Whatever qualities it may lack, Zack Snyder’s superhero blockbuster “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” — which officially recalibrates the summer movie season into early spring — does not lack texture. That’s not some fancy film-critic metaphor. If this movie is about anything (which is debatable), it is about materials and fabrics, about the way they look and feel. This obsession became apparent in Snyder’s ponderous, apocalyptic Superman picture “Man of Steel,” where I was repeatedly distracted by the close-up shots of Superman’s complicated synthetic-mesh costume. Both in this movie and that one, Superman’s alter ego Clark Kent (both played by the cartoonishly sculpted Henry Cavill) wears suspiciously nice and alarmingly tasteful suits, considering that he’s an oft-derided cub reporter for the Daily Planet. Where are the pleated Dockers we saw in “Spotlight”?
It’s less surprising that Ben Affleck’s Bruce Wayne dresses like the guy wearing a $10,000 watch in a magazine ad. First of all, Affleck’s entire career has been about splitting the difference between that kind of simulated masculinity and the serious filmmaking craftsman who’s not quite pretentious enough to call himself an artist. I don’t know whether “Batman v Superman” is defined as a sequel or a reboot or an alternate-universe something-something; it could, at a stretch, be located in the same world as the Christopher Nolan-Christian Bale “Dark Knight” trilogy. Batman has moved from Gotham City to Metropolis — which are like Dallas and Fort Worth or something? Council Bluffs and Omaha? — and has been driven increasingly psychotic by the arrival of Superman, godlike drone weapon from outer space.
This movie isn’t nearly as terrible as I was expecting, largely due to Snyder’s OCD-level attention to the visual details. And, yes, due to Wonder Woman (played by Israeli actress Gal Gadot), who brings in a badly needed dose of “Dragon Tattoo”-style female energy and whose emergence herein can’t possibly be considered a spoiler at this point. But it still represents a subtle downgrade from the Nolan films on numerous levels, imperfectly concealed by doses of steroids (and amazing fabrics!).
First of all, Affleck is a major downgrade from Bale; I don’t care what anyone says. Yeah, I know people like him. He’s likable! But during Affleck’s serious scenes as Bruce Wayne, he always looks to me like he’s thinking, “I’m acting my ass off! Matt’s finally gonna see what I can do!” Whereas in his serious scenes as Batman, using the growly Batman voice-box and wearing the clanky armored RoboBatsuit with built in arched eyebrows — it’s even more homoerotic than the suit George Clooney wore in Joel Schumacher’s infamous 1997 “Batman & Robin,” if such a thing is possible — well, I’m sorry, but there aren’t any because you can't really take him seriously.
I have long been fascinated with Zack Snyder and I’m willing to defend all his films up to a certain point. (Yes, even “Watchmen.” Even “Sucker Punch”! Which I had forgotten I had described as "the Nietzschean Superman of action movies.") Snyder is devoted to a mannered, everything-on-the-surface style that is almost surrealist, almost infused with Freudian themes and 20th-century politics and almost total bullshit. I’m not as horrified as I should be, I guess, by this week’s news that Snyder is working on an adaptation of Ayn Rand magnum-bogus “The Fountainhead.” Of course he is. That’s totally perfect. It’s gonna be amazing, with or without scare quotes. So I’m kind of a Snyder defender and kind of a Nolan skeptic, but that’s me being an ass. In reality, the former is unquestionably a downgrade from the latter in terms of cinematic technique, pictorial sensibility, action choreography, thematic complexity and a bunch of other stuff. In short: I like Snyder but he seems kinda dumb, which is something no one has ever said about Chris Nolan.
As I wrote on Tuesday, it was deeply strange to go see “Batman v Superman” on the day of the Brussels attacks and walk out into a world that resembles Snyder’s paranoid fantasy universe way too much. This movie features a disastrous suicide bombing inside an iconic American institution, exactly the sort of attack Donald Trump and Ted Cruz halfway wish would happen to justify their incoherent anti-Muslim policies. It features a proxy debate on the drone wars, after Superman is accused of indiscriminately killing a bunch of African villagers while rescuing Lois Lane (Amy Adams) from some al-Shabab-style militant group. It features images of destruction in Belgium. (OK, in the form of a black-and-white photo from World War I depicting an oddly attired Amazon warrior type.) It features politicians collectively crapping their drawers over immigration and terrorism, epitomized by Holly Hunter’s enjoyable performance as a folksy but hardass Kentucky senator. (She's supposed to be a Democrat, which lets you know we're in a different universe.)
But for all the obvious attempts made by screenwriters Chris Terrio and David S. Goyer to connect “Batman v Superman” to real-world 21st-century issues, there is still way too much of the DC Comics universe that either can’t be rethought (because it’s considered integral to the franchise) or simply isn’t rethought. Do all Batman movies, forever and ever, have to be set in a steady-state version of 1989, where crime is unmanageably high, large tracts of urban real estate are abandoned or decrepit, and the cops are incompetent and corrupt bozos with bad sideburns? There’s definitely some psychological resonance to that scenario: Many Americans appear to believe all sorts of apocalyptic and impossible things, including that all big cities are like the worst parts of Detroit, that violent crime is out of control and gay Muslim killers are flooding across the border, and that since all social institutions have failed us, the only answer is to prostrate ourselves before some messianic redeemer.
Hell, at least the beleaguered populace of greater MetroGotham has awesome options when it comes to selecting a fascist overlord. Out here in the real world, we’ve got C-minus alien invaders: A lizard-man with a bad combover who has never actually accomplished anything and an individual of unknown species who claims to be “Canadian” but may be the lead singer of Stryper. In the movie, they have an actual super-being from another planet, who is undeniably handsome (if you’re an unimaginative 11-year-old girl), who saves children from burning buildings even if they happen to be Mexican, and who claims, Cincinnatus style, that he doesn’t want the job of ruling our planet. They also have a tormented, sadistic crime-fighting billionaire who dresses up in kinky costumes and lives on an isolated island with his “butler” (an underwritten role for Jeremy Irons, who is funny anyway). Seriously, guys, it’s 2016: Aren’t we beyond all this dissimulation and evasion, these semi-closeted Frodo-and-Sam relationships between man and master? Except it’s 2016 by way of 1989, so I guess we’re not.
Compared to the cardboard character of Superman and the pseudo-dark Batman — well, as I said earlier, Gadot’s international slinkster role as socialite Diana Prince and her warrioress alter ego is an enormous breath of fresh air. But if I had to choose between those two guys, I’d still go with Jesse Eisenberg’s Lex Luthor, an awkward zillionaire in tennis shoes and obnoxious Brooklyn-hipster outfits. It wouldn’t be fair to say that Eisenberg winks at the audience or undercuts the movie; one of the features of a Zack Snyder picture is that all possible winks are winked in advance and there’s nothing left to undercut. But in playing Luthor as a more severely disabled Mark Zuckerberg from “The Social Network,” Eisenberg at least makes himself into a locus of fun in a movie otherwise devoted to po-faced, comics-geek earnestness. When Luthor stammers out his announcements that power is never innocent and these costumed buffoons are peddling delusions — and by the way, there’s an open bar — I’m all like, finally a hero to believe in.
I couldn’t even tell you whether the story of “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” makes sense, and I don’t suspect it matters. Batman and Superman are gonna fight! Because they’re both jerks. Anderson Cooper and Nancy Grace and Neil deGrasse Tyson are super-concerned about this, because it will affect the future of the human species and because ratings. (Somewhat respectable people have got to stop “playing themselves” in these shameless Hollywood spectacles. It’s not funny or cool anymore, and whatever it hypothetically does for their brand it makes me want to splatter vomit on their expensive loafers.) Then, really, really suddenly, Batman and Superman decide to join forces because Lex Luthor has a secret weapon and oh wow, except for the Wonder Woman stuff it’s really boring and predictable.
So “Batman v Superman” is kind of dopey and plays out some laborious plot twists in the DC narrative at unnecessary length, but as I’ve already said it largely kept me entertained for two and a half hours, which is not nothing. Snyder’s intense, obsessive artificiality yields numerous striking images, and the supporting cast around the leaden central duo of Affleck and Cavill (and the dancing electricity of Eisenberg) is excellent, especially Irons, Hunter, Laurence Fishburne as the cantankerous editor of the Daily Planet and Scoot McNairy as a disabled and disgruntled Bruce Wayne employee who believes that corporate misdeeds demand public scrutiny. In the comic-book universe such an attitude is viewed as deeply uncool: Who needs bureaucrats and congressional hearings when we have Batman! Gosh, aren't we lucky to live in the real America, where democracy holds the rich and powerful to account?