When Warner Bros. announced Batman v. Superman three years ago, it reeked of desperation. With Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight saga wrapped, Man of Steel delivering middling returns, and Marvel’s vice grip on the superhero market getting tighter, I can certainly understand why Warner Bros. would want to create their own cinematic universe. Sitting on decades of DC Comics material, the opportunity for expansion was certainly present. All they needed was to create the universe under Marvel’s much celebrated blue print, and profits would cascade from the sky. The problem is Marvel has cultivated and developed their blueprint for nearly a decade; Warner Bros. was hoping to build their cinematic universe in half that time. Their expedited process had the chance for success if it received the proper launching pad, one that could set up the cohabitation of a Kryptonian God, a billionaire crime fighter dressed as a bat, and an Amazonian warrior who pays no quarter to time. The chosen mastermind for launching the Justice League was Zack Snyder, a director who consistently undermines his own work with ill-fitting embellishments and incoherence. Failure, at least in my mind, was a foregone conclusion.
Admittedly, I saw Batman v. Superman after a deluge of critics released their disdainful reviews. I read as many reviews as possible, lowering my expectations by a gross margin. Normally I wouldn’t take that route, as I prefer a clean canvas. But even if my preconceived notions were stains I couldn’t scrub away, Batman v. Superman is an unequivocal disaster. The plot itself is pretty incomprehensible. The film begins 18 months after the events of Man of Steel, where the world loves Superman but also hates him for destroying Metropolis. The film never quite decides which segment of the population hates Superman. Nonetheless, billionaire Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) definitely hates Superman, as does Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg). Both men see Superman as a force in need of restraint. Bruce Wayne fears the cost of immeasurable power while Lex Luthor has daddy issues or something. The screenplay isn’t entirely clear on this. Nonetheless, both men independently plot their attack on Superman. It doesn’t go so well for either parties, albeit things end up worse for Lex.
I believe the film’s larger point, buried under Snyder’s hubris and the film’s painfully convoluted plot, is the possessive power of fear. Namely, fear of the unknown. The film’s most pervasive moment is in its opening frames, when it actively places Bruce Wayne amidst the rubble Superman and General Zod create at the end of Man of Steel. Buildings collapse as humans watch intergalactic intruders decimate their city, their safety, and their sense of security. Snyder abandons this thread throughout the rest of the film’s run-time, only showing up once more in the form of a bomb on Capitol Hill. It’s a surprisingly grim, effective scene but one encased in celluloid garbage. The characters have little motivations for the actions they take, secondary characters like Lois Lane (Amy Adams) are nothing but mindless pawns, and the action is dishearteningly over produced to the point it kills any sense of wonder. Even Hans Zimmer loses interest halfway through as his score becomes an excruciating cacophony of “BRAAAAAMS” and flaccid guitar wails.
I guess the bigger question is does anyone acquit themselves from this mess? Ben Affleck makes for an interesting, disenchanted Bruce Wayne/Batman, and Jesse Eisenberg is at least maniacally entertaining throughout. If anything, Eisenberg’s performance belongs in a completely different film. Maybe one that isn’t so fucking self-serious. Or one that’s self-aware. To put it in perspective, the film’s biggest paradigm shift hinges on a single name being muttered between our two heroes. It’s a scene that is so lazy, insulting and ridiculous that I honestly think Zack Snyder is trolling filmgoers. Ultimately, Snyder and company don’t understand the quintessential difference between Superman and Batman, nor their canonical characterization. Instead, what we get is two morose, beleaguered superheroes thrust together to fulfill a fanboy’s wet dream without ever getting to the money shot or a slice of resonance. Batman v. Superman is a miscalculation from beginning to end. At this point Warner Bros. wanted a franchise in bloom, but now they’re entrenched in a nightmare they can’t turn away from.