WASHINGTON — It was the best of genres, it was the worst of genres, a blockbuster Tale of Two Cities, Gotham and Metropolis, and their superhero saviors that became global icons, The Dark Knight and The Man of Steel.
One franchise defined the very best of the superhero flick, as Tim Burton delivered a darkly-comic Michael Keaton and Jack Nicholson in “Batman” (1989) before Christopher Nolan created the genre’s greatest with “The Dark Knight Trilogy” (2005-2012), allowing Alejandro G. Inarritu to swoop in with Keaton for a superhero satire that bookended the era with a Best Picture “Birdman” (2014).
The other saw a failed remake with “Superman Returns” (2006) that required an immediate reboot in “Man of Steel” (2013), which inserted way too many opening set-up scenes, ignored the Lois & Clark romance so much that the final kiss felt unearned, and built to an overlong action climax that left many wondering whether Zack Snyder (“300,” “Watchmen”) was the right director for the job.
Now, the two franchises collide in “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice,” pitting two of the world’s most iconic superheroes in a dream death-match. Over the course of 2 1/2 hours, you’ll learn that little has changed in the overkill approach, as Snyder doubles down on many of his worst instincts.
We pick up where “Man of Steel” left off, amid Superman’s defeat of General Zod in a battle that destroyed much of Metropolis. Turns out, a loved one of billionaire Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) was in one of the towers (a grim 9/11 reminder), planting seeds of revenge against Superman (Henry Cavill), who is busy writing for his editor (Laurence Fishburne) and protecting lover Lois Lane (Amy Adams).
Wayne creates his own alternate identity as the caped crusader Batman, who stages vigilante justice out of his Bat Cave in Gotham City — assisted by butler Alfred (Jeremy Irons) — protecting innocent citizens while branding his captured criminals. But a new evil mastermind is on the rise, Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg), hoping to stoke the flames of resentment between Batman and Superman.
Co-written by Chris Terrio, the Oscar-winning screenwriter of “Argo” (2012), and David S. Goyer, co-writer of “The Dark Knight Trilogy” (2005-2012), this blockbuster script finds glimmers of killer dialogue between two trash-talking heroes. “Next time you see that Bat Signal, don’t go into the light,” Superman says, to which Batman replies, “Do you bleed? You will.” Both lines pay off later on.
Terrio and Goyer also deserve kudos for finding an often overlooked, yet vital family coincidence between the Superman and Batman comics. We we won’t say what, so as to avoid spoilers, but the revelation helps to provide a pivotal turning point in the characters’ relationship.
Still, all the clever lines and unique comic-book connections can’t overcome the film’s relentlessly depressing mood and inherent identity crisis. Its tone rarely lets loose to have a little fun — as Nicholson’s Joker said, “This town needs an enema!” — while the story can never decide which of its brooding characters are its heroes and villains, pondering God vs. Man toward a jumbled finale.
Fans who are hoping for a well-told story building toward, you know, Batman v Superman will feel slighted as the filmmakers opt instead to give us “Batman v Superman v Lex Luthor v Wonder Woman v Another Villain Who Shall Not Be Named.” With this much clutter, you can’t quite possibly give each character his or her due, paying each lip service instead of building the proper character arcs.
Initially, the setup suggests Superman as the misunderstood protagonist and Batman as the scorned antagonist, roles that both Cavill and Affleck sell with charisma and bravado (Cheer up, Ben: you’re actually a very good Batman, particularly in your suave Bruce Wayne tuxedo scenes). But just like Val Kilmer and George Clooney, this Batman must split screen time with too many other famous figures.
Rather than a straight Batman vs. Superman build, the title characters begin to split time as dueling heroes who must learn to work together — “Avengers” style — against the real antagonist Luthor.
OK, that’s fine. This three-way struggle might have worked if the filmmakers left it at that. But this is a 21st-century blockbuster where a simple hero vs. villain struggle is sadly never enough. Just as we’re about to accept Luthor as the chief villain, Snyder unleashes another major super villain in the final 15 minutes. This is then exacerbated by a lazy solution: well, we better add another hero (Gal Gadot).
We fans have been anxiously “Waiting for Gadot” to arrive after seeing Wonder Woman in the trailers, but while her performance steals the show, it’s too little too late from a narrative standpoint. By the end, we have three major superheroes battling two major villains for a climax that crowds out Lois Lane and diminishes Luthor by making him a throwaway figure unworthy of the final battle.
Can you imagine if Nicholson’s Joker didn’t face Keaton’s Batman on the bell tower? If he instead disappeared and suddenly allowed The Riddler to take over for the final fight? Sure, “The Dark Knight” allowed The Joker to disappear in favor of Two-Face, but that’s because Heath Ledger died during filming. At least Two-Face had been a character the entire time as Harvey Dent. In “Batman v Superman,” the extra villain comes out of nowhere, like Rhino in “Amazing Spider-Man 2” (2014).
Making matters worse is Eisenberg’s over-the-top portrayal as Luthor. Twitching and chirping on a script that feeds him too many pop-culture quips, he feels less like a terrifying jokester (i.e. Ledger) and more like a cartoonish caricature. No worries. When you go for broke, sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t. You’re still the guy who gave us brilliant performances in “Zombieland” (2009), “The Social Network” (2010) and “Now You See Me” (2013). Can’t wait to see what’s next.
Luthor isn’t the only over-the-top element in “Batman v Superman.” The booming choir score by Hans Zimmer & Junkie XL practically shouts, “Look at me! I’m epic!” as Batwings and Batmobiles tear across the screen. By the time Affleck’s big metal suit arrives with its glowing eyes and Transformers build, it’s become a parody of itself. You can’t sell tickets to a Hulk Hogan vs. Stone Cold smackdown, then send one of them out to the ring in a giant robot suit that looks nothing like his familiar costume.
The whole point of Kryptonite is to reduce Superman down to mere mortal strength. This would play into the very appeal of Batman as a regular guy using wit, guts and gadgetry to hang with the most serious of rivals. Why hit Superman with Kryptonite, then use a bulky, goofy suit of armor anyway?
Speaking of gadgetry, it’s the Bat Cave that provides the exact moment when the film loses its early promise and derails toward the absurd. About 45 minutes in, Affleck decrypts a computer file and dozes off while watching the loading bar. Only we don’t see him doze off. The screen cuts to black.
What follows is an elaborate continuous-shot battle where Affleck disposes of countless Luthor henchmen. It’s an admirable attempt at a single-shot action sequence like “Creed,” but it all feels a little too stagy compared to Keaton’s fluid single-shot in “Birdman.” While we try to get our grips on what the hell is happening — like many of the dream sequences in “Avengers: Age of Ultron” (2015) — a confusing apparition from the future warns Bruce Wayne about the key to unraveling the truth.
Such questionable choices undermine the sporadic directorial flourishes that Snyder does well, namely the powerful prologue showing the double murder of Wayne’s parents. The parallelism of certain visual cues is inspired, breaking a pearl necklace in slow motion as bullet shells fall to the ground, echoed later with cannon-fire casings falling in slow motion during a solemn ceremony.
Snyder deserves some credit. If you look close enough, you can tell that he read the “Man of Steel” critiques condemning collateral damage during his downtown superhero battles. Not only does the film open by showing the consequences of the Superman-Zod battle, we later see Anderson Cooper reporting that most citizens have luckily left the city after rush hour, while a military officer reminds us that a crash site is uninhabited. “No innocents were harmed in the making of this movie.”
But rather than involving the people of Metropolis this time — just as Nolan pit the citizens of Gotham in a moral quandary of whether to blow up each other on a pair of explosive ships — Snyder is simply happy to have the citizens out of the way. He now has carte blanche to smash his plastic action figures through as many buildings as he wants, becoming a kid in a candy shop and creating as much CGI destruction as possible. The result is one of the busiest, darkest superhero chapters you’ll ever see.
Don’t get me wrong. I actually prefer DC Comics charting a darker, more adult brand than the candy-colored Marvel. The grittiness is more authentic than the sheen, similar to the old days of Warner Brothers cranking out gritty gangster pictures or Universal churning out moody monster movies.
But “Batman v Superman” is so dark as to be practically joyless. What will kids walk away thinking when the credits roll? Certainly not Christopher Reeve’s mantra of “truth, justice and the American way.” Not even Christian Bale’s humble example of a Dark Knight taking the blame in a sacrificial act. The message here feels a lot like, “Mankind is screwed,” or as Luthor says, “The bell is already rung.”
He, of course, means the bell is rung for future villains in the next installment, just as Batman clicks secret computer files to reveal four new heroes primed for their own spin-off installments. While Luthor concludes “the bell is already rung,” his more fitting quote comes in a convo with a U.S. Senator (Holly Hunter): “You can urinate in a jar and call it Granny’s Peach Tea, but it’s still urine.”
This sums up the flawed franchise model. Hollywood can call it Granny’s Peach Tea — even slap a fancy “Dawn of Justice” label on the jar — but it’s still urine. Maybe critics are “pissing in the wind;” the genie is out of the bottle. But it’s becoming increasingly apparent that the endless franchise model is a shrewd business that limits an artist’s creativity to tell a focused, self-contained story.
“Batman v Superman” proves that the problem isn’t the individual pieces — Terrio is a great writer, Adams is a great actress, Zimmer is a great composer, even the superhero film is a great genre that speaks to our deepest hopes and fears — they’re all just working in a flawed franchise formula that crams in way too many characters and leaves plot lines dangling just to set up the next installment.
There will always be worthy exceptions — it’ll be fun to watch the origin stories of Wonder Woman, The Flash, Aquaman and The Green Lantern to see which ones dare to break the mold — but we’re not far from the DC Universe assembling with the Marvel Universe for an overstuffed crossover.
When the best superhero, Batman, is revived just four years after Nolan’s gems, simply to join a Superman sequel of a reboot of a remake — prefaced by trailers for “Suicide Squad” and “The Lego Batman Movie” amid a larger slate of “Deadpool,” “Captain America: Civil War” and “X-Men: Apocalypse,” all before “Justice League: Part One” (2017) — we’ve officially reached Peak Superhero.
Not financially, of course, but creatively. This sucker will make a zillion dollars, not off quality whatsoever, but off an untouchable, review-proof, preexisting brand, “proving” to blind execs that the formula must be working. It’s time to do the moral thing. It’s time to hit the pause button and reset.
You think you’re making money now? Try attaching that brand to actual good storytelling. Wow, the money you could make, the critics you could impress, the fans whose minds you could blow.
Instead, we’ll keep accepting the “same old same old,” because well, Batman and Superman.
Will the franchise bubble please burst soon so we can get some better superhero movies?
Alas, we might have to wait for Doomsday.