Sensory Overload: The Movie begins with deceptive quietness. The first scenes are a rehash of Batman’s origin story – the mugging in the alley, that scene from Batman Begins where he falls into the cave, the first dream sequence, where Bruce is lifted up by the bats into the air. In a well-publicised attempt to make Man of Steel’s widely-criticised orgy of destruction into a meaningful plot point, BvS has chosen to make Bruce’s presence at ground zero his motivation for killing Superman. The presence of world-ending terraforming engines and evil Kryptonians who Superman was fighting against should surely mitigate against such an uncompromising judgment, but this version of Batman has no nuance; his catchphrase is lifted directly from Dick Cheney – ‘if there’s even a 1% chance that he is our enemy, we have to take it as a certainty’.
Other things this version of Batman does include killing people outright – we see him cause innumerable explosions which engulf henchmen in flames, but when he has the chance to shoot a man to save Superman’s mother, he chooses to shoot the man’s flamethrower tank, because, in Zack Snyder’s words, “Of course, I went to the gas tank, and all of the guys I work with were like, ‘You’ve gotta shoot him in the head’ because they’re all comic book dorks, and I was like, ‘I’m not gonna be the guy that does that!” In the same interview, Snyder explains that Batman killing by ‘proxy’ is acceptable, just not directly - unlike Superman, who's fresh from snapping a neck in Man of Steel.
Showing that he learned his lesson from that film, Zack Snyder overcompensates by having multiple people clarify (in a distracting, obviously-shoehorned way) that every location of BvS’s high-speed battles is unpopulated. The message: no collateral damage. Showing he learned little else, Snyder refuses to portray the most quintessentially heroic character in popular fiction as heroic. Every time Superman saves someone in BvS, he's either dour-faced or grimacing, and shot in slow motion with grim lighting. He hovers above pleading flood survivors but the film refuses to show him helping them. His heroic efforts are cast as the reluctant duty of an unwilling saviour. Taking over from his bafflingly amoral father, Superman’s mother assures him: “You don’t owe this world a thing. You never did”, before Jonathan Kent himself reappears in another runtime-wasting dream sequence to tell his son a story about a time he accidentally diverted flood-water from his own farm into a neighbour’s and all their horses died. The message? Don’t do anything, because it will always have unintended negative consequences. Superman smiles perhaps once or twice in this film, and is kept to a trim 43 lines. The second billing is telling.
This is Batman’s film, which, sadly, doesn’t mean Batman’s character is explored. He remains grimly determined and vicious throughout, and the spotlight given to him is mostly spent on unnecessary dream sequences which bash you over the head with their obvious metaphors. Bruce is lifted up by bats in the cave. Bruce looks at the graves of his parents as they seep blood and a bat-monster leaps out of them. Bruce is a lone bastion of resistance against a fascist warlord Superman; Bruce beats the latter’s goons in a bafflingly-choreographed fight scene where men with guns choose to try and hit him with their guns instead of using them to shoot. Substantial time is also spent on a subplot about hacking into Lex Luthor’s data, which reveals a cache of impeccably-curated sneak-peek trailers, each with their own superhero logo, letting you know that the Flash, Aquaman, and Cyborg will be coming to theaters soon. The brazenness of inserting these advertisement-cameos into the narrative is almost funny.
The plot of the film is, at best, shaky, relying on all the right people behaving idiotically – both Batman and Superman make no effort to communicate or resolve their differences, with Superman hypocritically taking exception to Batman being a vigilante just like him, and ordering Batman to stand down, while Batman wittily retorts that he'll make Superman bleed. Jesse Eisenberg’s tech billionaire Lex Luthor is shrill, manic, and extraordinarily annoying as he orchestrates the plot to make them fight by involving the CIA, a Senator, Congress, a survivor of the Metropolis disaster, and the Russian mob, in a confusing whirl of moving parts which Chris Terrio’s abysmal screenplay fails to clarify. The first hour of the film is a plod from one plotline to the next, with scenes following each other simply because they must – no attempt is made to edit the film so it has an engaging pace.
Confusion suffuses the film, from the plot to character motivations (Lex’s reasons for opposing Superman change from fear of absolute power, to a desire to profit from metahumans, to resentment over childhood abuse, to being a puppet of Darkseid) to the action. The fight scenes are afflicted with constant use of shaky-cam, endless cuts without rhyme or reason, ill-lit battlefields draped in smoke which obscure visibility, and a self-indulgent feast of lasers. A chase scene involving the Batmobile and a truck convoy passes without a single establishing shot to show the relative distance between the cars or their locations. The constant spatial delirium of the action scenes renders their special effects bombast pointless. It becomes an abstraction of blue/pink/brown blurs surrounded by bright lasers smashing into architecture, arranged haphazardly by hyperactive editing, framed headache-inducingly by a violently shaking camera.
Snyder is usually defended by citing his visual style. He may be a complete failure on the textual level, but at least he has verve, at least he composes bold images. So, in his own way, he’s an auteur, unlike those studio-controlled hacks directing Marvel films. BvS surely has to be the film which kills this argument. It's constantly dark, with almost every image first being leached of colour and then put on high contrast so your eyes can hurt while you squint to make out the details. The action scenes are nearly-impossible to follow or derive enjoyment from thanks to his directorial ineptitude. When he constructs an image for the purpose of metaphor, it's so laughably obvious as to make his double-profile shot of Clark and Jesus from Man of Steel seem nuanced. He uses slow-motion constantly, on sights as unnecessary as Bruce’s overcoat unfurling as he walks to the Wayne mausoleum or the cannon salute at a funeral. The attempt to wring sophomoric visual dash out of a moment of pathos as unequivocal as a funeral is Snyder’s style in microcosm. He has no sense of what is appropriate, whether in terms of character, dialogue, theme, or image.
This is a film which somehow manages to be chock-full of plot points and fights and talking heads making generalised comments about the ethics of power in a democracy, and also be totally empty. It’s the apotheosis of Zack Snyder’s style-over-substance approach to filmmaking. You’ll come out of it shellshocked, ears ringing and eyes blinking, and realise that you never actually felt a single emotion.