Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice
(SPOILERS) You probably need to be sufficiently invested in the DC Universe in the first place to truly care about its cinematic desecration. Or even notice it. Much has already been said, and continues to be said – far more than any right-minded person can or should keep up with – over the past week about Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, how it defecates all over the legacy of Superman and isn’t even really doing Batman many favours, but that’s rather beside the point. Zach Snyder’s movie doesn’t fail because of its take on these iconic characters; it fails because it’s an abject mess in its approach to basic storytelling.
For a while there, before Batman and Superman engage in their less than titanic tussle, I was beginning to think Snyder and screenwriters Chris Terrio and David Goyer were going for something almost admirable in its flagrant disregard for convention; a two hour-plus movie composed entirely of two-minute (or less) scenes with virtually nothing to connect them. Perhaps this was to be the superheroic equivalent of Godfrey Reggio’s Qatsi trilogy? Alas, they eventually confound any illusions of eccentric artistry by reverting to something that does, sort-of, make sense. The chief problem, however, is that, amid this carnage wreaked upon narrative structure, they maintain one element of consistency; BvS is never in danger of becoming a good movie.
Which isn’t to say I have particularly passionate feelings pro or con about the movie. The complete picture turns out to be precisely as it was the trailers, only spread over 150 minutes. The problem is, trailers are supposed not to tell a story; they’re simply there to provide the appetiser for one. If you try and tantalise audiences for any longer, you’ll likely end up with unpalatable mush. I didn’t come away feeling there was very much actively terrible about BvS, but neither did I feel there was very much actively great about it. And what’s in between constitutes its biggest sin; it’s determinedly dull. Incredibly pretty (well, when it’s not focusing on Doomsday, seemingly the spawn of Alien Resurrection’s newborn and thus a design feat no one should be boasting about), but incredibly boring.
Shilly-shallying with a plot summary isn’t really necessary, but the manner in which Snyder et al have reverse-engineered the negative reaction to Supes’ Man of Steel destruction derby and made it the focus of the sequel is perversely impressive (no, no, Goyer and Snyder planned it all along). And then, as some would have it, they go even further, so compounding their earlier transgressions.
It has been suggested this Superman, off-beam (and don’t those laser eyes chafe so?) from his traditionally selfless mode of oozing virtue from every pore, is a reflection of Snyder’s fascination with Ayn Rand, and his (presumed) concordant belief that those who achieve through devout selfishness should be justly rewarded (as such, when Superman acts selflessly, he must die, and maybe come back as a monster). Or maybe Superman is merely a symbol for modern America, doing what he thinks is right and being vilified for it (but one day, one day, everyone will see the truth). Or maybe Snyder just hates Superman, which seems to be the most vocal conclusion reached.
I’m not quite sure how to gauge that, as I don’t really know – or sufficiently care, truth be told – enough about the line being crossed with this depiction. Which is to say, it’s not as if Batman could be considered well hung here either. Indeed, I was marvelling throughout at – given some of the pre-viewing criticism I’d dipped into – how much better Superman came across than Batfleck. I mean, the former may not have been on the best of form, or awarded a welter of cool moments, but neither did he come across as a tunnel-visioned moron.
Perhaps you have to be American to really get behind Superman. A paragon of virtue isn’t really a good fit for the nation that brought the world Terry-Thomas, the ultimate cad and frightful-est bounder. I’m certainly one of those who was never remotely taken with the character, which might be why I liked the Reeve incarnation most when he was put on a back foot (made human in Superman II) or had to duke it out with his dark side (Superman III). Or when you wheel on a charismatic (English) villain to give the whole enterprise a bit of pep (tell him Terence Stamp is fucking coming!)
Henry Cavill’s fine as Superman – although he’d be better as Bond – and there are more decent Superman scenes in the movie than there are Batman ones, although there are more decent Wonder Woman scenes than there are decent scenes for either of the headliners, so she definitely rules the roost (that at least is one in the eye for those complaining about Gal Gadot’s casting and her general lack of Lynda Carter-ness).
I liked Superman’s heroic montage as he rescues floundering rockets and idiots genuflect before his perceived messianic purity. I liked his turning up at the Committee hearing, unrecalcitrant. I liked when he was blown up by a nuclear warhead, hanging emaciated in space. And I (well, not completely, but at least it was him rather than Batman) liked his final self-sacrifice (although I have no idea how Clark Kent’s going to explain away not being dead; perhaps he’ll wake up in a shower. Of which, showing its influences, Man of Steel-sort-of-not-II invites unflattering comparisons by aping Star Trek II’s funereal bagpipes). But there is an underlying sense that making him a moody sod limits the palate the DC cinematic Universe has to play with. You miss Reeve’s essential affability (and Cavill can do affable – in The Man from U.N.C.L.E. he’s one long affable).
Added to which, Superman doesn’t necessarily come across as all that bright. I know movies and TV have to consistently pull the trope of the hero’s dilemma, the choice between the one they love and the greater good, but Luther kidnapping Clark’s mum is so hackneyed, he really should have contemplated and planned his response to such an inevitable eventuality.
But however dense Supes is, Batfleck is doubly so. And then some. People seem to have taken to Ben’s incarnation of the Caped Crusader, so maybe this won’t leave him with Gigli all over his face, but it’s not through want of the screenwriters trying. I don’t for one moment buy into Wayne’s grim motivation to have at Superman (which maybe why Alfred – a decent Jeremy Irons – is so dismissive of his intentions). You can at least see why Superman would be in a bit of a turmoil (if he wasn’t more than a mere mortal and above such things), but the attempts to steer Batman towards the status of ever-branding bad guy fail to connect, no matter how many times the movie rehearses the death of his parents and has him ramble on darkly about what he has to do.
Everything about Bat-Bruce’s goal here makes him look like the biggest chump ever, be it his “If there’s a one-per-cent chance” desire to make sure the Man of Steel doesn’t get the option of going bad, to his training montage with really BIG weights, to his leading Doomsday back into the city at the climax (they even have to insert a line clarifying that he isn’t doing exactly what Superman was guilty of in Man of Steel; the showdown takes place on highly fortuitous disused dockland, so that’s okay), to his bizarre turnabout on hearing his dearly beloved ma’s name (the effect is as rampantly ridiculous as the cry of “Cleaning woman!” in Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid). And, while Affleck’s personification of Bruce Wayne as a playboy cocksman is moderately entertaining, having the hots for Wonder Woman and all, they definitely missed a trick not having him hit on Superman’s mum.
All that said, Batman in action here is far, far cooler than anything Bat-related we’ve seen on the big screen over the past quarter of a century. We’ve gone from a director (Burton) with no facility for bat-tle, to ones (Schumacher and Nolan) who appreciated it but tended to suck all the coherence out of it. You have to go all the way back to Adam West wrestling a shark for anything of this order. It’s just a shame what’s on display is in the service of such tepid material (there’s a huge car chase at one point, and you’re left unmoved, not because it’s hard to follow but because there’s no engagement with its purpose or intent).
But. I did enjoy the Lex party scene, with everyone in their civvies up to their own investigative work (although as has been pointed out, if Superman can eavesdrop with his super-hearing why not use his x-ray vison too – probably because you run out of things to do with a character with no limits very quickly).
Of which, I’m torn on Luthor. Jessie Eisenberg is supremely punch-able, but then that’s the point. I half-liked what he was doing, but he needed more of the genius thing going on to counterbalance the m-m-m-mental rich kid (presumably his being m-m-m-mental is the excuse for why he doesn’t just expose the trio’s identities to the world?). We only really glimpse a proper display of smarts when he is birthing Doomsday. I seriously doubt Bryan Cranston in his stead would have been the night and day difference in making the picture work that much better.
The dawning of justice? Well, Gadot undoubtedly has star power, you can tell as much because her role mostly amounts to giving knowing looks and she still makes an impact. Diana Prince and her alter-ego get off lightly, I suspect, simply because they aren’t around for long enough to take a knock in terms of character or motivation. None of the others DoJ-ers make much of an impression, in their brief snippets, although Ezra Miller is inspired superhero casting (and yet, I had no idea he was future-Flash-in-red in Bruce’s dream). Joe Morton was evidently cast as a reference to his T2 scientist, while Neil deGrasse Tyson whores himself out again, but to diminishing returns in the wake of Zoolander 2.
Debates will continue to rage over just what DC is doing to its icons, even if that amounts to little more than making the grim-smart Batman grimmer still but also wholly dumber with it, and the stalwart-and-true Superman ever more introverted and less honest-and-open. But – and it’s not such a cop-out in terms of finding little to wail and gnash teeth over – was this ever going to be anything other than a display of dour, over-stuffed, incontinent posturing? Its consequences of audience interpretation feel more the result of dramatic ineptitude and tonal misjudgement than manifest intent (and I suspect that’s true even of Superman, no matter what his most ardent adherents have to say against Snyder’s dark-seedings). The fallout of which can already be seen in the backtracking on the DC Universe’s love affair with tortured seriousness and the post-Deadpool embrace of (likely short-lived) anything-goes-as-long-the-audience-think-it’s-something-different (which definitely won’t be the R-rated cut of BvS).
Mostly though, I was left feeling profoundly indifferent towards the movie. You can only do so much baiting if you haven’t hooked the audience in the first place. That’s – largely – why Marvel has been on such a winning streak. They’re past masters at getting the balance right. I’m not interested in the multiple Superman and Batman flashbacks, or the extended interlude of Darkseid dreams – which may or may not, more likely not, given Warner Bros already appear to be lightening up Suicide Squad, come to pass (that said, unless they’re planning on a Highlander-esque relationship between Superman and his Blossom, Lois Lane, decade-older-than-Cavill Amy Adams will surely be compelled by the Hollywood law of averages to exit before long). They end up as a string of narrative non-sequiturs.
In many respects, the highlight of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is Hans Zimmer and Junkie XL’s score, which consistently offers an distinctive diversion, so directly contrasting with the onscreen action, from the harpsichord accompanying Luthor’s aberrant activities to Wonder Woman’s rousing electric cello. To wit the latter (Wonder Woman, not the rousing electric cello), if nothing else, the clash of DC’s top two has ensured an appetite for her solo debut, so that’s one thing the movie gets kudos for. There won’t be many coming its way for anything else.