The beginning of Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice actually takes place near the end of Zack Snyder’s previous DC superhero installment, Man of Steel. As you might remember, that film’s climactic battle sequence featured a series of escalating, skyscraper toppling punches between Superman and his foe, Zod. In BvS, we learn that billionaire Bruce Wayne was actually one of the citizens running for their lives down on the ground, watching in horror as the rock ’em, sock ’em dust-up between two sky titans leveled the city.
Man of Steel was rightfully criticized for this sequence, in which the lives of nameless thousands became collateral damage in a droning fistfight, and in BvS, Bruce Wayne (Batman, as you know) actually becomes one of those critics. He stares gloweringly at Superman, suspecting that this so-called hero has simply made Earth his punching gallery with no actual understanding of the devastation his powers could cause. Using the critical response to your last movie as the inciting plot development to its sequel is an interesting idea. The only one in the entire movie, alas.
Dawn of Justice, the movie is called, but there is little justice dispensed throughout, and certainly no dawn. Everything is filmed at night by tortured characters saying grouchy things, when they bother to speak at all instead of just starting at each other angrily or trying to beat each other to death. The movie longs to be seen as high Greek Drama, going so far as to include numerous references to various beings of Greek mythology and many other world religions throughout, but has no substance with which to fill this inflation. Snyder wants his Batman and Superman to symbolize two clashing worldviews, but can’t seem to decide which ones, or how to articulate them.
The person who tries hardest to articulate them is Lex Luthor, played by Jesse Eisenberg with a frantic, twitchy loquaciousness that’s supposed to be unnerving but is instead reminiscent of Rex in Toy Story. He’s a tech startup-aping trust fund brat here, and the fact that various political and military leaders offer this jittery goofball a grudging amount of respect and classified clearance is the most fantastical element in the entire plot. BvS is two-and-a-half punishing hours long, and I swear at least an hour of that time is spent watching Luthor wax about God and man, and God being good and man being bad, or man being bad and God being good, and God being powerful and man being not, or man killing God, or God killing man, and then he starts talking about the devil too, and it’s even worse than it sounds. In comparison, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Mr. Freeze was pretty modest with his ice puns in Batman and Robin.
Ah yes, Batman. Ben Affleck is one of this movie’s less bad things, displaying the sort of dour inner turmoil and moody chin dimple one requires to play Gotham’s dark knight. Batman V Superman is kind enough to finally answer the long-simmering question of just what tragedy inspired a young Bruce Wayne to become Batman. In slow motion. Twice. These days, he and Alfred (canonically a butler but here, more of a wingman) spend their days combing the streets of Gotham for bad guys and branding them with a bat iron or sometimes just killing them outright. Yes, this is now the second superhero icon whom Zack Snyder has—in direct contradiction to every available piece of source material—turned into a murderer. At least in Man of Steel, he had the decency to make Superman seem a little sorry about it.
And Superman still seems very sorry about, well, just about everything here. The only bright spot in Superman’s life is Lois Lane (a criminally underused Amy Adams, who gets rescued no fewer than three times in this movie). Outside of his love life, Superman himself is caught up in a huge public debate about that whole god and man thing we referenced earlier. Snyder infuses most of Superman’s scenes with a sense of plodding, ponderous wonder, dripping with religious imagery. The idea of Superman as a messianic figure is not new, nor is it boring, but here’s where we get into some very basic issues about what metaphor means and what it’s for. Symbolism, by very definition, has to mean something. It’s not enough to just cast Superman in dozens of slow-motion poses evocative of Jesus in classical art. Symbolism is supposed to draw out deeper themes and reveal something about what it’s symbolizing. In BvS, it’s just there, more a cameo than a metaphor.
For Batman’s part, the fact that Superman is a god (symbolically or otherwise) is a source of deep consternation. “He has the power to wipe out the human race,” Batman glowers to Alfred. “And if we think that there’s even a one percent chance that he’s our enemy, we have to treat it as an absolute certainty.” This is incomprehensibly stupid logic that even LEGO Batman could pull apart, but it’s the fulcrum upon which BvS‘s plot hinges.
The fact that we’re now treating Superman’s threat to humanity as an absolute certainty means that, yes, Batman is out to put Superman down for good. The titular fight itself is pretty clearly lifted from Frank Miller’s iconic 1986 The Dark Knight Returns series, but Miller’s rendering had an internal logic and obviously (one would think) nobody attempted to exterminate with extreme prejudice. Here, the fight itself is almost unspeakably ugly. There’s no art, no elegance at all to the proceedings. It’s just one Mortal Combat finishing move after another, with Batman’s already infamous “Tell me, do you bleed? You will” looming like a big, dumb poster hanging over a boxing ring. It’s far from the stupidest thing anyone says in the movie, although Hans Zimmer, on thundering autopilot, mercifully drowns out a decent amount of the dialogue.
I’ve yet to mention Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman here, mostly because she flutters in and out of the BvS plot inconsequentially. Gadot herself has a terrific poise and energy in the role—against all reason, I’m still intrigued by next year’s planned solo film—but this movie does her no favors. Nothing about her character or backstory is revealed, and she is used mostly to set up the threat of future installments, which the movie spends a truly astonishing amount of time on. One extended dream sequence (or is it? Who cares.) completely and utterly slams the breaks on what little forward momentum this current plot has to set up a future story arc that will baffle all but DC’s most diehard fans.
Let’s take a moment now to appreciate DC’s competition over at Marvel, which has been building a cinematic universe for the better part of a decade now. There have been missteps for sure, but in retrospect, the whole thing has been pretty smooth. For the most part, Marvel has had the patience to introduce its characters one at a time, slowly placing the pieces of its puzzle together. It’s had the good sense to do most of its actual world building after the credits, so only the most devoted comic book fans need stick around to geek out over easter egg fan service. Snyder’s first foray into crafting an actual, in-movie mythology falls flat, which is a reminder that what Marvel’s doing isn’t as easy as it looks.
But it isn’t that hard. “The world doesn’t make sense until you force it to,” Batman growls during a big, dumb fight. Maybe so, and someone should have tried to force this world to make any sense whatsoever. As it is, it’s just an ugly, ostentatious, joyless brawl. And the only person who loses is us.