Zack Snyder, 2016, USA
Of course, the subheading really doesn’t mean much apart from its own bombast and the promise of The Justice League as an upcoming franchise. ‘Batman vs Superman’ is more concerned with the question of vigilantism and heroism than justice (although in this genre these are ordinarily conflated). At least initially. You have Superman and Batman and the film takes a long time to set them against one another and making this an even fight. When one of Superman’s epic battles, smashing aliens and bad guys through the city, kills those in Wayne towers, Bruce Wayne sets on a path to bring Superman down.
But the world of the Batman has already won: Superman – the supposed antithesis of Batman, representing brightness and hope and overcoming disasters, a general colourfulness, etc – has been placed in the bleak world of the Dark Knight. He no longer wears his mantle of godhood with ease. The colour-scheme is so drained that it might as well be in black-and-white (which makes the appearance of the Batmobile a little hard to make out). The running theme is Destroy Your Gods: in Batman taking on the Man of Steel, to Lex Luthor’s nefarious plan to the people’s protesting at Superman’s supposed wrong doing. And surely there’s a little envy in the way Batman knows he can never do as much to save people as Superman? The film touches on this but never quite uses this to flesh things out, to make Batman’s motivation a little hubristic.
There is so little humour here that when these guys wonder aloud who Wonder Woman is with, this lighter touch comes as somewhat a surprise: no one is expecting an ‘Avengers’ roster of quips, but the glimmer of a lightness-of-touch reveals how monochrome the approach is and that a little humour would have gone a long way to adding texture. For example, treating the fact that Lois Lane always gets saved by Superman – indeed, this is a major plot point – with a little knowing humour might have helped mitigate how problematic this is for a contemporary female character. This is a continuation of the darker, angst-ridden depiction of Superman as introduced by Snyder in ‘Man of Steel’. In that sense, Superman already met ‘The Dark Knight’. No one stays good all the time, says Superman before flying off with this apparently now part of his ethos. This might appeal more to my particular taste (I prefer things a little jaded) but I am also not certain this is correct for Superman.
But what I can’t quite see is why ‘Batman vs Superman’ would have a harsher reception than ‘Avengers: Age of Ultron’ which was surely just as guilty of clunkiness, pomposity, bad moments and franchise appeasement. I felt ‘Ultron’ was as undemanding and… well, diverting but not perpetually good, covering up its flaws with perpetual quips; just as Snyder covers them up with faux-seriousness. Although I continue to admire how JJ Abrams balanced all the characters/franchises without dropping the ball. It demanded as much from me as the much-loathed ‘Fantastic Four’ (2015) film, for example. ‘Batman vs Superman’ is indeed guilty of being overstuffed (which I don’t necessarily mind) and there are several moments where things don’t get to breathe properly – for example, the speed with which Diana Prince gets an email and discovers other metahumans and just immediately shuts her laptop upon viewing the videos is unintentionally humorous. It takes a while for Batman to steal the Kryptonite, etc., but the speed with which other metahumans are introduced feels very much Oh, and this too! You can almost feel the joins of the studio demands of a franchise introduction being pasted onto Chris Terrio and David A Goyer's ready-written script (or, as a general joke goes, a half-finished screenplay that got filmed).
So, no, I don’t really think this is the worst superhero movie ever. It’s true that it’s hard to take its po-faced “superhero landing” seriously after ‘Deadpool’ and it’s true that it has some dodgy dialogue; that it speeds over some areas of narrative so fast it produces potholes and labours over other points; that Jesse Eisenberg is allowed to let all his annoying tics run wild as if he is channelling Lex Luthor via The Joker. Or do I have this wrong and Eisenberg, as A.A. Dowd has it, actually the only one having fun. And for what it’s worth: Ben Affleck makes good Batman; Henry Cavill looks good but is saddled with a mopey Superman that he can’t do much with; Gal Gadot as Diana Prince doesn’t get to do much here except look good in red in a washed-out world and hog the most slo-mo poses.
But what does it get right? If you think things are too easy to resolve for Superman, then most of his action gets brief screentime. There is a great Batman fight (featured in the trailer but late in the film) that is given time to play out and, although it’s not quite ‘The Raid’ or the kind of fight we see in the ‘Daredevil’ series, it goes some way to showing how this one man can beat gangs of bad guys. There are fanboy Easter eggs, such as Batman’s battle-suite being blocky a’la Frank Miller’s ‘The Dark Knight’; or an appearance by what looks like Zombie Superman.Then, when the Doomsday plot kicks in (and the shift to this different film is surely major evidence why people think it’s overwritten) Batman is relegated to the sidelines more to let Superman and Wonder Woman – the invulnerable ones – take centre stage, which is certainly sensible. It’s a Zack Syder film, which means it is often as good as it is bad and only as good as the script. For example: ‘Watchmen’, good; ‘Suckerpunch’, bad bad bad. And if the opening credits are trying to ape the technique of ‘The Watchmen’, the fact that it’s simply summarising Batman’s origin story – again! – surely makes it too familiar to be in any way exceptional. This is a director that has helmed two of the best openings in genre film: ‘Dawn of the Dead’ and ‘Watchmen’. He has also brought us ‘300’ and ‘Suckerpunch’. So with ‘Batman vs Superman’ I found I always had an eye on the flaws, but since my expectations were so low that I was surprised that it wasn’t as bad as I’d been led to believe.
And if the first half of the film stems from the genre problem of what to do with all the fall-out of mass destruction from a super-fight, this self-analysis is all washed away in the third act when surely hundreds and thousands died in the showdown. Talk about carnage. In fact, all the time (in the fiction as well as in actual watched minutes) it takes to set up the premise seems redundant when it amounts to a final act that undoes any thinking or themes that came before. Snyder apparently cannot help but be enamoured by super-beings being punched through a sequence of sky scrapers, or characters moving bad-assly and heroically in slo-mo towards the camera. In that sense one can see why he has been chosen as a superhero director of preference, happily delivering the clichés and managing the enterprise with some hard-faced fare even as the most successful Marvel entries are those with large wodges of tongue-in-cheek.
It would seem that Christopher Nolan’s Batman films have cast a long shadow still over the DC Universe. As a friend of mine said, it’s probably not what Snyder was aiming for, but it’s fine. ‘Batman vs Superman’ isn’t special in any way, but it’s not nearly as some would have it. And I guess that's damning with faint praise.