March 30, 2016

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016)

Eighteen months after his devastating battle against General Zod, Superman (Henry Cavill) remains a polarising figure to the people of Earth. After a north African rescue winds up killing innocent people, he comes under the scrutiny of a United States senate hearing - and in the cross-hairs of Gotham City's legendary vigilante the Batman (Ben Affleck).

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice comes to cinemas with possibly the silliest title of any superhero movie released to date, not to mention hopelessly overloaded with set-ups and previews for a whole combined universe of future DC Comics-inspired action movies. It is a bloated two-and-a-half hour juggernaut, packed with ominous portent, growling confrontations between heroes, flashbacks and dream sequences. It has been met with pretty negative reviews from critics, and to a large extent I agree with their complaints. The film is too long, too messy constructed, and definitely too bleak and humourless.

At the same time there is something genuinely exciting about seeing Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) lined up ready to combat an angry giant monster, and for a certain viewer that sort of excitement is going to trump a lot of the film's faults.

Zack Snyder has always been a somewhat troublesome director. His 2004 debut, Dawn of the Dead, was actually pretty entertaining stuff. He followed it up with a very direct adaptation of Frank Miller's graphic novel 300, copying its highly stylised aesthetic but also its fairly repellent characters and values. From there he's followed a generally downhill trajectory, from a Watchmen adaptation that copied the art without understanding the story to the over-the-top and generally incoherent Sucker Punch - to date his only wholly original work. In 2013 he directed the Superman reboot Man of Steel, which betrayed a much-improved visual sense but also a strange inability to understand it's central character. Three years later and he's back with his first sequel, and it's as a sequel that Batman v Superman faces its first major drawback.

It is kind of the sequel one has when they do not particularly want to make a sequel. The narrative follows on from Man of Steel, certainly, and to be fair much of it is elaborated upon in innovative and interesting ways. On the other hand the film has been tailored to introduce an entire suite of DC Comics-inspired action films, including Wonder Woman, Suicide Squad, Justice League, The Batman, The Flash, Aquaman and Cyborg. There is a pronounced sense that Snyder is much more interested in those new elements - particularly Batman - than he is in Superman. Batman's bleak, darkened aesthetic certainly fits Snyder well, and here we get what is easily the darkest iteration of the character yet, but when it comes to Superman it feels that not only does Snyder still not fully understand the tone of the character he lacks any impetus to work it out. The end result is an odd situation where Superman feels like a supporting character in his own movie. Even his classic arch-nemesis Lex Luthor, played here with a love-it-or-hate-it exuberance by Jesse Eisenberg, comes across mostly as Batman's enemy rather than as Superman's.

When you ignore the film's ham-fisted Superman elements - including underused supporting characters and a genuinely bizarre writing-off of Jimmy Olsen - there is actually a lot of entertaining stuff. Ben Affleck is a remarkably strong Batman, and he's supported by Jeremy Irons as a great Alfred. The design is great, the hand-to-hand combat is great, and the new Batmobile and Batplane look wonderful. Along the same lines Gal Gadot gives an extraordinarily strong impression as Wonder Woman, and is given just the right amount of screen time to excite the audience and whet the appetite for a solo film next June. Hard-core DC enthusiasts get even more value, with some excellent cameos and foreshadowing for what I assume will be Justice League's key villain.

The only other major problem I have with the film is conceptual: why did we need to see Batman and Superman fight each other at all? It is a well-staged sequence, and pays a little too enthusiastic a tribute to Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns, but as with every superhero-versus-superhero narrative ever it is poorly shoe-horned in and forces the writer to warp at least one character out of shape to make the thing work. Here it's Superman: he is sent to kill Batman to save his mother's life, but after one half-hearted attempt to explain the situation to Batman he simply starts pummelling him for all he's worth. Visually dynamic, and at times imaginatively played, but ultimately just silly.

Altogether this is not a great film, in fact it would not be incorrect to consider it a relatively poor one. It is a poor film, however, with outstanding pieces in it. Individual action scenes, or character moments, or well-conceived visual images, that sort of thing. It does not all add up to a good movie, but for its extended running time - and for a keen enough fan of the source material - there is a lot here to enjoy.

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