Long Dark Knight of the soul

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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?

“You said the fore­cast was dry and sunny!”

Fire­fight­ers’ new uni­form: con­tro­ver­sial.

Al­fred wasn’t con­vinced by Bruce’s lat­est fixer- up­per.

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