Review: Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice

2016, 151 minutes, rated PG-13

It would be easy to simply call “Batman v Superman” a drudging, humorless exercise, a hopeless mess, but it has one redeeming quality. There’s some possibility that it might not actually exist. The heroes of DC Comics have spent decades popping back and forth between seemingly infinite parallel realities, introducing increasingly confusing, often conflicting “what if” scenarios that sometimes spill into their “real” universe, if the stories are popular enough. But, if they don’t seem to be leading anywhere interesting, these scenarios are just as often abandoned, forgotten, and rebooted.

This movie, for example, asks what if Superman (Henry Cavill reprising his role from 2013’s “Man of Steel”), instead of embodying the indomitable virtues of confidence, valor, and excellence, was a shortsighted, self-loathing, misanthrope? Furthermore, what if Batman (now played like a slab of reclaimed oak by Ben Affleck), rather than being a genius tactician who soberly refuses to kill under any circumstances, were, say, an unhinged homicidal goon?

It’s a frustrating bait-and-switch to feature these characters’ names in the title of a film in which the players share so little, maybe nothing, in common with their customarily understood personas, exacerbated to a great degree by the transparency with which director Zack Snyder appears to revel in it. The film introduces a number of such injuries to the mythos, including the senseless, even casual death early on of a character who has otherwise been an integral element of Superman’s popular history, and an outright unrecognizable inversion of the Man of Steel’s arch nemesis. Snyder’s Lex Luthor (played with weaselly smarm by Jesse Eisenberg) is less the scheming master businessman and old-money tycoon, and more a twitchy, squawking, Silicon Valley sociopath. His presence on screen visibly annoys even the other people on screen. He is, simply put, a poor villain. And a joke. And the joke is on us. You can almost hear Snyder snickering at us from the other side of the camera.

Putting aside the calamity of these bizarro character shifts, the film also suffers a gamut of technical inadequacies. Hans Zimmer’s badly misjudged operatic score is imperious, oppressive, overbearing, and, worst of all, immediately forgettable. The plot, what little there is of one, is a total copy-and-paste of the series’ previous installment, asking identical questions and moving the story forward not a single whit. The sequences, many of them indistinguishable as dreams or premonitions or hallucinations, lurch with zero relationship from one to the next, like two and a half hours of deleted scenes spliced together.

The movie would likely be an awful lot better if Snyder had just thought to delete every single one of these scenes and let us watch a couple episodes of “The Flash” TV series instead. Snyder’s vision is aggressively disrespectful of its own source material. He has so exhaustively twisted the comic-book movie genre that he has achieved, maybe for the first time in cinema, a tragic-book movie. “BvS” is the opposite of fun. It’s woeful. Painful. Unhappy, unpleasant, disagreeable, and, well, bad. There it is. This is a bad movie.

So, back to that spark of optimism mentioned at the outset. At one point in the flick, a puzzling, inexplicable wormhole cracks open and some — conceivably future, certainly alternate — version of The Flash pokes his head through and hollers out that the Multiverse is real, reality is rewriteable, and this bloody torment we’re steeping in is escapable after all. At closer inspection, no one in this place actually even mentions Batman by name, calling him more often “The Bat of Gotham,” suggesting the prospect that the movie on screen may not even be taking place in the same reality as its own title. This, and nothing else about this steaming prolapse, is hopeful: that it may be possible to change this wretched channel and switch back over to a universe where legends invigorate, heroes inspire, light wins the day, and movies are good. That would be great. Because don’t let the movie’s subtitle deceive you — in this case, Zach Snyder’s in control, and as long as he is, there will be no justice for anyone.