Amid ceaseless noise and repetitive, bullet points plotting, adolescent fantasist Zack Snyder may have found his most perfect film. This isn’t to say it is good: Batman v. Superman is, functionally, every bit the walking advertisement for future flicks as Marvel’s Avengers assembly line is every time out. However, because of Time-Warner’s desperation to muscle in on some of that “cinematic universe” money, Snyder is able to construct it around his own vulgar obsessions. He uses the ad framework to make an Attitude-era Wrestlemania highlight reel, hyping up his marble-carved titans for a slobberknocker, from which emerges a thesis on emotionally damaged boys.
In one corner, a xenophobic, billionaire sociopath (Ben Affleck) with a Raymond Burr scowl; in the other, a self-appointed savior (Henry Cavill) condescendingly shrugging off the concerns of the little people he deigns fit to rescue. Both circle and posture, daydream about their own failings, while talking heads and politicians scratch their chins and discuss the film’s own Catholic symbolism. Violence occurs, first in bursts, then gradually lengthening to building-leveling dustups crackling with lightning. Think a Rocky IV/Dragonball Z crossover fan-fiction, punched up by Frank Miller.
Both superheroes read as fundamentally dysfunctional. Cavill’s Superman, despite a boost in confidence following his catastrophic introduction to mankind in Man of Steel, has retreated further inward. An intervention to save his lover is taken as act of Western intervention, resulting in off-screen slaughter; he doesn’t see it, so it doesn’t bother him (in that vein, he acts on a tenement fire in Mexico when spotting it on cable news). It takes either a threat against the women in his life or the introduction of an equally-matched space demon to even animate his violence, he’s so indifferent. Affleck’s Batman, meanwhile–whose reminisces with his butler confidante suggest a sense memory of Keaton, Conroy, and Bale’s takes–is a middle-aged man haunted by obsolescence. The twin realizations of his war on crime having no real outcome and that there is an alien god capable of scorching the Earth have driven him further towards sadism, branding rapists and terrorizing even the people he rescues. His biggest concern becomes his own legacy, tying it to the future of the species.
Batman and Superman here don’t need any outside influence to hate each other, though the script from David Goyer and Chris Terrio provides one in the form of spineless plutocrat Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg). This Luthor is revealed as a cyber-stalker, who manipulates geopolitics, women, basically anyone or anything for the purpose of making himself feel more powerful than two puffed up alpha males. He’s Snyder’s Hail Mary, a convenient, awkward way to transition from his own fetishized violence to something friendlier to Warner’s business plan. Yet, Eisenberg’s Luthor complements the self-defeating nature of Batman’s obsessive drive and Superman’s arch-stoicism with disgusting passive-aggression. The heroes only have to recognize their failings and moderate themselves, but Luthor represents an aspect of contemporary masculinity instantly recognized as irredeemable.
Existing outside this paradigm is cameo appearance Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot). Slipping confidently around the periphery, distracting Batman for a couple moments, she’s a spaghetti western loner in designer dresses. Her only interest in the boys’ pissing contest is a MacGuffin she needs only briefly to fulfill a separate agenda. It takes some conscience-triggering raised stakes for her to don the Amazonian getup and charge into battle with something resembling glee. Her subplot is only a signal boost to future Justice League flicks, but it’s enough to throw off the film’s balance. No wonder Snyder places her dead center when it comes time for the team-up. She’s the film’s own paradox, as auteurist digression and commercial prospect, made flesh.
Batman v. Superman might be overstuffed, self-important and stupid, but like Josh Trank’s Fantastic Four reboot, it’s atonal, contradictory, and personal in a blockbuster landscape too slick for anything resembling an idea.