There are a lot of things I’ve come to expect from Batman V Superman over the course of the three years it has taken to arrive, but something I never counted on was it keeping me up at night. Describing exactly what Zack Snyder and company have created here has proved elusive since I left the theater. I’m positive that it isn’t the horn blaring, ass kicking redemption film needed after the painfully dry Man of Steel started the DC Universe off with a whimper, but it’s not exactly a failure either. In fact, through sheer crazed ambition that would make Lex Luthor blush, what we have here is actually something of a disturbing art installation that just so happens to have DC characters in it. It’s the Twin Peaks of the superhero genre, and while that turns out to be just as much of a cataclysmic mess as it sounds, there’s a lot of fascination to be found here.
The story finds Bruce Wayne/Batman (Ben Affleck) devastated by the destruction caused by the battle between Clark Kent/Superman (Henry Cavill) and General Zod (Michael Shannon) in Metropolis. Ever since, Batman has been hunting for a way to combat what he sees as an immanent threat, while the human race struggles to decide if they want to accept this alien warrior into their society. Meanwhile, the devious Lex Luthor Jr. (Jesse Eisenberg) is not only also hell bent on overthrowing this Godlike figure by pitting our two heroes against each other, but is looking for a way to weaponize Kryptonian technology for his own gain.
Even in it’s worst moments, Dawn of Justice really is unlike any superhero movie we’ve seen before. Sure, there are some fairly typical tropes in the plot itself, but the way that Zack Snyder has chosen to execute them ranges from brilliant, to baffling on a moment by moment basis. At it’s best, the film does a fantastic job of examining the psychology of it’s characters and world. There’s a challenging morality play running through this story, as all of the characters cope in different ways with the notion of having a god among them. Some are in awe, some are scared, and some are violent, and we see every single shade. In fact, the film often takes such a grounded and somber tone that some of the violence is genuinely devastating, with hellish imagery that is beautifully captured by Snyder. However, on a dime, things will get really melodramatic and silly, especially in the third act which forgoes all of the interesting content the story has in favor of essentially turning into a trailer for Justice League. These tonal shifts will often occur as quickly as every other scene, with choppy editing sometimes making it feel like a bunch of fan films strung together into a big mess.
This is some dense material, but most of the cast proves to be up for the challenge, even if most of the characters come off fairly uneasy. Ben Affleck finds himself with a great deal of heavy lifting to do here, needing to make us both emphasize with, and fear his world weary, short tempered Bruce Wayne. He pulls it off in spades, giving us both the scariest Batman and smoothest Wayne we’ve seen on screen so far. However, he does this perhaps a little too well. As the film starts to delve into deeper reaches of his tortured mind, we start to see that this is a man who slipped into the void long before the movie started. Since we’re denied both the journey and really any explanation as to what happened to make him this way, he comes off a bit cold and alienating. Superman isn’t really much to root for either. Henry Cavill is still having a hard time bringing us into the soul of Clark Kent, and although all the characters seem to have an emotional connection to Superman, there has yet to be a compelling reason for us to do the same.
However, the piece that keeps every arc moving is Eisenberg’s wickedly gonzo take on Lex Luthor. While it’s easy to see this performance as a bit over the top, what the Social Network star has actually done is create a character that is both a tribute to, and reinvention of the classic villain. Since replacing Lex Luthor is such an impossible task, the film brings us a scared kid who is also desperately trying to live up to that very image (that of his father). While he possesses the cunning intelligence of that man, there is something off kilter about him, and Eisenberg goes all in on giving this strange, confused young man the social ticks and awkwardness that would come with this position. He’s not a villian just yet, he’s an insane child with a lot of money desperately trying to be a villain. Meanwhile, Jeremy Irons shines as a much more sardonic Alfred than we’ve become accustomed to, and Gal Gadot’s brief stint as Wonder Woman exudes pure presence, boding well for her solo act.
While Snyder excels at creating a moody, uncomfortable atmosphere, he falls a bit short in the action department. Sure, there are a couple fun sequences with Batfleck doing his thing, but when it comes time for our main heroes to throw down the ensuing fight is deeply anticlimactic. There’s no sense of weight, or choreography to it. It’s just a slow, short, brawl between two CGI men, that leads to an even bigger mess afterwards. Much has been made of Snyder’s decision to shove Doomsday into this film, and boy howdy, does his appearance lead to one of the most boring and wasteful action sequences in quite some time. At this point, any intrigue built up in the opening acts is over, and it’s time to play with action figures.
Batman V Superman is a film determined to convince you that two of the world’s most popular superheroes are in fact not heroes at all. In attempting that strange mission, it tries to juggle about six movies in one, and only about three of them work. While Snyder and company have absolutely improved on Man of Steel here, they’ve made quite a mess in doing so. At one moment haunting and thought provoking, and the next trite and bombastic, the film is a franchise launcher shows you such great potential before spraying sour juice in your mouth. There are certain decisions made here that are downright narratively wasteful, but if Suicide Squad and Wonder Woman both end up working, and the returning creative team takes a more confident approach next time, perhaps Justice can still dawn after all.