Director: Zack Snyder
PG-13 | 2h 31min | Action, Adventure, Fantasy | 25 March 2016 (USA)
Despite having frequently paired up (or beaten each other up) in comics and other media for decades, the DC Comics superheroes Batman and Superman have never appeared together in a big-budget film until now. With competitor Marvel Comics having made megabucks carefully constructing a larger shared universe for its stable of comic heroes, DC and parent company Warner Bros. have been keen to catch up. Hence we now have Zack Snyder’s Batman v Superman, building on 2013’s Superman reboot which Snyder also helmed, to middling reviews. It pits The Dark Knight against The Man of Steel whilst also cramming in Wonder Woman, with a few teases of other super-powered characters, who will soon fill up the DC film world. There is a lot of just…stuff going on in this film, presumably the price of rushing to catch up with the more organically grown Marvel universe, and it shows. The film’s narrative feels scattered all over the place, and even if some of the fears fans had don’t ultimately materialize, other weaknesses weigh it down.
The city of Metropolis has barely recovered from the earth-shattering events of Superman’s arrival onto the global stage (which occurred 18 months ago in the film’s timeline), but now it is in line to get trashed all over again, the result of the looming three-way clash between Batman, vigilante of the neighbouring city of Gotham, new god-on-earth Superman, and genius and all-around loopy motormouth Lex Luthor; Metropolis’s wealthy industrialist who is none too keen on being usurped as top dog by a super-being. The DC/Warner tone and aesthetic – established in Man of Steel – is much like Marvel’s: in that these cities and the wider world are presented as a mostly realistic parallel of our own, but with superheroes running about. Snyder likes thing gloomier though, and although he has dialled back on the Terrance Malick magic-hour-and-lens-flare effects, much of the film takes place at night, with a muted colour palette.
Sadly, this moodiness seems to have bled into the script as well, which is desperately lacking in spark. DC and Warner seem to have decided that the best way to separate their wares out from their competitor is to keep things gritty and portentous, and there is nothing wrong with that inherently. There is no ‘one way’ to approach a comic or superhero character. But Christopher Nolan- a director Snyder clearly wants to follow- showed with his Dark Knight Trilogy that seriousness, wit and a sense of neat coherence to the narrative are not mutually exclusive.
Until a greater threat unites them, this new Batman AKA Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck, not as bad as devoted bat-fans feared, he looks both suitably weathered and ripped) spends much of the film watching Superman AKA Clark Kent (Henry Cavill, looking the part but crippled with dialogue and a poise that makes him seem aloof and miserable) with growing alarm. He fears the actions of a godlike superhero with unchecked powers, and thus determines to take down the last son of Krypton using a very particular set of materials, which Luthor (an over-manic Jesse Eisenberg) is also chasing. Batman’s name comes ahead of Superman’s in the film title, and that seems reflected in the film, which gives him the much stronger narrative arc and more relatable, compelling motivations as he navigates his way through a mystery that ultimately connects Superman and Luthor.
Although we really don’t need it at this point given how many times they have died on screen, the film actually opens with a flashback to the death of Wayne’s parents, and his discovery of the bat-filled cave in the grounds of their mansion. Though it replays almost beat-for-beat the Nolan version of this iconic scene, it at least sets Batman up as a character who would believably not want to take any chances that Superman could inflict the same fate on the world. The fact that the destruction of Metropolis in Man of Steel resulted in friends of Wayne dying adds believable weight to the character’s drive, as well as reflecting an admirable (and possibly embarrassment-driven) attempt on the part of the filmmakers to acknowledge all the CGI-augmented destruction they wrecked in the last film, an attempt which the film later kind of fluffs by essentially repeating the mayhem, though we are told repeatedly no-one has died somehow.
As for Superman, the film sees the caped hero a little under the weather emotionally, as US politicians , cultural figures and the wider world are wondering about whether Superman is a hero, a god, or a menace who acts unilaterally and risks unbalancing international relations. Much was made in the build up to this film that it would explore questions about the role of superheroes in our time, as well showing us as a clash of values between Superman and Batman. We see Superman called before a Congressional committee to discuss the destruction of Metropolis and answer charges that his actions against terrorists in Africa resulted in civilian deaths, while other thinkers plucked from our real world (such as Neal Degrasse Tyson) are seen on TV screens musing on how our gods turned out to be real and we must now face our insignificance in the cosmos. Under the guise of Clark Kent, Superman also dives into the Gotham scene to explore the ‘bat vigilante’ who has been terrorising the criminal underworld for years, going so far as to even brand them with his bat-symbol. Batman appals his Kansas-bred sense of goodliness.
But the film never does more than flirt with these ideas – what other conclusion can it come to other than Superman is necessary, with a greater evil soon looming –thanks to the machinations of Luthor- that requires him to prove his worth to the doubters. And when Batman and Superman do clash, on a rooftop in the rain at night (of course), the showdown does have a kind of crunching satisfaction to it, but the fight is less about values and more a misunderstanding. The conflict really is nothing much like that in the comic that Snyder touted he was drawing from, Frank Miller’s era-defining The Dark Knight Returns.
Snyder has never had a problem packing his films with all kinds of visual delights (or distractions, if you are a critic) and he has here all the money he needs to craft huge brawls, fashion Bat-tech like the Batmobile and Batwing, and show Superman’s breaking of the sound barrier during take off and landings. At times you do have respect the attempt to pay homage to the superhero showdowns that you can find in comic panels past and present, with characters blasting eye-lasers and hurling each other through rows of buildings, or clubbing each other like some bizarre WWE showdown whilst framed in medium shot against flashes of fire and light. Snyder has always favored a hyper-caffeinated aesthetic; he literally flaunts it. But for every scene where it works at reminding you of the source material, there are others where you wish he would do away with the endless slo-mo (it would certainly help cut the two and a half hour run time, which now seems the default for these films), and maybe give us at least one fight scene not set at night where lighting bolts obscure the action.
What does work? Well, Affleck isn’t bad as Bats. There is plenty of action. And as Wonder Woman, Gal Gadot looks like she is relishing the chance to finally do filmic justice to this long-overlooked female superhero. She seems to be the only cast member really enjoying herself. When her character cracks a smile during the final battle between the thrown-together trio of heroes and the obligatory mega-threat, the whole film seems to light up immediately. The prospects for the new Wonder Woman movie have improved massively. Likewise Jeremy Irons as Batman’s loyal butler and accomplice Alfred has a nice line in sardonic wit, and riffs well with Affleck. These supporting actors have what is missing from the rest of the film: wit and playfulness. Amy Adams as Lois Lane and Laurence Fishburne as Daily Planet editor Perry White are sadly not dealt the same cards. By the time all these character have had some screen time though, the film is taking holes below the waterline from a narrative focus that jumps around repeatedly between them all, with too many character motivations and revelations that just leave you thinking “huh?”
Whether we like it or not, Warner Bros. have seriously committed to this shared universe, so we are getting more of these films until we have choked on them. Let us hope by then the studio, and whoever they hire to handle the rest of the series, are better able to sandpaper down the rough edges, shape clearer narratives, and let some light back in. This has got to be the only time Superman looked gloomier than his Dark Knight opposite, and that sure is a weird approach.