I’ve been a defender of Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel. Despite the issues I have with it (the terrible color correction, the insane death of Jonathan Kent, etc.), I thought it made the best of some source material that I always found questionable, aka forcing a Xerox of Batman’s spirit quest around the world into his mythology. I guess I was so relieved to finally have a Superman movie without an awful, over-the-top bumbling Clark Kent performance, a nonsense Luthor scheme, fluctuating powers that defy the movie’s internal logic, bastard kids or a thoroughly dislikable Lois Lane that I could overlook the flaws. After all, despite the bleakness, there’s promise in the film. Clark has finished a costly first battle and is in a position to use that sacrifice to learn and be the hero he should be. He can take his actions from Man of Steel and build on them, vowing to never take another life. Though unlike all the people who apparently have forgotten both the comics and the ending of their beloved Superman II, I had no problem with Clark killing Zod, seeing as how he’s the one character Superman has ever knowingly offed.
The question was, would the sequel build on that promise, or would it double down on the unique problems this take brought to the franchise? All of the marketing material seemed to indicate this would not so much be a Superman sequel as either a proto-Justice League movie or a jumping off point to a Frank Miller Batman franchise, none of which sounded particularly appealing. Unfortunately, this is largely correct. Superman seems like an also-ran in his own film for the most part.
After a strangely gripping prologue that gives a street level view of the devastation wrought by the battle between Clark and Zod in Man of Steel, the film settles in for an hour or so, spending a lot of time introducing us to this version of Batman, who follows the natural through line from Burton to Nolan to Snyder, finally adopting a fully-functional Dark Knight Returns-style Batman who is equal parts psychotic and broken. An impotent man who takes out his fury by torturing criminals and not especially caring if people die in his pursuit of self-serving justice. It’s certainly not my favorite style of Batman (I skew much farther towards the Denny O’Neil-style well-rounded version) but much as certain fanboys may deny it, this version of Batman is what many of them have been angling for. Be careful what you wish for.
Meanwhile, we see Superman performing many acts of heroism, saving people around the world from disasters, intercut with footage of a world who doesn’t know how to react to him or trust him. It’s not so much a bad portrayal of Kal-El, but it certainly does create a morose environment surrounding him. After much sturm and drang, this overall paranoia leads to the confrontation of the title. To reveal much more would be to give away the mechanics of the plot, but it is fair to point out the much touted appearances by other Justice League members don’t just feel distracting, but actually lower the excitement over Warners’ plans for their characters.
The good news is that while the film is full of bad ideas, the ideas are filmed and acted competently. The bad news is that competence doesn’t fix bad ideas, it simply makes them go down easier. Make no mistake; there are some things to enjoy in the film which make it still worth seeing. Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman does great things with her limited screentime. Gadot herself, apart from seeming to have trouble getting her Israeli accent around some of the overinflated dialogue, is a wonderful physical actress. Jeremy Irons’ Alfred manages to be an absolutely necessary source of humor in an otherwise dour affair. The majority of the acting is fine, even Ben Affleck’s, though he comes up short selling Batman’s character arc and revelation moment. The major exception is Jessie Eisenberg who seems to be edited in from a completely different film. While I’ve never been a fan of the way Luthor has been used in the Superman films, it’s quite a shock to go from the intelligent menace of Kevin Spacey’s portrayal to Eisenberg’s collection of tics and vocal contortions masquerading as a performance. He plays Lex Luthor as some kind of bizarre Joker variation, his motivation either making him pathetic or a puppet. Sometimes he is effectively creepy, but mostly he comes off as annoying.
The plot grabs famous storylines from the two characters at random like Scrabble tiles from a bag. In the end, what we have is a mess. A mess that is interesting, but overly long and needlessly complicated. It has a fourth act tacked on because there was never a scenario where the Superman/Batman fight could be dramatically satisfying as a conclusion.
Worse, in their misguided race to force a rivalry with Marvel Studios, Warner Bros. attempts to cram huge amounts of set-up into the film and none of that set-up feels earned. Watching it feels like we missed a few movies that were released between Man of Steel and now. Many audience members may even be completely lost as to what a lot of what is going on. When your entire movie is based on laying a foundation for future installments, that should be rather disconcerting. As of this moment, I’m not particularly looking forward to Justice League. Or Suicide Squad with its copy and paste characters who look like they stepped out of a 90s pitch meeting when “edgy” was still a buzzword. Wonder Woman and the Lego Batman Movie are they only DC film projects which continue to pique my interest. As I am a person who was a big DC fan until fairly recently, that kind of reaction should have Warner Bros. concerned. Somehow, I don’t think they’ll care.
(Two and a half damns given out of five)