During one of the many fiery climaxes of Batman v Superman, Bruce Wayne, aka Batman (Ben Affleck), turns to his loyal Alfred (Jeremy Irons) and asks what's happening. "How to describe it?" replies the manservant, his dry diction impeccable as he watches yet another piece of Metropolis explode.
That pretty much sums up this critic's response to the latest DC Comics epic from director Zack Snyder. In Man of Steel, the 300 auteur introduced his "gritty" yet messianic version of Superman (Henry Cavill), capping the origin story with an orgy of urban destruction. Add to that recipe the pitch-dark, noirish Batman already showcased in Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy, give the two superheroes a few reasons to fight, and what do you get? An epic about two emotionally stunted people trading glowers while the world burns.
There's a decent idea at the core of this mess: Who's the "good guy" is sometimes a matter of perspective. The film opens where Man of Steel ended. Only now we take Bruce Wayne's street-level view as he watches Superman and his Kryptonian adversary level the city, and we absorb his mistrust of this apparent savior who is, after all, an alien. An illegal alien, as an on-the-nose picket sign proclaims later in the film, when Superman is asked to declare his intentions toward humanity at a U.S. Senate hearing presided over by Holly Hunter.
If only Lois Lane (Amy Adams), media maven that she supposedly is, would give Superman a tiny tutorial on public relations, instead of letting him fly away to sulk in his Fortress of Solitude. If only Batman would stop muttering about the evils of mankind, reliving his own origin story in slow motion and having lurid dystopian dreams about the Man of Steel. If only Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg, bouncing around like the Joker on Adderall) weren't the only halfway smart one of the bunch. If only every one of these central antagonists wasn't motivated by some version of daddy issues.
But they are. And they fight. And it is very smashy and flashy, and very Wagnerian, and perhaps very satisfying to those who have dreamed of such a confrontation since the days of mashing action figures together. Viewers who mainly want to catch the franchise's first appearance of Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) are more likely to be disappointed; she has way more charisma than screen time.
Snyder and writers Chris Terrio and David S. Goyer assemble the myriad pieces of this story in ways that are sometimes intriguingly jarring, sometimes borderline incoherent. The aforementioned dream sequence, for instance, is introduced without a transition — suddenly we seem to be watching a Paul Verhoeven camp-fest. Some viewers may wish they could stay there instead of returning to the desaturated gloom of Snyder's urbanscapes.
Perhaps it's Nolan who deserves the blame for turning a superhero franchise into a portentous ball of pretension. Yet his Batman movies had genuine dramatic impact when they stuck to the well-mapped landscape of Gotham and the tropes of procedural dramas about terrorism and urban blight. Working on a much bigger canvas, Snyder seems to have left those humanizing connections behind. Instead of nuanced performances or telling character moments, we get shot after iconic shot of Batman or Superman silhouetted against the sallow glow of the small-minded, ungrateful world to which these titans have deigned to dedicate themselves.
And yet, just as Superman looms over Metropolis, so Batman v Superman looms as a fitting monument to the excess and self-importance of modern movie blockbusters. Bloated, absurd and dramatically unengaging as it is, one can't help agreeing with Alfred that it needs to be seen to be believed.