The old comic-book adage goes that if Superman had never existed, the human race would have found it necessary to make him up. But it’s highly unlikely that anyone viewing the merry hot mess that is Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice will walk out into the night feeling Warner Bros desperately needs to invent nine more movies anything like this one.
Yet that’s exactly what the studio expected Zack Snyder’s labyrinthine superhero smackdown to achieve, at least before the critics got their hands on the film and tore it into tiny little pieces. Stricken with an almighty dose of superhero hubris, execs have already announced plans to go into comic-book movie overload between now and 2020, as they play catchup with Disney-owned Marvel’s pioneering “cinematic universe”. It’s as if studio bigwigs imagined the Watchmen director had access to his very own magical powers, allowing him to miraculously avoid the eight years and a dozen or so movies required by its rival to popularise Iron Man, Thor, Captain America et al in a single celluloid bound. Not with this hamfisted, chaotic quagmire of a movie.
Snyder is a film-maker capable of spectacular visual brio, who will always have a place in the fanboy pantheon for his elegant work on Watchmen (and, to a lesser extent, 300). But Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice’s preposterously congested title alone should have warned him this one was always going to be mission impossible, even with a torrent of grade-A talent on tap.
For the record, Ben Affleck would make most people’s top three all-time caped-crusader list, even if he’s a far better Bruce Wayne than he is a Batman. Henry Cavill continues to offer up an intriguingly introspective, poignantly human Superman, while Gal Gadot is a suitably exotic and enigmatic Wonder Woman. Jeremy Irons makes for a wonderfully world-weary Alfred Pennyworth in the new movie, while Holly Hunter is strong as a meddling senator who finds herself out of her depth.
And yet, there is simply too much to do in too little time, even given the movie’s bloated 153-minute length. Snyder hits every single target in this ambitious game of whack-a-mole world-building, from setting up future Wonder Woman, Aquaman, the Flash and Cyborg movies to laying the foundations for Bats, Supes and the other Princess Diana to team up as the Justice League. Yet the result is more a synapse-searing jumble of images and themes than it is a cohesive movie.
There are bravura moments: Wonder Woman’s arrival on the scene in full battle dress is accompanied by a thrilling melee of pounding tribal drums and laser-edged guitar work. But you’ve seen most of this in the trailer, and the musical theme feels as parachuted in out of nowhere as Diana of Themyscira herself – because Snyder hasn’t had enough time to introduce us to the character. Why on earth didn’t Warner/DC shoot the Wonder Woman movie first?
A series of digital vignettes show us glimpses of future superhero interlopers, and there’s a fabulous dream sequence that hints at monstrous future bad guys. But too often Snyder invents his own shonky shorthand to spin us neatly into the next stage of the universe-gestating jigsaw puzzle, without realising that he’s left half the audience slack-jawed and bamboozled in his wake.
Even then, Batman v Superman might just have pulled off its grande folie were it not for Jesse Eisenberg’s Lex Luthor, who’s been wrongheadedly retooled as a scheming, humourless madman. All we really known about him is that he wants to kill Superman because he wants to kill Superman, dammit. I actually rather enjoyed Eisenberg’s flamboyantly sociopathic performance, yet Luthor is the movie’s kryptonite, because if we don’t understand why he hates the last son of Krypton, nothing else makes sense.
Might Warner’s plan for a DC-based cinematic universe be saved by huge box-office returns for Snyder’s movie? It seems unlikely. Analysts predict Batman v Superman could open as high as $150m in the US this weekend, ahead of predecessor Man of Steel’s $115m in 2013. But the critical verdict so far has been derisive.
It should be said: there are genuine thrills to be had here along the mightily muddled path to the final credits. Yet poor reviews and lukewarm word of mouth will surely see Batman v Superman falling way short of the Avengers-level figures it needs to successfully set up future DC movies.
Warner’s best hope, at this stage, might be that David Ayer knocks it out of the park with August’s much-hyped Suicide Squad. That’s a movie based on a simple, audience-friendly principle (supervillains go on a Dirty Dozen-style mission to save the world), and should benefit from the reasonably positive reaction to Batfleck in Snyder’s film: Affleck is due to make a cameo.
But what a strange situation that comic-book totems of the status of Batman and Superman should be relying on the likes of Harley Quinn and Deadshot to save their superhero bacon.