NECC Observer

The student news website of Northern Essex Community College, Haverhill and Lawrence, Mass.

‘Batman v. Superman’ a painful film experience

★ (out of four stars)

Remember when superhero movies used to be fun?

Wait, wait, wait. Before you make any assumptions, let me be the first to say that I have no problem with DC and Marvel’s characters taking themselves more seriously. I absolutely loved   the high-stakes, tense political thriller elements in “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” and Christopher Nolan’s sometimes-infamously cerebral “The Dark Knight” remains my favorite superhero movie of all time.

But while both of those films had a sense of fun and adventure along with their darker, more brooding elements, Zack Snyder’s “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice” is the cinematic equivalent of being repeatedly hit over the head with a large shovel. It is painful, unpleasant, mind-numbing and seemingly unending. We often go to films — especially those of the superhero variety — to get away from the stinging pain of reality, but Snyder’s relentless mess blasts the meanness and hate of the world into our eyes for an eye-twitching two and a half hours. This is easily one of the most cheerless times you can have at the movies this year.

One question I’d like to ask Snyder is whether or not he actually wants us to root for Bats and Supes at all, because this movie makes them look an awful lot like the villains to me. That sentiment runs right through the premise, which sees Batman (Ben Affleck) seeking revenge after the climax of “Man of Steel,” in which Superman (Henry Cavill) killed a not-insignificant number of innocent people in Metropolis while fighting General Zod. Why does this specifically bother this Batman, who is no stranger to killing (or branding criminals with the Bat-symbol) himself? Well, as we see in a sequence that is almost sure to evoke chilling memories of the September 11 terrorist attacks, the Metropolis branch of Wayne Enterprises becomes one of the casualties of the battle between Superman and Zod — and with it, a lot of Wayne’s friends and colleagues.

One thing I’ll give Snyder credit for is his ability to make the raw power and vigilantism of superheroes a palpable, and even fearful, onscreen element. When Superman used his powers in “Man of Steel,” you got the sense that one guy having the ability to essentially destroy the entire world was not necessarily the best thing for humanity, even if he was on our side. That continues here: in “The Dark Knight,” Batman’s light-flickering arrival in the Batmobile was cause for cheers of celebration; in “Batman v. Superman,” we get our first real taste of Batman as we hear the offscreen screams of a sex trafficker being tortured by him. And if that comparison doesn’t help you understand the differing tone of these films, the rest of this review isn’t going to help you.

Not that I’m making a qualitative statement of any sort there: there’s nothing inherently wrong with making superheroes appear as scary as they might be in real life, so long as you’re going to follow through on the potential moral complexity of such a story. 

Instead, we get a truly lame and intelligence-insulting rollout of The Usual Cliches, including Senator Finch (Holly Hunter), who is holding a Super Significant congressional hearing on Superman’s questionable actions. She’s in charge of hammering home the point through cringe-inducing lines clearly written for the trailer, including “The world has been so caught up with what (Superman) can do … that no one has asked what he should do.” Then there’s Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg), who — beyond getting one of the most embarrassingly over-the-top and directionless performances of a villain in recent memory — orchestrates the title fight through eye-rollingly predictable manipulation that makes Affleck’s Batman look like a stooge. If this guy’s supposed to be “The World’s Greatest Detective,” why can’t he see he’s being played like a Bat-fiddle?

But let’s get back to my first point: why exactly should we be rooting for these guys in the first place? Has Snyder intentionally turned these childhood icons into such monsters? “Batman v. Superman” focuses so much on how Super Significant its central battle is that it forgets to make either of its lead characters likeable in the process.

These guys don’t seem to have a real reason for doing anything they do, other than “the script said so” — leaving us to, essentially, pick the lesser of two evils in a fight between two sociopaths. Make up your own “election year” joke here.

That’s to say nothing of the incomprehensibility of the film, which is at a stunningly high level for a mainstream picture that got as much advertising attention as it did.

The basics of Film Theory 101 are dropped left and right, making the relatively simple plot difficult to follow. Why does the story seem like it’s told in a random order? What are these “Knightmare” sequences that blur the lines of what’s actually happening vs. what is in Batman’s head, solely for the purpose of exciting fanboys? Why does so much of what happens onscreen seem extraneous and irrelevant to telling the story, including one shameless scene that is essentially an advertisement for future DC Extended Universe installments? And where, oh where are the establishing shots that tell us where we are in this bloody mess?

A lot of people have been excitedly asking themselves the question, “So how good is Ben Affleck as Batman?” Unfortunately, this question makes a basic assumption of the filmmakers’ abilities: that they would have written and approved a script good enough to showcase Affleck’s acting chops in the role. They did not, and as such, this question — one I was very excited to see answered myself — largely remains up in the air.

How good is Ben Affleck as Batman? Who cares? He does about as well as everyone else giving soulless, unrelentingly grim performances in this film, which is to say literally everyone else outside of Gal Gadot. Her Wonder Woman is just about the only character that seems to be enjoying herself, and her grinning playfulness during the final battle is the only thing that kept me from nodding off through the deluge of bad CGI and deafening sound effects.

And you know, that feeling just about sums up my time with “Batman v. Superman” as a whole: I never thought such an assault on the senses could leave me so drowsy, but here we are.