When the suits at Warner Bros. managed to convince Christopher Nolan to spearhead a new Superman movie and kickstart DC’s cinematic universe, they surely can’t have envisioned something like Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice rocking onto screens just a few short years later. Man of Steel reimagined the big blue boy-scout in a dour modern world devoid of colour and aspiration. Zack Snyder, who directed the first film, takes full control this time around and leaps past Nolan’s self-seriousness in a single bound into a bombastic and incoherent world overflowing with half-baked allegory, baffling characterisation and back-breaking mythological portent. It’s a laudably bold, utterly exhausting, mess of a film.
On one hand, that can be viewed as a positive; a suggestion that unlike Marvel’s conveyor belt of homogeneous fare, DC are willing to let their creatives loose on the canon and take an ambitious approach to the source material. That sounds like an exciting prospect – perhaps a real shot in the arm for the genre – in the right hands. Those hands are clearly not Zack Snyder’s. He overloads the screen with big ideas here, but they lack the depth of consideration or definition to allow them to truly engage with any issue. The explosive finale of Man of Steel, which saw much of Metropolis devastated, opens proceedings in this instalment, seen through Bruce Wayne’s (Ben Affleck) eyes at ground level. The 9/11 parallels are hammered home, but the subsequent explorations of security, terror, chaos and responsibility in the modern world are all undercooked.
Superman, for his part, has always been lumbered with religious symbolism – not least in the repeated crucifixion imagery of Man of Steel – but he spends the entirety of this film more like Atlas. His obligation to the world sees him prone and bearing its weight on his shoulders, burdened with the role of saviour. It hardly seems a coincidence that his pained expression reminds most of the tortured Frodo as he carried the ring towards Mordor. At one point, he is seen hauling an upturned cargo ship across a vast expanse of ice in a cutaway scene that seems destined for a screen grab or GIF going viral with “FML” stamped on it. (Whether or not it was an intentional retort from Snyder to critics of Man of Steel is up for debate.) It’s a painfully one-note turn from Henry Cavill, who once again looks the part but is unable to soar above his laughably underwritten character.
He’s not the only one in that situation, though, with Affleck faring better in his first appearance as Batman, but still hamstrung by unconvincing motivation. His Batman’s hard-on for a smack-down with Supes is perplexing to say the least, even after the early scene in which he grimaces at the duelling gods in the sky as ash and horror rain down around him and Hans Zimmer and Junkie XL’s music underlines their ideological conflict in deep booming notes. Jesse Eisenberg completes the triumvirate with Lex Luthor as a twitchy, screechy riff on his own Mark Zuckerberg. The colourful and kooky tech billionaire, all designer trainers and boiled sweets, is a nice twist for a modern iteration of Lex, but the writing is horribly unconvincing with regards to his intellect – throwing Euclid into a conversation won’t pass for smarts. He’s more awkward spoiled brat than charismatic genius.
Things are worse still for the supporting female characters, with Lois (Amy Adams) and Martha Kent (Diane Lane) present merely to play damsels in distress – repeatedly – and Holly Hunter is swiftly side-lined. Gal Gadot’s appearance as Wonder Woman is ultimately only a cameo, but her few moments (and the recent Comic-Con trailer) at least suggest that Patty Jenkins’ solo film about her has potential. Jeremy Irons (as Alfred) and Laurence Fishburne (as Perry White) manage to crack a couple of jokes which create nothing more than the illusion of human interaction. For that is the real problem with all of the performances; they have no fleshed out characters to work with. Everything looks incredible but the interactions are moments not relationships, and the players are all just ciphers for ideas that Snyder lacks the wherewithal to execute.
Which is equally true of the film’s much-maligned narrative. Long before the appearance of the third act monster (you’ll swear you can hear Boromir muttering “They have a cave troll.”) the editing and plotting is absolutely flabbergasting. The story is so disjointed that things fail to even make sense within scenes, let alone to help build momentum or prepare the audience for punches – literal and emotional – that will be thrown later on. There’s an argument that this is another bold gambit from Snyder and writers Chris Terrio and David S. Goyer, but if it is, it’s one that backfires in spectacular fashion. Then again, that’s exactly how Batman v Superman does everything.