WASHINGTON, April 14, 2016 – In our previous installment of this two-part review, we dealt with the visual aesthetics, or lack thereof, including color, lighting and visibility of action. We also noted the film’s jittery narrative angles and flow as well as its at times amateurish editing that at times allow the plot threads to dangle like so many unconnected nerves.
Unfortunately, the problems continue to accrue as we look at the even more crucial elements of character and believability. Take the way “Batman v Superman” sets up the titanic battle between the Son of Krypton and the Dark Knight. It is soul crushing. For the actual fight to make sense both characters have to buy into embracing their most negative aspects.
The film we view on screen lacks character perspective, being clearly more interested in Bruce Wayne and Batman than it is in Superman. Even here, the filmmakers only superficially attempts to get into the head of Bruce Wayne and do so by regurgitating images and dream sequences that have been told countless times before.
In addition, Bruce Wayne’s interpolated dream sequences are awkwardly cut in a way that distracts rather than informs. Again, with regard to the tragic origins of Batman, we’ve already been here before, not only in the Batman comics but in the Michael Keaton resurrection of this character and, even more so, in Christopher Nolan’s brilliant Dark Knight film trilogy.
In “Batman v Superman,” we come to understand that a stockier, greying Bruce Wayne has already been operating as Batman for some 20 years. But at this point in his life, Bruce acts more beaten down and world-weary than we might expect, and he’s become more violent and detached in his crime fighting methods.
As we indicated in our previous installment, this version of Batman is loosely based on the popular depiction of the Caped Crusader in Frank Miller’s “Dark Knight” graphic novels of the 1980s. They depict this iconic DC character as an aging and violent vigilante forced to return to a world where he seems largely irrelevant. Miller’s Batman hates Superman because he’s become a tool for the increasingly fascistic American government in that continuity, a motivation that differs considerably in the current film.
Ben Affleck’s Batman also hates Superman, but the reasoning behind that hatred is a lot more specious. Much of this has to do with the overstuffed plot that encases and frequently stifles this movie. In reality, the elaborately contrived narrative simply fails to leave enough time to properly develop either Batman or any of the characters or their motivations.
In short, Bruce Wayne-Batman hates Superman for what he imagines the Man of Steel could become. He bases that notion rather improbably on an elaborate ruse set up by a brilliant but insane megalomaniac scientist-entrepreneur named—surprise!—Lex Luthor—and as a result, starts stockpiling armor and weaponry for when the day of confrontation inevitably comes.
Speaking of Luthor, we encounter yet another problem. Next to Batman, the second primary character in “Batman v Superman” is Lex Luthor (played by Jesse Eisenberg), not the Man of Steel. Whether by design or accident, Lex is more or less the ringleader of this whole affair and the only one of the three who’s afforded the screen time to develop into a well-rounded character who is both multi-layered and interesting.
Lex at various points during his history has been a scientist and CEO and often times both. This version picks up loosely from the “Death of Superman” DC Comics era, during which the original Lex had himself cloned into a younger body, passing himself off as his own son. This vaguely seems like the template Snyder and company are working with, along with a more eccentric version of Jesse Eisenberg’s portrayal, which seems to mix in equal parts of the late Heath Ledger’s Joker and Facebook’s unappealing CEO, Mark Zuckerberg.
Whatever the case, Eisenberg plays Lex Luthor with vigor, eccentricity, and menace. Of all the characters in the film, he’s easily the most consistently interesting. His motivations do make sense on a certain level. He hates Superman for being a god. Unfortunately, due to Snyder’s direction, this construct quickly falls apart because the film builds no emotional resonance into it. It also hurts that Lex’s emotional landscape is all over the place. Scene-to-scene, he careens wildly from crazy to diabolical to savvy in ways that never connect.
Lex is the kind of megalomaniac that can carry an entire film and almost does at points. But his scenes are spread too far apart and almost always occur away from both Superman and Batman. In fact, the three characters only have one interaction together throughout the entire film, making it seem at times like Lex is actually starring in a completely different movie altogether.
For a villainous supporting character obsessed with Superman, Lex actually has shockingly little interaction with him. Both Lex and Batman profess to hate and mistrust Superman. But the film works hard, it seems, to allow both to communicate with Superman as little as possible.
Turning back to the Caped Crusader, this film’s narrative implies that Batman, perhaps a bit like Luthor, started to lose his mind thinking about how much power Superman possesses when compared to the average human. It’s a pretty huge problem to have your main protagonist think this way when he’s supposed to be a super hero.
Alfred (played by Jeremy Irons) reinforces this issue, speaking pointedly to Bruce Wayne about how good men turn cruel. But it’s hard to really take this at face value because “Batman v Superman” does absolutely nothing to build Bruce/Batman’s character.
Moving along, the film’s pre-release trailers ruined what should have been the surprise appearance of Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) in this film. The trailers telegraphed this “surprise,” implying that she would be a much larger part of the movie than she actually was. Warner Bros had been promoting Gadot’s casting for most of the PR lead-in to “Batman v Superman,” but her appearance here proved rather disappointing. It felt like a trailer tacked on to the main vehicle to promote the solo Wonder Woman movie coming out sometime in the near future.
Throughout the entire film, Wonder Woman is not even properly identified. She’s acknowledged by name only once in passing, and that moment occurred when she wasn’t even on the screen. Much like the even smaller cameos of the Flash, Aquaman, and Cyborg that pop up so fast we’re not even sure what we just saw, Wonder Woman’s appearance here seems like a check box the director needed to tick off. Inexplicably, Gadot finally shows up in full Wonder Woman garb only at the tail end of the film where she inexplicably gets involved in the concluding monster mash.
Beginning with “Man of Steel,” Superman in this rebooted continuity has been portrayed on one level as an alien threat to humanity just because he’s from another planet. The allusion to our own situation in both the U.S. and Europe is too obvious to miss.
This point of view has some merit in context considering that to the casual onlooker, the destructive urban battle that ends “Man of Steel” and begins “Batman v Superman” shows our supposed superhero causing, at least indirectly, excessive amounts of damage that presumably result in a massive number of deaths.
Complicating the issue, whenever he’s pressed on the topic, Superman threatens whomever he’s talking to, reminding the churlish individual how easily he could end that individual’s life, almost like an abuser taking a hostage. The implication is fairly clear if unintended: Superman’s powerful enough that he is in essence taking the entire world hostage. This is a Superman that apparently hates humanity, and “Batman v Superman” does little to squelch that notion.
What’s even more frustrating is painfully obvious Christ imagery the film layers onto Superman. Superman can be looked at as a messianic figure but only visually. The film never bothers to provide much in the way of human parallels to confirm the analogy.
By the end of the film though, it’s obvious that verisimilitude is lost on Snyder. He just barges ahead, drawing parallels between Superman’s fate and the fate of Jesus Christ, right down to the possibility of resurrection and rehabilitation. But even here, the parallelism seems to lack any sense of redemption or humanity.
There’s a surprising amount of negative energy that permeates “Batman v Superman.” Aside from everything else we’ve pointed out in our previous article and this one, the giant misstep that’s made in this film is that it pulls away from the idealism we’ve come to associate with Superman and even Batman at times.
Every impulse to embrace fear and hate is reinforced numerous times as this film runs its course. This has the effect of jam-piling on the existing and obvious negatives such as the murky visuals, the overstuffed/collapsing-in-on-itself plot, the poor character development and the awful editing.
Those issues would be relatively superficial if the film’s characters themselves didn’t all come across as mean-spirited players in a nasty land who choose to accept and promote the insular, cynical, and downright depressing worldview the directors seem to be promoting in “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.”