It wasn’t long ago that superheroes didn’t need much of a reason to brawl with each other in the pages of comic books. As time went on, however, readers demanded more from their superhero stories, and good writers responded by crafting more complicated reasons for good guys to trade punches in stories that didn’t talk down to fans or insult their intelligence.
Sadly, Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice shows no such respect to its audience.
The sequel to 2013’s wildly polarizing Man of Steel, director Zack Snyder’s Batman V. Superman pits the two, titular DC Comics heroes against each other before ultimately — as is the tradition in such stories — having them team up to fight a powerful common enemy. The film brings back Man of Steel star Henry Cavill as the tortured, eternally angsty Superman, whose degree of inner turmoil is only matched by that of newcomer Ben Affleck as Bruce Wayne, the brutal, brooding Batman. They’re joined by Fast & Furious franchise actress Gal Gadot in a too-brief supporting role as Wonder Woman, Amy Adams as plucky Daily Planet journalist Lois Lane, and Jesse Eisenberg as a twitchy, diabolical Lex Luthor.
Remarkably sparse on character development and world-building, Batman V. Superman even falls short in the action department
It doesn’t spoil anything to reveal that the two comic-book icons do indeed get over their differences and turn their two-hero fight club into a team-up, because in this and so many other ways, Batman V. Superman is a movie that lives and dies by comic-book tropes — with a particular emphasis on the whole “dying” thing.
Critics of Snyder’s Man of Steel often take issue with the film’s climactic finale, in which [SPOILER ALERT] Superman decides to kill the movie’s primary antagonist after a prolonged battle through both his Kansas hometown and the skyscrapers of Metropolis that turns thousands of lives into collateral damage. Superman’s apparent lack of interest in saving people caught in the crossfire of his brawl earned Snyder and screenwriter David S. Goyer no small amount of bad blood from both casual and longtime fans of the character, but defenders of the film — including Snyder himself — have long suggested that Batman V. Superman would address that very issue in one way or another.
To their credit, Snyder and the Batman V. Superman team do indeed address the concerns over the Man of Steel’s disregard for human life in the new film, but in a way few people probably expected. Rather than have Superman take responsibility for his actions in Man of Steel and mature as a hero, Batman V. Superman simply doubles-down on the body count and seems to counter critics’ concerns by taking every opportunity to have Batman kill a lot of people, too.
It’s a bold gamble, for sure, and only time will tell if going all-in on turning both Batman and Superman into “ends justify the means” killers pays off for the studio.
And unfortunately, that’s also about as cerebral as Batman V. Superman gets, despite its 151-minute running time.
Given how long it asks its audience to spend in the theater, it seems reasonable to expect more from the film than what it actually offers. Remarkably sparse on character development and world-building, Batman V. Superman even falls short of expectations in the action department — something that should be an easy win for Snyder, the man who gave the world 300 and Sucker Punch, and turned Alan Moore’s critically acclaimed graphic novel Watchmen into a bona fide action movie. Even the match-up alluded to in the title is a brief affair, with nearly 90 minutes of build-up leading to a relatively short brawl between Batman and Superman. In the end, the pair’s tussle feels more obligatory than exciting, and has more in common with the pacing of a professional wrestling bout than the dramatic turns of a successful blockbuster movie.
If there’s a positive to be found in Batman V. Superman, it’s the lone bright spot in an otherwise forgettable cast: Gadot’s Wonder Woman.
Like its predecessor, Batman V. Superman also suffers from some pretty significant storytelling problems over the course of its unnecessarily long running time. Dream sequences, flashbacks, and other story elements outside the main arc of the film have a nasty habit of making unannounced, jarring entrances to the story and end up feeling overly forced. The plot points intended to establish the wider cinematic universe for DC’s characters feel crammed into the script, and lack the organic feel that Marvel Studios and 20th Century Fox have been able to achieve with their “expanded universe” elements.
If there’s a positive to be found in Batman V. Superman, it’s the lone bright spot in an otherwise forgettable cast: Gadot’s Wonder Woman. While Batman and Superman spend the majority of the movie trying to out-mope each other, Gadot makes the best of her brief screen time by exuding the sort of confidence and poise that makes Wonder Woman seem like the only true superhero in the film. One particular scene has her character getting knocked across the field of battle, only to show her getting back up with an ever-so-slight smile on her face as she re-enters the fray. It’s a scene that stands out for being both pitch-perfect to the character and offering little of the soul-searching angst that permeates almost every other frame of the film.
Unfortunately, that ever-present, grim and gritty tone of Batman V. Superman also makes it difficult to get a good read on Affleck in his debut as Bruce Wayne. Traditionally, Batman owns the “brooding hero” angle in any story, but DC Comics’ live-action movie universe is proving to be a very different environment for its heroes. In fact, very little separates the temperaments of Superman and Batman in Dawn of Justice, and both Cavill and Affleck’s performances tend to feel like a single, tortured perspective on the events of the film.
Still, despite everything Batman V. Superman does wrong, the worst thing about the film might not be that it’s a bad movie. Given how long it took Batman V. Superman to find its way to the screen, its worst offense might actually be in vindicating the decisions that kept two of comics’ greatest characters from appearing on the same screen for the last two decades — and in doing so, hurting their chances of getting the shared movie they rightfully deserve.