Okay, before we get down to business, let’s set the record straight. Full disclosure: I’ve never been keen on this iteration is Superman. I didn’t care for “Man Of Steel” and have only grown to dislike it more over the years. On the other hand, I never really had any serious doubts regarding Ben Affleck as Bruce Wayne/ Batman so there we go.
Finally, I should probably also confess a significant financial relationship with the Disney Corporation. But, as it exclusively involves money leaving my wallet to fill their coffers, I trust that won’t compromise the perceived integrity of this review.
Following the events of “Man Of Steel”, Superman has become a polarising, controversial figure. Increasingly concerned at the threat he poses, Bruce Wayne contemplates the need to take pre-emptive action. Meanwhile, Lex Luthor has also begun to plot the downfall of Superman and it involves pitting the last son of Krypton against Batman.
The film opens with a recap of the end of “Man Of Steel”, only from Bruce Wayne’s point of view. This alternative perspective actually does a decent job of showing that much of the devastation wasn’t actually Superman’s fault and works as an effective introduction to our new Bruce Wayne. But just as you’re beginning to feel optimistic, starting to believe that WB/ DC are actually going to pull this off, the film drops its first clanger. We’re shown the Wayne Financial building, mere blocks away from the world engine and, as Bruce Wayne races through the crowded streets, he calls the office manager to tell him to evacuate the building. Unfortunately it just seem ludicrous that the order to evacuate needed to wait for Wayne himself to call and suggest it given the danger is so, so close. The resultant loss of life seems more unnecessary than tragic. It’s symptomatic of a script and an approach which desperately wants to be seen as grave and serious at virtually all costs. There are no motivations except tragic, dark ones. There’s a saying that it’s always darkest before the dawn, but Zack Snyder and David Goyer are really pushing it here. There’s a despondent nihilism infused into every scene that robs everything of even the faintest hint of joy or optimism. While it may be a comfortable fit for the character of Batman, it still doesn’t suit Superman. But that’s okay, because this isn’t a Superman movie.
When “Batman v Superman: Dawn Of Justice” was announced, I felt very sorry for Henry Cavill’s Superman, being crowded out of his own sequel as Warner Bros panicked at the lacklustre box office returns of Man Of Steel and brought in The Dark Knight to shore things up. My sympathy has dwindled however in the face of how good Affleck is as Batman but mainly due to how unlikeable Cavill seems determined to make his Superman. In his first outing, I thought he was actually one of the better things about “Man Of Steel”, hampered by a mistaken tone and a script which seemed to undermine his heroism at every turn but the actor himself has changed my mind. Cavill’s clearly a willing accomplice to the cynical deconstruction of Superman. After all, by his own admission he’s in it [acting] for the money so he has no vested interest in standing up for the character against studio and director. From the moment he appears in this film, he’s even further removed from the character I’ve come to know. He’s profoundly detached from humanity with one specific selfish exception: Lois Lane. In the space of 18 months, Supes has apparently become almost Pavlovian in his response to Lane being in danger, although he’s noticeably less quick to respond (if he responds at all) when people immediately around her are in mortal peril. When the film bothers to show Superman doing actual heroic things, he does them in a sedentary, disinterested fashion – the scene from the trailer of him hovering above flood victims’ houses is a great example. Stop posing and get saving! There’s a dark egotism to his presence which would feel more appropriate were this to be the “Dawn of Injustice”.
Batman, on the other hand, is served much better. More naturally at home in the tone of the piece anyway, Affleck really commits to this world-weary, embittered version of the Dark Knight. Supported by a sterling turn as Alfred from Jeremy Irons, Batman takes centre stage as thanks to being slightly closer to likeable than Superman on a very generous grading curve. We’re shown a Batman who has abandoned most of his lifelong ‘codes’ and become deeply pessimistic when it comes to the achievability of justice.
Thus Snyder brings us a heavyweight bout of psychopath versus sociopath to usher in the DC Expanded Universe. When it comes to creating cinematic versions of comic book panels, there’s no finer director to turn to. He has visual flair to spare; his ability to combine slavish reproduction and slow motion to bring a comic book frame to life is second to none and even when bringing his own imagery to the screen it’s never less than striking. Colourful, no, but definitely striking (although the Superman suit is actually a little brighter this time round).
Snyder brings the definitive version of the Wayne’s murder to the screen by mashing together Burton’s and Nolan’s versions, finally eradicating any remaining ambiguity around how a young Bruce Wayne became Batman. It may seem redundant but it pays off later when it provides the source for Batman and Superman’s ‘safe word’ in a way that you just know the writers thought was clever. But there’s nothing clever in the writing of this movie. It’s structure is messy and incoherent, stumbling from one CGI set piece to another, occasionally pausing for dull expositionary dialogue scenes (which mainly seem to exist to either give the supporting cast of “Man Of Steel” some reason to be in the movie or crowbar in the underdeveloped and ultimately discarded political subplot of Senator Elastigirl questioning Superman’s actions). At the heart of the muddled plot are the machinations of Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg). I actually enjoyed his high energy millennial take on Superman’s arch nemesis but no matter how you judge his performance, the plan is needlessly convoluted and, in the end, unnecessary because he resorts to simply blackmailing one of the world’s finest to kill the other. When Batman is on the screen, the film works but when he’s not it flounders noticeably and it’s due in large part to Affleck’s performance. In fact, he’s so good as Batman that you almost miss just how insulting this film is to the ‘World’s Greatest Detective’ (Lois Lane pursues an investigation that feels like it should be firmly in Batman’s wheelhouse). I’m not a die-hard Batman fan, but even I find it unlikely that Batman would be taken in so thoroughly by even Lex Luthor to the point where he’s little more than a puppet for Luthor’s scheme. I kept expecting Batman to be one step ahead but no – between brains and brawn, Snyder goes for the beatings every time.
Speaking of the violence and brutal destruction, despite the bullish defiance and defence of the finale of “Man Of Steel” in interviews since, there are some particularly clumsy attempts to atone for that film’s faux pas. Instead of the mindless destruction and huge civilian casualties, this time around characters – both main and background – make frequent references to the destruction (still largely mindless) taking place in abandoned or unpopulated areas (my personal favourite is a newsreader helpfully pointing out that it’s a good job the rampaging Doomsday emerged after the end of the working day so the business district is pretty much empty).
There’s a real dichotomy at work in the film’s attitude towards its predecessor which is particularly curious as it’s pretty much a virtual remake of the first film, just this time with Superman in the ‘villain’ role. Summing up the film’s problems is the moment when – after an interminable wait of about nearly two hours – we are finally set up for the literal title fight. There is a moment where the heroes stand opposite each other that lasts about four or five seconds (an eternity in dialogue terms) where Superman could easily explain to Batman that Lex is forcing him to fight but he doesn’t. Why? Because the movie’s title made a promise, and it’s going to deliver on it whether it makes narrative sense or not.
Now oddly, despite all these flaws – and the other ones I haven’t mentioned – I actually enjoyed this movie more than I thought I would, and I prefer it to “Man Of Steel”. I think it’s a bad movie overall, but it has its good points and even manages a few moments of awesome. Generally, anything with Affleck/ Batman is pretty good, and despite her laughably small role, Gal Gadot makes a great impression as Wonder Woman. It ends on something of a cliff-hanger, and it’s one which gives hope that even the character of Superman can be redeemed in this burgeoning DC Expanded Universe.
There’s a line near the end of the movie where Bruce Wayne says to Diana Prince, ‘We can do better. We will. We have to.’ and I want to believe he’s actually breaking the fourth wall and talking to the fans. It may fail as a cohesive, satisfying movie in its own right, but where it does succeed – despite occasionally hilariously obvious and heavy-handed methods – is making me excited for the future movies. Solo Batfleck film? Shut up and take my money! Wonder Woman movie? Damn straight! Justice League? Yes! Cyborg…eh, come on – there are limits.
Overlong, overly reliant on visual style and – bizarrely – dream sequences, it’s still a great debut for a new Batman and a tantalising glimpse at our new Wonder Woman which boasts a brilliant score from Hans Zimmer and Junkie XL but it’s ham-fistedly plotted and saddled with an unpleasant tone, a misanthropic world view and a deeply unlikeable Superman, robbing it of its power as effectively as kryptonite.