Zack Snyder (“Man of Steel” & “Watchmen”) has always had a flair for theatrics, constructing elongated paintings that construct a constant frame of imagery. That imagery always seems to remain in the frame though, as if he’s forgotten the source that breathes life into the camera, the page, something constructed by Chris Terrio (“Argo”) and David S. Goyer (“Batman Begins”) in "Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice." A storyline that subtly suggests that it's far more clever than we're giving it credit for as if the expectational blockbuster criticisms have duped us.
It’s a constant argument that is usually summarized in a few words: "You just didn't get it." That’s not what's going on in “Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice” though, which aside from its long title name, refuses to provide any sense of detail to its story. It’s an overlong, overblown, and overdramatic formulation of a superhero movie that, like “Man of Steel,” confuses adaptation for reinvention.
The plot uses a familiar Marvel technique in pulling story beats from a multitude of comic books to produce a cohesive story that is both original and partially inspired by its source material. It’s a fine art that Marvel has turned into a well-oiled machine. It begins with a flashback, as all great films do, in which we rewatch the events of the Wayne’s shooting. The pearl necklace breaking, Thomas Wayne (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) attempting to stand up to terror, and Bruce (Ben Affleck) becoming an orphan.
The origin story we’ve seen a thousand times is retold and recreated, while prettier than past tales, it's a story we’ve heard more than once and will inevitably hear again. Its point for existence is to introduce a motif involving falling, from Bruce (Ben Affleck) falling down the well into the cave to the fallen angel known as Superman (Henry Cavill). A motif and a pattern that is noticeable and blatantly obvious, like the rehashed post-9/11 subtext that seems to have poured over from “Man of Steel.”
Nonetheless, the story develops into a muddled and confusing tale involving DC’s two heaviest hitters who end up fighting each other because of some reason. Batman’s (Ben Affleck) motivation is made clear during the film’s opening sequence that involves a ground-level view of the destruction and mayhem spewed from the battle of Clark (Henry Cavill) and Zod (Michael Shannon), he becomes a fun-house mirrored image of our post-9/11 fear stating “if we believe there's even a one percent chance that he is our enemy we have to take it as an absolute certainty.”
Superman (Henry Cavill) on the other hand is crafted as a messiah-like figure that pushes that sub-narrative as someone who represents the end of wars between man, possibly a signifier for peace as our cries for a savior have been answered. What if we had a be all and end all answer to tyranny? Like terrorism, for example. Would we accept it? Would we blindly follow? This is where Goyer and Terrio, and most likely Snyder, feel that they are smart storytellers, but it’s only a magic trick if you can’t see behind the curtain.
Otherwise, it's just a neat illusion of the eye, which is what “Batman V Superman” feels like it's trying to be, narratively speaking. The bare-bones involve a rehashed version of Frank Miller “Dark Knight Returns” in which a grizzled Batman (Ben Affleck) has crossed his forbidden line, a line that is never treated as the character bending dilemma it should be. Superman (Henry Cavill) stands up to his vigilantism because he believes him to be a hero who targets poor people, or minorities themselves.
Superman (Henry Cavill) is questioned by the world and is left with an insurmountable amount of responsibility to protect everyone, which is one of the few doses of the pathos of Jerry Siegel’s character that remains intact. What was once a character all about a boy from Kansas who can save anyone, but knows he can’t save everyone, who became a hero just because it's the right thing to do, has manifested into a supposedly innocent alien who callously ignores the collateral casualties caused by his “heroic efforts.”
A familiar sight from “Man of Steel” that is carried over into this film which eventually dwindles into a Batman (Ben Affleck) heavy plot that pushes the man of tomorrow down to a supporting role, as the dark knight is treated as the terrifying manifestation of tragedy turned vengeful guardian that Bob Kane and Bill Finger designed. He’s dark. Not just tonally, but characteristically as someone who refuses to see the forest through the trees. He battles with ferocity and brutality, something that slowly reflects the Joe Chill nightmares of his past.
The array of characters grows past these two studs though, Perry White (Laurence Fishburne) and Lois Lane (Amy Adams) make up the team for Supes, and Alfred (Jeremy Irons) resides on team Batsy. You can also find Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg), Jimmy Olsen (Michael Cassidy), and Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) throughout the film which also provides the star quality prowess of Holly Hunter and Harry Lennix. It becomes an overcrowded stage play, one that believes itself to be the next Hamlet, when it resides more as basement dwelling, fan-fiction, re-telling of a great story.
Snyder attempts to camouflage those storytelling lags and character manipulations with volume and scale. Providing a two and half-hour runtime that is bombastically scored by Hans Zimmer. The tones are loud and orchestrated for heft, like that of the visuals which slow down into vignettes attempting to be poetry in motion, becoming more like a drunk teenager’s retelling of a comic book he once read. While admittedly gorgeous, they serve no purpose for the story, merely acting like fan-service for comic fans. As a fan, I felt serviced by these live-action paintings of comic book history, but substance over style is a constant criticism that continually goes over Snyder’s head.
Few filmmakers make that critique work for them (like Kubrick), and Snyder is still struggling to make it work for him, even seeming like he has a fetish for the theatrical flair of cinema, constructing scenes that ask you do nothing more than to be awed by what you're witnessing. That only works with a good story though, something “Batman v Superman” lacks immensely.
“Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” is not a bad movie because it's darker than its Marvel cousins, I'd rather blame the tonal confusion and rambling storytelling for what makes this movie worse for wear. The acting is sufficient and better than average at times with Ben Affleck’s source-filled depiction of the caped crusader and Cavill’s smoldering boyish charm as the hero from Smallville. There are brilliant moments of blockbuster spectacle, the trio of Justice and the glimpses of future heroes are exciting, but the dour and heavy-handed battering you feel from the story is enough to make you forget about any of the heroism you previously saw.
Superheroes can be more than catchphrases, witty dialogue, and “boyish” good looks, but “Batman v Superman” is not that pinnacle of the genre, more accurately described as the dejected and mistreated toys of a bad owner. I got what Snyder was going for with this movie. I just didn't care.