If you’ve ever seen some of the those SyFy original movies that pit some weird creature against another, you know that the creatures rarely ever actually fight one another. Mega Shark vs. Kolossus, Mega Shark vs Mecha Shark, Dinocroc vs Supergator, Megapython vs Gatoroid (yes, these are all actual movies) — they all have one thing in common (besides the eye-rolling names): the title characters fight for only a few minutes at the end of the movie before one or both are “destroyed” until the sequel. Up until that point, the story focuses on a set of stock characters that may or may not have anything to do with the other up until the creatures finally hit the ring. I couldn’t help be reminded of this format while watching Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, albeit with a much higher budget, better performances and strong cinematic appeal.
As we wait for the ultimate battle between man and “god”, there are three plots being juggled that are seemingly disconnected at first, only to be brought together in a somewhat convoluted way to incite the royal battle. The first follows Clark Kent (Henry Cavill) as he becomes infatuated with a story based out of Gotham (which, luckily enough, just happens to sit right across the bay). The Batman, it seems, has begun to jack up his mercenary tactics by branding his victims with a bat insignia to all but guarantee their death sentence in prison.
At the same time, the “superhero” status of Superman falls into question when his most recent acts in some unknown desert location (where several men die, but not by his hands) while rescuing main squeeze Lois Lane (Amy Adams) causes a Senator (Holly Hunter) to wonder how much power is too much power. But what about the destruction of Metropolis that happened in Man of Steel? Shouldn’t that have been the basis for these inquiries, as opposed to some small incident in which Superman wasn’t really involved at all? There’s an unnecessary eighteen-month time jump between Man of Steel and Dawn of Justice that keeps us from feeling the impact of Superman’s actions to the extent we’re meant to feel them.
I know this because we’re given a taste of that impact at the beginning of the film (after once again having to endure a quick recap of Batman’s origins) as we follow Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) through that very destruction. I was one of the people who was wary when it was first announced Affleck was cast as Bruce Wayne, but with his fantastic turns in Argo and Gone Girl, I gave him the benefit of the doubt. It turns out, he’s one of the best parts about Dawn of Justice, especially knowing that he’s tasked with carrying the majority of the film on his shoulders. Being there with him as he witnesses his building collapse and the ramifications of that event pulls you into wanting to seek justice for all of the men and women Superman inadvertently killed while fighting Zod (Michael Shannon). Instead, Bruce spends most of his time in the film hunting down someone named “White Oleander” for a reason that’s never really clear.
So why does director Zack Snyder return to this event if we’re just going to all but ignore it? We got to see the destruction from the street through Perry White’s (Laurence Fishburne) eyes in Man of Steel, but to see it again from the perspective of someone who has spent a lifetime seeking justice for the murder of his parents gives the sequence a lot more weight. One of the victims (Scoot McNairy) caught in the destruction of a Wayne Enterprises building loses his legs and never recovers. There were real-life consequences, but other than a small connection between this and one other (unimportant) event later in the film, the entire incident is left wanting.
One of the other major issues I had with the bloated two-and-a-half hour running time (which, come to think of it, actually goes by quicker than I would have expected) is the way Snyder advances the story, which leads to some confusing character motivations and narrative progression. Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg) is the focus of the third story line, which also involves Diana Prince/Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), as he seeks to collect all of the Kryptonian assets to create a creature that will defeat not only Superman, but all of the other “meta-humans” (including the Flash (Ezra Miller), Cyborg (Ray Fisher), Aquaman (Jason Momoa) and Wonder Woman) he’s somehow found and collected information on. In fact, Lex seems to know a whole lot of stuff that maybe he shouldn’t, which is never really explained beyond his being a psychotically eccentric billionaire.
Marvel’s cinematic universe and DC’s television multiverse (including the terrific The Flash, the darker Arrow and the still finding its voice Legends of Tomorrow) are terrific examples of a team of filmmakers who have fun and are fully invested in the world’s they create. In other words, there’s an unrelenting passion behind every frame. Unfortunately, like all of Snyder’s films, that love affair with the material is missing from Dawn of Justice. It’s like watching a master painter working on a piece of art he has no connection to except for what it might bring financially. There’s no motivation to put his heart into the piece, thus there’s no life to the vision. It becomes a paint-by-numbers artistry in which Snyder connects the dots and does everything he’s supposed to do, but doesn’t know how to make it sing because he’s not truly invested, causing the film to feel bland and emotionless where it should sing with excitement and power.
No more evident is this than in the limited amount of fight sequences, which, like Man of Steel before it, or devoid of any hunger. The final action sequence in particular, which begins with the title battle, is simply a barrage of explosions and chaos and destruction that all starts to blend together without much interest attached to it. I’m totally on board with what happens at the end of the film, finding it to be a brave, bold decision… if only it had any genuine emotional impact. The way it stands with the first two films in what DC hopes to make into a major Marvel-like franchise, all it seems I can look forward to is a continuously cold, dark wasteland of missed opportunity.
My Grade: B
Next week, new movies include God’s Not Dead 2. If you would like to see a review of this, or any other film out next week, please respond in the comments below.