Everyone will like exactly half of Superman v. Batman: Dawn of Justice. Which half you like, and whether that justifies the price of admission, is based solely upon your personal preferences for a superhero movie. If you like meatier conflicts involving powerful superheroes protecting the powerless, director Zack Snyder has an existential examination of Superman for you. Those who enjoy explosions and violence can revel in the film’s gluttonous second half. Mashed together, however, these competing personalities make Batman v Superman feel incomplete, confused, and unsatisfying.
Eighteen months ago, Superman (Henry Cavill) nearly destroyed Metropolis as he battled the evil Kryptonian, General Zod (Michael Shannon). Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) experienced the carnage firsthand. Wayne races through streets, narrowly avoiding debris as it rains from the sky in one of the film’s strongest scenes. Now, the world is different. There is a god walking among us; a god we know nothing about nor can defend ourselves against.
It’s the perfect time for a psychotic opportunist like Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg) to strike. Luthor mobilizes his considerable economic forces against Superman so that, “We don’t have to depend upon the kindnesses of monsters.” Meanwhile, the Batman of Gotham watches with his own suspicions and ambitions. To take down Superman would secure his legacy as a protector, not just the enemy of two-bit criminals. Luthor and Batman race to recover the one substance that can defeat Superman, while the rest of the world tries to decide which side it’s on.
Those worried about Ben Affleck as Batman can breathe a sigh of relief. Affleck is fine as the battle-tested superhero, having been in the crime fighting game for over 20 years when Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (BvS) begins. “The Bat,” as even Bruce Wayne refers to him now, is grizzled and cynical. This harder edge is not only a welcome addition, but a necessary one, as well. We’re asked to believe that Batman is willing to murder Superman, after all. It’s hard to imagine Christopher Nolan’s Batman being so morally reckless, but Affleck provides the darkness that makes this unlikelihood seem possible.
Unfortunately, there’s just no escaping how painfully dull Superman is. Aside from some unconvincing relationship drama with Lois Lane (Amy Adams), we never see him grapple with the burden of deciding who will live and who will perish. Snyder and his screenwriters sidestep this lack of self-reflection by having the world debate Superman’s intentions, instead. A litany of talking heads, from Anderson Cooper to the ubiquitous Neil deGrasse Tyson, debate what we should do in the event of another Superman meltdown. Congress even gets into the act, with a no-nonsense Senator Finch (Holly Hunter) demanding that the Man of Steel drag his pajama-wearing butt into the Senate chamber. All of these developments highlight a first half that tries (and succeeds) to root this ridiculous premise in some type of relatable reality. It’s grim, heady stuff that makes you wonder if humanity could co-exist with an all-powerful benefactor.
Doomsday, the mutant monster creation of Luthor, makes a convenient punching bag for Superman and Batman. Doomsday’s creation is so baffling that it’s highly unlikely anyone unfamiliar with DC Comics canon will understand where the hell he came from. It’s one of many things in BvS that makes no sense. For instance, what purpose does Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) serve in this story, beyond introducing the inevitability of a Justice League sequel? Why does Batman hate Superman so much? What is Lex Luthor’s major malfunction? And… Aquaman?!? Despite an epic 151 minute running time, it feels like key scenes have been deleted from the final product; scenes that explain what’s happening and why it matters.
Visually, Snyder dips everything in grime. It works well for the grittier story elements, but looks at odds with the crisp CGI-fest that wraps up BvS. The action scenes are pretty typical videogame fare, with the titular battle between Batman and Superman becoming unintentionally hilarious on several occasions. Hans Zimmer’s score is deafening (as usual), the editing is disorienting, and there are enough goofy superhero tropes to choke a Bat-mobile. After two hours, when you finally lose sensation in your lower extremities, it’s impossible not to ask, “Why is any of this happening?”
What keeps you going are the strong performances from Affleck and the supporting cast. Eisenberg is shockingly effective as this hyperactive incarnation of Luthor; think of the Joker with an extreme case of nerd rage. Alfred, Batman’s long-suffering butler, is always a highlight, with Jeremy Irons injecting some welcome humor into the drabness. Perry White (Laurence Fishburne) serves a similar purpose as the Daily Planet’s gruff editor-in-chief. One wishes we could follow around Alfred and White as they try to remain sane in this insane comic book world.
It’s mystifying that Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice still fails despite all of its virtues. Perhaps its soul was lost in the editing bay or the script wandered into the weeds of its own ambitions. Whatever the reasons, Zack Snyder’s creation has a split-personality that will polarize audiences. Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice will probably give you what you expect, but not what you’re looking for.