Batman v Superman review: Titanic clash that’s too convoluted for its own good

The fight sequences and explosions are well enough choreographed but can’t help but feel anticlimactic

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The Independent Culture

Boiled down to its essence, Batman v Superman is a story of two alpha males fighting for bragging rights. The question is whether there is room for both of them in the same movie. For all the eye-popping spectacle here, the brilliance of some of the action sequences, and the full-blooded performances from Ben Affleck and Henry Cavill as the superheroes, this turns out to be a convoluted affair. It pulls in far too many different directions at once. The filmmakers can’t work out whether they want to be in Metropolis (Superman’s stomping ground) or in Gotham (where Batman clings to the shadows), whether they’re making a dark, Oedipal drama or serving up comic book escapism; whether this is a story of a real rivalry or just a testosterone-driven buddy movie in disguise. The token addition of Wonder Woman (Gail Gadot), plucked off a plane to help save the world, only serves to confuse matters further.

The film starts exquisitely. Director Zack Snyder whisks us back in time to when Bruce Wayne was a child and experienced the traumatic events that turned him into Batman in the first place. It is 1981 and little Bruce is walking with his parents past a cinema showing John Boorman’s Excalibur when his innocence is shattered forever by an act of unspeakable violence. This is a variation on a scene also shown in Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins. Snyder shoots it in poetic style using slow motion and evocative shots of a dying woman’s pearls dropping on the pavement.

This elegiac overture is belied by Superman’s entrance, which is altogether more explosive. There are murmurings that the Man Of Steel is behaving in too arrogant a way. Everyone is so caught up in what Superman “can do” that (his critics contest), they are not asking what he “should do.” Some fear that he may turn against humanity. That is why there is such a rush to get hold of the Kryptonite that may be able to hold him in check. 

One of the film’s boldest strokes is to cast Jesse Eisenberg as Superman’s arch enemy, Lex Luthor. As played by Eisenberg, Lex is more Silicon Valley whizz kid than the blustering villain played by Gene Hackman in the Christopher Reeve version of Superman. Eisenberg brings some of the same mix of narcissism and ruthlessness to the role as he did to playing Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network. There are chilling scenes in which he intimidates the US Senator (Holly Hunter) who tried to hold his influence in check. In his visionary but psychotic behaviour, he also has a hint of Dr Mabuse about him

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice trailer

Ironically, many of the best moments here are when the superheroes are in their civilian roles. A very muscular-looking Affleck has clearly been working out to play Bruce Wayne/Batman but he is also effective at conveying his character’s darker, more doubting side. Affleck gave one of his best and most underrated performances as George Reeves (the hard-drinking actor who played Superman on TV in the 1950s) in the 2006 drama Hollywoodland and he brings a similar mix of pathos and charisma to his role here. He is frequently seen unshaven. His suspicion and resentment toward Superman are self-evident. These feelings are increasingly shared by the US public, some of whom see him as an alien and seem to want him lynched.

Cavill is again very personable as bespectacled junior reporter Clark Kent and looks suitably square-jawed and heroic as the Man of Steel. Initially, the characterisation is intriguing. The filmmakers pay plenty of attention to Kent’s romance with doughty fellow reporter Lois Lane (the estimable Amy Adams). They deal humorously and perceptively with Wayne’s relationship with his butler/mentor/security chief Alfred Pennyworth (Jeremy Irons.) At least early on, Diana Prince/Wonder Woman is an intriguing and enigmatic figure, with links, never fully explained to the First World War. It is made very clear that both Batman and Superman love their mums. Another Wagnerian score from Hans Zimmer heightens the sense of foreboding.

In the final reel, the film begins to unravel. The fight sequences and explosions are well enough choreographed but can’t help but feel anticlimactic. The plotting becomes ever more simplistic. It’s as if the green kryptonite hasn’t just enervated the heroes but the filmmakers themselves. There is also a lingering suspicion that both these superheroes work better when they’re flying solo.