Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (Zack Snyder, 2016)
In the end, it all comes down to good old Mom. With the fate of the world in the balance, with the forces of good and evil arrayed on either side of the fence (or, in this case, of the shattered skyscraper), with all of the destruction wrought on our planet, is it not reassuring to know that the love of one’s mother can still hold sway? For when Batman faces off against Superman – each presented as morally complicated heroes, with both good and evil within them – it turns out that the mere mention of matricide is enough to stay his hand. What next? A two-man baseball match? An apple-pie-eating contest? What fun could be had!
Sadly, however, fun is the furthest thing from the mind of director Zack Snyder (Man of Steel). Which shouldn’t surprise, given his previous work. From Dawn of the Dead (a remake of George Romero’s original) to 300 to Watchmen, and beyond, Snyder has specialized in an aesthetic – such as it is – that combines ornate comic-inspired visuals with a bone-crunchingly gloomy worldview that manages to be both stimulating (for the eyes) and utterly boring (for the brain). I must confess to enjoying that first feature of his (his take on Romero), but perhaps that is because zombie films actually work well when there is no glimmer of anything but destruction. By now, however, his style has played out, and though we get a strange CGI zombie (of sorts) at the end of Batman v Superman (note the “v” versus “vs,” like a battle between litigants, which might have actually been more interesting …), as if to recall what once worked, it’s a case of excess piled upon excess, and a reminder, instead, of the dearth of genuine human characters, the actual actors notwithstanding.
Which is unfortunate, because there is at least one good performance in this movie, and that is by Ben Affleck (Gone Girl), who does a fine job stepping into Christian Bale’s world-weary shoes as Bruce Wayne. Affleck is by far the best thing here, though Amy Adams (American Hustle) – as Lois Lane, star reporter and Superman’s love interest – is always compulsively watchable, and Gal Gadot (Triple 9), as Wonder Woman – whoops (plot spoiler, though not really), I mean Diana Prince – makes for one kickass superheroine. It’s too bad there isn’t more of the women, as the film is otherwise one big testosterone-laden glowering contest followed by an endless slugfest. Throw a manic Jesse Eisenberg (The End of the Tour) into the mix as Lex Luthor, and it really is all about who’s got the biggest balls. To which I say, who cares?
The plot, such as it is, begins at the end of Man of Steel, during the climactic battle between Superman and General Zod that nearly destroys Metropolis. Bruce Wayne – not in costume as Batman – watches in horror as two extraterrestrials fight without apparent concern over collateral damage. Flash forward 18 months, and Wayne is now intent on laying waste to he who laid waste. Meanwhile, Clark Kent/Superman – Henry Cavill (The Man from U.N.C.L.E.), reprising the role from last time, and fine if unremarkable – has his own concerns about Batman’s vigilante tactics, and is similarly seeking a way to put Gotham’s caped crusader out of business. Luther, on his end, wants to play the two sides against each other, and with the help of some Kryptonite (mineral residue from Superman’s home planet that can destroy him) and a well-intentioned U.S. Senator (Holly Hunter, Saving Grace, good if little-used), is poised to step in as evil overlord once the ostensible good guys are gone. Hence, “Batman v Superman.” And he almost succeeds; he did not, however, count on Mom.
That’s Diane Lane (Trumbo, another underused fine actress), who is back as Ma Kent, the adoptive mother of Kal-El (aka Superman, aka Clark Kent). She’s not on screen for very long, except as a pawn in the plans of men, but her role is pivotal. At least as far as understanding Snyder’s approach to storytelling. When you write yourself into a corner, where all you can do is show one more interminable fight scene after another, what better way to solve the plot conundrum than to use a hokey contrivance like a son’s love for his mother? Add a bit of coincidence involving that mother’s first name – hey, why stop when you’re hacking your way through a screenplay? – and voilà, problem solved! At least until the zombie – excuse me, Doomsday – shows up. Mom’s not much help there, I’m afraid.
I am sure that there are many in this world who will watch this movie and enjoy it. It tackles big themes – life and death, good and evil – in big ways. But those ways are also so repetitively obvious that one quickly begins to long for some nuance. The heroes may be presented as morally complicated (they are not, really), but the movie is constructed with such bombast that there is nothing complex about its approach to the material. Perhaps most disturbing – in this and all of the other over-exposed superhero films of our day – is the neo-fascist acceptance that we, mere non-billionaire mortals, are all helpless in the face of the decisions of our betters. At least with the more irreverent Marvelverse films like Guardians of the Galaxy, Ant-Man and Deadpool (and even the more serious Captain America: The Winter Soldier), there is a sense that real people matter, and that the stakes are high because actual lives are at stake; here, we viewers can only cower in our seats like the helpless spectators in the film, urged to worship at the altar of our superiors. “Please, Sir, I want some more“? Next time, I’ll pass.