When the ambitious gambit of Marvel Studios paid off big time in 2012, when The Avengers grossed over $1.6 billion worldwide, the studios scrambled to replicate their model. Everything would be connected. Our favorite heroes would team up or battle one another on the screen. All of the deepest held dreams of anyone who grew up with the four-color pages of Marvel or DC would finally see these epic stories fully realized on the silver screen. However, with that comes expectations. Nobody realized it at the time, but 2013’s Man of Steel would be the foundation of what would be known as the DC Extended Universe, Warner Bros.’ answer to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. But Man of Steel was divisive, and numerous critiques were hurled at Zack Snyder’s interpretation of Superman, mainly about the massive amounts of collateral damage caused by its hero. Three years after Man of Steel drove a wedge in fandom, Zack Snyder continues this burgeoning Extended Universe with Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, an overstuffed and undercooked film that tries to operate as shortcut as opposed to the lengthy planning of their chief rival in superhero cinema.
The tone for this sequel is set in the opening scenes as, once again, we’re forced to witness the murder of Thomas and Martha Wayne (played by Jeffrey Dean Morgan and Lauren Cohan). The murder and funeral of a young Bruce Wayne’s parents set the grim and serious tone of everything that is to follow. For reasons that will forever elude me, Snyder has chosen to present this moment in full IMAX. After this well-worn aspect of the Batman story is told again, we’re taken to an adult Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) and his harrowing day when Superman (Henry Cavill) and General Zod (Michael Shannon) have their skyscraper-crumbling battle in Metropolis. These much more exciting scenes are not presented in IMAX. (I have no clue what Snyder is doing with his IMAX choices most of the film.) Bruce Wayne is greatly affected by the devastation, and Snyder’s disaster porn once again is shameless in invoking the imagery of 9/11.
In the present, Wayne masquerades at night as Batman, and this Batman is much more savage than we’re used to seeing on the screen. He violently scars the criminals he captures; the brand he leaves upon their skin is a death sentence in prison. Meanwhile, Superman has drawn the attention of Senator Finch (Holly Hunter), who wants to implement a form of checks and balances upon the Last Son of Krypton. Senator Finch is willing to negotiate with the young, ambitious Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg), who himself has grave concerns about Superman’s power. Behind the scenes and with all his resources, Lex Luthor goes to great lengths to purse the wreckage left behind from the battle between Zod and Superman, and even greater lengths to push Batman and Superman at each other’s throats.
Once again, Zack Snyder proves that he has a real eye for design and particular scenes but is incapable of grappling with story. The dystopian nightmare that Batman has of a wasted civilization patrolled by Superman is inspired in its goofiness and striking visually. (And, hey, it’s shot in IMAX.) But it’s a brief moment, a dream that is inconsequential to the story at hand. For the first half of the film, there’s great emphasis placed on questioning the nature and limits of power. In the wake of the criticisms following Man of Steel’s finale, it seems as if Snyder and writers David S. Goyer and Chris Terrio are willing to explore these problems within its own world. That’s simply not the case as anything resembling thematic coherence is pummeled, beaten, blown up, and stabbed in the grueling, never-ending climax of superhero violence. At one point during the climax, when an island is practically leveled from massive explosions, Batman casually remarks that the island is abandoned, a shortcut to deflect criticisms without confronting it.
Batman v Superman takes more bad shortcuts than your dad on the worst road trip ever. None of these new characters aside from Bruce Wayne is given anything resembling depth, and Amy Adams continues to be underserved (putting it mildly) as Lois Lane. Of course there’s much hype surrounding Gal Gadot’s appearance as Wonder Woman, and while I’ll say she does get a few exciting moments of action, the character is pretty much blank. As the primary villain, Eisenberg is simply insufferable as Luthor. He delivers every line as if he is about to burst into maniacal laughter and scream, “Hoo hee ha ha! I’m the bad guy!” The bond between Bruce Wayne and Alfred (played by Jeremy Irons) is never really shown on screen, merely allowing the decades of Batman stories to fill in the blanks. And the much ballyhooed cameos of Aquaman, Cyborg, and the Flash are resoundingly underwhelming. All these slapdash shortcuts to the future epic team up of Justice League leaves Batman v Superman driving into countless dead-ends for two and a half hours.
If you were hoping for a bit of optimism and hope from Superman after the dour Man of Steel you will find that this iteration of the character is even darker than before. Not only is Clark Kent anything but bumbling or humble, he’s also a horribly incompetent journalist, willing to completely ignore assignments from his editor Perry White (Laurence Fishburne). When in his tights, Superman is just plain unlikable. No longer the symbol for truth, justice, and the American Way, Superman says things like, “No one stays good in this world.” It’s as if Zack Snyder with ample help from Henry Cavill are so committed to injecting this one-time ideal of heroism with a nasty streak of cynicism.
In his first turn as the Caped Crusader, Ben Affleck gives a strong performance. He’s got the charms to be Bruce Wayne, and he does look pretty good in the costume. Like everything in this movie, Batman is darker than ever before. This Batman doesn’t just maim, we see him kill. There’s still a lot missing from this Bruce Wayne, a lengthy backstory that’s just presumed but never revealed. Much of the backstory that has been teased in marketing doesn’t come to any substantive fruition.
The climactic battle teased by the film’s title is just as underwhelming as everything else, there’s just a lot of it. Yet again, Snyder just doubles down on the Man of Steel formula, with a relatively calm first half before just beating the audience into submission with the thundering score of Hans Zimmer and Junkie XL blaring over the barrage of super-powered fisticuffs. Does it look good? Not really, there’s just a lot of it. The repetitious rumbling becomes so monotonous that the superhero spectacle onscreen is simply boring.
The inescapable feeling when watching Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is that it’s missing two films in the series, a sequel to Man of Steel and a solo Batman film. Instead, Batman v Superman tries to just cram everything possible into its bloated frames at the sacrifice of quality or coherence. Zack Snyder’s superhero epic is a full-scale fiasco. Batman v Superman may very well derail the DC Extended Universe before it really gets going, though Wonder Woman and Suicide Squad are happening for sure. Despite all the problems, I still feel that Zack Snyder is a visual talent in dire need of oversight or a collaborator better equipped with storytelling instincts. There are a few surprises, most underwhelming, within the film, but there’s nothing within the bloat of Batman v Superman to justify its existence. It’s genuinely baffling that a film with so much hanging on its success would be this dark, this cynical, this incoherent. In trying to catch up to Marvel without the time or effort, Zack Snyder packed Superman, Batman, Lex Luthor, Wonder Woman, and company into the car only to take so many shortcuts they all got lost on a road to nowhere.