There are some good ideas and good intentions behind Batman v. Superman. If you want to make a superhero film, there are worse comic books to crib from than Watchmen, The Dark Knight Returns, and the Doomsday arc. If you’re trying to create a film that owns its four-color roots while also aiming to make some kind of grand statement, there are worse ideas than trying to examine the social and political repercussions of god-like aliens coming to Earth. If you want to add your own bit of shading to a set of time-honored icons, there are worse ways to do it than showing each of them struggling with the legacies of their parents.
But trying to do this all at once requires a deft hand. Trying to do it all with the added requirements of the expected big-budget action sequences, the need to launch a new cinematic universe, and an effort to correct for the perceived missteps of a prior film, would take a miracle-worker. If the balance of all of these disparate elements isn’t just right, instead of the intended depth and complexity, you get a well-meaning, but ultimately incoherent muddle. That’s what the cumbersomely titled Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice amounts to — a boldly ambitious, hopelessly flawed, overextended mess of a film.
But it’s a film that’s at least trying to honor the better source materials it’s liberally borrowing from. Director Zack Snyder creates a film that wears its Watchmen influences on its sleeve. The seminal Alan Moore novel (which Snyder himself adapted in 2009) isn’t just a presence in Batman v. Superman, with its common themes of how a supernatural being might not only inspire both awe and fear but also change the way we saw our place in the universe; it’s also a veritable blueprint for the character dynamics and overarching plot of the film.
Snyder’s Superman in BvS is his Doctor Manhattan, a god-like individual who inspires worship in some corners, blame in others, and makes both politicians and private citizens equal parts grateful, resentful, and nervous about what he’s capable of in turn. Lex Luthor is his Ozymandias, the brilliant man who sets in motion a byzantine plot to get the world’s attention, while trying to discredit and destroy the demigod whose very presence shifts the balance of where humanity stands. Snyder even has his own Giant Squid in Doomsday, a genetically engineered abomination unleashed on a major city center as the final piece of Luthor’s plan.
These character sketches are all bound up in Snyder’s desperate attempts to emulate the thematically rich ruminations on power and heroism–and more specifically the exploration of where mankind stands in the face of a godlike-power–that are the bread and butter of Watchmen. But his take is a facile and fallow one.
Rather than offering a genuine resolution, or even an acknowledgement, of the complexities of these concepts at the forefront of his film, Snyder weighs the movie down with a series of on-the-nose statements from stock characters, grand clunky speeches, and striking but empty images, all of which devolve into explosions and fistfights just when they threaten to actually engage with the film’s worthwhile-if-miscalibrated thematic material. Snyder offers all of the right surface-level nods to these concepts, with none of the nuance in thought or execution that made them so salient in Moore’s work.
The same goes for the director and writers’ attempt to forge a connection between the film’s titular heroes (and their main antagonist) through the sense in which each of them is chasing the ghosts of their parents. Batman is constantly haunted–in his thoughts and in his nightmares–by the deaths of Thomas and Martha Wayne. Superman himself sees an apparition of his dead father, who warns him of the unintended consequences of trying to help. And Luthor’s crusade against Superman is at least partially motivated by his unresolved feelings toward his own less-than-loving dad.
The film hints that Papa Luthor is Lex’s mental landmark for unchecked power, as a man who woefully abused it and led Lex to a psychological, more than a principled, stand against Superman and the power he represents. Luthor bundles his vendetta with legitimate concerns about the dangers that an untethered demigod poses, but at base, they’re just excuses for him to, in his own twisted way, try to get back at daddy.
It’s part and parcel with a series of laudable attempts to draw parallels between the major figures in BvS. But the force of those connections is lost in the way the film dramatizes them.
Batman’s nightmares–when they’re not bafflingly disconnected efforts to set up future films–are strange, clumsy efforts to explain the character’s motivations. Superman’s visit with Pa Kent (Kevin Costner) features awkward, fortune cookie-level dialogue that blunts any resonance the scene is meant to have. And Luthor’s casual mention of his daddy issues works well enough as subtext, but that motivation eventually gets lost in a sea of convoluted evil schemes and poorly-defined goals for the character. There are interesting thoughts on parental legacy floating around in the background of Batman v. Superman, but the film falters when it fails to satisfyingly convey or develop them.
In the same vein, Batman is the only character in the film with a real arc. Snyder half-heartedly attempts to give one to Superman. Clark questions whether it’s really worth it for him to protect humanity (as Diane Lane’s Ma Kent puts it, whether he owes them anything), and then ultimately decides that these people are not only worth fighting for, but worth dying for. But it’s executed in a pretty lumpy fashion, regardless of the ultimate cheapness of the sacrifice. And in line with the themes of the film, Superman is more god than man here, an aloof, stone-faced stoic, who stands apart from everyone and everything else, even the audience. He is, ultimately, the object of the film, not the subject.
Batman, by contrast, has a clear journey. The Kryptonian clash from the end of Man of Steel, which Bruce Wayne witnessed from the streets below in the heart of the war zone, renders him deeply mistrusting of Superman and what he represents. Bruce is convinced of the dangers that these warring deities herald, that they may fight and harm and fell one another, in battles that cause incalculable damage, while the combatants exist as something wholly apart from and indifferent to mankind, with no connection to the mortal beings forced to tremble in the wreckage at their feet. He trains and schemes and develops a plan to fight this enemy. Then, in the moment of truth, he discovers that Superman, in fact, has a very strong, very palpable connection to humanity — the woman who raised him.
The Batman in this film is obsessed with living up to his parents’ legacy. There’s a subtext in the flashbacks to his parents’ deaths that from his perspective, his father could have done more to save his mother if only he’d acted faster, if only he’d moved to stop the man who took life and death into his hands first. Bruce means to act faster, to honor his mother’s memory and stop a much more powerful man before he has another opportunity to hurt someone, only to realize that Superman is trying to do the same thing, to protect his own mother.
That epiphany comes from Batman learning that Martha Wayne and Ma Kent share a name. The way that information is delivered–with Batman puzzling over Superman muttering “Martha” until Lois runs in to explain it–is more than a little clunky, but the realization itself is a neat trick. That simple coincidence provides the smallest bit of common ground between the two of them, and helps Batman see the Man of Tomorrow in a new light — not as a god on high, indifferent to the people below him, but as a person with a connection to this world, and to humanity, who’s motivated by the people who raised him the same way that Batman is.
It’s a nice way to bring the two iconic characters together. It draws from the source material, and even if the execution cuts a few corners along the way, it works as a symbol of the things the two heroes have in common. It’s just a shame that Batman’s motives get jumbled in the indulgent and unnecessary dream sequences, that Superman’s reciprocal beef feels more than a bit forced, and that it takes a long, plot hole-filled slog to reach that point.
Whatever pretensions to thematic resonance and examination of real issues Snyder & Co. possess, they’re lost in the undifferentiated gray mass of fists and fury that commands the last third of the film. An endless battle with a hokey-looking cartoon character (seemingly recycled from character designs for The Hobbit) removes the thrill and excitement from what is supposed to be the climax of the film. Instead, the audience is offered an entree of empty violence, that features the occasional neat little moment, but mostly devolves into dull static with little logic or connective tissue.
It’s not helped by the fact that there’s very few characters ensconced in this grim maelstrom for the audience latch onto. There’s a quiet intensity to Ben Affleck’s Batman, a sense that beneath his calm exterior lies a burning fire, that makes him stand out in BvS. And his humorous, world-weary rapport with Jeremy Irons’s Alfred is one of the few bits of endearing levity in the film. But Batman v. Superman gives us little reason to grow attached to anyone else.
While I don’t mind Henry Cavil’s detached, Doctor Manhattan-esque turn as Superman given the story the film’s telling, where he’s intentionally made to seem distant outside of a few select scenes, that understandably makes him difficult to warm to during most of the movie. Amy Adams is again underutilized as Lois Lane, given plenty to do but little that matches her talents. Holly Hunter makes a lot out of a little as the skeptical Senator Finch, but she quickly succumbs to the weakness of the writing. And Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman is a complete cipher, who, aside from some Catwoman-like interplay with Bruce Wayne, could have just as easily been replaced with Aquaman or Hawkgirl in the big closing battle with little ultimate difference.
And, once again, there’s Lex Luthor, who continues to be one of the most interesting but fatally flawed ingredients in this film. Jesse Eisenberg, an otherwise talented actor, is doing his best Luthor-cum-Heather Ledger’s Joker routine, full of tics, smirks, and quirks meant to distinguish him as the unique uber-bad guy. Eisenberg’s Luthor gets by well enough in the beginning of the film, playing the eccentric young billionaire who thinks he’s smarter than the room and isn’t afraid to take his liberties accordingly. But as Batman v. Superman goes on, he shares a pathology, oddly enough, with the villains in The Amazing Spider-Man films. At some point in the narrative, the story requires him to be more directly antagonistic to the heroes, and the writers decide that he needs to be not simply evil, but full-on nutbar insane to do it, with little motivation for the change. It’s a poor hand for a character clearly intended to be this franchise’s Dark Knight-era Joker or the MCU’s Loki, at the same time Snyder’s trying to make him into Ozymandias.
That’s the frustrating thing about Zack Snyder’s films, whether it be Man of Steel or his own Watchmen adaptation or even 300. He clearly understands that there are big ideas these stories touch on, that there are significant implications to the larger-than-life figures who do battle on the silver screen. He’s smart enough to gesture toward them, to try to incorporate something broader and more intellectual into the films he makes, but in the end he has nothing really to say about them. They’re mere talismans, signifiers of profundity that falter when he forgets to put any substance behind the clunky one-liners and skin-deep tableaus he’s constructed.
There’s a good film buried somewhere within Batman v. Superman–possibly two or three–about the way our world would change in the presence of the supernatural, about how even our greatest champions may be haunted by memories of the people who raised them, and about a shared humanity in beings great and small. But saddled with Snyder’s shallow, muddled take on these themes, the nigh-incoherent plotting and character motivations, the mandatory grandiose-but-weightless battles, and the inevitable loose threads that add little to the proceedings beyond a perfunctory tease of sequels and crossovers, the film, well-meaning though it may be, cannot help but collapse under its own weight.