It should have been spectacular. After years of anticipation, comic book fans and filmgoers alike can finally experience the first live-action showdown between two pop culture behemoths with Batman v. Superman. But the film we get is disappointing.
Set 18 months after the events of Man of Steel, where Superman literally destroyed Metropolis fighting another alien, this film finds Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) and Clark Kent (Henry Cavill) at odds with the other’s vigilante actions. Fueled by the public’s distrust of an alien as powerful as Superman, Bruce sees Superman as a threat, and vows to end Superman’s risk against humanity. Similarly, Clark Kent finds Batman to be just as dangerous, and wants to stop the Dark Knight’s so-called heroics.
This film, however, fails to present a strong sense of an innate difference between Bats and Supes. While Batman is broodingly portrayed by Affleck, Cavill’s Superman quietly mopes around in this film just as much. Or, as Batman spikes thugs’ heads into concrete, Superman grins as he pummels terrorists through brick walls. There’s not that much to contrast in their portrayals here. So why do they have a problem with each other?
This plotline, where the consequences of Batman’s and Superman’s actions as heroes are explored, would have been a much more interesting film, but this idea is hardly allowed to breathe. Also crammed into the runtime are other plotlines concerning Lex Luthor’s (a snivelling Jesse Eisenberg) evil political plot and Diana Prince’s (Gal Gadot) search for other heroes. Previously introduced characters like Martha Kent (Diane Lane) or Lois Lane (Amy Adams) are consequently not given much to do, other than to say drab lines of encouragement to Clark or to stare at him morosely.
These additional plotlines only jumble the film’s pacing, lacking cohesion and a consistent idea of why people act the way they do. For example: Does the public actually hate Superman? There are congressional hearings of his actions, but there’s a large monument of Superman erected in Metropolis. We are told his deification as a savior, only to see others angrily protesting his presence. Sure, there can be both reactions, but director Zack Snyder seems unsure of which one to use to drive the story’s focus, leading to an unsatisfying payoff of Superman’s character because we’re unsure of how to interpret his struggles as an alien in the public eye.
The film is also incredibly grim. Our heroes scowl their way through the movie and seem to fight with an ugly ferociousness unseen in previous incarnations. Others seem brusque and unpleasant. I’m all for darkness in films, if it serves the story, but Snyder seems adamant that overwhelming grimness beckons a sense of “epic-ness.” Visually, it’s a stunner. Though they’re mostly awash in gray and black hues, we’re witness to some of the most gorgeous and fantastical comic-book scenes in the genre’s history. But merely good visuals and gratuitous slow motion does not make up for a mediocre characterization or storytelling. When those are lacking, an oppressively dour tone just makes the experience even more joyless.
There’s no “light” and “dark”, only “dark” and “darker”. Frustratingly, there’s no power behind the punches thrown because we just see two depressed, angry men hitting each other, and not the archetypes we’ve grown to love. These are arguably different interpretations of the characters but, if the only sense of dimension we receive from them is brooding, then we wish for something more compelling.
Directed by Zack Snyder, Written by Chris Terrio. Starring: Henry Cavill, Ben Affleck, Gal Gadot, Jesse Eisenberg, Amy Adams, Diane Lane, Laurence Fishburne, and Holly Hunter.