There is a sequence near the beginning of this film which perfectly illustrates the frustration I felt coming out of the cinema some two and a half hours later: after the obligatory (read: redundant) recap showing us Batman’s origin (…just in case we’d forgotten about it since Batman Begins in 2005, or Batman in 1988, or any of the other myriad retellings across the past 75 years or so), we cut to the battle of Metropolis which occupied the last hour or so of this film’s nominal predecessor, Man of Steel. As Superman and fellow Kryptonian General Zod wage war, director Zack Snyder reminds us of the terrifying collateral damage caused by their conflict. Into this comes grey-at-the-temples Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck), roaring through the panic stricken streets in an attempt to reach the Wayne Enterprises offices.
Wayne reaches his business associate, Jack, on the phone and tells him to get the Wayne employees out of the building. Cut to Jack in the office, surrounded by panicking staff, who are all looking out of the windows of the high rise building at the apocalypse around them, the city being leveled by two unseeing gods. Having received the word from his boss, Jack then tells everyone to start evacuating. Honestly, had I been working in that Wayne office I would have been moving my sorry ass down the emergency stairs the second after the first neighbouring building was destroyed, never mind waiting for my millionaire boss to jet in from the Bahamas to give me permission to leave as the world collapses around me! A simple piece of editing would have given this scene so much more power, instead of leaving you rolling your eyes.
In the middle of a stunningly shot and edited action sequence, this one, blindingly idiotic moment pulled me completely out of the story. With so much of the film being simultaneously breathtaking and moronic, it’s seeing just how close this was to being something far better that makes it such a frustrating exercise.
There are many problems with Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, and one of the biggest issues is hinted at in that title. As well as being the first live action screen pairing of the titular heroes, it also serves as an introduction for Wonder Woman (of who, more later) as well as The Flash, Cyborg and Aquaman, who will all go on to form the Justice League in the 2017 movie. The decision to add these characters to the story line seems to have been decided very late in the creative process, as the glimpses we get of most of them do nothing but add bulge to an already top heavy plot. In fact, one particular appearance (I’ll avoid details for the sake of spoilers), is so completely nonsensical that I had to explain to the friends who joined me for the screening what the hell it was about and who they’d just seen. This overcrowded film would have benefited greatly by excising this fairly ineffectual subplot completely.
It’s also a particularly dour film, full of bombast. Don’t expect much lightness or shade across the bloated running time. Snyder has set the controls for S.E.R.I.O.U.S. and amps up the levels to way past eleven. Why so serious, Zack?
In terms of construction it’s a hot mess, with little in the way of ebb and flow, instead simply cutting from one gloomy, portentous scene to the next, seemingly blissfully unaware of the filmmaking skills so essential to transporting an audience through the journey that makes a story. This happens… BWAAAAM… that happens… BWOOOOOOM… and then something else happens… BDAAAAAAAAM. You’ll be sorely disappointed if you’re hoping for nuance or subtlety.
It’s actually difficult to discuss Superman here without getting into heavy spoilers, but let’s talk a little about the Last Son of Krypton.
I rewatched Man of Steel recently, both in readiness for this sequel and in the hope that time would allow me to view it with a little more kindness, and there is indeed much to love about the film (the cast – who work their hardest to add moments of grace to their characters – design, score) but all of this is crushingly undermined by the fact that Snyder and writer David Goyer just don’t understand Superman. They get him wrong on a very fundamental level in every way that counts.
We’ve since had years of Snyder promising this would all make sense when we saw what came next, that he was working his way towards making the Superman loved by generations. Of course, as we’ve gotten closer to this film we’ve also had to listen to Snyder’s nails down a blackboard comments about Superman killing being canon and other such gems of squealing aural feedback which really should have proved that everything else he’d said was simply lip service.
But I’m an essentially positive guy and I like to believe the best in folk and so I remained cautiously hopeful we might get a redemptive second act for Superman. Sadly, we don’t quite get that, instead Snyder and Goyer (joined on script duties by Chris Terrio) pour on the Superman as Messiah references, which are heavy handed and mostly serve to remove the character even further from what should be his essential humanity.
Snyder’s faults as a filmmaker (“Well gee, let’s just do *this* because, well, it looks *cool*!!”) would be more forgivable if he understood this simple fact about Superman; that he should be the hero above heroes, and the measure by which we hold ourselves. And if Snyder thinks that sounds corny, well that just highlights his utter lack of understanding for why Superman has endured for almost eighty years, but more worryingly, as the creative entrusted to shape the DC cinematic universe, it does not bode well for the shape and tone these films will take.
If you’re still with me, you may be wondering why I found BvS to be so frustrating, given that there’s so much weighted against it. The frustration comes because there is also much to enjoy.
Chief among the positive points is the latest iteration of Bruce Wayne/Batman, and Affleck gives us an absolutely top notch Dark Knight. As Batman he is lithe, swift and brutal, as Bruce Wayne he is cynical and devilish. Affleck is clearly having a blast and that feeling is infectious. His chemistry with Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman (…wait for it, I’m coming to her soon) is a genuine highlight and I’m eagerly awaiting Affleck’s forthcoming solo outing as the caped crusader.
Gadot’s Diana Prince/Wonder Woman is a joy. When the Amazonian warrior finally enters the fray she is the epitome of awesome. It’s just a shame that the Warner Bros marketing department have spoiled every moment she has in the trailers. Equally shameful is the fact that you could remove her entirely from the film and not make a jot of difference to the plot. But man, she is awesome in action. This will also leave you excited about her forthcoming solo adventure.
Seeing the holy trinity of DC characters side by side is undoubtedly a beautiful thing. It’s a shame this was also spoiled way in advance.
Hans Zimmer and Junkie XL provide a fabulous score, and Wonder Woman’s theme in particular is almost absurdly exciting.
The supporting cast (Amy Adams, Laurence Fishburne, Diane Lane and Jeremy Irons) do their best with the little they’re given and raise up the film a notch or two more than it deserves. Jesse Eisenberg as Lex Luthor, however, is astonishingly atrocious, spouting unintelligible dialogue that aches for fractured profundity but instead reaches only Friday night coked up jabbering. It’s less a performance than a never ending series of tics and twitches designed to irritate like needles being poked into your genitals.
To sum up, like Man of Steel, there is much to admire but this is a film too obviously dictated by the still evolving goals of DC and Warner Bros for their cinematic universe. Their decision to avoid the patient and careful cross fertilization of the Marvel franchises which lead to The Avengers by simply shoehorning everything into this one film is ultimately self-sabotaging and this shattered, incoherent production reeks of the indecisiveness and lack of control anyone whose followed its journey to the screen feared it would be.
It really should have been Batman v Superman and left the Dawn of Justice to come later.
Image © Warner Bros.