In case you weren’t aware, Zack Snyder is a pretty big fan of Superman as a Christ figure. The director of comic book adaptations 300 and Watchmen was given the keys to DC Comics and the directive to turn it into a shared-universe Marvel Studios-esque juggernaut with 2013’s Man of Steel, the first attempt at returning Superman to the silver screen after the Superman Returns misfire failed to ignite the minds of the masses. Many fans quibbled with Man of Steel for its characterization of the Big Blue Boy Scout and how he willing chose to take a life in the film’s finale (as well as the climactic fight with Zod’s willful ignorance of the human carnage left in its wake), and many critics quibbled with the film’s rote, grim-n-gritty color palette, punishingly dull action scenes and muddled story. But one this was for sure. Superman was Christ.
And here we are, Easter weekend 2016, and Superman had risen right alongside his model. Only this time, he shares the bill with his mopey DC icon counterpart, Batman in what may be the most clunkily named tentpole blockbuster in history: Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice. It seems Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck, the sixth live-action actor to take on the Batman cowl) was pretty cheesed off at Superman (the returning Henry Cavill) destroying most of Metropolis in his fight with Zod (a perfect opportunity for some good old fashioned 9/11 imagery), including one of his skyscrapers. Convinced that Superman will one day become an undefeatable global threat, Batman gets to work looking for a weakness he can exploit to keep the Metropolis marvel in check if he happens to turn his back on humanity. Supes himself sees Batman as a completely out of control vigilante, acting with impunity in Gotham City and prone to branding criminals upon capture. He also has to keep an eye on his girlfriend, Lois Lane (Amy Adams), who finds herself investigating increasingly dangerous stories about the Russian Mob. And behind it all, stirring things up and positioning the two heroes as foes instead of allies is the young, cocksure billionaire mogul Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg), who clashes with Congress (fronted by a Senator played by Holly Hunter) as he attempts to import a piece of Zod’s ship that just might contain and answer to his growing Superman dilemma. And if that were not enough, a mysterious woman (Gal Gadot) seems to be very interested in Luthor and Wayne’s Superman-related subterfuge.
Given the laundry list of events Batman V Superman must establish in order to launch the good ship DC Cinematic Universe, it’s no wonder that the script (originally from DC vet David S. Goyer, and rewritten by Argo scribe Chris Terrio) feels criminally disjointed, with nary the time to provide any sort of backstory or motivation for most of its new characters (though this fascinatingly does not stop Snyder from showing us Batman’s origin story again, now with some added Snyder slow motion, over the course of the film’s opening ten minutes). Luthor’s storyline is particularly hazy; Eisenberg plays the character with an overabundance of manic energy that at the very least stands out from the sea of sullen faces that surrounds him, but his character doesn’t follow any sort of internal logic. He hates Superman, but we’re never allowed to adequately understand why, making him more of a petulant child with a grudge than a true threat (and the less that is said about his dealings with a character played by Scoot McNairy, the better). And when the film turns drastically in its final act, it inspires yawns rather than awe, setting the stage for another cacophonous, building-wrecking action scene that accomplishes nothing more than pummeling the senses into oblivion. Perhaps we could have gotten a little more out of Luthor if the film didn’t feel the need to devote one of its side stories to giving us micro-cameos for the other superheroes soon to come in future (Ezra Miller’s The Flash, Ray Fisher’s Cyborg and Jason Momoa’s Aquaman, as well as Godot’s reveal as Wonder Woman), but it’s been the case for years that these franchise films are marketing vehicles for the next slate of summer blockbusters first and fully fledged movies second, so it’s tough not to be surprised at how compromised the script of a project like this is.
A muddled, overly complicated and overly serious plot can be laid at the feet of a movie with many masters, but that excuse doesn’t trickle down to the dialogue of individual scenes, where Batman V Superman fails spectacularly. This is a profoundly awkward an unsubtle screenplay, featuring no less than two oblique references to Clark Kent and Bruce Wayne getting in a fight within the first hour. The rest is all platitudes grunted through gritted teeth and half baked philosophy about gods and men. Any hope that Terrio would be able to overcome David Goyer’s recent poor form was clearly wishful thinking. This is more of a mess than Man of Steel, which is an impressive accomplishment in utter failure. And with a bloated run time, Snyder’s trademark filmmaking techniques in full bloom (this could have been 40 minutes shorter without all the shots of mortar shells colliding with the dirt in slow motion) and a profoundly drab color palette (save one throwaway scene staged in a Mexican Day of the Dead celebration) once again in play, Batman V Superman never comes close to impressing.
Zack Snyder isn’t a film director. He’s a demolitionist, far more concerned with destroying things in the coolest possible way than telling a coherent or satisfying story. Beyond the casting, which is admittedly spot on in basically every instance, everything is a let down, from the plot through the dialogue through the visuals through the action choreography through the dizzying amount of on-the-nose Christ imagery through the loud, punishing and often exhausting score (from Hans Zimmer, whose Man of Steel score was its only redeeming value, and Junkie XL of Mad Max: Fury Road fame, clearly two great tastes that appear to taste terrible together). While Snyder is by no means a good director (his Dawn of the Dead remake is his only palatable feature, and that was twelve years ago now), but, like Joss Whedon’s Avengers: Age of Ultron before him, he is faced with a nigh impossible task. Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice is weighed down by the crushing expectations of an entire universe, attempting to strive forward, a legion of franchises and spinoffs strapped to the film’s back, unwieldy under the prodigious weight until it stumbles and falls on its face, only to continue lurching forward inexorably, sucking rasping, sputtering breaths through a bloody, broken nose. And Zack Snyder shot it all in slow motion, just to make sure you didn’t miss a moment of its monument to grimdark majesty.