Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice had me longing nostalgically for two separate Christopher related superhero franchises – the Christopher Reeve Superman pictures, and the Christopher Nolan directed Batman movies. It is, I am sorry to report, a mixed bag at best, and a crushing disappointment at worst.
Let’s start with the positives. The special effects and art direction are good, and there are a few good ideas within the plodding, overstuffed and incoherent plot. For example, the presence of an older, greyer, more morally jaded Batman/Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) is an intriguing one, and I just wish someone had made a movie about this alone. The interactions between Bruce Wayne and Alfred (Jeremy Irons) provide a small amount of interest, particularly when they throw up gems from Alfred such as “Even you’ve grown too old to die young”.
The rest of the cast do well enough with the frankly idiotic premise, with Batman nursing a grudge against Superman (Henry Cavill) following the carnage of Man of Steel. Bruce Wayne’s issue with Superman is down to the collateral damage caused by the Zod/Superman smackdown, and the fact that he considers Superman a potential alien threat in view of his powers. Along the way we are introduced to a young, trust fund brat version of Lex Luthor (Jessie Eisenberg – immensely annoying), and other characters due to appear in the upcoming Justice League films, such as Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), who again really needs her own film rather than being shoehorned into this in a distracting, franchise-building way. The supporting cast – Amy Adams as Lois Lane, Laurence Fishburne as Perry White and so forth – do well enough with the material they are given, but the script is so overly brooding and sombre that one wants to yell at the screen for everyone to lighten up. It’s a superhero film, not an Ingmar Bergman film.
As with Man of Steel, the action sequences become so utterly numbing that frankly I started to wonder if Snyder was channelling Michael Bay. At least with the Marvel movies, some of which certainly contain overly long scenes of destruction, said scenes are punctuated with witty banter. But here, Snyder seems determined to make the most absurdly serious film he possibly can. Heck, Schindler’s List had more laughs than this.
It would appear that Snyder and his screenwriters simply do not understand counterpoint, because there isn’t nearly enough of it here. If you want to make a dark film, you have to have something to contrast with the darkness, or you risk alienating the viewer. It’s like an anti-war movie that screams war-is-hell over and over again, until you want to pick up a gun. Or a tragedy that expects you to cry because it features scene after scene of horrible tragedy, until you end up laughing at the absurdity of it all (check out Legends of the Fall as a good example of this, or rather don’t). Successful “dark” movies always feature counterpoint. For example, The Empire Strikes Back has all that dark stuff with Luke and Vader, but is leavened by the screwball romantic comedy banter between Han and Leia. The Christopher Nolan Batman films, which are very dark indeed, feature the Bruce Wayne playboy persona as comic counterpoint (the “You don’t watch a whole lot of news, do you Mr Wayne?” scene from The Dark Knight is a great example).
Ultimately, Batman versus Superman is a very silly premise that should never have been made into a film. No, I don’t care if they fought in the comics, and I don’t care how good those comics supposedly were. Just because something worked in another medium doesn’t mean it will work on film. When adapting any material, be it Daredevil or Dickens, the first thing is to make sure the film works on its own terms. Zack Snyder has fallen prey to this trap in the past (for example, with his overly faithful rendering of Citizen Kane of graphic novels, Watchmen), but I have to be honest. I don’t really like any of his films very much. I’ll concede that 300 was a guilty pleasure on a first viewing, but I knew his approach to Man of Steel would annoy me the moment I read about his dislike of the famous Christopher Reeve momentary fourth wall break during his round the Earth flyby in the original Superman. One of the most thrilling moments of my childhood was when Superman smiled at me, and Zack Snyder thought that was stupid. I suppose I can hardly complain, as I have a similar opinion of his approach to Superman.
For me, the Man of Steel is at his best when doing three things. First, feats of strength. For example, the classic “You’ve got me, who’s got you?” crashing helicopter rescue sequence in the first Superman film, and him saving a crashing aeroplane in Superman Returns (a much misunderstood and underrated film). Secondly, Superman’s mild-mannered, bumbling alter-ego Clark Kent, so definitively portrayed by Christopher Reeve in the first Superman, is an absolutely essential comedic ingredient. Yet here, as in Man of Steel, Clark is all but non-existent in any meaningful way. Thirdly, the romantic relationship between Superman and Lois Lane, which gives the Superman story real heart, is here dull and unconvincing, lacking the wit and warmth of the Reeve/Kidder version.
Because Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is devoid of these essential Superman pleasures for the most part, I can only judge what I am left with, which is, in the main, a disappointingly charmless, boring, headache inducing mess with a few scattered good ideas. Not even the supposedly daring third act addition of the notorious Doomsday story can save it (if you’ve read the original Doomsday comic, you’ll understand what I mean).
Zack Snyder, may Zod have mercy on your soul.