There are two funerals in Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice, one at either end of the story, which is about right for a movie that equates the maudlin with the meaningful. It is also fitting in a film that plays like a protracted memorial service. What is being laid to rest is the audience’s expectation of pleasure.
Cinemagoers and comic-book readers once looked upon the adventures of their cape-wearing idols and swooned. Oh, to have X-ray vision, to soar above the skyscrapers, to preside over an entire cave of gadgets and gizmos or turn back time by spinning the world in reverse. But it is the job of the modern superhero movie to explore at extravagant length and in morose detail the burden rather than the bliss of being one of the saviours of mankind, self-appointed or otherwise. If the religious parallels were not already clear, the last two Superman movies (Superman Returns, from 2006, and the wipe-the-slate-clean reboot, Man of Steel, in 2013) spelled them out in every frame; the experience was rather like being thwacked around the head with a Bible. The new picture—long, joyless, visually muddy, morally simplistic—goes one step further in its punishments. It’s the full hairshirt.
The confrontation promised by the title rests on a colossal misunderstanding: a stitch-up so obvious that one can spend much of the running-time wondering if some crucial plot-point has been omitted that would explain more convincingly the beef between these two titans. But no. Batman (Ben Affleck) simply gets hold of the wrong end of the stick and proceeds to smash everything up with it. (In a similarly ill-conceived way, the grievance is settled implausibly by a single word.) Batman is suspicious of Superman (Henry Cavill) because it appears that the latter has been using his powers unwisely and causing death and destruction wherever he goes. Fostering this impression is Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg), who has the wherewithal and the explosives to create havoc and then to frame Superman for his handiwork.
Luthor also knows exactly how to manipulate him—put Lois Lane (Amy Adams) in mortal danger and Superman is bound to come running, or swooping, to the rescue. Being a supervillain, it is not part of Luthor’s remit to point out that this is the 21stcentury, and that female characters shouldn’t be used simply as bait to trap heroes. It would be the job of the screenwriters to point that out. Except that they don’t seem to have noticed either.
Absurd misunderstandings have been at the heart of some of the greatest works of art: we would have no Othello, no Romeo and Juliet, without them. But, at the risk of stating the blindingly obvious, this is not Shakespeare—though the director Zack Snyder does harbour delusions of gravitas, if not grandeur. Every time he throws in another piece of arbitrary slow-motion or slaps more mournful choral music on the soundtrack, he permits us to see him reaching for what he believes serious cinema might be. It’s rather touching in that dog-walking-on-its-hind-legs sort of way.
While it is commonly assumed that action and special effects are the most crucial components in a blockbuster, Batman V Superman shows that cutting-edge technology counts for nought without a fully developed screenplay. Threadbare characterisation is one of the problems for the cast but it is also the case that these performers are authentically terrible. Ben Affleck, never an actor with a compelling range, is surely the first Batman to look more expressive with his mask on than off. Henry Cavill is a bizarre paradox, lacking either the lightness of touch of Christopher Reeve, or any demonstrable dramatic weight; everything about him is provisional. He is undoubtedly convincing as someone who longs to be seen as a complex and tortured super-being, but that’s very different from actually coming across as one.
The supporting cast is littered with fine actors failing manifestly to be directed. Holly Hunter, as a senator who tries to thwart Luthor’s plan to harvest Kryptonite, looks stunned, as well she might. Gal Gadot puts what sparkle she can into Wonder Woman, which isn’t easy given that the character only turns up in the final scenes to muck in; she couldn’t have seemed any more perfunctory if she had arrived brandishing a dustpan and brush. Diane Lane, as Superman’s mother, spends most of her scenes whimpering in a chair and waiting to be rescued. Amy Adams gets to run about a bit before being kidnapped and pushed off rooftops.
The worst performance by some distance is given by Jesse Eisenberg, who plays Luthor with a mannered swagger that suggests he thinks his script is crammed with devastating zingers. Only it isn’t. Putting on a Blanche DuBois voice to say that he “depends on the kindness of monsters” is about as good as it gets. But then this is a movie where lovers of great dialogue can look only to Batman’s mumbled “Oh shit” during a battle sequence. Or the moment when he asks Superman: “Do you bleed?” before following that with: “You will.” Except that Superman has whooshed off into the sky after the first sentence, so he doesn’t get to hear the punchline that was aimed at him. Awkward.
Even the central battle doesn’t amount to much more than Batman throwing a few Kryptonite stink-bombs at Superman; the filmmakers have clearly realised this, as they bulk out the grudge with a few nightmares that Batman has about his adversary. But the show-down itself has no psychological heft or tension. Compare it with Superman III, from 1983, where Superman did battle with the negative side of his own personality in the more humble setting of a common-or-garden scrapyard, and it is the newer and flashier film that is found wanting. If it deserves to be remembered at all, it will be as the point at which spectacle in big-budget superhero cinema departed definitively from sense.
Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice is on release.