Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice* contains a major revelation: it isn’t that Zack Snyder misunderstands Superman, it’s that he actually hates the character.
But let us set aside such geekiness for later in this review. Let us approach BvS as a movie first. With all preconceived notions of how Batman and Superman should be portrayed put aside, I can say with complete certainty that Batman v Superman is not a particularly well made film. It is, in fact, the film that finally drives home to me the reality that Zack Snyder is not particularly great at storytelling. I have spent many years defending Snyder, who I think is a first rate visual stylist (and who conjures up some excellent images in this film), but even I have to put down my sword. Zack Snyder, left to his own devices, cannot tell a story.
It’s almost crazy how flimsy and poorly constructed the first hour of the film is. Snyder and his editors seem to have inserted scenes haphazardly; while most take place in what seem to be chronological order there is no flow from one scene to another. The movie hops around from Batman to Superman to Lex Luthor to Lois Lane willy nilly, with no regard for the pacing or with building any kind of momentum.
Here’s a specific example: we cut to a scene of Perry White in the Daily Planet offices, and he’s looking for Clark Kent. “Where does Kent disappear to?” White asks. “Does he click his heels three times and show up back home in Kansas?”
You can probably guess what the next cut will show us - Clark (or Superman) in Kansas. But not in BvS. Not in a movie that seems to aspire to anti-cinema. That scene is immediately followed by Lois meeting a secret source. I think the next scene after that is about Lex and then there’s one about Batman and then we come back to Superman. This lack of a structure makes the entire first half of the film feel like a bloated montage; everything is disjointed, nothing is clearly connected to anything else. It’s doubly deadly because the whole first half is astoundingly dull, and every time a scene builds some momentum we cut away to something not interesting. Half the film feels like deleted scenes that were added back for no reason. The Knightmare sequence, the scene featured in all the trailers where Batman is wearing a desert coat, has no bearing on the film, its events are never mentioned again and it goes nowhere. People complain about Marvel’s servicing of its connected universe, but the Justice League set-up in this film makes Iron Man 2 look like a strongly structured work of a single vision.
That disjointed, uninteresting first half rolls into a lengthy succession of battle sequences that range from the silly (Batman hits Superman over the head with a bathroom sink) to boring (the Doomsday battle is so straight-forward and generic that it melts away like cotton candy in your mind). The film is too long by half and yet it never finds time to do any character work, focusing instead on relentlessly moving forward its over-complicated, unmotivated plot.
The plot trudges along weighed down not just by the stupidity of it all - half the plot points make no logical sense, like Lex Luthor supplying his henchmen with experimental military bullets - but by the apocalyptic self-seriousness of it all. Each scene is ponderous in its attempt to be meaningful and iconic, rendering every moment in the movie a phony pose. Heavy, overbearing score thunders above it all, reinforcing the po-faced absurdity. The film reaches for an operatic thunder and ends up with a wet, limp raspberry.
The one bright spot in the film is Batman, played by Ben Affleck as the one character who has any sort of character at all. To be fair Affleck’s face is too genial to be believable as the ‘broken’ Batman at the beginning of the film - the guy going too far and branding criminals - but when Bruce finds himself an obsession in the form of Superman, Affleck morphs into what may be the best screen Batman of our time. HIs version of Batman reminds me of the classic Jim Aparo years, even if he’s modeled on the Frank Miller end-of-career take; this Batman is equally adept at spycraft as he is at beating in faces, and this Bruce Wayne feels like an adventurer and a bit of a scoundrel. When Affleck’s Wayne gets distracted by a pretty face you don’t feel like he’s just putting on a show to hide his identity - he’s a man of appetites, not the driven ascetic played by Christian Bale. There’s a lot of James Bond in this Batman.
His relationship with Jeremy Irons’ Alfred is delightful. You kind of have to feel bad for Irons, as many of his scenes have him speaking into a radio, directing Batman in the heat of the moment, but even in these glorified telephone sequences Affleck and Irons have real chemistry. I hope that whatever damage this film does to the DC Movieverse we still get a Ben Affleck Batman film, and I hope Irons has an ironclad contract to come back.
If Affleck is the high point every other performance is a sliding scale. Gal Gadot is fine as Wonder Woman, playing a character without any depth. She seems cool in battle? That’s about the big takeaway from this character in this movie. I look forward to seeing what Gadot can do in a film that perhaps has a script featuring humans in it.
Henry Cavill is a wooden log throughout most of the film, giving a performance so lifeless and dull that it feels like a protest. His Superman alternates between being a mopey bore and a real asshole, two qualities for which the character is not usually known. The film keeps Superman at a distance (if you had guessed “They turn the Superman sequel into a Batman movie,” come on up and collect your winnings), and as such this doesn’t give Cavill much to do. The character is, textually, struggling with the weight of his responsibility to the world, but the film doesn’t dramatize it much and it doesn’t give Cavill many scenes in which to portray it beyond brooding. The film is too busy moving along to the next tedious plot element to give Superman any time to shine, or really any time to do much of anything. Everybody in this movie is running around talking about what Superman means or what they’re going to do to Superman, but Superman himself has no goals, has no desires, has no role in the story except to stir everybody else up.
If Superman has no goals Jesse Eisenberg’s Lex Luthor has plenty of them - none of which make any sense. Luthor’s machinations in the film are, essentially, nonsense (one of his dastardly plans involves a jar of piss), and they are largely unmotivated. There’s a scene where Luthor sets up a suicide bombing that has no impact on the story, and to me that scene exemplifies the storytelling problems with the entire film - lots of scenes that are cool in the moment but that have no place in a larger tale.
Eisenberg is next-level terrible as Luthor. He’s a twitchy lunatic pretty much from the start, and if there are any events in the story that lead to him escalating his plot to the point of creating an unstoppable monster I missed them. Eisenberg delivers every line like he thinks the villains on the 1966 Batman show were too nuanced. His face is a collection of tics, and his eyes burn with the power of a thousand ham actors. Not only is his performance unmodulated, he’s generally irritating at all times - while I don’t understand why Lex Luthor wants to unleash an unstoppable monster on the world, I do fully understand why Batman wants to fucking hit him.
All of the bombast and monotony lead to a third act battle that is egregious in its crumminess. Doomsday was, in the original Death of Superman story, a total nothing… and yet this film managed to make him even less interesting. His design reminds you of the Cave Troll in Fellowship of the Ring and the CGI on display seems to also be from 2001. Is Doomsday ugly because his design sucks or because the FX work is garbage? We can never truly know - we can only say that he is ugly and uninteresting.
‘Uninteresting’ extends to the final battle. It’s weird, but there’s not much cool happening in the battle. The three heroes pummel Doomsday a bit (even though it has been established that hitting him makes him stronger) amid the charred remains of Gotham. It’s a lot of straight on hitting, heat vision shooting, sword chopping stuff. There’s nothing inventive - which comes with the Doomsday territory of course - but for all the money spent no one could have come up with a visual more interesting than the heroes standing in a crater pounding on the villain?
Doomsday is a mistake on many levels beyond aesthetic. He’s a villain ex machina, an element alien to the story that exists only to force a punch-up at the end. He’s an intruder in the film, but I guess that goes along with the rest of the movie, as his inclusion at the end is just as disjointed as the editing at the beginning.
To say that Superman v Batman: Dawn of Justice is a bad movie doesn’t go far enough. This film feels like Zack Snyder hobbling the entire upcoming DC Movieverse before it gets started. It’s small things, like revealing that Lex Luthor names all the members of the Justice League and gives them their symbols. It’s big things, like where the film leaves the story at the end. And it’s things in between, because the first two movies in this universe have been all about why heroism is essentially bad.
This is where I have come to believe that Zack Snyder hates Superman. It’s there in our faces in Man of Steel, a Superman who can’t quite come to grips with the idea of being a hero. He takes 30 plus years to come to that, and he comes to it over the objections of his father. Pa Kent shows up again in BvS, in a nonsensical and jarring hallucination/dream/whatever in which Pa tells a story about how he once saved the Kent family farm from drowning, but in the process he flooded the next farm over. Pa heard the screams of the drowning horses in his sleep every night.
Instead of walking back Man of Steel’s wishy-washiness about heroism, BvS doubles down on it. This Superman is not a man of the people - he doesn’t seem to ever grant interviews, for instance - and he is constantly aloof. While the movie gives Batman and Lex Luthor a very particular (and well argued) point of view about this god among us, it offers no counterpoint for Superman. Superman himself doesn’t even seem to be very invested in being a hero or saving people. He never has a scene where he puts forth any kind of philosophy (and every character in this movie gets a scene where they are allowed to pontificate on sophomore-level philosophy).
It’s because Snyder doesn’t believe in what Superman stands for. He doesn’t believe in the idea that he’s just a guy trying to do right by the world, and that he doesn’t have to learn to do right or be convinced not to quit, that this just is how Superman is. It’s as integral to him as his Kryptonian powers.
Because Snyder can’t understand that aspect of Superman he undermines it at all times. His Superman engages in the bare minimum amount of heroism. We see Batman taking care of more business than Superman, who mostly helps the people closest to him (we also see Bruce Wayne save more people during the Battle of Metropolis than Superman did in Man of Steel). His Superman is an asshole, a pompous and condescending jerk who makes threats. Even the scene where Superman might have a chance to deliver a heartfelt explanation of himself in front of a Senate committee hearing is cut short - the film robs Superman of the chance to deliver the sort of speech that belongs in a Frank Capra film.
But Snyder wouldn’t want to have a Capra moment. That shit is old fashioned. How deeply does Snyder think Superman is a relic of the past? He has Perry White all but say so, telling Clark Kent that it isn’t 1938 anymore, that apples don’t cost a nickel anymore, that it’s time to live in the modern world. 1938, of course, was the year Action Comics #1 was published - the first appearance of Superman.
* I'll be straight with you - the title is the least of this film's problems.