Silver Screen: Batman versus Superman: Dawn of Justice *
If the cumulative evidence of director Zack Snyder’s career didn’t suggest otherwise, Batman versus Superman: Dawn of Justice might be taken as an artful subversion of the superhero movie. With its lack of transitions from scene to scene, its abandonment of traditional narrative cohesion, the frequently unsignaled descents into lengthy dream sequences, and dialogue so ponderous it verges on abstraction, Batman versus Superman nearly evokes Terrence Malick more than it does Michael Bay.
The plotting of superhero movies has become increasingly stultified as the formula is honed. It’s an interesting concept to almost dispense with plot altogether in favor of what audiences are most interested in: flashy effects, iconic images, thrilling stunts, massive destruction.
But that’s not exactly what Snyder has done. Batman versus Superman—referred to from here on out, for brevity’s sake, as Uuugh, the sound I made one-hundred or so times while watching it— is both bereft of plot and overloaded with it. It’s still digesting the story of Man of Steel while it prepares a fresh feast for the forthcoming Justice League. Its computer-generated images are bigger than my stomach.
If not for the explicit title, the first hour of screentime could pass without you knowing that Superman and Batman would eventually fight, or what exactly they’re getting up to. Since screenwriters David Goyer and Chris Terrio have conveniently explained the movie’s climax directly in said title, the audience at least knows what to expect from the end, which makes it all the more baffling how the first hour and forty minutes of the movie could be so confounding. It’s like having a black bag thrown over your head by ISIS and being driven toward your own execution— you know exactly where you’re going, but you won’t have any clue how you got there.
The story goes something like this: Batman, also known as Bruce Wayne, played by Ben Affleck, watches with horror as Superman (Henry Cavill) fights with General Zod (Michael Shannon), a battle that destroys the city of Metropolis. Essentially, Batman reacts like everyone else did to Man of Steel.
Carrying over Man of Steel’s theme of Everybody Hates Superman, a Senate committee led by Anonymous Senator Lady We Know Nothing About (Holly Hunter) convenes to decide what to do about the sudden problem of a superpowered alien visitor. Local business mastermind/obviously crazy person Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg) wants to use artifacts from Zod’s Kryptonian ship to forge a weapon that can kill Superman. Also, he always wants to play with Zod’s corpse a little.
Batman has a similar inclination to kick the crap out of Superman, partly because Superman’s fight led to the destruction of a building Bruce Wayne owns in Metropolis, and partly because this incarnation of Batman is just a huge jerk. Fellow zillionaire Lex convinces Batman to use some of his newfangled weaponry to knock Superman out of the sky. Essentially Lex is the movie’s version of Don King: He orchestrates the fight and stands to make a lot more money out of it than either of the participants.
And then Superman and Batman fight. Eventually, anyway. They don’t meet for well over an hour, and even then it’s brief. If you were to go watch a standard-length movie that started at the exact same time as Uuugh, you could theater-hop over just in time to see the two headliners fight.
So what fills all that preceding time? Everything and nothing: Lotta dream sequences, lots of Lois Lane (Amy Adams) blundering into trouble, some grandmotherly complaining by Alfred the Butler (Jeremy Irons) that Batman is never going to settle down and have kids, an entirely superfluous subplot that sets up the pretty neat Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) and briefly teases future members of the Justice League. And more dream sequences.
Though Uuugh occasionally feels like some radical anti-narrative collage of scenes and images, the slipshod mosaic finally falls together to present the same shallow, familiar plot we’re numbingly familiar with. Which would be fine if Uuugh was even remotely fun from moment to moment. Even at the level of fleeting imagery, it’s a drag. Superman doesn’t soar, he looms. He doesn’t rescue innocents, he bothers to stop a couple people from dying while ignoring legions more. This Superman is posited as godlike, but he’s a cynical atheist’s take on god.
Snyder undeniably has a vision. Uuugh isn’t the pleasant pabulum of Ant Man or the I-guess-we-have-to-make-another-one-of-these-now obligation of Thor II. This is no hack-for-hire work. But while Uuugh is immediately identifiable as one of Snyder’s ventures, its distinctiveness is almost exclusively negative. The incessant slo-mo shots, the self-satisfied machismo, the contempt for subtler heroism, and most especially the sharply demarcated line between those who are truly special and the nameless, inessential rabble who construe the background of their superior lives.
It’s all there, and it’s ugly.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillerComedy.