The most upsetting thing about Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice - outside of a clunky title which draws attention to everything worst about the movie - isn't that it's outlandishly bad (worse tentpole movies are released to higher Rotten Tomato scores every summer). What's truly upsetting about it is that an enormous proportion of its seemingly infinite number of irritating little problems could have been fixed with virtually no effort.

E.g., the baffling matter of Batman's (Ben Affleck) motivations and virulent psychopathy could have been solved with just two lines of dialogue, suggesting he retired in a nihilistic funk after his ward Robin was brutally murdered (a pre-existing subplot that the movie references visually, and then strangely ignores), and is now unretiring with bitterness and rage; a looping subplot involving Lois Lane's (Amy Adams) investigation into a conspiracy that reaches from the U.S. government to the Middle East is forgotten and unresolved, when a similarly brief handful of explanatory lines would have nicely tidied it up as a key portion of the movie, instead of a go-nowhere detour. Some of the very worst, most galling parts of the movie could have been fixed through the simple matter of not including them in the first place, the net effect of which would have been completely negligible on anything in the plot of this movie, and which would have had the benefit of trimming a 151-minute film down by ten minutes or so. I could go on and on - the script does plenty wrong, but almost without a single exception, its mistakes could have been solved with five minutes of work or less apiece.

Hard to say if this is a sign that the filmmakers were sloppy, lazy, or simply absent-minded; it's annoying, anyway, because the good parts of Batman v Superman are at least as good as the bad parts are bad, and trying to appreciate them while they're being drowned out is tiresome. At its best - mostly but not entirely confined to the first hour-or-so - this has flashes of being the best Superman move since the 1978 epic that is the ultimate progenitor of the superhero movie genre as we know it. At any rate, it is the movie that I wanted Superman Returns to be, and haven't quite gotten over yet, some ten years later: the story that finds Kryptonian refugee Kal-El (Henry Cavill), turned into a near-immortal superbeing thanks to the yellow sun of Earth (or our atmospheric density or whatever technobabble they trotted out in 2013's Man of Steel, the film to which Batman v Superman is a sequel, in one of its many guises) seriously grappling with the basic morality involved in being or not-being Superman. Batman v Superman is by no conceivable means the ideal version of this story: Cavill is a perfunctory actor, and the script, which finds Chris Terrio giving a spit & polish to a David S. Goyer original, has a dazzled, puppy-like inability to stick with one idea long enough to develop it. But for the length of individual scenes, here or there, it clicks into place: the wan expressions that are Cavill's sole good trick as an actor, alongside the artfully murky images of cinematographer Larry Fong, give the film a troubled and unquiet sense that is something, and something's more than plenty of superhero films can drum up. It's striving for a mythopoeic register that it only sometimes hits - for one thing, the script is too ready with its humorless one-liners, and it keeps undercutting the surprisingly classical grandeur of the images and music.

That is, anyway, at the level of the individual scene. Batman v Superman is pretty good at individual scenes; it has individual scenes by the handful that are the best stuff directed by chaotician and slo-mo fetishist Zack Snyder since all the way back to his 2004 debut, Dawn of the Dead. It's largely not very good at stringing those individual scenes into a complete whole. The film is trying to juggle a lot of balls, and plots go meandering into the darkness, get hastily recalled and resolved so abruptly that it's hard to tell what happened, or find themselves laid out in bland, mechanical exposition. It is easier to summarise the thing character by character than try to do anything like reconstruct the plot the way the film presents it: first, businessman Bruce Wayne, AKA Batman, is horrified by the destruction wreaked by the Kryptonian-on-Kryptonian battle that ended Man of Steel, and dedicates himself to becoming the one human who might be able to destroy the surviving alien in matched combat. The general raging nihilism he feels around all of this pushes him to take the Batman routine to nearly unheard-of levels of psychopathy. Incidentally, Snyder & Co. overcorrect to an amazing degree: apparently quite sincerely stung by the criticism that Man of Steel was violence porn, the filmmakers keep interrupting their climax with news reports and standalone lines of dialogue making sure we get that there are no civilian casualties. This is an UNINHABITED ISLAND. These are ABANDONED DOCKS. And so on. Zack knows he's been a bad boy; he is perhaps unable to fix it artfully, but the gesture is charming in its ineptitude.

Back to the plot. "Clark Kent", a fake identity that these films really don't care about in the slightest, is starting to figure out that plenty of people distrust or hate Superman, and it's causing him a lot of self-doubt; when he triggers an international incident, largely by being a selfish dick, it's the first in a chain of events that cause him to re-evaluate his whole moral code. Meanwhile, Clark's girlfriend and the sole protector of his alias, Lois Lane actually gets to be an investigative journalist in something that comes awfully close to redeeming the character and Adams's generally great performance thereof from the way she was mishandled in Man of Steel. Meanwhile Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg)...

Lex Luthor just sucks. No two ways about it. Every other performance ranges from "actually great" (Holly Hunter attempting to salvage a thankless role as a senator trying to clamp down on Superman by pretending that her character has an entire rich arc and a movie all her own) to "surprisingly damn good" (Affleck makes for a superb world-weary and bitter Batman) to "I look forward to seeing what happens when you're working with a director who has any clue how to engage with women" (Gal Gadot as Diana "Wonder Woman" Prince, who has acres of screen presence and fuck-all to do other than strike poses and model dresses). Eisenberg is a complete disaster. Remaking the chilly industrialist/genius Luthor into an internet nerd with deep dark daddy issues was a peculiar choice, but not irredeemable; playing him as a kitschy clown proves to be the single biggest problem in a film that suffers from no shortage of them. The unrelentingly dour tone the film adopts is odd and ultimately tedious, but not unprecedented (it's one of the many things it lifts from Frank Miller's epoch-defining miniseries The Dark Knight Returns), and I'm inclined to say it's even a relief from the increasingly brittle, banal quips in Marvel's movies. But it can't support a performance like Eisenberg's embrace of full camp even in a tiny role; taking that approach to the antagonist (and then attempting to walk it back in the last act, badly) is insane.

But the thing is, as the film is good only in individual scenes; so too is it really only bad in individual scenes. For the most part, the action sucks, marred by atrociously sloppy, arrhythmic editing and Snyder's indefatigable ardor for speed-ramping; but there's surprisingly little action for most of the movie, which instead focuses on Batman's increasingly messianic quest to track down Krytponite and murder Superman, or on Superman's growing awareness that he's an asshole (it's far more film noir that comic book action movie for a huge portion of its running time, and frequently a rather engaging one). There are, for no apparent reasons, dream sequences and visions; they could be sliced right out of the movie without affecting its flow or character arcs in the slightest degree. There's a stunningly awful scene in which Wonder Woman very patiently watches YouTube trailers for Justice League; it too could be snipped off without leaving even the tiniest hint that it was ever there.

The film is made out of nuggets, basically. Some of the nuggets are dismal. Some are perfectly unexceptional. A few are really great - like everything involving the harried Perty White (Laurence Fishburne, like Adams given a chance to shine after Man of Steel fluffed his character) in his attempts to keep newspaper The Daily Planet functioning in in the face of Star Report Lois Lane's increasingly brazen insubordination (like Hunter, Fishburne redeems his chunks of the movie by deciding that his character is the protagonist). Or a gorgeous chiaroscuro sidelight in a doorway, one of the most beautiful comic book shots in the history of comic book movies. Generally speaking, besides Eisenberg's unforgivable Luthor, the only thoroughly unacceptable parts of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice are the sequel hooks that make it brutally clear how Justice is Dawning, or the trivial matter of Batman v Superman - the final fight is easily the worst action sequence in the movie, as Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman fight the cave troll from The Fellowship of the Ring, somehow rendered in CGI worse than we had in 2001. But it's also the point where Hans Zimmer & Junkie XL's engaging, motif-driven score (the new Batman theme is sold, the Superman theme remains as great as it was in 2013, and the new Wonder Woman theme - which I'm pretty confident is Junkie XL's major contribution - is a stone-cold triumph of electric guitars and militaristic bombast). And while it's ugly and cut like a fever dream, I do like how the final fight is so low-stakes and character-based: Luthor hates Superman, that's really all that it's about. No world domination, nothing.

Anyway, it's a messy sprawl with much that is exhilarating and much that is completely repulsive, and it's a completely unfulfilling and unsatisfying experience which I found myself enjoying anyway almost the whole time. It wants to be a lot of things, and it keeps on falling short; but it's not afraid to go Very Big in its attempts to return to the idea of superheroes as modern mythology, and God help me, I kind of dig that.

Reviews in this series
Man of Steel (Snyder, 2013)
Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (Snyder, 2016)
Suicide Squad (Ayer, 2016)
Wonder Woman (Jenkins, 2017)
Justice League (Snyder / Whedon, 2017)
Aquaman (Wan, 2018)
Shazam! (Sandberg, 2019)
Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) (Yan, 2020)
Wonder Woman 1984 (Jenkins, 2020)
Zack Snyder's Justice League (Snyder, 2021)
The Suicide Squad (Gunn, 2021)