Back in 2013, Zack Snyder's cinematic Superman reboot Man Of Steel stirred up plenty of controversy with its dour take on a beloved icon. The film's version of the man from Krypton, as played by Henry Cavill, is noble and powerful, but removed from the people he's protecting. He struggles with the memory of his adoptive father Jonathan Kent (Kevin Costner), who advises him to hide his abilities, then chooses to die rather than let Superman publicly save him. Snyder's Superman is haunted by his own powers, while simultaneously blind to the harm those powers cause. That comes to a head when he fights fellow Kryptonian General Zod (Michael Shannon) in the middle of downtown Metropolis, destroying half the city and undoubtedly killing untold numbers of civilians. And ultimately, to some fans' horror, he kills Zod to prevent him from doing further harm. Man Of Steel portrays that decision as painful and personal, made at great cost—but it doesn't bear any resemblance to the more than 70 years of Superman stories that preceded it.
The sequel, Batman v Superman: Dawn Of Justice, isn't just a sequel to Man Of Steel, it's a pointed referendum on the debate that followed the film. Occasionally, the self-awareness is hilarious, as when secondary characters go out of their way to point out that the climactic battle is taking place in a series of unpopulated areas. Occasionally it's graphic and horrifying, as in an early sequence showing the Superman/Zod fight from a ground's-eye view, confirming all the collateral terror it caused. But mostly, Snyder and screenwriters Chris Terrio and David S. Goyer seem to be taking advantage of the criticism to boost drama, without really comprehending the human source of it. Batman v Superman addresses Man Of Steel's problems in words without learning anything from it in tone. Instead, the new film doubles down on the grimness, the ugliness, and the indifference to human life.
Warning: mild spoilers ahead.
The script channels its Man Of Steel reactions through bratty rich kid Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg) and sullen rich man Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck), a.k.a. Batman, both of whom resent Superman's failures, envy his power, and fear his potential for destruction. It's unsettling how closely the supposed hero and the villain resemble each other in their thinking and their actions: Both decide that the only solution is to humble Superman, break his will, and then kill him. Meanwhile, the American government also reacts to the events of Man Of Steel, with memorials, hearings, and back-door deals with Lex. And as Superman continues to save lives, and to be blamed when lives are lost around him, both the public controversy and the private vendettas get more heated.
There are plenty of strong, specific themes running through Batman v Superman, about the responsibilities of power, who can be trusted with it, and whether it corrupts absolutely. Both titular heroes must resist a system that would tie their hands and end their usefulness, in the name of making everyone equal. (Snyder's recent revelation that he wants to direct a version of Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead certainly makes more sense now.) But that's why it's all the more aggravating when Snyder and his writers can't figure out how to express those themes clearly. There's plenty of fragmented musing throughout Batman v Superman about how Superman is essentially a god incarnate, with Earth benefiting from his benevolence, but helpless before his whims. But it's bloated with rabbit trails, dead ends, dream sequences (so many dream sequences), Lois Lane rescues (so many Lois Lane rescues), and pointed setups for future Justice League movies.
One of the looser ends is Lex Luthor, whom Eisenberg plays as a manic, lighter version of Heath Ledger's Joker from The Dark Knight, all nervy babble, alarming tittering, and nihilistic challenges to the world. This Lex lacks the Joker's sense of menace, or even focus; his sneakers, shaggy hair, and squeaky voice are overtly non-threatening, even when he's in the middle of a threat. At the same time, he's meant to be a brilliant manipulator, seemingly inspired by the far-reaching mogul Ozymandias from Alan Moore's Watchmen, which Snyder adapted to film in 2009. Like both the Dark Knight Joker and the Watchmen villain, Lex likes forcing other people into conflict to make his philosophical points. But the writers can't seem to settle on a motive or a method for him. Every scene feels like a roulette-wheel spin to decide which Lex we'll get: malicious or noble, power-hungry or anarchic, selfish or altruistic, xenophobically fearing Superman or desperately envying him.
The film's Batman goes in the opposite direction: He has too few facets instead of too many. Affleck plays the character as wearyingly simple and inflexible, barely able to contain his seething wrath. As Bruce Wayne, he can hardly stop snarling long enough to pretend to be human at a social gathering. As Batman, he's a sadistic savage who tortures criminals by branding his bat symbol into their skins, and has no compunctions about mowing down adversaries en masse with high-powered artillery fire. The world's concerns over Superman are largely irrational responses to something they don't understand and can't control. Superman's concern over Batman, on the other hand, is a reasonable response to a psychopath with an endless supply of weaponry and rage.
The frustrating thing about Gun-Wielding Torture Batman is that he's a match for Superman in combat, but no where else. Batman's strength has traditionally been his intellect, but here, he leaves the detective work to Lois, blunders into a broad and obvious trap, and lets himself be manipulated in clumsy ways. He's not just an unusually cruel version of the character, he's an unusually stupid and simplistic one. He's balanced by a similarly simplistic version of Superman, who's so majestically removed from society as to become a cipher. (Cavill doesn't help; he rarely varies his concerned frown, letting the concern-wrinkles between his eyebrows do most of the acting for him.) It's clear that the filmmakers have thought about Superman's motivation, but are also hesitant to reveal too much of his internal conflict, at the risk of it being, well, kind of boring. Instead he remains a symbol, at least until it's time for the big titular throwdown.
That fight comes late in the game, and it's so grim, humorless, and vicious, it stops being thrilling early on. It isn't in the service of any of the themes the film has struggled to express, it's just a meat-headed, brutal throwdown, with Batman dragging out the combat in the name of bloody-minded sadism, and Superman making the same grating mistakes over and over. Snyder has always been a graphic visual stylist, giving films like 300, Watchmen, and Sucker Punch a visceral weight to go with the distinctively garish digital sheen. So the action in Batman v Superman at least looks convincing.
But it also feels painfully grotesque, like it's dragging both participants into villainy and dim-witted hatred in order to ramp up the stakes. In theory, this is the story of two heroes realizing that the things they hate about each other are reflections of the things they worry about in themselves, particularly the damage they could do if they fail, physically or morally. In theory, they should both come to realize that they're the only feasible checks on each other's power. In practice, it's two CGI effects whaling on each other, and shouting manifestos: "The world only makes sense if you force it to," Batman yells at Superman while pummeling him repeatedly for no discernable reason. That's hardly an ethos for a hero.
When Wonder Woman finally turns up, she becomes the film's highlight
There are certainly some brilliant plot touches in the film, like the outcome of a Senate hearing on the Superman violence, which both forwards the plot and clarifies the issue. Or when Superman faces an enemy more powerful than Zod, and starts by taking him straight up into space, proving he actually did learn something from his final Man Of Steel battle. The film is largely humorless and airless, without any of the banter that has made so many of the recent Marvel-derived movies compelling, but when Martha Kent (Diana Lane) meets Batman, she manages one friendly wisecrack that serves as a much-needed catharsis. Once in a while, Batman v Superman makes a direct, clear, straightforward choice, and the results can be satisfying.
But the most satisfying part of the film is the one that expresses all the things it isn't, and should have been. When Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), finally turns up, abruptly and without backstory, she becomes the film's highlight simply by being less miserable and morally compromised than anyone else onscreen. She, at least, maintains some mystery and dignity. And she's allowed to be the film's one pure hero, fighting solely on humanity's behalf, without questioning whether humanity is worthy, or how the fight might change her, or how it serves her own pathological needs. In a movie where too much of the conflict comes from anger and ignorance instead of necessity, she apparently has the wisdom and discernment everyone else is lacking: she only shows up for the battle that actually needs to be fought. Batman v Superman could have used much more of that heroism, and less of its grasping, sloppy, confused attempts to question what being a hero really means.