Batman Versus Superman – Dawn Of Justice (2016)
Ah, the indulgent pleasures of a middle-aged man writing 2,000 words on a bloody Batman / Superman movie. So we all know the drill, as we move hesitantly into the millennium Marvel / Disney has successfully transformed a near bankrupt pantheon of media entities into a juggernaut cinema franchise, resorting to its Z list creations to continually feed a ravenous fan-base across formats and platforms. Meanwhile over at Warner Brothers their 1989 acquisition of Detective Comics and the subsequent plethora of Batman and Superman projects have faded into history, as the new executive business plan is to realise an entire cinematic universe, in order to best exploit those merchandise and licensing deals that can be programmed across a variety of delivery models including new media and streaming services. The battle line are drawn, Marvel are clearly winning, and DC/Warner Brothers are floundering in establishing a new iteration of their iconic intellectual property since Nolan’s Batman series was concluded a couple of years ago. Turning to the ‘comic-book guy’ Zack Snyder for 2013’s Man Of Steel seemed a floundering start, with its mere $700 million global haul and a something of a mixed critical reaction. Nevertheless his services have been retained for Batman Versus Superman which has nothing less than the fate of multi-billion dollar franchise on its bulging biceps, and the first bat-symbol of this years blockbuster season. As a strict spoiler avoider I couldn’t ignore the general consensus emerging from the preview screenings of the past few days, while pull-quotes like ‘this is a $250 million tombstone of the superhero genre’ struck an apprehensive chord, but like any good soldier I’ll take my punches, just as long as the experience was in the aggregate worthy of he pain. Despite my antipathy toward Snyder and a general disinterest in Superman as a character I surprised myself by unexpectedly enjoying Man Of Steel but I had set my frosty expectations fairly low for this given the trailers and the rumours emanating from what sounds like an exceptionally chaotic production, and whilst I don’t think it is quite as bad as some its detractors seem to be claiming in the turbulent media maelstrom it’s certainly not very good. How and why? Let me count the ways....
For a film whose junket-jacked stars are constantly asserting the complexity of the plot when you boil it down the narrative is literally child’s play. 18 months after the catastrophic Kryptonite rebels attack on Metropolis the world has nervously accepted the presence of an omnipotent interloper in our midst, but the tide of support and public opinion is beginning to curdle as questions of authority and oversight start to be queried. As everyone predicted Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg in quite simply his worst performance to date) wants to co-opt the alien technology for his own nefarious ends, and initiates a plot to discredit Superman (a vacant Henry Cavill) as an immigrant alien, operating with impunity as a potential threat to our shared civilisation. An opening credit montage starts the film rather promisingly, reducing Batman’s (Ben Affleck, or Batfleck for short) entire origin story into five minutes which most films in this gladiatorial arena spend their entire run-time explaining, before shuddering into a jagged and disjointed melange of characters and conflict which is more gelignite than gel. For the first two-thirds I wasn’t loathing this despite the faint incompetence – certain scenes are completely unnecessary, Batflecks hatred of Superman is never appropriately articulated and the specifics of Luthors plot seem overly complex and confusing – but then a few spirited moments of super heroic semiotics raise the attention and amusement, scattered spikes of enjoyment among Snyder’s severe and sombre CGI sandpit. Some of the political dimensions and the moral cost of the righteous battling evil in our name (branding criminals so they get shived in the jailhouse yard?) are raised then resolutely disregarded as this is a film which is really only interested in as much as pixel pulverisation as possible. Mirrored to some of the more controversial breaches of character etiquette that Snyder violated in Man of Steel our new hero also employs tactics and techniques that don’t map to the ideological canon, chiefly concerning firearms and the modus operandi of thou shall not kill. I think that things move on, that these icons that arose eighty years ago need to move and flow with the currents of popular imagination and representation, in order to keep them fresh and revenant, and the notion of indiscriminate slaughter by those valorised as our protectors finds some contemporary purchase. Immigration is an obvious touchstone given Superman inherent origin, as is the 1% influence on our wider lives and security of an increasingly fragile social contract, yet within those frames some of the politics in this film are somewhat distasteful and its no surprise that Snyder is looking to Ayn Rand’s juvenile ideology for his next project.
With the exception of Diana Prince all the women are damsels in distress to be saved or scream which I really thought we were trying to move past, not to mention one rather odd shot and staged scene with a wasted Amy Adams as Lois Lane in bath-tub which seems more than a little crude and unnecessary. Henry Cavell who inhabited the haunted cloak and symbol rather well in Man Of Steel warps into a bland vessel in Batman Versus Superman, normally I’m quite efficient at separating fantasy from reality (even when costumed actors stride purposely through the sacred halls of government with gloomy gravitas and no-one sniggers) but every single time he popped up on screen unfortunately I just thought ‘twat‘ for his misjudged and loathsome comments yielded from what sounds like a catastrophic promotional programme. On the plus side Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman was engaging and intriguing despite the paucity of her screen-time, the first screen appearance of this character’s entire seventy-five pedigree – I hope that film passes the Bechtel test. As for Affleck, well, I suppose he was ‘alright’ as Bruce Wayne, his interactions with Alfred and general demeanour struck from an entirely different origins movie which hasn’t been made, but I wasn’t fond of the whole aesthetic of this Batman across the spectrum of costume designs, technology and gadgets, a much more physcial mountain of a character while I’ve always preferred the mysterious ghostlike entity using the environment and fear-inducing tactics to his advantage – one of the combat sequences was pretty cool though. Most hideous of all however is Jesse Eisenbergs Lex Luthor which is played as some ridiculous pantomime dame, easily the worst screen villain since Eddie Redmayne’s embarrassment in last years Jupiter Ascending. The finest criminal mind in the universe is reduced to some petulant OCD sufferer who is also afflicted with severe Daddy issues, and every second he’s on screen is simply agonising. There’s lots of trademark Snyder pose shots poised against obvious green screen mattes which aren’t remotely plausible, although to be fair the film does look like a film in terms of the lavish production budget, which points north of a gargantuan $400 million dollars when you factor in P&A yields. Oh, and the soundtrack doesn’t achieve the same seraphim styling that we wanted from the usually great combination of Junkie XL and the man they call Zimmer.
It’s not just the clumsy assembly of materials – for all its title championship bout title I was never entirely sure why these petulant orphans were having a pop at each other – and then there is the dirge of the dialogue. There isn’t a single solitary laugh (OK, maybe giving Scoot McNairy a scooter was funny) or kinda ‘cool’ hero line or quip for the entire 17 hours of this film, you’d expect a little more polish and finesse from one of the more accomplished superhero scribes David S. Goyer (Co-writer with the Nolan brothers on the worlds most privileged vigilante, the agreeable Blade trilogy) incoherently supported by Affleck’s preferred screenwriter Chris Terri of Argo Oscar winning fame. Like Man Of Steel there is a lot of sudden instances, of suddenly explosive events pushing the narrative forward, resulting in a dazed and shell-shocked audience staggering through the blizzards of collapsing infrastructure and dust coated carnage. Yes, as a self-confessed nerd or geek or whatever I’ll admit that there is some intrinsic pleasure in just seeing these characters on-screen (probably best exemplified in a deeply telegraphed but nevertheless awesome arrival of Wonder Woman), interacting, yelling and causing pandemonium and collateral damage that would make ISIS kryptonite green with envy. I know these are archetypes, they are icons of popular culture but there is also no sense of development or change for either character which is basic filmmaking 101, and the screenwriting hinge on which these antagonists decide to push aside their differences is idiotic in the extreme.
Snyder seems to equate murkiness and darkness with depth which is resolutely not the case. The film hints ominously at big bruising questions of power without responsibility, of outsiders acting with impunity of the state, of the deadly real-world consequences of life, liberty and property in a fiction where destructive deities dance through the boundaries of our physical world as if were crafted from paper-mache. In his directors arsenal he repeatedly deploys this technique of framing character development and even motivations in dream sequences which is lazy, he quite simply doesn’t seem to have the intellect or capacity to adopt a position or conclusion which leaves his films wallowing in some Nietzschean nirvana. His stock baroque religious framing is verging on parody (one is also instantly reminded of Deadpool’s ‘hero arriving action shot’ riffing) with all the finesse of a first year art student rifling through a coffee table imprint of pre-Raphaelite prints. I’d be lying however if one little insight into were the series might be going with a few unexpected glimpses of some other beloved members of the DC pantheon didn’t nuzzle my nerd bone, but when your strongest scene is a pretty lady watching some jpegs on her laptop you movie might be floundering. I’m not sure if the attendance of Nolan on the executive producer cadre is an influence but there seems to be a defiant use of grain in the film stock, digitally engineered or not (I assume the film has been shot electronically and can’t be bothered to research) which does drape a visual motif over the series, its pure aesthetics but I quite like the brooding and tortured tempo of the franchise in comparison to Marvel’s in-house cinematography. The final showdown did stir the muscles and started setting the film back on firmer blockbuster ground with the requisite excitement and pulverizing antics, y’know all the ‘cool superhero melee stuff’, but integrating this legendarium into a 21st century mythos remains problematic, the night and day dichotomy of the titular characters far beyond the film-makers capability.
For all the epic set-up the Wagernian conflict of the two titans arrives without appropriate aplomb, Snyder has not just Xeroxed Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns yet somehow misplaced the gravitas or decades of frenzied schoolyard debate (Who would win?), prompting the question of why don’t you make your own film and conjure your own imagery you bloody hack? He has also framed some of the material and mechanics of the admired Miracleman series, one of the only imprints I am genuinely overjoyed to see will finally get its Gaiman and Buckingham generated conclusion – I’ve been waiting twenty fucking years for that. When it comes to superhero shenanigans the highlight of the cinema visit was an initial viewing of the next X-Men picture which looks much more exciting than the previous promotional efforts, which tells you which graphic novel stable is still winning this multiplex melee. Naturally in the final stretch we are given a set-up for the next big bad which promises the debut of am exciting seditious DC legend (SPOILERS), but it’s only through some reading around this that an earlier signal in the film alludes to this future which again doesn’t say much for the films ability to communicate effectively and absorbedly – I think I’m in line for next years Wonder Woman picture though. Upon reflection I’m thinking this review reads more critical than the film probably deserves, I’m still an adherent to the grim/dark model of this genre as an opposition to the pop-art mechanism of Marvel’s machinations, and I think there is space for both despite the overall sense of exhaustion that the entire genre engenders. Sure, I was a little bored and twitchy at some points but I didn’t loathe Batman Versus Superman, it passed a few hours on a wet and windy Easter weekend, a three star shrug of a movie which has its nerdtastic moments while the mere mortals stumbled through the dust drenched debris. Hopefully a new director can muster a new creative team to take the reins for the next instalment (this looks pretty funny as well) and inject some fresh thoughts and designs into the format, as judging by this entry Warners are at least trying to distinguish themselves from Disney’s Marvellous box office mastery. As the first instalment of 2016’s superhero sequencing Dawn Of Justice is low density kryptonite that won’t be hard to beat, so roll on Suicide Squad and Dr. Strange and Civil War and X-Men Apocalypse and on and on and on…..