(This is a movie review, so there are spoilers ahead. Beware, I guess.)
There are interminable stretches of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice in which the logjam of pricey digital effects and the garbled plot and jumbled visuals conspire to overwhelm our senses and weaken our will to carry on.
Well, maybe I exaggerate. The movie’s a mess, but it’s not a total fiasco. Director Zack Snyder conjures up a sky full of winged demons at one point that testifies to his gift for dark visions; and when Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman finally leaps into the fray, deep into the picture’s second half, she more than passes the audition.
Mostly, though, we’re stuck with the two super-guys of the title, both of whom are a little short on super. First-time Batman Ben Affleck is so glum and scowly—so not-fun—that you hope he’ll be able to kick his Frank Miller habit before returning in the two Justice League semi-sequels already headed in our direction. (Warner Bros. is betting the farm on DC Comics characters in the studio’s belated pushback against the well-established Marvel franchises.) And the serenely wooden Henry Cavill, whose Superman was introduced in Man of Steel, remains little more than an object of contemplation.
Why would these two characters suddenly be butting heads? It’s complicated. In a flashback to the sky-high Superman-vs.-General Zod battle that concluded Man of Steel, we now see that Bruce Wayne/Batman was on the ground below, witnessing all the collateral damage being caused (little girl loses mom, passing man loses legs) and vowing to take down the airborne vigilante. The U.S. government is now similarly alarmed, and is being urged by an anti-alien citizenry to rein Superman in. (The movie echoes current political concerns throughout, rather in the way that Snyder injected a virtuous environmental motif into his 2009 Watchmen.)
Meanwhile, a cache of mysterious green stones has been discovered in the Indian Ocean. In Africa, globe-trotting Daily Planet reporter Lois Lane (Amy Adams) has come across an artifact that proves to be most alarming. And there’s a mysterious ship on its way to Metropolis, where over-caffeinated tech billionaire Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg) is researching his “meta-human thesis” with the help of a “Genesis Chamber” and some sort of galactic archive. In Gotham—which appears to be just across the river from Metropolis—Bruce Wayne and his faithful butler Alfred (Jeremy Irons) are tinkering with battle gadgets (one of which seeks to explain Christian Bale’s froggy basso in the Christopher Nolan Batman films), and Bruce is finding himself drawn to an enigmatic woman named Diana Prince (Gadot). As for Superman, he continues flying around righting wrongs, saving lives and pausing, in his guise as Clark Kent, only for a surprising bathtub love-making interlude with Lois, now his live-in girlfriend. (This scene is bluntly truncated for PG-13 reasons).
There’s a lot of other stuff going on—two and a half hours’ worth—and a lot of it isn’t very clear (or wasn’t to me—Bat-fans may be unperplexed). There are many, many explosions and mano-a-mano super-smackdowns. (Batman shoots people in this movie; he also brands them.) There are fleeting appearances by other DC characters who’ll soon feature in movies of their own—the Flash (Ezra Miller) and Aquaman (Jason Momoa) among them. And the soundtrack score, by Junkie XL and Hans Zimmer, achieves a new high in thunder-god overkill—at the screening I attended, the floor was actually shaking.
There’s also a space monster who long overstays his welcome, and one enormous battle too many at the end. And when Batman suddenly calls off his anti-Superman vendetta and decides they should be friends, the reason adduced for this is so preposterous you wonder if the writers (David S. Goyer and Chris Terrio) will ever be able to hold their heads up in Hollywood again.
The movie is so oppressively dark that I offered up little sighs of thanks whenever Eisenberg appeared. His wholly reimagined Lex Luthor (possibly the son of the arch-villain played by Gene Hackman 30-odd years ago) suggests Mark Zuckerberg with his finger stuck in a wall socket. He’s a wonderfully weaselly techno-brat, and he provides much-needed jolts of enjoyment.
The picture’s most compelling presence, however—although she has comparatively little screen time—is Gadot’s character. In her guise of Diana Prince, she’s smart and stylish; but when she clamps on the Wonder Woman bracelets and takes up the magical lasso, she gives the picture an exhilarating lift. A decade after Joss Whedon was fired by Warner Bros. after completing his own Wonder Woman script, the Amazon princess finally has a foothold on the big screen. Up next: her own movie, directed by Patty Jenkins, which is already in production. May that one be a lot more fun than this one.