a never-ending “dark” phase—or at least, an adolescent’s belief in what is dark. That’s Batman in a nutshell. A handsome, rich, super-smart playboy and adventurer, swooping around a city that suffers never-ending crime waves. Claims that Batman is the more “realistic” of the two heroes is absurd—the idea of a super-durable flying alien is certainly possible, somewhere in the cosmos, whereas the only realistic Batman story is the one where he sprains his ankle the first time he jumps off a roof.
If Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight was about how Batman’s dark vigilante brand plays into Bush/Cheney neoconservatism, then Batman v Superman reverses the polarity by painting Superman as a post-9/11 anachronism. Merely being a nice guy and a boy scout is not enough, director Zack Snyder and screenwriter Chris Terrio seem to say. Superman (Henry Cavill) doesn’t really do anything wrong throughout the movie, but he is continuously perceived as overstepping his bounds. When he crosses international lines to save a life, the public demands he prove to the world he won’t go dictator. Is this a comment on the comic book genre’s fussy, oversensitive fanbase? Or maybe just America in general?
The film is daring in the sense that it chooses to be loud, portentous, and serious when those qualities are so easily mockable today (see: any A.O. Scott review of any blockbuster). It doesn’t try to puncture the silliness through self-aware humor or pop culture references, and that should be applauded. And as far as finding an appealing Batman to replace Christian Bale, Ben Affleck is adequate. He does a lot of seething and glowering and occasionally looks like he is about to have a flashback that never comes. Instead, he has occasional dreams that provide nightmare glimpses into a future involving cameos from the Justice League (Aquaman looks very cool).
Those dreams (and many other elements) are unevenly distributed throughout the film. For a film called Batman v Superman, they really only have one major confrontation. It is brutal and upsetting. When Batman gets the upper hand and starts dragging Superman through walls, I felt like I was watching an act of desecration, like Jesus getting pummeled for two hours, or throwing a stack of comics into an incinerator. The film has maybe a dozen opening scenes before the narrative picks up and another dozen closing scenes seeding future movies in the DC Comics lineup. Perhaps a full third of this film is devoted to prologue and epilogue, and it shows.
As a comic book reader, Superman/Batman team-ups were about how male friendship is so often expressed in comic book form as fisticuffs. Batman may be taciturn and Superman may be well-adjusted, but they basically agree on everything and are friends. This may explain the film’s biggest defect, which is explaining why these two have conflict. They don’t have political differences. Batman has some modestly violent tactics that upset Superman. Superman tells him to quit it. Batman says no. This starts a fight? Later in the film, the contrivance that allows them to stop fighting and team up is also absurd.
The introduction of the villain Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg) wastes valuable time that could be spent exploring the relationship between these heroes. Eisenberg expresses a lot of the movie’s big themes about the corrupting influence of power and the mythic origins of humanity. His tics are very distracting, however—clearly meant to be humanizing, they instead feel like overacting. You get no sense of where his heel turn comes from and how or why he turns from corporate espionage to out-and-out villainy. The big monster he creates may be recognizable to fans as Doomsday, who has been expertly translated from an uninteresting comic book character to an uninteresting movie character. How or why this monster exists, how he was created from Kryptonian DNA, or why he is attacking everyone is not ever worth explaining, and yet people frequently point out that no civilians are in the area, lest we fear that offscreen citizens of Gotham are being blown to bits by the thousands.
You may have heard that Wonder Woman is in the film. As WW, Gal Gadot brings heroic statuesque poses and kick-ass fighting from two years as a combat instructor in the IDF. But her presence in the film has been so heavily telegraphed in trailers that there are no thrills to be found when she arrives. Nor does her presence really make sense. Still, there are some pretty tableaus of Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman posing together that stirred me probably more than they should.
I will say that Batman v Superman is an improvement on the green screen spectacle Snyder specialized with 300 and Watchmen. This one has actual characters and actual acting, some of it unnecessarily good (Amy Adams as Lois Lane, Jeremy Irons as Alfred). But there’s no denying it is also unintelligible both as a discrete narrative and as a Big Statement. The visuals which borrow so much from the comic book page don’t match the intelligence of the script, which suggests must mythological themes. And the script isn’t even that intelligent. The structure is as lopsided and shaggy as they come. Batman v Superman is a failure, and hopefully not representative of the next several years of DC features.