Much, much, much is backward and wrong with the sour, vile, inexplicable wreckage of “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.” Begin with the dim slurry of cinematography. Where celluloid was flecked with dream-sparkles of silver, Zack Snyder’s darkest dark-beyond-dark digital project yet is all clutter and cloaca, as if sprayed and spackled with a sewer’s worth of a city’s shit.
Perspective is another. “BvS: DOJ” is a rotten title, but it could well have been “Watchmen II: The Reckoning, I Reckon.” Based on an interview the Monday before its release to the Wall Street Journal, Zack Snyder reassures the world that his DC Comics blunderbuss would be in school with his elephantine burlesque, “Watchmen,” a major case of putting the meta before the text. “I was surprised with the fervency of the defense of the concept of Superman,” Snyder says of his detractors. “I feel like they were taking it personally that I was trying to grow up their character,” Snyder told Michael Calia. “It’s all about the ‘why’ of superheroes: the political why, the religious why, the philosophical why. In some ways, this will be, I hope at its really best, the impossible version of ‘Watchmen.’”
So. Which part of “inexplicable” is best to convey in a few hundred words? Maelstrom is privileged over myth, with characters barking motivation, damage and platitudes about gods, God, men and Christ in lieu of character development or dramatic conflict. Perhaps that’s no longer necessary: our memory of the many, many movies that open with the murder of young Bruce Wayne’s mother may now be considered everyone’s own primal myth, even if dolled up with pearls cascading in decorous slow motion. The re-creation of mass death in Metropolis from the climax of Snyder’s own “Man Of Steel” (2013) uses dust and debris and 9/11-fashioned catastrophe to also insist on another cultural shared tableau of death. There’s a nasty detonation of a national landmark that serves only as a reminder that whatever his flaws and virtues, Roland Emmerich shoots even violence against landmarks with clean lines and intelligible stakes.
Seeing the clumsy, plausibly nihilist “BvS: DOJ” only a few hours after dozens were murdered at the Brussels airport offered true-life contrast, richer than any of the filmmakers’ intellectual and philosophical pretensions. References to Copernicus, Nietzsche, Nabokov are topped by two homages: a recurring shot of a theater advertising John Boorman’s Arthurian riff, “Excalibur,” as backdrop to street crime, foreshadowing a gleaming sword fashioned from kryptonite that is haphazardly plunged into a wretched pool and later retrieved from it as if only to validate the allusion.
Then there’s the sequence of gliding shots through a party at a spottily lit mansion that’s scored to Shostakovich’s “Waltz II (Jazz Suite No. 2),” a refrain familiar from “Eyes Wide Shut.” The many scenes with figures blocked in pizza-pie Pietàs gorge on historical eras’ worth of posing and draping and posing, as well as the Caravaggio-with-cataracts caravanserai of painterly religious imagery, including bats and devils. (I’m curious what earned the end credit to the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation.)
“BvS”’s jabberish effluent clears ever so momentarily when Wonder Woman is injected into a handful of scenes, and her musical theme by Hans Zimmer and Junkie XL drums forth. Take the briefest breath and you are transported from the brat-boy bro-bash to another world. (But still not a world where superheroes are not the agents of weary cant and fascist behaviors.) The movie’s women are, to a figure, objects of threats. Men are stunted, whining, murderous momma’s boys who flinch from observation, women are hostages. Camera angles privilege the tensed spanse of Gal Gadot’s extensive, extended inner thigh. (The gaze cleaves unto her sculpturally arrayed cleavage, too.) Amy Adams plays her second scene, after one with a gun to her head, nude in a clawfoot tub, soapy water slapping her milky skin. A scene of Clark Kent in boxers only, his butt pouted out, flipping eggs over easy, and the most extreme of Bruce Wayne’s workouts, doing battle with a digitally confected trunk of a torso, are just daffy. Jesse Eisenberg, well… Jesse Eisenberg gives a performance of tic and tremble that should embarrass even Jesse Eisenberg.
The final shot—no spoiler—constitutes an image, rather than a shot, much like the rumblings at the Three Mile Island reactor causing coffee in cups to slosh in “The China Syndrome”—as well as the crushing bulwark’s lightest invocation of its oozing religiosity. Snyder says that when he’s not working on the next DC comics universe canvas, he spends his creative time mulling over a possible future production of Ayn Rand’s “The Fountainhead.” With Ben Affleck, Henry Cavill, Holly Hunter, Diane Lane, Laurence Fishburne and a murmuring, whisky-imbued Jeremy Irons as Alfred, the superior manservant. 153m. Reviewed in IMAX. (Ray Pride)
“Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” opens Thursday, March 24 in IMAX and other formats.
Ray Pride is Newcity’s film critic and a contributing editor to Filmmaker magazine.
His history of Chicago “Ghost Signs” in words and images will be published in Spring 2022.