The Verdict: Batman v Superman

So, I’ve finally seen Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.

What did I think?

Honestly, I’m conflicted. It’s a jumble of a film that I swear wasn’t intended to come out quite the way it did. Does that mean it’s bad? Well, sort of. Is it great? Not on your life. It exists in the weird watchable-but-unremarkable territory that’s perhaps more telling than either extreme.

What makes this all the more peculiar is that so many people are clearly giving their all in this film. Some of the actors struggle manfully with underwhelming material. Others actually transcend it, and turn in great performances. The same can be said of almost every other aspect of the movie. For every great special effect, there’s a naff one. For every moment Hans Zimmer’s score threatens to grab your attention, there’s a wasteland filled with dull orchestration. For every compelling idea, there’s a concept so stupid it actually lowers the IQ of everyone in the screening, just through proximity.

You get the idea.

So, rather than attempt a blow-by-blow review of the film, I’ll settle for highlighting the best bits and the worst bits (at least as I saw them). A trinity of each, if you will. Somehow that number seems appropriate. Oh, and an honourable mention for each, of course. And yes, this contains spoilers.

The Trinity

The Worst Bits

Honourable Mention: Building a Franchise

I love world-building, done well. This isn’t one of those times. A lot of critics have suggested that the inclusion of the Justice League characters and the dream sequences is too confusing. I don’t agree. (Well, apart from the bit where… Cyborg? Flash? I honestly don’t know. It was all crackly and indistinct… Interrupts Batman’s Darkseid dream. That bit’s really odd.) The problem, I think, is that they don’t really add anything to the film – there’s a reason Marvel puts this stuff after the credits. Worse, they’re kinda dull. And when the Flash doesn’t look like the Flash (sure, he moves fast, but everyone moves quick in this film – Superman, Wonder Woman and Aquaman all travel quicker than the eye can follow) and Aquaman looks like Lobo, then it leaves me a bit cold. That said, the parademons looked ace, as did the fire pits. Shame the dream added nothing to the story.

3) It’s Not a Superman Movie

For something billed as a Batman v Superman flick, Big Blue’s not really in this one. Sure, he shows up from time to time, gets a big mopey and angsty, but the lion’s share of screen time goes to Batman, Lex and (oddly) Superman’s supporting cast. Perry White. What’s he for, exactly? When Superman does show up, he spends most of his time getting hammered on, either by Batman, by Doomsday, or by public opinion. It’s almost like that was the film’s pitch: Two hours and change of Superman getting brutalised.

Yes, yes, yes. I know. I’ve made my position quite clear in the past. If there’s a Batman v Superman contest, I’m in Supes’ corner, first, last and always. But I’m not objecting to the fact that Superman ultimately loses every single fight he’s in. It’s the fact that’s all we see of him.

Early on in the film, Bruce makes a reference to Superman saving cats from trees. It’s meant as a joke (or perhaps a mean-spirited swipe at a better film) but it sums up what’s missing. In BvS, Superman’s hardly seen. I’m not really a fan of montages, but this could have used one showing the Man of Steel in action. Hell, you can even tinge the actions with enough political naiveté to justify everyone that goes on in the film. Ending a stand-off between two navies by beaching one of them. Rescuing refugees from a tyrant’s armies. Hell, have him save a cat from a tree. It doesn’t matter. Show Superman doing Supermanlike things. Remember Iron Man? Remember how great it was to have that one scene of Tony Stark kicking arse in Gulmira, only to run foul of the US Air Force? We needed one of those.

2) Lex Luthor

Oh gods. Where to start? Maybe it’s the fact that Jesse Eisenberg feels like he’s wandered in off the set of a different film after taking copious amounts of cocaine? Maybe it’s that the character is so thinly written it’s insulting to the audience? Or is it simply that so little of what Lex says or does makes no sense?

Batman v Superman needed a fantastic antagonist to hold the film together. A devious, calculating mastermind who could manipulate the Dark Knight’s suspicion and the Man of Steel’s compassion. Instead, it got a cackling lunatic, who I swear has more in common with Cesar Romero’s Joker than any version of Lex Luthor there ever was or could have been. And I like Romero’s Joker. But this isn’t Batman ’66.

What makes it worse is that this problem was obvious the first time we saw Lex in a trailer. This guy is literally the fulcrum upon which the whole film turns, and he leaves the impression that he couldn’t even tie his own shoelaces, let alone run an international corporation, or arrange kidnappings, mercenaries etc. He’s like someone took Otis from the Christopher Reeve Superman and put one of Lex’s wigs on him. Again, I can see what the movie was aiming for. A genius broken by (what else?) an abusive father, and crippled by his desire for attention. But Lex is so, awfully, unrelentingly grating that you never feel sympathy for his goals or his actions.

It’s not all bad, though. Once you accept Lex isn’t going to make sense – or even necessarily be entertaining – it’s really easy to tune your brain out whenever he’s on screen. Treat him like a commercial break, and when he’s gone, just accept that the movie had a credible way of moving the story along. You’ll feel better that way.

1) Unearned Moments

That’s right. Eisenberg, as distracting as he was, didn’t quite make it to the top of my list. That accolade goes to the plethora of unearned moments in the movie. What do I mean by that? It’s when a story beat reaches a climax, while not having laid the groundwork to give you the proper payoff.

Batman’s change of heart during the penultimate fight scene, for example. I think this is supposed to be the moment when Bruce’s assumptions shatter, faced with the fact that he and Clark have more in common than he’d have believed (not their mother’s name, crucially – that would be dumb – but that Clark even has family). It falls flat, making the change of heart seem contrived, precisely because it’s not earned. Nothing Bruce knows about Clark has altered – he’s still a threat to the world, if even a 1% one. It’s particularly weird given that we spend so much of the film in Bruce’s footsteps – there was ample time to show everything he thought or assumed. By comparison, when Loki and Thor join forces in The Dark World (itself not a brilliantly plotted film), it’s sold to us by their interactions with Frigga. The ten or fifteen minutes that follow are probably the best bit of that movie, but they wouldn’t have been if the lead in to the alliance wasn’t set up much, much earlier.

The ‘Martha’ moment’s the biggie, because it occupies so vital a position in the narrative, but there are more. Returning to Lex, everything he does is founded on us simply accepting that he’s a mastermind. We never see any proof. At best, we see Lex trick really stupid people (or Kryptonian AI) into doing what he wants. It’s a massive problem for the antagonist to have – particularly when his whole shtick is that he’s not a god, but a mortal man railing against said gods. I’ve seen it suggested that the movie’s trying to recapture the magic of The Dark Knight‘s Joker, many of whose acts relied on plot magic to turn out the way they did. If that’s the case, then BvS missed the mark. Ignoring that Lex and Puddin’ are polar opposites in mindset and goals, for every moment of ‘the Joker knows because it’s in the script’, there’s another that either builds his character (pencil trick, one opening in my organisation) or shows how good he is manipulating perceptions (every chat he has with almost everyone).

As a few other examples: Lex’s knowledge of what’s coming up in later films? Totally unearned. ‘I’m a friend of your son’s’? Could have been a great moment (and I confess it made me grin like a loon), but it wasn’t earned and was therefore undersold. Even Wonder Woman (who we’ll get to later) doesn’t escape the trap. The film tells us she’s spent 100 years away from man’s world. Why does she come back? Sure, Doomsday’s a big problem, but she’s no way to know the scale from the belly of that passenger jet. We all knew she’d show up, of course, but what could have been awesome was merely ‘great’. Han Solo showing up at the end of Star Wars is still a fantastic moment, because even though you hope he will, everything he says insists that he won’t – it’s the dissonance between what the character does, and what he says that makes it work. Diana needed more time to insist she wasn’t getting involved.

(I wish Diana had been used as the wise counsel that brought Clark back into the fray after the bomb, rather than ghost/dream Pa Kent – whose philosophy seems exactly the opposite of what it was in Man of Steel, by the way. After all, Diana’s been set up in this film as having grown tired of the world’s burdens. Her chat with Clark would not only have spurred him into action, but maybe have dislodged her from her own purgatory. Wonder Woman brings together the Justice League by outgrowing her immortal’s ennui. Awesome.)

The Best Bits

Honourable Mention: Credit Where Credit’s Due

It was great to see Bill Finger actually getting a credit as Batman’s co-creator alongside the more famous Bob Kane. Finger created so much of what we consider to be iconic Batman that it’s only right he gets a mention. (My philosophy on credits has always been credit everyone, or no one at all – I’ve see waaaay to many political arguments over credits to feel otherwise.)

Still, it was a little disappointing to see Finger’s credit presented as a ‘with’ credit, rather than an ‘and’ – keeping Bob Kane in pre-eminence. Then again, we all know that writers contribute very little to collaborative works – unless they’re Stan Lee, in which case they contribute one hundred and eighty percent…

Joking aside, this was wonderful to see.

3) The Fall of Metropolis

However you feel about the wholesale destruction visited on Metropolis in Man of Steel, it’s impossible to deny the skill required to weave the opening moments of BvS into the dying minutes of its predecessor. The two are interleaved seamlessly. I really believed that Bruce Wayne was running around on the ground while Zod’s dubstep machine was wreaking havoc from the skies. It’s no small feat to achieve, even with today’s technology (i.e. it’s all on green screen, so it’s easy to ‘physically’ recreate).

Admittedly, this section’s not without its downsides, but the movie committed to it, and that really helps sell the situation. While the set up’s a bit thin – why is Bruce Wayne the only person who thinks evacuating the building is a good idea? – the scene builds nicely, and everything in it has a purpose. If the same care had been taken later in the movie…

2) Wonder Woman

Gal Gadot’s universally hailed as one of the best (if not ‘the’ best) bits of the movie, and I’m not going to break ranks. She sells the role, both as the espionage-esque foil to Bruce Wayne, and when she finally takes the stage as Wonder Woman (I’m looking forward to how they reference that name in the po-faced DC Movie Universe).

Looked at objectively, there’s really not a lot to Diana’s character as presented in the script. Moreover, some of the lines, in the wrong hands, could have sounded like they belonged in the tackier end of the James Bond franchise. Gadot rises above the material and turns in a nuanced performance ranging from femme fatale to born warrior. Seriously, the look she gives Doomsday after he knocks her halfway across Stryker’s Island. It’s not grim, not worried, not desperate – it’s a smile, a nod and ‘this is just getting interesting, and I wouldn’t have it any other way’ look. Not something a lot of women get to do in superhero films (or in movies generally). Much as I liked Scarlet Witch in Age of Ultron, she was still mopey more than kick-arse, and Black Widow’s never really got out from under the legacy of Buffy Summers.

The only thing that keeps Diana from claiming the top spot on this list is the fact that she’s in maybe fifteen minutes of BvS – it’s one thing to be the enigmatic presence that steals the show, and quite another to be the star of your own film. I’m also hesitant because I find the ‘wise immortal’ iteration of Wonder Woman less enjoyable than younger, brasher one present in Azzarello’s comics run and the classic Bruce Timm Justice League cartoon. Nonetheless, based on BvS, I’m genuinely looking forward to the solo Wonder Woman movie.

1) Affleck as Batman

Remember the wailing and gnashing of teeth when Ben Affleck was cast as Batman? It seemed everyone hated the idea. Fingers were pointed at the Daredevil movie. Is that what you want, the internet asked? Because that’s what’ll happen.

It’s all gone a bit quiet now, hasn’t it?

Affleck’s the first actor since Michael Keaton to excel as both Batman and Bruce Wayne. Bale was a good Wayne, but a rigid and bland Dark Knight. Clooney was… Well, Clooney was in Batman and Robin, and I can’t even remember what Val Kilmer brought to the role, if I’m honest. A terrible indictment of the man who was once Madmartigan.

I love the physical presence Affleck brings to the role. He doesn’t need the batsuit to look like a threat. His Bruce Wayne flicks from charm to icy, black seriousness in a heartbeat, and it’s convincing as hell.

Now, I was never in the ‘Dear God, you’ve cast who?’ camp. To my mind, the Daredevil movie gets a bad rep, and even if I’m wrong, Affleck wasn’t in its top three flaws (Jennifer Garner is, however, at least two of them). Even so, I wasn’t expecting anything special from Affleck in BvS. Just something average in an average movie. So I was still wrong. I can imagine a tuxedo’d Bruce Wayne to beating an assassin to a pulp, then go back to charming the ladies. I’d never have believed Affleck capable of pulling that off convincingly. In fact, I can’t think of more than two or three actors who could. Goodness knows, Affleck’s had his fair share of stinkers in the past, but now I’m actually interested to see where he goes from here.

As for Bruce Wayne’s character, I love the little touches. The obvious concern for his employees. The fact that, for once, we’re not seeing a Batman second-guessing his own motivations and creed. It’s not, essentially, just another origin film. This is an established – and jaded – Dark Knight who somehow managed to hold onto his humanity in the daylight as well as beat and brand criminals by night. Jeremy Irons’ Alfred plays nicely into the set up, portraying a butler who actually gets his hands dirty as mechanic, engineer and drone pilot.

In Conclusion

So there we go, the best and the worst of Batman versus Superman: Dawn of Justice as I see it. If you’ve not already watched the film, hopefully I’ve given you some idea of what you can expect. Already seen it? Let me know what you thought in the comments below.

Personally, I’m glad I saw it, but it’s a long way from being a classic for the ages. I’m looking forward to the extended version of the film. I’m hoping a slightly roomier cut will fix plenty of the problems and polish the parts that already sing, but only time will tell.

 

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