BATMAN V SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE REVIEW
(nb: This is a LONG review. But then, it’s a VERY LONG FILM, too. So there! )
WAYNE ENTERPRISES FACT FILE:
STARRING: BEN AFFLECK, HENRY CAVILL, AMY ADAMS, JESSE EISENBERG, GAL GADOT
DIRECTOR: ZACK SNYDER
GENRE: ACTION /ADVENTURE /COMIC BOOK ADAPTATION / SCI-FI
DURATION: 2 hrs 30 mins approx
The time has come. Two titans of the super-hero genre: united on screen but divided by conflicting ideologies on crime-fighting. Worth the wait? Can it POSSIBLY live up to the hype? And critically – is it any GOOD? – No. A painful no. But with moments – just moments – of ‘YES’ that MIGHT make the whole thing worth watching /enduring /continuing in further sequels. The script references the legend of PROMETHEUS. It’s a painful irony that the movie itself aims high and almost reaches an inspiring peak, only to overstretch, over reach and thereby topple down in flames.
Allow me to explain..
Let’s start with the most basic question. What makes ANY movie ‘work’? Simple answer: CLARITY.
You MUST define your aim and method before embarking on any pitch, screenplay, storyboard, shoot or edit. What is my core purpose in telling this story? How do I sum up the basic plot? Whose viewpoint are we following and who represents the antagonist to the hero/heroine’s goal? What is the general tone and am I following or subverting rules of a genre?
The fact that a work is made ‘for entertainment’ rather than ‘for the critics’ does not in any way exempt it from the basic, logical foundations of effective storytelling. RICHARD DONNER ‘got’ this for his SUPERMAN films. CHRISTOPHER NOLAN also ‘got’ it with his DARK KNIGHT trilogy. One word: VERISIMILITUDE. Sadly, it is absent from BATMAN V SUPERMAN. And the film is empirically the poorer for that deficit. Narrative kryptonite.
A major red flag for this movie was context. WHY was it made in the first place? No glib answers, please. Yes, we KNOW the enterprise is about making money. Welcome to capitalism. Get over it. What was interesting in recent years, though, was a greater attention to the quality and legacy of a franchise film.
THE DARK KNIGHT trilogy was NOT a sure thing at any point. Warners took a big RISK, creatively and commercially. BATMAN BEGINS, though excellent, was not a behemoth blockbuster by any means (the doomed SUPERMAN RETURNS did better, as it happens).
THE DARK KNIGHT went against type in tone and casting and missed out on some of the cozy staples of comic book film-making. No tie in song! No bright colo(u)rs! No shameless merchandising or sequel bait set ups! THE DARK KNIGHT RISES could simply have re-cast the Joker or replicated Joker with Leeeeooo Di Caprio as the Riddler / the late, great Seymour Hoffman as Penguin (mooted in both cases; shunned for something – shock horror – original?). And so on.
In short, a studio had learned that it was ‘ok’ to trust the vision of a Director, married to the fidelity of an adoring fan base. Quality could speak for itself and Box Office numbers were healthy in turn.
So, BATMAN V SUPERMAN was NOT, it seems, fast-tracked by a cynical or blind studio, eager to outdo MARVEL and THE AVENGERS. There were cynical murmurings, of course. Was it a lack of confidence in Superman as a product name? A reliance on the Batman brand? Why announce with almost indecent haste, only to delay release, twice?
Those minor niggles, at least to me, could not detract from the fact that the movie was conceived and made with the best intentions. It was not a BATMAN AND ROBIN scenario of a studio wanting an inane sequel rushed out in two years with whatever stars of the day seemed ‘cool’.
CHRISTOPHER NOLAN had anointed ZACK SNYDER to make MAN OF STEEL, a new take on SUPERMAN.
In turn, a sequel seemed the right thing to facilitate, despite the numbers in 2013’s summer blockbuster not quite matching the billion dollar expectations of the current zeitgeist.
There IS a ‘vision’ behind all of this. Snyder IS a ‘visionary’ director. He makes visually stunning products and crafts and grafts with loving attention to the graphic novel panels he is bringing to life. Case in point: THE 300. And yes, MAN OF STEEL. Snyder is a ‘good sort’. Loves his wife. ENJOYS his work, with an infectious passion. It’s all quite endearing stuff.
IE: this is NOT the work of some opportunist hack. But it is, alas, the work of a well intended people pleaser, given slightly hurried access to the keys of the Comic Book Cinema Pandora’s Toy-Box. The result is therefore a bloated, jumbled mess. Moments of soul and even genius ARE there, only to be undone by over-reaching to more ‘grown up’ philosophical textures which are in turn further upstaged by CGI sugar rushes of incoherent nonsense.
One feels drained by the end of the film’s overlong duration and in no mood for more of the same.
It cannot even con you into thinking you had fun by blasting you with a fabulous mid credit sting or infectiously catchy tie in pop song. I’d go so far as saying that I would PREFER either an all out studio opportunistic piece of gloss or the full on ‘dark and gritty’ (most overused phrase. ever) take on one of the heroes in question.
But THIS? It’s neither substantial enough to play with the grown ups nor escapist and fun enough to be a classic among the Saturday morning cartoon transferred to film brigade. Caught between two tones, merging them clumsily and succeeding in neither. For two and a half hours. All dressed up in super-hero capes. With NOWHERE to go. Ouch.
The ‘plot’ is actually promising. Clark Kent /Superman (Cavill) is trying to be the messiah people want, whilst also forging a normal life and love with Lois Lane ( a very cute yet somehow redundant Amy Adams: seriously, this could be anyone playing..anyone). Except he cannot have it both ways, as he discovers, after saving Lois from a terrorist and thereby causing rather than averting an international incident. Cascades of criticism erupt upon Superman and evoke painful memories among the masses of his battle in Metropolis with the Kryptonian villains that had caused much collateral damage.
Enter Bruce Wayne /Batman (Ben Affleck), embarking on a one man mission to eliminate what he perceives as a threat from Superman to the world. His investigations parallel Clark Kent’s own fixation with Gotham City’s ‘Bat vigilante’ and that culminates in a physical battle between the two heroes. Little do they know, they are being played by Lex Luthor (Eisenberg), determined to end both their reigns and thereby cement his own power base. Luthor also has a truly devastating back up plan that neither Batman nor Superman can match. Enter Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) to help.
The problem is that said plot has so many individual strands, each of which could create an entire script. Cramming it all in and welding things together undermines the whole. It’s an unnecessary marathon, especially when one considers that this is all about world building for endless sequels and spin offs, whilst trying to exist as a self contained story. Why not excise maybe one plot point and carry over to another day? It’s not like the Box Office would suffer, is it?
The bits that work are clear. We follow and understand Batman /Bruce Wayne’s basic character and plot arc here. He is our way in to the story and also, our way(ne) out. Initially jaded and world weary and aided only by his loyal Butler, Alfred (Jeremy Irons: surprisingly good, I take it all back; sorry!), we see Bruce gradually awaken. Hence ‘dawn’ from his demonic determination to quite literally brand criminals, into a possibly more enlightened force for common good.
This is a great performance from Affleck. Yes, his Wayne is a bit of a nouveau riche pup: all tie pins, waist coats and bizarrely incongruous designer stubble. He also has certain inconsistencies of character, giving us a Batman who drinks and does sex stuff, despite his seemingly Monkish devotion to the one man war on crime? And how old IS he supposed to be here? It’s never clear.
But the sheer physicality that Affleck deploys in that costume is quite astonishing. THIS is the Batman of the comics and graphic novels, brought to life. And there is a vulnerability to even his most brutal moment in the movie and it is genuinely moving to sit up and note that (all in the eyes, in the final moments of a fight with Superman).
Henry Cavill excels as Superman. His hard work in the Gym ensures you believe this is a man of steel. Ripped! The nobility, purity, bravery and innocence of the character are all up there onscreen, too. He handles the action well and conveys the subtleties of a being whose Godlike powers could inflict mass damage, given the wrong push, yet whose desire for good always wins through. Like Affleck, Cavill conveys a vulnerability at just the right point.
Batman and Superman are divided by their power yet united by the emotional sore spots that can hurt anyone, be they God or man. There is one moment where that parity, unity and emotion are all clear in one shot. A glimpse of genius in a movie whose sheer noise sadly drowns out such gems. But it IS there. And you might even shed a tear when you feel it. Testament to the actors’ genius.
Gal Gadot turns up as Wonder Woman. Why? I have no idea. Yes, it sets up sequels. Yes, she looks INCREDIBLE. I don’t know quite what her super power is. But maybe ‘sexy’ is what gains her admission to the pantheon. Quite right, too. This is one of the most perfect bodies ever modeled in one of these films, devoid of CGI augmentation. Trained by the Isreali Army in real life, Gadot is also credibly convincing in a fight scene. Sadly, she has zero chemistry with either Cavill or Affleck and the attempts at making her a kind of Anne Hathaway Catwoman/Selina Kyle woman of intrigue fall very flat indeed. As in painfully so.
Of course, a hero is only as good as the villain they are sent to battle. Alas, we are presented with the worst comic book movie villain. Ever. Lex Luthor of the (recent) comics is one of the world’s most powerful MEN. He is therefore upset by the arrival of a SUPER-Man to displace his status and sets about destroying the Man of Steel. That is why speculation initially turned to Mark Strong, Bruce Willis, Billy Zane, Idris Elba and the like, before casting was announced.
But here? We get Jesse Eisenberg. He has clearly been directed to play a mad scientist. Fine. Except that’s just ONE iteration of the Luthor character and even in fantasy, cannot be reconciled to the Machiavellian, superficially charming Businessman. If he is THIS mad and publicly so (all facial and verbal ticks), his plans would be FOILED before they had even BEGUN.
I ‘get’ the idea that today, powerful billionaire = Zuckerberg. And Eisenberg played that part, very well, in THE SOCIAL NETWORK. Except that a.) you don’t NEED to be that clever or satirical in a comic book movie called BATMAN V SUPERMAN and b.) even if you MUST insist on going that route, Zuckerberg would be far more likely to trumpet Superman’s successes and create a social media campaign where you could all turn your profile pic to an ‘S’ or Bat symbol? Killing the Man of Steel would not be on the Facebook agenda, surely?
Once again: verisimilitude. That’s what it comes down to. And its absence in turn clouded the overall vision of the movie, with a ‘clever’ stunt casting move (Esienberg as Luthor! It’s like Heath Ledger as the Joker!..no it REALLY isn’t) resulting in an incredibly stupid direction for the villain and an irritating performance of a poorly crafted character.
The script shoehorns in pages of philosophical musings on the problem of good and evil and the meaning of divine power. They even throw in Holly Hunter as the ‘political’ character mouthpiece to deliver the relevant lines. She looks well and was cast, presumably for added gravitas?
Ultimately, Holly is just wasted and generates awkward oedipal vibes with Esisenberg’s Luthor. It would have made sense, had she perhaps been teamed in the end with Superman’s own, equally lovely earth mom (Diane Lane). But she isn’t. So it doesn’t. Instead, we get more philosophy sound bites and thinly veiled references to the war on terror. Those devices were stretched even in the ‘realistic’ Nolan Dark Knight movies. They are completely out of place here.
ENOUGH of these sixth form ethics debates concealed as plot exposition devices. Pretension: pure and simple. A good movie should show rather than tell. It’s a visual art-form and especially so in a COMIC BOOK FILM! And incidentally, ‘fun’ need NOT mean ‘camp’ or childish. It is an accident of this movie’s failings that one longs, albeit briefly, for the days of the 1960s and Adam West and Burt Ward’s Batman and Robin, though not quite for the excesses of Bat nipples and Bat-credit cards of 1997’s movie, BATMAN AND ROBIN.
The climactic act of BATMAN V SUPERMAN defines and captures all that has gone before in the movie and all its flaws. Crowded. Noisy. Messy. LOTS of story strands, sewn together. ZERO room to breathe, take stock and either enjoy or endure what is going on. We cannot even SEE a lot of the action, (despite its genre supposedly inviting production design liberties) and scenes that should be tense and rousing fall flat in consequence.
The settings /atmospheres of Metropolis and Gotham look interchangeable and that is a missed opportunity for a visual motif. Even Tim Burton ‘got’ that importance, planning a direct contrast between the two cities for his aborted SUPERMAN LIVES project, with Metropolis pure light to Gotham’s dark, a false Utopia presenting an ironically greater threat. Snyder, the supposedly ‘visual’ director, sadly does not seem to have been quite as attentive to design.
In fairness, the costumes and special effects are fantastic here, with the 3-D especially better than many a recent counterpart blockbuster. But what’s the point, when the action is generally uninspired and the pace frequently so inert? Matters are not helped by the fact that even HANS ZIMMER appears to be off form, his score never matching the heights of WHY DO WE FALL or LIKE A DOG CHASING CARS, either /both of which could have been used here to great effect, despite being from another cinematic ‘universe’ for Batman (Christian Bale version; currently enjoying life at ‘this Cafe in Florence’..).
Seriously, Zimmer devised better themes in GOING FOR GOLD. JUNKIE XL helps out with music but is equally uninspired, never matching the passion and precision of BROTHERS IN ARMS or CHAPTER DOOF from MAD MAX: FURY ROAD. A rousing score would have helped this film, a lot. Its absence hurts the finished product by highlighting other deficiencies and failing to make the soul soar and long for sequels as you leave the Cinema.
Though by no means the disaster that some would have you believe (it’s NOT a ‘shit’ film), BATMAN V SUPERMAN is a severely flawed and bloated mess. Though made with valiant efforts and genuinely good intentions to entertain across the demographics, one is simply left feeling drained, confused and in little mood for more. Deficient in substance and in devoid of JOY for the most part.
That said, with things now set up and established in this ‘universe’, perhaps Snyder CAN be a true hero and give us a leaner, clearer and above all – more FUN – movie when his inevitable sequel arrives on the scene. Go and meditate in the Fortress of Solitude /Bat-cave, Mr Snyder and THEN consider the next move. Because ‘men are still good’. And so, potentially at least, are films inspired by the comic books.
Undistinguished. Unremarkable. Undeserving of either great love or hate. Neither suitable for younger children nor sophisticated enough to truly crossover to the more adult mind. A for Effort. C for Progress.