Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice National release
As a boy I loved the now old-fashioned Superman and Batman television shows, starring George Reeves and Adam West respectively. The costumed crime fighters’ high-jinks, vocally pungent adventures entertained and amused my young self. One of the great aspects of art, though, is its evolution with that of its practitioners and followers, and so as an adult I far prefer the harder, tougher, meaner, self-doubting superhero incarnations, such as Christian Bale’s remarkable Batman in Christopher Nolan’s 2005-12 The Dark Knight Trilogy. Zack Snyder’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, which owes a bit to The Dark Knight of 2008, is a superior superhero film that puts forward complex, flawed characters, absorbing locations and intelligent ideas, and parallels the terrible wrongs of our world.
Indeed, as I left the Sydney preview screening of the film this week, my phone buzzed with news of the terrorist attacks in Brussels. It was a powerful reminder — one that the engaged Snyder seems aware of — that the daily evils we face have less to do with active gods and extraterrestrials seeking spots on Earth than with the constant abuses of mere earthlings. As offsider Alfred (an excellent, restrained Jeremy Irons) tells Batman (Ben Affleck) at one point: “What turns good men cruel?” Later, a battered Superman (Henry Cavill) laments: “Superman was never real … just the dream of a farmer from Kansas.’’ The title suggests this is a battle between Batman and Superman — and it is at times, spectacularly so — but they are not the most dangerous inhabitants of the planet.
The action opens with a brilliant reimagining of the concluding scenes in Snyder’s Man of Steel (2013), in which the Kryptonian forces assault Earth. We see it all from ground level, mainly though the panicked eyes of Bruce Wayne aka Batman. It’s thrilling, edge-of-theseat stuff. We then move forward 18 months and drop in on challenging places, including a terrorist camp in Africa that features reporter Lois Lane (Amy Adams) and, soon after, Superman.
We learn that the human population, assisted by a US government investigation, has started to question the place and role of Superman. “The world has been so caught up with what Superman can do,’’ we are told, “no one has asked what he should do.” Outside the US Capitol, protesters wave banners that warn the caped crusader: “This is our world, not yours.” It’s a sentiment that may sound familiar all over the world today.
Meanwhile, in Gotham City, Batman has become a crime-fighting vigilante, a role that earns him the displeasure of Lane’s newspaper The Daily Planet, edited by Perry White (Laurence Fishburne). For those of us still left in print journalism, there are some neat jokes here.
So we have two damaged superheroes who have fallen a bit out of favour with the public. They are grown men yet interestingly interrogate their childhoods. Then Batman — a twisted, pumped up Affleck — decides to take out Superman, a decision that takes us ultimately to the fight suggested in the “v” of the title. I won’t give away what happens — heeding Snyder’s plea in a taped interview that ran before this week’s screening, because he wants everyone to enjoy the film without prior knowledge — but let’s just say there are some serious surprises.
Inventing several of the surprises is, for my money, the star of the film: Jesse Eisenberg as the Superman-hating Lex Luthor. Eisenberg, an intriguing actor, brings a manic, insane, intelligent intensity to the role of this small-of-stature but bigger-than-Earth bad guy. It’s an electric performance that reminds me of Heath Ledger’s posthumous Oscar for his role as the Joker in The Dark Knight. (Though of course Ledger should have won an Oscar several years earlier, while he was still with us, for Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain.) When someone accuses Lex Luthor of being psychotic, he replies, “That’s a three-syllable word used to define an idea too big for little minds.’’
Snyder also introduces a handful of comic characters who will star in films he plans to make in coming years, most notably Wonder Woman (Israeli actress Gal Gadot). But this outing is for Batman and Superman and Lex Luthor, and it’s damn good.
At 2½ hours it perhaps goes on a bit too long — that and the complicated ideas and relationships made me glad I didn’t take my 10-year-old to see it. This is a high-quality superhero movie for adults, which is a pleasant, almost superhuman, development.
Ben Affleck and Henry Cavill as Batman and Superman