Overlong and under-focused, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is a deceptively dark furlough into the blackest corner of DC’s batcave where men battle gods, Wonder Woman finally gets the spotlight (guitar solo and all), Jesse Eisenberg puts on an entertainingly manic Lex Luthor face, and none of it feels like much fun. As expected, the heavy-handed fog that is 155 minutes of super-porn allows itself splashes of clear-eyed splendor, most notably those that center around Ben Affleck’s positively boiling Batman, but Batman v Superman hardly has the desired ratio of grandeur to gratuity to do the battle of the century it’s pitched as justice.
Skip past the perfunctory Wayne family massacre that the film begins on and you’ll find that Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice sets off by addressing the concerns many raised on the back of Man of Steel. The chief concern being that half of Metropolis was turned to rubble when Superman and Zod threw down and few eyes seemed to bat before a statue was erected honoring Supe’s heroics. On the one hand, bearing witness to the mid-flight-punch-off to end all mid-flight-punch-off through the eyes of a bystander (Bruce Wayne) gives real-world weight to the cumbersome end-of-Earth stakes at hand and sets in motion the adversarial rift betwixt the vigilante billionaire and the Last Son of Krypton but that brand of storytelling feels like bandaging an already healed wound. The move is of Captain Hindsight variety, one willing to mutate to the will of the masses. And that’s a dangerous precedent to set. No doubt you remember when “dark and gritty” was all the rage. The trend was born in the dark and nurtured in the boardroom, a blackened cloud of exhaust sputtering from Christopher Nolan’s show-stopping Dark Knight trilogy. For years, studios intended to ape the successful formula and did so relentlessly, to diminishing return. It wasn’t until Nick Fury brought together The Avengers that studios had a new altar to worship at and as Marvel’s shared universe roared to life, everyone and their mama queued up to join the party. Which brings us back around to Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, a film that compromises the dark and gritty demands with the shared universe constraints and ends up with a butt-numbingly long, dementedly overstuffed forecast of doom and gloom.
Add Zack Synder and his mammoth id, barely obscured behind the camera, to the mix and the result is staggeringly bombastic. Prepare to be waterboarded by Synder’s signature special effects mania and your expectations should just be appropriately set. Even on a character level, Synder is tasked with continuing the saga of Superman (Henry Cavill), love interest Lois Lane (Amy Adams) and editor boss Perry White (Laurence Fishburne) while also introducing key figures to the franchise including a new iteration of Bruce Wayne/Batman in Affleck, his reliable butler Alfred Pennyworth (Jeremy Irons), a widely misused Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), and uber-rich menace Lex Luthor (Eisenberg) in addition to finding time for brief cameos for the remaining three future Justice Leaguers (Aquaman, The Flash, Cyborg). The kitchen sink can barely hold such an overflowing trove of necessary introductions and Synder and crew have a tough time churning the fat-inducing butter to cohesion. Not far into the first act, Batman v Superman becomes the accidental burden of proof that all the expensive CGI in the world can’t make up for lackluster character development or convenient expositional writing. We can only endure so many homicidal face punches and footfall field flings before Synder triggers his own trip wire, accidentally sparking a Pavlovian response of apathy to all his tedious destructo-porn.
Screenwriters David S. Goyer (The Dark Knight trilogy, Man of Steel) and Chris Terrio (Argo) do commendable work establishing the contention between these two spandex-clad gladiators – rightfully accounting for how they can share similar ideologies and yet still not see eye-to-eye on their methodology – but they muddy the water with crud – Wayne’s frequent dystopian nightmares that seem pieced together from bits scraped in the editing process (BvS is easily one of the worst edited films of the superhero variety ever), the inconceivably obtuse, carelessly coincidence-induced befriending of the two (Martha! Martha??) – to the point where they cloud what original intent there was. By the time Bats and the Kryptonian turn fisticuffs to handshakes, something fundamental has been lost along the way – and no, I’m not only referring to Luthor’s sanity and audience involvement – and you’re left searching for how it all went so wrong.
Perhaps the fact that the inherently-less-interesting Kai-El, with his magic hearing, lightning speed, laser eyes and general invincibility, gets the shaft to make room for the historically way-cooler Batman. Which brings us full circle to my original concern – kowtowing to the will of the fans. By divvying up the screen time between the two characters, neither is privy to a genuine arc; our access then depends upon preexisting familiarity with their pasts. In many respects that works. We don’t need to see Batman beginning again (nor did we need to see Thomas and Martha gunned down in opera garb) but establishing him in this continuity, one which has his playing by a very different rule book than Bale’s Bat did, should take precedence to the bout of giants with Supes he launches into almost immediately. We barely know him beyond his seething rage at this alien invader and that’s the problem inherent of putting the cart before the horse. Of having Batman fight Superman before we’ve even sat down to coffee with the guy. Or seen how he handles baddies.
Roid rage incarnate, Batfleck certainly makes for the angriest incarnation of the caped crusader to grace the silver screen and his indifference towards taking a life will catch many offguard, but it’s also what makes him compelling and new and therefore interesting. Still yet, the character is mostly left unexplored. And that is due to the fact that there’s very little room to breathe in Synder’s world, one that appears permanently stained with an oppressively ashen color palette. Nor does he allow the unruly stable of heroes and villains the room to flaunt their plumage. Rather, they remain caged, battling for attention through flashy shows of oneupmanship that barely register. For a film that purports to be about showcasing the variety of DC’s ilk and staging epic throwdowns for them to shine in, the result is naught but ghastly ill-conceived mania and shockingly stagnant.
CONCLUSION: The gangbang of superhero team-ups, Zack Synder’s ‘Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice’ is 155 minutes of darkness and smashing. While Batfleck proves the Caped Crusader has reason to exist beyond Nolan’s Batverse, no character is truly given their due as Synder imprecisely divvies up the spotlight between a certifiable army of new characters. Inevitably, it’s a bit of a slopfest.