Batman v. Superman is a solid movie, oftentimes even a really good movie. At its core, it feels like Man of Steel 1.5. While it doesn’t make Man of Steel any better in hindsight, the much-discussed retcon actually works well in creating a foundation for this clash of the titans. Indeed, the first ten minutes is a revisiting of the Superman-Zod battle, only with real consequences. Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) serves aptly as our window into a world in which Superman (Henry Cavill) appears, and we understand the concern, the fear (“the fever, the rage…”) that manifests in a much more jaded Batman onscreen than ever portrayed. That sequence sets up the themes for the most interesting aspects of Batman v. Superman.
Dawn of Justice, in contrast, is absolute garbage. The tone of the Justice League-themed aspects of the movie is inconsistent, yet unsubtle to the point of distraction. To plant the seeds for the presumable plot of the next installment, there is a dream sequence of the Flash in a time vortex, a scene disconnected from the entirety of the 2.5 hour movie that surrounds it. To reveal the Justice League roster, there is literally a three minute shot of a laptop showing Youtube-quality videos – both in terms of production value and acting ability. These are the equivalent of Thor’s magic pool sequence from Age of Ultron, the Red Skull disappearing into thin air part of The First Avenger, the unwatchable Nick Fury donut shop bullshit in Iron Man 2.
The problem is that the Dawn of Justice elements are not compartmentalized. They bleed deep into Batman v. Superman. Diana Prince’s (Gal Gadot) sporadic appearances stand as more distracting than essential, despite director Zack Snyder’s best efforts. What makes her character especially jarring is her own rockin’ theme song that accompanies every mention – the Jumanji drums would have been more subtle. Meanwhile, the character of Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg, in a Zuckerberg-like portrayal I enjoyed immensely) suffers hugely because he must also serve as a vessel for the eventual appearance of Darkseid. Luthor’s beef with Superman would have made for a much better parallel to Bruce Wayne’s without the Doomsday stuff.
Tantalizingly, so much of Batman v. Superman works. Like the better parts of its predecessor, the script creates a complex Superman, a Superman who makes choices and mistakes and questions his place in the world. Again, it’s Man of Steel 1.5. Moreover, because Zod and planetary genocide are off the table this time, Batman v. Superman is forced to confront all the gray areas that Man of Steel merely teased then summarily discarded. This is a Superman who the world has mixed feelings about, who some worship, others resent, and still others simply want to use. The script does well to focus on Batman, as his every conversation with Alfred (Jeremy Irons) projects these debates about the mercurial god-figure, underscoring Superman’s role as unknown quantity.
I found the first hour and a half enthralling: scenes moved with a sense of purpose, deftly managing and developing multiple characters and storylines, reminiscent of – dare I say – The Dark Knight. We have an introductory Lois (Amy Adams) sequence that establishes her tenacity while underscoring her central role in Superman’s life; indeed, it is his blind devotion to her revealed in that opening scene that plants the seeds for his undoing in this movie. We have Bruce Wayne’s building resentment, leading the billionaire to cross paths with Luthor, at the same time pushing his vigilante alter-ego to a brief but effective first encounter with Superman. We have the leadup to the committee hearings, and a stunning second act twist at the Capitol that should change everything.
Only, it doesn’t. The Justice League universe-building takes center stage. Everything then goes from 0-60 because the third act – inextricably linked to the next film – demands galactic stakes, far beyond the relatively grounded motivations that this movie has sought to establish up to that point. In the process, the sense of purpose the script demonstrated quickly devolves. It plows ahead almost blindly: carefully crafted storylines now intersect in clunky ways, character motivations are completely jumbled. Lex shifts from looking for a safeguard against Superman to bizarre (and nonsensical) genetic experimentation. Batman turns from suspicious detective to unrelenting psychopath. The titular battle somehow manages to come out of nowhere; the immediate situation contrived.
Even the actual, entertaining-as-hell fight between Batman and Superman – and the thrilling solo action sequence that follows (though that lacks proper motivation) – are overshadowed by an instantly-forgettable CGI slugfest that inserts Wonder Woman dead center and relegates Batman to the sidelines. It’s symbolic. We have Wonder Woman because the movie is ultimately a Justice League origin story. We have Doomsday because it needs a villain that warrants help from Wonder Woman. And we have huge leaps of logic that far outstrips Lex’s established motivations to get Doomsday. Indeed, following the Capitol events, the movie shifts from a very human story to a very non-human story, from Batman v. Superman to Dawn of Justice. I enjoyed it. I just wonder why Batman and Superman (and Lex) weren’t enough.