Perhaps we’ve been spoiled by the consistently solid Marvel movies and Christopher Nolan’s transcendent Batman trilogy but Zack Snyder’s Batman V Superman – the follow up to his 2013 Superman reboot Man of Steel – feels like the first superhero movie of this scale to be such a failure on so many levels. The film is so clumsily put together and the plot so nonsensical that it feels more like a kid trying to explain the half-remembered plot of a movie they saw earlier in the week than a screenplay pored over by numerous screenwriters, including the Oscar-winning Chris Terrio.
The first hour of the film is a collection of disparate scenes that bear very little connection to each other. It covers Batman’s origin – pearls and all – in a quick music-video style montage which, in fairness to Snyder, he excels at. Think the history lesson in Watchmen, the opening of Sucker Punch or almost all of 300. Then the film skips right forward to the city-levelling climactic battle of Man of Steel, repurposing the collateral damage as a purposeful plot point by planting an ageing Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) in the middle of Metropolis as one of his buildings is destroyed in Superman (Henry Cavill)’s smash ‘em up with General Zod (Michael Shannon).
The film takes the real life furore over Superman’s lack of respect for human death in Man of Steel and repackages it as a plot point as if they meant to all along. Certain sections of the public – including Bruce Wayne – are concerned that an alien being with unlimited powers might pose a threat to the safety of the planet. So too is Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg, beamed in from a different film), a bratty tech mogul who is cooking up multiple evil plots, the motivations and logic behind which are never clearly defined as such they make no sense at all.
But Luthor isn’t the only ill-defined character here. We get barely any insight into either of the film’s supposed heroes either. We know very little about Wayne other than that he’s upset at the destruction of his tower and is haunted by visions of a future where Superman has seemingly taken over the world. Visions, by the way, that mean precisely zero to anyone who doesn’t know the comic book lore yet take up a ton of screen time just to lay the groundwork for future films.
Superman, for his part, is having some kind of existential crisis because all he does is try to help yet everyone is out to get him. He also isn’t thrilled that Batman is going around Gotham City branding criminals with the Bat symbol which is apparently a death sentence once they make it to prison. Yes, this is a cruel and sadistic Batman; a Batman who is rarely seen without a gun of some sort and tortures the baddies, including a sleaze ball who runs a sex trafficking ring.
So the beacon of hope that is Superman is reduced to a mopey, insular outcast and Batman is a murderous, violent sociopath with a penchant for artillery. This is definitely not a film for kids, which may be hard to explain to any under 12s who assume a movie with Batman and Superman hitting each other might be appealing to them. The tone is dark and sombre, portentous and sullen. It’s clear this is the tone they’ve gone for but the reasoning behind it is mystifying. Regardless of how dark they got, Nolan’s Batflicks still had a breakneck pace and massive entertainment value but there’s none of that here. Not everything has to be as quip-heavy as Marvel’s oeuvre but jeez, could someone crack a joke here?
If only. This film is as self-serious and po-faced as its predecessor and for 151 mostly dull minutes, these characters solemnly discuss supposedly weighty themes that ultimately add up to nothing. There really is nothing going on here beyond hollow world building and inane set up to a fight that takes almost two hours to arrive, doesn’t make a whole lot of sense and reaches a rapid resolution thanks to a lame coincidence. If Batman and Superman’s motives for scrapping in the first place were pretty murky, their reasons for teaming up are implausible to the point of hilarity.
Leaps in logic are easier to swallow when a film is working, but since Batman v Superman hardly works on any level then the cavernous plot holes, muddled motivations and the poorly sketched characters are glaringly obvious. Thanks largely to the way they’re written, the characters here are unlikeable and not even remotely heroic. Cavill doesn’t have a great deal to do but doesn’t do much with it either, scowling and grimacing his way through the most joyless Superman performance imaginable. Ben Affleck proves possibly the film’s biggest asset, proving the haters wrong and delivering a muscular, world-weary Batman that, with a better script, could become the best big screen incarnation of the character.
The supporting cast is littered with talented actors with next to nothing to do. Amy Adams’ Lois Lane could’ve been cut from the completely and it would have made no difference whatsoever. So too could Holly Hunter and Scoot McNairy who are involved in an ultimately pointless subplot. Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman is shoe-horned into the film in ways that again don’t make much sense plot wise and smack of the rush to build a wider universe.
It’s almost astonishing that a film as massive as this one – one of the most expensive in Hollywood history – could be such an uneven, poorly conceived disaster. It doesn’t bode well for DC and Warner Bros. blossoming expanded universe that the film setting the tone for the whole endeavour is thematically and aesthetically unpleasant, showing a complete misunderstanding for the characters that borders on disdain. At this rate, Marvel can rest easy.