Review: “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice”

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Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice director Zack Snyder and Jesse Eisenberg’s Lex Luthor are one and the same: they’re both obsessed with their big, brainy ideas, but can only manage to convey them through incoherent motivations and exceedingly dumb-sounding lines of dialogue. When they aren’t caught up in their own long-winded, self-serious pretenses, their occasional attempts at humor are stilted at best, cringe-inducting at worst. Most importantly, both Luthor and Snyder seem hell-bent on completely dismantling the entire DC cinematic universe before it can get off the ground.

Critics can’t seem to run out of bad things to say about this fumble of a film, but in its defense, there are elements that at least make it tolerable to sit through. This is already more than can be said for Snyder’s previous entry Man of Steel, a conclusively inferior experience in almost every way and one of the most abominable superhero spectaculars of the decade. That movie had very little going for it, and somehow managed to take the few promising elements it did have (Michael Shannon, Amy Adams) and completely squander them. In comparison, Snyder at least allows the few good things in Batman v Superman to actually remain good throughout.

First and foremost, Ben Affleck is a better on-screen Dark Knight than Christian Bale, expressing palpable exhaustion tinged with pent-up rage that sells the idea that this version of Bruce Wayne has already seen a lot of messed-up shit. It’s a good counterpoint to Hollywood’s impulsive need to reboot each superhero with yet another repetitive origin story. We do get brief backstory in the opening credit montage, but it works under the rightful assumption that most moviegoers already know the Batman basics. Thus, Affleck is left to simply embody the character rather than carry the burden of having to re-introduce him. His first big scene, taking place during the climactic headache that was Man of Steel’s finale, is legitimately harrowing and for the most part effectively sells the anti-Superman stance that his storyline hinges on.

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The supporting cast, specifically Jeremy Irons, Laurence Fishburne, Amy Adams, Holly Hunter and Gal Gadot, put in commendable work considering the limited material they’re working with. Only Scoot McNairy is unable to overcome his character’s position as a terrible, manipulative expositional device that embodies the worst of Snyder’s mopey directorial instincts. Meanwhile, the musical collaboration between Hans Zimmer and Junkie XL provides a decent enough twist on the usual superhero score, with a Wonder Woman theme that is especially memorable. Larry Fong’s cinematography is consistently fantastic and continues to highlight Snyder’s knack for creating memorable stand-alone images, be it a pearl necklace snapped apart by the force of a gunshot, or Superman slowly walking down the center of a crowded Washington courtroom.

What I’ve highlighted so far, though, are merely superficial areas, and that is where the positives largely end. Batman v Superman is flawed to the core, from every conceivable angle, both as a standalone movie and a starting point for an extended universe of films. It’s hard to know where to start, or who to blame for the general incompetence demonstrated in areas as basic as plot and editing. Surely, Snyder is responsible for the oppressive, almost antagonistically brooding tone, as well as the trademark over-reliance on flashy style over anything of actual value. Apparently taking in very little of the criticism leveled at him after Man of Steel, this is another joyless, dour affair that makes the legendary on screen match-up between two of pop cultures most beloved, heroic characters into nothing more than another angsty, weightless team Jacob versus team Edward showdown.

Snyder’s rendition of Superman, again portrayed by Henry Cavill, is just as mopey and vengeful as Affleck’s Batman, a long shot from the hero’s place as enduring icon of hope in our cultural lexicon (let alone truth, justice and the American way). The fact that both main characters are as equally brooding and fatigued completely blocks any insightful juxtaposition that could have been mined from them. While Batfleck has screen presence, there is nothing interesting, aspirational or entertaining about either character. They are two downers with capes, plain and simple. Look, nobody says a superhero movie has to be all fun and games (The Dark Knight proves this singlehandedly), but when the alternative is the depressing lethargy that bleeds through every single scene, you have to wonder what it’s all for.

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For Snyder, it seems only another failed attempt at remaining relevant and edgy, neither of which are adjectives that can be fairly applied to the final product, though not for lack of trying. The movie reeks of the filmmakers badly wanting to be seen as ‘revisionist’ or ‘post-9/11’, or any other phrase that could somehow validate yet another banal trip down the oversaturated superhero rabbit hole. But when your way of being post-9/11 is to blatantly invoke 9/11 imagery within the first ten minutes of the movie, it just feels tacky and a little arrogant. Not long after this, we’re given one of the movie’s worst scenes, which seems to exist only as an obvious Benghazi invocation and to fit in the requisite drone warfare reference. We get it, this is 2016’s Superman and Batman, and they’re darker and more murderous than previous versions. Maybe those are the heroes we deserve right now.

Beyond Snyder and his alter ego Lex Luthor, the real villain of these movies continues to be screenwriter David S. Goyer. If man won’t kill God, then Goyer will do it, and not even a collaboration with Argo writer Chris Terrio can stop him. Goyer’s ham-fisted approach to these characters and to the general concept of cause-and-effect turns the entire plot into a disjointed, at times incomprehensible slog. It’s true that the ideas he and Terrio bring to the table are admirable, exploring the moral and spiritual implications of Gods living among men. Had they been in any way articulate with these themes, or maybe even stuck with them past the movie’s halfway point, the story may have earned the right to be called ‘ambitious’.

Instead, these ideas are imparted either in extremely on-the-nose fashion by disposable characters like Holly Hunter’s Senator Finch, or through whichever indecipherable, faux-deep pseudo-sentence comes out of Lex Luthor’s mouth. If I have to hear about the oldest lie in America one more time…  Even more egregiously, after spending more than an hour setting these jumbled ideas down on the table like an array of so many jigsaw puzzle pieces, Goyer and Terrio seem to get bored or stumped (or both) and decide to flip the table upside down. Underneath that table? Loud noise and bright lights. And half-assed trailers for five more movies.

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When Snyder and the writers work together at peak nonsense-mode, the result is Eisenberg’s Lex Luthor, performed like an unholy amalgamation of Heath Ledger’s Joker mixed and coke-addled Michael Cera. Maybe in one of Tim Burton’s or Joel Schumacher’s Batman movies this kind of performance would have had a place, but his goofy antics are so at odds with the tone of the rest of the film that it might as well have been Pee Wee Herman (and it basically is). The only consistent thing about Luthor is that, like almost every character in this film, his motivations and behaviors are always ludicrous to the point of being completely unintelligible.

But hey, it’s just a superhero movie, right? That’s true. And I’m more forgiving towards those kinds of films anyway (I’m a defender of reviled movies like Iron Man 2 and The Amazing Spider-Man 2). The thing is, Marvel movies can get away with having twice as much implausible, ridiculous nonsense going on, because the goal is fun and everyone involved knows it. Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies, meanwhile, can be twice as slow and cerebral and get away with it, because those themes were well thought out and well-articulated.

This movie tries to have it both ways – courtroom musings on the moral implications of Gods among men and laser beam-shooting demon monsters, but Snyder only uses one very specific, very straight faced and bafflingly unsubtle approach to everything. At times it really seems as though he does not want audiences to enjoy his movies, and maybe it was my reflexive refusal to give in to his demands that I found myself occasionally entertained anyway, albeit more by the unintentional comedy that comes from such a bloated, labyrinthine mess.

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Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is not the worst superhero blockbuster I’ve ever seen (give it up for Fantastic Four, ladies and gentlemen). It’s not even necessarily a bad movie. But it is a boring and dumb one, and a very shaky foundation to build an entire cinematic universe upon. It looks and feels exactly like what it is: a crazed, rushed attempt by Warner Bros to play quick catch-up to Disney’s Marvel movies before the superhero craze goes the way of the Western. Ironically, with movies like this, Snyder’s films may inadvertently be helping that doomsday come to pass sooner rather than later.

Score: 2.5 out of 5

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