First of all, let’s dispense with the notion that Warner Brothers’ film adaptations of DC comics are grim and serious affairs; their Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice has more solid belly laughs than the last three Marvel movies combined. Now, to be clear, none of them are intentional, but when it comes to a pompous, stillborn, joyless slog like this, we have to take our entertainment where we can get it.
A giant power play for the would-be DC Cinematic Universe, intended to kick off an ambitious slate of interconnected superhero stories, BvS is a film so incompetent, so jaw-dropping and lead-footed in its badness, it almost (almost) has to be seen to be believed. If a filmmaker attempted to combine and amp up everything that casual moviegoers don’t like about superhero franchises – the self-conscious “grittiness,” the cumbersome world-building, the bloated running times, the repetitive metropolitan destruction, the growl-whispered tough-guy dialogue – they couldn’t come up with a picture as thoroughly execrable as this one.
For the folks at DC and Warners, BvS serves a dual function: it’s a sequel to their 2013 Superman reboot Man of Steel (a flawed film, to be sure, but it might as well be Batman Begins compared to this one), and yet another jump-start of the Batman franchise, seemingly completed by Christopher Nolan with 2012’s Dark Knight Rises. This Batman is older and more jaded, apparently of the same world as the Nolan trilogy, but we still have to see his parents get killed again and him fall down into the bat-filled cave and all that, yawn. We then jump forward to the present – to the end of Man of Steel, to be precise, where Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) observes the 9/11-ish destruction of Metropolis by Superman and Zod, walking out of the ash clouds and deciding maybe this Super Man isn’t so super after all, harrumph.
Months later, Superman (Henry Cavill, still a charisma void) saves Lois Lane (Amy Adams, doing her darnedest) from the hands of an African terrorist (quite the seasoned journalist, she begins the interview by asking, “Are you a terrorist?”). But a bloodbath ensues, prompting an investigation by a Congressional committee, led by poor Holly Hunter, who deserves better. (That said, she does get one of the movie’s biggest laughs, when she announces, “The world has been so caught up in what Superman can do, that no one has asked what he should do,” after which she visibly glances off-camera, as if to check in with the director and make sure that’s actually the line.) Bruce Wayne, meanwhile, has been investigating the activities of both Superman and budding villain Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg), and determines he must take Superman down, then begins training in the Batcave, oiled up and pulling chains, like he’s auditioning to appear in the background of Madonna’s “Express Yourself” video.
Wayne’s motives are, to put it mildly, a bit on the murky side; most of his character development comes in the form of the film’s many (many) dream sequences, three of them total (four if you count the one that turns out to be a dream-inside-a-dream), all featuring the trite jolted-into-a-sitting-position wake-up shot. You can’t blame him for wanting out – he apparently dreams entirely in pretentious student films. Proving the theory of failing upward, the director is Man of Steel’s Zack Snyder, and BvS has all the same problems as his previous work: no sense of pace, no sense of humor, and fuck-all interest in geography and spatial relationships during action beats. And there are many. And they are endless. (How many different ways are there to destroy cities in superhero movies, you might reasonably ask? WELL, WE’RE GOING TO FIND OUT.)
He also loads the picture with the iconography of either Christianity or Randian exceptionalism (suffice it to say his interest in adapting The Fountainhead is unsurprising) – and then, about halfway through, he stops the movie cold for a montage of real-life talking heads, from Neil deGrasse Tyson to Andrew Sullivan to Charlie Rose, breaking down messiahs and morality for us. So yes, there is something worse than weighing down your dumb superhero movie with clumsy subtext: hiring a bunch of celebrities to translate it into clumsy text. But the film is full of for-the-cheap-seats nonsense like that; witness the hilariously unsubtle foreshadowing of the two heroes’ unexpected connection, or how Snyder thinks he’s giving us a big moment when Gal Gadot’s mysterious character is revealed as Wonder Woman, as though we all didn’t read the casting announcements. (Let’s not even get started on the scene where she works her way through a zip file to introduce us to the rest of the forthcoming DC superhero movie characters, which is like pausing the movie to watch four teaser trailers.)
But the purest confirmation of Snyder’s sheer incompetence is what he allows of Eisenberg, who turns in one of the single worst performances I’ve ever seen in a professional motion picture. It was a miscalculation from casting forward – superhero villains require operatic theatricality, and that is simply not Mr. Eisenberg’s tempo. He is a character actor, not a scenery chewer, so you see him sweating every syllable, planning every twitch, calculating every giggle, mapping every OUT of NOWHERE faux-scary SHOUT. It’s a bad imitation of Heath Ledger, Jack Nicholson, Jim Carrey, and every other “nutty” tentpole bad guy, and if you can make it through his whimpered, teary-eyed “You flew… too close to the sun” over General Zod’s dead body without bursting into laugher, well, you’re made of stronger stuff than I. It’s a turn drained of any wit or spontaneity — which makes Eisenberg an appropriate avatar for Snyder. Both spend the entire movie trying so hard, but this shit is just out of their grasp.
In retrospect, the fan outcry over the casting of Ben Affleck as Batman seems especially ridiculous, as he is so clearly the least of Snyder’s problems. He even has a handful of good moments – most of them with Jeremy Irons’ Alfred, who conveys an appropriate sense of weariness, comfort, and concern – though even Olivier couldn’t do anything with that “Do you bleed? YOU WILL” business, which these geniuses not only put in their movie but put in their trailer, as if it’s their “Why so serious?” or something.
When the big title battle finally arrives, after over 90 minutes of wilted run-up, it’s a dud; the whole thing is so rainy and grey, all I could think of was MST3K’s Crow once suggesting, “Let’s chip in and buy this movie a light.” And it’s a fake-out anyway; they spend about half as much time on that punch-fest as they do on the movie’s actual climactic battle, against a completely different (left-field) baddie.
And it was in the midst of that sequence that I finally realized what’s wrong with Snyder’s films, and why he’s such a bad fit with the world Nolan created. Initially, it seemed like his attempt to ape Nolan’s “dark ‘n gritty” aesthetic was simply incongruent with the essentially sunny Superman character – but here, it doesn’t work for Batman either. Watch what he reduces that character to, by the climax: populating a ponderously crude video-game-scape, all fog and fire and smoke and explosions and electric volts to take on a laughably weightless CG creature. There was none of that in Nolan’s films; they may’ve concerned a caped vigilante in a rubber suit, but they at least had some gravity, and seemed set in something resembling the real world. That’s what made Nolan’s films (with their echoes of terrorism and Occupy and the Patriot Act) work – not their dourness, but their heft.
Batman v Superman doesn’t have that, and doesn’t even try for it. It’s relentlessly stupid, sluggishly executed, tedious claptrap, and I’m sure it’ll make a bajillion dollars. But I’d like to think that at least some of that giant audience will look at this deadening swill, as I did, and marvel at how much energy and money it takes to put an audience to sleep. Midway through, between bouts of standing in his newsroom barking headlines, editor Perry White (Laurence Fishburne) tells his disguised Superman, “Nobody cares about Clark Kent taking on the Bat Man.” If only.
Batman v Superman is out Friday.