Having seen 2013’s Man of Steel, Zack Snyder’s Superman reboot which was a serviceable origin story retelling until it exploded in monotonous tone-deaf city-smashing, it shouldn’t be too surprising to find the sequel, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, as punishing as its title is unwieldy. It’s another of Snyder’s dunderheaded epics of missing the point, a gleaming picture of dour comic book tableaus pre-digested with little regard for meaning, stripped of whatever power they once had, and weighed down by the burden of a visually overdetermined and thematically indigestible form. Overstuffed with empty calories, every so often the lumpy mass chokes up ideas so thoughtless and virulently stupid I couldn’t help but wonder if it was subliminally disgorged from the ugliest corners of our national id. After all, this is a movie about a noble extraterrestrial savior and a tortured crimefighter and the best it can think to do is contrive reasons for them to scowl as they go about representing the mindset of anyone whose first response to reasonable disagreement is to punch it in the face.
The story finds Superman (Henry Cavill) a divisive figure. He smashed up Metropolis pretty good in the last movie, ostensibly in the process of saving it, but with the unintended consequence of inflicting a 9/11-scale disaster on every other block. That understandably made a few people mad. Some, like a Senator (Holly Hunter, underutilized) whose logical concern is treated as mildly treacherous, want to constrain his power. Others, like Batman (Ben Affleck, growling with brooding trauma), whose alter-ego’s Wayne Enterprises had a skyscraper caught in the fracas, plot to bring him punishment for his otherworldly strength and its potential bad consequences. Still others, like villain Lex Luthor (played as a squirrely sociopathic tech bro by Jesse Eisenberg), want to contrive a reason to something something Kryptonite. It’s all of a piece with an intent to image a worst-case scenario superhero world, in which they’re lawless self-righteous power-mad vigilantes viewed with suspicion, fear, and worship, and who nonetheless must muster the energy to save the planet.
That’s not necessarily a bad idea. A real Superman would indeed be a scary thing, a man who could not be controlled by any earthly authority if he so chose. We’re lucky he mostly wants to do the right thing. But in Snyder’s vision, this becomes a troublingly muddled mess. It presents a Superman weirdly uncharacterized, and mostly motivated by his desire to save his mother, Ma Kent (Diane Lane), and his girlfriend, Lois Lane (Amy Adams). He’s not much of an altruist, aside from a few token saves, and certainly lives up to the suspicion he’s under. He acts with impunity, and on a whim. As for Batman, here he’s a violent bruiser, killing waves of faceless criminals by gun, by car, by plane, and by hand in bone-crunching rounds of savagery, then branding his logo onto the survivors. Ouch. This is bleak, grim nihilism, a film in which superpowers are real, but the idea of heroes is foreign. At one point Daily Planet editor Perry White (Laurence Fishburne) snaps: “The American conscience died...”
Snyder, with a script by Chris Terrio (Argo) and David S. Goyer (Blade Trinity), is channeling the trend begun in 80’s and 90’s comics that mistook a dim, darkly lit, and violent vision for an interesting, realistic, and meaningful one. Here’s a movie convinced its unremitting cruelty and cheap cynicism adds up to ideas of any import. It’s just deadening and uncomfortable, with pessimism and nastiness so garbled it comes out sounding downright fascist. It makes its heroes monsters to be feared, and then forces us to look up to them anyway. Its world is better off without them – every outlandish conflict is a direct result of their actions – but we’re to root for their demagogic unilateralism, to let them run rampant because only they have the super-strength to strong-arm their way to a victory. And if a certain number of mere mortals have to be obliterated in the name of their idea of justice, so be it.
The film traffics in images of terror. One scene finds a suicide bomber detonating in slow motion, the flames billowing out. The movie is bookended by buildings collapsing and filling the streets of a major east coast city with smoke and debris while citizens flee. An early inciting incident is a chaotic ambush in an African outpost used for political power plays in Congress. Snyder injects these unmistakable real-world associations into the film to goose its power, and to lend borrowed gravity to the story of two superheroes deciding to fight each other to prove…something. It’s borderline irresponsible, especially as he uses these spectacles of terror to excuse their actions, to argue for the justification of these men serving as their own judges, juries, and executioners. And every character who expresses reasonable objections is met with death, usually at the hands of this threat, as if to say they got what was coming to them for daring to want limits on these God-like super-people.
So it’s not much fun for most of the 151-minute runtime. It’s a slog, not just for its heavy (and heavy-handed) mood, but also for its straining and monotonous graveness. It grinds good performers under its demands, sapping Cavill and Affleck of charisma, turning Adams and Lane into damsels in distress, and leaving everyone else, including Jeremy Irons as faithful butler Alfred, trying to coax life into turgid exposition. When not going through its over-extended plodding plot, it’s mostly a cavalcade of seeds for future sequels and spin-offs, bringing in Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) for a mostly blank glorified cameo, the worst of which finds her in front of a computer essentially watching three teasers for upcoming projects. Or maybe it’s the upskirt flash that’s the nadir of the movie’s insistence on turning every woman into a pawn to be trapped – one maternal figure is gagged and bound in sadistic Polaroid’s – or, failing that, sexualized. It’s dismaying, just another reason I found the whole desensitized thing exhausting and tiresome, from its opening repeat of the Wayne deaths to an ersatz King Kong restaging followed by a hero getting nuked in the face.
This is a technically proficient blockbuster insisting on loudly thundering down the wrong road at every turn, ponderously bringing flights of fancy to overblown heights and down to reductive muck. With the whole history of these iconic larger-than-life characters to play with, there’s nothing more imaginative here than having one of them trying to hit the other over the head with, say, a porcelain sink. Still, it’s best when mind-numbing, in long sequences of concussive fantasy fight night or bonkers nightmare sequences, for at least that’s a break from its maddening point of view. Built from mythic and resonant components made curdled and rotten, its characters are meant to save us, but are indifferent to the suffering in their wake. Neither red-blooded adventure nor sharp auto-critique, it’s content to be ugly and cacophonous, the sights and sounds of this approach to the genre wrung-out and dying before our eyes.