I miss Christopher Nolan. Never mind that it has been less than four years since his final Batman film and fewer than 18 months since his most recent directorial effort, “Interstellar.” He understood that the scope of a sprawling comic book movie could be an epic canvas for ambitious thematic and aesthetic content, not just an excuse for bombast and branding.
He has, inexplicably, turned over the keys to the kingdom to Zack Snyder, a director full of sound and fury that signifies nothing. He has an eye and a knack for style, to give him some credit, but Snyder never deploys it in use of a story or an idea. He’s all showmanship for its own sake – surfaces above substance, declaration over development.
As if 2013’s “Man of Steel” was not nauseating enough, he arrives with an “Avengers”-ified sequel in “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.” It’s roughly the cinematic equivalent of Kim Kardashian’s “Break the Internet” magazine cover. Call it “Break the Box Office,” if you will, as it’s already crushing at the box office this year. The film is practically incoherent and only gets more pointless and frustrating with each new turn. With each successive insipid development, the experience is as numbing as it is infuriating.
Snyder is more concerned that we notice the giant CGI pearls snapped at the murder of Bruce Wayne’s mother than providing context or rationale for this universe in which the film takes place. So two superheroes, Batman and Superman, have been living across the water from each other … and that was not worth mentioning in “Man of Steel?” While it’s nice that the film does not waste time rehashing an origin story, clearly Ben Affleck’s Batman is much different than Christian Bale’s. He’s more overtly villainous and cynical – but why?
Perhaps these questions might have been answered in the many scenes left on the cutting room floor. These crucial contextual bits are more important than ever as they could give the franchise a headwind as it launches a bevy of spinoffs and sequels. Marvel movies are bearable because their brain trust actually cares about their characters. They might ultimately succumb to formulaic plots, sure, but they at least understand that audiences want to get attached to these larger-than-life figures. Come and forget the action, stay and remember the characters.
Henry Cavill showed true movie-star charisma in last summer’s “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” but is stiff as a board playing Superman. It’s understandable to some extent that Clark Kent wants to divert attention away from himself, though the extent to which Cavill underplays the role goes far beyond his character. Affleck’s moody Bruce Wayne might have been effective had screenwriters Chris Terrio (the Oscar-winner who penned “Argo”) and David S. Goyer given any kind of reason to merit the transformation. And as for Jesse Eisenberg’s take on the nefarious Lex Luthor – well, calling the rendition nothing more than a spoiled trust fund brat who speaks in an obnoxiously put-on higher octave is putting my disdain nicely.
Snyder boils down the essence of conflict in the film to man (Batman) vs. God (Superman) but never distills it into anything meaningfully elemental. Nothing in the script merits this kind of big talk, and it is just that – talk. “Batman v Superman” provides lip service for heavy themes, never backing them up with any kind of meaningful contemplation like Nolan did. Instead, he trots out a montage of real-life pundits like Neil DeGrasse Tyson and Andrew Sullivan to project weightiness onto the film. This transparent ploy for seriousness is easy to brush off, as is the grand finale featuring the kind of CGI swamp monster that feels recovered from a discarded sketch for a “Hobbit” sequel. Perhaps the real battle here is apathy v outrage – and this is a matchup where only Pyrrhic victories are possible. C- /