The “Dawn of Justice” subtitle to the new Superman v. Batman movie is really referring to the “Dawn of the Justice League,” with two more films promised after this franchise startup, both to be directed by Dawn of Justice director Zack Snyder, who is already contracted. And the film spends no small amount of time preparing us for those coming films, partly though the introduction of Israeli actress Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman in a part that proves eye-catching but completely extraneous to the plot of this film, such as it is; partly through an e-mail video that contains snatches of videos of Aquaman, the Flash, and other DC comic heroes, implying that we’re going to see more of them sometime in the future, even though they have nothing to do with what’s going on in this film; and partly through dark and apparently prophetic dreams that Batman/Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) has about apocalyptic looking futures, which also have nothing to do with the movie we’re watching.
So, that’s part of the problem with this movie. Warner Brothers was apparently so concerned with setting up this coming franchise in order to compete with Disney/Marvell’s universe of intertwined characters that they inadvertently sacrificed the coherence of this film to that future. But that’s only part of the problem. The film also spends a good deal of time alluding to previous films, particularly Snyder’s own 2013 Man of Steel, the film that introduced his Superman (Henry Cavill) to the film world. The problem with this is that Man of Steel was so forgettable a film that even people who had seen it were probably straining to remember who General Zod was, for example. If you do have a vague memory of that film, what you probably hazily recall is about 45 minutes of Superman fighting with fellow Krypton survivors in a battle where they spend a good deal of time crashing through buildings and knocking down the whole city of Metropolis.
Turns out that is exactly what sparks the enmity between the two superheroes. One of the buildings that Superman knocked for a loop belonged to Bruce Wayne, and in fact a number of his employees died when the building collapsed. So in fact there is some motivation here for Batman’s resentment of Superman. What I couldn’t figure out for the life of me was why Superman was ticked off at Batman—he warns him at one point that the next time Wayne answers the Bat-signal may well be his last. But why? As far as I could tell, it was because he feels Bruce Wayne’s animosity toward Superman when, as Clark Kent, he meets Wayne at a party thrown at the house of—who else—Lex Luthor, played with manic glee by Jesse Eisenberg. Wayne chides the Daily Planet for lauding Superman uncritically, and Kent takes issue, but it seems a pretty lame excuse to want the Bat dead. Nor is it ever clear exactly how Superman knows Bruce Wayne is Batman. With his super-hearing he can hear Alfred (Jeremy Irons) talking through an earpiece into Wayne’s ear, but I don’t know that Alfred ever calls him “Batman,” even in that private conversation.
Maybe Superman is just appalled by Batman’s tactics. Unlike the Christian Bale Batman, whose ethics prevented him from killing anyone, the Affleck incarnation has fewer scruples—he will take it to the bad guys with anything that works, and doesn’t back off from getting down and dirty. He even brands his victims with a “bat” sign—a sign that apparently is a death sentence to its bearer once they are behind bars since other inmates know that only the worst of criminals will receive such a brand.
Of course, Superman himself is also in trouble: having rescued Lois Lane (Amy Adams) from a Middle Eastern terrorist, he is blamed when a bloodbath ensues that he has nothing to do with, and is under investigation by Congress, particularly a congressional committee headed by a Kentucky senator played with aplomb by Holly Hunter, who asserts that in a democracy, no one should be making the kind of militaristic decisions Superman seems to be making unilaterally, without the consent of the American people.
At this point, the movie begins to take itself seriously, and writers David Goyer and Chris Terrio throw in a lot more questions: Superman has god-like powers, but God cannot be both all-powerful and all-good, so which is Superman to be? Is Superman in fact a new Messiah, and as such is he a Christ-figure? What role does Batman play? Here, Affleck truly has the more interesting part—will he play the Judas role? These are some interesting questions, and Snyder and his writers are at some pains to imply that something very deep is going on here—it’s like a Greek tragedy.
Unfortunately, Snyder seems to have forgotten that, according to Aristotle, the most important aspect of tragedy is (surprisingly) not its computer-generated special effects, but rather its plot: a well-organized structure that moves logically and inevitably from incident to incident to a final catastrophic reversal, ideally accompanied (as in Oedipus Rex) by a tragic recognition on the part of the hero. Pretty much none of that applies to this film. None of those epic questions really gets answered here, and there is nothing logical or well-structured in the plot, which moves by fits and starts and often has you guessing just because you really don’t know what the heck is going on. Nobody seems to have come to any kind of transcendent knowledge in the end and although there is a reversal of sorts—a kind of deus ex machina—when a giant Kryptonian monster (which my wife called “the orc”) pops up unexpectedly for the sole purpose, as far as I can tell, of adding 15 minutes of more mindless super-battling to stretch the movie to a full two and a half hours.
Although Cavill and especially Affleck do creditable jobs with what they are given, the best part of this film is probably the supporting cast. Eisenberg keeps you watching him in every scene he is in. Irons brings a healthy ironic steak to his Alfred, but he just isn’t in the film enough. As Perry White, Laurence Fishburne is amusingly noteworthy, but his role is little more than a cameo. Kevin Costner as the dead Pa Kent has an even briefer role, but a poignant one. Adams and Diane Lane as Martha Kent are worth watching, but all the film gives them to do is act as bait to draw Superman into Luthor’s traps. Too bad they don’t get to do anything on their own. Wonder Woman does, but as mentioned above, it’s only for a few minutes and it seems pretty much an afterthought, an advertisement for Justice League part one. So essentially, the film’s best assets are squandered in favor of endless CGI battles and cryptic hints of stuff that may be coming of stuff you’re supposed to already know, or are supposed to wish you knew.
Since I admit I did sleep through some of those elongated fight scenes, the film didn’t seem as long to me as it might seem to you, if you stay awake. Of course, you may like it—more than 70 percent of the people who’ve seen the movie liked it, though critics have been much less sanguine. And the movie has made well more than $200 million so far, which ought to just about recover the cost of making it. But if you’re looking for anything beyond a very grim comic book universe and video-game like battle effects, you’re not really going to find it here. Two Jacqueline Susanns for this one, and hope the sequels are better.