The fact that this movie is called Batman v Superman tells the audience ahead of time the sort of an experience they’re in for. This is really a Batman movie (Darkness, No Parents), albeit one in which he’s dealing with Superman’s world—Lex Luthor, Kryptonite and Superman himself. It’s also being savaged by both mainstream and geek critics, but is it really that bad?
Bat Spoilers v Super Spoilers…
Well, it may not be that bad, but it certainly benefits from comparison to the movie it’s a sequel to, Zak Snyder’s Man of Steel, which turned Superman’s story into a grimly ponderous parable about how happiness was impossible. Which is a concept that has always fitted Batman better, so score one for Snyder. Batman is the driving force of the plot here, his vendetta against Superman for his super-carelessness advancing the story while Superman mostly mopes around, putting up with the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune until he gets a chance to punch something. Or at least to throw someone through a wall, which happens so often that it becomes something of a running joke.
Complaining about how the characters are ill-served by how they’re reimagined here is a dead end: both Batman and Superman have been reimagined so many times over the years that you can pick your favourite. That said, a Batman without a self-imposed restriction against killing (and Affleck’s Batman racks up a kill count in the double figures) loses his distinction from the criminals he hunts, and a Superman without the ability to inspire is just a mopey bully.
Batman v Superman is loosely inspired by two sources: Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns and the Death of Superman series from the 1990s, which introduced the villain Doomsday. I say loosely because really only the final third of the movie relates to those sources. The rest is dominated by a collection of dream sequences, visions and flashbacks, which either serve to provide context or to promote the planned Justice League follow-up movies. The actual plot that leads us the the showdown needed to justify the film’s title is simultaneously simple (Batman thinks that Superman is a super-threat and plans to take him down) and unnecessarily convoluted (involving white slavers, dinner parties, kryptonite import duties, and hundred-year-old photos).
Which brings us nicely to Wonder Woman. Gal Gadot’s presence is one of the lighter elements in a film that’s ponderously portentous most of the time, and for that alone she’s very welcome. Her extended cameo shows a lot of promise for her own movie, as she’s a kinetic, enthusiastic participant in the final battle. The pause to show teaser trailers for the other Justice League participants in mid film (no, really) is less successful, so we’ll just let that go as a studio-mandated insert.
As for the principal players, Ben Affleck fares better than Henry Cavill, which is probably down to a combination of the script and the director. Batman just has a lot more to do here, and Zak Snyder still doesn’t seem to know what to do with Superman. The film even refers to him as “the Superman” at an early point, presumably to make a Nietzschian point. Except that there’s no philosophical depth here—Superman remains reactive throughout, uncertain and unsure. Even his own dream sequence/vision seems to layer on the idea that it’s impossible to do good for others without causing unintended harm. Not that Batman fares better, with Affleck at one point bemoaning the pointlessness of his own crusade. Both punishing the guilty and protecting the innocent are presented as equally futile in the long run.
Oh yes, there’s also Jesse Eisenberg’s Lex Luthor. Which was probably the most interesting thing about the initial concept for the film—recasting him as a Zuckerberg-like genius savant, twitchy and brilliant. Some critics seem to like his take on the character, others can’t stand it. I’m definitely towards the latter camp—after five minutes I was tired of the twitchy and waiting to see signs of the brilliance. I was still waiting at the end of the film.
Snyder’s most successful films, 300 and Watchmen, have been close adaptations of other people’s work. In Sucker Punch, there was far less beneath his impressive visual style, resulting in a hollow, forgettable experience. Here, he’s stuffed an overlong film full of references to superior works, fragments of characters others have developed, easter eggs, and bite-size pieces of philosophy. It doesn’t cohere, and it doesn’t satisfy. In the end, as in the movie, all we’re left with is an extended fight sequence in two parts, largely consisting of people being thrown through walls. Plenty of people have and will pay to see that, but I’m not sure how many would pay to see it twice.
Update: If you want to know what happens without actually watching the film, this FAQ has you covered, and will provide more amusement than the film does in much less time.