"Batman v Superman" Is Not The Important Movie It Wants So Badly To Be
Zack Snyder's new superhero movie doesn't reinvent the genre or even do anything interesting with it, but boy does it try.
Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice turns Lex Luthor into a tech bro. Played by Jesse Eisenberg, this new version of Superman's archenemy is a twitchy fast-talker in a graphic tee and blazer, with shoulder-length hair (yes, they're some luxuriant locks), shooting hoops in LexCorp's in-office basketball court while plotting how to disrupt superheroics using the scraps of Kryptonite he's been buying up. He's positioned (at least at first) to be Mark Zuckerberg as a supervillain: He treats government regulations as a jumping-off point for negotiations rather than as rules to be followed, making grand pronouncements about superpower humans as "the basis for our myths" while he bargains for special access to Kryptonian tech under the table.
This take on Lex is — like the placement of Gotham and Metropolis as Oakland–San Francisco sibling cities — provocative...or it would be, were it better developed, if it didn't turn out to be a surface-level reworking of your standard-issue megalomaniac. Eisenberg's performance has the trappings of a techno libertarian tweaked into exaggerated comic book nastiness, with none of the follow-through. Lex ultimately plots to take down Superman due to daddy issues and something-or-other about God, but mostly because taking down Superman is what Lex Luthor is supposed to do.
Like so much of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, which was directed by Man of Steel's Zack Snyder, the blatant millennial-fication of Lex Luthor is an intriguing tease to some grander reading that simply isn't there. The film is a lumbering, glum, cool-toned behemoth that labors to lay groundwork for a DC cinematic universe while setting up two famous characters on a collision course, and lobs out big ideas like an underprepared undergrad sweatily pitching off-the-cuff thesis topics. Superman (Henry Cavill), the movie submits, is a messianic figure, a giver of hope, floating beatifically midair with his cape flapping around him while supplicants reach out in tears, more important as a symbol than as a man of individual actions. Superman is also a little like America in terms of international intervention: He requires you to trust that his actions are all in the interest of the greater good — because what are you going to do, fight the guy? It's fine when he's saving people from a flaming building, but when he crashes (in what Deadpool has dubbed the "superhero landing") into a tense situation in Africa involving Lois (Amy Adams, given a gratifying amount to do), his interference sparks unforeseen consequences.
Batman (Ben Affleck), on the other hand, takes the micro to Superman's macro, as a self-appointed answer to Gotham's governmental failings, policing the streets in a way that doesn't have to reckon with inconvenient rights and processes. He's rage disguised as righteousness, a one-man militia in bulky Bat-armor, righting the wrongs that the cops can't manage to keep up with. Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice begins by running us through young Bruce Wayne's oft-documented parental trauma once more before catching up with him as an embittered, incredibly ripped fortysomething who's maybe losing his grip a little, living down the road from the burned remains of Wayne Manor with his butler-turned-co-conspirator Alfred (Jeremy Irons). This road-worn version of Batman is vengeful and exacting, unafraid to kill, and inclined to literally brand the criminals he catches with his logo, a mark that (we're told) dooms them when they go to prison.
Batman's a vigilante and Superman's a god, which is the basis of their disagreement, though, lord almighty, does the movie take a long time laying that out. In the hour-and-a-half lead-up to the promised showdown, disagreements between the two simmer and build and are partially articulated during a cocktail party encounter between Bruce and Clark Kent in which they politely snipe at each other about superhero puff pieces and "civil liberties being trampled." What neither arrive at (though they should) is that Batman and Superman actually both do what they want and answer to no one, and that they should stop talking since, incredibly, they both lack self-awareness. The film doesn't find space to fill their characters out in more than broad swaths, but manages to make them both unappealing, having a superheroic pissing match that turns into literal grappling over the moral high ground. It's an unusual achievement in a superhero, if not the one that Snyder and writers Chris Terrio and David S. Goyer were likely aiming for: making two iconic characters look like political candidates in a race in which there's no desirable winner.
In an early sequence — one of the best in the movie and definitely the most evocative — we see the World Engine battle from the finale of Man of Steel from the ground, as Bruce races through the streets of Metropolis just in time to see his own building crumble, with some employees still trapped inside. From Superman's perspective, it was a fight to save humanity from extinction. From Bruce's point of view, it was a melee unfolding with no concern for collateral damage, one that costs people's lives for whom he feels directly responsible. The mid-city, havoc-wreaking brawl seems like it would tee the movie up to grapple with the notions of "the greater good" versus innocent lives lost versus "Why couldn't you have fought over the goddamn ocean or something?" But it doesn't: Instead, the scene is used in order to get Batman thinking that, if there is even the slightest chance of Superman breaking bad, he's got to go.
It's a false opposition, these two points of view that have been placed counter to each other. They're just guys scrimmaging over whose version of saving the world is better, when, natch, their goals are compatible. Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is grimly self-serious; at one point, it even summons Superman for a congressional hearing. But the film is not morally complex, especially when it comes to the idea of self-appointed heroes — it's all for the rights and the responsibilities of the superheroic class to help out as they see fit, no matter how many panic dreams (or are they visions?) Batman has of a scary Supes gone rogue. If the two superheroes want to have a fight in the middle of an urban center, well, that's what's going to happen, and that's how Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice brings the action back around without any apparent irony. This time the battle's in Gotham, where the urban decay works in the combatants' favor by giving them unpopulated acreage to destroy. And this time, Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) is there to help the whole movie, and she steals it just by virtue of looking like she's having a good time, whether she's trading barbs with Bruce at a posh party or grinning at a lumpy monster inserted into the final act of the movie to enable a big, calamitous finish.
In 2005, Christopher Nolan, who's an executive producer on this film, made Batman Begins — a very good superhero movie! And in 2008, he made The Dark Knight — a very good movie, period, which changed old-fashioned perceptions of what could be achieved in the genre. But it created a model of what an "important" superhero pic looks like, with which Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is hopelessly enamored, despite the fact it doesn't come close to pulling off the same tricks in trying to pass off dourness as intelligence. Talking heads debate evolution and myth on television; the public turns on a dime, from venerating Superman as though he liberated a nation to burning him in effigy. And Bruce, having devoted his life to punishing wrongdoers, decides his best legacy might as well be a murderous one. None of it adds up to anything except a world in which superheroes are unavoidable — smashing through buildings and setting up sequels by watching sneak previews of future Justice League colleagues. Why pose big questions when no one wants to hear the answer?