Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016)

★★★

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.

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.