Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is not a good film. But I did enjoy it. That’s probably the best way to summarise the first big event film of 2016, Zack Snyder’s latest instalment in DC’s attempt to compete with Marvel’s cinematic universe. Henry Cavill’s Superman, last seen in Man of Steel, faces a violent confrontation with Ben Affleck’s battle-worn Batman, who sees him as a global threat after that building-toppling Zod battle in Metropolis. Both are possibly being manipulated by Jesse Eisenberg’s Lex Luthor. At this point, superhero saturation is such that I doubt there are still curious, casual cinema-goers checking these films out. You’re in or you’re out, and if you’re in, you must surely know the things that Zack Snyder is good at. Let’s get them out of the way. The rain. The costumes. The slow motion. The fighting. The shouting. The blues and greys and darkness. And obviously, the explosions. Everything explodes; thankfully whenever there’s a cataclysmically destructive CGI fight, some helpful observer chips in with a bit of audio to let us know the area is uninhabited. Phew! All those key strengths are out in force for this one.
The list of things Zack Snyder isn’t good at is longer and more worrying, but of no surprise to anyone who saw Sucker Punch or 300. It may not even be a list of things he’s not good at; they may be things he’s just not worried about. Nobody could accuse the man of taking criticism to heart, that’s for sure. You thought the last act of Man of Steel was just CGI things hitting each other really loudly? You thought it took itself way too seriously? You thought they didn’t really care about chemistry between Lois and Clark? You thought Clark’s secret identity was absolutely non-existent? You thought Snyder messed fatally with the rules of the source comic book by having Superman kill Zod? Well all those problems are back and they’ve grown extra limbs. The last act of this is just stuff hitting each other, twice. The film takes itself tremendously seriously – Jeremy Irons’ Alfred gets a few amusing lines but that’s about it, everything else is pious and deathly. Lois and Clark are still an uncomfortable couple, and given that Cavill isn’t asked to do any of the great physical comedy that actually made Christopher Reeve’s dual identity vaguely plausible, Lois might as well just wear an ‘I’m dating Superman’ t-shirt. At once point Superman, Cal-El, God among mortals, calls her ‘Lo’. And as for comic book fans’ anger that Superman isn’t supposed to kill – well in this film Batman flies around in a jet with a minigun tearing through legions of victims. I thought he wasn’t a killer either?
They aren’t even the two biggest problems. The first is Eisenberg’s Lex Luthor. It’s unclear why an interpretation of Superman and Batman as po-faced as this one decided to make its key villain a skittish little twerp. Luthor is constantly squeaking, giggling, gurning and annoying; however his favourite thing to do is to give unprompted monologues about gods and men. A senator goes to see him to block an import licence for some alien tech she suspects he’s weaponising (why? Surely a phone call would be fine?). He just starts banging on about gods and angels and demons, again and again. Who cares!? Just leave! Superman confronts him towards the end of the movie to apprehend him and again he is allowed to do a bit of drama school, rather than Superman grabbing him, slapping him and depositing him in a cell somewhere. Every time he appears on screen I was praying someone would just arrest him – it might kill the plot but at least his infuriating dialogue would go with it.
The second and wider problem is the plot, or rather the series of rushed and inexplicable decisions where a plot should be. It seems so obvious that DC panicked when Marvel’s movies started coming together with such critical and commercial aplomb, and promptly scheduled about fifty films, with a load of superheroes making appearances in this one to set everything up. Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman is superb, looking and sounding the part and raising the prospect of a non-Joss Whedon superhero movie that actually cares about female characters. But otherwise, very few characters’ actions or motivations make much sense. Bruce Wayne is upset at the outset for two reasons: firstly, Superman v Zod destroyed half of Metropolis and killed thousands. Secondly, he keeps having awful dreams which seem to exist solely for Snyder to indulge his costume/explosion/fighting/slow-motion tendencies. One such scene is thrumming along violently when suddenly a load of flying insect-type men show up, and I gave up and audible groan in the manner of Blackadder when Baldrick appears with a horse’s head: “oh, it’s a bloody dream.” But his reaction is to just try and murder Superman. Why not talk? At least once?
Lois Lane’s main contribution to the film is to pick up a vital bit of kit, throw it in a hole for no reason, then jump in the hole to get it back and nearly drown. Superman is supposed to be struggling with his morality but in fact he just seems a bit simple, being manipulated incredibly easily. When one character falls off a building his super-abilities allow him to hear it and react instantaneously; when another character is kidnapped, with a whole hour to find her, he doesn’t even bother to look. Bruce Wayne’s aged butler tracks her down in a few seconds but the Godlike being with the omni-hearing can’t even try?
I could go on: the overwrought gothic choir-laden score, the constant religious allegories, the bodybuilding montage that belongs in Rocky, not here. But why bother? This is all about money, and Warner Brothers have picked their horse with Zack Snyder and are backing him all the way. The team-up sequel, Justice League, is shooting next month. It will be the same as this. In some ways, that’s good: whether by accident, design, or input on the actor’s part, Snyder has unearthed a great version of Batman with Affleck’s beefy, jaded take on the role. Gadot is impressive. The new version of The Flash, teased briefly here, is played by We Need to Talk about Kevin’s Ezra Miller. Who knows, Justice League might be a good film. But it will probably just be a lot of rain, costumes, slow motion, fighting, shouting, darkness and explosions. Fine if you like that sort of thing, not much there if you don’t – very much like this film.