This isn’t the film you wanted, but it’s the film you deserve.
I’ve seen that line totted out recently in relation to Zack Snyder’s latest offering in the newly established DC cinematic universe. Often by folks that I’m dubious as to their claims of having actually seen the movie yet.
Nevertheless, to quote Steve Coogan’s fantastic fictionalised autobiography I, Partridge, as an adolescent Alan is called ‘Smelly Alan Fartridge’ by his school tormenters, it’s a line that is “about 3% as clever as it thinks it is”. Or I guess maybe it’s 1%. But if there’s a 1% chance, then it should be taken as an absolute certainty, right?
It’s mainly a statement repeated in relation to the bleak, cold, depressing realisation of the world that Superman – and now also apparently his nemesis Batman – inhabits, where humour, warmth and vibrant colour are secondary to moody, dreary greys, suspicion, paranoia and snarling teeth.
Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice isn’t an AC/DC soundtracked flash of electric-blue, pyjama-clad heroes, comic-book niceness. Nor does it ever try to be anything but what it is. Nor should it even try to be anything else.
This is a place, as established in 2013’s divisive blockbuster Man of Steel, where an alien descended from a dying world to be raised amongst us, as one of us, to love us and protect us until he was old enough to decide whether to make the ultimate sacrifice to save us from ourselves/angry aliens. By, er, destroying half of the largest city in the US during a fist fight with said angry alien that resulted in thousands of collateral deaths. Deaths that an angry billionaire human dressed in a bat costume now wants to avenge. As does another psychotic billionaire by the name of Lex Luthor, with slightly more suspect motivations.
If the unremittingly desperate and sullen tone for this first live-action, big screen clash between DC’s iconic superheroes is what we deserve, then I’m OK with that. It sure as Hell is exactly how I wanted it to be in a number of different ways.
That isn’t to say the whole movie is exactly what I wanted from Snyder’s second foray into the often unforgiving spectrum of comicbook fanboy elitism. Just as Man of Steel left millions of steaming big blue boy scout fans loudly exclaiming “that’s not my Superman”, as if that was at all relevant, then just wait until the masses get ahold of the virtually unrecognisable character traits of their beloved caped crusader. If the internet could be fitted with a blast screen, now would be the time to assemble it.
The Dark Knight has always been, well, dark. Cracking bones, smashing skulls, practically crippling criminals for the rest of their life, all in the name of justice as he carefully tiptoes along the delicate line of his moral conscience, never straying into the territory that there’s no coming back from. But here, there are some rather extreme and remorseless attacks by the Bat that will please fans wanting a more grown up comic book film, as well as pop a few pulsating veins on the temples of outraged viewers.
Personally, I think it’s precious to perceive only one possible interpretation of a character that has seen hundreds of writers and dozens of actors portray him. Who’s to say that the kooky Adam West version is not the definitive creation? Or what about Tim Burton’s criminal-burning take in Batman Returns? Why not use Frank Miller’s portrayal of a grizzled old Bruce as the only measure?
The best versions of Batman in the comics in recent years have been, to my mind, when he went insane during Grant Morrison’s series that began a decade ago this year, and in writer Scott Snyder’s Detective Comics run – when it wasn’t even Bruce Wayne who was Batman, it was Dick Grayson. So really, it just doesn’t matter which you prefer, or what you think makes Batman the character he is; there are literally hundreds (if not thousands) of representations of the character that are as valid as each other. This movie is no exception to that rule.
However, I feel like I’m explaining myself around the issues with this movie, of which there are plenty. Much like when George Clooney put on the cape and cowl (and nipple-plate), it’s hard to separate Ben Affleck from Bruce Wayne. Maybe that’s an unfair criticism as it’s a fine performance, but whenever he’s out of the mask, it’s hard to see past Ben Affleck. He also acts the chops off of his opposite number, with Henry Cavill caught in the headlights of a crash-bang-wallop barnstorming Batman movie where he is playing second fiddle in what should be his sequel. His story. His character’s atonement.
Ignorance is not the same as innocence, or so we’re told, which leaves the film to question how the red-caped Übermensch can continue to separate his private life from that of his heroic exploits. A hole was ripped through the centre of the planet not 18 months ago thanks in no small part to his own quest for knowledge, yet here he his saving children from burning buildings and being heralded as a messiah. I would not be the first person to scratch my head at the hypocrisies of the DC universe, but it at least tries to answer some of the questions it poses. Admittedly, Democracy v Superman would probably not have been a snappy title for the film.
And therein lies its biggest issue. I do like Man of Steel. Very much. In fact, Thursday evening, I saw a double-bill of it followed by a Batman v Superman midnight screening, and quite happily endured it. The dialogue is blunt, to the point and often without ambiguity, but the narrative structure combined with the character development of the wandering drifter Clark Kent, discovering his true identity as Kal-El, and subsequent trial by fire at the hands of Michael Shannon’s exceptional performance as General Zod; the more I see it, the more I like it. The religious symbolism is perhaps heavy handed as he floats off into space in his Jesus Christ pose to save the Earth, but there’s depth beyond merely a superhero smashing a villain’s face in. Zod’s pitiful plea and loss of identity, or his “soul” as he claims, at a time where a triumphant Clark struts across a city blown to smithereens to victory-snog his girlfriend; its complexities are frequently lost in a tide of criticism because it just happens to take place during a mass of CGI destruction. I hesitate to make further comparisons between the two, but compared to some of Marvel’s third-act fight sequences (The Incredible Hulk, Age of Ultron and Thor: The Dark World to name but a few) which serve absolutely no narrative purpose other than “beat-the-baddie”, it just further increases my opinion that it is a vastly underrated movie.
Now, Batman v Superman, as you might expect, spends forever building towards a climactic fight sequence between (you guessed it) Batman and Superman. By contrast, yes it looks cool and yes Snyder’s fingerprints are all over it, but it is as shallow as a paddling pool during a hose-pipe ban. It merely gives the fans what they think they want and not what they deserve.
I’m not going to spoil who wins the fight for you! Needless to say, the victor was inevitable. And yes, the allegories to religion, domestic and international terrorism threats, and playing God, are all there. But they are in much broader strokes than seen previously.
As for the rest of the 2.5 hour run time, a huge proportion of it is a confusing, sprawling mess that I kept trying to pretend was still good, like a buttered piece of toast that had fallen on the kitchen floor. Alas, you could probably scrape it off and it’d still be edible, but why would you? There’s bound to still be a mystery hair or unrecognisable piece of grit to crunch sickeningly between your teeth. What I’m getting at with this confused, sprawling metaphor, is that you can dust off all the crap from Batman v Superman and see just the delicious slice of warm toast underneath, but as you chew, you will secretly feel a little ashamed and embarrassed.
There’s just one dream within a dream sequence too many for my tastes. There’re more Easter eggs littering this film, distracting from what should be an interesting concept of man vs God, than you will find in the Sainsbury’s Petrol Station reduced isle next week. Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) is a passenger whose presence merely exists to pay fan-service for the Trinity and set up future Justice League movies so the other two can get on with battering each other.
I’m not going to sit here and say that the fault with Batman v Superman is that they didn’t follow the blueprint so successfully laid out by Marvel. I do not subscribe to that theory at all. The Marvel blueprint was laid out to make the audience more susceptible to expanded movie universes, that doesn’t mean DC, by not copying the exact format of individual introduction movies building to a crossover event, have failed. What will make Batman v Superman a relative failure is the cramming of about seven different story strands (that I counted) into one single film. It’s convoluted and each one (or maybe two or three together) would have been better served if held back for individual movies.
That, plus Jesse Eisenberg as Lex Luthor was either incredibly poor casting, or the right casting for the wrong film. His twitching peculiarities and eccentric ranting about his father only weaken what should make a menacing focal point for the story. He’s a raving lunatic with an unoriginal fiendish plot to, I don’t know, get in the way, or something. He shouldn’t have been in this film. Or, rather, it should have been Batman or Lex Luthor.
The rest of the supporting cast are as expected. Laurence Fishburne returns as Daily Planet head-honcho Perry White to probably the highest degree of competence out of the lot. Folks worried about Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s casting as Thomas Wayne, concerned it might mean yet another origin story, need not panic as his role is squished into a Watchmen-esque opening segment. Amy Adams as Lois Lane is not as integral to the plot as she should be, although her performance is slightly more assured this time around. Jeremy Irons as Alfred is just Jeremy Irons. No more, no less.
Batman v Superman is bloated, convoluted, full of inconsistencies and lacking in focus. As many suspected might be the case, Superman is reduced to merely a concept rather than a character as Batman takes centre stage.
But Affleck does do a great job carrying the burden of this movie. On more than one occasion, his skulking in the shadows alluded me for a few moments, which gave me a giddy thrill when I spotted him (mind you, it was nearly 2am by this point). Make no mistake, when you read articles online about the actors and creative people behind this movie claiming that it is not designed to win over critics, they’re not lying. This is a Superman movie designed for Batman fans.
Arguably self-sabotaging in typical DC fashion by trying to introduce Batman to what is perceived as a flagging franchise or series, it might simply be too much, too soon. Yet, I still kind of got a kick out of it on some base-levels and I’m sure plenty of others will see through its many foibles too.