With Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, the movie division of DC Entertainment and the parent studio, Warner Bros., have given the fanboys and the Nolanoids what they crave — and lo, it is impressive and, lo, it is godawful.*
Those aren’t mutually exclusive. The imagery is mythic, otherworldly, a further step away from the color-popping panels of illustrator Brian Bolland (The Killing Joke) and toward the dense doominess of Frank Miller, the man-machine sci-fi fusions of H.R. Giger, and the Biblical hell of William Blake. The movie is no slouch in the content department, either. Director Zack Snyder (working from a screenplay by Chris Terrio and David S. Goyer) has set out to deliver a tortured disquisition on society’s various (imperfect) choices for keeping us safe in the wake of 9/11, here represented as the invasion of “Kryptonians” that killed thousands of Metropolis citizens at the close of Snyder’s Man of Steel (2013). Batman/Bruce Wayne has — like so many previously sane individuals following 9/11 — gone over to the Dick Cheney-esque “dark side,” while Superman/Clark Kent — an anguished alien with Christ-like underpinnings — wrestles with how and when to intervene in mankind’s crises, constantly undermined by a Congress questioning his “unilateral” powers. Wealthy Lex Luthor is the catalyst for catastrophe. So Bats and Supey fight and stuff blows up real good.
It’s a shame that Batman v Superman is also a storytelling disgrace. It has maybe six opening scenes and jumps so incessantly from subplot to subplot that a script doctor would diagnose a peculiarly modern infection: “disjunctivitis.” Said infection is the upshot of a sort of gene-splicing. For a studio to move beyond the “franchise” and “tentpole” stages to the vastly lucrative “universe,” a comic-book movie must at every turn gesture towards sequels and spinoffs, teasing out loose ends, cultivating irresolution. The movie wanders into so many irrelevant byways that it comes to seem abstract. There’s enough going on to keep you watching — and, as I said, to keep fanboys wowed by the scale of the production and pretension. But most people will leave feeling drained and depressed, wondering how a studio can get away with withholding so much.
How is Ben Affleck? Weighty. He’s not your father’s Batman — even the mask now resembles the face of an especially sour gargoyle, and instead of dropping his voice an octave like Christian Bale, he has a mechanism for altering it. If that’s to hide his identity, it seems pointless: The bat-mask covers neither the mole on Affleck’s right cheek nor his distinctive, dimpled chin, so it’s even more beyond belief that the mayor, police chief, and rest of Gotham City wouldn’t know that Bruce Wayne is Batman. But we’re past all that Adam West juvenilia. Everyone seems to take for granted that Batman is Bruce Wayne (and, for that matter, that Clark — with Henry Cavill’s even cleftier chin — is Superman). We’re in the realm of ideas, people — and, near as I can tell, ones somewhat similar to the upcoming Captain America picture, Civil War, which is evidently a battle royale over civil liberties with Captain America as Superman and Iron Man as Batman.
The idea here is that Bruce Wayne witnesses firsthand (in a prologue) the partial destruction of Metropolis and the death of loved ones and blames not General Zod but “that sonovabitch” Superman who “brought the war to us.” A sign in front of Congress calling Superman an “illegal alien” gibes pretty well with Batso’s view. He tells Alfred (Jeremy Irons) that even a one percent chance of another major attack justifies extra-legal tactics — a naked restatement of Cheney and the neocons’ famous “one percent doctrine.” Alfred, by the way, is now the Chloe to Batso’s Jack Bauer, manning the monitors in the Batcave while making withering cracks about Bruce’s drift to the far right. We’re a long way from when the butler actually buttled.
Cavill’s Supey is hardly a bright counterpoint, being the guiltiest savior imaginable: Every saintly tableau in which he rescues innocents is offset by a Southern senator (Holly Hunter) calling for hearings to put some checks and balances on the alien’s power. (Most of Metropolis’s sheeple seem to like Superman, though one woman complains that “he answers to no one, not even to God.”) The parents are no help: Clark’s mom (Diane Lane) tells her suffering son that he has no obligation to the world while the ghost of his dad (Kevin Costner) shows up in a vision to imply that Clark has a duty to fight for those who suffer. Lois Lane (Amy Adams) insists that the Man of Steel “gives people hope,” but wonders whether her sexual relationship with him is a distraction: Must he give up love? There are also cameos by the likes of Charlie Rose, Anderson Cooper, Soledad O’Brien, Nancy Grace, and Neil deGrasse Tyson, who play themselves interviewing fictional characters and/or holding forth on the meaning of superheroes. You can’t accuse Batman v Superman of lacking multiple points of view.
The most bizarre perspective comes from Jesse Eisenberg’s Lex Luthor, who waves his arms and — in manic, Aspergian fashion — can’t seem to meet anyone’s eyes. Eisenberg is ham with a side of ham, a blend of the Joker and his Mark Zuckerberg, but I liked his energy. He makes a choice and goes with it, at one point letting loose with a patented supervillain falsetto giggle. Amassing kryptonite to be used against the Man of Steel, Luthor goads the surprisingly dim Batso into taking on Superman, and then announces the fight like a demented ring announcer — “God versus man … son of Krypton versus bat of Gotham,” etc.
You would think that Superman should be able to take care of Batman with one mighty punch, but this paramilitary Armored Crusader is so souped-up that he can take being hurled through walls with no apparent ill effects. Then again, bodies in these superhero movies seem to be infinitely regenerative, which means a lot of deafening crashes to no particular end. When a near-indestructible Kryptonian super-ogre arrives, the fighting is even more intense and more inconsequential — apart from the impact on poor Gotham City, which gets its own 9/11. It’s a howler when mother-love factors into the resolution, but hey, that love is the greatest superpower of all, am I right?
Lust is the second greatest. You know from the trailers that Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) shows up, having previously loitered in the margins of the movie. The good advance word on Gadot has centered on her wowza appearance, but she preens more than acts. Her best moments come when she laughs out loud in the middle of fighting. This dour, bombastic movie needed an infusion of joy.
Many scenes in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice work on their own terms, and Snyder has a gift for visual poetry. But he never gets to the heart of that all-important civil liberties question, not because the question is unresolvable but because there can be no true endings in this superhero universe. The problem is that you can’t build a coherent myth out of fragments. You can only hope that the audience will be too jolted — and too turned on by the prospect of more jolts — to care.