Batman v Superman plods along with the pacing of a courtroom, which may be why it is named like a civil suit between our two heroes. Given the manufactured fighting between the two, there may have been more believable drama had Batman decided to sue the Man of Steel for destruction of property. Instead, we are left with the standard flaws that always seem to accompany the direction of Zack Snyder: bizarre use of music, rushed and unearned plotting, and action sequences that, while reasonably entertaining, strain comprehension. It is altogether a shame, because the eponymous characters are iconic and beloved – and well portrayed in this film. There simply isn’t anything terribly interesting for them to do.
Despite the banal plot, Snyder manages to make it quite confusing with haphazard editing. The opening credits take place over the death and funeral of Bruce Wayne’s parents, and culminate in the first of our many dream sequences and voice-overs. We are then treated to the climax of 2013’s Man of Steel from the perspective of the adult Bruce Wayne, as he watches the destruction of Metropolis. Eighteen months later, Superman is framed for an attack in the desert, and the forced march to the fight between him and Batman begins. Of course, it lasts all of ten minutes before they are friends (more on that later), and then they team up to defeat a greater foe, which ultimately results in Superman’s death (though not really).
The first major problem with the way this plot unfolds is how astoundingly lazy it all is. The gut reaction to even hearing “Batman v Superman” is, “Why are the good guys fighting?”. This is an issue that the next Captain America film also has to deal with – though I can’t imagine it could fail as thoroughly as does BvS. As the world’s greatest detective, Bruce Wayne is involved in a hunt for someone (or something) called, “The White Portuguese”, which is essentially a roundabout scheme of Lex Luthor’s to get kryptonite in Batman’s hands for the big scuffle. The rest of the motivation for the Dark Knight depends on dream sequences. Plural. And if that isn’t lazy enough for you, the minor characters take turns spouting various bromides about Superman and justice and democracy. It isn’t quite on the level of “Freedom isn’t free at all, . . . it comes with the highest of costs; the cost of blood” from 300, but it is in the ballpark. This is all that is required for Batman to want Superman dead.
In fact, motivations are thin all-around. A string of kidnappings is enough to make Superman show up to the fight, and though it is clear early on that his intention is to get on Batman’s side, he mostly toys with him at the beginning. Then, when Batman proves that he belongs in the fight, instead of Superman striving harder to reach Bruce, he only fights more ferociously until he is saved by coincidence and Lois Lane. The fight itself is probably the most entertaining sequence in the whole film, but its construction from the perspective of plot is laughable. Indeed, the sequence from which the film derives its very name carries no weight, and earns no fanfare. It is a waste.
It is difficult to know where to place the blame for such failures, but structural and motivational faults like these should land at the very top with Snyder. Perhaps some of the blame can also be placed on the screenplay from Chris Terrio and David S. Goyer, but this isn’t exactly Snyder’s first muddled failure at providing a meaningful story behind his flashy action sequences. When you add in other directorial issues like the aforementioned glacial pacing, lazy contrivances, and other such poor decisions, the lion’s share of the blame has to fall to Snyder.
As another example of this, the score for this film is one of the most front-forward, over-the-top, and distracting that I have ever seen in a blockbuster of this status. Hans Zimmer can score a film with the best of them, and many of the themes that he composed for this one are quite stirring. The issue I have with the score at large is that it is horribly forward in the soundtrack while at the same time feeling manipulative. After the sixth scene was ruined by a blaring and blunt musical cue, I stopped counting – though maybe I shouldn’t have. The on-the-nose score became a more faithful leitmotif than any of the superhero themes, and was always sure to botch whatever meager level of immersion the film had accidentally managed to concoct.
As I mentioned earlier, Ben Affleck and Henry Cavill portray the iconic characters of Batman and Superman quite well. Many of the most-devoted internet fanboys initially lamented the casting of Affleck, but I’d wager the majority of the people who see this performance will be excited to see him don the cowl in the future. Cavill essentially continues his performance from Man of Steel, which is actually fine for his character and his place in this particular narrative. Both men also do an admirable job of portraying their “secret” identities and playing off of one-another.
As a matter of fact, most of the performances from minor characters are similarly strong. Gal Gadot introduces the world to Diana Prince / Wonder Woman with subtlety and grace, and in her brief screen time manages to kick some ass. I am also quite fond of the cat-and-mouse games she plays with Bruce Wayne, a la Anne Hathaway in The Dark Knight Rises. Jesse Eisenberg will likely be lambasted for going too extreme with his Lex Luthor. Overall, I think he lends the ego-maniacal billionaire with the correct amount of madness, he just oversteps it a bit. It detracts from the character that Luthor could be, but also leaves room for dialing it back in later flicks. Other minor characters, from Jeremy Irons’ Alfred to Amy Adams’ Lois Lane are also superbly acted even though I may dislike how they are used in this film. Lane in particular always seems to be in the perfect place at the perfect time. Though, to be fair, that is a skill which she honed over the first film.
And finally we come to the grand big-bad: Doomsday. Just in case Batman v Superman didn’t work out according to his plan, Lex Luthor also Easy-Bakes the Kryptonian horror from General Zod’s corpse and the crashed ship, a far cry from Doomsday’s origin in the comics. When a fascinating villain like Doomsday is treated with all the respect of a Monster of the Week from an episode of X-Files – and disposed of just as quickly – you’ve got a big problem. The fight itself, especially when Wonder Woman and Batman join in, is a CGI noise-factory, and vastly inferior to the Batman/Superman fight. Oh, and you can practically feel the whiplash from the about-face the producers pull in response to the negative reaction to the destruction from the third act of Man of Steel. At least three times separate characters explain that a district is abandoned for this reason or that reason (thereby minimizing casualties), and if you’re even moderately aware of this particular criticism of the earlier film, these exposition-laden proclamations stick out.
In the end, this is a film with a few bright moments, some well-acted icons, and a whole lot of wasted opportunity. For those of you that like comparisons, this is the worst Batman movie since Batman & Robin, and is definitely worse than Man of Steel as well (though probably not as bad as Superman Returns). Snyder fails to arrive at a comprehensible theme or a cohesive plot, and completely botches any emotional attachment we could have formed with these characters by refusing to treat major plot points with respect. An explosion in Washington D.C. is all but glossed over in terms of its emotional impact, and the death of Superman is made meaningless by the cheesiest of all cheats: half a second before the cut to black which ends the film, the dirt on Clark Kent’s grave starts to rumble.
In Batman v Superman, Zack Snyder stages a bogus fight and then uses hackneyed callbacks and coincidence as the inspiration for reconciliation. His laziness somehow manages to take two of the most symbolic characters in the history of Americana and dissolve them of any meaning. It does not bode well for The Justice League, unless the powers that be at Warner Brothers make the only decision left to them: take Zack Snyder away from this franchise.