Review: BATMAN V SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE is a Complete and Utter Failure

I really wanted this movie to be great. I enjoyed Man of Steel at the time of release, (though it holds up less and less each time I revisit it), and I was excited about the potential of Ben Affleck playing Batman as soon as that casting was announced. But Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is a joyless, grueling, two-plus hour waste of time, a film incapable of rising above director Zack Snyder's visual trappings and delivering anything remotely resembling a compelling story. This is a great example of how not to make a superhero movie.

Affleck is a fine but brutal Batman, one who's so angry that he physically brands low-level bad guys by burning a Bat symbol into their skin after he interrogates them. He tells Alfred (an underutilized Jeremy Irons) that he's trying to prevent a dirty bomb from entering Gotham, but he's actually on the hunt for Kryptonite so he can stop Superman from causing more civilian casualties. We see that Bruce Wayne was in Metropolis on the day Superman fought Zod, and this movie rehashes Man of Steel's 9/11 imagery as Wayne races into the rubble to save lives while the Kryptonians zoom by overhead. I still think this entire subplot was reverse engineered by the writers as a way to retroactively justify the end of Man of Steel ("See? It was all on purpose so we could show you the fallout in the next movie!"), but it admittedly does serve as an effective way to put you inside Batman's head.

I thought Henry Cavill was solid in Man of Steel, but that's largely because I assumed that film was Superman's origin story and that he'd evolve as a character over time. Nope. Eighteen months after that film ends, Clark Kent is still struggling with the idea of whether or not he should even be a hero, and he seems totally clueless about how to take care of business without causing collateral damage. He rescues live-in girlfriend Lois Lane (Amy Adams) from an African terrorist cell she's investigating, and one of the movie's big sticking points is the amount of damage he causes and innocents he kills in the process of saving her...though, weirdly, we never see those consequences on screen. Cavill, meanwhile, plays his role with the same amount of charisma as a stack of phone books serving as a doorstop. The U.S. government holds Superman responsible for the loss of lives, and they haul him in to testify before a committee. Unsurprisingly, Batman isn't the only one who wants to take Superman down.

Jesse Eisenberg is truly awful as Lex Luthor, an inconsistent collection of tics and voice modulations that doesn't once feel like a real person. His zany performance feels like he sauntered in from a completely different movie, one not nearly as dour and self-serious as this. I guess I can give him a tiny bit of credit for trying something new with this iteration of the iconic villain, but Snyder should have realized that it simply does not fit with the rest of his movie. This Lex alternates between being spastically inept (for no apparent reason, he has a mental breakdown while giving a speech at a party at his house) and megalomaniacal, and many of his actions and motivations aren't satisfactorily explained. (There's an entire subplot about Lois tracking down LexCorp-manufactured bullets that seemingly goes nowhere.) He's been harvesting Kryptonite from the wreck of Man of Steel's world engine in the Indian Ocean, and schemes to pit Batman against Superman because...well, because he's the villain and this movie had to include the fight promised in its title.

The ultimate reason the two title heroes end up facing off against each other is stupid, but the reason they eventually stop fighting and team up is legendarily dumb. This entirely coincidental moment is played as a key turning point in the movie, and suddenly, after nearly killing each other just seconds before, Batman and Superman become friends. It's the most jarring shift in a film that's stuffed with them, and it's so egregious that I basically checked out for the whole rest of the movie.

There's been a lot of hype about Gal Gadot's Wonder Woman, and she does give the film a quick, much-needed breath of life when she shows up slinking around the Luthor estate at a party, but she's sidelined again until she arrives in full costume for the third act battle that's been shown in the trailers, when the Trinity takes on (the horribly designed) Doomsday. It's one of the few times there could have been a genuine "oh sh*t" moment in the movie, if it hadn't been spoiled in the trailers months ago. But really, even though she's technically in the film, there's no reason for her to be. The godawful script doesn't come close to even attempting to give her — or any other character, except maybe Batman — a reason for existing. Things happen in this movie, but everything feels hollow because none of these events are ever adequately tied to character.

And unfortunately, that final battle — which lasts around half an hour — is one of the most boring conflicts I've ever seen in a superhero movie. It's established early on that Doomsday, an "unkillable" abomination, only gets more powerful every time he's attacked, so naturally, our three heroes just swing away at him for twenty minutes before someone has the bright idea that it isn't working and they need another way to bring him down. All of this, by the way, results in massive destruction of Gotham and Metropolis (cities that are only a couple of miles away from each other in this film), but Snyder desperately tries to avoid a repeat of the fan reaction to the chaos at the end of Man of Steel by having characters explain how that portion of the city is mostly empty because people have already left work at that point in the day. It's just Snyder's cheap excuse to blow up as many buildings as he can, all in service of looking cool.

If I had to sum up this entire movie's biggest problem, that might be it — Snyder is far more interested in making things look cool than he is in building characters or telling a coherent story. It starts in the opening credits, when we see the deaths of Thomas and Martha Wayne — as decreed by law, apparently every Batman movie must show this scene  — and Snyder incorporates the iconic imagery of Martha Wayne's pearls scattering on the ground in slow motion. But he has to put a little Snyder twist on it: instead of the assailant yanking the necklace off of her, he puts his gun under her necklace — inches from her face — and pulls the trigger, and it's the recoil of the gun that breaks the necklace and sends the pearls showering into the street. The guy shoots Martha Wayne point-blank in the face. It's the most violent on-screen death the character has ever received, all because Snyder thought it looked cool.*

(*Edit: I just received an e-mail from a reader who pointed out that this scene is ripped from Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns. It's been years since I've read that and I forgot about that shot. My general point about Snyder valuing his movie looking cool above coherent storytelling or interesting character moments still stands, but thanks for that reminder.)

The iconic spinning shot in the first Avengers works because it's the culmination of multiple films and we actually care that these characters have finally united to face a common threat; Snyder's hero shot of the Trinity carries zero emotional weight — it just sort of looks cool. The same goes for the spoilery climactic event that happens at the end — we're clearly supposed to care about what's happening, but the film never gives us a reason to care other than "Hey, isn't this cool? It's Superman and Batman in the same movie!" Plus, the last fifteen minutes of the movie are supposed to explore the surface-level consequences of that action, but the film's final shot completely removes any doubt about what's going to happen next.

Excessive dream sequences and a metric ton of Justice League set-up make matters worse, and after seeing this movie, I don't want to know what happens next in this story. Suicide Squad seems like it might have potential, maybe Gadot can shine in solo mode in her Wonder Woman movie, and a solo Batman movie with Affleck might work, but Justice League and all of the other solo films this movie sets up? If they're anything like this, I'll pass. Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is a punishing experience that does exactly the opposite of what it's supposed to do, and sadly must be categorized as a complete and utter failure of a movie.

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