There aren’t many collisions in cinematic history that could pack more punch, or draw from richer worlds, than Batman trying his luck against the Man of Steel. Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice comes loaded with potential in a way that virtually nothing else ever has, and, instead of capitalizing on it, decides it has ideas far more interesting than anyone who built that potential.
There’s something at the heart of this self-important epic that calls to mind some spin on the John Ciardi modern art quote – “Modern art is what happens when painters stop looking at girls and persuade themselves that they have a better idea.” It isn’t simply that this feels, during almost every moment, like someone looked at the world’s most iconic comic characters, and thought, “Pfff… I could make them better,” but it also isn’t particularly impressed with the mishandling of comic mythos, or how their stories are told.
Coming in during, and shortly after, the events of Man of Steel, which famously caused a ridiculous amount of destruction, Batman (Ben Affleck) is rather pissed at Superman (Henry Cavill). As Alfred (Jeremy Irons) explains, feeling powerless can turn a person cruel, and Batman’s recent efforts show that he’s getting a little weird in the wake of the appearance of a man who truly couldn’t be stopped if he decided to just take over the planet.
Thus, Batman is not only suspicious of the other power in town, but recent events have made Superman look particularly bad. It turns out that Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg) has a bone to pick with Superman as well. When some of Superman’s actions kick off unintended effects, public opinion isn’t quite leaning his way either.
Meanwhile, Superman isn’t in love with the Gotham vigilante who seems to be spinning out of control.
Past the synopsis, and a lot of destruction, the film seemingly has little interest in itself, or telling a story, and definitely has no interest at all in providing its audience with characters who are anything beyond the simplest steps toward the next thing that blows up. In fact, the only thing the film seems truly committed to is the grandiose statement it thinks it’s making, and its unsettling effort to build self-aggrandizement into film.
As an approach to its own construction, it runs oddly near to horror films, which historically run toward societal fears, whether there’s a good way to tell a story or not. The current culture is apparently scared of power-mad lunatics, and if we can tie that to bombings and/or terrorists, so much the better. If that means we have to paste “motivations” onto characters where they don’t fit, what difference does it make anyway?
Luthor’s theory of why he’s doing what he’s doing is among the loopiest in cinematic history, which ultimately amounts to him just being a Joker stand-in who has utterly lost his mind. The truly insane are rare in comics, because they’re fantastically boring characters, and here the name is the only real connection to the character you’ve heard of before. Possibly worse, his plans work by not working, it doesn’t really make sense that any of his grand machinations have the effect they do, and one massive plot point seems to have been written out of the story (because it does nothing really), but is included anyway, because… what the hell, we already filmed it.
Such is the case with much of the gargantuan running time audiences have to sit through, with several dream sequences feeling perhaps like pre-rewrite sequences that were ultimately included anyway, because after a certain point we realized that none of it made a damn bit of sense anyway.
It’s hard to get past the nostalgia and wonder of seeing these two in the same film. That’s especially true when in many respects this is filmed wonderfully. The scenes are constructed well, and the conversations are delivered in a way that shows an understanding of incorporating their power into the overall effort (except that the script has everyone saying stupid things). But, this is like a film someone was forced to make, if that someone wasn’t fond of comics. It’s a script written by way of, “I don’t know, this seems like the goofy sort of thing they get up to in those things.”
In the end, the only thing it has over the mid-90s Schumacher efforts that rightfully became jokes and kept Batman out of theaters for nearly decade is the budget, and the ability of the special effects. Unless it’s just a 151-minute trailer for The Justice League Part One, which it is, then it’s pretty awesome.