Batman Vs Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016)

Zack Snyder directs Ben Affleck, Henry Cavill and Amy Adams in a big screen battle of comic books’ biggest titans. 

I rushed to the big screen this morning to catch the earliest 35mm screening. I know you probably haven’t seen it just yet so have tried to keep my review relatively spoiler free. If it’s not hinted at in the trailer and a genuine surprise I have avoided discussing it. If that’s still potentially too much info for you please stop reading… but basically: Go see Batman Vs Superman, it is a behemoth of a film well worth catching on the big screen.

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Here we go… I refused to get excited about this. Snyder always gives far better trailer than his finished product, and BvS’s direct predecessor Man of Steel was overlong and flawed under his own hand… Nothing in the marketing this time around had suggested that supertanker was about turn around to change from that course. We are $400 million bucks in studio spend further down the line, which is tons to carry even with essentially the biggest, baddest comic book movie ever promised.

But here is what we actually get.

A new, hard edged (it feels R rated) Batman movie. And where does that hard edge come from? The very comics I grew up on and love. Frank Miller’s right wing Neo-Conservative take on Bats and Supes permeates this in design, plotting and philosophy. But there are also the horror elements and definitive take on Alfred reflecting Scott “No relation” Snyder’s current run, plus a healthy dollop of Dan Jurgens work on Superman in there too. Forget how you feel about Zack Snyder’s bombast, volume and hubris for at long last he has directed the most loyal and faithful comic book adaptation yet. This feels how a comic book fan selects and interprets Batman… not how a Nolan or a Burton used him as jumping of point for their own vision. 7 films in, and the boy Snyder, a director with all the enthusiasm and restraint of a toddler scribbling on a A1 sheet,  has finally done good. Loyalty to source is the film’s true strength and as a DC fan BvS sated me in surprising ways.

Not that this strength will do much for your casual viewer. Given the key text (The Dark Knight Returns) the film is unavoidably and often horrendously right wing. I am not a particularly PC person but you just ask in your head automatically “Why has parent murdering Joe Chill been made darker skinned than his usual pale junkie look?” The big government subplot about trying to sanction the Superman is directionless and thankfully put to bed at the midway point. And this psychotically violent, Nietzscheian interpretations of the joint title characters comes straight out of 80’s Miller and is not in anyway really suited to a 21st century family flick. If you flinched when Kal-El killed Zod last time round, then this multiple life taking, villian branding take on the Batman will give you a convulsive fit. Burton and Nolan may have taken the material off to rewarding new places that made their blockbusters palatable to the uninitiated viewer looking for a good night out, whereas Snyder has produced a punching and kicking conservative manifesto, setting out in stone the real politick of the two capes’ darkest urges, action and motivations. This will be an unsettling ride for those who enjoy the bland and unchallenging Marvel adaptations that are so popular at the moment.

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Fealty and ideology (no matter how disagreeable… it’s nice a film this expensive has one) aside, what are BvS strengths? Ben Affleck for starters, mains and desserts. His take on Batman may add nothing new to the dark knight in action, but his Bruce Wayne is a revelation. The most interesting interpretation of the billionaire orphan since Michael Keaton’s ying yang mixture of intensity and slightly stoned spaced out-ness. Affleck is suave yet battered, committed yet broken. In fact whenever he is without cowl the film is at its most involving.

After getting the standard cinema alleyway / mugging / pearls murder of the Waynes out of the way while we are still finding our seats, Affleck and Snyder launch us into the best sequence of the film entire. Bruce Wayne races through the finale of Man of Steel saving lives on the ground level as chaos pours down. We have had set pieces synchronised to previous films set pieces before in Back to the Future 2 and Terminator Genisys but here it feels the boldest and most necessary, yet without a time travel machine in sight. We need to see Bruce introduced as heroic because what unfurls for the next two hours is a hard drinking, chaos hating man trying to burn his stamp on a world out of control. In any other film, Bats would easily be the villian given his actions and plot developments. It is testament to Affleck and our own long built up love of the Caped Crusader that his vendetta against the invincible alien saviour never loses our sympathy.

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You may have noticed there has not been much word count given to Clark Kent so far. As before, Cavill looks great as Superman and is a fine actor, but equally still gets so few opportunities to charm us as his bumbling alter ego. There is not really room, nor any intention, to give tribute to Christopher Reeve’s definitive performance here and that is fine, understandable even,  but then nothing really juicy takes its place. His romance with Lois is given short shrift again (5 hours of Nu-Superman screentime now and we’ve never seen them happy). A wasted Amy Adams is sent off on a pointless sub plot until the finale. Supes should be the heart of this world. Here again – he’s just a decorative shell to be worshipped and looked up to.

Man of Steel was rushed into production so Warner Brothers would not lose the character rights, BvS superseded the production of that film’s sequel as a movie universe launching gambit. No further Superman solo adventures are planned. The studio clearly didn’t and don’t want to see old Red Blue and Gold in his own adventure unless their hand is forced and such treatment of the character as a mere commodity still protrudes and chafes away at our viewing pleasure even here.

Batman’s name comes first on the title for a reason. He sells more tickets, is worth the investment of casting an established star as and all interaction between characters, even those solely within the limits of Metropolis and Smallville seem subservient to his brand. (Amy Adams pointlessly investigating a bullet excepted)  I wonder if the film would pass a warped version of the Bechdel Test. Do two characters ever have a conversation that does not involve or further the Batman’s agenda? It leaves Superman feeling like a MacGuffin rather than a character. And further into the action as an end of level boss to be beaten, not pointedly, even an end of game boss either.

As for other characters introduced…

Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman impresses with just over a dozen lines and a few scenes. She proves essential in the finale, setting a tone for future team ups and adding to the concept of a world where there’ll be challenges that B&S cannot face merely on their own or even together. Her inclusion feels like an essential step in the right direction for WB’s future franchise plans and even if BvS struggles to make the astronimcal amount it needs to break even, having a Wonder Woman release already scheduled is the DC Universe’s strongest looking lifeline currently. I’ll be there on opening night.

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Jesse Eisenberg’s Lex Luther is a mannered freak who feels more like a mouthy agent of chaos a la The Joker than the businessman who can outsmart gods. His motivations are muddy and too often he stands a bit too close to the deadly traps he sets in motion than is believably sensible. Still I found him a fun and modern take on a character that the unchallengeable Gene Hackman has owned since I was born. Given the strange direction and potential poisoned chalice, Eisenberg owns it. A moment where he flicks Polaroids at Superman’s face is a boo-hiss highlight. The scamp.

As for all the other superheroes hinted at… They get a little interlude with no real bearing on the plot. Echoes from a potential future that don’t hang around long enough to clog up the 150 minute of vigilante versus alien action you have bought a ticket for. A relief.

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Storytelling wise the film has the same pluses and minuses as Man of Steel. It is a film of fine moments that build and give way to lengthy punch ups of ridiculous scale by the end.  Hans Zimmer’s score is not quite as persuasive but has a nice callback to Led Zepellin’s The Immigrant Song when Wonder Woman and Superman team up. Zack Snyder produces some amazing frames that have very little bearing on the plot, then some very messy CGI moments in the last hour at troubling volume. If he does direct the Justice League films there should be a golden rule that Superman can only be thrown or throw someone into a building once… And that is once a film. No matter how long the film is.

Yet it is a marked improvement on Man of Steel. Batman, and Affleck, bring a focus to the entire endeavour missing from the last film. He’s just a more reactive and engaging protagonist, especially when cast as well as he has been. And even when we fall into the inevitable final overload of effect heavy set pieces, the stakes and the solutions are far more clearly spelled out. You are not passively waiting for a neck to snap, there is teamwork needed to get all the elements in place… creating that much needed ally of action. Tension.

You’ll still feel battered and exhausted by the final credits. But entertained by a story well told. With all the crayons available to one of cinema’s biggest and most enthusiastic scribblers.

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