Against news of rising temperatures, obscene politics, and religious hysteria, it shouldn’t come as a shock: superheroes aren’t getting along either. And, according to Zack Snyder’s Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice, there’s never been a greater threat. The movie’s premise is the kind of thing a bored kid might throw out; but make no mistake: this isn’t kids stuff.
Nor is it really a movie. More commercial for upcoming tentpoles than functional narrative, Batman V Superman is a juggernaut of runaway excess and protracted adolescence. Stretching the already problematic conception of adult-centric superheroes to its breaking point, it approaches its audience in a posture not dissimilar to the way Batman approaches the title fight: grimly confused, armed to the teeth, and pointlessly aggressive. Are you ready to rumble?
The movie begins promisingly enough. Batman’s origin story is relayed over the opening credits in Snyder’s wax-museum diorama aesthetic, and the character is introduced in a terrific sequence that makes good on years of promises that the caped crusader is as spooky as he is heroic. Even his initial motivation for mistrusting Superman feels like a corrective to the wanton destruction of the previous installment’s finale and that movie’s pointless invocation of 9/11 imagery. Man of Steel ended as Superman and Lois Lane, flanked by twisted rebar and a smoldering skyline, shared a kiss. Watching that Ground Zero embrace without considering the carnage was near impossible.
But Batman V Superman doesn’t address that misstep so much as amplify it, and grave allusions to the scourge of global terrorism swarm the picture—dirty bombs, terrorist cells, and the ubiquitous white ash of crumbling concrete are a fraction of the movie’s myriad signifiers. By the time the U.S. Capital is leveled, one wonders if Snyder is dead set on finishing the hijackers’ mission.
Of course, exploiting tragedy has been the blockbuster’s stock in trade for decades. But never has that exploitation felt so pointless; and by extension, bland. It might even feel offensive if the basic structure of Hollywood moviemaking weren’t similarly fumbled. Whole scenes appear out of order, the geography is a mess—one car chase appears to circle a single building while the spatial relationship between Gotham and Metropolis is in constant flux—and an inexplicable future-Nazi dream sequence (followed by something equally inexplicable but infinitely more difficult to describe) might be the movie’s most inadvertently compelling moment.
Audiences primed for a rousing wrestling match will be disappointed to find that they’ve been misled into an underground cockfight: the stakes couldn’t be lower. In his campaign against the Man of Steel, Batman—our ostensible hero—spends much of the overlong runtime as misguided as the movie itself. (He still finds time for an extreme-workout montage. Put lightly, Snyder has always been a sucker for the male form.) And robbed of the DayGlo sci-fi zip, Superman is a cipher.
But Batman V Superman‘s biggest crime is its disregard for the audience. From its chiseled, phony melancholy to its sober salute to mercurial duty, the movie is an embodiment of Snyder’s toxic atavism—a somber mess of overripe machismo and weirdly sexless juvenilia. One leaves with a profound sense of frustration: something so loud, big, and full of promises should deliver something in return. (Don’t expect a post-credits stinger.) Early response has been particularly harsh, but I don’t think mere Schadenfreude is at work—this is a movie designed to pound audiences into submission. At the packed advance screening, the crowd was eager and excited, whooping as the lights dimmed. But their ensuing silence spoke louder than any of the movie’s deafening bombast. They seemed bored stiff. For a comic-book adaptation of stratospheric proportions, could a reaction be more inappropriate?
But Batman V Superman is a bully, and what’s the appropriate response to its brand of provocation? Does one fight back, or take the beating? Either way, nobody wins. That’s especially true in this case. Even if superheroes aren’t just for kids anymore, these aren’t the heroes we need—or deserve.
Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice. Directed by Zack Snyder. Written by Chris Terrio and David S. Goyer. Staring Ben Affleck, Henry Cavill, and Amy Adams. Wide release.