Serious vs. Serious: “Batman v Superman” ponderous, disjointed and hardly any fun

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016)
151 min., rated PG-13.

Together at last, two iconic superhero heavyweights share the same cinematic universe and the same space on screen. If only that proposition was captured in a better film that didn’t feel burdened by disjointed storytelling, studio meddling and misguided, even bad ideas. Feverishly anticipated as the second entry in the DC Extended Universe and a cross-over sequel to 2013’s “Man of Steel,” “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” is, rather shockingly, a crashing drag that tries but fails to tell a story leading up to a knock-down, drag-out fight in a bloated two and a half hours. At the mercy of Warner Bros., director Zack Snyder and screenwriters Chris Terrio and David S. Goyer have a heavy workload on their hands, trying to dovetail more plot than they know what to do with, but so much of it is free of the nuance that the script searches for and then compounds everything with a ceaselessly glum tone. Forget gritty and realistic; “ponderous” and “joyless” are the operative words here.

The story proper of “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” begins with the destruction created by Superman and General Zod’s battle in Metropolis, albeit on the ground in the eyes of an angry Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) who can’t rescue a friend in time before the Wayne Industries building burns to the ground. Eighteen months later, Superman (Henry Cavill)—add glasses and he's nebbish reporter Clark Kent—while Bruce is still really pissed and jaded. Over in Gotham City, Bruce’s alter ego Batman is a vigilante criminal, literally branding bad guys with his symbol. To Bruce, Superman is a threat to everyone and he must be brought to justice. U.S. Senator June Finch (Holly Hunter) and the public begin to question their city hero's actions when Superman is accused of killing African villagers after rescuing reporter girlfriend Lois Lane (Amy Adams) from terrorists. Meanwhile, megalomaniac LexCorp CEO Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg) is busy playing the puppet master, getting his hands on Kryptonite found at the bottom of the Indian Ocean and pitting both heroes against each other. Oh, and the mysterious Diana Prince (Gal Gadot) slinks around until the big boys need Wonder Woman’s help.

Despite attempts at levity—the only ones that actually work are supplied by Laurence Fishburne’s Daily Planet editor-in-chief Perry White—“Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” is so deathly serious that it risks putting audiences into a depression. Where is the fun? Where is the variance in tone? Do we really want our superhero movies to invoke 9/11? Why can’t this be a stand-alone film rather than a setup for the next payoff in the big universe? Perhaps director Zack Snyder was out of his depth. What he has done here serves to put into perspective the masterpiece that Christopher Nolan executed with 2008’s “The Dark Knight.” Nolan managed to spin several plates with a complex, substantive script about the same behemoth length but with propulsive pacing and taut editing. That film was also dark, dark, dark but never smothered in oppressive gloominess as it is here. Lurching from thread to thread at a leaden pace with hacksaw editing, the storytelling is just messy. The film at least gets Batman’s already-known origins—young Bruce witnesses his parents murdered right in front of him and later falls into a batcave in the woods—over with rather efficiently. Then, in spite of making it a motif that has damaged Bruce Wayne, the character’s new lack of moral code never feels justified. Not only that, but director Snyder and the screenwriters employ too many dream sequences and visions, the laziest of storytelling crutches, that befuddle rather than inform or advance the plot in any way. Instead of just going about its own business, the overstuffed script digresses, repeatedly stopping the film dead in its tracks, and then awkwardly crams in flashes of characters (The Flash, Aquaman and Cyborg) that we won’t officially meet until 2017’s “Justice League.” 

Given the fanboy outcry that erupted from the studio’s announcement that Ben Affleck would replace Christian Bale for this sequel, Affleck is actually one of the brighter spots. Heir to taking over an even darker, angrier incarnation of Bruce Wayne/Batman, Affleck looks internally conflicted and brings a world-weariness to the iconic character. Clunky modifications have been made to the bulked-up bat suit, making the chiseled actor look silly, but it's not Affleck's fault. Noble and stoic as Clark Kent/Superman, Henry Cavill once again looks the part, being sewn into that suit. He still hasn’t quite come into his own or warmed up to the viewer the way Christopher Reeve and Brandon Routh have. It’s a lot of responsibility for one man insomuch that there’s little time to be charismatic, but had “Man of Steel” not introduced him, Cavill would be even more of a cipher. Amy Adams seems more comfortable here as Lois Lane, but aside from a nice, intimate moment with Clark in the bathtub, most of her screen time is spent being a hostage and a damsel-in-distress in need of saving. Following Gene Hackman and Kevin Spacey’s versions of Lex Luthor, the miscast Jesse Eisenberg at least puts his own stamp on the role as a twitchy, unhinged genius and enlivens the doom and gloom with his hammy scenery-chewing. More than a threat, though, Luthor comes across as an entitled brat who could talk his enemies to death.

The rest of the cast is more than able: Holly Hunter has a few great moments opposite Eisenberg’s Luthor as Senator Finch; Jeremy Irons is proper re-casting but pretty much wasted as Bruce’s loyal butler and security chief Alfred; Diane Lane pops up late in the proceedings as Martha Kent and reliably conveys maternal warmth and concern before becoming a tortured pawn in Luthor’s grand plan; and reliable character actor Scoot McNairy does what he can as an embittered Wayne Enterprises employee injured from the Metropolis destruction. And, if you think this cinematic cupcake needs even more extra toppings, the introduction of Diana Prince/Wonder Woman is a tacked-on tease. Gal Gadot does make an impression, but it only makes one wish they were watching her solo movie instead.

Like Zack Snyder’s “Man of Steel,” the latter half of “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” is devoted purely to wanton destruction that becomes numbing, rhythmless sound and fury. Reducing buildings to piles of rubble is apparently all that matters, not perspective or sense. When the Son of Krypton and the Bat of Gotham are finally ready to duke it out, the film has already exhausted itself and the titular bout isn’t much more than underwhelming. What's left is a ridiculous, unearned pivotal moment that’s supposed to make the viewer believe these foes need to work together for another slugfest with a cheap-looking monster that ends up being a soulless mess of CGI. Also, it’s splitting hairs by now, but the film does a poor job of establishing the geography between Gotham City and Metropolis. Aren’t they just both New York but the different superheroes’ homes at night and in the daytime? And, this time with Anderson Cooper reassuring us that buildings are unoccupied, Snyder does right the wrong of his “Man of Steel” when Superman made a mess of his new home in Metropolis, allowing civilians to die, and then killed General Zod. There are minuscule grace notes—Hans Zimmer and Junkie XL’s moody, portentous music score unsettles and the electric-guitar cue for Wonder Woman’s entrance almost gets one amped up—but by the time the multiple false endings start stacking up, it's the final insult. Hardly any fun at all, this feels like studio-mandated filmmaking that has nothing on “Freddy vs. Jason.”

Grade: C -