God vs Man, Day vs Night
In the world of superhero comics (especially when it comes to Marvel and DC, the “big two” publishers) you get monthly instalments of stories featuring your favourite characters. On occasion, other characters of that universe will turn up when the story calls for it and often you’ll get crossovers which take place in two different titles. This is commonplace and can really add to the story, bringing a new moral perspective. Then there are huge publisher-wide crossovers called events. These are stories that are so monumental and affecting that they pertain to every character across the entire active line. But while the central strut of the event takes place, there are certain loose threads that could be followed if one so desired. The most notable is the pre-event one-shot; a story which acts as a disconnected prologue which doesn’t really do much to bolster the story and is really there to act as a teaser for things to come. In a collected omnibus, it’s a pretty weak segment relegated to an expanded section of the book for those who want to dig around in the backstory and the continuity lore. No actual story, all set up, no pay off. That’s what Batman v Superman: Dawn Of Justice is.
***Bear in mind that from here on everything is SPOILER HEAVY. So unless you want the story and reveals dissected and examined, stop reading now.***
Set a year and a half after the events of Man Of Steel, Superman [Cavill] continues to actively do what he feels is his duty by helping others. In spite of this, people are divided as to whether he is a force for good or a potential threat accountable to none. At the same time we are introduced to Bruce Wayne [Affleck], a billionaire orphan who has been operating as the masked vigilante Batman in Gotham City for several decades. Wayne witnessed Superman’s battle with Zod in Metropolis and believes that this alien being cannot be trusted and if there is any doubt whatsoever about his intentions, he must be eliminated. Then there’s a metric fuck-tonne of other things ranging from the inclusion of Superman’s eventual arch nemesis Lex Luthor [Eisenberg], various Senate hearings about Superman’s accountability, the survivors of Zod’s attack, Kryptonite and the growing presence of metahumans with super abilities.
One thing this film is graced with is exceptionally strong components. The respective ingredients and elements that make up this film are great. I like the casting, I like Chris Terrio as a screenwriter (Goyer less so), the controversial platform left by Man Of Steel is a great starting point for an in-depth, complicated dramatic action film, Hans Zimmer has produced a very strong Superman theme and Tom Holkenborg’s work on things like 300: Rise Of An Empire, Deadpool and Mad Max: Fury Road have been brilliant, not to mention a whopping budget, full studio support and a diverse history of seventy plus years of comic plots.. and yet there is nothing especially memorable or standout about the entire film; not when compared to something like any of the other superhero movies around at the minute and not even when compared to Man Of Steel. And I’m not one of these people who “hates on DC” or has any us-and-them agenda. I love both Marvel and DC comic characters/stories and rather than rooting for one over the other, I want both to succeed. I want to gorge myself on fun, visually pleasing, clever and touching filmmaking based on these really strong properties. It’s just thoroughly disappointing that we can have successful films about c-list characters from Marvel’s stable but we can’t get DC’s main trinity off the ground without a rocky takeoff.
First thing we have to talk about is the head, the man at the top. Back when the Dark Knight trilogy was a glowing success of cinema, everyone agreed that Christopher Nolan’s gritty, grounded take on superheroes would be inappropriate and ultimately the wrong foundation for a DC shared universe. In truth, so was the man that came along next. Zack Snyder, for all his flaws, failures and successes has in no way proved himself to be capable of helming something of this magnitude. And I’m saying that as a Man Of Steel defender, I really wanted to like this film, I want it to be a success. But as it stands, from a clear and concise narrative perspective, Man Of Steel was a superior release and I neither expected nor wanted that from this film.
But if Snyder’s the wrong choice, I have to then turn my vitriol to the people who gave him that power. Much like 20th Century Fox and their terrible Fantastic Four reboot, one has to wonder whether the heads at Warner Bros are arrogant or just stupid. In a desperate dash for franchise success, they’ve thrown so much into a small space, then handed it to a man who didn’t really understand how best to present it to an audience and frankly flubbed it. Marvel’s success comes largely from a combination of luck, patience, franchise vision and a rotating door of untapped talent. And a lot of that really falls on that second word: patience. Back in 2008 when Iron Man was released, the idea of an Avengers movie was a distant one that had to be earned. The keystone needed to be placed so that once these characters shared the screen for the first time there would be a true sense of spectacle and historical accomplishment. But DC hasn’t the time for that, if they hadn’t completely fucked up Green Lantern, they may be at a wonderful stage right now but they took a dark Superman world and shoehorned all these characters in the world he resides in. The cement is weak and everything that is built upon it will no doubt suffer because of these starting blocks; say what you will about The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (I’m one of the very few people who actually enjoyed it), I didn’t mind the world building, the on-going questions, the constantly growing sea of villains. If it had run its course, who knows? But the problems that everyone had with that film, I can see here. Nothing is earned and we’re all simply expected to swallow the gigantic leaps taken by the narrative developments.
Blame aside, what’s Batman v Superman’s biggest setback? Well at first you’d think it’s the utterly atrocious editing from an absolutely over-stuffed script but even that can be simplified to the fact that this movie has far too many plots and none of them are developed to full fruition. Firstly you have a Man Of Steel sequel which deals with Superman’s place in this world and the fallout for how he handled the Battle Of Metropolis. You have his budding relationship with Lois, Clark’s role as a neutered journalist and the growing megalomania of industrial tycoon Lex Luthor. Second we have a Batman solo feature, reintroducing us to the billionaire vigilante Bruce Wayne, complete with his origins, tough stance on crime, his flare as a detective, his connection with Alfred and twenty plus years of established crime fighting history and all the horror and loss that came with it. The third layer is a confrontational rivalry pitting Batman against Superman over the way justice should be enacted by those in a position to take the law into their own hands. And finally we have the Justice League setup film which lays the various breadcrumbs to what will become a convergence of superheroes, fighting for the common good.
Now, that’s a lot to juggle for any writing/directing team but when you’ve got all of that interspersed with countless dream sequences and flash-forwards/backs WITHOUT GROUNDING ANYTHING it’s just a chaotic mess. Diana Prince appears then disappears when the script calls for her, only for a full suited-up Wonder Woman reveal in the finale, with no real explanation for those who have no idea who or what a Wonder Woman is. I mean, in all honesty, I know my comic book lore but WHICH Wonder Woman are we going with here? The Amazonian sculpted from clay? Demigoddess daughter of Zeus? And one of the biggest “what the absolute fuck” moments, having only just introduced us to a new Batman and you’re already throwing a time-travelling Flash with premonitions of Darkseid and an army of Parademons? It’s all over the place! Other elements are less easy to define; there’s some extremely heavy handed direction, pandering when it comes to plot points, reiterating certain things over-and-over: Aquaman reveal, the senator’s Granny’s Peach Tea moment, the Wonder Woman picture. So many sections are awarded extra screen time to hammer home the significance which weren’t overly necessary while others were glossed over with immense flippancy and nonchalance.
Speaking of which, we need to quickly talk about those Justice League elements. There are individuals who have been waiting for so long to see any sight of these characters on-screen that they’ll love it regardless but they felt like really dumb, tacked on cameos. All the things in the trailer, the little nods and cues, like the Darkseid omega symbol and the Robin costume, are completely flat. Nothing is there but the visual presence of these things, in the same way that easter eggs are handled in other comic films. They do nothing to further the story and serve only to alienate and confuse mainstream audiences.
But what about the practical aspects? Is the film at least nice to look at? Not really. I’ve never been a fan of Snyder’s dark, high contrast, syntheticy aesthetic and the CGI is average which means it will age terribly. Specifically, Doomsday reminded me of the Hulk/Abomination Harlem attack in 2008’s The Incredible Hulk and the action sequences themselves while pleasing in places, were hard to follow. To top it all off, the strongest thing going for this release wasn’t nearly as good as it could have been. Hans Zimmer and Tom Holkenborg’s score was acceptable but didn’t do a great deal other than serve to highlight when a Justice League moment was about to kick off. One thing I’ve complained about in the Marvel universe is the lack of musical themes tying together in a central cohesive dynamic. One of Zimmer’s first tasks was to pen individual character themes which could be used across the board in each release. I loved this idea, I can’t speak highly enough for it but the problem still remains that we have no affinity or connection with these score elements. The drums rumble up out of nowhere and you’re taken out of the story for a second, then a wailing guitar chimes over everything and you’re looking around like, “is this supposed to mean something? Is this Wonder Woman’s theme music?” Again, it’s not earned so rather than producing that desired Pavlovian anticipatory effect, we just shrug and mutter, “if you say so.” I have no real qualms with the themes themselves but without having the initial pointer to indicate which instrument represents which character, I can’t give you that requisite response.
Back to the story again, one has to wonder where the fuck it came from. It’s apparent that they were desperate to avoid the complaints generated in the aftermath of Man Of Steel by throwing around expository lines about evacuated areas of the city, deserted islands and workers going home for the day, etc but it doesn’t fix the problems that Man Of Steel created; or put another way, the things detractors of Man Of Steel didn’t like. “Superman doesn’t save enough people? Fine, here’s a one minute montage” that’s not enough, that doesn’t define this character. It’s a classic example of saying Superman is good because he uses his powers to save a kid from a burning building. No, it’s the less obvious things he does that illustrate his nature, personality and temperant, the way in which he treats every interaction, every problem. It’s certainly hinted at but never fully explored. And don’t get me started on the waste of time that is Clark Kent, or any alter ego for that matter; the idea of secret identity doesn’t really mean much in this universe. Everyone seems to know everyone but rather than highlighting how intelligent these individuals must be to have figured it out or seen past the facade, it only serves as yet another reminder of how rushed everything is.
Man Of Steel’s influence to one side, let’s look at the source material. There are, arguably, three key comic book runs that this film draws on for inspiration. The first is Frank Miller’s dark and gritty The Dark Knight Returns. This is set decades into the future in a world where people have become cynical to superheroes and Superman is seen as a corporate stooge working for the President. The only real element of The Dark Knight Returns that’s present here is an older, more grizzled Batman and the fight between Bats and Supes, specifically the use of weaponised Kryptonite (minus the assistance of Oliver Queen) and a massive batsuit. Then we have the inclusion of Doomsday and the whole early 90’s Death Of Superman storyline that went along with it, which only served as a way to get the public back on Superman’s side by the end of the film and forcefully put all the alien hate to bed. And finally we’ve got something that actually emanated from a video game before it was adapted into an elseworlds comic. For those unfamiliar with Injustice: Gods Among Us, in it the Joker tricks Superman into killing Lois Lane and their unborn child whilst simultaneously wiping out all of Metropolis. Superman goes off the rails mental and Batman forms a coalition of heroes to try and take down this tyrannical superpowered menace. But again, this is a vision or a dream or a message or whatever the fuck it was – it’s all a bit ambiguous – and while these are hugely successful landmark stories (mostly) they don’t exactly bleed together perfectly. So you take the established Man Of Steel continuity, mash in a few comic threads here and there but you’re still left with stupid questions and sections that don’t make sense. One, which is completely inconsequential but important to me, is the fucking location of Gotham and Metropolis. Unless I completely missed something, they appear to be across the river from each other!? I always thought of these places as New York and Chicago, like a 16 hour train ride away, not on the other side of the bay! Are they twin cities or something?
So before I wind down this massive review, let’s look at the positive elements. There are some really really interesting questions posed by the script: must there be a superman? can Superman have a relationship and remain impartial? Neil deGrasse Tyson’s statements about Copernicus and our place in the universe being redefined and minimalised, would this have an effect on the mentality of our best and brightest? does a government have the right to stop a higher functioning being from acting how it pleases and does this curtailing endanger human life? Regrettably, for every decent question there is neither an answer, nor adequate time or evidence to produce any sort of pleasing resolve.
As is a staple of all superhero films, we seem to forget that actors by the very definition of their craft, take on different roles and personas. Just because Gary Oldman is cast in a specific part doesn’t mean it will or won’t work until you’ve seen the finished film. Having said that, I appreciate that certain personalities shine though more than others and it can be difficult to separate someone like Samuel L Jackson from.. well.. anyone Samuel L Jackson has played. In light of this statement, the casting is good. I still think Cavill is a good Superman but the script never affords him the opportunity to be a good or interesting Clark Kent. In fact, all things considered, he’s given so little to actually do. At one point he (I think) hangs up his cape to walk the Earth and find himself. If I sound uncertain it’s because this development is given so little time to flourish that it takes place over a handful of scenes and it’s impossible to tell exactly how long he was/wasn’t gone for; Lois even says “you came back” to which I quietly responded, “he was gone?”. As for his eponymous colleague, as I suspected, Ben Affleck is a glorious Batman; more than that, for a lot of people he will be considered one of the best iterations of Batman. I will admit though, there will be a lot of people who won’t be able to get past the fact that this hardcore furious Batman murders the ever-living crap out of a lot of people. Even if you exclude the future nightmare vision thing, he still storms the room wherein Martha Kent is being held hostage and obliterates everyone present with a ferocity and lack of care about the use of firearms whatsoever. Staying with Batman for a minute, Jeremy Irons was a great Alfred and also managed to bring something slightly different and unique to a very worn-in role. While it’s still far too early to tell how this character will be employed I think Gal Gadot did a decent job with Wonder Woman. Her undercover alias had an air of mystery and sophistication to her, while also expressing a subtle impatience with the advances and trivial matters of everyone around her. And when she finally appears in full Wonder Woman garb, her abilities were never questioned, she seemed to almost revel in the battle, as if it was a challenge rather than an insurmountable task. We’ll see how that turns out in her own feature. Which brings us to Lex Luthor. This Lex is extremely eccentric and would have played off nicely if we had the time to see the character develop. Although, if I’m honest, all one has to do is look at Vincent D’Onofrio’s take on Wilson Fisk in Netflix’s stellar Marvel series, Daredevil, to see how to bring that kind of calculating, driven genius to life. In truth, I would have preferred to see Luthor portrayed in the same way Eisenberg played his alternate, James Simon, in The Double. But the real grating didn’t come from the portrayal, more his motivation. Sure, there are piecemeal touches like his overbearing and possibly abusive father and a few quirks and ticks but why does he do anything in this film? What exactly is his end goal? One could argue he’s a puppet for Darkseid but a.) that was never established outside one line right at the end of the film (ding ding ding he’s coming, etc) and b.) that’s a MASSIVE disservice to Lex.
I think we can all agree, following Man Of Steel, this should have been a Superman sequel with a touch of Batman. But along the way, Warner Bros’ excitement reached fever pitch and suddenly all these other elements were forced in. More Batman! More Justice League! Put out a statement saying we’re putting the film back a year to “allow the creators time to achieve their vision.” It was too much, too soon. In that way, I’m reminded of the madness of Werner Herzog’s Aguirre: Wrath Of God. Warner Bros watched their fellow studios traversing an insanely rapid and rocky river in a sturdy boat that took a lot of time, trial and error to construct and reaping wondrous success with it. Assuming they could easily do the same, they set out with Man Of Steel – after a failed attempt to float a nasty piece of driftwood in the form of Green Lantern. Their little raft barely held up but now it seems their flotilla is separating, falling apart and will probably sink, drowning everyone aboard. But it’s too late, they’ve come too far. It’s now either success or death. And either the upcoming individual releases of the DC Extended Universe, which is really only Suicide Squad and Wonder Woman, will have to provide enough buoyancy to keep whatever the fuck Snyder is working on in his two part Justice League film afloat, or we will witness a listing slab, littered with bodies and one mad-eyed individual stood at the centre, surrounded by screaming monkeys muttering, “Who else is with me?”
To close this review, I’m reminded that legendary comic writer, Grant Morrison once pointed out that comics are just stories. The old ones still exist and things tend to revert back anyway, so why not sample something different? The Christopher Reeve films still exist, Nolan’s Batman is readily available and after the backlash Star Wars: The Force Awakens received for not trying something new enough, one could argue you can’t win. And I would largely agree with that, this iteration may not be for you. But in light of the tirade from critics, outcry from fans, confusion from the mainstream and overwhelming disappointment amongst the smattering of glowing feedback, my questions is thus: who is this film for? And what will be wrought from this painful gestation?
25th March 2016
The Scene To Look Out For:
Without a doubt, the opening Battle Of Metropolis scene, from Bruce Wayne’s perspective, was great. The music soared wonderfully, we got an idea of who this man is, saw some great acting from Affleck and were reminded of how the events at the end of Man Of Steel would have been interpreted from ground level. Which would have been perfect if it wasn’t for Wayne calling one of his employees (whom he has some sort of connection with, it’s never explored) and telling him to get out of the building, resurrecting something from Man Of Steel which was monumentally stupid – the concept that in a city under attack, people will just stand by the window and wait to be told to get the fuck out of there!
If anything, this movie is worth the watch for Ben Affleck’s portrayal of Batman. Riveting stuff, can’t wait to see more of his character in a better director’s hands. A director like.. oh, I don’t know.. Ben Affleck? But I need to talk about the absolute worst element of the cast, carried over from Man Of Steel. You people need to stop trying to make Amy Adam’s Lois Lane a thing. By putting her at the centre of everything, the story is doomed to escalate around the weakest element. I hated Amy Adams in Man Of Steel and I hate her even more in this film. She should act as an inspiration for Superman, a beacon of humanity’s resilience and defiance, its thirst for knowledge and truth as well as our capacity to love and change. But she’s none of that! She’s a vapid, whiney, mopey, useless character who somehow knows exactly where to go to further the script: realising that someone knows her connection to Supes; taking a helicopter to the centre of the action in Gotham without really knowing where it’s taking place; locating the Kryptonite spear without knowing if it’ll affect Doomsday. And don’t get me started on her diving on a pinned Superman to explain to Batman that Martha is his (Superman’s) mother’s name. Fuck off! “My mom died. Her name was Martha. I couldn’t save that Martha.. but I can save this one.” Just.. Jesus. All Superman needed to say (before the fighting started, I might add) was “they’re going to kill my mother!” Did it have to matter that they share the same name? AND DID LOIS NEED TO DIVE IN AND SAY IT!? And stop calling him Clark, lady! I know no one gives a shit about secret identities but can you see how easy it could be for someone to kidnap both you and his mother if someone keeps bleating his goddamned alias!?
“Crimewave in Gotham. Other breaking news, water wet”
In A Few Words:
“Batman v Superman: Dawn Of Justice is far from a terrible movie, if anything it’s acceptable. The problem is the rich source material provided the opportunity for something mesmerising and apparently, despite all the money and talent involved, this is the best they could do”