Spoilers: They fight.
To director Zack Snyder’s credit, that fight is everything that anyone could want out of it. The build to it even almost makes sense, though not quite as much as it would have if Warner had just let Snyder make an adaptation of The Dark Knight Returnsinstead of pretending that he wasn’t. How that fight all works? It works well. It just takes so long to get there — at one point a character says “two years” — that the rest of it really should have been more fun to build the suspense, rather than feel like two years.
That was snarky. It was also not true. There are moments throughout that work and keep this from being a terrible movie, but not nearly enough to make it a very good one. Many of those moments come from some of the most critically acclaimed comics in the last 30 or so years of DC history, and I can honestly say that at some point, I loved each and every one of those comics that inspired Batman v Superman Dawn of Justice. Snyder takes the one genre that Marvel hadn’t gotten around to as a model for one of their films, Wagnerian opera, and fills it full of thunder, lightning, and rage. There’s no doubt that some people will eat it up, and those people do, already, eat thunder. The movies that follow — and this one awkwardly keeps making clear that there are many that will — have promise. I’m just not sure that that promise includes any fun, and yes, that bugs me.
Snyder is so clearly a fan of comic books that he could direct a Batman solo film that would rival the fanboy awe in 1989 when Tim Burton took on the franchise. Every scene with Ben Affleck and Batman and Jeremy Irons as Alfred Pennyworth has exactly the delicate balance that movies have never quite gotten right. We can believe that Alfred is both highly sophisticated and bad-ass. We can also believe Affleck as the tight-jawed man of principle who dons a Batsuit. Even the origin sequence — yes, sorry, it happens — is beautifully done. If we’ve seen it before, at least Snyder makes it not terribly painful, and it serves the purpose of his larger story.
However, the lesson that Bruce took away from that night seems muddled, and he fights less for justice than for anger. It’s a very cool touch that he has been fighting for a long time; finally, somebody assumes that everybody knows the legends of Batman, and we can catch tauntingly clever glimpses of a past that we will never see on film, and we don’t need to see. We know it.
All of that has led to a Bat that is angry: angry at the pointlessness of life and angry at the Kryptonian that brought violence to the Earth. Though Bruce figures out very early that Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg) isn’t all that he seems, the Bat’s anger blinds him to just how dangerous the boy genius really is. It’s just much easier for him to hate Superman than to think.
It’s not that outrageous a take on the character, but to get there, Snyder fumbles a bit narratively. Despite every protest from Warner Brothers that they’re not imitating Marvel, they’re imitating Marvel by telling one long story across several films. Not that that’s an unforgivable sin — the idea obviously works, and this fan wants to see it work. But Marvel fumbles at it a lot, too, and Snyder makes the connection almost too strong. As revealed in the trailer, this movie begins with another angle on the third act of Man of Steel, to establish Bruce Wayne’s righteous anger. Do you need to have seen that movie? Maybe, in order to understand the bit of complexity that Snyder has insisted that Man of Steel had. Otherwise, you kind of see Bruce Wayne’s point.
The clumsy macguffin that occurs “18 months after the coming of the Superman” (sometimes this movie feels like Tenacious D is singing it and not getting their own joke) only underscores that Superman (Henry Cavill) is dangerous, without really giving us a chance to see the growth that people keep saying he had. Like in Man of Steel, that “S is for Hope” thing is only exposition, not ever shown. That 18 month journey into public belovedness? It would have been nice to see it. As it is, though Clark occasionally smiles at Lois, Superman only smiles once in this whole movie, a wry relieved thing that yes, sorry, Zack, contrasts to that broad grin that Christopher Reeve used to melt America’s heart.
Therein lies Snyder’s strength and weakness. He is right. He shouldn’t be duty bound to recreate that iconic portrayal. (Bryan Singer tried it and failed.) And I am not a Snyder hater: he is very good at putting images together. Lord, they can look cool. But too often he doesn’t tie sequences together particularly well. So we can have a great fight; we can have even a slight erotic frisson between Bruce and
Clark Diana Prince (Gal Gadot); we can have banter between Bruce and Alfred that threatens to lift the movie’s spirits. They just don’t flow well.
Snyder also overuses dream sequences in his bid to tie this together with the larger epic. In his desperation to pay homage to Mark Millar’s Red Son, the imagery is so jarring that it makes no sense. I’m not sure, but I think Heimdall was about to grab Batman and warn him of Ragnarok. You can throw in easter eggs like this, but it can’t stop the narrative dead. And it keeps doing that, over and over, so that Warner Brothers can sneak in trailers for DC Universe movies to come. They could disappear from the film and the story would make more sense. (Yes, the most frustrating thing for me is that I actually want to buy the R-rated home video version.)
Because again, when it works…
Take Wonder Woman. Gadot isn’t really given much to do, but she makes the most of it, stealing almost every scene she’s in. (Everyone will walk out ready for her solo film — no exaggeration.) Eisenberg’s portrayal of Luthor is a little over the top, but it is a different spin than we’ve seen before. He’s descended into madness before we meet him, and able to cover it up because of his intelligence. And there are fine character moments sprinkled throughout, including Holly Hunter’s Senator Finch, a principled politician who really is serving as antagonist because she believes in truth, justice, and the American way.
There it is — an idea, thrown away too soon to serve a collection of cool images. Zack Snyder, you do things that I could not do, but you need to pay attention to your own script. It’s time to offer us hope, not just sturm und drang. It’s watchable; it’s just unsatisfying.