May 19, 2016 - 4:44pm
As the title suggests, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice hinges on a fight between a masked private detective who has machine guns mounted in his car and a flying alien who wears a red cape and shoots laser beams from his eyes. It sounds as if it should be a rollicking children’s cartoon, and it probably would have been, four or five decades ago. But not any more. Superhero blockbusters are a lot more earnest than they used to be, and none more so than Zack Snyder’s two-and-a-half-hour epic. It couldn’t be more expansively grim if it was a four-part documentary on the bubonic plague.
A sequel to Snyder’s Man of Steel, it starts by restaging that film’s climactic battle between Superman (Henry Cavill) and his Kryptonian opponents. The twist is that the conflict is seen from street level, where the unfortunate citizens of Metropolis are forced to run and cower as shattered skyscrapers shower them with debris. From their perspective, which deliberately evokes footage of the World Trade Center attacks, Superman doesn’t seem like the saviour of humanity, but a living weapon of mass destruction, hence the questions which run through the rest of the film.
Is he really a force for truth and justice? Is he responsible for the thousands of casualties and the billions of dollars of property damage caused by his titanic tussle? Could he one day turn against the human race? And if he did, could anyone stop him? If the trailers are to believed, these same issues underpin Marvel’s imminent Captain America: Civil War, but there is no way that CA:CW can have as much doom and gloom as BvS:DoJ.
Co-written by David S Goyer, who also wrote both Man of Steel and Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, Batman v Superman combines the fraught, multi-stranded plotting of the Batman films and the smoke-filled warzones favoured by Snyder. There are discussions of philosophy and theology, or building legacies and losing parents. There is thunderously operatic music by Hans Zimmer and Junkie XL. And there is a colour palette that ranges all the way from black to dingy grey.
Considering that super-powered crime fighters don’t exist, and that there’s no pressing need to fret about their effect on civilisation as we know it, it might be nice if someone would make a superhero film intended to thrill young viewers rather them give them nightmares. But if you are willing to buy into a mean and moody examination of “meta-humans”, as the film calls them, then Snyder is undeniably the man for the job.
The ultimate Batman?
Indeed, BvS feels like the grand culmination of everything he has tried in his previous films, from the stylised brutal violence of 300 to the fantastical dream sequences of Sucker Punch to the subversion of superhero tropes that was there in Watchmen (which, eagle-eyed nerds will note, is referenced in a scrawl of graffiti). Batman v Superman is too overblown and cacophonous for you to care too much about what happens, but it does make you admire Snyder’s feverish energy in taking the genre to bombastic, apocalyptic extremes. Whether or not you take superheroes seriously, there is no doubt that the director does.
Three people in particular are perturbed by the alien in their midst. One is a strong-willed senator (Holly Hunter) who insists that everything should be subject to the will of the people, up to and including omnipotent extra-terrestrials. Another is Superman’s arch enemy, Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg), who is no longer the avuncular businessman played by Gene Hackman, but a long-haired, brattish hipster with disturbing hints of mental instability. It’s a terrific reinvention: this Luthor is a cross between Eisenberg’s Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network and Heath Ledger’s Joker in The Dark Knight.
The third character who has it in for Superman is, yes, Batman (Ben Affleck). One of the film’s fun innovations is that Batman’s rundown home turf of Gotham (filmed in Detroit) is now just across the bay from Superman’s more elegant Metropolis, so the two superheroes’ inevitable punch-up appears to have as much to do with civic rivalry as anything else. Affleck isn’t half the actor Christian Bale is, but his iteration of the character beats every previous big-screen version, Nolan’s included.
Here at last is the sadistic, fascistic, half-crazed vigilante that comic fans have been waiting for. When he is in costume, he is an imposingly bulky, down-and-dirty brawler who has no qualms about flinging crooks through the walls of derelict houses, or branding them with a bat-shaped iron: for once, you can believe that criminals might actually be frightened of him, rather than laughing at his rubber suit and his growly voice. And when he takes off his mask, he is worth watching as Bruce Wayne, too. Bale played the character as a smooth socialite and rational team-player. Affleck’s Wayne is surly, jaded, and grey at the temples, with a fondness for booze and industrial espionage.
In short, Snyder and his team have taken their Batman from the pages of Frank Miller’s game-changing graphic novel, The Dark Knight Returns, and as a result they get just about everything right, from Wayne’s banter with his prickly butler, Alfred (Jeremy Irons), to the sleek-yet-sturdy Batmobile. It’s a pity that Batman v Superman is so stuffed with subplots and numbing, computer-generated mayhem. If Snyder had edited out Superman altogether, and had Eisenberg playing the Joker, he would have made the ultimate Batman film.
As it is, Superman is superfluous. Snyder and his regular cinematographer, Larry Fong, build some awe-inspiring, poster-worthy images around him, but it’s easy to see why Batman gets top billing in the title. As Clark Kent, he gets one spicy romantic scene with the intrepid Lois Lane (Amy Adams) – confirmation that Kryptonians can mate with humans – but otherwise he doesn’t do much except frown in a constipated sort of way, and then disappear into the sky. Much of his dialogue consists of sonic booms.
And then there’s Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), who is introduced here before she gets her own film next year. There was a lot of internet grumbling when a slender unknown was cast to play an iconic Amazonian warrior princess, and her debut in BvS won’t win over the doubters. Gadot may have the olive-skinned beauty for the role, but she barely has the charisma or the stature to cut it as a supporting character, let alone a lead.
Not that that’s all her fault. The problem is that Superman and Wonder Woman are portrayed as being so boringly powerful and virtuous that they register not as people but as the alien and the goddess that they are. Batman is the only one of the trio with human urges and human flaws. I won’t reveal who triumphs in the showdown between the title characters, but when it comes to keeping the viewer’s attention, Batman is the winner by a knock-out.