Stop me if you've heard this one. An alien, a billionaire, and a demigod walk into a bar. The bartender says, “What'll you have?” They respond, “EVERYTHING ON THE ROCKS, AND POUR REAL SLOW!!! CRASH BOOM BANG!!!” The bartender says “Why are you shouting?” They say “BECAUSE SUPERHEROES!!!” And then the bar explodes and tons of innocent people are killed. The end.
Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice is a 2-and-a-half hour film whose plot can be entirely conveyed by its title. You have Superman (Henry Cavill), and you have Batman (Ben Affleck). They have a big fight. Wonder Woman (Gal Godot) shows up at some point because the Justice League movie comes out in 2017. And Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg) flits around in the background like a trust fund teenager on a pharmaceutical high.
WARNING: REVIEW CONTAINS MILD SPOILERS
(to avoid all spoilers, skip to the last paragraph's summation)
That's it. That's your movie. Sure there's a subplot about Senate hearings on Superman that features Holly Hunter in a thankless supporting role that she seems to resent. And there's a subplot about Lois Lane, once again played by Amy Adams (througuhly under-utilized and under-fed), investigating the death of some African terrorists that Superman was framed for killing in the opening scenes. But neither of those matter because they're forgotten about nearly as quickly as they arrive in this ungainly, dreary, feature-length trailer for the DC Cinematic Universe that confuses quantity with quality and volume for depth.
I wish I could quit you.
Where to begin? There's just so much to unpack. So much goes wrong in this film, but it seems best to start with what goes right.
The cast is by and large pretty solid if not spectacular. Henry Cavill remains a beautifully brawny if somewhat aloof Superman. What he lacks in warmth he makes up for in physicality. Christopher Reeve might still be the cinematic standard for the Man of Steel, but nobody has fully embodied the pure physical presence of the character like Cavill. Ben Affleck is a surprisingly effective Batman, as well. His Bruce Wayne is a tortured alcoholic with rage issues, but Affleck maintains a sure, grounded grip on the character and doesn't let him become a caricature. That portrayal is aided quite a bit by Jeremy Irons as Wayne's dry-witted assistant and accomplice Alfred who, like Adams' Lois Lane does for Superman, gives Wayne a much-needed dose of humanity and perspective.
But none of those men light up the film like Gal Godot's Wonder Woman. Mysterious and striking, and more than capable of besting Bruce Wayne in a battle of wits, she's a welcome, refreshing splash of color and life in an otherwise airless and dull filmscape. When she shows up at the climatic battle in full warrior gear, it's like a shot of adrenaline to the heart, accompanied by perhaps the most rousing and exciting cue in the film's entire soundtrack (itself a propulsive, endearingly melodramatic mix of Wagner, Prokofiev, and electronica from Hans Zimmer and Junkie XL). The subtle “bitch, please” look on her face when she hears Lex Luthor totally butcher the Greek myth about Prometheus during a speech at a high society gala is absolutely priceless. Godot seems to be the only person in the entire cast who seems like she's genuinely having a good time and is thrilled to be there without qualification, and her confident, infectious smirk on the battlefield makes you wonder why she wasn't introduced in her own film first.
Stand back, boys. I'm going to color-correct the crap out of this film.
It's difficult to place any blame on the cast for the film's failures. Nobody really comes off poorly except for Eisenberg, whose Luthor is less the classic, calculating mastermind we know and more a supremely annoying and random collections of tics, twitches, and Philosophy 101 quotes forever on the brink of a drama-school-approved psychotic break. He seems to be constantly improvising his lines, to the confusion of nearly everybody he shares screen time with, and he's acting in an entirely separate movie from everybody else.
Instead, the blame rests almost entirely on the shoulders of director Zack Snyder, and partially on the backs of screenwriters David S. Goyer and Chris Terrio. Goyer and Terrio's script is terribly simplistic when it's not being outright clunky, and the miniscule narrative included within is full of plot holes and story beats that simply don't make any sense either to the audience or the characters. Those African terrorists that Superman was framed for killing in the opening scenes? They were all shot. Superman doesn't use guns, mainly because he's never had to, yet this simple fact seems to elude nearly every single character in the cast. In the DC Cinematic Universe, Gotham is just across the river from Metropolis, and Batman has been fighting crime there for over 20 years. It's something that you'd think would have been mentioned in Man Of Steel at least in passing, but it seems like completely new information for everyone.
But the script and its problems are really just a minor concern compared to the oppressive, tedious landscape that Zack Snyder creates. Heavily influenced by Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns and Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight Trilogy but completely missing the point of both of those, Snyder's universe is one of ominpresent violence and drained colors. Just about the only time his palette of blacks, dull blues, and muddy browns is brightened up is with the red-white fires of Superman's heat vision or the bright orange of an exploding building. This mudiness even extends to the main characters; both Superman and Batman seem to have no real compunctions against killing, and Batman routinely tortures the criminals he captures and brands them with a mark that is sure to get them killed in prison. By contrast, Wonder Woman's unflappable swagger and Lois Lane's unwavering optimism make those women all the more dynamic in comparison.
Yes, Batman is wearing Gene Simmons' old boots. Just go with it.
To put it simply, this film looks awful. A last-minute secondary antagonist is composed entirely of rough CGI that looks unfinished, and Snyder films the majority of the movie in dim or shadowy light. His fight scenes lack any sense of poetry, grace, or style, relying almost entirely on people hitting each other as hard as they can. Similarly, a car chase in the middle of the film — which begs comparison to the car chase in The Dark Knight — lacks any sense of the momentum or tense immediacy needed to make that exciting. It's as if he believes that action in and of itself should be enough and doesn't bother with making it creative or inventive. Very rarely has a film that cost so much to make ended up looking so cheap. At least this time, unlike Man Of Steel, the fighting takes place in areas we are repeatedly told are uninhabited (most of the time, anyway).
Even some of that could be forgiven if the film was at all compelling, but it's nearly impossible to care about anything that happens. Snyder juggles at least three or four separate plots during the course of the film, cutting back and forth so quickly it threatens to give viewers whiplash. Even given Sndyer's usual quick-cut style, the transitions are rough and jagged and the pacing wholly uneven. It's difficult to care about anything or anyone unless you're already well-invested in the characters, and there are huge stretches of the film where nothing happens. It takes at least 45 minutes to reach any kind of action scene, and at least two hours to get to the final smackdown between the capes. By then, it's tempting to just want the whole thing to be over and done with. There is very little actual fun to be had here, and coupled with the film's run-time, it becomes almost like a kind of punishment.
It's clear that this is less a story that needs to be told and more a flimsy attempt at world-building in DC's desperate attempt at catching up to Marvel's Cinematic Universe. Whereas Marvel spent three years and five films laying the foundation for The Avengers, DC has made only one film in three years and is scrambling to pick up the pace. What was originally a second solo Superman film became a Batman vs. Superman film, and then Wonder Woman was added on top of that, as well as cameos by other members of the Justice League, who we'll presumably meet properly in a year or so. The main issue is that most of it is presented out of context and without any reference points for the non-initiated. Marvel took great pains to introduce audiences to Iron Man, Captain America, and Thor and get people attachted to those heroes. DC is plowing ahead by figuring that Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman have so much cultural saturation that they don't need to establish all of them in solo films first, and while that may be true for the “holy trinity” of DC, you'd be hard pressed to find a person outside of DC's fandom who knows who Cyborg is, much less cares about his origin story when its alluded to in a video clip playing on Bruce Wayne's computer screen.
Something else that Marvel handles better — especially in the X-Men franchise — are the underlying consequences of superheroics and how they might affect the real world. While there is a theme in BvS about how humanity may loathe and fear a godlike alien among them, it's really never more than window dressing. There's no real sense of adventure or actual heroics in any of BvS on top of that; Batman and Superman are targeting each other primarily because both think that the other is a vigilante who dispenses justice and/or mercy unilaterally and without consequences, and they're both completely right. Wonder Woman, for her part, seems like she wants nothing to do with either of their crusades and only joins the final fight when it's clear that neither of them can handle their mutual enemy on their own. It's telling that DC's main heroes are the most elite of the elite, and only one of them is actually human in the first place, implying that humanity is by and large incapable of saving itself from destruction. Compare that to Marvel, where their heroes include a geeky teeanger, a German circus performer, a Hollywood mall rat, and a soldier just trying to do his job, all of whom were once more or less ordinary human beings. Marvel prefers to suggest that humanity's salvation is already among us and could be anyone, and often the people we least expect.
Here's the bottom line: if you liked Man Of Steel or are already intimate with DC's holy trinity (especailly their modern incarnations), you'll probably enjoy BvS at least to some extent and walk away with the satsifaction of seeing the world's mightiest caped-crusaders duke it out for the first time in a theatrical film. If you didn't like Man Of Steel or aren't particularly a big DC fan, you may end up with little more than a concussion. No matter where you land on that divide, it's safe say that the cast and the characters deserved a better showcase than this incoherent mess, and if this is setting the tone for the rest of DC's film slate, we may be in for a very bumpy ride.
FBOTU Score: 4 out of 10 / C-