batman Ben Affleck

BATMAN V SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE Review: Relentless, Exhausting Sameness

Monday, March 28, 2016 Rob Samuelson

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice

Director: Zack Snyder
Writers: Chris Terrio, David S. Goyer
Starring: Ben Affleck, Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Jesse Eisenberg, Gal Gadot
Rating: Two-and-a-half stars out of five
In theaters now

Contrast is the stuff of stories. Light and shadow, tall and short, quiet and loud, good and evil. It’s how a creator indicates to an audience the intentions behind characters and the story itself. Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice director Zack Snyder doesn’t bother to even feign interest in creating contrasts between the two mythic figures at his film’s center.

Both Superman (Henry Cavill) and Batman (the newly introduced Ben Affleck) are dreary cynicists, disdainful and distrustful of the world around them. For Batman, this makes some sense, as he is a character damaged from a young age by watching his parents murdered in the street, who then grows up to battle the scummiest dregs of society -- like human traffickers in a suspenseful, horror-styled scene in this film -- on a nightly basis. But, as was also the case with 2013’s Snyder-directed Man of Steel, Cavill’s Clark Kent-Superman is, with little to no provocation, depicted as an aloof and selfish god always sulking that he doesn’t get the adoration he craves. These two characters each seem to hate humanity, which gives them little motivation to protect it outside of “the plot says so.”

Superman’s attitude is all off, particularly when there is an attempt at juxtaposition between worldviews that would lead to the battle of the film’s title. However, the impetus for that attitude is the film’s biggest strength and is the source of its rare moments of truth.

That’s because the world is not sure what to make of the appearance of Superman on the scene. He is an all-powerful being who can destroy every person if he wanted. The cable news debates about him featuring real-life personalities like Anderson Cooper and Andrew Sullivan -- is he malevolent, how can he be stopped, should he be stopped, is he really a hero -- are precisely the things that would happen if such a creature showed up in the modern world. The fear and distrust of the people is warranted, particularly after the city-destroying climax of the previous film in the series and the constant grimace on Superman’s face whenever he appears on news cameras. They have every reason to treat this endlessly powerful alien as a threat.

It’s on Superman to show that he is on Earth to help. That’s what makes the classic iterations of the character so successful. His Middle America “aw shucks” optimism and glee at helping people is what disarms the public, his skeptical friends -- hello, Batman -- and his enemies alike. By imbuing Superman with such a spiteful distaste for people -- he is told that he doesn’t “owe this world” by his adoptive mother -- Snyder and screenwriters Chris Terrio and David S. Goyer cut off their most effective storytelling engine for this particular conflict between DC Comics titans in their first silver screen meeting.

Of course, it is every filmmaker’s prerogative to tell the story they see fit, but the end result in Batman v Superman is a muddled mess, where plot elements take place simply because they take place. Snyder and company are trying to show the angst a being like Superman would feel when his efforts to help are deemed dangerous, but they go too far. They make his efforts to help feel like a chore worse than cleaning any toilet. As portrayed by the gloomy Henry Cavill, Superman hates all of his actions enough to throw in the towel with a “screw you” disgust.

The characterization of Batman suffers less, because when Snyder takes the character too far, it still feels of a piece with the sadistic ethos already inherent in a billionaire character who dedicates his life to “fixing” the lives of the downtrodden through intense violence. As Bruce Wayne, Ben Affleck takes a knee-jerk neoconservative stance toward his blue-suited adversary -- to paraphrase, he says the planet must destroy Superman because of the one percent chance that he will turn on them. This false reactionary certainty is created by the film’s harrowing opening, which recreates the climax of Man of Steel from the human-suffering perspective -- Bruce Wayne’s corporate headquarters is destroyed, and hundreds of his employees die, thanks to the destruction caused by Superman. But it still rings wrong because Batman is a character who is supposed to be the world’s greatest detective. This unwillingness to contemplate all the possible outcomes of such a situation reads as wrong. His ongoing slide into harsher and harsher punishments -- branding criminals with molten bat symbols, stabbing people through the chest -- feels like several steps too far.

For all the storytelling missteps taken in regard to Superman and Batman, the villain of the piece, Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg), gets treated the worst. Eisenberg, normally an internal, cerebral actor, gives a career-worst performance. His usual tic -- a nervy jitteriness that is already not right for a character known for being an in-control, empathy-free, uber-rational genius -- gets twisted to monstrous proportions. He comes across as a sniveling, petulant child who throws tantrums when he doesn’t get his way. He’s an irritating loose cannon with more in common with a mentally disturbed drug addict than a criminal and business mastermind.

As has been the case for much of his career, Zack Snyder fares much better when playing with the visceral emotion cinema can trigger in a viewer. Opening with the Batman origin story via a dream sequence, Snyder cuts to the gut level of what it means for a child to suffer the trauma of watching his parents murdered. He shows how latching onto something -- in this case, a cave full of bats -- to focus on something other than the pain and confusion can help a person overcome the worst moments of their life. The bats encircling young Bruce and propelling him through the air -- remember, it’s a dream and not the gritty “realism” of the rest of the film -- is more lyrical and touching than anything else Snyder can accomplish the rest of way.

Likewise, the introduction of Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot, to get her own solo film in the near future) is a thrill. She moves with a smoothness the clunky Batman and the ethereal Superman cannot. She looks like an Olympic athlete, maneuvering with her sword, lasso, and rounded shield as she fights the CGI threat at the film’s climax. The visual cues Snyder and cinematographer Larry Fong use to differentiate the characters are so strong and distinct that it’s frustrating to see the lack of attention paid to the same notions with the writing and work with actors.

If there is a complaint about Batman v Superman’s visual filmmaking, it is its subdued color palette. No matter where the characters go, everything is a grayish-blue dreariness that feels like an alley after a rainstorm on a 40-degree fall day -- not the finest ode to the primary-color aesthetic of its source material. And this is a film that shows the Arctic tundra and the cornfields of Kansas, plus a pair of twin cities, Metropolis and Gotham, that are supposed to be known for vastly different architecture and overall well-being. Every setting lacks life and variety, leaving the impression that place doesn’t matter for these characters, nor does it inform who they are despite the film paying lip service to the idea of environment creating who people are.

This leaves Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice as a murky picture. It has the ingredients for success in some places, but Snyder’s insistence on grimness in every aspect prevents it from showing something other than hatred for itself and perhaps for its audience. It introduces elements willy-nilly -- the ease these heroe have in learning each other’s secret identities is laughable -- without putting in the work necessary to pull things off properly. For a film that required thousands of hours of work, it sure feels lazy.

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