Gotham is another name for New York City, as is Metropolis. The fictitious homes of two of the most iconic American comic book characters merge into one playground for grown-ups in Zack Synder’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. This ponderous, humourless and overlong movie is in the vein of Synder’s Man of Steel, his immensely stylish and unfeeling reboot of the Superman franchise. Starring the blank-faced Henry Cavill as the Son of Krypton, the 2013 film ended with images of Metropolis’s skyscrapers being reduced to rubble as Superman battles the evil Zods.
Batman v Superman opens with a ground perspective of Superman’s rampage as seen by Batman’s alter ego Bruce Wayne, now grey-templed and heavier around the waist and looking less like a vigilante than a dried-out banker. As Wayne (Ben Affleck) watches his office building crumble and his employees die or be maimed, he is outraged at Superman’s sense of entitlement. At that moment, he is not too different from the cost-conscious residents of the fictional city in Brad Bird’s animated film The Incredibles, who force superheroes to go into retirement because they are tired of paying for their ruinous romps.
Batman’s simmering resentment and possible envy at Superman’s gifts are exploited by Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg), the kooky and crooked billionaire businessman who has been played by Gene Hackman and Kevin Spacey in the past. Eisenberg, behaving as though he is in a Woody Allen tribute rather than a money-spinning franchise, is the one spot of levity in another rhetorical debate on the place of superheroes in post 9/11 America.
The beautifully designed artificial universe that has been created to squeeze the last drop of ink out of the DC Comics titles includes Amy Adams’s worrywart Lois Lane, who is Superman’s mortal love. The movie also introduces Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), a mysterious seductress who swaps her deep-cut and backless gowns for the fitting armour and thigh-baring skirt that has fired the imagination of young boys over generations. Wonder Woman is both surprise package in a climactic battle with a monster that threatens to destroy Metropolis all over again as well test balloon for the spin-off movie featuring Gadot’s character that is scheduled for 2017.
Snyder’s movie is influenced by Nolan’s grown-up reboot of the Dark Knight phase of Batman’s comic book history (the British director is one of this film’s producers), but his heart isn’t in the ethics v entertainment debate. Snyder really wants to watch the world burn, and his ability to create a credible world that mirrors the layers and light-and-shadow play of the densely illustrated comic books is perhaps unmatched. Shot by Larry Fong, who also worked on Snyder’s 300 and Watchmen, Batman v Superman is an eye-popping visual experience in which the action moves from destruction porn to poetic abstraction.
The brow-furrowing over vigilante justice is as pointless as the back story of Batman that opens the movie, and the characters are as light as they would be on the page. The movie ends where it begins: with the annihilation of half of Metropolis, the suggestion of a sequel that will feature other characters from the inter-textual DC Universe, and the promise of further seductive mayhem.