Director: Zack Snyder
Screenplay: Chris Terrio, David S. Goyer
Starring: Ben Affleck, Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Jesse Eisenberg, Diane Lane, Laurence Fishburne, Jeremy Irons, Holly Hunter, Gal Gadot
Runtime: 151 Minutes
Zack Snyder’s 2013 Superman reboot, Man of Steel, was a film of questionable virtues with a divisive reception to say the very least. Intended as the starting point of Warner Bros. very own DCEU (DC Extended Universe) to challenge the box-office throne that’s been held by Marvel for so many years, critical response to the film was mixed due to the film’s poor characterisation and terrible plotting, but mainly because of the dour and disheartening tone that the film used to depict one of the most heroic and hopeful superheroes in comic book history.
Right off the bat, this semi-sequel attempts to address many of its predecessor’s condemnations head-on, and expand upon its universe in a drastic manner in order to establish itself as a major player in the genre. The inclusion of fan favourite Batman into the story, as well as a multitude of other cameos stuff the film with iconography in a desperate attempt to prove its worth against the strategic planning and world building efforts of its Marvel rival – and spectacularly fails on every conceivable level to leave the impact that was intended.
The impossibly named Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is a calamity on every conceivable level; a monstrous, boisterous and mangled mess of a film that squanders every ounce of its plausibly interesting premise through some of the roughest and most convoluted storytelling and filmmaking techniques in recent blockbuster history. At times it feels like an extended reactionary fan film to appease critics of the original film, but spends so much time desperately trying to set up a believable universe and hierarchy filled with flimsily coincidental connections that it completely loses track of what it even wants to be. At once a talk political drama with loud musings on the ‘reality’ of such figures existing within the real world, and one of the most explosively obnoxious and silly superhero pictures that drags the very worst elements of the genre kicking and screaming into the light.
Even with rewrites at the hand of Argo scribe Chris Terrio, the exhaustive self-seriousness of Snyder’s vision – merged with Goyer’s seemingly prevalent contempt for the source materials he’s working from – mean that there is little gratification to be had anywhere in the screenplay – which is itself a long-winded and obscenely dull story that cannibalises the works of two of the most significant storylines from the DC comics (Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns and 1992’s The Death of Superman storyline).
Its storytelling is unforgivably poor for a production of this scale; nothing but plot, franchise maintenance and setup for future productions with little interest in focusing on telling a singular story. The centre conflict of the title is pushed aside for detours into business magnate Lex Luthor’s (Eisenberg) obscenely complicated plan to destroy Superman, which in term ropes Lois Lane (Adams) into proceedings while Diana Prince/Wonder Woman (Gadot) wonders around the edges in waiting for her introduction into the plot.
A better film might have been able to recover from the nature of such a sprawling succession of events, but even from the most clear-cut aspects of the medium, this is just bad filmmaking. Snyder is not a bad director by any means – in fact, speaking from strictly an aesthetic viewpoint this has the benefit of actually looking and feeling like a Zack Snyder film thanks to the returning contribution of cinematographer Larry Fong – but this is by far and away his worst feature to date. Its erratic editing structure doesn’t help the already scattershot screenplay, and it feels like a lot has been held back from the theatrical release for time’s sake – even when taking into account its ludicrously bloated runtime of 151 minutes.
The worst sin at play though is that for all the content that’s being chewed between the teeth of this whale of a picture, for the most part, it’s just an insufferable bore to sit through. The heavy-handed dialogue and overly simplistic imagery weigh the entire production down as its stilted statuesque characters ponder their own mythological importance through a seemingly endless amount of clunky dialogue exchanges. Any notions of fun or enjoyment in the traditional senses of the words are stamped out in favour of upholding its desperately bleak tone and orchestration, alongside Hans Zimmer and Junkie XL’s stilted and monotonous score.
The action sequences are held back until way too late into the game, by which point the cumulative exhaustion with the whole thing will leave you wondering just why on earth these people are fighting to begin with. The titular fight of the title (while appealingly designed and choreographed) is shockingly brief with an insanely daft resolution that will leave many aghast with pure disbelief, after which the film continues to labour on with climax upon obnoxious climax until the whole production just decides its run out of things to distract you with.
The best work in the film from a performance perspective falls on the broad shoulders of Ben Affleck as Bruce Wayne/Batman. Affleck is great at channelling Wayne’s pain and frustration, while as Batman he tears up the screen with physical dominance in what is unquestionably the greatest Batman costume ever put on film. Even Jeremy Irons works as Alfred when he’s around. Henry Cavil still struggles to bring much to the character of Clark Kent/Superman beyond an astonishing physical resemblance to his counterpart, but it doesn’t help that Clark is written with such an approach as similarly depressing as Batman’s, numbing the very essence of their ideological conflict that’s supposedly at the core of the film.
Jesse Eisenberg’s performance as Lex Luthor is one so fascinatingly awful – yet almost enjoyable – that it cannot be looked away from, as if his only direction was to channel as much of his Mark Zuckerberg character into him as possible - which is great considering that the character himself is an utter cipher, with his incentives changing at will with such rapid pace that they never really get to the point of his true motivation. Actually, nobody’s motivations are really made all that clear beyond vague navel-gazed gestures.
It’s the women of this film and its world that come out with the short end of the stick. Gal Gadot gives what she can to a thankless role as Wonder Woman, whose presence in the film’s final movement comes as a brief blast of delight as the only person to crack a smile in the entire movie. It’s hard to tell how good the performance is because she’s given such little to do – in fact, none of the women have much of anything to contribute beyond offering support to the male leads, including Diane Lane and Holly Hunter. The recognisable efforts to give Adam’s Lois Lane a sense of agency only makes matters even worse, as (just like before) the script has to literally invent new ways of placing her in peril so that Superman can save her and make her not feel like the extraneous flake that she is.
The Über-masculine approach that Snyder lathers over everything makes the whole film feel like an astonishingly reductive dinosaur in an age striving for equalised representation of the sexes onscreen. Not only in the manner in which he glorifies the male form, but as with much of his filmography its practically bursting with overwrought testosterone to such an extent that it approaches parody. This is a world in which the men handle the weight of the narrative to prove their masculinity to each other (“It's time you learned what it means to be a man”), while the women occasionally race in to support them in vain attempts to register their value.
While there are some minor improvements over its predecessor on show, and some aesthetic flourishes in its favour that evoke the works of Alex Ross, somehow this actually comes out worse than the sum of its parts. Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is a disastrous breakdown for not only the studio (who will have to do some serious restructuring to salvage the wreckage on display) but for the legacy of superhero films in general. It’s an emotionally cold and aggressively narcissistic construction with no identity of its own beyond killing time before the next movie arrives, and you’ll be hard-pressed to find a worse studio blockbuster in 2016.