Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is a joyless slog. Filled with scenes of gloomy characters confronting their demons or wrestling with their insipid moral quandaries, it’s not a superhero movie so much as it is an excruciating therapy session in which there are occasionally huge explosions and guys in capes. The template for how to make a great Batman movie laid out by Christopher Nolan in his Dark Knight trilogy—grounded characters, a somber tone, believable emotional stakes—has now been pureed by Man of Steel filmmaker Zack Snyder into this indigestible, posturing, two-and-a-half-hour mope-fest. In the past, the man behind Watchmen, 300, and Sucker Punch has let style suffocate substance, but even his misfires have always had a welcome kink or spark to them. By comparison, Batman v Superman is simply soulless, which is strange for a film whose main characters are supposedly plumbing the depths of their souls most of the time.
The movie picks up where Man of Steel left off, except now we learn that Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) lost friends and coworkers in that film’s deadly Metropolis battle between Superman (Henry Cavill) and General Zod (Michael Shannon). Worried that Superman is an all-powerful alien who could decide to enslave humanity at a moment’s notice, Wayne begins developing a plan to take down the Kryptonian.
The “v” in the title suggests a battle royale between these two beloved DC Comics superheroes, and Snyder does a respectable job, at least initially, setting the stage for why these two ostensibly “good” characters would turn on one another. In Metropolis, Superman (who goes around town as mild-mannered Daily Planet reporter Clark Kent) is now dating Lois Lane (Amy Adams), but he recognizes that some on Earth distrust his altruistic motives. (Plus, Lois is afraid that their relationship may not work if he’s responsible for safeguarding the whole planet.) Meanwhile in Gotham, Wayne is enduring one of the least compelling onscreen versions of his murdered-parents trauma, waking up from clichéd nightmares in a sweat and dully droning on and on to his trusty butler Alfred (Jeremy Irons—see ya, Michael Caine) about his superhero misgivings.
But from their separate cities, which apparently are right next door to one another, these two men view the other warily. Kent believes Batman’s vigilante justice will result in a lessening of civil liberties. And Wayne is suspicious of Superman’s agenda and blames him for the deaths of so many Metropolis citizens. At the same time that Batman and Superman are starting to feud, a bratty, rich young inventor named Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg) has obtained some Kryptonite that he wants to trade to the U.S. government in exchange for access to Zod’s ship, which contains information about Krypton’s superior technology.
Batman v Superman was written by two men capable of telling an entertaining story. Chris Terrio won an Oscar for his Argo screenplay, and David S. Goyer helped on the story for all three Dark Knight films. But Batman v Superman has all the problems of a reboot mixed with everything that’s annoying about films forced to fit into an existing cinematic universe. Not only do we have to yet again be reminded that Wayne is Haunted By His Past, we have to cram in all the meaningful supporting characters and themes connected to each superhero so that fans won’t feel shortchanged. (Laurence Fishburne, Diane Lane, and Kevin Costner all reprise their roles from Man of Steel—in most cases, you will be hard-pressed to recall what they’re doing in this movie.)
But this film’s greatest failing is that no one on the creative team ever stopped to remember an important point: It would be pretty damn sweet to have a movie that contains both Batman and Superman. (Were none of these people ever a twelve-year-old boy? In theory, that’s the target audience, yes?) The Marvel films have always emphasized geeky fun far more than their DC brethren, so it was little surprise that writer-director Joss Whedon injected a nerdy enthusiasm into his Avengers movies: Deep down, he knew that the sheer pleasure of watching Iron Man riff off Captain America struck a primal, invisible chord with plenty of self-respecting comic book lovers. But you’ll get no such fun from Batman v Superman: Snyder and his writers are too busy convincing themselves they have significant things to say about American democracy, the fear of terrorist attacks, xenophobia, and the pain of losing one’s parents. (Don’t forget, Superman’s got that issue just like the Caped Crusader does.)
If any of these potentially resonant themes landed, then perhaps Batman v Superman could be the sorrowful, profoundly felt tragedy it desperately aspires to be. But that would require a filmmaker more nuanced than Snyder. Since 300, he’s preferred staging action sequences as if they were slow-motion, large-canvas works—like paintings of battle scenes that move at one-fourth speed—which gives them a ludicrously grandiose feel that’s both ridiculous and stirring. But he’s never been capable of getting decent performances from his actors, and so they’re often left to their own devices.
That can be the only explanation for how drab Affleck is as Wayne and how shockingly bad Eisenberg is as Luthor. Meant to portray Gotham’s billionaire playboy as an aging man, Affleck looks to have put on a little weight for the role and lets his hair go grey at the temples—plus, his Batman doesn’t bother shaving the five-o’clock shadow when he puts on the mask—but the actor never articulates his character’s spiritual emptiness. Mostly, he just mopes and talks low. As for Eisenberg, it’s initially funny that this Lex Luthor is some trust-fund twit who wears sneaks with rumpled suits. (He’s what Mark Zuckerberg would have been if he truly was evil.) But Eisenberg, usually superb at conveying insecurity and hyper-intelligence simultaneously, brings only a succession of grating tics to the role, failing to suggest Luthor’s mental duress or his twitchy genius. His face is eminently punchable, though.
There are a few trademark Snyder touches. We see plenty of chiseled abs and well-sculpted muscles, everything is shot in his charcoal-gray palette, and some of the epic slow-mo shots can still be arresting. But on the whole, Batman v Superman is a movie that doesn’t make sense being told by people who want to overwhelm us with their shows of psychological complexity. A larger plot occasionally presents itself—Wayne is curious about the identity of a mysterious woman (Gal Gadot) who keeps popping up when he’s investigating Luthor—but the film’s principal focus is upping the reasons why Batman hates Superman and why the human race starts to turn on Superman, which makes Superman all sad and convinces him that Earth is filled with a bunch of mean jerks who don’t appreciate him.
Warner Bros. has been paranoid about critics revealing any surprises, but I presume it’s safe to say that, yes, eventually Batman and Superman do slug it out. As a battle, it’s hardly royale, and it’s justified with such a lame plot point that the whole skirmish could have been avoided if one character simply said one specific thing to the other. Batman v Superman has a scope that makes it feel towering—and that sense of magnitude is only amplified by seeing the film in IMAX—but between the grueling dialogue scenes and the subpar action sequences, this is a gigantically empty experience. It was bad enough that Man of Steel trampled on the memory of the first two good Superman movies. Now Snyder has gone and ruined Batman, too.
This article has been updated.
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Grierson & Leitch write about the movies regularly for the New Republic and host a podcast on film, Grierson & Leitch. Follow them on Twitter @griersonleitch or visit their site griersonleitch.com.