It is no secret that I am not a fan of Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel, the first in Warner Bros. attempt at a DC Cinematic Universe (or the DC Extended Universe, as they appear to be calling it). It was a glum, poorly written, pretentious, and dumb attempt at dragging the icon of Superman into the 21st Century. It fared relatively well at the box-office but both fan and critical reception was divisive to say the least. It is for that reason that this ‘sequel’ to Man of Steel comes with a little added Caped Crusader. The decision to reboot Batman in only the second film of the Extended Universe must have been driven by the desire to reach bigger box-office numbers, and perhaps more favour with fans. Some may say that they were setting themselves up to fail, what with the widely beloved Nolan Trilogy still incredibly fresh in collective memory. As a result, the film hasn’t stormed the box-office as desired, what with a barrage of scathing reviews. Batman v Superman is as inelegant as blockbusters come, perhaps even more so than Man of Steel. But, to say it isn’t fun is to ignore aspects of what is possibly the strangest comic book movie to arrive in recent years.
With the arrival of Superman (Henry Cavill), the world has had to face up to the fact that mankind is not alone in the universe, and must also address who Superman is, what he stands for, and if he can be trusted. In the wake of the destruction in Metropolis caused by Superman’s battle with Zod, Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck), who also practices vigilantism as the Batman in Gotham City, doesn’t believe the Son of Krypton can be left unchecked. With Batman keen to find a way to put the Man of Steel in his place, eccentric entrepreneur Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg) sees an opportunity to pit the two together in order to rid the world of Superman for good (or something like that).
BvS is a fundamentally flawed film, and that is largely down to a screenplay that fails to carve clear paths of motivations for its various characters found within (and boy, are there a lot of characters). It is an un-structured, cluttered, often aimless, loud, obnoxious mess. It is a collection of set-pieces, dream-sequences, Senate meetings and email correspondences that all amount in a film that while often difficult to follow, is not unlike reading a DC comic-book. Calling upon imagery from The Dark Knight Returns, the art of Alex Cross, story arcs of Dan Jurgens and further Frank Miller texts, this feels a great deal more like a comic book movie than Man of Steel, and in a way more so than The Dark Knight trilogy. It doesn’t entirely forgive it for its sloppy story-telling, but it gives it a relentless sense of pace and means that it is not afraid to get weird. And boy, does it get weird.
Much of the strangeness comes courtesy of Eisenberg as Lex Luthor. His performance belongs in an entirely different film, something that wouldn’t be amiss in a Joel Schumacher Bat-flick. His twitches and eccentricities cloud his agenda, but do make him a credible threat, as it is often hard to predict exactly what he’s going to do next. His motivation is murky as hell, and he is too far removed from Luthor in both the pages of the comics and previous screen incarnations, but he feels dangerous enough to pose a threat, and to push our heroes buttons to get them to rumble in the concrete jungle.
The two heroes themselves are something of a mixed bag. Let’s start with the good. Ben Affleck’s Bruce Wayne/Batman is a strong contender for being the best screen incarnation we have seen thus far. What about Bale, I hear you cry. Bale’s Wayne was infinitely more successful than his oft parodied Batman, complete with gruff growl, this Bat is made of much meaner stuff, and cuts a far more imposing figure than Bale ever did. The writing does let Affleck down, but he imbues both his Wayne and his Bat with a heap of regret that perhaps only a man with Affleck’s past could. The choreography attributed to this Bat is also a wonder to behold, as his brawler styling truly characterises him as one pissed-off vigilante who is way beyond the point of giving a shit about the lives of the scum of Gotham City. It is a controversial decision, but provides enough weight to suggest that this Batman is one with a history, and not a particularly colourful one.
Superman is another matter. Cavill is once again given very little to do in a film which should have been his sequel. This is a Superman who seems to blatantly refuse to state his position in the world, for no good reason other than he’s a bit moody. One of the the biggest fundamental mistakes of this film is having both Batman and Superman as two characters who seem at odds with the world, and whose tactics at deploying justice are not too dissimilar, despite what the film may want you to think (they both kill people for chrissakes). The main reason these characters work well in a universe together is that their approaches to justice are so different, so when you have both of them being depressed individuals, the dynamic simply doesn’t work. This Superman becomes so passive through the course of this film that it is truly hard to invest in him as either a hero or a dubious figure. The actual bout between the two DC titans is well choreographed, but ultimately fails to work emotionally, as the motivations are unclear, with the factor that puts a stop to the fight coming across as hilarious rather an smart.
What truly hampers the film is its attempts to address the criticisms of Man of Steel and in its world-building, namely with attempting to draw threads for next year’s Justice League. The main criticisms of Man of Steel that it aims to address concern the amount of destruction and sheer number of civilian causalities that seemed to be entirely disregarded by the writers (and therefore by Superman). Its constant asides to acknowledge that a certain area is clear are often unintentionally hilarious, and in the end rather pointless as the final act simply descends into the same moronic, button-bashing action stylings that coloured most of Man of Steel.
The Justice League set up is where the film is at its most lazy and its most laughable. While Wonder Woman, in the form of the beautiful but rather bland Gal Gadot, is present (complete with a rollicking theme), she is disappointingly very inconsequential to the proceedings, seemingly only present so that Bruce Wayne can send her an email containing video clips of other future Justice League members. What Marvel took their time to do over the course of five films, BvS attempts in an email, and it is just as lazy, dumb and uninspired as that sounds.
BvS does seem to have weakened the DC Extended Universe more than it has strengthened it. While I enjoyed myself a darn sight more than I did in Man of Steel, there is no escaping that Snyder and co. still get a hell of a lot wrong. Snyder remains a strong visualist, but one who has a poor sense of judgement when it comes to character, while my hatred for David S. Goyer requires another post entirely. What we have here is a strange and disparate movie, one akin to dumping a bucket load of bouncy balls on a table top n the hope that some stay on the surface. It remains to be seen how DC’s future will pan out, and for the sake of the characters (most of whom I have a great deal of affection for), I hope this extended universe can be both critically and commercially successful. Guess we’re just going to have to be patient.
2/5- BvS is Blockbuster Cinema at its most unsophisticated, resulting in an un-intentionally hilarious, only occasionally inspired, yet never dull take on two pop culture icons.