“Wouldn’t it be cool if..?” should be Zack Snyder’s motto. He should print it on a t-shirt and wear it 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. His entire career is based on capturing images and moments, completely divorced from character motivation primarily because it would look cool, and this is the cause of the myriad problems that plague Warner Brothers/DC’s attempt at jump-starting their own cinematic universe to compete with Marvel Studios. Snyder, in collaboration with writers Chris Terrio and David S. Goyer, begs, borrows and steals from decades of DC storylines to create a long, messy, and on the whole quite boring film with glimmers of brilliance that all but straight up ignores some of the primary elements of its two main characters just because they think it would be cool if they fought one another (spoiler alert: it’s not).
Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice takes place 18 months after the events of Man of Steel, which are revisited from the perspective of Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck), who witnesses one of his office buildings destroyed in the climactic battle between Superman (Henry Cavill) and General Zod (Michael Shannon), killing hundreds of people. Wayne is incensed at the carnage on display, and in conversations with his butler, Alfred (Jeremy Irons), is determined, as Batman, to take down this dangerous alien before he has the chance to destroy the world. Meanwhile, Superman is being brought up on charges by Senator Finch (Holly Hunter), who believes a being with such power should be kept in check, but she has a mysterious connection to multi-billionaire genius Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg), who has plans of his own to take down the Last Son of Krypton. Throw into the mix the appearance of a beautiful Amazonian stranger (Gal Gadot), and all involved are headed toward a superhero smack down of epic proportions…sort of.
For a film so jam-packed with characters and plot lines, very little actually happens of much consequence for a good chunk of its two and a half hour running time, and responsibility for this lies squarely at the feet of Superman, or more accurately the filmmakers’ inability to decide on what they want to achieve with Superman. It appears they have taken the fan backlash against the destruction in the climax of Man of Steel to heart, as Superman’s role in this film is to be questioned incessantly on his actions and his responsibility as a super-powered being. Should he be allowed to do what he likes? Is he really a force for good when his actions leave behind so much collateral damage? The moral arguments go on and on, either in Washington DC or in the Bat-Cave, but no resolution or satisfying answer is reached. This is where some fundamental aspects of the Superman character are completely ignored in order to forward the plot.
Traditionally, Superman is such a force for good that he goes out of his way to protect the innocent at all costs. In this film, even though he’s been Superman for two years by this point, Kal-El still seems to be trying to figure this out. This makes him appear laughably naïve, as he can’t seem to understand why people hate him when he flies in to save Lois but fails to save a whole swathe of strangers who lose their lives as an indirect result of his actions. The Superman we know and love from the comics would never do this. Of course he can’t be in two places at once, but he should be far more aware of the ramifications of his actions and have some forethought before he decides to punch a regular human through a brick wall. Did his involvement in the destruction of Metropolis teach him nothing? He makes all these mistakes merely because the plot needs him to.
Meanwhile, in Gotham City the film comes alive whenever Batman and Alfred are on screen. Affleck and Irons are terrific, and this iteration of these characters is far more successful in its execution. Here is a Batman who has been operating for 20 years and is hardened and bitter at the trials and sacrifices he has made to bring justice to Gotham. There is a sense that his anger at Superman stems a little from this bitterness, that all his work could be for nothing if he can’t protect his city from this otherworldly threat. Yet there are still some aspects of his character that one would think immutable which the film ignores in order to position Batman as Superman’s initial antagonist. The Batman of this film is responsible for quite a few deaths himself and is willing to straight-up murder Superman in order to protect the world. Again, these actions and motivations feel anathema to the character from the comics. Despite these misgivings, his scenes are still the strongest the film has to offer. Without the plot having to jump through many Superman-sized hoops, the audience gets a glimpse of the potential of the DC cinematic universe. At times it feels like a solo Batman film where he and Wonder Woman team up to take down Lex Luthor, but unfortunately this is not that film.
Now to discuss the elephant in the room: the fight between Superman and Batman. The filmmakers work really hard pushing their characters around on the board to get these two superhero titans to trade fisticuffs, but the momentum of the film up to that point is so slow as to make the confrontation feel substantially less than epic. It’s what happens after their fight, when they inevitably team up against a bigger threat, that the film finally stops being Serious with a capital “S” and actually starts being fun. When Wonder Woman appears in full costume ready to do battle the film even gets exciting. Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman standing in a line ready to defend humanity is an electrifying image, and Snyder’s obsession with being “cool” pays off with some bombastic set pieces. The filmmakers only need to embrace the more gonzo elements of this film with the forthcoming Justice League (and forego the more sombre concerns) to really let this franchise shine.
There is a lot to unpack here, but suffice to say as an experience, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is a misfire. With its languid pace, lack of clear character motivation, and its insistence to shoehorn in as many characters and table-setting sub-plots as humanly possible, the film almost grinds to halt underneath the weight. Good performances from Affleck, Irons and Gadot (who pretty much nails Wonder Woman in what is essentially an extended cameo) can’t overcome the inherent problems however, and while there are moments of excitement they are few and far between. With the many minds at DC and Warner Brothers who worked on this film, it is surprising that so much of it is so misguided. Whereas Marvel Studios have a clear vision, the DC camp appears to be floundering while playing catch up, and this film is evidence that they have a long way to go to even seriously consider reaching parity with the House of Ideas. It actually calls to mind another film that was responsible with setting the scene for a new iteration of a franchise: Star Wars: The Force Awakens. That film was a hot mess, but it made up for it with a lightning pace packed with exciting incident. This film, however, can’t even muster enough energy to make a fight between Superman and Batman do anything more than just take up screen time. Sorry Mr Snyder, but that’s not very cool.