Movie Review: “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice”

Ben Affleck, Henry Cavill, Jesse Eisenberg, Amy Adams, Gal Gadot, Jeremy Irons, Scoot McNairy, Laurence Fishburne, Holly Hunter, Diane Lane
Zack Snyder

It’s an idea that sounds like a slam dunk on paper: Pit two of the world’s biggest superheroes against one another in a cinematic battle for the ages and force the audience to choose sides. But while we all wait to see how that fight unfolds in “Captain America: Civil War,” moviegoers can get their fix sooner by trudging through the similarly themed “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice,” a disjointed mess of a movie that is occasionally exhilarating, but mostly disappointing. Though it’s scary to think that Warner Bros. is betting the future of its entire DC Comics film slate on this highly-anticipated clash of superhero icons, the real loser is the audience itself.

The warning signs were there for everyone to see in the movie’s convoluted title, but even diehard comic book fans will be surprised by just how overlong, overstuffed and unfocused the film is for such a seemingly straightforward affair. This is Batman versus Superman, for crying out loud – it doesn’t require any extra dressing, and it certainly didn’t need to be turned into a moody rumination on the responsibilities of power that nearly sucks the fun out of its killer premise. After all, didn’t director Zack Snyder already make that movie?

Eighteen months have passed since Superman (Henry Cavill) destroyed half of Metropolis fighting General Zod (Michael Shannon), and while some people have embraced him as a god-like hero, others believe that he’s a dangerous alien who should be held accountable for his actions. Having witnessed the collateral damage first-hand after one of his company’s buildings was destroyed in the battle, Gotham City industrialist Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) – now a seasoned crime-fighter who spends his nights dealing out justice as the vigilante Batman – is terrified of what Superman could do with that kind of power and becomes obsessed with stopping him by any means possible. Meanwhile, billionaire tech genius Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg) is building his own weapon to combat the alien threat using a piece of Kryptonite uncovered at the bottom of the Indian Ocean. But when Bruce steals the green rock in an attempt to level the playing field against Superman, Luthor decides to use Batman to do his dirty work for him.

The story isn’t quite as simple as it sounds; there’s so much going on in the first hour alone (including a subplot involving Amy Adams’ Lois Lane and yet another enactment of the Batman origin) that you’d be forgiven for not keeping up. The movie is constantly being pulled in every direction, tirelessly working to function as a sequel to “Man of Steel,” a Batman reboot and a prequel to the forthcoming Justice League team-up film. That it’s even remotely coherent at all is to the credit of Snyder, who has been handed the Herculean task of cramming three movies into one film. The additional storylines and dream sequences are not only unnecessary, but distract from the central conflict, barely glossing over Batman and Superman’s opposing ideologies on the way to their inevitable showdown. It’s a satisfying but brief fight scene that unfortunately feels like the undercard to a much larger battle instead of the main event that the movie’s title promised.

For all of its faults, “Batman v Superman” could have been worse. Though the film is exhaustingly brooding and self-serious, and Cavill is criminally underused as Clark Kent/Superman, the Batman segments are really enjoyable. Affleck is so well-cast as this grittier, more battle-hardened version of the character – someone who’s not above mowing down a bunch of bad guys with a machine gun – that you’ll wish Snyder had just made a solo Batman movie instead. Additionally, while Eisenberg’s manic performance as Lex Luthor will likely divide audiences, he’s the only actor who appears to be having any fun, even if his bold (and slightly irritating) take on the character comes across more like a Batman villain than anything resembling Luthor from the comics. The rest of the cast doesn’t get enough screen time to make much of an impact, although Gal Gadot’s heroic introduction as Wonder Woman is easily one of the film’s high points.

That may be somewhat of a backhanded compliment for a movie called “Batman v Superman,” but it’s the least of its problems, because while there’s a solid superhero film buried within Chris Terrio and David S. Goyer’s clumsy screenplay, this definitely isn’t it. Sure, seeing Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman finally together on the big screen is a goosebumps-raising moment that almost excuses the incohesive series of events that precede it, but Snyder gets so caught up in teasing future installments of DC’s shared universe that he neglects his characters in the process. “Batman v Superman” wants to have its cake and eat it too, and though you can’t fault Snyder’s ambition, if Marvel taught us anything with its measured buildup to “The Avengers,” it’s that the proverbial cake tastes much better when it’s been earned.