17 April 2016

Review: Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice

(Dir: Zack Snyder, 2016)

How many people out there wanted to see Warner Brothers attempt to kick off The Justice League, much as Marvel teased their burgeoning integrated cinematic universe in Iron Man 2, rather than a true Man of Steel sequel? That film retold a well known origins story in an interesting way, with excellent casting. Henry Cavill proved a superb choice as Clark Kent / Superman, better perhaps than Brandon Routh's much loved turn in the role in Superman Returns, whilst the overall supporting cast of characters really help make the film what it is. Sure it devolved into an hour of mindless destruction (something that seemed more palatable at the cinema than upon rewatching), whilst rubbing some people the wrong way by going against the core ethos of Superman's character. Thus a sequel was nicely set-up to explore these ramifications in more depth and offer a hopefully more interesting, Earth-bound threat. Despite it's flaws Iron Man 2 definitely felt like a sequel, whereas the waters are intentionally muddied here so that's only what we partly get in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.

Without ruining the plot (the title is obviously a clear sell of what's to come), we're presented with Batman (Ben Affleck) who is our cipher for the disappointment in Superman's past actions. This unfortunately puts the focus in the wrong direction as it solely leads to "revenge" as the driver for the inevitable showdown the title promises. A more apt / interesting angle to explore this disappointment through is the congressional hearings prompted by Holly Hunter's senator, but this just scratches the surface, ultimately serving as a plot device for facile soul-searching without better exploring the culpability of actions that save the world; not to mention the interesting undercurrent of America's fear of an almighty being who wants to operate unilaterally and not solely in their interest. Whatever shape a sequel were to take, it was key to address Superman's actions from the first film as it appeared so uncharacteristic, yet it's done in such a purely commercial manner (Superman AND Batman, in the same film, together!!) seemingly because Man of Steel's strong box office was not quite as comparable to more successful, recent superhero films. Yet it tries to disguise this by offering desperate lip service to fanboys who yearn to see Frank Miller's much-loved graphic novel Batman: The Dark Knight Returns on screen, even though this feels utterly different. Maybe it's cynical to view it this way, but the inclusion of Batman seems to be the most important aspect: look at how the film is positioned, whose name is first in the title, face is first on the poster, which actor is credited first, whilst the first five minutes dwell utterly unnecessarily on the death of Bruce Wayne's parents. To it's credit that's really all we get for a Batman origin. However this should be a Superman film and to it's detriment it rarely actually feels like that.

A refreshing decision made when writing Man of Steel was not to include Lex Luther as the villain. He may be the quintessential nemesis of Superman, but that doesn't mean he has to appear (and potentially overshadow) in an origins movie. His presence this time round feels more suitable, not least because of Jesse Eisenberg's casting in the role. Expectedly he plays up the character in an effectively manic, megalomaniacal way, particularly in the first half. The allusions to godliness and such powers are inescapable throughout, and he typifies man's desire to control this whilst bringing a supposedly good god down to flawed human levels. But come the second half it's all gone a little overboard, devolving into plot contrivances and excuses for the digital effects team to go totally wild. Lex initially satisfies the desire for an Earth-bound villain, until he just becomes the puppet master for something far less edifying. Which is a suitable summation of his involvement in the titular showdown too. Eisenberg is enjoyable in this role but his shortcomings come down to what he's given to work with.

The writers, Chris Terrio and David S. Goyer (the former an Oscar winner no less) probably had a thankless job trying to introduce these extraneous characters into this established world. Gal Gadot doesn't have too much to do other than look beautiful in daring dresses whilst briefly playing foil to Bruce Wayne, before turning up for a cgi battle, but there is a satisfying amount of mystery within how she's introduced that bodes well for the future. This approach is really how the Batman character should have been used too. There's an almost bleaker level of darkness at play than in previous portrayals, and the first Bat appearance on screen is menacingly effective, yet by the end he just feels superfluous to the film. Affleck works particularly as Bruce Wayne, portraying an intriguing world-weary dissolution. Arguably he is better than Christian Bale (Michael Keaton remains the actor to beat in this role, followed by Val Kilmerjust for the record) but his Batman is all mechanised bulk accompanied by the inevitably ridiculous-sounding enhanced voice. However the big plus of this character's presence is Jeremy Irons playing Alfred.

There is still good entertainment to be had from Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, especially if you enjoy watching superhero films or this type of big budget spectacle. Sure there's nothing new on offer – yes we've seen heroes fighting each other before and it rarely amounts to much – but because of the players involved and the world that had already been created, it remains (mostly) engaging. Visually it works and in that sense Zack Snyder has to be thanked as that is definitely his forte. He may get a lot of flack but genuinely, every one of his films is enticing and at the very least entertaining. And sound wise it felt big (maybe pushed continuously into the red a bit too often) with the Hans Zimmer / Junkie XL score another asset. But its biggest deficiencies are the result of plotting and story decisions.

Superman's wings really feel like they've been clipped by virtue of giving Batman equal billing, when an extended cameo would've been far more effective. The "versus" angle is one of marketing desperation rather than actual creativity, and never serves the underlying story or even the essence of what was established in the first film. It's hard not to feel robbed of the far more interesting film that Man of Steel left us primed for, especially when intriguing plot ideas and the opportunity to spend time actually seeing Clark Kent figuring out how to be both characters, gets skated over to service this. This is too reminiscent of how Captain America got screwed over after a unique (in the Marvel context) and thoroughly entertaining film that was full of heart, by placing him in a blandly overblown Avengers-lite action sequel. Alas, now that justice has dawned, it's probably futile to hope that Superman might be able to get back to that.

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