Warner Bros.’ Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is as exhausting as its entertainment news cycle build-up, proving irrevocably that it is no longer acceptable for costumed champions to inhabit their own isolated franchises. Now, they live in shared universes where they can butt heads, team up and hang out. There’s an inescapable joy to that kind of franchise blending, of course, so this is less complaint than mere observation, though BvS is the studio’s attempt at achieving in two films (with Man of Steel) what Marvel Studios achieved in six. Welcome to the DC Extended Universe—this is the next step in the evolution of the superhero movie: incomprehensible bloat.
But spinning a shared universe in which superheroes can coexist takes time, patience and sweat equity. It takes build-up, and not only the kind of build-up done through industry gossip and hearsay. This is why Marvel’s 2012 hit The Avengers succeeded and why it changed the superhero game: Joss Whedon and Co. dedicated four years to setting a foundation for the climactic moment where their audience’s beloved pen and ink gods could naturally come together to save the day. Even if you hate The Avengers—and in the world of comic book partisanship there surely are many who do—that movie and all five preceding it each take the correct path toward their ultimate culmination. They put in the work. No cheats, no shortcuts.
Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is all about cheats and shortcuts. It is Wile E. Coyote, running off a cliff onto nothing and staying suspended mid-air as long as it doesn’t look down. In another timeline where Warner Bros. erred on the side of patience, Batman v Superman would be a very different movie, one that isn’t forced into the unfavorable position of having to layer an origin story with the aftermath of Man of Steel, 2013’s lead-in film to the DCEU , while also laying out groundwork for the origin stories (to be told at later dates) of a handful of characters who will each be integral to 2017’s Justice League: Part One. For the uninitiated, that will theoretically be Warner Bros.’ Avengers equivalent, but bad news: Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is such a miscalculated ploy that it puts future releases under the brand on immediately shaky footing.
The film has too much on its plate, but that belies the incompetence with which it is handled as a story, much less as a product. Here’s the skinny, if you have miraculously avoided teasers and trailers, TV spots and commercial tie-ins: Post-Man of Steel, as Metropolis rebuilds from the devastation of that film’s ending sequence, tormented billionaire playboy-cum-vigilante Bruce Wayne/Batman (Ben Affleck) determines that he must find a way to deter or destroy Superman (Henry Cavill). Why? Because he fears Superman’s world-breaking power, and believes that left unchecked the Kryptonian could annihilate the human race. Bruce isn’t alone, either. Manic, twitchy businessman Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg) feels the same way, and he’s quietly trying to manipulate events to see his personal, nefarious ends brought to fruition.
That’s about the size of it. BvS’s utter shapelessness makes any synopsizing a fool’s errand, though if you’ve seen the promo material, you more or less know what’s up already—or you think that you do. But you only have an idea of what the movie is supposed to be based on what it purports to be. In truth, it is a jaw-dropping mess. Only Batman is given clear motivation, and only he faces any stakes. Superman is a cipher. Lex Luthor’s desires and goals change by the minute. The film itself can’t decide if it’s a Batman movie or a Superman movie, but it fails at being both, and why wouldn’t it? We’re missing a step B between the step A of Man of Steel and this film’s step C.
This should have been an easy slam dunk, but this is the price you pay when you rush. Festina lente, as the ancient Greeks would say, and they know a thing or two about mythological figures engaging in battle. Regardless of the seemingly interminable years it took to put together, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice feels both hastily made and expensively shoddy. Who do you blame for that? Is it Zack Snyder, director of other comic book adaptations from 300 to 2009’s misfired Watchmen? Is it David S. Goyer, or perhaps Chris Terrio, who cobbled together the script? Is it the film’s producer team?
It’s hard to put too much of the onus on the people we see in front of the camera, even if Cavill and Eisenberg both turn out career-worst performances, because everything that occurs in the frame is the result of behind-the-scenes puppetry. Someone told Eisenberg to project irritating, high-strung pseudo-insanity. Someone instructed Cavill to play stoic to the point of absolute blankness. Someone decided that cherry-picking source material in a hodgepodge of lazy plot structuring would be holistic. And someone also forgot to tell Snyder that storytelling requires more than visual flair, though his usual eye for imagery is muted by the film’s hideous, monotonous color palette and generic approach to set pieces. He has shot a slick, dull and overlong car commercial, interrupted by monsters.
Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice doesn’t give a damn. Comic book fans will hate it. Comic book fans will also love it. Where that leaves movie fans? Whether the film works as an actual film is irrelevant, no matter Snyder’s many shortcomings as a director, and Goyer’s as a screenwriter. Parademons and injustices, flashpoints and, well, doomsdays—there’s very little that the picture’s overseers don’t draw on for staging the promised clash between its titular heroes, which quite frankly feels like a disappointment and sort of a con. BvS has a handful of ideas at its core about responsibility, accountability and the consequences of absolute power, but these ideas sputter rather than pan out.
Batman and Superman have their differences—moral, ideological, philosophical—and these differences make for good drama in comic books, or in cartoon serials, but there’s no space to adapt any of that to the screen. Snyder has collateral damage to incur, this time with laughable insurance dialogue designed solely to assure viewers that no civilians were hurt while making this movie. The film is an embarrassment for all involved, but that’s a non-issue when you have a built-in audience, and besides: Warner Bros. has a slew of related follow-ups on the books up to 2020. For those movies, Batman v Superman is a mercy. It has done the bumbling architectural legwork for them. They’re free to be actual movies and not tragically half-assed preambles. Sympathy to the DC aficionados: This probably isn’t the movie they asked for.
Director: Zack Snyder
Writer: David S. Goyer, Chris Terrio
Starring: Henry Cavill, Ben Affleck, Jesse Eisenberg, Amy Adams, Gal Gadot, Jeremy Irons, Holly Hunter, Laurence Fishburne, Diane Lane
Release Date: March 25, 2016
Boston-based critic Andy Crump has been writing online about film since 2009, and has contributed to Paste Magazine since 2013. He also writes for Screen Rant, Movie Mezzanine and Birth.Movies.Death. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected writing at his personal blog. He is composed of roughly 65% craft beer.