Zack Snyder makes superhero movies, but his characters don’t act very heroic. Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice features all the other trappings of the superhero genre: Capes, gadgets, outlandish muscles, punching stuff. But the two stars aren’t noble, selfless, or chivalrous; they’re violent, aggressive, and angry — mostly at each other instead of the bad guys. In Snyder’s formulation, protecting the world from evil isn’t a gift or a calling; it’s a burden. And that feeling is reflected in the movie itself, a burdensome 150-minute slog about two men fighting over who is in the right when both are very clearly in the wrong.

Dawn of Justice is a sequel to Snyder’s previous superhero movie, the Superman reboot Man of Steel, and also an adaptation of the reaction to it. Though Man of Steel was a worldwide box-office hit, some audiences (including this critic) reacted negatively to the end of the film, where Superman (Henry Cavill) fought General Zod (Michael Shannon) through the streets and skies of Metropolis with little apparent regard for the hundreds or even thousands of people dying all around him. Was this conduct unbecoming of a Superman? Did he act recklessly? Was he indirectly responsible for the deaths of the innocent people? Fans have argued those points for the last three years.

Batman v Superman begins by turning that debate into text, with Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) arriving in Metropolis (which in this film is to Gotham as Minneapolis is to St. Paul) during the climactic battle between Superman and Zod. He witnesses the destruction firsthand, watching helplessly as Wayne Enterprises’ Metropolis offices collapse after a volley of heat vision. 18 months later, even as he continues his increasingly violent one-man war on crime in Gotham City as Batman, Wayne obsesses over Superman and his unchecked powers.

He’s not alone. After Superman’s actions during a rescue of Lois Lane (Amy Adams) result in more deaths, a Congressional hearing is called to discuss his place in the world, headed by Senator June Finch (Holly Hunter). And back in Metropolis, genius industrialist Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg) schemes to get his hands on Kryptonite, the one substance that could hurt Superman and potentially restore balance to a world where humanity suddenly seems more threatened than ever.

There are big weighty themes at work here, and even more than in Man of Steel, Snyder grapples with the psychological scars of 9/11 and our society’s all-consuming desire for security in an uncertain world. But the world’s relationship to Superman in Dawn of Justice is baffling; in one scene, he’s revered as a god, in the next, he’s hauled in front of the Senate as a menace. He’s vilified for this thing involving Lois that happens early in the movie, but he’s apparently seen as a hero for the Zod stuff — there’s even a statue in his honor! — when clearly thousands more perished in that incident.

Senator Finch says at one point that “democracy is a conversation,” and perhaps showing these conflicting views of Superman is Snyder’s way of arguing the same. But this kind of investigation into the nature of heroism requires shades of gray, while Snyder only traffics in absolutes, with characters making ham-fisted speeches about ignorance and innocence and then showcasing their absolute awesomeness in big, showy, and sometimes shockingly brutal action sequences. (Although this film probably does fall within the textbook definition of a PG-13, it’s dark and disturbing in ways that should make parents with little kids think twice before buying tickets.) And even if Snyder believes Superman’s actions were justified in Man of Steel, when Batman v Superman ramps up to scenes of citywide destruction, he inserts lines of dialogue about how this island is “uninhabited” and how that part of Metropolis is “almost empty” because it’s after work. After two hours raising issues about responsibility and public safety, he finds a convenient excuse for facile smashy smashy.

Ben Affleck makes a capable Batman, even if his character is rendered a hotheaded dope by David S. Goyer and Chris Terrio’s screenplay. (For the “World’s Greatest Detective,” Affleck’s Dark Knight is very easily manipulated.) And Henry Cavill remains a solid Superman. Ironically, though, the best character is the one who got left off the marquee: Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman. It’s never made clear why she’s wandering through Metropolis and Gotham, and she doesn’t have a lot to say, but in a movie where no one else ever shuts up, that’s a refreshing change of pace. More importantly, she exudes an alluring aura of mystery and power whether she’s flirting with Bruce Wayne or beating the crap out of Doomsday. If nothing else, Batman v Superman makes you excited to see Gadot take center stage in her solo Wonder Woman movie, due out in theaters next summer. (It definitely doesn’t make you hope Lex Luthor gets his own spinoff; Eisenberg’s broad, Schumacheresque performance belongs to an earlier, goofier era of superhero movies.)

The problem with Wonder Woman — and the problem with a lot of Batman v Superman  — is that she mostly exists to keep the title characters apart while the plot spins its wheels for almost two hours of tedious dialogue, dream sequences, nightmares, and teases of future DC Comics movies (Gadot’s Wonder Woman is just one of an entire slate of movies expected to follow Batman v Superman.) Snyder seems to be shooting for The Empire Strikes Back; the big, somber middle chapter of an epic saga. But he’s wound up at something closer to Iron Man 2; a bloated, frustrating superhero serial featuring a protagonist crowded out of his own movie by a second star, a bunch of villains, and the obligation to lay tons of cinematic universe groundwork.

There’s probably a really interesting movie about the ideological divide between Batman and Superman, but on the basis of Dawn of Justice, I’m not sure Zack Snyder was the man to make it. The questions he asks are too straightforward and the resolution he arrives at after all that talk and too few setpieces is way too simple. Instead of playing up the differences between the Man of Steel and the Dark Knight, Batman v Superman flattens them. For all his high-horsing about Superman’s transgressions, Batman mows down loads of people in his Batmobile and Batwing (both equipped with enormous machine guns) and he beats up bad guys with alarming ferocity (he paralyzes at least one guy for life, if the poor dude survives at all). At times, Affleck’s Bruce Wayne seems less worried about Clark Kent’s powers than jealous of them. This Batman may be right about this Superman, but he’s also a hypocrite. If he’d stop trying to kill him for two minutes, he’d realize how much they have in common. Batman and Superman have no reason to fight. These two “heroes” deserve each other.


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