Zack Snyder’s “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice” offers a joyride of boyhood fantasies sans substance. Although there exists little character development, the film instead delivers an orgy of light-beam-heavy, Dragon-Ball-Z-reminiscent fight scenes. Snyder fails to conjure substantial parallel narratives for the named characters who appear on the marquee, along with poor development of a compelling villain or the black-as-space atmosphere for which the film strives. “Batman v. Superman” is undoubtedly another incredible installment in the pantheon of violent, soulless superhero films. This film is terrible, and I loved it.
Allow me to insert a caveat: I dig comic books. I began reading “Batman” comics when I was 14 years old, a ripe age for consuming the bloody punch-fests Frank Miller produced in his seminal “The Dark Knight Returns,” the comic from which “Batman v. Superman” draws its inspiration. I am also a DC fan-boy, raised on “Batman,” “The Flash,” “Aquaman,” “Hellblazer” and “Swamp Thing”. In fact, Scott Snyder is currently writing some of the best “Batman”comics ever produced. When I heard about a film depicting the battle between Batman and Superman, hype flowed through my body like sex hormones on prom night. But, with each passing trailer, I, too, felt a growing dread. The 14-year-old in me walked away from the film satisfied. The film possessed all of the qualities of the comic book, after all: grittiness, Batman’s brooding and Superman getting punch in his pretty face.
At the age of 22, however, I approached the film with higher expectations because of the bar set by other, better superhero films. Although Snyder made some interesting choices, the film felt oddly hollow. Cue the beginning: Bruce Wayne’s parents die, and soon after, he falls into a cave of bats. This scene cues the viewer that Snyder does not trust the audience to fill in the backstory; he offers other Easter eggs throughout without explanation, including a brief shot of Robin’s suit in the Bat Cave (an allusion to the Joker-Kills-Jason-Todd storyline of “Death in the Family”). But overall, Snyder force-feeds the audience every bit of comic book lore as if we are idiots. He also hammers the themes of the film with melodramatic repetition (the mothers of Batman and Superman share the name Martha, a motif not-so-subtly introduced in this film).
There is also a reason why Batman appears before Superman in the film’s title, although the film operates as a de facto sequel to 2013’s “Man of Steel.” While Ben Affleck delivers a solid performance as both Bruce Wayne and the man in the cowl, affecting an older impersonation of Batman that mirrors Frank Miller’s comic book depiction. Henry Cavill provides a mostly boring performance. He plays the straight man to Affleck’s brooding crime soldier, offering only a boy scout smile and affirmations that he is good.
The film made me question: Does Superman, in fact, do good? An early scene depicts Bruce Wayne dashing through Gotham to save his employees from the destruction of Superman and General Zodd’s fight in the sky (the climax of “Man of Steel”). Superman appears oblivious of his surroundings he ruins as he seeks to save the world from aliens. Alternatively, Superman perceives Batman as a hot-headed vigilante, who not only captures criminals but brands them. I found this development for both characters highly believable: Batman, after all, is characterized as being on a trajectory toward more brutal justice. The film asks the right questions, in evoking a conflict between man and God, but the film does not remotely try to answer these questions.
By the film’s end, the heroes must expedite their friendship in order to set the stage for “The Justice League.” This does not serve the narrative of the film but rather a larger narrative invisible to the viewer. The film serves as a wobbly bridge between Superman’s solo outing and an eventual team-up ala “The Avengers.” Although “Batman v. Superman” services viewers by introducing Diane Prince, also known as Wonder Woman (played by Gal Gadot with an unidentifiable accent), the film hints only lightly at the other characters that might enter the fray. Although I found this exploration and tease unnecessary, I am glad to see that even hotter superheroes will grace the big screen soon: muscular Jason Mamoa in a speedo, perhaps, and dreamy Ezra Miller in tights. But the shoe-horning of these incongruent elements and characters into “Batman v. Superman” disrupts the narrative of an already jumbled story.
Jesse Eisenberg, playing Lex Luthor, offers the weakest performance of the film. As a villain, he cackles more than he poses a threat; this sinister and manic version of Luthor is a far cry from his composed and hyper-intelligent comic book character. This misrepresentation of Luthor’s character is as much Snyder’s fault as it is Eisenberg’s. At the film’s end, Luthor uses Zodd’s body to create an abomination named Doomsday (if you know anything about Superman’s history, you know what is coming), and then he forces Superman and Batman into a punch-heavy conflict. But what exactly is Luthor’s plan? Say, Batman kills Superman. Then what? His monstrous creation Doomsday wreaks havoc on Earth until everything is destroyed? Luthor never possesses a proper motivation for his actions, and this produces an uninspired villainy. With no plan at all, Luthor comes across as spectacularly stupid.
Despite all of these narrative and character problems, the film is good. Just good, not good in the Superman-does-good sense. Superheroes fight in a slick-edited sequence of punch-throw-laser-beam-scream-grunt extravaganza. Every action scene is indulgent in the best way, an avalanche of pulpy stereotypes exploding from the screen in beautiful CGI-produced wonder. Remove expectations, then, of philosophical rigor, although Luthor seems obsessed with the question of God’s indifference. This is testosterone-fueled fluff, and we consume it like cinema popcorn. We clog our arteries with empty intellectual calories, and damn, does it taste good.
“Batman v. Superman” asks this question: if God is all-powerful, can he be all-good? That God did not strike Snyder with lightning while he directed this beautiful shit-show is proof that no, God doesn’t care about our happiness at all.