As any 10-year-old comics nut can attest, pitting the biggest household names in superheroism against each other has never made much logical sense; being the world’s greatest detective doesn’t count for much in a fistfight with someone faster than a speeding bullet and more powerful than a locomotive. No, the showdown only works if you consider what these iconic characters, the shining stars of the DC Comics stable, really represent: They’re the perfect inverse of each other, a beaming beacon of mankind’s promise going toe-to-toe with the dank underbelly of its fears. And that’s where Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice first runs into trouble. When the Last Son Of Krypton seems every bit as anguished, as edgily dark, as the Dark Knight himself, what’s the point in bashing them together? Their conflict isn’t so much “day versus night,” to quote the bad guy, as “late evening versus slightly later evening.”
Directed by Zack Snyder, of faithfully butchered Watchmen fame, Batman V Superman takes a title fight kids of all ages have been speculating about for decades—costumed titan from the cosmos, meet costumed vigilante from the city—and invests it with all the fun of a protracted custody battle. It’s a direct sequel to Snyder’s equally dour Man Of Steel, meaning that we’re stuck with the same off-putting Superman (Henry Cavill) who leveled Metropolis, snapped the neck of his enemy, and basically made out with his sweetheart on ground zero. (It’s hard to learn the value of human life when your late foster father, moral compass of the previous movie, suggests that protecting your secret identity may be more important than saving a busload of drowning children.) Not to be outdone, BvS mangles the principles of its new principal: Here we have a Batman (Ben Affleck) with a slightly more flexible stance on guns and murder; he’s introduced literally branding his insignia on a sex trafficker—a mark, we’re told, that will get the criminal killed in prison.
Why are the world’s finest clawing at each other’s capes and cowls? The smartest move made by returning screenwriter David S. Goyer and new ringer Chris Terrio (Argo) is building the movie around the collateral damage of Man Of Steel’s climax, restaged from the ground-level perspective of Gotham’s playboy with a secret, Bruce Wayne. While the world debates how to sanction the god that can turn their cities to rubble, in the kind of senate hearings that superhero movies now use to situate their scenarios in “reality,” an angrier-than-usual Batman stews about his alien rival’s dangerous power. Of course, it takes a nudge to get these two to real blows, and that comes from the film’s cokehead millennial version of Lex Luthor (a jittery, babbling Jesse Eisenberg, apparently determined to out-ham both Gene Hackman and Kevin Spacey).
Running the length of about seven Batman: The Animated Series episodes, Batman V Superman choppily races through plot, as the film works in a CIA coverup, a discovered lump of Kryptonite, a downed UFO, the body of Michael Shannon’s slain General Zod, glib echoes of real-world terrorism, and a second villain whose identity shouldn’t be disclosed. Relationships have no room to blossom or even reveal themselves. What’s it like, one must wonder, to date a being from beyond the stars? The New Adventures Of Lois & Clark spent four seasons answering that question, while Batman V Superman can barely spare the single scene necessary to explain that Kal-El (a.k.a. Superman, a.k.a. Clark Kent) is now living with Lois Lane (Amy Adams), who the film keeps sending on strictly expository Daily Planet assignments. Far too much time has to be reserved for laying Justice League groundwork, including shoehorned appearances by ageless Amazonian and future team player Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot).
In Dawn Of Justice, Supes and the Bat aren’t so different: They’re both moody dudes with responsibility complexes, anxiety about their legacies, and—in what becomes an amusingly pivotal plot point—mothers named Martha. They’re also both epic bores. As played again by Cavill, who has the squared-jawed look but not the heroic touch, Superman comes across like a smugly sociopathic deity: Faced with his chilly, blank arrogance, one can’t help but long for the charismatic decency of a Christopher Reeve (or even the more puppyish charm of one-timer Brandon Routh). Affleck, meanwhile, broods and simmers, but does little new with the dual rich-boy/crime-fighter role, possibly because the movie counts on audiences being so familiar with the Bat mythos that it doesn’t need to fill in either his interior or exterior lives—beyond, of course, the umpteenth flashback to the Wayne family getting gunned down in the gutter.
This is an airless and humorless superhero movie, but it’s never an anonymous one. Much more so than the Batman films of Christopher Nolan, from which Snyder borrows a self-seriousness but not a sense of propulsive excitement, Dawn Of Justice aims for some of the exaggerated visual grandeur of actual comics: Our heroes look like Greek gods, towering and massive, with Superman descending from the heavens (and out of an Alex Ross painting, perhaps) while Batman basically gets to slip on the boxy, heavy armor he sported in Frank Miller’s seminal dystopian miniseries The Dark Knight Returns. There are striking images, most notably in a whacked-out dream sequence (one of many, actually) that feels like a lost passage from Snyder’s juvenile-pastiche passion project Sucker Punch. Just as often, the director proves himself woefully incapable of staging the kind of big-bang spectacle his material demands. The film’s interminable final act, for example, is an eyesore of CGI combat, the kind of weightless, machismo, rock-scored digital spectacle that the filmmaker previously mined from Miller’s rah-rah Spartan war saga 300.
What Snyder sees in these timeless characters is raw, herculean power, and little else; he pushes them closer to abstract icons of fascist supremacy than they’ve possibly ever been pushed, either paying lip service to or outright ignoring the values they’ve always stood for. Which, frankly, isn’t the end of the world: We can have a scarily remote Superman and a borderline-alcoholic Batman, just as we can now have a Gotham (never properly established, as nothing in this film is) that apparently lies just across the bay from Metropolis. But shouldn’t all this geeky property colliding still at least be entertaining? Shouldn’t it play to the cheap seats instead of wallowing in the murk? To enjoy Batman V Superman, a blockbuster somehow more boring than it is strange, is to cling for dear life to brief flashes of levity and lunacy—and the most reliable source of both is Eisenberg’s nervous motormouth of a supervillain, granted pages of halting monologue and a musical theme much more playful than the film containing it. The actor’s having fun. At least someone is.
For thoughts on, and a place to discuss, plot details we can’t reveal in this review, visit Batman V Super: Dawn Of Justice’s spoiler space.