'Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice' review: Self-important 'hip and affected pessimism'
According to no less an expert then director Zack Snyder, when saying the title of his relentlessly grave, monochromatic, and humorless superhero epic, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, do not say “versus.” Just say the letter “v.” And savor the thought because it's the only instance of economy in a film that otherwise revels in its unholy excess of words, sounds, pixels, edits, explosions, and regard for its own importance.
Make no mistake: to those tasked with guiding the fortunes of corporate behemoths (in this instance, Warner Bros., the parent company of comic book publisher DC), Batman v Superman is of great importance. Its purpose is not only to browbeat the viewer until entertained to the point of exhaustion, but to prove that the parade of future DC films to spin off from this one will do the same. It's a trick that Marvel pulled off in 2012's The Avengers, which set the table for the swaggering and occasionally cheeky films that followed.
Indeed, Marvel is the unacknowledged creative force behind Snyder's DC Universe-launching monstrosity. Marvel Studios planted its flag quite firmly in the name of color, pep, and fun, and Warner does not want to be accused of ripping off another studio's house style. The success of its Christopher Nolan-directed Batman trilogy, bathed in brooding moralism and urban noir, only further drove Warner toward the darkness. DC has, in effect, planted its own flag, a reactionary one, in a cold, grey, and rocky expanse where nothing can grow except the promise of joyless geek nihilism.
Which brings us to the merits (of which, to be fair, there are some) and demerits (of which there are too many) of Batman v Superman, a movie so grizzled that even Bruce Wayne's trusted butler, Alfred (Jeremy Irons), has a three-day beard. To the film's meager ledger of storytelling credits, we can include the dispatching of Batman's origin story during the opening titles. His transformation from pre-teen Bruce to adult Batman is too canonical to mess with. So just get it over with and thank you very much.
What's different is that Bruce has gone from charming playboy to brooding playboy. Ben Affleck, whose casting as Bruce Wayne produced nearly the same level of cultural condemnation as ex-Batman Michael Keaton received, juts his jaw and stares ever downward in rumination, loathing, and fatigue. In heated moments Affleck is surprisingly believable as a normal man whose only superpowers are wealth and commitment to the cause.
That, admittedly, is because in his Batman garb (Michael Wilkinson's costumes are all terrific, BTW) we see only chin and stubble and are less apt to be reminded of Affleck's blandly handsome countenance and inability to convey depth of emotion. But as our story begins, he looks Esquire Magazine-ready in his dress shirt and matching vest, sprinting down the rubble-strewn streets of Metropolis, helplessly watching skyscrapers crumble, including his own Wayne Enterprises building, as Superman (Henry Cavill) concludes his fight with General Zod from 2013's Man of Steel.
When superheroes collide
It's here that Snyder preps the groundwork for the “v” in the film's title. Bruce, as one can imagine, is none too pleased with the destruction Superman has wrought and he worries that an unconquerable, blue-costumed alien could destroy Earth at the slightest provocation. His plan to bring down Superman contains juicy prospects for intrigue and drama, the least of which is the idea of Batman essentially acting as the film's villain.
Attending to this brief, tantalizing possibility, Bruce finds himself sharing an objective with fast-talking, trillionaire tech-twerp Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg). A hunk of kryptonite has been found submerged in the Indian Ocean and Luthor wants it. Despite government roadblocks from a skeptical Senator Finch (Holly Hunter, nice to see you again), he manages to squirrel it back to Gotham, where both he and Batman are prepared to make similar use of it.
'God is tribal'
With a shaggy, unkempt mane that suggests he's too busy tending the garden of his own intellect to get a haircut, Luthor initially promises a touch of lunacy and unpredictability to an otherwise leaden product. And yet, by the end, he and Batman share not only an interest in obtaining kryptonite, but a ponderous habit of spouting half-baked philosophical word salads about unchecked power and how “God is tribal. God takes sides.”
Such musings found their highest perch in Christopher Nolan's Batman films, which at least had the benefit of the British director's more genuine (if overrated) sense of moral inquisitiveness. Snyder takes these heaping mounds of pseudo-existential dialogue and uses them not to advance ideas, but to advance the film's self-satisfied sense of style. Such pretentious nonsense is the stock and trade of screenwriter David S. Goyer, who is Warner Bros.' go-to superhero scribe. He co-wrote all three Nolan Bat-films, Man of Steel (a model of restraint compared to this), and Batman v Superman. At this point, Terrence Malick might as well write the next DC film. It might make more sense.
Internal conflict 'ornamental and posturing'
Baked into the very personae of Batman and Superman is all the internal conflict a writer would ever need. But in the hands of a maximalist like Zack Snyder, internal conflict is ornamental and posturing, necessary only in that it gets us to the next action scene.
Superman is an orphan and an alien (maybe Donald Trump can build a wall around him?), first seen with a mighty scowl as he rescues girlfriend Lois Lane (Amy Adams) from terrorists in Africa, an act that winds up turning public opinion against him. Batman is also an orphan, a vengeful one at that, whose psychopathic tendencies are taken to such vigilante extremes that he brands his victims with a metal bat insignia, like a steer.
They're both driven to fight for justice based on distinct childhood traumas. As such, they have no real reason to be mad at each other and the one created for them is the inevitable result of two smart men who failed to have a thirty-second conversation. Their big fight is a heck of smash-up, though; a murky, thrilling, exhausting, primal, ridiculous series of punches, kicks, and flying chunks of cement. It's enough of a fight for ten regular movies. Or one Zack Snyder movie.
Grim DC Cinematic Universe
The film's final battle introduces Wonder Woman, making her big-screen live action debut. As befitting a movie written by boys for boys, we learn very little about her, other than that she looks great in a cocktail dress and can say things like, “I don't think you've ever known a woman like me” with the flirtatiousness and confidence of the best film noir heroine. Israeli actress Gal Gadot is exotic, statuesque, and refreshingly not a dude. She also provides the film's subtlest (read: best and most satisfying) character moment; a mischievous smile that emerges during the climatic brawl with an enormous slimy, scaly creature called Doomsday. She's got a fight on her hands, she realizes, and it's gonna be fun.
Well, at least Wonder Woman is enjoying herself. For the rest of us, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is grim and ponderous, right down to its deafening dreadnought of a score. It wants us to believe it's trafficking in topical notions of politics, religion, and moral ambiguity, but its main currency is our contemporary penchant for hip and affected pessimism. If this is what DC has in store for its superhero movies, than let's just hand Earth to the villains. At least they know how to have fun.
Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016)
Dir.: Zack Snyder.
Scr.: David S. Goyer and Chris Terrio.
Based on the characters created by Bob Kane and Bill Finger (Batman) and Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster (Superman).
Cast: Ben Affleck. Henry Cavill. Amy Adams. Jesse Eisenberg. Diane Lane. Laurence Fishburne. Jeremy Irons. Holly Hunter.
Gal Gadot. Scoot McNairy. Callan Mulvey. Tao Okamoto. Brandon Spink. Lauren Cohan. Michael Shannon. Kevin Costner.
Patrick Wilson. Ezra Miller. Jason Momoa.
Voice: Carla Gugino.
Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice cast info via the IMDb.
Images of Henry Cavill and Ben Affleck in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice: Warner Bros.
Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice trailer 1 and 2: Warner Bros.