Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman join forces in a high-stakes movie gamble that could take the superhero genre to new heights or crash and burn, writes Ben Fritz
Batman v Superman is another superhero sequel. It’s a clash of cultural icons. It’s about the politics of military intervention and terrorism. It’s inspired by WH Auden and Umberto Eco. It’s the highest-stakes movie produced by a Hollywood studio since James Cameron’s Avatar.
Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, opening on Thursday, is all these things and more: a 2½-hour, $250 million collection of Hollywood contradictions that could rise above the din of comic book adaptations or sink under its own bloated weight.
On its face, the movie seems like the most cynical of exercises: how to follow up 2013’s Man of Steel, which received mixed critical reviews, mixed reactions from fans and mixed results at the box office? (With $668 million being, by big-budget superhero standards, not all that impressive these days.)
The answer: make the follow-up even bigger. Bring back Batman, last seen in Christopher Nolan’s 2012, trilogy-ending The Dark Knight Rises. Cast Ben Affleck as the caped crusader. Make them fight. But why just two superheroes? Let’s introduce Wonder Woman. And give brief glimpses of characters like Aquaman, Cyborg and Flash, who will soon get their own movies.
It’s not just a sequel and not just a superhero battle royal. It’s the launch of a new “cinematic universe”, Hollywood-speak for a series of interconnected movies in which characters coexist and stories interweave. Disney’s Marvel pioneered the concept to great success and now Warner Bros has boldly announced 10 DC movies to be released over the next five years.
All of those films flow out of the plot and characters established in Batman v Superman. If any of them are going to work, and Warner’s multibillion-dollar plan is to succeed, this one has to be a hit.
“While each movie stands alone, they’re all part of one long arc of storytelling,” says producer Charles Roven. No pressure, in other words. Batman v Superman comes amid hints that audiences are tiring of traditional superhero films. The last two releases were August’s megaflop Fantastic Four and last month’s surprise blockbuster Deadpool, which succeeded by sending up every convention of the genre.
In contrast to Deadpool, Batman v Superman is deadly serious, continuing a pattern set in Batman Begins of trying to ground DC movies in what Warner production chief Greg Silverman calls “the big emotions of the human experience.”
“Fun” and “family-friendly” won’t be the first words most people use after seeing a film that’s more revenge tragedy than brainless slugfest.
Still, audience interest is strong two weeks ahead of the picture’s debut, with research indicating it will open in the US to about $140 million — perhaps slightly above the minimum Warner needs to declare it a bona fide blockbuster.
When kicking off the equivalent of a fiveyear plan, one might expect the studio to keep a dictatorial grip on the creative process. But though it’s the industry’s biggest studio, Warner has also earned a reputation as the most accommodating to filmmakers.
It’s the studio that last year allowed George Miller to soar with Mad Max: Fury Road and the Wachowskis to crash and burn with Jupiter Ascending. It has been the home of Man of Steel director Zack Snyder for a decade, through hits like 300 and flops like Sucker Punch.
On Batman v Superman, Warner paired Snyder with Chris Terrio, the “brilliant, brilliant, complicated” — in the words of Roven — Oscar-winning writer of Argo, who did a major rewrite of the script (he shares credit with Man of Steel writer David Goyer).
Terrio is a former student of British literature and phenomenology who dropped out of a masters program at Cambridge University to study film. On his first big-budget movie, he cites as in- fluences not just Frank Miller’s seminal comicbook miniseries The Dark Knight Returns (which features its own Batman-Superman battle) and Nolan’s trilogy of Batman films. He also invokes Italian semiotician Umberto Eco’s 1972 essay The Myth of Superman and the WH Auden poem Musee des Beaux Arts, which contrasts the quotidian details of normal people’s lives with the epic struggles of mythological figures.
“Given the scale, you would think the whole thing has a corporate stench, but the way we worked there was this quality of ‘I can’t believe they’re letting us do this’,” Terrio says.
The screenwriter went to great lengths to establish the movie’s titular conflict as more than the traditional comic-book gimmick of two superheroes tricked by a villain.
Batman v Superman’s opening sequence replays the final moments of Man of Steel, a skyhigh brawl between Superman and Kryptonian villain General Zod, from the perspective of a civilian on the ground: Bruce Wayne.
In the 2012 movie, the scene was widely panned for portraying Superman as too violent and unconcerned about collateral damage. Affleck’s character agrees, drawing implicit comparisons to military drones and even 9/11 as he impotently watches the destruction of a Wayne Enterprises building in which his employees are maimed and killed.
The likening of Henry Cavill’s Superman to a self-righteous military interventionist continues when he rescues Amy Adams’s Lois Lane from a reporting trip gone wrong in Africa. He is blamed for more collateral damage there.
Affleck’s Batman, on the other hand, makes Christian Bale’s version of the character in Nolan’s movies look like a pushover. A grizzled 40-something who seems on the verge of retirement, death or a mental breakdown, he literally brands enemies with the symbol of a bat and
Ben Affleck, director Zack Snyder and Henry Cavill; Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman, above