Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice Directed by Zack Snyder; written by Chris Terrio, David S. Goyer; with Ben Affleck, Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Jesse Eisenberg, Gal Gadot, Holly Hunter, Diane Lane, Jeremy Irons, Laurence Fishburne, Michael Shannon, Kevin Costner
Summer came to Hollywood early this year: even before spring has established its presence, the season’s crop of high-yielding action movies has already begun to sprout, beginning with Zack Snyder’s 153-minute-long “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.” The result is more engaging than Snyder’s rather dull 2013 “Superman: Man of Steel,” but it still can’t rival Christopher Nolan’s 2008 “The Dark Knight,” which remains the best superhero movie of the present century (Nolan is one of the producers of “Batman v Superman”).
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What made “The Dark Knight” so good was the feeling of urban terror it conveyed, a sensation that counterbalanced its excess of plot (this excess, typical of the genre, reaches new heights in “Batman v Superman”). Like all superhero movies, “The Dark Knight” explored the nature of the American hero and of American leadership. The lucidity of the screenplay and Nolan’s directorial skill allowed these themes to shine through the dense plot and endless special effects. But Snyder is not as skillful, and he succeeds less: fewer scenes in “Batman v Superman” are suggestive enough to be memorable, and without the elegance and wit of Nolan’s movie, excess wins the day.
This may be because Nolan and screenwriters Chris Terrio and David S. Goyer faced a particularly difficult task. They had to combine the characters and cumulative myths of two supremely popular superheroes, Batman and Superman, to create a turbulent conflict between them, and to insert Wonder Woman as well in a supporting role – a kind of trailer for her own movie, which is scheduled for release next year.
“Batman v Superman” will surely be a mega-hit, and lovers of the genre will watch it again and again. The reviews, which have yet to come out as I write this, will probably savor the fact that Snyder’s movie is even darker than “The Dark Knight.” There is almost no humor in “Batman v Superman,” with the exception of one line delivered by a minor character (Superman’s mother, played by Diane Lane) and Jesse Eisenberg’s performance as Superman’s nemesis Lex Luthor; the latter performance has a certain self-humor in it, in part because Eisenberg is an unlikely casting choice.
The darkness built into superhero movies is apparently a way of emphasizing their serious theme of leadership in a reality that is menacing, violent, tottering on the brink of an abyss. But humor has never stood in the way of such serious concerns, as we saw in Tim Burton’s two “Batman” movies from 1989 and 1992 as well as in “The Dark Knight.” “Batman v Superman” takes itself too seriously, and it lacks what might have justified its excessive darkness and provided the missing dramatic and emotional depth.
Above all, the movie could have used the urban setting that contributed so much to “The Dark Knight.” The writers had to choose between the two heroes’ respective haunts, and they decided to move Batman from Gotham City to Metropolis, where Superman (as Clark Kent) is a reporter for the Daily Planet. The two cities played a major part in previous Superman and Batman movies, creating a setting for them that was at once concrete and imaginary, but neither of them really exists in “Batman v Superman,” which feels as though it takes place in a disconnected space. While this allows the movie to overflow with near-abstract action scenes, it also makes them less effective: the direction of most of these scenes is forthright and effective, but uninspired.
“Batman v Superman” probes the essence of its two main protagonists as heroes, leaders, law enforcers as well as outlaws, but this exploration often feels schematic.As a result, Superman and Batman lack the depth they’ve had in previous films. The perversity of their characters, which comes from the childhood trauma that caused their doubled existence, is almost absent from this movie, although it is one of their most fascinating qualities as superheroes (only one scene, in which they discover that their mothers had the same first name, hints at the dramatic and emotional power of their shared myth). As a result, both characters are impoverished here compared to their previous incarnations, despite their many clashes this time, which (in a rather contrived way) make them either bitter enemies or allies.
The relationship between the two superheroes is conveyed in a remarkably messy way, and that is one of the movie’s main limitations. With the exception (noted above) of Lex Luthor, the same might be said of almost all the characters: “Batman v Superman” lacks the eccentric minor figures that breathed life into previous chapters of both franchises. Lois Lane (Amy Adams) wanders through the movie, getting into all kinds of scrapes without having a real role to play; and – a matter of special interest to local viewers – Israeli actress Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman seemed to have been dropped into the story with no real purpose until she finally dons her famous outfit, and then her performance is limited to displays of scowling determination.
“Batman v Superman” had elements that might have made it into something more than it is, but these dissolve into the plot, which I won’t even try to describe, since fans of superhero movies are known for their zealous hatred of spoilers. I will note that it’s hard to call the events in the movie a “plot,” but that may not matter to lovers of the genre. The movie went into production long before the current presidential race in the United States, but had its exploration of leadership possessed any real depth, it might have proved oddly relevant to American politics at the present moment. Also, the film tries to evoke the sense of looming apocalypse that has accompanied this century from its start, but the attempt is fumbled when it becomes a too-long battle, whose inferior special effects pull the result down to the level of a B-movie.
I am writing this less than three hours after watching “Batman v Superman,” and already I can feel the impression it made beginning to fade: that may be the movie’s worst flaw. For all its many plot twists and special effects, “Batman v Superman” does not have one genuinely surprising, thrilling moment. The rhythm sweeps us in relentlessly but without generating real excitement, and much of the time we feel trapped inside a clumsy narrative.
Fans of the genre will probably enthuse over Ben Affleck’s distinctive portrayal of Bruce Wayne, AKA Batman, but the movie does not do enough with Affleck’s maturity, and his performance strikes one gloomy, monotonous note that keeps it from becoming layered and interesting. Henry Cavill, here in his second stint as Superman, seems to have only one expression: that might have served his character well if not for the movie’s absolute lack of irony and self-awareness.
“Batman v Superman” could have been an intriguing confrontation between two myths of masculinity, similar and yet different, but the opportunity was missed. As for the subtitle, “Dawn of Justice,” I have no idea which dawn and which justice we are talking about.