Well, it was as bad as I expected. Whenever I make the decision to write about a movie (being extremely selective in what I review is the ultimate perk of writing as a hobby), I do my absolute best to avoid the critical response around a film before I have a chance to see it myself. I don’t want to be swayed by anyone else’s opinion but my own. I want to react to the movie with an open, unbiased mind. That was near impossible with Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. I saw it on opening night, but I was still inundated by headlines on social media, not to mention every website starting with “www” having an opinion about how terrible the film was. The internet even graced me with the Sad Affleck meme. That was particularly delicious, in a “worst angels of our nature” sort of way.
When I sat down in the theater, waiting for the lights to dim, I steeled myself against all I had seen that day. I’m willing to give any movie a fair shake and Batman v Superman was no different. I did my duty as a critic to leave any preconceived notions I had at the ticket counter, so it’s without any reservation that I write these words: Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is an utter mess. There are a few elements worthy of praise, to be sure, but they are so few and far between that they are essentially inconsequential to the overall effect.
BvS suffers from kitchen sink syndrome. In an effort to wow the audience, as well as get their own cinematic universe kick-started, DC Comics and screenwriters Chris Terrio and David S. Goyer packed any and everything they could think of into an interminable two-and-a-half-hour assault on the senses. Hell, there’s even a literal kitchen sink. Used as a weapon during the titular hero-on-hero battle royale. Actually, if memory serves, it was a bathroom sink. So the movie gets one half credit for avoiding complete cliché.
The arc of the picture goes something like this:
We learn that during the climactic slugfest in Man of Steel, one of Bruce Wayne’s office buildings was destroyed, and many of his employees were killed. The scene is basically replayed from the earlier film, but at Wayne’s ground-level perspective and so trades in even more distasteful 9/11 sensationalism than the original version. This modern trope is well past its usefulness in cinematic terms, and many films have explored that horrific day both literally (2006’s World Trade Center) and subtextually (2007’s Cloverfield). Here director Zack Snyder uses the imagery of skyscrapers tumbling down and massive dust clouds choking the streets as cheap action movie fodder. After the fall-out, Wayne believes that an all-powerful alien who answers to no one is a totalitarian ruler just waiting for an excuse to take power, and he decides Superman must be stopped.
Meanwhile, Superman’s arch nemesis Lex Luthor is also reacting to the climax of Man of Steel. He is busy pulling strings with several U.S. senators to obtain a sample of Kryptonite as well as the body of the villainous Kryptonian slain by Superman, General Zod. Luthor is connected to a weapons trafficker that Bruce Wayne is investigating, too. This leads Wayne to steal an encrypted hard drive of Luthor’s during a gala thrown at LexCorp headquarters. He is unsuccessful, however, because a mysterious antiques dealer named Diana Prince steals the hard drive for her own curious reasons. Is your brain tired yet?
There’s more to the story, but I’ll give you the short version. Other subplots involve: Superman’s mother, Martha Kent, being kidnapped; a former Wayne employee’s broken life; Luthor manipulating Batman and experimenting with the DNA of Zod; and a congressional hearing investigating Superman’s true motives. Any engaging narrative thrust is lost by the time subplot fifteen or so is introduced. It really would save time to just describe things that aren’t in the movie. There are no infants. Or giraffes. I don’t recall an ancient Native American burial ground factoring into the story, but I wouldn’t swear to it.
Trying to follow the labyrinthine story is made all the more torturous by the pitch black tone of the entire picture. There is no joy to be had in Dawn of Justice. It’s an entirely mirthless affair, which stands in stark contrast to DC’s main superhero movie rival, Marvel. Those films, like Captain America and the Avengers movies, sometimes have their own issues with overly complicated plots, but at least they’re fun. Zack Snyder’s world in BvS is what you would get if you mixed the humor of Se7en with the tone of Shoah, Claude Lanzmann’s eight hour documentary about the Holocaust. Someone desperately needs to remind Snyder that hugely-budgeted summer action blockbusters are supposed to be, in the end, a good time, not a relentlessly dour depress-fest.
While director Snyder is deserving of the blame for what’s wrong with the movie, there was one bright spot – a sequence that genuinely took my breath away. In a subplot where Bruce Wayne/Batman has apocalyptic visions of a possible future in which Superman has taken complete control, Snyder’s visual tableau was used to stunning effect. His vision of this hellscape is magnificently realized, on par with any image you could conjure while reading Dante’s Inferno. Ben Affleck’s performance as the Caped Crusader, too, was just what the character demanded. Playing the millionaire playboy who fights crime with the best tools money can buy, Affleck brings to bear the, for lack of a better term, douchiness that the real life press has saddled him with for years. His performance stands in stark contrast to the tick-filled, excruciatingly obnoxious one turned in by Jesse Eisenberg as Lex Luthor. Eisenberg cranked it to 11, and ripped off the knob. In every. Single. Scene.
But there I go again. Even as I try to praise its few and fleeting admirable qualities, I get sucked back down into the quagmire of what’s dreadfully wrong with this movie. That’s what happens when a story endlessly pummels you with enough plot threads to fill a trilogy’s worth of movies, and deadens your senses with a cacophony of action sequences. Instead of seeing Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, I should have just stayed in the parking lot of the theater and paid someone to kick my ass for a couple hours. The sensation would have been about the same.
Why it got 1.5 stars:
- Essentially, BvS is 15 pounds of movie in a 5 pound bag. The various subplots are handled so poorly, you come out of the movie not really knowing what the focus was supposed to be.
- Zack Snyder's oppressive cinematic style jams on the accelerator from the start and only tries to go faster from there.
Things I forgot to mention in my review, because, well, I'm the Forgetful Film Critic:
- At several points during the film, I wondered just who knew what with regard to both Batman and Superman's alter egos. More than a few plot points hinged on both superheros having figured out who the other was without any explanation of how they came by the information.
- There is a particularly strained moment in BvS that rests on the coincidence that Batman's mother and Superman's adoptive Earth mother have the same first name.
- In the world of the movie, and now presumably by extension the entire DC cinematic universe, Metropolis and Gotham City are only a few miles apart. You can see the skyline of one from the downtown of the other. I know this is picking the smallest of nits, but that choice seems particularly bizarre.
- I mentioned it in the review, but I can't say enough how insufferable Jesse Eisenberg's performance as Lex Luthor is. It's like fingernails on a chalk board.