Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice is, more than anything else, a clash of symbols – possibly the two most instantly iconic symbols in American comic books. Marvel, for all their superior clout in the realm of current comic book moviemaking, have nothing as instantly recognisable as the winding S or the jagged bat that DC have finally paired together in their latest cinematic behemoth. Lucky, then, that director Zack Snyder is so skilled in the art of constructing striking images; Batman v. Superman is bejewelled with precisely composed frames, slow-motion employed to ensure the audience’s mouths flop open with astonishment at the artful beauty it’s apparently so easy to find in constant destruction.
It’s definitely less luck and more by design that the film deals so heavily in the imposition of iconography. One resonant montage, led by talking head voiceovers, holds Superman within images as a messiah, hands reaching out to his body, but the lingering slow-motion (again!) suggests the fear that comes with his distant, unknowable difference from the masses of humankind. Batman’s logo lingers too, in the sky, but more often on bodies, burned savagely into flesh of criminals, the marker of an unforgiving crusader. Each hero questions the iconography of the other and their legitimacy to act as they do. It certainly cannot be said that Batman v. Superman has no ambition, because the already very dense subject of morality and justice is merely one of about a dozen aspects packed into this two and a half hour beast.
And therein lies the main problem: Batman v. Superman is simply too much. The abundance of characters isn’t the problem so much as the overwhelming amount of information thrown at us; for the first hour or so, a narrative struggles to form and scenes exist so independent of one another that they might as well be played at once on a dozen split screens. Even more critically, Snyder’s typically bold tonality creates momentarily striking vignettes that differ wildly in terms of emotional register and formal verocity. The score, an intense meeting of Hans Zimmer’s dark orchestrations and Junkie XL’s fearless electronic drones, is laid over the film like a wax seal, aiding in Snyder’s bold stylisations but often proving so brutal that things almost become parodic.
Some of it seems frankly unnecessary: we open with yet another vivid flashback where Bruce Wayne’s parents meet a tragic end, here rendered in the most ponderous, Snyderish fashion possible. One particular dream sequence is so baffingly hallucinogenic and seems to exist merely to provide a dramatic moment for the trailer. That’s what Snyder is good at: providing tiny little bytes of pure cinema, sound and image combining to gift the marketing department ample material to craft hype. But if a director can’t manage to fold this impulse into the overall schema of his filmmaking, maybe he shouldn’t direct. Wonder Woman’s entrance is a magnificent moment, her own tribal theme booming all around the audience, the camera zooming in on her poised warrior figure, but Gal Gadot isn’t tested with much dialogue or emotional tension.
The film’s final act delivers on its title, in exactly the way you expect it to, and then steps up the vainglorious special effects for an explosive finale which essentially repeats the mistakes many critics called Man of Steel out for. This would be understandably – though not forgiveable – had the film not dealt from the outset with tackling these criticisms in a meta-commentary involving Holly Hunter’s righteous senator who calls an inquest into Superman’s behaviour and his freedom to use Metropolis as a battleground. When the film crumbles into an orgy of CGI violence, it not only loses any thematic intrigue, but it betrays itself. Jesse Eisenberg’s Lex Luthor is made the maniacal supervillain, but both the script and Eisenberg rely on our pre-existing notions of the character rather than giving him any real depth or motivation.
While Batman v. Superman provides some momentary crumbs of value, and does at least give Henry Cavill and Ben Affleck an emotional workout as well as some rather sweaty physical ones, it is in so many ways exactly what the world has been expecting. Perhaps it could never be anything else. It is the unholy collision of franchise filmmaking, the pressure of hype-building, and the pathological need to continually be bigger. Snyder, DC and Warner Bros., all likely with wildly different motivations, try to make Batman v. Superman deliver so many things that it not only remains unsatisfying on pretty much all of them, but it betrays the fractured soul of American filmmaking and what the business itself finds valuable. As long as it makes enough money, no lessons whatsoever are likely to be learned from this mess of a blockbuster, and the superhero march will continue.
Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice is in cinemas now.