Somewhere around minute 30 of Zack Snyder's bulging Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice,
you sense that you could be watching a face-off of equal spectacle and self-importance, and with better dialogue, on CNN.
In Snyder's action-packed superhero casserole, however, Ben Affleck, as Batman, taunts Superman (Henry Cavill) with feeble stingers like "Do you bleed?" while Superman cocks his head and deigns not to respond. He's an alien, after all, and he's standing upon the indestructible Batmobile that he just crushed, having exerted about as much effort as you or I might exert during the course of using a conventional stapler. The fact that Superman's powers so far surpass Batman's — Bruce Wayne is a dour guy who works out a lot and has access to advanced tech; Clark Kent is, for all intents and purposes, immortal — and that this particular schoolyard tiff doesn't bear staging because it's so obvious that they're not really
enemies, needs no reiterating from me. The acquisition of a sub-aquatic chunk of Kryptonite and a new Astro-Robo Batsuit are meant to level the playing field for the ultimate showdown, but it fails to persuade. Invincibility, in cinema, is never an easy pill to swallow. Stakes and entertainment value are always low.
It's the same remote dissatisfaction you may experience while watching Captain America and Black Widow suit up and prance around the same battlefield as the Incredible Hulk. It's absurd. Deadpool, too. The guy can't die.
Why should we care about any of his exploits?
Putting aside that eternal vexation, I'll concede that the origins of the "V" (which is Zack Snyder's representation of the preposition "versus") is set up, if not elegantly, then at least plausibly. After Snyder wastes time on the Batman origin story we've seen 60-or-so times before, and with all the slo-mo and style of 300
(which was great in 300),
we are taken to the final battle between Superman and General Zod in 2013's Man of Steel.
Only this time we're on the ground. Bruce Wayne races through the streets of whatever major city it is — Gotham? Metropolis? New York? — in what's sure to be 2016's most profitable Jeep commercial, and arrives at the Wayne Financial Tower as it collapses. We watch hatred crystallize on Affleck's face and pulsing salt-and-pepper temples as he clutches a convenient orphan. Aha, we think, this makes a bit of sense.
Not so fast.
In strolls Lex Luthor Jr., portrayed in extremis by the miscast Jesse Eisenberg. He is a stuttering and most-unhinged tycoon, plagued by privilege and unknown demons (related to mistreatment at the hands of his father?). And the performance scans like an actor's early character experiment, something to which another director might have said — during a table read — "let's play around with a different interpretation." It's perhaps unfair that every movie villain now must live in the shadow of Heath Ledger's Joker, but it's impossible not to view Eisenberg's Luthor as a dirt-cheap knockoff. Anyway, he throws a wrench in what would otherwise have been a pure Batman vendetta and forces Superman to confront him. Except if I'm Superman, I rip Luthor's head off and dismantle his machinations in the span of about 20 nanoseconds.
There are women on the fringes, too! Here's a gutsy Lois Lane (Amy Adams), reporting from a militant outpost in the Sahara, and later from the congressional corridors of Washington D.C. (confounding my personal understanding of the Daily Planet
as a Metro-only daily). Here, speaking of Washington, is a no-bullshit Senator (Holly Hunter), pursuing legislation related to alien deities and refusing to cave to Luthor's Kryptonite-import propositions. Here, at last, is Wonder Woman (Gal Godot), who's as leggy and one-dimensional as your prototypical Bond girl, but who discloses an undercurrent of either brass or sass that bodes well for the franchise.
The problem of the first hour is the incoherence of the story itself, no small part of which incoherence relates to geography: Where is Gotham in relation to Metropolis? Where is Metropolis in relation to D.C.? What story is Lois Lane so earnestly investigating in the desert and what bearing does it have on the emergent Kryptonite acquisition — the Kryptonite was fished out of "somewhere in the Indian Ocean"? Who or what is the "White Portuguese" that Bruce Wayne obsesses over? How reflective of reality is Wayne's recurrent dreamscape? The whole thing's a mess, with neither Batman's nor Superman's stories adequately developed.
The problem with the concluding 90 minutes is that they're batshit insane. The megaboss-villain Doomsday shows up for a brawl — he's a "Kryptonian Deformity" spawned by Luthor in General Zod's old spaceship — and the scale of the confrontation is so ludicrously epic and destructive (much like Superman v Zod in Man of Steel)
that it's just impossible to view and engage in with anything like human emotion.
There are bright spots. Affleck is solid as the graying, broiling Bruce. And Cavill, as tall and rakish and pectorally endowed as they come, successfully limns Clark Kent's schoolboy sincerity and Superman's banal godliness. Adams, shitty storyline notwithstanding, manages to convey (to stunning effect) the emotional perils of a serious romantic relationship with a superhero. And Snyder, foremost an architect of image, wows with several gorgeous tableaux. Shot on IMAX cameras, the film is breathtaking in its scope and eye-popping in its imagery. But such is Snyder, for whom the world is never enough, that the funeral procession is far more vivid and accomplished than the death.