Directed by Zack Snyder
Starring Ben Affleck, Henry Cavill, Gal Gadot, Jesse Eisenberg, Amy Adams, Jeremy Irons, Laurence Fishburne, Scoot McNairy
(I thought I’d give Superman some spotlight time in the review pic, because Christ knows he doesn’t get much in the movie.)
After Man Of Steel I was fairly convinced that director Zack Snyder didn’t understand Superman. After Batman Vs Superman, I now believe he just flat out dislikes the character. There can really be no other explanation for the way the big guy is treated here, in the film that is supposed to catalyse DC/Warner’s big screen super hero universe. He’s ostensibly the co-lead; in actuality, he’s a walking McGuffin who never gets enough screen time, agency or characterisation to qualify as an actual character. It’s baffling, bordering on insulting.
Snyder loves him some Batman, though, which is why Ben Affleck’s Bruce Wayne is the film’s protagonist. Having witnessed first hand the destruction wrought by Superman (Henry Cavill) fighting general Zod (Michael Shannon) at the climax of Man Of Steel, Batman – or “The Bat Of Gotham” as the film keeps insisting on calling him – doesn’t like the idea of such a powerful figure running around unchecked and begins looking into Superman and ways to check him.
He’s not the only one; tech billionaire Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg, who plays the arch villain as a hyper-smart Ritalin kid) also thinks that Superman is a potential threat, and is petitioning senator Finch (Holly Hunter) for permission to research the possibility of weaponising kryptonite found in the wreckage of the crashed ship from the previous movie. As for the senator herself, she’s chairing a committee investigating Superman’s actions, the US government being pretty down on an individual acting like a sovereign state – especially one who ignores borders and treaties in pursuit of his own moral ends.
Poor Superman! But he does so much good!
Well… no, actually. At least, not on screen and not in Snyder’s vision. We see a statue of Superman in Metropolis and we hear people talk about things he’s done, but he is overwhelmingly treated by the film as a figure of fear and mistrust, an unpredictable and potentially dangerous ubermensch who is rightly reviled. There’s a sense that there might have been a grace period in the interregnum between Man Of Steel and this film where Superman was actually the beloved heroic figure we’re familiar with (there’s an 18 month gap between the two stories) but it has well and truly passed by the time Batman Vs Superman begins. Here, Superman mostly acts out of self-interest, protecting Lois Lane (Amy Adams) and his mother (Diane Lane). At around the one hour mark, Snyder* grudgingly drops in a quick montage of Supes rescuing strangers, but even that is weirdly ominous – the key scene here is set during Mexico’s Day Of The Dead, and Superman is surrounded by people dressed as skeletons while a building burns in the background.
The story keeps us removed from Superman’s internal life, as well, bar one weird scene where he hallucinates a conversation with his dead father (Costner, not Crowe), and the Clarke Kent part of his persona may as well not exist. as played by Cavill, Superman is brooding, petulant and distant; at one point he muses on the possibility of “breaking” Luthor before taking him in, at another he flat out says that “No one can stay good in this world.”
Fucking Superman says that.
It is clear that Snyder doesn’t believe in heroes. Anti-heroes, though, he’s all over, and it is fair to say that Batfleck is a mighty fine big screen incarnation of Batman. He’s essentially the Batman from Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns without the ravages of age or other disadvantages to slow him down. The film is a bit murky when it comes to his status in the world – he is treated like an urban legend even more so than usual, but the Bat signal is in place – but he’s been doing his vigilante thing for years and is very good at it. The chemistry between Affleck and Jeremy Irons’ Alfred is wonderful – this is sassy smart Alfred, not doddering old Alfred, and the depth and length of their relationship is well communicated in the gaps between the quips and shop talk.
It’s obvious that Snyder really, really wanted to be making The Dark Knight Returns, by the way; lines, images and whole scenes are lifted right from the comic, including the power armour that Batman wears to fight Superman. Also worth noting: this Batman kills. Given that Man Of Steel ended with Superman snapping a guy;s neck, that shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. Still, it muddies the debate considerably – Superman arguably caused deaths through negligence, while Batman chooses who to kill (and it’s kind of a lot of people, really). This is never directly addressed, though – the film is too confused to have anything approaching a philosophical agenda besides “altruism is dumb.”
It’s structurally a mess, too, front-loaded with hurried exposition and place-setting, and back-ended with about an hour of sturm und drang and bog-standard CGI battles. Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman (never called that on screen; this movie hates super heroes) was clearly dropped in late in the writing process; her character could easily be excised without changing the outcome one iota, her every action easily being either omitted or handled by someone else. With that in mind, it’s impressive what a strong screen presence she is, and it’s going to be interesting to see how the recently-wrapped Wonder Woman movie turns out.
Ultimately, the film leaves us in a very weird place going forward, and although I’m sure DC/Warner can spin an onscreen universe out of this, I don’t see how it’s going to jibe, thematically or narratively, with the actual comics it is ostensibly based on. It’s like we’ve jumped to the end of the story, skipping all the times when our heroes get to be heroes and right to the point where we learn they are fallible. It’s a shame Marvel already snagged the title Ragnarok, because it would have been perfect here, a film which doesn’t feel like the beginning of the story, but the end.
But here’s the thing: there are moments, discrete moments, in Batman Vs Superman that really do sing. Single frames isolated from the narrative. Snyder’s operatic visual style suits superheroics even if his deep mistrust of the very notion of heroism does not. There are lifts from famous comics, individual panels brought to life, that will have old fans smiling through sheer Pavlovian response. There’s a scene – seen in the trailers – where Batman takes on a warehouse full of goons that is easily the best Batman hand-to-hand fight scene ever filmed. If these individual moments press your particular buttons hard enough, you could be in for a good time. However, as a whole, complete piece of entertainment, the film does not work. DC/Warners seem to be blindly committed to the idea of making serious superhero movies; they’d be better off focusing on making good ones.
*Look, I’m sure screenwriters Chris Terrio and David Goyer deserve some stick too, but there was a time when marketing material referred to Snyder as a “visionary director”. Live by the auteur theory, die by the auteur theory, I say.