Somewhere in its dark, anguished, brooding belly, Zack Snyder’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice has some interesting ruminations on what it means to be a hero and if one can act heroic unilaterally or if there must be some sort of check on power. Can Batman serve as judge, jury, and executioner on the criminals of Gotham City? Can Superman go into a warzone and take out a warlord? Sadly, these fascinating questions are buried beneath the debris of a convoluted, horribly written story featuring poorly written characters making inexplicable choices. It doesn’t matter who wins in Batman v Superman because the audience loses either way.
To give you an idea of the unrelenting darkness we’re about to endure, the movie opens with the funeral for the young Bruce Wayne’s parents before we cut to the Battle of Metropolis and an adult Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) rushing to his building to try and save the day (how exactly he planned to do that isn’t explained). Instead, he can only watch and feel powerless as he sees the city destroyed in the brawl between Superman (Henry Cavill) and Zod (Michael Shannon). Cut to 18 months later and a strange rock has turned up in the Indian Ocean and the movie becomes a fractured narrative that haphazardly jumps between Batman trying to investigate LexCorp, the hyperactive Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg) working to obtain access to the downed Kryptonian ship and the Kryptonite from the Indian Ocean, Superman trying to do good when some of the world views him with distrust, and a mysterious woman a.k.a. Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) with her own agenda.
The movie drags through its first hour as it carefully tries to set up the individual conflicts, and yet the only character it seems to actually develop is Bruce Wayne. Unfortunately, it develops him into the worst Batman we have ever seen. Affleck gives a devoted performance; it’s the character on the page that’s utterly despicable. Snyder’s Batman is a straight-up murderer who is completely at ease with branding criminals knowing that the brand is a death sentence in prison for those who receive it. He’s also extremely paranoid of Superman, and rather than try to find the peaceful solution, Batman’s instinct is to respond with force. In Snyder’s hands, Batman is nothing more than a sophisticated thug with a fancy set of toys.
He’s also a pawn in Lex Luthor’s plans. The two may as well be unwitting allies, but the movie takes Lex’s interesting POV from some of the best Superman comics—that Superman is a legitimate threat and we should be wary—and gives it to Batman, leaving Lex’s motives far thinner and sillier. Instead of being a genius who sees Superman as a serious risk, Luthor is reduced to a petty, arrogant, whiny atheist who just wants to kill a god figure. It doesn’t help that Eisenberg’s performance is pitched at an 11, and what’s meant to come off as anti-social instead plays as overly caffeinated.
When it comes to Superman, Snyder is still at a loss with what to do with the character. He seems completely unable to relate to anything human in the character, and keeps us viewing the Man of Steel at a distance. There’s an entire scene where talking heads on news programs pontificate about what Superman means to the world, but there’s scarcely anything of Superman himself wrestling with his place in it. Yes, he’s upset that his efforts to do good aren’t met with universal acclaim, but the movie also keeps him more removed than ever. He may stand for due process and saving Lois Lane (Amy Adams) whenever she needs it, but he’s still a character in search of a moral compass, which I suppose happens when your mom (Diane Lane) says things along the lines of “Save the world. Or don’t. Whatever.”
The one character who comes off as remotely likable is Wonder Woman, and that’s because she seems like the only person who is happy to be in this movie. Snyder has mistaken “seriousness” for the absence of joy, but a movie can have heart and even humor while still being serious. Seriousness comes from stakes, and Batman v Superman bends over backwards to create them and still turns out to be a complete and utter mess that relies on coincidence and senseless actions.