Big, loud, and painted in broad strokes, Batman v. Superman is comic book opera opera in every sense — and not in a good way. In fact, it’s a soulless, dreary mess.
It’s an exemplar of the worst excesses of screenwriter David S. Goyer (with some needed doctoring from Chris Terrio) and director by Zack Snyder (Sucker Punch), whose combined take on the material is that of 14-year-old fanboys who read Batman: The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen and realized the power of those stories but were too immature to grasp what they were really about.
The movie picks up 18 months after the events of Man of Steel, with the world split in its opinion of Superman (Henry Cavill); much of the populace see him as a savior figure, while others — especially those in power — see him as a potential threat to all mankind. Among the latter is Bruce Wayne/Batman (Ben Affleck), whose lost friends and employees during the battle that leveled much of Metropolis. This is very much the Frank Miller version of Batman, a hardened and cold-blooded veteran of a 20-year war on crime in Gotham City, and the Dark Knight makes the unilateral decision that the only good Kryptonian is a dead one, and decides to eliminate what he sees is a potential threat.
For his part, Superman/Clark Kent is troubled by batman’s brand of vigilante justice and its effect on civil liberties, and openly says so via articles in the Daily Planet. He’s also busy dodging calls for Superman to appear before a Congressional committee by a senator (Holly Hunter), whose motivations are all over the place. Pulling strings in the background is Lex Luthor (Jessie Eisenberg), a bratty, borderline psychotic billionaire in the Mark Zuckerberg mold.
Snyder and Goyer actually do a fine job of setting everything in motion during the first act, only to let the story fragment into an array of extraneous plot points, overblown set-pieces, and unrealized characters set to an overbearing score by Hans Zimmer and Junkie XL. The titular battle royale feels entirely contrived, and ultimately amounts to limit more than gratuitous superhero-on-superhero violence with a foregone conclusion: that Batman and Superman will make nice and join forces to fight a greater evil, yadda yadda yadda.
The actors shoulder a thankless load throughout. Affleck comes across quite well, no doubt in part by having frequent collaborator Terrio work on the script. Christopher Nolan and Christian bale’s is still the more balanced and nuanced take on Batman, but Affleck brings the requisite rage and pain to the Caped Crusader, as well as some swagger. Cavill doesn’t fare as well; he gets plenty to work with when his allowed to drop his guard as Kent, but since Superman spends much of his time moping and is unforgivably never allowed to address the public, the Man of Tomorrow barely registers. Eisenberg goes a little too hammy as Luthor, who comes across as a hipster hybrid of Ernst Stavro Blofeld and Willy Wonka.
True to a Snyder movie, the female actors aren’t given much to do, with Lois Lane (Amy Adams) and Martha Kent (Diana Lane) allowed a couple of good moments, but ultimately serving as dutiful girlfriend/parent and hostage tropes. Gal Gadot, however, steals the movie in just a few short scenes as Diana Prince/Wonder Woman, even though it’s never explained why exactly she is in the movie. She’s the only one who actually comes across as heroic, and her movie can’t arrive soon enough.
There are a lot of heavy-handed lip service about terrorism, xenophobia, and democracy tossed around, but Snyder lacks the nuance to make it add up to anything. Style has always suffocated substance in his movies, and he buries Batman v. Superman under an orgy of CGI mass destruction that, combined with obligatory and clumsily inserted set-ups for the other superhero movies that Warner Bros. has in the pipeline, shows just how relatively restrained Avengers: Age of Ultron was.
The funny thing is that after Snyder caught some well-deserved grief for the overkill that was the finale of Man of Steel, which blithely leveled half a city. He and Goyer handled the topic by making it the crux of Batman v. Superman, with much of the fear towards Superman stemming from the destruction that he was (unwillingly) involved in, as if to say “Yeah, we get that it was crass and there would be repercussions, even in fiction.” They then cap the movie by leveling the better part of two cities, with nary a hint of fallout.
Marvel Studios’ movies and Fox’s X-Men franchise only make this sort of thing look easy, and remind us how much time, effort, and talent are truly involved. If this is the official starting point of the broader DC comic book movie universe, then it’s off to a rough start. Warner Bros. needs to consider some important factors going forward: Snyder and Goyer need to be reigned in, as their sensibilities are too shallow, even for superhero fare. They also need to lighten up a little. The studio’s “no humor” policy makes for some relentlessly grim material, and the de-saturated color palette makes for some murky and lifeless visuals. (These are comic book heroes for crying out loud — they’re supposed to be colorful.) If it can’t manage that, then the next few years are going to be a long, dull slog for them.