Buried under the bad, there's just enough good to make Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice a frustrating experience.
The film opens during the final moments of Man of Steel (2013). We follow Ben Affleck as Bruce Wayne rushing through the chaotic streets of Metropolis.
Overhead, Superman battles Zod—a Kryptonian bent on wiping out humanity. The two aliens crash through buildings and unleash arcs of laser-like heat vision.
As Bruce approaches Wayne Enterprises' Metropolis office, Superman and Zod rip through the building like a bullet. The skyscraper topples, sending out a massive cloud of debris.
Emergency responders freeze.
Bruce Wayne runs toward the destruction.
As the dust clears, Bruce snatches little girl from the path of some falling debris. He crouches down and looks in her wide eyes. “It's going to be okay,” he says. “We're going to find your mom. Where is she? Where's your mom?”
The girl points—her arm shaking—toward the smoldering rubble of the Wayne tower. Bruce pulls the girl close and glares up—eyes full of rage—at Superman and Zod still zooming through the air.
With that shot, any apprehension I had about Affleck evaporated. He's not wearing the suit, but he's Batman.
Consider this sequence's accomplishments.
It summarizes and even provides the payoff for the excessive destruction sequences of the prior film.
It sells Affleck in the role of Batman.
It establishes motivation for the conflict between the titular characters.
All this with near-constant action and no exposition. It's an amazing sequence.
But it also commits the film's most egregious sin: it raises our expectations.
From here, the film devolves into a mess of dead-end plot threads and superfluous characters.
Some had potential. Holly Hunter plays a US Senator chairing a hearing discussing Superman's unchecked role in global affairs. We're given an iconic image of Superman hovering outside the Capitol building, before symbolically landing and walking inside. What followed should have been crackling, character-driven drama. Instead, the building blows up.
This explosion comes courtesy of Lex Luthor, played by Jessie Eisenberg as an eccentric young industrialist. He blows up the Capitol because—well, mostly because the script feels stitched together. Luthor manipulates Superman and Batman into fighting one another because—well, see above. Luthor also creates a giant monster because… well, you get the idea.
Other characters and scenes exist solely to set up the next films in the franchise. We meet Wonder Woman. She's superfluous to the story, but proves a compelling character, largely because she's devoid of angst. We also get awkward teases for Aquaman, the Flash, and Cyborg.
Indeed, there's so much going on, I can't imagine someone following it all without having read the comics.
How else to recognize the small, but important bits of characterization? Like how Joker's murdering Robin lead to this film's more brutal Batman. Or bigger bits, like uber-villain Darkseid's Omega sigil in Bruce's apocalyptic vision and how Luthor's ramblings in the finale reference Darkseid's mother box technology. Reading between the lines, Luthor was little more than Renfield to Darkseid's Dracula.
But relying on the viewer's prior exposure to the characters invites preconceived notions of who these characters should be. And I can't imagine anyone familiar with the Superman mythos getting behind this version of Luthor.
And we haven't even covered the inanity of a script that sees Batman murder criminals and cause the same wanton destruction that so enraged him during the film's opening sequence. Consider Batman, in his plane, leading a monster back to the city so he can retrieve a weapon that might kill it. Why not fly back, grab the weapon, then battle the monster in relative isolation? Because the movie isn't interested in making sense. It's too busy trying to build a franchise.