A sequel that functions as origin story, apologia, and harbinger of a second expanded universe of overpopulated action bonanzas, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice leaves one with the rather odd impression that Man of Steel might be the last pure superhero movie. Zack Snyder’s 2013 film, notorious for its final hour of mass urban carnage, was less heralded as a reasonably rigorous debate about what it means to be both an alien and a citizen. After losing his father and abandoning Smallville in Man of Steel, Henry Cavill’s Superman embarked on a journey of assimilation, attempting to reconcile his identities as an immigrant and a Kansan farm boy and win the trust and admiration of an American people who were primed to view him as either a savior or a fearsome foreign invader. Alongside the film’s de rigeur apocalyptic finale and tributes to (futile) American military might, Snyder’s idiosyncratic wealth of birthing imagery and parental heart-to-hearts suggested that great Americans are fostered rather than naturally born.
In this sequel-cum-gladiatorial duel, Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) is having none of that. Dawn of Justice begins in his image, crosscutting yet another iteration of Wayne’s emotional death (the brutal sidewalk murder of his parents) with his rebirth as the Dark Knight, depicted as a levitation out of a cage propelled by a swirling vortex of bats. Moments later, a grown Wayne, graying at the temples, is at the site of Man of Steel’s calamitous finale, wandering into a cloud of smoke bluntly evocative of 9/11. The billionaire heir of Wayne Enterprises saves what lives he can as he catches a glimpse of Superman, crashing through buildings full of needlessly endangered Americans. The Caped Crusader is again reborn, this time as a weary, nativist warrior heedlessly determined to take down a false prophet.
Clark Kent and his alter ego, meanwhile, are busy embodying fraught American idealism while setting the film’s thicket of plot points in motion. The Man of Steel causes an international incident when he rescues Lois Lane (Amy Adams) from the clutches of an African terrorist. Kent, now the cub reporter at the Daily Planet, ignores the assignments and dictatorial hot takes of his editor, Perry White (Laurence Fishburne), in order to pursue failures of social justice. Along the way, Kent and Lane tie the terrorists’ unique armaments to the laboratory of Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg), here portrayed as a Mark Zuckerberg gone rogue: a venture capitalist with a lust for a secret deposit of Kryptonite, and characterized with an unsettling blend of millennial entitlement and Freudian pathology, unleavened by social graces. (Eisenberg’s strange, committed performance is helplessly at odds with the film’s self-referential moves to place him in the lineage of Heath Ledger’s Joker.) Luthor’s attempts to negotiate an import treaty for the foreign Kryptonite draw the attention of a vengeful Batman and a mysterious woman that informed fans will immediately recognize as Diana Prince, a.k.a. Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot).
For about an hour, Dawn of Justice moves with irresistible confidence through its byzantine and ultimately pointless narrative, painting a detailed portrait of a world where indistinct strains of liberal-humanist optimism and nativistic cynicism gird for battle. These opposing viewpoints, seen through the film’s blurry politics, both inhabit a declinist vision of America: a Maya Lin-inspired memorial to Superman’s heroics is vandalized by a double amputee, Wallace Keefe (Scoot McNairy), who’s later goaded into an act of homegrown terrorism; the exploits of our dueling heroes are debated into a familiar breed of soul-deadening numbness thanks to a parade of cameos by prominent media personalities. Though the film’s machinations force Batman and Superman to devolve into ideological incoherence, both Cavill and Affleck anchor their characters in finely calibrated emotional turmoil. (Cavill, in particular, is unexpectedly tender and charismatic as Clark, and by extension Superman, grapples with incompatible notions of moral good.)
Snyder is largely stripped of the legroom that allowed some of his previous works to seem like showcases for camp and ostentatious production design, but he manages to integrate some beautiful, patently weird images and moments into the proceedings: a monumentally confusing dream-within-a-dream sequence (presumably littered with fan service that will exceed the grasp of most viewers) features a visceral single-shot fight scene with visual echoes of Fury Road’s red-tinted dystopia; Batman gets a shirtless training montage soundtracked by the triumphant sound of dumbbells crashing onto a cement floor; and a score by Hans Zimmer and Junkie XL transcends the usual pummeling of percussion with bracing nods to Bach and Shostakovich.
But by the time its main bout arrives, Dawn of Justice has become a fait accompli—a fearsomely expansive primer for a coming decade of Justice League-related origin stories and crossover adventures. As such, commercial motives seep deeply and cravenly into content: The film relentlessly hypes the duel between Batman and Superman, but it’s obliged to prevent their conflict from cohering into a genuine debate over moral values or identity politics, because the two must reconcile for future products where other combatants will be introduced. The gears of production move at warp speed through the string of final showdowns and false finales. Apart from its inky color palette, the last 40 minutes of Dawn of Justice are, with its theoretically invincible no-name villain and tag-team heroics, indistinguishable from any recent Marvel product. The stakes are apocalyptic, but it’s impossible to care, because we’ve already been promised an even greater threat to the world next time. What we’re left with, in Dawn of Justice and beyond, are two sturdy characters left to languish in another greedily compromised, grotesquely distended narrative.