This movie is not as bad as you may have heard. It is much, much worse. This is the kind of movie that a fourteen-year-old, who thinks they’re “edgy” after just discovering Nine Inch Nails and Richard Dawkins, would make in stop-motion with their old action figures.
“Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” was supposed to be the movie that launched D.C. Comics’ own competitor to Marvel’s Avengers juggernaut. And while I’ve had a few critical things to say about the Marvel formula over the years, nothing – nothing – in the Marvel lineup comes close to the travesty that is this film. As it were, the person who should be happiest about “BvS” is Joel Schumacher, director of the much-derided “Batman and Robin.” Now, he no longer holds claim to the “worst Batman director” title (assuming, however, that the abomination Snyder has put onscreen can even be termed a “Batman movie”).
Snyder’s characters are cardboard cutouts – I’d be surprised if either Batman or Superman had more than ten lines apiece. Despite my best efforts, I cannot think of a single adjective to describe Ben Affleck’s Bruce Wayne other than “well, he’s Batman.” At least Lois Lane (Amy Adams) displays some glimmers of a personality, and Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) seems to be having a good time. Superman (Henry Cavill) broods a lot and storms around but doesn’t talk much.
I haven’t yet said anything about the plot. That’s because there isn’t much of one. Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg) goads Superman and Batman into a fight because Batman feels insecure about Superman’s lack of accountability…though Batman also isn’t accountable to anyone…and that bothers Superman…never mind, it’s not worth trying to parse. Eventually, Batman and Superman fight, and Lex sends out a giant monster (Doomsday) to kill everything in sight, and plenty of things go boom.
The film consistently evinces middle-school editing skills. For the movie’s first 90 minutes, almost every scene lasts for less than a minute before cutting away to some entirely different location. No one stops to pause, to reflect, to engage in introspection, or to explain what’s going on; it’s filmmaking for the hyperactive post-millennial generation.
Much worse: Batman and Superman are hollowed-out shells stripped of principle, motivation, and identity. Not once do they articulate a positive conception of their roles in society. They brood, and express angst, and trade punches, but display absolutely zero sense of a broader ethical responsibility to those around them. This problem is so pervasive that I hesitate to even say that “Superman fights Batman” in this movie, since the armored thing onscreen is so utterly antithetical to the ethos of the Batman character. In this film, Batman tortures, brands, burns, knifes, and shoots his opponents and comes within microseconds of murdering Superman in cold blood. This is no superhero; this is a monster who has embraced every facet of evil teased out in Christopher Nolan’s trilogy. And yet Snyder seems to think we should be okay with this. Similarly, Superman displays a glib unconcern for the lives of others around him, saving lives and ignoring lives whenever he feels so inclined. It’s quite possible Snyder is making a point about the perceived capriciousness of God (a point tossed out by Lex), but then, incoherently, Snyder proceeds to engage in shameless, artistically bankrupt appropriation of traditional Christian imagery. One particularly infuriating example: a seriously wounded Superman, bleeding from a spear wound in his side, is carried down from a war-blasted hill and cradled in Wonder Woman’s arms, with three cross-beams silhouetted in the background. Here, Snyder is leaning very, very hard on the messianic Superman imagery (way more so than in “Man of Steel”) but with even less substance to back it up. The end result feels cheap, incoherent, cynically manipulative (especially given that the film released over Easter weekend) and more cloying than even the worst Joel Osteen sermon.
As I’ve written elsewhere, I really don’t like it when critics throw stones without suggesting potential fixes. Accordingly (bear with me) here’s my treatment of how “BvS” should’ve looked:
As the film opens, Batman apprehends a vicious and persistently homicidal villain (it could be Lex Luthor, the Joker, or anyone else). After a savage battle, Batman subdues the villain but does not kill him, out of a sense of principle; instead, the villain is incarcerated in Arkham Asylum. Naturally, the villain escapes (with help from corrupt law enforcement) and ends up killing Lois Lane before Superman can intervene. In the midst of intense personal anguish, Superman sees this as Batman’s ideological failure, arising from an unwillingness to embrace the totality of his “beyond-ness” vis-a-vis the law (in “Man of Steel” Superman killed Zod in order to prevent innocent people from being slain). Batman, conversely, sees his “thou shalt not kill” principle as inviolable…even if, through other intervening actors, downstream harm results. This, then is the conflict that sets up the savage battle between Batman and Superman. There is no late-game villain that forces them to put their quarrel aside and cooperate: instead, the final battle plays out like the last scenes of “Blade Runner” – slow and portentous conflict, mixed with philosophy, in the rain. Such a plot arc not only sets up a far deeper philosophical clash than “order versus chaos” (this is a consequentialism vs. deontological ethics) but implicates contemporary debates about the morality of capital punishment and accountability in the criminal justice system. It also breaks the unwritten “rule” of modern superhero movies that no main characters will ever die. It’s consistent with Batman’s character, consistent with the ending of “Man of Steel,” and sets up an ongoing flashpoint between two central characters. And as a bonus, it pays cinematic homage to one of the best examples of “dark” sci-fi entertainment.
But this would probably bore Snyder to tears. There aren’t enough explosions! (And, to be fair, sometimes these are fun; the final scene in which Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman team up against a giant enemy is just Avengers-y enough to warrant a couple stars. But the rest of the film is garbage.)
In the wake of “BvS,” it makes no sense to speak of a “Dawn of Justice” or even of a “Justice League” to come. Here, there is no concept of justice, virtue, ethics, morality, or logic to speak of. What “justice” can Snyder’s heroes be expected to enforce, when they stand for nothing at all other than raw strength? Plato’s Thrasymachus and Nietzsche’s madman would approve wholeheartedly: here, the only thing that matters is who can beat the stuffing out of the other guy. All is reducible to the will to power.
In short, “Batman v Superman” is stupid, nihilistic trash that betrays its iconic characters. It is an insult to the intellect, to the soul, and to good moviemaking.
One of the worst superhero films I’ve ever seen. “Man of Steel” looks like “Casablanca” by comparison.
Normalized Score: 0.0