Sometimes, all it takes to bring angry enemies together is learning that their mothers share a name. It’s entirely possible that this chin-stroking observation is actually the main message of one of the most expensive blockbuster movies the world has ever laid eyes on. Other messages in Zack Snyder’s uproariously catastrophic celebration of bad ideas leadenly labelled Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice include the realization that it’s okay to brood and the suggestion that heroes are defined by killing slightly less people than the mass murdering villains. There’s even the icky insinuation that women are really just bait and cannon fodder for madmen unless they shut their mouths and get on with the fisticuffs.
Seriously, one doesn’t even have to reach to come to these conclusions. They’re all at arm’s length, as if Snyder is truly convinced that offending his audience and making everyone a super asshole is the way to pull the disparate pieces of this epically costly answer to Marvel’s astonishing screen success together. Or maybe he just really loves his mother’s name.
Of course, there is clearly much more in the mix here than just Snyder’s personal take on superheroes and his challenged concepts of gender equality. This is the big play of a studio confused about how to lumber forward with the most iconic comic book characters of all time while desperately desiring a series of linked franchises that can bring Warner Bros. some of those boffo box office receipts that Disney rakes in with their Avengers pics.
In the wake of such successes as Chris Nolan’s acclaimed Dark Knight trilogy and such missteps as Martin Campbell’s Green Lantern, which starred the same Ryan Reynolds who just led Fox’s Deadpool to such soaring heights, WB has been bashing its collective head against the wall in hopes of seeing the light. Where to go next? Fashioning Snyder’s Man of Steel sequel into a Batman movie co-starring Superman and peppering it with foreshadowing elements hinting at a future Justice League movie is a bit extreme, but maybe not the worst idea ever?
Except yes, it proves to indeed be the worst idea ever. Or at least something close to it. To bring such an ambitious plan to fruition requires multiple narrative strands working in tandem, but all credited writers David S. Goyer and Chris Terrio want to do is make things clash. So Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) starts hating on Superman (a returning Henry Cavill) because an early sequence that acts as an apology for the controversial and highly destructive Man of Steel finale shows that one of Bruce’s skyscrapers got leveled in the brazen Metropolis brawl.
That seems to be the only reason Bruce is so pissed at the super-powered alien, though he’s probably additionally choked that his cape-wearing thunder is being stolen. Bruce has been dressing up as a particularly perturbed Batman for a while now and Superman’s whole presence really irks the obviously easily irked billionaire. To help bolster Batman’s motivation, Cavill plays Superman as though he’s something of an arrogant bastard, so that’s nice of him.
Gone is the charm that Cavill brought to the role in Man of Steel. The internal conflict about whether to help the humans who fear him and question his intentions is now being especially externalized, but Cavill seems unsure of how to portray this. My advice? Do the opposite of whatever you’re doing here. While Snyder works to justify Superman’s grumpiness by morosely moulding sympathy for this hero who feels deeply distrusted and misunderstood, the actual effort put forth in establishing this crux of Superman’s arc is laughable at best.
If there’s any potentially interesting idea in this mess, it’s the concept that perhaps Superman’s power is too great for our planet. A fair point to ponder in this cynical age, that an alien who can level a city in minutes might be tough to embrace as a saviour, but there’s not enough time to explore this notion because hey look, there’s Batman blowing up bad guys and smashing through buildings!
Instead, Superman’s woes are relegated to a dour montage sequence where he rescues people around the globe while looking like a lost puppy that sooner expects to be kicked to the gutter than receive a gentle pet or two. Even the music is all sad in this sequence, as though saving people who were clearly going to perish otherwise is cause for a requiem.
The dour mood is everywhere, though. In one of the pic's most awkwardly and unintentionally comical moments, Superman pseudo-visits his dead dad (a cameo-ing Kevin Costner) and listens to Pa Kent prattle on about the time when he was a kid and the family saved their farm from flooding only to destroy a neighbouring farm instead. Really cheery life lesson from beyond the grave there, Pa. When he mentions that he "can still hear the horses screaming," the temptation to burst out laughing is trumped only by the sheer Silence of the Lambs-ness of it all. Too bad dear Dad doesn't just put poor Supes out of his misery and eat his liver right then and there.
Apparently that's too much to ask, but Superman gets many a break from the limelight to ponder how depressing this all is because Batman is more than willing to hog the plot. He's not alone, either. A bratty, twitchy Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg) has a number of nefarious plans to combat Superman, all of which make everyone involved seem all kinds of stupid. Batman is especially embarrassed by Lex's dirty dealings, further reason to consider all the conflict in Snyder's movie only possible because the whole flick is populated with idiots.
No one comes out of this looking particularly good, not as a character and certainly not as an actor. Attacking the acting in an action-packed blockbuster has to be one of the dullest and most broken record-like criticisms that’s possible to muster, but the performances really have to be attended to here. Basically, everyone in this movie whose name isn’t Holly Hunter is embarrassing themselves, with Ben Affleck embarrassing himself slightly less than the cast average simply because he’s already Ben Affleck.
Amy Adams (back as Lois Lane) and Jesse Eisenberg are clearly capable of delivering great performances, but Adams is let down by the rotten script and Eisenberg seems to figure the best way to weather this sinking ship is to help it sink faster. His Luthor is a grating, mumbling nutcase who at best could hope to add some camp value to the project. Except Eisenberg falls short even there, doing nothing but making every one of his scenes insufferably irritating. Gal Gadot at least gets to strike an impressive pose when suited up as a briefly featured Wonder Woman, but the few occasions when she's allowed to utter a few lines don't exactly bode well for her upcoming solo pic.
Wonder Woman's presence is another stepping stone in Warner Bros.' hastened route to making a large and lavish Justice League movie. She factors into the plot in loose fashion, which is a lot more than can be said for some other Justice League tie-ins. The insertion of intros and info intended as sneak peeks of forthcoming JL movie events is so hilariously haphazard that it makes Batman & Robin look like level-headed studio tinkering.
Snyder's cinematic world is hardly worth saving to begin with. These angry heroes and their nihilistic attitude can have it all to themselves. Warner Bros. will continue to explore it, though, because they don't know what the hell else to do and when you've dug a hole this deep and spent this much money on the effort, you might as well keep digging. At least the hole they've dug is pretty funny to look at. Batman v Superman certainly needs to be seen to be believed, so unusual and proudly stupid it is in its pursuit of that elusive Justice League franchise.
It does provide us with some juicy info, too. Imagine not knowing that Batman is in fact as easily manipulated as a fistful of Silly Putty or that Wonder Woman has nearly turned her back on humanity, but still checks her email regularly. This is where Snyder's head is at. Or the head of some studio exec. Or whatever.
The origin of these issues matters little; it's the outcome that counts. And this whole crash-and-burn result has been blatantly built from the title down, cobbling together a story based on committee notes and the miscalculated plan to sell the Batman and Superman names in some preposterously perverted form. What's in a name anyway? I dunno. Go ask your mother.