Director : Zack Snyder
Year Of Release : 2016
Principal Cast : Ben Affleck, Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Jesse Eisenberg, Jeremy Irons, Gal Gadot, Diane Lane, Laurence Fishburne, Holly Hunter, Tao Okamoto, Ray Fisher, Ezra Miller, Jason Momoa, Harry Lennix, Christina Wren, Michael Shannon, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Lauren Cohan, Scoot McNairy, Callan Mulvey, Dan Amboyer, Michael Cassidy, Carla Gugino.
Approx Running Time : 151 Minutes
Synopsis: Following the events after Man of Steel, Gotham City-based vigilante Batman travels to Metropolis to preemptively combat Superman, fearing what would happen if the latter is kept unchecked, while another threat endangers humankind.
THIS REVIEW CONTAINS MAJOR SPOILERS SPECIFIC TO THE FILM FOR THE PURPOSE OF DISCUSSION. DO NOT READ ON IF YOU WISH TO WATCH BATMAN V SUPERMAN COLD.
It’s fair to say Zack Snyder’s 2013 action blockbuster Man Of Steel, which introduced Superman to what was the first in a supposed DC Cinematic Extended Universe (henceforth the DCEU) to rival Marvel’s multi-billion dollar enterprise, was enormously divisive. Sombre in tone, emotionally distant throughout, and fuelled by a suspiciously nihilistic perspective on a character supposedly the pinnacle of “hope”, Man Of Steel met critical ambivalence and, if we’re all honest, fanboy derision, if not outright hatred. In 2013, Snyder and DC announced the sequel (of sorts), entitled Batman V Superman, explained as not a true Superman sequel but more a launching pad for Warner Bros’ Justice League franchise, hoping to cash in on the linked Marvel Cinematic Universe via their own stable of characters – Superman, Batman, and the rest of the League in Wonder Woman, Cyborg (who?), The Flash, and Aquaman. With a three year gestation period following Snyder’s announcement, a raft of vitriol following Ben Affleck’s casting as Batman, multiple trailers, plenty of discussion and of course the perennial Marvel V DC bashing by fanboys, we’re finally able to witness what DC hopes will become as successful a franchise of films as Marvel’s has been since Iron Man in 2008.
If nothing else, Batman V Superman is a film dealing in any number of subtexts, including (but not limited to) death (the film opens with a funeral, and ends with one), the American discourse on power and control (where it relates to a being with God-like powers being outside that control), the fragile concept of heroism versus vigilantism, and of course, whether or not Superman is the hero Earth wants or needs right now. All narrow-focused through Zack Snyder’s bravura camerawork and sense of visual kineticism, Batman V Superman is both a triumph of the spectacular, and a failure of intellectual virtuosity. In parts, the film rises above much of what Marvel’s Avengers universe has managed to muster thus far, and in other moments, it lumbers through a deficiency of emotional weight masquerading as important pontificating. Actually, impotent is probably closer to the truth. Far from the miasma many mainstream critics have derided it as (and I’ll explain why I think they think that in a bit), Batman V Superman is a film encumbered with the weight of a studio’s hedge-betting, all-or-nothing gamble on Snyder’s vision for their IP, trying desperately to be its own film and yet, perhaps unfortunately, saddled with mandated “world building” beyond its immediate purview, which mitigates a lot of the rather decent character work by both Ben Affleck as Batman, and a subdued Henry Cavill as Superman.
Following a relatively (for this two-and-a-half-hour film anyway) brief montage sequence retelling Batman’s origin as a costumed vigilante, and a recap of the events of Man of Steel which rendered large swathes of Metropolis a busted ruin, Batman V Superman gets down to the nitty-gritty of setting up the titular combative encounter, and takes its sweet time doing so. Clark Kent (Cavill) works as a reporter for the Daily Planet, alongside Lois Lane (Amy Adams, lost amid a sea of lens flares and better written characters) and it’s when Clark’s focus swings onto the Batman vigilante causing chaos among the hoodlums of Gotham City (which, as it turns out, is just across “the bay” from Metropolis, making it strange neither of them have run across the other before now). After meeting at a party held by Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg), who is trying to devise a countermeasure to Superman’s unstoppable-ness via a large chunk of Kyrptonite, Clark and Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) find themselves at odds (although exactly why is more to do with Batman’s issues than Superman’s, if we’re honest) and, in the film’s breathless moment of clarity, showdown in the grim and grit of Gotham’s portside industrial region.
Batman V Superman has the unfortunate burden and luxury of being a major tentpole blockbuster (with everything the label implies) and a hugely anticipated film event that would find pleasing everyone an impossibility. With so many demands on expectation with both characters, plot, setting up DC’s upcoming Justice League films, and the weight of both casual fans and rabid fanboys to appease, it’s little wonder the film has met with so much hatred and divisiveness at a critical and casual level. The reason I say this is because the film was made (I believe) as a love-letter to the rabid fanboys. Casual fans (two of whom saw this with me at the cinema) will (did) most likely find much of the film confusing, a cobbled mess of jarring ideas and left-field plotting, not to mention the final twenty minutes of “wait, did they just kill Superman?” shock of where Snyder and writers Chris Terrio and David Goyer take these beloved characters. As a DC fanboy of nearly twenty five years, my inner geek was doing giddy little cartwheels as the famous “Death Of Superman” played out on the screen, following a hell of a knock-down drag-out battle with the Luthor-cloned Doomsday, a revived Zod/human hybrid (Michael Shannon’s likeness appears in flashback and in one of the better “corpse” mannequins I’ve seen in a film to-date), but I couldn’t help but feel much of the non-fan audience might be left behind at this point.
Batman V Superman pretends to tackle resonant issues espoused by generations of comic-book writers since the medium was born, but it does so in a way that feels both jarring and half-assed, as if the writers were trying to infuse some sense of justification for the on-screen antics but kept being overruled by studio dictating an action sequence every fifteen minutes. Complex superhero motifs, familiar to regular readers, have minimal impact beyond lip-service scripting, not to mention hazardously inept characterisations (poor Holly Hunter, as a US senator with a bent for bringing Superman under control, has the most potential, but it’s squandered badly beneath Snyder’s attempts to sexy up the action of the film) and an overload of extraneous subplots. The film does dwell specifically on the events of Man of Steel’s combustive finale, of the people maimed and killed in those events (Scoot McNairy has a brief and underused role as one of Man of Steel’s victims, who loses his legs as a direct result of Zod’s rampage), although it’s more tangential a subplot than anything with real weight behind it.
It’s as if Snyder isn’t able to (or is just unwilling, some might argue) to tackle the big ideas of the film with the same tenacity he crafts the staggeringly mounted set-pieces of action. And the action is indeed sublime, a clobbering of exhaustive and at times incredibly powerful beats that deliver the full spectacle of Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman fighting off the surprisingly cool menace of Doomsday. Fans of the comics will automatically know that Doomsday was the creature that killed Superman in the literature, (in the early 90’s), but casual fans will probably find the concept a tad underwhelming because the character is largely unknown outside said comic book lore. That said, seeing Doomsday depicted on the big screen is something I’ve been dreaming about since he smashed his way out of that underground prison back at the end of Man Of Steel #17.
So too is watching Batman finally evolve off the comic book page and onto the screen in a way that will keep fans happy. The stiff-necked Tim Burton version, the rubbery sex-suited Clooney version, and the clandestine and appropriately utilitarian Christopher Nolan version are all pushed to one side for what I hope will become the screen definition of the Dark Knight detective: Affleck is perfect in the role, not only as Batman but also as Bruce Wayne, conveying the tortured soul longing for his thirst for vengeance to be quenched. Regardless of your thoughts on the film as a whole, there’s no denying Affleck’s casting was a stroke of genius – hater will still hate, but their number will be blessedly smaller after this. Affleck’s performance as Bruce is probably the stronger of the dichotomy: as Batman, he’s hulking, bruising, menacing, fearsome and fearless, while as the public persona he distances himself from the recalcitrant playboy image cultivated by both comics and screen dramatisations to this point to become a hefty, solidly three-dimensional character beyond the cape and cowl.
Affleck’s on-screen sparring partner is Henry Cavill, who struggles to become a full-flight Superman we crave, yet again inexplicably smothered in tortured emotions and (directorially mandated) angst. If anything, Cavill has the devil’s time being any better than he was in Man of Steel, although here he’s encumbered with a greater cast ensemble and a director numb to complexity and nuance. Yes, Superman spends his time wallowing in pity, grief, self-involved pseudo-narcissism and an over-abundance of melancholy. Sad Superman is back, folks. Cavill is an actor I think suits the role perfectly, but why they insist on making him so hopeless, rather than hopeful, I cannot fathom. Amy Adams’ Lois Lane is used as a pawn in this film more than as an actual character, while bit parts to Diane Lane, reprising her role as Ma Kent, Laurence Fishburne as Perry White, and a surprise cameo by Kevin Costner, as the long dead Pa Kent, merely prolong lengthy moments of character introspection that do little to further the plot other than create superficial “reasons” to care. Harry Lennix’ Swanwick looks uncomfortably like the actor’s simply fulfilling a contractual obligation, going from a character I thought offered a lot of promise in Man of Steel to simply another bureaucratic hurdle to overcome, more’s the pity. It would be deleterious of me not to at least mention the legitimate arrival of Wonder Woman to the big cinema stage as well: Gal Gadot never struck me as an actress of significant range, and her dialogue here is rather limited and cryptic more than it is revelatory, but as a symbol of proto-feminism and her warrior princess heritage Gadot is dead-on casting.
The film’s real albatross is Jesse Eisenberg. My initial misgivings about his casting back in the day are borne out in one of the most schizophrenic, off-key, out-of-kilter performances by an actor in a modern blockbuster (and I’m including LaBeouf in those Transformer movies too); he almost single-handedly ruins the film. Central to this issue is what Snyder (and by extension the writers) think Lex Luthor is as a character. Luthor is not a crazy nutjob – which is certainly how he comes off here, albeit a wealthy one – but a calculating, arrogant, devious puppet-master. The Luthor of the comics (still the best version of the character, thus far) which hit the home run for me was the billionaire industrialist who would never, NEVER allow himself to be outright caught by Superman, particularly within the film’s overt sense of theatricality. Luthor in Batman V Superman is unbalanced, a smatter-talking, laughably kooky, altogether Zuckerbergian coagulation of creative desperation to contrast against the titanic title fighters. He actively engaged in the action to a degree, something the smart, über-intelligent Luthor in the comics would never do. The Luthor character here is a hideous mess of iniquitous motivation and even worse execution, with Eisenberg’s slippery-dip delivery and tic-laden portrayal bring out unintended laughter by most in the audience I saw this with. Frankly, it’s awful.
Some will find flaw with Batman’s actions in this film: given the hero’s vaunted placing of the sanctity of life at the expense of almost everything else, Affleck’s Batman doesn’t stop to pretend he’s a real “good guy”, he often flat-out maims and kills people. There are those who will recoil in horror from this element of the film, but I suggest that the act of killing in the line of his work is what makes the darker Batman more human than Superman’s God-like powers. Batman is an inherently dark creature of fear and violence (according to the film’s own internal reasoning) and has been in action for twenty-odd years or more, so in a way it makes sense that Bruce might have the “no f@cks given” switch flicked into the off position, dealing with criminals, thugs and henchmen in the only way he can – once they’re down, they stay down. It might be the antithesis of the comic-book version, but as a darker DCEU expands it’s perhaps fitting that it is Batman who transitions far over into that side of vigilantism than Superman’s snapping-of-Zod in Man Of Steel. I’m not saying it’s right, I’m merely suggesting it’s more logical.
In spite of its many character, story and plot flaws (and there’s a few: an early one involving an employee of Bruce Wayne’s who stands staring at the World Engine destroying Metropolis like a barnacle before – too late – deciding to evacuate the building… as if you’d not have run like hell the minute buildings started collapsing!), there’s no denying Batman V Superman delivers spectacle in spades. The first half tends to side with developing the story and characters, such as they are, but the final half amps up the action and, if I can borrow an apt Michael Bay-ism, “brings the rain”. Whereas Marvel’s heroes (so far) have been grounded in a kind of gravitational vortex of Earthbound reality, Superman’s tete-a-tete with Batman, as well as the inevitable showdown with Doomsday and the carnage that ensues, seem boundless by comparison. From the bowels of Gotham to the upper reaches of our gravity and atmosphere, Batman V Superman is unafraid to go all-out on delivering rousing carnage and destruction. From Superman’s throwdown with Doomsday to Batman’s warehouse takedown of a cohort of Luthor’s henchmen (Aussie actor Callum Mulvey in a thankless role as the leader of this band of thugs) to a thunderous pursuit through an industrial suburb with Batman chasing a chunk of Kryptonite, Snyder raises the pulse with dynamic framing and adequate shot selection. Seemingly at odds with the current modern action-film thinking, there’s a distinct lack of frenzied hand-held camera-work or jittery, too-close framing on display here, and my eyes thank Snyder for his restraint in this.
From a production standpoint, the film throws its entire budget up on the screen. Superman’s abilities, heat vision and strength, to Batman’s bat-plane, to Doomsday and the sheer scale of battle and Metropolis/Gotham antics, Batman V Superman is a seamless blend of practical and artifice. Snyder’s direction notwithstanding, both the cinematography (Man of Steel’s Amir Mokri is dropped in favour of Larry Fong) and the score (Hans Zimmer returns, coupled by current composer-de-jour Junkie XL) are superb; Superman’s costume finally looks colourful, unlike Man of Steel’s almost metallic monochrome visuals, while Batman is draped in dusky greys and subtle shadows. Much of the film occurs at night or in near total darkness, often making it hard to make out exactly what’s going on, but given the film’s focus sides more towards Batman than it does Superman, the aesthetic seems appropriate. Zimmer’s Man of Steel theme motif recurs, often hounded away by his scintillating new Lex Luthor theme, and always overshadowed by typically bombastic “generic action crescendos” accompanying the on-screen slobberknocker.
Fairly stated, Batman V Superman isn’t perfect – hell, it’ll be dissected twenty ways from Sunday before we get to the Justice League films – but it’s a significant step up from Man of Steel (thanks largely to Affleck’s Batman being such an awesome character); considering the demands placed on both Snyder, the writers, and the film overall with what it had to accomplish, as flawed as it is it’s still a solid, dependably action-oriented action film. I’ve been wavering about DC’s decision to go all GrimDark on their DCEU, but Batman V Superman sold me on the idea that such a viewpoint could work itself into decent storytelling. That’s not saying this film is that, but it sets the groundwork for (hopefully) intelligent and stimulating discussion around heroism, hero-worship and other comic minutia for years to come.
Although sliding into “made for fans” territory during its slam-dunk second half, which I believe is why many critics left the film befuddled and confused, Batman V Superman is not the trainwreck you’ve been led to believe it is. It’s this unfamiliarity with DC’s deep mythology I suspect has bred much of the film’s online negativity – people fear what they don’t understand, I think I once heard in a famous film somewhere, and given much of what transpires here is ripped right from the pages of multiple DC comic issues (Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns is an oft-quoted reference point, as is DC’s legendary Death Of Superman storyline to a lesser degree), I’m inclined to think the movie’s resonance struck deeper with a long time reader like myself than it will with a random Joe off the street. Hence, my not altogether dislike of the film.
I also suspect the film’s downbeat ending – Clark lies dead in a coffin, buried in the Smallville cemetery no less, with millions weeping over Superman’s memorial – and sharp, gotcha final cut may also be to blame for people wandering out of this film feeling aggrieved by the loss (angry, mayhap?): it’s an ending I felt was incredibly ballsy. Which other major franchise film finished with one of the title characters dead in a box? Of course he’ll come back, that’s not the point. But much like the storyline the idea is borrowed from, where DC actually suspended publishing Superman comics for about three months, it’s the question of how he’ll come back that stayed with me. Will we see “black suit” Superman? Will Eradicator Superman arrive? Did anyone glimpse John Henry Irons in this movie at all? Bruce Wayne’s intimation that something larger is coming (we get it, Darkseid will eventually arrive in force – among the many dream sequences in the film we see his Omega logo scorched into the earth, as well as a throng of Parademons throttling the life out of Batman at one point) but it’s so cryptic for casual viewers I doubt many will appreciate the import of the line.
Often heroic, occasionally idiotic, but always interesting for what it attempts to do, I’m inclined to be a voice of light among the nay-sayers and say that it’s a perfectly acceptable, if often remarkably sanitised, superhero blockbuster. Within this monster is an absolute masterpiece, shackled as it is to a demanding, baying hoopla of expectation and franchise construction, often unable to break free from its corporate confines enough to solidify as its own movie. Amid the melancholy introspection is a thunderclap of titanic exertion: with its mixed bag of writing and performances, the film does stumble a lot more than it ought considering the breadth of talent on display here, but Affleck’s presence mitigates a lot of what it wrong with the film at a conceptual level. I’m particularly keen to see the “harder” R-rated version to be delivered on home media, to see what was cut from where, and if it makes a difference to the overall feeling about this movie.
I can’t defend it from its gaping plot holes and inescapable logic chasms, but here’s the rub: I enjoyed the hell out of watching this movie. Depending on your appreciation for DC lore, comic iconography and your expectation from a film designed almost by committee to deliver a laundry list of fragmented conceits, you’ll either love or hate this thing. Caveats in place, I’m rating it highly for striving to achieve as much as it could. Does it succeed? Not at all, not everything. But man, what a ride.