After having Zack Snyder reboot its Superman franchise with modest success in 2013 with “Man of Steel”—a far noisier, cruder take on the character than that offered by Bryan Singer in his graceful, elegant “Superman Returns” of 2006 (largely spurned by audiences precisely because of its more sophisticated qualities)—the Warner-owned DC Comics Corporation has given him the job of rejuvenating its entire superhero stable, emulating the Disney/Marvel model of single-character pictures alternating with team efforts (the Justice League of America, instead of the Avengers).
This first installment of his vision takes on a question that fanboys have argued about for years: who would win a fight between Batman and Superman? His answer is predictable, so long as kryptonite is part of the equation, and also rather tedious, since Snyder has opted to load down the plot with hunks of various comic arcs, a plethora of overblown action sequences, entirely too many “damsel-in-distress” plot twists and nightmarish recollections (frequently in the form of hackneyed “waking-from-a-dream” scenes), supposedly moving but prosaic moments of introspection and the obligatory introduction of the other DC superhero characters intended to become part of the “Justice” stable. The result is a loud, cluttered, joyless muddle that might be described as Snyderissimo—which might please DC and diehard fans but will probably put off those accustomed to the breezier tone of the Marvel universe.
The movie begins with Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) responding with as much disgust to the mindless mayhem at the close of “Man of Steel” as many viewers did. It makes Gotham’s masked vigilante—a figure older and emotionally darker than even Christopher Nolan’s knight—deeply suspicious of the powerful alien. He thus becomes obsessed not just with taking down Gotham’s villains but with preparing himself to take on Superman as well.
That’s a goal also embraced by Lex Luthor, here played as a scraggly-haired, wild-eyed young industrialist by Jesse Eisenberg in full “Social Network” mode. Luthor not only hates Superman for reasons he attempts unsuccessfully to articulate in rambling screeds about gods and men, but wants to bring about his downfall using Batman as his instrument—setting in motion a twisty succession of tactical moves designed to force them to fight one another to the death. (He insures the Man of Steel’s participation not only by turning public opinion against him to stoke Wayne’s hostility, but also via kidnapping people Superman cares about.) Luthor’s machinations ultimately lead to the titular beat-down between the two heroes, a prolonged and brutal affair that, one might be crushed to learn around the two-hour mark, is but a prelude to an even bigger brawl with a monstrous figure from Kal-El’s Kryptonian heritage. It goes on interminably, awash in the kind of murky, grim CGI overkill that’s characteristic of The Snyder Style.
There’s some consolation in that this final section of the movie brings Diana Prince, aka Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), into the mix. She slinks about in civilian garb earlier in the movie, serving as an attractive femme fatale whom Wayne encounters during his efforts to find out what Luthor is up to (it involves kryptonite, of course). But in the last half-hour she emerges in full Amazonian glory, which is something to see even in the muck of Snyder’s gloppy CGI. It makes one look forward to a Wonder Woman stand-alone feature—provided that it comes with a different director.
Otherwise matters are less sanguine for the future. Cavill remains pretty much of a stick as Superman, and his Clark Kent is almost equally stolid, with none of the amiability that Christopher Reeve or Brandon Routh brought to the role. Amy Adams is a lightweight Lois Lane, and her romantic moments with Cavill are sappy—the fault, however, as much of Harlequin-level writing as the actors. Eisenberg’s Luthor is a miscalculation, a departure from the comic myth so radical—and ill-conceived—that it comes off as a bad joke, especially in Eisenberg’s frantically ill-judged performance. There’s a bit of compensation in the work of Diane Lane (as Ma Kent) and Holly Hunter (as a principled senator), but they’re just two more women who suffer in this mostly macho world. Laurence Fishburne makes a pallid Perry White, and Michael Shannon literally sleeps through his return as the nefarious General Zod.
Then there’s Ben Affleck. Fans castigated Snyder’s choice of him to play Bruce Wayne/Batman, and in truth he doesn’t bring much that’s special to the part apart from a generalized haunting quality. He certainly has the chin for the role, though—Batman’s most important attribute—and he gets by well enough, despite a couple of soul-searching monologues that demonstrate the purplish inclinations of Chris Terrio and David S. Goyer’s writing. (Cavill has to deal with some of those ponderous moments as well, and the attempt to give Luthor’s diatribes a semblance of quirkiness by including some odd quotations in them falls flat.) The worst example of the script’s tendency to slip into snicker-inducing pretension, however, occurs in a ludicrous morale-boosting oration given by a ghostly figure that shows up late in the game. It comes literally out of nowhere, and has to be heard to be disbelieved. On the other hand, Jeremy Irons gets in a few good licks as the Wayne butler Alfred, who’s developed a decidedly cynical streak in dealing with an employer who doesn’t much take his advice. His waspish, almost disconnected delivery has a tongue-in-cheek quality the movie could use more of; humor, except of the unintentional variety, is in small supply.
As befits an effort to start up a multi-character franchise, “Batman v Superman” is an expensive production, and looks it, especially in terms of the elaborate, if not always convincing, effects. But the dank, gloomy cinematography by Larry Fong—even in the IMAX format—is visually depressing, and the action sequences never manage to wow us as they’re meant to do. The score by Hans Zimmer and Junkie XL is thunderous and boringly generic.
“Dawn of Justice” may well serve its corporate function—to open the door to a bevy of DC superhero features that will rival the Marvel avalanche from Disney. As a piece of entertainment, however, it doesn’t deliver the goods any more than Snyder’s misguided “Watchmen” did.