Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice may not be the worst superhero movie ever made — but it is definitely a contender, a mish-mashed mess of poor creative decisions and a cynical outlook on heroism that fails to deliver even the shallow pleasures promised by its title. It is clear from the first frame that director Zack Snyder doesn’t want to be making this movie, which is appropriate because you don’t want to be watching it.
BvS picks up 18 months after 2013’s so-so Man of Steel, with Superman (Henry Cavill) continuing to fly around the world, protecting Lois Lane. Batman (Ben Affleck) takes issue with the fact that Superman is allowed to operate freely after blowing up Metropolis and killing thousands, however unintentionally, at the end of Steel, so he resolves to kill him. Along the way, Lois (Amy Adams) uncovers a secret plot to frame Superman and turn the world against him, a plot orchestrated by none other than Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg). Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) pops up a few times, and joins in for the final fight scene.
BvS is not a “bad, but enjoyable in the moment” movie. It is a flat-out slog to sit through. Snyder is a decent visual artist, but BvS puts to bed once and for all the question of whether he is a competent storyteller. (The answer? No). The “story” of Batman v Superman is a simple “angry villain tricks heroes into fighting” yarn, but somehow Snyder (along with screenwriters Chris Terrio, an Oscar winner for Argo, and longtime DC cinematic universe architect David Goyer) needlessly convolutes it. The stakes are never clear.
For instance, a lot of the movie is about how the world reacts to Superman. But we never really understand how the world at large feels about Superman operating around the world. He seems to be a hero after Metropolis, but a very poorly paced incident in Africa with Lois Lane turns him into some kind of villain-at-large. There are congressional hearings, but it is never clear what those hearings are in place to accomplish. The lack of clarity creates an incomprehensible movie. The story and storytelling are both terrible, but the ultimate problem with “BvS” is how Snyder and company handle the core characters.
The first title card of the movie is “18 Months Ago: The World First Meets the Superman.” This basic dehumanization of Superman continues throughout the movie. He operates as a cipher, a motivation for Batman and Luthor but never as a living, breathing character. He has plenty of screen time, sure, but it is never clear what he wants besides to be unburdened of the responsibility of saving people. He doesn’t want to be a hero. He wants to go home, or wants to after catching Batman for whatever reason. He’s a Superman for whom a small girl in a burning building requires thought before rescuing. He’s a Superman who makes death threats and, when faced with a choice between working with Batman or killing Batman, decides, “It might be necessary to kill him.” He is boring. He is uninteresting. He is, most of all, completely unsympathetic and lacks aspiration. There is nothing to like about him.
Batman doesn’t want to be a hero either. His motivations in BvS are entirely selfish — something about “feeling powerless” when Superman is around. Affleck’s Batman is fine; he doesn’t have much to do besides act angry at Superman, so it remains to be seen how he’d fare in his own feature. Hopefully a little more selfless heroism, less “shoot at absolutely everything that moves with machine guns.” Machine guns! In BvS, Batman has no qualms with lethal force or firearms; he is, essentially, Bat-Punisher. Much ballyhoo was, and still is, made of Man of Steel showing Superman killing to solve a problem; using firearms is just as antithetical to the character of Batman, and Snyder arms him up like a right-wing militiaman. There are hints that this is a Batman on the verge of going too far, but that plot thread is hastily abandoned during the third-act CGI smashup.
Wonder Woman isn’t really a character in this film, but she does show up for the last fight scene. For those looking forward to at least seeing the premier female hero in action, though, be forewarned: She fights, speaks, and acts like a male fantasy, rather than as her own character. It’s possible the excellent director Patty Jenkins (“Monster”) will give Wonder Woman some real depth in her 2017 solo outing; certainly nothing in this particular trashpile would preclude that.
Meanwhile, Luthor feels like a Joel Schumacher / 1990s Batman version of the character. He doesn’t fit the aesthetic, but to be fair his take on the character would fit no aesthetic. Most of his story feels lifted from a previous script treatment of Man of Steel 2, and his interactions with Batman are strange and forced. Also, one of his plans revolves around a jar of pee. Oh, well.
Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman are iconic characters because of their innate simplicity. They are selfless, they are heroic, they value life and intelligence and clever solutions to problems. These are children’s characters because they teach children valuable lessons. Stripping them of their idealism strips them of what makes them interesting. Oh, sure, it’s possible to deconstruct the archetypes and offer an interesting inversion, but that requires a skill set Snyder and his team sorely lack. Let’s not forget that he took one of the great deconstructions of superhero lore, Watchmen, and completely missed the point back in 2009. Why he was given the keys to the D.C. Kingdom is still a mystery.
This all comes around to the essential question, though: If the story and characters are lousy, does Snyder at least deliver on the action setpieces? Not in a significant way. There are four major action sequences in the film. One is an awful Batmobile chase sequence that will make you want to watch The Dark Knight when you get home; the other three back-loaded at the end of the movie. At that point, two hours into it, I was already tuned out, and they weren’t memorable enough to tune me back in. The characters are so uninteresting and the motivations so clouded that there is no drama to the final fisticuffs once they actually start. Who cares if Batman hits Superman? They’re both jerks.
Snyder’s visual fetish for slow-motion and close-ups also contributes to BvS feeling like a chore. At certain points, it almost feels like he got bored on set and in the editing room, wishing desperately for the greenlight on pet projects and an escape from the franchise world. Warner Brothers should let him go. BvS may not be the worst superhero movie of the modern era (I would place it just above The Amazing Spider-Man 2,) but it is certainly the worst Batman film ever made, the worst Superman has ever been, and a muddled, boring mess on top of it all.