“Tell everybody waitin’ for Superman
That they should try to hold on best they can
He hasn’t dropped them, forgot them or anything
It’s just too heavy for Superman to lift.”
— The Flaming Lips
I stood in line for “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice” near a happy tot waving a Superman figure. “Wssshhhh!” he gushed, lost in adventure. It was a touching if inadvertent display of the Superman I remember: a heroic, inspiring agent of hope. Sadly, it was the last I’d see of this Superman for quite some time. Instead we got, yet again, in the person of Henry Cavill, an attitudinal barista with a gym card.
Director Zack Snyder is legendarily hit-and-miss, with a fluctuating average that flirts with self-asphyxiation. His 2004 “Dawn of the Dead” remake was both reverent to its parentage (George Romero) and an audacious independent strike. “Watchmen” (2009) glowed where his “300” adaptation (2007) failed — the former somewhat complemented its source world’s aesthetics while the latter wallowed in over-bleached machismo.
Bequeathed the royal spit curl, Snyder managed to make the DC evergreen’s reboot (re-Supes?), “Man of Steel” (2013), a tragic concussion of branding and pretension. In English, it blew. I remember but two sequences: Russell Crowe’s Jor-El bouncing Daffy-Duck-style across Krypton and Kevin Costner surrendering to a twister (what fool wouldn’t want to wake up next to Diane Lane every morning? Has he never seen “Unfaithful”?).
Apoplectic proponents are already defending this follow-up as an artful contrast to the Marvel money mill — and yeah, it’s a contrast, all right. While Marvel properties coast on banter and noise, “Batman v. Superman” moans as pseudo-Wagnerian brosephry as scripted by a sentient Tapout shirt. It’s the kid brother who discovered your copy of “Pretty Hate Machine” over the weekend and now smokes cloves, writes black-soul poetry and calls you a fascist sellout.
Beyond its labyrinth-to-yawnsville plot (something about something being something and bang-y, loud-y punch-crunch-kick; pardon our dust as we build a franchise outta opera glasses and Cheez Whiz), “Batman v. Superman’s” main problem is Superman himself. There’s nothing likable about him. In fact, he’s unpleasant, a loaded diaper, and his allegedly mild-mannered alter ego, Clark Kent, sulks like a petulant jackass. His interest in heroism depends on a crisis’ proximity to Lois Lane (Amy Adams), who exists to plummet from skyscrapers or be flung into peril.
Otherwise, he’s indifferent to truth, justice and the American way. In short, he’s a cheap, sour punk, and when his denouement arrived, expensive and stupid, the rabble rejoiced, for he was bringing an already odiferous movie down. “Good riddance,” we cheered. He should have snuffed it two movies ago. (Spoiler. Oops!) When this is your reaction to Superman — to Superman — there’s something wrong with your Superman.
I know what you’re thinking: I’m an ancient clinging to sunny old Christopher Reeve as the gold standard because my parents took me to Richard Donner’s “Superman” when I was six. Proudly guilty as charged. Reeve was a decent actor, not a great one, but I never believed he wasn’t the Man of Steel, even when he kissed Michael Caine in “Deathtrap.” Onscreen, he was a genuine hero, exuding goodness, kindness, strength and humor. All of these traits — save one: strength, delivered with brute force — are absent from Henry Cavill’s portrayal.
I know it’s on purpose. Times change, Grandpa. It’s an uglier world in need of an ugly god, cheered by neckbeards for whom cynicism is social currency and intellectual affectation. Sorry, kids: I’m cynical for real, a truly malodorous cur, and this counterfeit Kal-El can go flying-eff himself. I don’t mind corrosive darkness in my comics-lore diet, but don’t pour nihilism into a sippy-cup and call it Superman. He is compassion. He is decency. He is the light we wish to be. In this film, he represents the fulfillment of every childhood revenge fantasy: the ability to beat the hell out of everyone, and nothing more.
Which “Batman v. Superman” does for precisely two-and-a-half hours to its own audience, bludgeoning palates with shadowy visuals, gorgeous surreality and the occasional interesting idea it’s too lazy to explore (Gotham’s status as Metropolis’ grittier sister, the consequences of massive devastation wrought in battle, a city’s conflicted relationship with the Man of Steel: is he a benevolent protector or self-appointed king?) — acknowledgment, I guess, is enough for a gold star.
The movie’s true aim is to set up ceaseless revenue streams and tie-ins, so it concentrates on its big-bank nucleus. Luckily, that includes Batman/Bruce Wayne, played with admirable panache by Ben Affleck as a cocktail of couth and rage, though his motivations and eventual about-face don’t stand up to scrutiny. Unlike Cavill’s Superman, Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman may inspire a younger generation of filmgoers. What she lacks in screen time she makes up for in her eventual reveal. As Wayne’s trusted aide-de-camp Alfred, Jeremy Irons seasons his dialogue in blue-ribbon drollery, the satisfying link between his cinematic forebears, Michaels Gough and Caine. Casting Jesse Eisenberg as Lex Luthor may make sense once someone begs him to temper his manic tics; one hopes he’s embarrassed enough by his wild-eyed “ding-ding-ding-ding-ding-ding-ding” exit that he’ll take such advice to heart.
In the meantime, I await the real Superman's return. He's still around, right? We need him now, more that ever.