In 1984 raspy-throated singer Bonnie Tyler warbled, “I’m holding out for a hero.” At the time I didn’t get the song’s sexy undertones but was reminded of the tune as I watched “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.” Thirty odd years later it’s quite clear what kind of hero Bonnie Tyler was looking for—“It’s gonna take a superman to sweep me off my feet!”— but it’s less certain what kind of hero the city of Metropolis wants or needs.
Ben Affleck plays Bruce Wayne as a weathered crime fighter, someone his trusty butler Alfred (Jeremy Irons) says, “got too old to die young, and not for want of trying.” Banged up and grumpy, his fellow crime fighter Superman (Henry Cavill) is in his bad books after tearing up Metropolis and knocking over Wayne Tower, killing many of those inside, during an epic fight against villain General Zod. “Maybe it’s the Gotham City in me,” says Wayne. “We have a bad history was freaks dressed as clowns.”
He’s not the only one to have a bone to pick with The Last Son of Krypton. Distressed by the Man of Steel’s seemingly uncontrollable power Congressional Superman Committee head Senator Finch (Holly Hunter) finds a supporter for her Aliens Are Un-American campaign in a Machiavellian tech mogul named Alexander “Lex” Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg). “The world has been so caught up by what Superman can do,” Finch says, “we haven’t thought about what he should do.”
All this leads to a superhero showdown, a battle of the behemoths, cowls v capes. It’s Batman, a billionaire vengeance seeker with a bursting bank account and cool toys, v Superman, an alien with good intentions but uncontrollable powers. “It’ll be the greatest gladiator battle in the history of the world,” giggles Luthor.
Who will win? Who should win? Will it be the hero Bonnie Tyler is holding out for?
Wrapped around the central storyline is the introduction of lasso-wielding Amazonian Diana Prince a.k.a. Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), Luthor’s crazy schemes and the appropriately named Doomsday, a Kryptonian killing machine.
These are jittery times and “Batman v Superman” is a jittery movie. Luthor’s xenophobic notion that Superman is a dangerous alien, an “other” who we don’t quite understand, is ripped right out of Donald Trump’s playbook. “People hate what they don’t understand,” says Martha Kent (Diane Lane).
Mix that with depictions of the death and destruction on city streets and all-too-familiar shots of buildings with smoke oozing out of them and you’re left with a movie that as feels timely and ripped-from-the-headlines as a movie about tights-wearing superheroes can be.
Other than that it is essentially a long trailer for the next DC superhero ensemble movie tagged on to a WrestleMania style smack down. Director Zack Snyder does have a flair for staging darkly dramatic scenes—Superman surrounded by Mexican Day of the Dead revellers is a stunner and the image of Supes casually kicking the indestructible Batmobile out of frame with a flick of his foot is very cool—but while he is entertaining your eye he does little to engage your brain. There is tons of psuedo-intellectual talk about gods and monsters but it’s all surface, chatter meant to make the film seem smarter than it actually is. Very little of what happens feels motivated by the characters. It mainly feels as though someone came up with a grabby title and crafted a set of circumstances to justify the name. Characters talk and interact with one another but it feels in service of the title, as if they are all simply brand ambassadors, rather than living breathing people.
The performances are, if not super, then fine. As the superheroes Affleck makes a better Bruce than Bat and Cavill is suitably steel-jawed. Eisenberg plays Lex as a twitchy Mark Zuckerberg in a performance that suits the wonky tone of the film. The women aren’t given much to do, but Adams finds Lane’s pluckiness and Gadot shows real promise as Wonder Woman. Nearly everyone gets overpowered by the CGI overkill of the final hour, but I suspect fans aren’t looking for nuance as much as they are mega action and that Snyder delivers.
“Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” is bombastic. The experience of watching it is like having a drunk at a bar tell you the story after five beers. It’s loud and in-your-face with the occasional maudlin moment.
There was a time when superhero movies were fun, escapist entertainment. Those days seem to have passed. There are a total of two laughs in “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” although there are several other unintentionally laughable moments. Now our caped and cowled heroes are as dark and troubled as a reject from a Kafka novel which, in this case, makes for a rather loud but dreary night at the movies.