Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016)

★★★

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Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice PosterDirector: Zack Snyder

Release Date: March 25th, 2016 (UK & US)

Genre: Action; Adventure; Fantasy

Starring: Henry Cavill, Ben Affleck, Gal Gadot, Amy Adams

It’s not ideal when Warner Bros’ DC-Extended-Universe-launching Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice opens with the murder of Bruce Wayne’s parents, something we’ve seen a million times. And when shortly thereafter a bat levitation sequence greets the screen, you start to wonder how much hassle it’d be to squeeze past the people in your row while heading for the exit. Fortunately, it transpires the bat levitation horror is part of a dream sequence and, fortunately, better things start to happen. Wonder Woman shows up, for one. Also known as Diana Prince, she is fuelled by a magnificent grunge-rock theme, her steely identity reinforced by Gal Gadot’s very believable sense of authority.

Conversely, authority is what Lex Luthor lacks, and this quality trade-off sums the movie up — as good as it is bad. In simple terms, the film revolves around Luthor’s war manifesto: he wants Batman and Superman to destroy each other so he can rule the world, or something. Luthor is an oddball played with typical eccentricity by Jesse Eisenberg, a blend of James Franco’s Harry Osborn and a young Steve Jobs, but madder. Violin strings squawk whenever he appears, rambling about this and that, rarely making sense and never really cementing himself in any sort of cohesive way. He fulfils the usual big-corp-honcho-posing-as-a-philanthropist remit, unavoidable given the nature of adapting iconic comic book characters, but nonetheless tired by this point.

Eisenberg does try to mask Luthor’s commonality: there’s hardly a moment when the actor isn’t sparking vocal idiosyncrasies and, if you’ll excuse the faint praise, this at least gives the character a strange watchability. Luthor suffers from a lack of focus because there are so many moving parts, too many for writers Chris Terrio and David S. Goyer to mould legibly. See, character-wise, those present aren’t the only ones afforded set-up time. A Joker reference nods towards the upcoming Suicide Squad film. We see other future players too, though I would be remiss to give away the game in a review. Such a scattergraph approach attests to the film’s overarching problem — unbridled messiness. This is as much a franchise player as any Marvel jaunt, perhaps even more so since Snyder has to colour the narratives of so many bare pawns.

The mess extends beyond personnel; some moments appear hastily written, including an exchange right at the beginning where Wayne orders an employee to evacuate everyone from a building on a collision course with Superman and General Zod (surely everyone would have already scampered). It’s a return to the conclusion of Man of Steel but from Wayne’s ground zero perspective. Sure enough, the building tumbles — a Bruce Wayne building — and we have our central conceit: Wayne blames Superman for the destruction and, like Luthor, wants to end the Kryptonian’s apparent clumsiness. Yet the dust cloud that forms following said collapse ushers in a more interesting discussion than anything levied by the Bat of Gotham versus Son of Krypton action-fest. It’s a physical manifestation of the domestic terror that has threatened urban centres with impetus since 9/11, a theme the film runs with for an hour, swapping 9/11 for Metropolis duel.

There’s anger too, primarily on the Bat front. Christopher Nolan’s Batman had a streak of grounded and gritty reality, whereas this Snyder incarnation abides by something more militant: the steely armour, the bulked up costume, the egregious surveillance, his branding of enemies. And while Nolan’s version felt less ‘idealistic superhero’ and more ‘corruption crusader’, a man truly immersed in his surroundings, the version Affleck portrays here has only a single broad stroke to work with. Affleck hasn’t had the time to embed his version of the character into the prospective DC landscape, therefore it is difficult to understand his psyche and run with his arc. We only really see him for what he is: a vigilante with weapons and a bone to pick.

It is worth noting Batman does carry some allure and Affleck is good in the role. Henry Cavill is too, though his protagonist is significantly less interesting. The key idea surrounding his Superman threatens intrigue — he is the alien, the immigrant, the other targeted by Batman (the homegrown defender, the familiar in an unfamiliar world) because of his undemocratic power. Few comic book characters are more symbolic than Clark Kent’s alter ego, but he exists at a time when people cannot stand for anything because “it’s not 1938”. Moral righteousness has no place in this tainted wasteland and some don’t trust Superman, nor his upstanding mantra, for that reason. Anti-alien rallies cosy up with real life immigration debates, a comparison that gains further traction when we see Mexican Day of the Dead revellers side with their saviour.

But as a standalone character, he isn’t all that compelling. It’s probably a personal thing but I don’t quite see much attraction in an almost indestructible hero. We watch as Superman saves civilians from floods and fires and you wonder why anybody would hold a grudge against the guy — he is almost too good, too successful. And for someone who spends his spare time in a newsroom, it still boggles the mind that none of his colleagues are able to connect the Kent-Super dots. Lois also feels like a bit of a fifth wheel; she gets some reporting gigs and Amy Adams is fine, but there isn’t anything new going on. Her relationship with Kent advances little, for instance — she still believes in him and he still loves her.

Despite a promising first act, Snyder falls foul of his Man of Steel misdemeanours and throws caution to the CG wind via the film’s inevitable big battle (which, by the way, is sold on a falsehood). The physical saga feels bloated and is tough to engage with as you don’t yet believe in those doing the punching. Whereas the opening hour soars visually across scorching desert locales and through symbolic shots of Batman watching over his city, the second half of the movie gorges on disorienting and choppy action, both dimly lit and loudly enacted. It’s probably not as bad as the Man of Steel disaster but only because Wonder Woman is around on this occasion.

“So what does a rock have to do with homeland security?” asks Holly Hunter’s Kentucky Senator June Finch early on. Well, the film does devolve into a clash with a large Golem-like creature, where concrete buildings again suffer and gravelly terrain floods urban zones. And sure, that type of thing regularly happens in Marvel land, but Marvel land is also home to a multitude of richly-imbued characters. There is this idea sewn throughout Batman v Superman that power and goodness cannot coexist. The film has a lot of surface power and it’s no better than quite good, though there are artefacts worth salvaging.

Batman v Superman: Dawn Of Justice - Henry Cavill

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Warner Bros.

The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (2015)

★★★

The Man from UNCLE PosterDirector: Guy Ritchie

Release Date: August 14th, 2015 (UK & US)

Genre: Action; Adventure; Comedy

Starring: Henry Cavill, Armie Hammer, Alicia Vikander

If you have a particular preference for buddy cop movies set in 1960s Eastern Europe (technically it is Western Europe but the prevailing Cold War atmosphere favours the former) starring a Brit playing an American, an American playing a Russian and Swede playing a German, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is absolutely your kind of film. For those whose tastes spread more generally, Guy Ritchie’s latest adaptation is still an enjoyable and, for the most part, enticing action flick.

The director’s trademark style is plain to see — though in no way plain — from the beginning. We are introduced almost immediately to Henry Cavill’s Napoleon Solo, an exceedingly well kept CIA agent whose mission takes him to East Berlin where he must track down mechanic Gaby Teller (Alicia Vikander). KGB handyman Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer) is also after Teller, whose family has ties to a complicated plot involving Nazi experimentation and nuclear weaponry.

An opening duel between the opposing operatives lights the fuse on a two hour game of one-upmanship. It’s almost comic book-ish, with kinetic pans across bleak urban locales and camera zooms in towards an extended car chase providing much verve. This early sequence in particular harkens back to Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes series, the dark and shadowy inflections of Victorian London incorporated again here, reflecting our two protagonists’ use of stealth and smarts as they attempt to gain the upper hand (shades of grey and black diagonally segment Solo’s face in scrumptious Hitchcockian fashion). The rest of the movie is mostly bright, its colour palette part of the confident — arrogant, even — bulbous energy.

Solo is no Han, though he and Teller do share a smidgen of Han and Leia’ feistiness (none of the romance). The agent exudes sarcasm and is a smarmy git, but Cavill’s cool swagger draws our affection; at one point Solo, in the midst of passing out, perfectly positions a few pillows beneath his head. The characterisation isn’t always this strong — Vikander’s seemingly distant chess piece stumbles through a faltering arc during which her actions are never really vindicated. The most egregiousness part is Teller and Kuryakin’s will-they-won’t-they relationship which feels too blasé for a film that is trying to be clever and slick.

There is a confident flow to proceedings when the two male leads are bantering back and forth. They are spies by trade but also convince as fashionistas, socialites and passive fiancés (well, sort of). Aside from the excellent opening, a team-up mission that both men wish to keep a secret is the film’s most entertaining occasion. It’s like an affair that neither operative wants to go public, and you buy into the individually-driven egotism each man displays.

Both actors assume their roles — Cavill as the upmarket Bond, Hammer as the brutish Bourne — with ease, a notion perhaps best embodied by a gadget-off at the beginning of said mission that sees Solo’s technical prowess out-muscled by Kuryakin’s straight-to-the-point mantra. The entire heist is a fine experiment in combative wit and told-you-so derision.

At one point we see then-President John F. Kennedy within the confines of a television screen, a reminder that events are unfolding in a paranoid and antagonistic setting. Ritchie needed to inject more of this uneasy tone, and should’ve taken a page out of The Winter Soldier’s book in doing so. It should be noted that John Mathieson’s crisp cinematography does evoke an effective era look, richly textured and striking in delivery.

But as snazzy a period piece as it is, the movie shares the same unfortunate lack of interest in exploring the suspicious undercurrents of its period as Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation. We only really get broad East versus West strokes. The violence is kept to a minimum, which hampers any prevailing danger — greater bite would have upped the ante. It doesn’t have to be Fury, but an additional layer of grit would’ve assisted in shifting the characters from comic sketches to real-ish people.

There is an awful lot of exposition laced throughout too — the film disguises this information overload by getting most of it out the way in a snappy manner, zipping through newspaper clippings and newsreels during action lulls. “Whoever has that disk will simply be the most powerful nation in the world,” one character informs us before reaching through the screen and administering a collective elbow nudge to the audience.

The plot is quite messy. A plethora of agents, spies and turncoats are all invoked though many arrive without a sufficient backstory, or with a rushed one at best. Take the Vinciguerras for example, a villainous power couple who only seem to radiate villainy because they happen to be a power couple. As such it becomes increasingly difficult not only to engage with whichever talking head is around, but also to follow the intricacies of who is motivated to do what and why.

Hugh Grant shows up every now and again as Waverly (because he’s British — he even mutters the line, “Yes please. Thank you very much,” to compound the polite British stereotype). But Grant is so poised and brilliant in the role that it works. He’s a scene-stealer, possibly the best aspect of the movie. Now there’s at least one man from U.N.C.L.E. who deserves a sequel.

The Man from UNCLE - Cavill & Hammer

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Warner Bros. Pictures

Man of Steel (2013)

★★

Man of Steel PosterDirector: Zack Snyder

Release Date: June 14th, 2013 (UK & US)

Genre: Action; Adventure; Fantasy

Starring: Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Michael Shannon

Batman fans, close your ears. It’s time to come clean: Zack Snyder has a very iffy track record. For every ingenious graphic novel re-imagining there’s a hollow sucker punch. Presently, we can only cross our limbs loyal to Nolan and hope for a Snyder hit in 2016, but if his upcoming superhero face-off is anything like Man of Steel, it’d be best to quell those dreams. This Superman reboot isn’t anything to scream about, not unless those screams are riddled with unsavoury expletives. There are one or two great moments that only serve to thicken Snyder’s woes, acting as snippets of what could have been. Rather, what we see is disjointed, all-too-familiar and far too reliant on CGI. Never has a superhero gallivant felt like nothing more than just an opening act. And a pretty measly one, at that.

Having been sent to Earth by his parents during the destruction of planet Krypton, Clark Kent (Henry Cavill) has grown up as an outsider surrounded by humanity. Displaying otherworldly powers, Clark eventually discovers the truth behind his own origin but is encouraged to retain secrecy. That is, until General Zod (Michael Shannon) threatens to harvest Earth and terraform the planet for the benefit of his and Clark’s Kryptonian race. Buoyed on by a robust moral code and assurances from journalist Lois Lane (Amy Adams), the newly christened Superman must live up to his moniker.

In its primitive stages, Man of Steel is caressed by a solid narrative basis. We watch Clark’s early journey through life, sometimes in the form of flashbacks that are invariably effective. His struggles to adapt are pitted against an authentic prerogative to help others. As a child he rescues a bus-full of school compatriots yet instantly reverts back into an attitude funded by reclusion. It’s not instantly clear why, but we soon realise. (“People are afraid of what they don’t understand.”) The superhero genre is fully literate when it comes to principle-juggling and any subsequent strands of righteousness, therefore these elements ought to be employed with a twist. Sadly this one’s on the straight and narrow.

Despite being touted as one of 2013’s biggest extravaganzas prior to release, the outing carries an inertness that compromises any ingenuity. David S. Goyer’s screenplay is bombarded by exposition from the get-go, so much so that what we’re watching feels like an hour long prelude to proceedings when in fact, said time frame is the opening to the main event. There’s a lot of talk about genetic codices. Other than his commonly applied Superman title, our lead has two further names bestowed upon him: Clark and Kal-El. He also seemingly vacuums his way through an inordinate amount of jobs, from fisherman to military aider. All of this time spent building up the central character is unnecessary. As opposed to presenting Superman/Clark/Kal-El within a context of effective simplicity, Goyer’s script tends to opt for overcomplicating matters.

By the time we meet love interest Lois Lane the film has gone through a descriptive rigour. From what appears to be an unduly long opening act, events meander into a CGI-stuffed conclusion, equally unnecessary in length. A whole central act is missing, one that should cement our character’s mindsets and throw up internal hostilities. Lois goes from an investigative reporter interested in Clark’s uncanny abilities to his romantic concern after only a single scene — if not for Amy Adams’ charm infusion, her character would’ve been as pithy as they come. This is a two hour film that flies by, but not in a fun-induced fully-engrossing manner. Instead, lost narrative chunks highlight a lack of meaty content. Forget drama, the filmmakers’ seem satisfied with generic set-up and action.

And there is a lot of action. On occasion, the film sends out pleas for resuscitation through energetic sequences and flamboyant visual turns. Apart from all the bombastic alien light shows and exotic explosions (did somebody invite Michael Bay over?) Man of Steel purveys a gritty realism that actually works in its favour. Snyder utilises shaky cam and a monochromatic colour pallet as a means to present Superman within realistic boundaries, an attempt to show the apparently indestructible being as quite possibly human after all. It’s a shame that CGI-gorging eventually prevails in a display of all-encompassing consumption. One fight scene towards the end is particularly unforgivable in its obvious computerisation. Realism is substituted for video game-esque exaggerations, removing rather than endearing us to goings-on. Perhaps Snyder is indulging himself here — he certainly loves his ‘low, rapidly approaching blast of wind’ camera shots.

Michael Shannon is a left-field choice to play the main villain General Zod, but a choice that transpires to be the best thing about Man of Steel. His arrival on Earth is greeted with discomforting eeriness, the “You are not alone” telecast proving to be one of the film’s most successful moments in terms of emotional circulation. Sporting a peculiar white goatee, Shannon is domineering as Zod, facial expressions stoic and purposeful, overcoming the infrequent dialogue faux-pas. (“Release the world engine” might be the least intimidating line a villain has ever uttered when in the process of launching a deadly attack.) Dawning the red cape, Henry Cavill also does well. It’s a huge role and he isn’t afforded much to sink his teeth into, but the Brit relays just enough of a charismatic glimpse to signal a productive future. Russell Crowe manifests every now and then as Superman’s biological father, his efforts wholesome but not entirely effective. Frostiness battles affection, and the former usually wins.

Zack Snyder’s Superman revival is weighed down by a tendency to streamline towards convention. The film is essentially a carbon copy of Kenneth Branagh’s Thor, only it severely lacks the Norse God’s raucous charm and humour. Here, superficial reigns supreme. Wearing more than few chinks in the armour, Man of Steel is a bit of a dud.

Man of Steel - Henry Cavill

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Warner Bros.