Thunderous, ponderous and occasionally exciting, Zack Snyder’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice opens with one of those grim proclamations that the creators of modern superhero movies are so fond of: “There was a time above, a time before,” intones the voice of Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck), over a by-now de rigueur childhood flashback to his parents’ death at the hands of a mugger. “There were perfect things,” he continues, as we see young Bruce fall down the shaft leading to the bats that will one day give his alter ego a name. “But things fall apart, things on Earth, and what falls … is fallen.”
Look, the guy’s a masked vigilante, not a philosopher-poet. Unfortunately, that's just what Batman v Superman keeps trying to turn him into. He isn’t alone. Nearly every character in this ultimate superhero matchup gets reams of dialogue about good and evil and man and god and virtue and sacrifice and our fallen, fallen world. “Devils don’t come from the hell beneath. No, they come from the sky!” “If God is all powerful, then he can’t be all good. And if he’s all good, then he can’t be all powerful!” By the time Kevin Costner shows up to relate a folksy memory about a bad flood, his “hero cake” and some drowning horses (don’t ask), you might find yourself stifling giggles.
But laughing — seemingly ever — is the last thing Snyder wants you to do. The director clearly wants his film to mean something. For much of it, Superman (Henry Cavill) is treated as an absolute — more a philosophical conundrum than a man. The script draws explicit connections between him and drone warfare, and there are endless discussions about whether we can trust one person to have all that power. (“He has the power to wipe out the entire human race,” Wayne insists. “If we believe that there’s even a 1 percent chance that he is our enemy, we have to take it as an absolute certainty.”) The film seems to spend much of its first half in both literal and figurative slow-motion, as characters mutter and mull and ponder these issues, often in the least compelling ways.
Meanwhile, there’s the story itself, which is driven by the revelation that, in the hilariously destructive climax of Man of Steel, Superman and General Zod (Michael Shannon) happened to vaporize a Wayne Enterprises building filled with Bruce’s employees. That’s an interesting idea: Batman’s motive is not dissimilar to any number of Hollywood villains before him. Think of all the bombed-out villages and devastated families that helped birth the bad guys in movies such as The Peacemaker and Three Kings.
But, amazingly for a film that practically defines overkill, Batman v Superman doesn’t do much with the notion; it could have been fascinating to see Batman as a true villain, but that probably wouldn’t go over well with corporate. Instead, the heroes' differences get egged along by young, irritating tech billionaire Lex Luthor (played by Mark Zuckerberg himself, Jesse Eisenberg), who has an elaborate and not-at-all-confusing plan that involves getting a stash of deadly green Kryptonite from the wreckage of General Zod’s ship and then convincing Batman to use it. (He has other schemes, too, but let’s not get into them here.)
Also looking into Luthor’s plans is Wonder Woman, aka Diana Prince (Gal Gadot), a mysterious Amazon who captivates (and briefly collaborates with) Wayne but otherwise doesn’t get much to do until the climax. The film uses the actress's intense gaze well, but she hasn't been given much character or dialogue to work with. Nevertheless, Batman v Superman does come to life whenever she's onscreen, and not just because composers Hans Zimmer and Junkie XL have outfitted her with a rousing, charging musical theme that offers a welcome contrast to the rest of the brooding soundtrack. Also, not having much dialogue, she’s one of the few characters who doesn’t have to issue pseudo–Joseph Campbellian proclamations about power and heroes and goodness and evil and the individual and oh God make it stop.
The whole being a big, lumbering ball of portent, we’re left with pieces. And some of those are good. Snyder shoots Batman’s exploits like a horror movie, full of dashing handheld shots in shadowy corridors and looming figures on dark walls, and it’s tremendously effective. There’s one thrillingly bizarre sequence involving Batman and Superman and their soldiers (what?) fighting in a blasted cityscape; it seems to come out of nowhere, like some sort of dream projection, though I’m sure it has some kind of comic-book antecedent, or will at the very least pay off in one of the many sequels DC and Warner have planned.
There are nice, smaller touches, too: A poster for John Boorman’s Excalibur in the opening scene finds a sly echo in the climax. The idea of Bruce’s butler/partner-in-crime Alfred (Jeremy Irons) being a bitter old man nursing a tumbler of whiskey makes savvy character sense; the years have done a number on him. And the gunshot-like sonic boom whenever Superman takes flight nicely encapsulates, in a single sound effect, the philosophical issues surrounding the character.
But dammit, all that gloom. All that slow-motion. All that talk. This kind of subtext-made-text is the superhero comic’s bread and butter, of course. But a filmmaker must make this stuff work onscreen by expressing those ideas through images and words that will linger in our minds. And for all of Batman v Superman’s chatter, not once does it give us a line half as evocative and memorable as The Dark Knight’s “Some men just want to watch the world burn.” It’s not a bad movie, but it doubles down on its least interesting and potent elements at the expense of those that actually work. In the end, the film is as forgettable as the dime-store philosophy that fuels it.