Directed by Zack Snyder (2016)
by Matt Hammitt
(Ed. note: WARNING! SPOILERS AHEAD!
We really mean it. There are major spoilers here.
Ok...you good? Read on!)
Harlin, once a young and promising filmmaker, made his name on a weird, well-regarded horror-movie property (Nightmare on Elm Street IV: The Dream Master), tore through a series of stylistic and dumb summer blockbusters (Die Hard 2, Cliffhanger), made enough money for the powers that be to imbue him with both a huge budget and complete creative control over an ambitious passion project (Cutthroat Island) that promptly fucking cratered the entire fortunes of almost every person involved.
Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice is Cutthroat Island if Cutthroat Island played fast and loose with the legacies of two of popular culture's most enduring properties. And that is what makes it unique. Cutthroat Island may have been terrible, but, in the end, all it ruined was Geena Davis. Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice might have just ruined Batman.
Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice. Just look at it. Look at that title. That is the agreed upon title for the film upon which Warner Bros. is looking to build its monolithic DC franchise. Six words. Eleven syllables. One title. One stupid fucking title. That sound you hear is Zack Snyder pushing all of his chips toward the center of the table, soon to be homeless.
I wanted Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice (abbreviations be damned, I'm typing this whole fucking title out every single time) to be the worst movie ever. I wanted it more than anything. When I woke up on Thursday morning and browsed the Internet to find the cast and crew already deeply enmeshed in a damage control campaign on the film's press tour...well, there aren't English words for the joy I experienced.
I didn't quite see my wish fulfilled. Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice is not the worst movie ever made. It may, however, be the most bizarre. And it is certainly the most incomprehensible film I have ever seen, considering the stakes.
At the forefront of all the mishegoss burdening this movie is the profoundly stupid decision they make to kill Superman at the end.
That's what they decided to do.
In the first earnest installment of this massive 10+ movie-long franchise.
How do you raise the stakes after you kill your invincible Christ figure in the first movie? What happens now? Who could possibly care?
I knew Zack Snyder was going to kill Superman in Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice. I knew he was going to do it because it is the single most consequential move he had available, and I knew he wouldn't be able to resist using it right away. That the death of Superman feels as meaningless as it does belies Snyder's biggest limitation as a storyteller: he has no emotional core. He has nothing to say. He's an aesthete, for certain.
Snyder fetishizes grimness. Grimness is the prevailing theme of Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice. Superman is grim. Batman is fucking grim as shit. Cartoonishly grim. Ben Affleck skulks through the movie like a morose professional wrestler. His one significant achievement, and one of the few for the film as a whole, is looking like a Bruce Timm drawing. His Batman is a certified lunatic. He spends the movie torturing and murdering people, fixating on what killing Superman could mean for his reputation. Jeremy Irons' Alfred watches on like an impotent parent in denial, unable to control his surrogate child's sociopathic tendencies and refusing to acknowledge them. I suspect this version of Alfred spends a lot of time secretly pouring scotch in his coffee, gritting his teeth, and petting the dog just a little too forcefully when no one's watching.
The acting is shockingly terrible across the board. Each performance seems rooted in a different kind of movie than every other performance. Affleck is aggressively sincere. Irons is oddly effete. Henry Cavill, who I remember liking in Man of Steel, is completely stoned, bordering on vacant. Amy Adams' Lois Lane is nothing more than an accessory. She might as well have been credited as Superman's wallet. Holly Hunter's Senator Finch is totally out of place, as is Laurence Fishburne's Perry White.
Jesse Eisenberg is Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice's tragic figure. His performance as Lex Luthor is far too awful to be his fault. He's a pastiche of cinematic psychopaths, emulating, at turns, Heath Ledger's Joker, Gary Oldman's Norman Stansfield and every Christoph Waltz character, all-the-while looking like Crispin Glover in Rubin and Ed. He's a weird, petulant teenager. He's Zack Snyder's spirit animal. I honestly believe he should be allowed to sue everyone who made this movie if his career stalls in the manner one would expect after something like this.
The performances are consciously steered in disparate directions, which creates a tone that is all over the place. The movie is stubbornly humorless for almost the entire first two-hours, choosing to lighten up only minutes before one of the two principal characters dies, at which point the film returns to its natural state of crummy gravitas.
Snyder's film completely fails Wonder Woman, who is deployed in the plot with little more regard than your average Bond girl. Part of the blame seems to rest with Gal Godot, who doesn't display any sense that this role might be meaningful to her, let alone to anyone who well regards her character. Wonder Woman is the Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice equivalent of token minority appointments in Republican administrations: an empty gesture that serves largely to debase the audience she is intended to pacify.
The performances in this film are terrible. Its tone is wildly incoherent. The narrative is also incredibly difficult to parse. I could not trace the logic of Luthor's plan throughout the movie at all. I suspect it isn't all that complicated, but I lost the thrust of it all the same. The movie follows this belabored scheme beat-by-beat during a painfully procedural second act, only to cast it aside instantaneously for Luthor's Plan B: a big, stupid unkillable monster. Zack Snyder's other spirit animal.
I think in some ways, I've always hated Zack Snyder in large part because of how easy-won his successes seem to have been, and how little they have ever seemed to cost him. Not so anymore. The cost of Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice is reflected on Snyder's face. He looks far older now than he did a scant three years ago. He looks tired and worn. His face is all deep lines and mossy beard. I feel something close to sympathy for him. He must have cared. Some part of this must have mattered.
Although Cutthroat Island died on the vine, it's failure was self-contained. I'm guessing Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice's failure will not be quite so immediate, but its scope could be tremendous. Warner Bros. has committed unknowable resources to the successes expected to follow in its wake. Even cutting bait would come at considerable cost.
Snyder makes the questionable move of beginning his new movie by revisiting the very specific things his audience seemed to hate about his previous film. The collateral damage of Man of Steel haunts Snyder's latest film from beginning to end. The collateral damage of Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice will haunt Snyder for the rest of his career.