After 2005’s Batman Begins every Christopher Nolan Batman film was anticipated with excitement because it was expected to be another assured piece of film-making. For those of us who finally got over 1997’s Batman & Robin and just presumed the next Batman film would be marvellous, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice will come as a confused shock.
The story begins with a beautiful, fresh take on the Batman origin story before moving onto Bruce Wayne’s perspective of the battle between Superman and General Zod in 2013’s Man of Steel. The ensuing story sees Wayne plan to destroy Kal-El, who he sees as a rogue threat to the planet. Throw into the plot the machinations of Lex Luthor to bring the two together for a showdown, a political investigation into Superman’s collateral damage, a side story with Lois Lane researching unregistered bullets and cameos from the soon-to-be Justice League and there is, ultimately, just too much here for the film’s running time.
From the outset director Zack Snyder erred in thinking that the grittiness, moral ambiguity and real-world portrayal of the ‘superheroes’ in his 2009 film Watchmen is what audiences wanted to see in Batman v Superman. He forgets that Watchmen, while visually impressive, worked critically and commercially because the story was taut and, for the most part, faithful to the comic by Alan Moore.
BvS, on the other hand, looks good but is a mishmash of Superman and Batman stories and never finds a moral centre, a key component to both characters throughout their innumerable portrayals across their decades in the comics. Batman casually murders people, Superman commits multiple acts of manslaughter when ‘saving’ people and Lex Luthor is inept to the point of being incomprehensible.
To add insult to injury, most of the background story for these characters, particularly with Wayne’s Batman, is there for decoration and doesn’t get a hint of exposition. Robin has been murdered, Wayne manor is abandoned, and Lex Luthor is insane and knows both Wayne and Clark Kent’s secret identities. The list goes on, with most answers to these questions inferred at press junkets and interviews as if, at some late stage, the studio realised just how shallow the film was and frantically sent out talking points to make amends.
Even with a 151-minute running time, nowhere near enough time is on hand to explain the elements Snyder shoehorns in. Even with more, it’s doubtful he could have satisfactorily fleshed out these elements because this is essentially Man of Steel 2 with a-bit-more-than-just a cameo from Batman. Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Laurence Fishburne and Jesse Eisenberg get more screen-time combined than Wayne and Jeremy Irons’ Alfred and the film is so confused as to whether it’s a sequel or an ensemble mash-up that neither section feels complete.
What is striking about the film is just how successful it might have been if Warner Bros. had the patience to follow the Marvel formula and produced single-solo outings before an ensemble film. Ben Affleck is spectacularly cast as the aged, weary, brutal Bruce Wayne/Batman and is an immensely satisfying fresh look at the character on screen, but desperately needs more background to make his Batman understandable. Cavill remains a hand to glove choice as the aloof Superman, but his character development and day-to-day life, particularly with Lois Lane, explored in Man of Steel would have benefited from a sequel.
Eisenberg’s Lex Luthor is hammy, over the top and unavoidably comparable to his Mark Zuckerberg portrayal in The Social Network. That Luthor doesn’t get a proper backstory to explain his villainy is where his character gets written-off as clichéd and irrelevant, and fuels the argument that a Superman versus Luthor film would have been a better introduction for the character. This is true for the fine actors who make up the supporting cast, not least as Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman and Jeremy Irons’ Alfred steal some of the best moments in the film.
If anything, the film is an answer to one of the better pub debates: why has their never been a Batman v Superman film before? Simply, they’re too big. DC Entertainment and Warner Bros. have proven time and time again that their adaptations of Batman, if not so much Superman, succeed best when they make solo films akin to the Nolan series. Otherwise, they risk stripping the source material back to such bare bones that audiences get diluted characters rather than a confident meeting of them.
In this case, Snyder had taken significant influence from the acclaimed graphic novel The Dark Knight Returns but forgot that the big showdown between an old Bruce Wayne and Superman was spectacular because it was the culmination, both in-universe and for fans, of tensions building for decades. The party introduction of Wayne and Kent in the film was beautifully passive-aggressive and more of it was needed throughout the film to give some redeeming meaning and satisfaction to the whole thing.
The final act of the film suffered the same problem. A visual extravaganza, with an enemy already seen in a trailer, made the death of Superman as predictable and forced as everything else. It had no emotional resonance because we had just met these characters, whereas the 1990s comic where Superman dies from wounds inflicted by Doomsday shook things up after decades of assumed omnipotence. In this, the film was like Star Trek Into Darkness because The Wrath of Khan homages, particularly the inverted death of Kirk, didn’t hit home as we hadn’t spent decades watching these characters grow.
The film is not without impressive moments. The fight sequences look gorgeous, particularly a nuked Superman. The sneaky death of Jimmy Olson, with yet another off-camera explanation, was an inspired way to showcase the brute reality that no one is safe in this universe. Affleck is majestic and his Batman is the only on-screen adaptation you believe can take down a small army. The dream sequences are ambiguous and visually spectacular, particularly with their hint of Darkseid, a war-like Batman and crazed Superman. The new interpretation of a genuinely haunted Wayne coupled with the stunning opening of the film makes for a tantalising prospect of a directed, written by and starring Affleck solo-outing.
What is also clear is that the once untarnished reputation of composer Hans Zimmer is also suffering fatigue from the superhero genre and his self-announced retirement from it should be welcomed. The score from the film contains moments of sheer beauty, particularly the ‘Beautiful Lie’ piece for the Waynes’ murder which opens the film and motifs throughout the picture. The rest, regrettably, is a confused mash with Junkie XL, which is a sugar-rush of frustration that has none of the subtlety that made his work with Christopher Nolan so instantly recognisable and iconic.
More immediately, there is much to be worried about for the upcoming Justice League films. Marvel played a slow game with their characters, but Warner Bros. is trying to shoehorn new characters into ensemble films before a proper introduction which is a method that has proven unsuccessful for critics with this picture.
Additionally, with an estimated marketing budget of $163 million (the film was produced with a budget of $250 million) Warner Bros. did themselves a huge disservice by revealing too much of the story in their trailers. It also didn’t help matters that the trailers were more epic and enticing than the film itself (global profits were nevertheless successful, generating $827 million and counting).
Slowing down, and lightening the tone, is a starting point and the stories that 2016’s Suicide Squad is undergoing reshoots on the back of the hugely successful and comedic Deadpool film makes for a promising prospect.
On the whole, this is a film of lost potential that can only be redeemed when each of these characters gets their own solo outing. Until then, the Justice League films will feel like they are trying to do too much, too quickly in a stylised way in the hopes that no one notices they have little substance.