I write this with a heavy heart.
Batman V Superman is a mixed bag.
If you require proof, simply wade through the gulf of vastly contradictory reviews from critics, fans and cinephiles. Even among the fan community opinion is divided and I struggled to retain an open mind going into the film after seeing such disappointed reviews from geeky news outlets whom I trust (and indeed are the reason I got into writing and podcasting about this stuff).
Like its predecessor, Man of Steel (2013) (a film which, for the record, I adored) history will remember this film as controversial and divisive with public opinion split right down the middle with raised voiced clamouring in vitriol on either side.
That isn’t, in and of itself, a bad thing but I very much doubt it’s the reaction the top brass at Warner Brothers were hoping for, as it ramps up the money printing machine in preparation for next year’s Justice League: Part One. Indeed the very suffix Part One is testament to the nasty cynicism that appears to be creeping into the film makers’ mentality. Regardless of the weight of public opinion, Batman V Superman will make a metric fuck ton of money and as long as the green keeps rolling in, who cares, right?
My biggest complaint about Batman V Superman is the fact that for all of it’s 150 minute run time it didn’t feel like a complete film, but a disjointed collection of narrative threads, 33.33% of which are tied up, 33.33% are abandoned and 33.33% are designed to tie into JL.
The film is atrociously paced. The hallmark of a good editor is that when they’re doing their job well nobody can tell they’re doing anything at all. Bad editing sticks out like a sore thumb and the film is rife with it. Conversations in certain scenes promise to lead into something else in the following scene, only to be succeeded by more Batman because the studio wanted to get their money’s worth out of Ben Affleck.
Without going into spoiler territory the editing makes potentially promising plot threads needlessly convoluted. A plot that involves Lois Lane following up a story at one end while Batman’s using his detective skills to follow up a lead at the other end and the two meeting somewhere in the middle looks awesome on paper, and it should be awesome, but it’s cut together so poorly you won’t even know it’s happening.
The fault could lie entirely with the editing but the script, while witty and clever in places, seems equally disjointed. I’d expect better from the writer of Argo. I still hold some hope that the 3 hour “Ultimate” cut coming to BluRay this July could solve some of the film’s issues (though clearly not its pacing), but I shouldn’t have to wait for another cut of the film. A film should stand on its own merits rather than being a protracted advert for another product to be released later down the line.
With the unenviable task of assembling a DC comics cinematic universe to rival the Marvel brand Zack and Deborah Snyder, Charles Roven et al have clearly tried to adopt a more darker (ugh!), more serious gritty (ugh!) tone to differentiate itself from Marvel’s more optimistic output. Unfortunately, the results are clearly at odds with what the public have come to expect from a superhero team up film post Avengers with words like “joyless” “dour” and “incoherent” frequenting recent reviews for Batman V Superman.
I could forgive the formal inadequacies of the film if I felt that it did right by its titular characters but it just doesn’t. To be fair, in the months (indeed years) leading up to the film my greatest fear, loving Man of Steel as I do, was that Superman would be sidelined in favour of the more bankable Dark Knight and his contribution diminished to the role of glorified second fiddle. That didn’t happen at all and Superman fans will be glad to see that their hero will be elevated to the status that he deserves by the end of the film.
That isn’t to say that I’m entirely happy with the depiction of Superman in this film.
While Henry Cavill brings the same unassuming charm to the role from Man of Steel this version of Superman is still far more of a violent navel gazer than I’d have liked. While there are some wonderfully shot moments of Superman doing what he does best, saving people from perilous situations, they’ve all been spoiled by the trailers.
On the subject of Superman, one of the film’s cardinal sins is how Superman rushes to save Lois, sometimes at the expense of others. It’s a fairly forgiveable gripe in light of the fact that this universe does not present an omnipotent Superman who knows all and hears all but it still doesn’t sit all that well with me.
Now, let’s talk about Batman.
Which they did, if you’re a torture porn loving 14 year-old whose only criteria for a screen Batman is that “he should be badass”.
I didn’t find anything remotely heroic about this Batman until the film’s final 15 minutes.
As great as Affleck’s performance is (and it is) the characterisation of the character leans so heavily on Frank Miller’s “The Dark Knight Returns” that The Batman is presented not as a hero but as a belligerent asshole who has no qualms with killing, torture, disfigurement or the profuse deployment of firearms. As seminal as Miller’s work has become it was always intended to be the last Batman story with the character taken to a violent extreme that he was never supposed to reach in the main continuity. That Miller’s characterisation is now the status quo has worrying implications for me, going forward.
Granted, there is a semblance of an arc for the character and he does learn some lessons from Superman’s example but it’s all too last minute and presto-chango to hold any real gravitas.
The oft-alluded to “Knightmare” sequence and the Justice League cameos make absolutely no sense within the context of the narrative and reek of fan-service for fan-service’s sake.
If I’m erring on the side of negativity it’s not only because of my own high expectations of the film but because a film that depicts the two greatest superheroes in the comic pantheon for the first time ever deserves so much better.
The same could be said for the depiction of Wonder Woman who makes her screen debut here. While Gal Gadot’s performance and indeed the characterisation are pretty much spot-on, it’s lost in the maelstrom of explosions and tumbling skyscrapers.
In the 38 years since Superman the Movie we have yet to see a definitive Lex Luthor on screen and though Jesse Eisenberg makes some interesting choices, his manic awkwardness and misplaced intensity bear very little relation to the stoic megalomaniac from the comics.
For all the misgivings I have about the film there were a great many elements that I really enjoyed. Amy Adams is once again pitch perfect as Lois Lane and her dialogue and characterisation are as witty, charming and incisive as they need to be. Laurence Fishburne’s Perry White is as gruff, unflinching but ultimately humanistic as he needs to be and it seems clear that Chris Terrio had the most fun writing his dialogue.
While this film seems conclusive proof that Zack Snyder couldn’t tell a cohesive story with a loaded gun pointed at his crotch, it also proves conclusively that there are few directors in Hollywood who can put together a more beautiful shot.
The cinematography by Larry Fong is utterly gorgeous and it’s nice to see Snyder’s vivid comic book sensibilities given free reign as they had in Watchmen (2009) in contrast to the washed out Christopher Nolan-lite look of Man of Steel.
Jeremy Irons’ Alfred is grizzled and charmingly wry though somewhat underused, and the wonderful Dianne Lane brings all the heart as Martha Kent.
Despite boasting many elements that I really liked in isolation Batman V Superman is ultimately a disappointing viewing experience that takes itself so seriously that it doesn’t deem the audience worthy of the gratifications we expect from our superhero cinema. Subsequent viewings and the upcoming director’s cut may salve my disappointment somewhat but a film event of this magnitude should have been so much more.