The darkest moment of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is a montage of Bruce Wayne, played by an emotive rectangle of muscle and tendons known as Ben Affleck, prepping for his Superman fight by doing CrossFit.
The sequence takes place in the Batcave to ostensibly camouflage the sound of Wayne's weighted pullups and the percussion of steel weights dropped over and over. Wayne pushes a resistance sled — the kind you see in football movies like The Blind Side — and then swings a sledgehammer at a few tires. I don't completely understand how performing these exercises was supposed to help him defeat a bulletproof deity who can melt faces. But then again, I'm not really familiar with the latest in CrossFit trends.
Unfortunately, the scene is pretty representative of Batman v Superman's quality.
Allow me to let you down easy: Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, Warner Bros.'s most anticipated superhero slugfest in history, is not great. The goodwill that Christopher Nolan, Christian Bale, and the late Heath Ledger fostered in the studio's Dark Knight trilogy feels like a relic from eons ago. (The final movie in that trilogy, 2012's The Dark Knight Rises, isn't even five years old.) The few bright spots of 2013's Man of Steel — Kevin Costner and Diane Lane's humanizing portrayals of Pa and Ma Kent, Amy Adams's Lois Lane, the initial awe of Superman taking flight — are but a distant memory.
In their place is a stink bucket of disappointment, a sad and unnecessary PG-13 orphan fight that director Zack Snyder believes is an homage to DC Comics' most iconic heroes but is more along the lines of a home invasion perpetrated on comic book culture — save for one absolutely glorious moment that Snyder and friends may have accidentally lucked into.
Batman v Superman fails to deliver on its promise
The pathology of Batman and Superman fighting always leads back to a man named Frank Miller and his iconic comic book The Dark Knight Returns (1986). Miller, bending the comic book rules of time and space, makes Batman an older man living in dystopian Gotham City. Superman, meanwhile, is the obedient muscle of the government. Miller uses this backdrop to contrast their very different ideologies of justice and goodness, and in turn to spur their fistfight.
Though Miller's DKR isn't the only comic book story that pits the two heroes against each other (it's not even official canon), it boasts their most iconic fight. And it sets up the very real idea that two good men, perhaps the very best men, can have vastly different views of what a good world looks like.
Snyder himself has spoken about how much DKR influenced Batman v Superman.
"I was talking to Frank about it: Dark Knight Returns was such a big influence on me, that I wanted to honor him through imagery in the movie," he told Comic Book Resources in 2015. "You could still make Dark Knight Returns into a movie, if you want. The visual elements, there are some that I homage, but I don't think the movie [is an adaptation]."
Snyder wasn't lying. The story he's created is much different. Batman v Superman takes place a year and a half after Man of Steel. Superman (Henry Cavill) is a hero, but despite his meticulous side part, perfect teeth, and poreless skin, people are starting to realize that a godlike being could be a liability when it comes to foreign policy, sovereignty, and due process. Bruce Wayne, who has seen firsthand the devastation that Superman can cause, is one of those people.
The reason Wayne wants to fight Superman is that Superman caused too much damage to Metropolis, and Wayne thinks a fight will make Superman and the world more cognizant of his capabilities. Or maybe it's because Wayne is still sad over his parents' deaths and experiencing some sort of hyper PTSD. Or, wait — is it because Wayne thinks everyone is too into authoritarianism to see how insane it is to trust Superman? Perhaps it's because Wayne is jealous of Superman. Or maybe he simply can't see past Lex Luthor's (Jesse Eisenberg) tricks and an ongoing media narrative that Superman is dangerous.
This is where you wish Snyder had stuck to Miller's simple blueprint: that these two men just don't see justice the same way. None of Wayne's reasons for war are made clear enough, but they're all sort of there, flaccid and dying from a lack of sunlight and oxygen. There's a great Batman v Superman film to be made about how we mythologize our heroes and why our trust in them depends on how human we think our enemy is, but whatever Snyder created here is not it.
Of course, the open secret is that no one should have to care about the themes in Batman v Superman because its fight scenes should be good enough to make us forget their deeper meaning. Getting hung up on themes in a movie like Batman v Superman is like going to a steakhouse and getting miffed with the asparagus. You only start to notice the little things if the stuff you're there for isn't up to par.
Therein is Snyder's ultimate failure: His fight scenes featuring Batman and Superman are just fine. The two throw punches. Superman is stronger. Batman uses gadgets. It's all set to a rock 'n' roll Hans Zimmer score that Snyder uses when he wants things to be dramatic. The weightless CGI-fest begins to bleed together and morph into an exercise in risk-averse repetition.
Megaton fight scenes are the reason people will put up with bad dialogue or bad logic in a film, so it's an outright tragedy when Batman v Superman's showdowns become as boring as the rest of it. What happens when the stuff that's supposed to break you out of the monotony is just as monotonous as everything else?
CrossFit — I guess.
Wonder Woman is the best goddamn thing about this movie
The greatest mystery surrounding Batman v Superman is the question of how Snyder managed to fold such a wondrous Wonder Woman into such a not-great film. Played by Gal Gadot, who possesses an origin story that involves a two-year stint as a solider of the Israel Defense Forces, Wonder Woman, a.k.a. Diana Prince, is the movie's saving grace.
While Bruce Wayne and Clark Kent are busy sizing each other up, Diana is making the most of her metahuman life — traveling abroad, withdrawing piles of money from ATMs across the world, attending fabulous parties, going to museums, and probably taking a SoulCycle class when she gets bored. She's got things in perspective and knows what happens when you get too caught up in stuff that's beneath you.
Which is why when she does enter the fray, it's a glorious moment that feels like the one truly important, joyous part of the film. Doomsday is upon us, and she can't just ignore it any longer. With a sly grin, she's back in battle — like an athlete who's just figured out the pace of the game.
Gadot's Diana Prince is a spellbinding combination of Amazonian brawn and a gliding, regal sylph. I just wish she had more to do, because she's excellent with what little material she's given.
"Boys— there's no natural inclination to share," Diana tells Bruce Wayne, spilling the unfortunate truth about the wars she's seen in her lifetime as well as the theme of this movie.
It's not that Affleck's Bruce Wayne is bad. Affleck does a fine job portraying a weary, more brittle Dark Knight than we're used to seeing. It helps that he's guided by Jeremy Irons's winsome Alfred.
But Batman v Superman has Batman doing some strange things that are more out of step with the character than anything in Affleck's control. And the same can be said of Cavill's Superman/Clark Kent.
As a spy in 2015's The Man From U.N.C.L.E., Cavill showed us he can manifest all kinds of charm — but Batman v Superman doesn't ask him to use that skill, or even to flash a wry smile, while playing the god from Krypton. Batman v Superman's Superman is more weepy than inspiring.
Perhaps the biggest problem is that all three had to share the movie with Eisenberg, who is turning in his best impression of an unfunny Michael Cera as Lex Luthor. Luthor is rich and weird, but in Batman v Superman there doesn't seem to be any rhyme or reason as to why he's being evil. His characterization makes him into something like a less frightening Joker without a motive. And by the end of the film, you're itching for Lex Luthor's death, but not because he's some kind of grand villain. Rather, you're just hoping that the subsequent Justice League movies won't have to deal with him.
And that's ultimately the most disappointing aspect of Batman v Superman: The movie is supposed to set the tone for an entire slew of DC Comics superhero films. Suicide Squad comes out in August. Wonder Woman is out next year, followed by the first Justice League film. And while on one hand Batman v Superman should leave us worried for the future, on the other it's already made those upcoming films look better — not because it achieved some new height of superhero filmmaking but because it, and Snyder, discovered the floor.
Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice officially hits theaters on March 25. Screenings begin the evening of March 24.