Why So Serious?

Batman v Superman spends so much time teasing later installments that it forgets to have any fun.

Still of Ben Affleck and Henry Cavill in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.

Still of Ben Affleck and Henry Cavill in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.

Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

For critics and fans who snagged a seat at the advance screening this week, the latest Superman movie came with an unusual preamble: a video message from director Zack Snyder, begging the audience not to post any spoilers on Twitter or Facebook. Hey, fair enough. With a title so clunky and focus-grouped it might as well be written in Kryptonian, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice isn’t merely a sequel to 2013’s Man of Steel. It’s an Event, a blockbuster showdown between two iconic superheroes—and one of the most expensive marketing vehicles of all time, a sense-numbing, joy-bludgeoning, soul-deadening 152-minute trailer designed to kick-start for DC Comics the kind of malignant, obscenely lucrative superhero empire that Iron Man, Captain America, and the Avengers have gifted Marvel and Disney. Pace Snyder, Batman v Superman isn’t packed with spoilers so much as it is stuffed with teasers, the kind of cameos and set pieces clearly designed to entice customers to pay to see the next three or four Justice League films, not help them enjoy this one. It might be the most teaser-dense film ever made.

To put it delicately, this comics fan hated Batman v Superman with the fury of a thousand red-dwarf suns. Blunt, humorless, and baffling, it collides the brutish directorial stamp of Zack Snyder (he of 300 and Watchmen fame) with the most shameless instincts of our latter-day superhero franchise bubble. It is worse than the widely detested Joel Schumacher Batman films, including the one with bat nipples. It is probably worse than the never-filmed Superman movie starring Nicolas Cage would have been. If Christopher Reeve is spinning in his grave right now, it’s not because Snyder’s film so egregiously ignores what might make a Superman film special (though it does!) but because the throbbing Hans Zimmer and Junkie XL score is loud enough to rattle a buried corpse. I’m a lifelong comic-book reader who is generally sympathetic to comic-book movies and even liked Man of Steel. Batman v Superman made me want to yell at the Justice League to get off my lawn.

The premise, if it matters: Eighteen months have passed since the 9/11–esque ending of Man of Steel, in which two warring Kryptonians reduced much of Metropolis to rubble. (An early flashback in Batman v Superman replays that melee from human scale, acknowledging but hardly allaying the criticism that superhero films have become stunningly casual about the mass destruction they depict.) The world doesn’t know what to make of the Man of Tomorrow: Is he a Jesus figure or a false God? Is he above the laws of man or its last defender? While concerned-looking officials fret over these questions—and while talking-head appearances by the likes of Neil deGrasse Tyson and Andrew Sullivan strain to lend these matters some gravity—a few people have made up their minds: a late-career Batman (Ben Affleck, wincing), who believes a superbeing so powerful and unaccountable can’t possibly be trusted (or maybe he’s just jealous) and megalomaniacal industrialist Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg, Jesse Eisenberging), who for reasons he never articulates in fewer than 150 words wants to bring Superman to heel (and who does things, delightfully, like stuffing cherry Jolly Ranchers in senators’ mouths). Superman’s alter ego Clark Kent, meanwhile, has settled into domesticity with Lois Lane, although both sides of the man, rendered blankly by Henry Cavill, remain something of a cipher. (Which is too bad, because Cavill has pulled off precisely the right kind of driven, slightly hammy Boy Scout this movie would’ve benefitted from—but it was last summer, in The Man From U.N.C.L.E.)

The movie’s first hour is a plot salad. Someone is framing Superman for deadly atrocities. Someone named White Portuguese is up to, well, something, giving Batman lots of reasons to look growly. Something fell into the Indian Ocean, and Lex Luthor is trying to get an import license to bring it to Metropolis. And somehow, all of this unfolds both rapidly—no scene seems to last more than 90 seconds—and painstakingly, because writers Chris Terrio and David S. Goyer make these strands more tangled than a superhero cape in a jet engine. Let me fix that for them: Lex Luthor is framing Superman. White Portuguese is his boat. It is bringing a hunk of Kryptonite, which is poisonous to Superman, to Metropolis. Luthor wants Batman and Superman to fight. Was that so hard?

About that Batman: He shoots bullets and disfigures criminals with a bat brand, a depiction that (along with many of the film’s designs) is inspired by The Dark Knight Returns, a 1986 comic-book miniseries in which writer Frank Miller portrayed the character as a graying neofascist, a vigilante boiled down to his predictable extremes. That makes this take on the character the grimmest to ever appear in the movies, and the result is largely a one-note failure—all bat and no man, except for a series of bat dreams and bat hallucinations that, while mostly irrelevant to the plot, suggest a superhero who isn’t just losing his fight but is losing his grip. But Affleck doesn’t do much with what little Snyder and his team give him—which is mostly Mortal Kombat–worthy lines like, “Do you bleed? You will.” Still, to say Affleck’s brooding interpretation has little on, say, Michael Keaton’s or Christian Bale’s performances in the same role is kind of like saying E.T. the ride isn’t as good as E.T. the movie. Different categories, different aims.

The aim here—other than setting up the sequels—is the fight, which, like the movie itself, feels closest to bare-knuckle boxing: blunt technique, lots of thuds, no grace. It’s the centerpiece fans are apparently hungry for in droves. (The movie is already Fandango’s top preselling superhero movie ever.) And it makes plain everything I can’t stand, perhaps heretically, about Snyder’s aesthetic, from the rafter-rattling soundtrack to the overuse of grit-flecked shaky cam to the way overuse of timeline ramping, his favored style of slow motion (which makes everyone look like they’re made of really angry Silly Putty). When Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) finally arrives in costume—after the heroes have teamed up to fight something even moodier than Batman—the film announces it with a processed guitar riff I’m pretty sure once appeared on a Staind album. If something exciting happened during any of it, I missed it while looking at my moviegoing companion to roll my eyes.

Batman v Superman should be the nail in the coffin of an entire industry strategy, in which each superhero film’s primary job is to lay breadcrumbs leading toward the next one. But as anyone who watches these movies knows, nothing stays dead for long. And yet, while DC seems intent on casting its emerging franchise in the doomy, oh-so-serious mold of Snyder’s films—count me out for Batman x Aquaman: Crux of Vengeance—I can’t fault its competitor’s insistence that a movie based on a comic book might still want to be, you know, fun. When the dust from the titular bout was finally settled (or was it?), I walked out of Superman v Batman with an old childhood rallying cry restored: Make mine Marvel.