Cast: Ben Affleck, Henry Cavill, Jesse Eisenberg, Amy Adams, Holly Hunter, Gal Gadot, Laurence Fishburne, Jeremy Irons
Director: Zack Snyder
Running Time: 2 hours 31 minutes
by Jericho Cerrona
Let's get a few things out of the way from the outset. For one thing, Zack Snyder's latest superhero blockbuster Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, prizes aesthetic value over storytelling. Sure, there's a ton of plot here, but not much in the way of proper narrative, and this should come as little surprise to anyone paying attention to the director's back catalog. Secondly, this is a grimly self-serious movie playing out in operatic fashion; with characters spinning lines about fallen gods, demons, corruption of power, and daddy issues. Again, not surprising coming from the man who brought us Watchmen and Man of Steel, two films practically drowning in humorless bile. And then there's the issue of what exactly motivates our two heroes (or in this case, anti-heroes) to face off, and how Lex Luther's diabolical plot factors into the equation. Of course, there's also the predictable setup for future films with characters getting walk-on cameos and shameless nods to franchise-building. In one particularly gratuitous sequence, we actually get a thumb drive of trailer-like montages for superheroes who will appear in later installments; almost as if Snyder and company hoped to save audiences from waiting for the typical post-credits reveals.
This is all to say that Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice is a loud, frequently chaotic, narratively disjointed and overly ponderous comic book picture which also manages to remain true to it's convictions. Whether or not audiences respond to these convictions, however, is another matter entirely. There's no doubt those hoping for the whiz-bang punch of the Marvel films or the brooding character-building grandeur of the Christopher Nolan Batman features will find Snyder's concoction severely lacking in emotional stakes and internal logic. However, while Marvel merrily skips around with a wide grin courting audience goodwill, Snyder has taken the darker aspects of the DC universe and given us a world broken, reeling, and filled with righters anger. It's a vision which scarily mirrors our own pop-cultural-political moment, and it's not something that will prove endearing to those who simply want a bit of mindless, popcorn munching fun at the multiplex.
Things begin predictably with a montage of Batman's childhood, and then move into a retroactive take on the climax of Man of Steel, an epic melee of collateral damage for which Snyder took critical heat. Here, the thunderous battle between Superman (Henry Cavill) and General Zod (Michael Shannon) is seen from the ground level, as Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) frantically attempts to save bystanders from crashing skyscrapers and walls of showering debris. This accomplishes two things; for one, it gives Snyder an excuse to answer his critics and show the human cost of the wanton destruction wrought by his hero in the previous film, while it also sets up a probable reason for Batman to despise the Caped Crusader. Unfortunately, it also allows for blatant 911 imagery, which still feels cheaply exploitative some 15 years later. The script, by Chris Terrio (Argo) and David Goyer (Man of Steel), attempts to place Batman as the audience conduit questioning Superman's motifs, and it's the same philosophical question atheists and agnostics often hurl at religious believers. How can God be simultaneously all-powerful and all-good, and furthermore, if such a being is all-good, how could it allow grand-scale human suffering? What's interesting here is that even though Batman is set up early as the film's conscience, he quickly becomes a near sociopathic figure shrouded in darkness; a vigilante willing to go to disturbing lengths to get the answers he needs.
While a fraction of Metropolis still views Superman as their savior, there's growing dissent among the population, especially after a rescue mission involving Lois Lane (Amy Adams) from a group of terrorists results in the death of several African villagers. This incident sparks the outrage of a southern Senator (Holly Hunter) who heads up a Congressional Superman Committee openly questioning the supposed hero's abuses of power. Joining in the anti-Superman rhetoric is young industrialist Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg, channeling Heath Ledger by way of Mark Zuckerberg) who hopes to obtain a glowing green substance found in the Indian Ocean while sucking down on Jolly Ranchers. The main problem with this is that the supposed clash of ideologies; dark vs. light, vigilante justice vs. self-sacrifice, etc isn't all that wide of a gap. Since Snyder's interpretation of both Superman and Batman is so distilled into the idea of misanthropy and self-reflective angst, it's often difficult to ascertain who has the bleaker worldview and if there's anyone or anything worth rooting for.
Still, this plunge into abject nihilism is at it's heart a comic book convention, and Snyder milks it for all it's worth, straining for operatic beauty even if his film hasn't exactly earned it. For instance, there's something admirable about a scene where Batman floats down from the sky carrying a terrified young woman as a throng of Mexican Day of the Dead onlookers stretch out their hands in a worshipful trance. It's an erie moment, made all the more sinister by the fact that Superman wears a flummoxed expression, as if he finds no joy whatsoever in rescuing all these pesky humans. Casting a black shadow upon a character who has for decades been viewed as a harbinger of truth, justice, and the American way will undoubtably anger the faithful, but clearly Snyder and his writers don't trust Superman's purity of heart. This is a universe in which hope is a fraud; like voter ballot scandals and political hypocrisy, something to be mentioned in sound bites, but never actualized.
On the acting front, Affleck acquits himself nicely as a world-weary version of Bruce Wayne, and his brief exchanges with Alfred (Jeremy Irons) add melancholic texture to the film. Cavill broods and scowls effectively as the Caped Crusader, but doesn't get much screen time to flesh out his Clark Kent persona. Meanwhile, Eisenberg layers on the tics and odd vocal inflections as Luther, and though his mannered performance will likely be criticized, at least he's making a specific choice. The rest of the cast, including Hunter and Adams, are given very little to do, although the introduction of Gal Gadot's Wonder Woman (complete with squealing guitar solo and pounding tribal drums on the soundtrack) is a complete thrill. Of course, this being a Zack Snyder film, the take away here is really about such moments, delivered in montage-esque bursts of noise and movement, rather than any kind of overarching storyline. This emphasis on aesthetic over narrative means that relatable human behavior goes out the window fairly early, but are comic book movies necessarily beholden to the rules of quasi-realistic dramas? Blame it on the "Nolanization" of the superhero brand, but nowadays fans will pick apart every plot hole and wobbly character motivation, but will at the same time give such flaws a pass if the overall product is entertaining. And here is where Snyder may have bitten off more than he could chew. Though the final third goes down in predictably bombastic fashion; complete with a CGI-fueled showdown between our heroes and Doomsday; (a bastard mutation of Marvel's Thanos, Orc warlord from The Lord of the Rings, Voldemort, and that chair reclining villain from The Force Awakens), the inevitable Batman vs. Superman showdown that the film has been building to all along is ultimately a letdown. And how could it not be? The director of 300 and Sucker Punch has been given the unholy responsibility of affirming and meeting the expectations of clamoring fanboys slobbering over the chance to see two iconic characters duke it out, and can he be blamed for doing the very thing Snyder has always done; namely, having two combatants punch and slam each other through walls?
Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice is ultimately too weighed down by it's lumbering running time, tangential story fragments, and self-serious sermonizing to truly become the darkly grand comic book vision it wants to be, but it does have a streak of weird dislocation which flies in the face of the recent rash of sun-baked Marvel good-naturedness. Snyder piles on the hallucinatory dream sequences, bone-crunching violence, and slow-motion gloom and doom to the point of near exhaustion, which either reinforces or lays bare our cultural obsessions with these money-making properties. In it's own bizarre way, it's giving us exactly what a comic book property should; a reflection of our hopelessly chaotic times in which there are no black and white heroes, even if that means taking beloved characters and essentially altering their DNA. It's likely to be a divisive choice, but even in it's obvious flaws, Snyder's film is more fascinating than all of Marvel's pleasant superhero romping put together.