Sometimes it’s best to go with your gut. Having found Zack Snyder’s 2013 intro to the DC Comics cinematic universe, Man of Steel, quite disappointing, I wasn’t planning to take in any sequels. But this year I got hooked into Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice via the news that it would unveil Israeli actress Gal Gadot’s casting in a role that I have long wished to see manifested on the big screen: my childhood feminist role model, Wonder Woman. The Superman sequel was also hyped as providing an origin story for the Justice League of America, DC’s collective superhero cognate to Marvel’s Avengers and X-Men.
Would that I had listened to my own best instincts. Though I enjoy parting ways with the opinions of the majority of critics on some movies, in the case of Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, the mostly negative early reviews were mostly right. It’s a hot mess: grim, humorless, clunkily written, incoherently unspooled and about an hour too long.
The starting premise was not unpromising. Given the advanced capabilities of CGI technology these days, action movies have evolved (or devolved) into extravaganzas of urban destruction that make 1950s Japanese kaiju flicks seem as mild as the collapse of a house of cards by comparison. The last reel of most contemporary superhero movies typically consists of large flying, falling and/or exploding objects slicing through skyscrapers and burying thousands of antlike scurrying humans beneath their rubble.
These scenes are deliberate callbacks, I suppose, to the nightmare scenario that kicked off our current century at the World Trade Center. But by the time you’ve seen a dozen or so of them, the fear factor starts to wear off, and one finds oneself idly wondering how all these destroyed cities get rebuilt so neatly in time for the next sequel. That mystery provides the spark for the big tiff between DC’s two marquee-topping men in tights, Superman (Henry Cavill) and Batman (Ben Affleck).
Dawn of Justice starts us off reexperiencing the wreck of Metropolis by the forces of General Zod at the end of Man of Steel – the event that, in Snyder’s version of the story, forced Superman to blow his cover. But this time we see it all from the point of view of Bruce Wayne, who blames the catastrophe on the good-guy alien from Krypton rather than his malevolent nemesis. Clark Kent, for his part, disapproves of Batman’s vigilantism – with some reason, since the Dark Knight is here depicted even more darkly than usual, with a nasty penchant for branding his victims with bat-symbols.
Our story then jumps a year-and-a-half forward, with the city magically spruced up but plenty of resentment still simmering. To many, Superman is a hero, a demigod; to others, a dangerous illegal alien, answerable to none, whom trouble follows everywhere. He’s under a federal investigation headed up by senator June Finch (Holly Hunter), and protestors vaguely resembling Trump-rally attendees wave angry signs at him. Meanwhile, Supe’s Significant Other, Lois Lane (Amy Adams), gets caught up in a firefight while investigating a terrorist group in Africa and comes onto the radar screen of psychotic young billionaire industrialist Lex Luthor (an oddly cast Jesse Eisenberg). Luthor manages to manipulate all the free-floating suspicion of Superman into a rather convoluted plot to kill him with kryptonite salvaged from one of Zod’s crashed alien vessels.
Despite nearly nonstop action sequences, Luthor’s whole scheme takes an unconscionably long time to set up, and the battling protagonists (not to mention the rest of the pawns in his game) take an absurdly long time to figure out that they’re being used. Plot twists are numerous and essentially pointless. There are endless fistfights and firefights and shots of bodies being flung through walls. And they’re choppily edited in that way that pretends to flashiness but only achieves logical discontinuity, so that you’re repeatedly left wondering who died this time – until you realize that you really don’t care, because you’re not emotionally engaged with any of the participants.
Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice shoots for a dark tone but comes off primarily as grindingly earnest. The offhand quips that leaven the action in the Marvel-comic movies are entirely missing; the closest the movie comes to a joke lies in Jeremy Irons’ game attempts at sardonic delivery of ponderous dialogue as Alfred, Wayne’s butler. The actors in secondary roles – Irons, Adams, Hunter, Gadot, Laurence Fishburne as Perry White, Diane Lane as Martha Kent – generally do as good a job as can be done with Chris Terrio and David S. Goyer’s limp screenplay, and better than the three leads. Just goes to show how important good writing is, even to such a visual medium.
Some of the cinematography and lighting in Dawn of Justice is pretty impressive, and the incessant special effects are, well, state-of-the-art. Hans Zimmer’s score is over-the-top bombastic even for Hans Zimmer. All in all, it adds up to less than a compelling reason to go to the movies. But at least the Wonder Woman movie is coming out next year, and somebody other than Zack Snyder (Patty Jenkins) is directing it. Hope springs eternal.