[Note: There has been so much written about this film – which is every bit as cumbersome and bloated as its title – that I can hardly muster the will to add more noise to the cacophony, which has been about as enjoyable to sift through during the past week as the Phone Book. But I will nonetheless, purely for the simple fact that I may one day wish to go back and read about my own thoughts on Batman v Superman: Dawn Of Justice (herewith referred to as ‘BvS‘) at the time of release. Here goes.]
BvS opens with the big battle from the end of 2013’s Man Of Steel, and we glimpse Henry Cavill’s Superman fighting Michael Shannon’s antagonist General Zod in the skies above Metropolis; the continuity is a nice touch, and it also introduces the audience to Ben Affleck’s take on Bruce Wayne/Batman, here on the ground sans-Batsuit and trying to save employees unlucky enough to be working in one of the many buildings destroyed by the men of Krypton. (Ever the capitalist pigdog, Wayne drives past dozens of similar buildings that are presumably full of innocent people who need saving in order to get to those on his payroll.) Zack Snyder, the earlier film’s director, is back in the chair for this blockbuster, and I like the fact that he addresses one of the overwhelming criticisms of Man Of Steel, which concerned its lack of empathy with the countless people presumably killed or injured amid all the Zod/Superman carnage. Indeed the issue of that human collateral damage subsequently becomes the driving force for Wayne’s mistrust of Superman, which is echoed more generally by the rest of society, and which in turn paves the way for the good guy versus good guy battle that the title promises.
In this film Superman is a figure who divides public opinion: those who have loved ones saved by the hero treat him like a deity, and he arrogantly bathes in their adoration, while a monument has already been constructed in his honour in Metropolis. Others are skeptical, protesting at said monument and outside the US Capitol, with some wishing to develop the means to control him, including Jesse Eisenberg’s Lex Luthor (a performance that I actually found slightly entertaining and colourful, where all else is dark, grave and intentionally serious). Wayne and Luthor’s developing interests in Superman occur in tandem, though the screenplay by Chris Terrio and David Goyer gets slightly bogged down with details while juggling their particular motivations with all the political wrangling. Superman, meanwhile, doesn’t quite know what to make of it all, and still seems to be a work in development, battling a crisis of confidence. On the other side of the ‘versus’ Affleck’s Batman is a tired, grizzled brawler wrestling with his own demons, and his alter-ego Bruce Wayne is a man of few words. Affleck had the tougher job here – new to the franchise, and with Christian Bale’s recent performances as Batman still fresh in the memory of lots of fans – and he does quite well, all told, with his physical presence emphasised by director and cinematographer Larry Fong, which draws attention away from his limitations as an actor. I’ve certainly seen worse Batmen.
It takes an age to get to the promised face-off between the two, with plenty of silly dream sequences and tonally-surprising material interrupting along the way (Superman apparently has no problem killing (Arabic) people, for example, while Batman’s brand of rough justice really does become a brand). Meanwhile all the usual peripheral figures from the old comic books and the previous films drop in and out of the story at irregular intervals: Lois Lane, Perry White, Martha Kent and Alfred Pennyworth are all present and correct and played by big stars whose talents are largely being wasted. When the Batman and Superman fight finally takes place it’s a bit of a let-down, all told, and – considering the long build-up – it’s over with quite quickly; lots of unimaginative smashy-smashy, plenty of by-the-numbers paggery-paggery, and a little bit of seen-it-all-before ouchy-ouchy, before the pair bury the hatchet at a surprising speed. This they do in order to engage in another fight, and their enemy for the final showdown is the Luthor-created Doomsday, an orc-like figure who sends out massive shockwaves and who is capable of destroying entire neighbourhoods in seconds (the script’s insistence on pointing out to the audience that these areas are currently deserted, to head-off those earlier criticisms, is laughable). Of course Snyder is into more comfortable territory by this point, and the battle is every bit as long, loud and noisy as you’d expect. Anyone who has seen Man Of Steel will know what’s coming, though it does feature the notable addition of Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman, who has set many pulses a-racing already and will continue to do so in her own spin-off film, slated for 2017.
Even with my limited comic book knowledge I can see that Snyder and his writers have picked certain well-known titles as influences, in terms of the story, the script, the tone, the costumes and the production design of BvS: Mike Carlin’s Death Of Superman series is perhaps the most obvious, while Frank Miller’s famously-murky graphic novel The Dark Knight Returns is also a touchstone; there are hints to A Death In The Family and, presumably, many others. I actually feel a little more generosity toward the director now than I did a couple of years back, as he has at least successfully drawn on this rich history in order to establish a template for this new DC franchise, even if you do happen to dislike the joyless direction he’s moved it in and the reliance on long, skull-buggering set pieces, as I do myself. The DC films do at least feel distinct from those offered up by Marvel, which are generally lighter and frothier in comparison (Snyder, if anything, is a director who seems to have a deep-rooted mistrust for jokes). My sympathy for the director also increased in the wake of the terrible reviews for BvS that stacked up last week; yes it’s long, messy, loud, way too bleak and riddled with plot holes (how exactly does Lois Lane know to find the spear she has thrown away?), but it’s not that bad. (Lest we forget that this recent film is still stinking out the superhero stable.) I don’t disagree with the general thrust of those poor notices, though; the script is wonky and suffers from overcomplication, you exit feeling like you’ve been bashed over the head for 150 minutes, and the relentless dourness sucks most of the enjoyment out of the process. The superhero films I like contain at least a small degree of fascination with the powers wielded by their subjects, particularly when it comes to Superman, but there’s none of that here. There’s nothing in BvS that thrills in the same way as seeing Christopher Reeve’s Clark Kent/Superman catching a mugger’s bullet for the first time, or saving Lois Lane as she falls from a skyscraper (though BvS does have its own equivalent of the latter), and it’s those moments of wonder that you miss. Snyder peppers his film with impenetrable dream sequences, references to comic book plots and characters that most viewers will miss or not understand, dreary post-9-11 symbolism, glimpses of actors and heroes who will feature in forthcoming Justice League movies and more building destruction than Fred Dibnah managed in a lifetime, but crucially he has failed yet again to add any real magic to proceedings. Only Hans Zimmer’s side of the shared score manages to do so, and only when it sporadically and briefly incorporates the main theme from Man Of Steel.
Directed by: Zack Snyder.
Written by: Chris Terrio, David S. Goyer.
Starring: Ben Affleck, Henry Cavill, Jesse Eisenberg, Amy Adams, Gal Gadot, Jeremy Irons, Laurence Fishbourne, Diane Lane, Holly Hunter, Scoot McNairy.
Cinematography: Larry Fong.
Editing: David Brenner.
Music: Hans Zimmer, Junkie XL.
Running Time: 151 minutes.