BATMAN V SUPERMAN
Long Dark Knight of the soul
Our verdict on the movie that’s landed with a huge thud on an unsuspecting planet.
released OUT NOW! 12A | 151 minutes
Director Zack Snyder
Cast Henry Cavill, Ben Affleck, Gal Gadot, Jesse Eisenberg, Diane Lane
At one point during “the greatest gladiator match in the history of the world” Batman rips a rusted sink from a grimy toilet wall and uses it to smash Superman upside the head. By the end of this bludgeoning prize fight of a movie your own cranium may sympathise.
Make no mistake. Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice wants to clobber you into submission, crush you beneath the weight of its messianic imagery, its suffocating self- importance and scrotum- clutching macho dialogue (“You’re not brave,” taunts the Dark Knight, bar- brawl style. “Men are brave.”) After two- and- a- half hours of rainlashed, operatically- scored pomposity even its unwieldy title feels like a blow to the skull. The R- rated, three- hour director’s cut promised for Blu- ray may cause actual internal bleeding.
As a modern blockbuster it’s a slog, a leaden, joyless experience, so intent on staking out an alternative to Marvel’s breezy charm that it buries the very idea of fun. As a key building block in the creation of a big- screen DC Universe it’s an almighty misstep. As a Superman film, even one that shares billing with the last son of Krypton’s edgier Gotham City counterpart, it’s precariously close to a betrayal of its source material.
It begins promisingly enough. Zack Snyder restages Batman’s origin story with fetishistic devotion to the visual lore of the comic strip and follows this murderous orgy of pearls and bullets with Bruce Wayne crashing the last reel of 2013’ s Man Of Steel, just in time to witness the devastation unleashed by Superman’s battle with Zod.
It’s a telling choice in a sequel compelled to apologise for its predecessor. Man Of Steel famously drew criticism for its seeming disregard for the civilians caught in the apocalyptic crossfire of its climax. During Dawn Of Justice’s own carnage- packed finale Wonder Woman pointedly asks, “Why did you bring the fight to the city?” only for Batman to state, “The port is abandoned.” It feels like the filmmakers holding up a card with the words “See! We listened!” scrawled on it.
Bruce Wayne’s retconned presence in the Metropolis disaster zone gives us the best scene in the movie. A gripping, propulsive opening, it’s a sequence powered by 9/ 11 imagery – people stumble, shell- shocked, through an ash cloud – and places us firmly at ground level, gazing up at the affairs of gods. More importantly, it establishes Bruce Wayne as a
A slog – a leaden, joyless experience
people’s champion, racing selflessly into peril to save a little girl. This guy, the film assures us, cares about the collateral damage.
Affleck makes a compelling Bruce Wayne, for all the Twitterstorm that greeted his casting. He’s intense, haunted, brutalised by tragedy but able to put on a roguish playboy front. And he’s an impressively physical Batman, his sheer, bruising bulk clearly homaging Frank Miller’s steroidal take in The Dark Knight Returns. Snyder introduces him as the stuff of urban horror stories, “a devil”, taking down human traffickers. We first glimpse him crouched upon the wall of a derelict building, more vampire than vigilante – a “weird creature of the night”, as the early comic books used to call him. Trading banter with Jeremy Irons’ amusingly mordant Alfred, Batman’s one of the few things this movie just about gets right, murderous inclinations aside.
Superman’s more problematic. Infinitely more problematic. Oh, Snyder loves framing him in celestial poses, cape rippling against the clouds, awesome as a Michelangelo, but this deification only keeps the character at a distance, as remote as the duelling sky gods Bruce Wayne glimpses in Metropolis. Henry Cavill’s an actor with charm and magnetism to spare but he’s a drab, morose presence in this, burdened by godhood and lumbered with a script that’s pure Kryptonite, reducing the Man of Steel to the object of other people’s agendas with no compelling throughline of his own.
The film keeps asking, “Must there be a Superman?” It’s a valid, provocative question – and the title of a classic ’ 70s comic book story – but it’s articulated in the most thumpingly literal way. We’re shown snippets of a TV debate, the opinions of real- life talking heads Neil deGrasse Tyson and Charlie Rose intercut with scenes of Kal- El performing heroic acts. Snyder’s a gifted visual stylist and some of these shots are genuinely glorious – the sight of Superman hauling an overturned ship across an ice floe is pure Silver Age poetry – but they’re pieces of artwork, frames to hang on your wall. The visuals bow down before the icon but the screenplay stints on characterisation, leaving Cavill with precious little to play.
Then again, you suspect Zack Snyder fundamentally misunderstands Superman. For all the noble deeds we witness there are unsettling moral currents swirling around this take on Siegel and Shuster’s creation. “You don’t owe the world a thing,” Martha Kent tells her son. “You never did.” It’s a statement that cuts against the very heart of this Depression-born American folklore, more Ayn Rand than John Steinbeck. The film’s take- home image is a glowering Superman with demonically red eyes, scowling in a storm, more a creature of Hell than the Kansas plains.
As the film lumbers toward the inevitable cape- on- cape showdown, we’re introduced to primo Superman nemesis Lex Luthor, played as a twitchy, candy- scoffing sociopath by The Social Network’s Jesse Eisenberg. It’s a performance of truly teeth- rattling awfulness, a Looney Tunes assault of tics and chimp noises, subtle as an asteroid strike. It’s genuinely terrifying: you dread what painfully mannered acting move he’ll make next.
Also in the mix is Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman. She’s underused – essentially a walking trailer for her solo movie – but she’s good for all that the screenplay
shortchanges her. In her secret identity as Diana Prince she has a Bond girl allure, all smoky foreign accent and designer label glamour, and she’s equally charismatic in Amazon princess mode.
Inevitably our heroes ruck: the moment, the hashtag that every beat of this behemoth of a movie has been built around, backwardsengineered from. Snyder clearly wants to replay the iconic clash of capes in The Dark Knight Returns – an acknowledged influence – but this has none of Frank Miller’s crackling political energy. Instead we get a lunk- headed misunderstanding on Batman’s part that’s resolved with a laughably easy change of heart. The brawl itself is just as perfunctory, for all that Snyder strives to bring a lofty Wagnerian grandeur to shots of a knightly, armoured Batman clutching a glowing Kryptonite lance in the rain.
It all climaxes with our heroes teaming their grimaces against Doomsday, a charmless ’ 90s comic book villain brought to the screen in fantastically uninteresting style. He’s a dumb brute threat with the look of an early Lord Of The Rings videogame. By this point your senses are so pulped by the onslaught of overwrought imagery and clanging Hans Zimmer chords that you long for the street- level storytelling that made the opening Metropolis scene so effective. But no. Snyder’s out to pulverise you, remember. Bam. Bam. Bam. Is that blood coming out of your ears?
Crippled by incoherent storytelling – dream sequences play out like non- sequiturs, high on cool visuals, low on sense, dependent on future films to decode their meaning – and portentous dialogue ( seriously, Lex – shut up about god and the devil. We get it already), Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice is, ultimately, a grim advertisement for the burgeoning big- screen DCU. You simply don’t want to spend time in this place. There has to be a course correction, a brightening of tone, an admission that all this scowly adolescent posturing is a bad fit for such a vibrant and colourful sandbox.
More crucially, with our planet seemingly darkening at the edges every day, it’s criminal to create a movie that shuts out kids, the lifeblood of superhero stories. This is bleak, ugly stuff. We’re told that the S on Superman’s chest stands for hope. It’s hard to believe on the strength of this deadening Sturm und Drang.
“It’s not 1938,” says Daily Planet editor Perry White, in a sarcastic reference to the year the Man of Steel arrived on newsstands. No, it’s 2016, and yes, Mr White, there must be a Superman – and one who knows how to soar. Nick Setchfield
The end credits confirm that Superman’s pal Jimmy Olsen gets a bullet in the head in the first reel. Heartwarming stuff, eh?
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