“Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” is the most expensive prank ever committed to film, a colossal misfire that is the equivalent of watching someone feeding millions of dollars to a blender for 151 minutes. But how did such a scenario transpire, especially with such a vast assemblage of talented people being on board? The mystery is almost more puzzling than the end result, a long and exhaustive trek through overlapping story arcs and character motivations that have no focus or detail when they ought to be inspiring some level of intrigue. Yet the setup is almost too precious to dismiss: two of the most prominent superheroes in the DC Comics universe come to blows over their conflicting ideologies, and their war is fueled further by the uncertain intentions of a successful business tycoon who wants to harvest an alien weapon to destroy the most powerful of them. Oh, and then there’s Wonder Woman, who arrives halfway through the story to, I guess, equalize the testosterone on display between Batman and Superman, all while offering subliminal hints at what the future of the universe may offer in terms of motion pictures. Rare has a single action picture of so much incredible ambition offered so little of a payoff.
That is not an easy conclusion to reach, even for the cynical types like yours truly. As characters – and as archetypes – of the comic food fad of the big screen, both the Dark Knight and the Last Son of Krypton have earned their merit badges as facilitators of all our notions of true heroism, because within them are the conviction of great personalities that pique all the natural interests and insecurities. What they are up against in “Dawn of Justice” isn’t so much a battle of individual wits, however, as it is a diminishment of their very nature, all of which is lost in a nonsensical display of action and story conflicts that are fragmented, over-produced and lead to nothing but utter desensitization. We are used to middling results in this crowded genre, but Zack Snyder’s endeavors make even the overzealous nerve of “Man of Steel” seem almost pedestrian by comparison. What possessed him? These are not marginal personalities propped up onto flabby premises; they are the realization of the very genre they come from. And while there is certainly no question that Snyder continues to show an extensive panache for the way he moves through visual chaos, here is a movie that suggests he is, probably, an unfit candidate to helm such material.
Let’s count the ways. The movie begins in flashback during the climactic battle of Metropolis (seen on full display in the last movie), where Superman and his surviving brethren opt to battle for the destruction – or preservation – of Earth’s inhabitants, all while demolishing everything in their sight. Among the crumbling buildings and screaming bystanders, a face of familiarity emerges: that of Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck), the billionaire playboy of Gotham City, who was apparently present for the whole shebang. The movie excuses his visit as a business necessity, and as he scurries through the rubble of a destroyed office building for Wayne enterprises, he gazes up at the sky and sees Superman not as a savior, but as a presence of chaos. It sours him. Later, when Wayne encounters an inquisitive Clark Kent at a fundraising dinner, the two politely argue over the danger of each other’s secret alter egos – it’s hard for Clark to accept the legendary “Batman” as a crusader of justice when he is so violent against his criminals, and Bruce rejects the notion that the Superman is “godly,” especially when his very existence so frequently spells disaster for all those he claims to protect.
Somewhere in the midst of this distant and brewing feud are the observing eyes of Lex (Eisenberg), who by some apparent assimilation decides that the Batman can be harvested to be his acting weapon against the Superman, a being he vehemently resents, perhaps because of how severely he feeds into his own anger towards transcendent beings. The early scenes establish the certainty of those agendas as he engages in political banter with Senator Finch (Holly Hunter), whom he requires the approval of to bring a giant rock of Kryptonite found in the Indian Ocean back to Metropolis, where he intends to create a reserve weapon against the city’s supposed savior. Because the foreign mineral proves to be the only source of weakness for these alien beings, it is in invaluable tool in containing the threat of the Superman. Senator Finch is uncertain; she sees the danger but is not quite ready to assume the caped hero is a force of threat, even though half of the city around her still rests in rubble nearly two years after his arrival.
The screenplay by Chris Terrio and David S. Goyer opts to emphasize the majority of these quandaries not in dialogue or discussion, but in sensation. The characters are constantly moving through activity that seems created out of a calculated purpose. When Lois Lane (Amy Adams) runs off to the desert to interrogate a terrorism cell, it is a setup for Superman to arrive and save her, even though he winds up causing a lot of unintentional death in the process. Some of those present at the event are, apparently, on Luthor’s payroll. Meanwhile, Bruce pours over details in his underground laboratory in Gotham in order to come up with a weapon he can use against the Superman – thereby discovering Luthor’s own transport of Kryptonite, which he promptly sets out to steal. During a social business gathering, however, Wayne’s effort to download the encrypted data off of Lex’s computer mainframe culminates in the arrival of Diana Prince (Gal Gadot), an enigmatic figure who steals the hard drive from Bruce for… who knows what? And that in turns leads to another convoluted subplot in which two of the three main characters suspect other agendas from their business adversary, although the movie only gives you enough insight to salivate over in preparation for another movie.
Here I was reminded not of the glory days of either the Batman or Superman, but of the seamlessness of the Marvel Universe. In preparation for their “Avengers” saga, the studio successfully executed a series of movies meant to create stories around all of their key characters, who were destined to converge in a single event that would bring their fanbases together. While the individual achievements were variable, the concept nonetheless was sound – because you got a sense of what Thor, Captain America and Iron Man were about, apart from their eventual union. To look at “Batman v Superman,” I wonder if the start of the dilemma came down to the premise. This is a universe with no set expectation of its heroes, a young and coarse framework that needed time to colonize a certain set of rules. By overpopulating the terrain with three dominant personalities, however, Snyder and his writers box themselves into a corner; they are biting off far more than they can chew in short order. There is a sense while watching all of the interlocking stories unfold that isolated stories could have been possible for each, but by integrating them into one another, they have created a gargantuan mess that is impossible to deal with. Perhaps the saddest reality of this misfire is the notion that no sense of interest even permeates from the scenes. Here we should be bemusing the inevitability of Batman’s stubborn conviction or the unhinged sanity of Luthor, but “Dawn of Justice” replaces those possibilities with apathy. The entire thrust of the endeavor is to overwhelm your senses with action, explosions, loud soundbites, dramatic poses and gazes of immense shock, and none of them lead to anything other than eye-rolls.
The talent is there, even without the obvious examples. I still ascribe validity to my initial proclamation that Henry Cavill is, indeed, an ideal choice to play Superman; he possesses the look and the presence of the great figure, and exemplifies it by making pedestrian dialogue seem like a genuine feeling from within. Affleck, the newest in a long line of caped crusaders, makes for a convincing Bruce Wayne in his own right, and I entertain the possibilities of a “Batman” film where he is given a chance to work within his own destiny. And despite all the obvious gimmicks that create a scenario for Wonder Woman to fall into, she is enough of an interesting presence to insist the validity of her own movie, too. Watching “Batman v Superman,” it is clear that Snyder is able to assemble a lot of ingredients that make enough sense to stimulate some level of appeal. But he doesn’t know how to assemble them into something comprehensive or rewarding, because he is overwhelmed by the eagerness of his visuals, and they undermine the integrity of the personalities. Towards the end, there is a climax on an island where all three figures are required to do battle against a new terrifying enemy. But as I was watching it, my mind kept going back to the poor citizens of Metropolis, who were no doubt questioning whether a quiet life in the suburbs might have been preferable to the city existence where a savior could bring about so much senseless destruction.
Written by DAVID KEYES
Action/Drama (US); 2016; Rated PG-13; Running Time: 151 Minutes
Ben Affleck: Bruce Wayne/Batman
Henry Cavill: Clark Kent/Superman
Amy Adams: Lois Lane
Jesse Eisenberg: Lex Luthor
Gal Gadot: Diana Prince/Wonder Woman
Holly Hunter: Senator Finch
Laurence Fishburne: Perry White
Jeremy Irons: Alfred
Diane Lane: Martha Kent
Produced by Wesley Coller, David S. Goyer, Geoff Johns, Curt Kanemoto, Benjamin Melniker, Bruce Moriarty, Christopher Nolan, Charles Roven, Jim Rowe, Deborah Snyder, Emma Thomas, Michael E. Uslan and Gregor Wilson; Directed by Zack Snyder; Written by Chris Terrio, and David S. Goyer; based on the characters created by Bob Kane, Bill Finger, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster