Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, the superhero face-off Warner Bros. hopes will help it give Disney a run for its spandexed riches, plays off a bazillion-dollar idea: Pit the most iconic DC Comics hero of all time against the other most iconic DC Comics hero of all time, thereby resetting the superhero game through the ultimate clash of titans.
Instead, Zack Snyder’s would be game-changer sets the big business of spandexed spectacle back a step, because—shocker!—watching Batman and Superman rage at each other like little boys makes for a pretty tedious 2½ hours. When you walk away from the terminally unfocused BvS with no desire to see another Batman or Superman story ever again, someone up the chain has made a terrible mistake.
Or rather, mistakes. The blockbuster superhero movie—unlike any other blockbuster superhero movie that’s come before—opens on the one scene we’ve seen countless times already: Little Bruce Wayne, in front of that theater, watching his parents gunned down in front of his young, impressionable eyes.
Many decades later, grown-up Bruce is still haunted by visions of that night and of the winged creatures that inspired his hobby as Gotham’s No. 1 bad boy vigilante. It’s possible these visions are glimpses of some awful future, because in some of them he sees giant winged bat-demons doing horrible things. But are they the nightmares of an overworked vigilante with major survivor’s guilt, or psychotic hallucinations indicating greater mental health issues? The dark and brooding Batman clearly could use some therapy. Anyway, there’s a bigger target in Bruce’s sights, and it wears a red cape.
So why does Batman hate Superman so much? We see the events of Man of Steel unfold again through Bruce’s eyes, watching helplessly as Superman and Zod carve a path of death through downtown Metropolis. They take out a Wayne Industries office building in the process, leaving a seething Bruce tending to his surviving employees in the rubble, cursing the Kryptonian for the life insurance policies he’s going to have to pay out.
Two years after defeating Zod and earning a hero’s reception across the globe, the blithely ignorant Superman finds himself in a pickle in the desert. Swooping in from across the world to save his girlfriend, embedded journalist Lois Lane (Amy Adams), from the terrorist cell she’s inadvertently crossed, he wreaks yet more havoc in a nearby village. Whoops!
As the world questions whether or not even a benevolent god-hero should operate with such unchecked power, Batman and Superman tangle in the streets of Gotham and Metropolis (which are apparently neighbor cities so close together you can see the Bat-signal from the rooftop of the Daily Planet). They argue over the moral schism that divides them and trade ominous threats, bickering over who gets to save mankind.
Meanwhile, floppy-haired millennial tech prodigy Lex Luthor starts stocking up on Kryptonite, plotting a way to turn the two biggest heroes in the greater Gotham City-Metropolis area against each other, because… well, what supervillain really needs a reason? At least Lex Luthor isn’t a clichéd, manic villain enacting an insidious plot to control or decimate humanity. Backed by a bombastic Hans Zimmer and Junkie XL score, he’s a clichéd, manic villain enacting an insidious plot because Superman reminds him of his dad.
For better or worse, dads and moms and childhood traumas and rivalries are the emotional foundations on which BvS is built. In a way, it’s expanding on the existential crisis Clark found himself in last time in Man of Steel, a conundrum only a bearded seafaring walkabout aboard The Deadliest Catch could soothe. Eventually Clark shed his angst beard and slicked his hair back into place. But where MoS was Clark Kent becoming his father’s son, BvS is what happens when that child gets into a scrap with another kid in the schoolyard.
Thankfully, the infantile beef between Batman and Superman is interrupted by the welcome presence of the only person who could give either of them a run for their spandex: a woman. Wonder Woman, to be precise. Even if her stopover in Gotham and Metropolis is entirely given away in the trailers (en route to her own stand-alone movie, finally), Fast & Furious’s Gal Gadot is marvelously powerful as Diana Prince, first introduced slinking around Gotham’s well-heeled set in couture teasing Bruce Wayne.
Given its critic-proof premise, BvS should be the most epic superhero movie ever made—two heroes, both noble of purpose, sparring for philosophical supremacy after one too many blockbuster movie showdowns have left their cities littered with civilian bodies and collateral damage. Alas! When Batman and Superman start fist-fighting over whose pursuit of justice is the most righteous, nobody really wins.
Not Ben Affleck’s pouty sadboy Batman, fueled by rage and grief and utterly humorless, skulking about his Batcave as his right-hand butler Alfred (Jeremy Irons) tries to talk him off the ledge. Or Henry Cavill’s clueless Superman, who really just wants to put a ring on Lois Lane and keep living his double life in Metropolis, shrugging off his haters.
Nor does Jesse Eisenberg escape unscathed as the power-tripping Lex Luthor, a tech biz savant whose brilliance devolves into the kind of twitchy insanity that makes lesser movie villains forgettable. Director Zack Snyder, the de facto architect of this brave new DC superhero universe, shows off his technical acuity for CG fantasyscapes and dramatic slo-mo, but everything that works in BvS is overshadowed by too many half-complete ideas that never cohere. After all that, it’s just another beautiful mess to add to the annals of superhero moviedom.
Most of all it’s the audience who loses out. Only the most devout of fans will leave the multiplex clamoring for more of these powerhouse characters whose newfound frenemyship is supposed to launch us into Justice League and beyond. Blame the dour note it ends on, or the clumsy way it crams its parts together along the way. Batman v Superman drowns so much in the juvenile angst of its heroes that the thought of getting away from them in the next two DC films is a welcome relief.
It’s a trying and utterly deflating thing to spend hours watching two well-intentioned heroes fighting for no reason at all. The hollowness of Batman and Superman’s actual beef effectively neuters everything that’s interesting about juxtaposing these two heroes: Vigilante human vs. godlike messiah, cool guy loner dude v. goofy four-eyes, confirmed bachelor vs. dopey monogamist. The action veers from explosion-filled car chases on slicked down Gotham streets to bruising brawls in abandoned buildings, but any promise of deeper meaning dissolves the minute Batman and Superman start trading blows.
Much of the film’s failure is in its utter refusal to justify its own existence, beyond serving as a stepping-stone to the other superhero movies in the DC factory queue. For starters, BvS invokes the shock and trauma of the 9/11 attacks to give Bruce Wayne a reason for hating Superman but doesn’t explore the idea of necessary costs of war any further. So when a greater enemy materializes out of Luthor’s laboratory, it hardly matters who the new villain is because its main purpose is to give our heroes—and new heroine in Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman, a welcome shot of girl power and a breath of fresh air—a common foe to unite against.
If the post-Nolan era of Superheroes: They’re Just Like Us! cinema has endeavored to make our comic book icons relatable and human, BvS overreaches, trying to paint them both as flawed, emo supermen. We get it. Batman and Superman have so much in common! Well, not really. But they both have moms named Martha, and in a topsy-turvy world where chaos reigns and indestructible flying aliens with lasers for eyes fall from the sky every so often, sometimes that’s enough.
Annoyingly, another thing they do have in common is how easily they’re played for patsies by Luthor, too blinded by their superhero pissing contest to see that they’ve fallen victim to a very obvious set-up. By the time the two beloved DC heroes are trading blows, trying to rip each other apart, you realize how easily this could all have been avoided.
Bruce Wayne has top secret government intel at his bat-gloved fingertips. Clark is supposed to be an employable and seemingly competent journalist, for goodness sake. Yet every time Clark and Lois manage to grab a few moments together to whisper “I love yous” in the midst of calamity, they somehow forget to fill one another in on the most basic of updates, i.e., Luthor’s evil plot. Batman, Superman, and Lois would’ve saved themselves a lot of time and energy if someone had just started a group text.
Plenty else makes only comic book sense, like the crusade Wayne staffer Wallace Keefe (Scoot McNairy) wages by defacing a Superman statue after losing his legs in the Metropolis debacle. Holly Hunter’s pro-Supes Senator Finch is a steely delight going head to head with Lex Luthor, while appearances by a few other familiar faces showcase the power of veteran actors who aren’t saddled with the self-serious scowls Affleck and Cavill are stuck wearing for most of the movie.
BvS is also, unpredictably, the anti-Spotlight of superhero movies—a film that boasts several cameos from real-life news personalities but paints its fictional journalists as opportunists and cowards. It equates Clark’s journalistic ethics with his superhero integrity as he fights a losing battle with headline-hungry Daily Planet editor Perry White (Laurence Fishburne) to write stories about Batman’s vigilantism instead of another city beat puff piece.
Even ace reporter Lois Lane sells herself out in the end. After delivering the cringe-worthy line “I’m not a lady, I’m a journalist” to a sexist terrorist leader, she admits she was played for a fool for a story. It’s not terribly surprising to see talking heads like Nancy Grace to Soledad O’Brien “reporting” on the Bat vs. Supes showdown with all the gravity of a real-life crisis. But the moment Anderson Cooper joins the BvS cameo party an angel up in journalism heaven loses its wings.
By the time it reaches its inevitable conclusion with nods to the comic book crowd, it’s already got one eye on the horizon, trained on getting to the next movies in the series. When it’s Batman v. Superman, nobody wins. That includes Warner Bros. and Snyder, who are so committed to launching the DC version of Marvel’s MCU that they’ve sacrificed this film to the cause.