Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice
Directed by Zack Snyder
Opens March 25
Maybe it’s a verisimilitude thing. That may not be the quality you expect from a movie about a godlike alien in a battle of wills and sometimes also fists with a billionaire who dresses like a bat wearing really expensive battle armor—and for the most part, it’s not the quality you get, either. But Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice very accurately recreates the dynamic of its title. Throughout, two (or three) of the world’s most recognizable superheroes tussle for control of the movie. It is by turns a sequel to 2013’s Man of Steel, a reboot of Batman following Christopher Nolan’s wildly successful Dark Knight trilogy, and a prelude to the upcoming Justice League feature film. It is all of that, and none of that. It is too much, and it is not enough. In short: Nobody wins.
Least of all the audience, yuk yuk yuk? But while Zack Snyder hasn’t stumbled into the second-ever crowdpleaser that Warner Brothers seems convinced he can deliver (remember how 300 was a crowdpleaser for some reason?), his official entrée into the DC Comics Expanded Movie Universe, rerouted from his official entrée into a Superman series when Man of Steel slightly underperformed, actually sheds a lot of his Snyderiest tics. There’s no speed-ramping; not even really much slow-motion. There are only a handful of times where a wide shot contains a faux-documentary mini-zoom onto some distant special effects action. You guys, I think this two and a half hour Batman/Superman face-off may be Snyder at his most restrained.
Of course, that doesn’t stop him from repeatedly redrawing the panels of Batman’s comic-book origins: the close-ups of the gun, the falling pearls, the boy surrounded by bats. It’s more economical than an origin story movie, but also kind of a knock on poor Superman, to begin their costarring movie with a look back at when Batman Began (which in this movie’s timeline has happened more than three decades ago). Batman v. Superman, set some time after the smashed-up climax of Man of Steel introduced the world to Superman, follows a collision-course narrative for much of its first hour. Clark Kent (Henry Cavill) catches news of the Batman making mayhem in apparently-nearby Gotham City; Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) was in Metropolis for Superman’s previous-movie fight with Zod and saw the devastation firsthand (the movie positions the two cities ridiculously close together; they look like the two Kansas Cities, making the intersection of these two superheroes both inevitable and ridiculously delayed). Pieces are moved around the board as Wayne’s fellow billionaire Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg) minces around the periphery, looking similarly askance at the all-powerful Superman. Ladies get to skulk around, too: Lois Lane (Amy Adams), who figures heavier into the story than I would have guessed, and the mysterious Diana Prince (Gal Gadot), waiting in the wings.
I won’t say more about the plot, except that the big Batman/Superman fight makes a certain amount of comic-book sense while still feeling like something of a nonevent. It makes sense that Superman would object to the intense violence of Batman’s vigilante justice (especially when Snyder reconfigures the Bat to be pretty ok with selective murder), but I don’t buy him going out of his way to threaten Batman into retirement, and while Affleck makes a fine middle-aged Bruce Wayne (his Alfred, well-played by Jeremy Irons, looks barely a decade older), the filmmakers’ conception of his Batman don’t give him much to work with while in costume. Mainly, Batman v. Superman rips off bits of set pieces from the Dark Knight series (a truck/Batmobile chase is almost shockingly derivative) while upping the violence factor. Clark Kent briefly articulates what he dislikes about Batman’s methods (he beats up on the poor for information—he’s “tough on crime,” in other words) and the movie brings up an interesting point about the human costs of Superman repeatedly (and as tradition dictates) saving the life of danger-courting reporter Lois (Adams remains ideally cast, and, for stretches of the movie, sadly parenthetical). But Superman never seems particularly interested in expounding upon this compulsion, or any of his actions, because he doesn’t have time and, moreover, because Snyder is actually pretty bad at integrating his pop instincts with his gestures toward psychology.
He tries to set up a God-versus-man dynamic in the way both Batman and Luthor feel suspicious towards the big man from the sky. But like a lot of Batman v. Superman’s good ideas (and a lot of the good ideas in Sucker Punch and Man of Steel, and Alan Moore’s many good ideas Snyder tried translating in Watchmen), it tumbles out in a blather rather than emerging organically or cleverly. The screenplay gives most of the quasi-thinky dialogue to the twitchy, ranting, insinuating Luthor, and Eisenberg does at least have a blast breaking free from the Gene Hackman model of Luthorian irascibility, or any other model of Luthorian steeliness. Indeed, the movie is at its most fun when all of its superheroes are circling each other in their secret-identity guises, sizing each other up. Only Luthor can hide in plain side, rambling and giggling, his insane behavior mostly unchecked because he’s an eccentric billionaire. He squares off with a senator played by Holly Hunter, but Luthor barely has any scenes actually played out opposite Superman and Batman; even his early interaction with Clark Kent and Bruce Wayne, while amusing, gets cut short.
It’s at this point where you might start wondering how, given the number of characters and how most of them managed to feel underserved, Snyder can make time for several different dream sequences. Batman v. Superman tries to nick some of that Dark Knight rising tension, but doesn’t flow, at least not storywise; almost every major character in the movie deals with some unaccounted time in the midst of all this build-up. Maybe that’s because there’s something dreamlike about even the “real” sequences: Visually, Snyder really gets into the gods-among-us angle on superheroes, going far more baroque than the Marvel house style. Shot at least partially on film, the movie boasts some beautiful grain—a surprising amount of texture for a director who traffics in heavy CG. If a lot of the movie is awash in grays and blacks, they’re rich, celluloid-style blacks, and the bursts of color, like the green glow of a Kryptonite staff, stand out even more. It’s not all fantastical, either: Lois and Clark share a sweetly sexy bathtub clinch that you’d never see in a Marvel production; heavens, the implied nudity!
The movie is a pleasure to actually watch, at least until it becomes clear that any sense of place in Metropolis or Gotham will be drowned in CG muck, after the handwaves about evacuated/unpopulated areas that Man of Steel ensured are necessary (the movie kinda-sorta addresses complaints about the mass casualties incurred by the destruction in Man of Steel, pitched oddly between engagement, apology, and self-justification). The trailers already offer the spoiler of Diana Prince making her transformation into Wonder Woman, and it’s fun to see her in action, even if she doesn’t get much of a shot at character development. But then, no one does; Snyder smashes and grabs comics storylines like a 90s-era adaptation, condensing some famous story points while taking a few superfluous cues from Frank Miller (though this is very far from a Dark Knight Returns riff). After a while, the movie starts to feel like a reverse-engineered pastiche; it trades on blatant Easter eggs and a smattering of Jesus imagery (though less than Man of Steel), just in time for Good Friday. Moment to moment, it holds you (or at least it held this nerd) in a kind of expectant thrall. For better and worse, Batman v. Superman constantly feels like it’s ramping up to something. Turns out, it’s a blockbuster refashioned into one gigantic, expensive ramp.