Well, folks - it’s finally here. The movie many of us have been eagerly anticipating - and dreading - to arrive since the clocks hit 2016. After what has felt like an near-endless flurry of Marvel movies, it’s finally time for DC Comics to come back to the plate and prove they can still deliver the kind of heavy-hitting that kicked today’s comic-book movie revolution into full gear.
Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies are now a trilogy of legend; they proved that The Caped Crusader’s dark mythos could not only be translated perfectly to screen, but also pave a way for a whole market of moody comic book sagas to follow them. Superman was an obvious franchise to attempt emulation of its winning formula, and has so far achieved more middling success. Its 21st century reboot ordained itself with the surprisingly forgotten Superman Returns, while Man of Steel felt more like a step in the right direction, despite a persistent presence of critics. To put it mildly though, neither superhero has done too badly with their return to silver screen, so it’s no wonder that endless speculation and fan wishes ultimately led DC to milk that most inevitable of cash-cows - take the pair of them, put them in a movie, and make them fight each other.
And by gosh, we wanted it, didn’t we? How we whooped with joy when the project was announced! How we sighed in disappointment when Christopher Nolan only took an executive producer role. How we groaned in frustration when Zack Snyder took the director’s chair instead. And how quickly we reached for those pitchforks when Ben Affleck got the Batman role. With the movie’s development, we’ve had an emotional rollercoaster of a ride before the film even hit theaters. But whether we approach this juggernaut head on with dampened spirits or resilient enthusiasm, we finally get to meet it at least. And my goodness, it isn’t pretty.
It’s fairly entertaining, but it isn’t pretty.
Batman v Superman’s plot resides itself largely on the basic premise that its two main protagonists acknowledge the other as a menace, whose threat far outweighs the good they supposedly do in their respective cities. In the aftermath of Superman’s (Henry Cavill) battle with General Zod at the end of Man of Steel, Metropolis was left devastated by a trail of city-wide carnage that has left its people weary of his presence. It’s a disaster that has left Congress in a quandary on what to do about their supposed guardian, an anomaly whose god-like status among Earth’s citizens now serves to amplify public fear. Wayne’s own grudges against him stem from a more personal place however (doesn’t it always?) - Gotham’s enigmatic mogul was also a witness to the chaos in Metropolis, including the destruction of the city’s branch of Wayne Enterprises and the deaths of the employees within it. Naturally, he’s pretty peeved about it, but Clark Kent (Henry Cavill) isn’t exactly appreciative of Batman either, viewing Wayne’s own methods of civil peacekeeping as lawless thuggery, rather than modern justice.
With both sides already willing to go at each other’s throats, all that is needed is a little manipulation to turn their simmering grudges into an all-out battle. Leave that role up to an all-too-familiar bloodline that has plagued Superman since his arrival on Earth. Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg), son of his namesake, is hell-bent on obtaining some kryptonite so he can fulfil his father’s legacy and destroy the Last Son of Krypton once and for all. He’s even roping in U.S Senator June Finch (Holly Hunter) to grant LexCorp permission to salvage the deadly element from General Zod’s ship, which has been left dormant since the latter’s failed conquest. Wayne is already snooping around Luthor’s underworld dealings in order to identify a mysterious individual known as ‘The White Portuguese’, who’s been smuggling illicit goods into America. Surprise surprise, he eventually discovers that the moniker is a smokescreen for Luthor’s entire kryptonite operation.
Troubled by what he perceives as prophetic dream sequences of Superman’s own eventual coup of the planet, Wayne sees the Kryptonian’s lethal weakness as an opportunity to bring the rule of justice back into humanity’s favour. He sets out to snatch the kryptonite for his own use as a weapon against the Man of Steel, expecting to lure Superman into a one-on-one showdown. What he doesn’t expect is to also force Luthor to raise the stakes even higher. With no kryptonite left to kill Superman with, Luthor attempts experiments on General Zod’s corpse, targeting the fallen tyrant’s DNA. In doing so, he creates an abomination so horrific, and a climactic battle so apolocaltypic, that it could very well spell doomsday (yes, that’s a pun) for both Metropolis and Gotham’s heroes alike.
On paper, it’s a decent, expendable plot to idle two-plus hours away with. On film, it’s a disjointed venture confusedly spliced together to form a constantly unappetizing, randomly-weaved bowl of comic book spaghetti. Only at rare points does the movie feel like it’s striding along cohesively, mostly because every time it does something intelligent, it trips over by doing something utterly mediocre or baffling. The concept of Superman facing Congress to answer the charges for the destructive lengths he’ll go to in protecting the planet is an intriguing angle. Batman’s own motives for bringing him down are also perfectly valid, given the film’s opening context. Unfortunately, the former element is hampered by uninspiring scenes of Clark Kent musing with his loved ones about his place as Earth’s guardian. The latter meanwhile is made a mockery by the nonsense of Wayne’s nightmarish dream sequences that keep springing up out of nowhere. These are not only unnecessary (every man and his dog knows the Dark Knight is a paragon of personal turmoil by now), but are also packed with such atrociously ludicrous imagery, you’d think director Zack Snyder was scheming to make this a dark comedy all along.
And yes, they come with yet another explanation of how Bruce Wayne lost his parents, as if 70+ years of comic writing, animated series’ and Nolan’s movies hadn’t already fleshed that out enough. It’s obvious that its presence in the film is simply because Snyder has never had a chance to lend his own vision to this endlessly regurgitated piece of Batman’s origin story. All the more frustratingly, he’s offered nothing new to the proceedings, adding more wasted minutes to an already wasteful film.
If anything, it’s a triumph that the cast has put a shift in here to salvage something watchable out of Snyder’s scattergun storytelling. Both Henry Cavill and Amy Adams have little issue resuming their roles as Superman and Lois Lane alike, and more or less carry on where they left off from Man of Steel, even in spite of the script’s bland dialogue attempting to erode their settled characters. Jesse Eisenberg fares considerably less well as Luthor however, taking the role of evil genius and again, in doing so, failing to escape the shadow of his depiction of Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network. At least this time though, we get a slightly different rendition - a hyperactive, crack-induced variant of a prodigious billionaire instead of a regular one. It’s just a shame that the film demands him to spend more time jumping around like a mad scientist than a convincing mastermind who can bring both Superman and Batman to their knees. On the occasions that he’s allowed to do the latter, he’s easily a major contributor to the film’s better moments. Otherwise, his off-tangent rants and babblings serve to undermine the plot’s already shaky foundations, blunting the focus it desperately needs.
As for the much-discussed Ben Affleck? He deserves to be commended for a job well done in the circumstances. He is a genuinely good Bruce Wayne, playing well off of Jeremy Irons’ Alfred (who himself is often limited to two-sentence grumbles and witticisms), and brings a less brooding, but nonetheless stoically rigid persona to the troubled Gotham millionaire. He’s also a passable Batman too, if one is willing to forget the growling, shrouded viscerality that has become so naturally attributed to the on-screen character following Nolan’s work. Still, he isn’t able to save the Caped Crusader from the avalanche of silly ideas that get thrust into his story arc - in particular, the daft metal suit he dons in the movie’s titular fight scene with Superman, or his worrying penchant to use a gun or two when the need arises. Hardcore fans in particular are very unlikely to forgive these faux pas, even though none of them are necessarily his fault.
In fact, it wouldn’t be a stretch to suggest that Batman v Superman cares little for the hardcore comic demographic anyway - it’s muddled storyline is told with such carelessness that it’s almost as though all of its wanton meanderings exist as an obligation to put something in the movie aside from some excellent action scenes. Thankfully, once the business end of the movie does kick in, it’s able to find its feet. The main duel between the two headlining characters is satisfying, although short - so many minutes meandering in the swampy plot should have been dedicated to the very fight that theater-goers were paying money for. The final climactic battle though is a genuinely redeeming positive - a tremendous symphony of special effects that almost make the film worth the admission price alone. It’s a closing chapter that also heralds the on-screen emergence of Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), whose appearance in the movie was so flaunted pre-release that it’s all the more bothersome that she’s only given a fleeting support role as enigmatic antiques dealer Diana Prince, and an overblown cameo when she is eventually revealed to be the Amazon princess of legend. But Gadot at least takes what she’s been given and pays it back with infectious enthusiasm, particularly when in full superhero mode. She’s a bright spark in an often blurry escapade, and a genuine reason why the film’s climax is as pleasing as it is. Even if it does require sitting around for two hours, there is some pay-off to be had with the task of waiting for it.
A surge of quality in the movie’s final scenes and steady performances from most of its cast are not enough though. Time will not be kind to Batman v Superman’s awkward plot, and it will struggle to stand among even the moderate successes of the comic film genre, let alone the classics. For now though, it’s certainly going to clean up at the box office. An opening weekend of $170m in the US alone ($450m worldwide), and an emerging legion of satisfied viewers equal to the number that have damned it, will make sure of that. DC Comics is also bullish about its future prospects - its projection for its upcoming movies, a number of which are teased within Batman v Superman’s 151 minutes, certainly rings of confidence. But they will come without the safety net of being able to tout the two famous characters in comic book history as top billing. Thus to be a success, they will have to be much, much better than the hot, tangled mess that Zack Snyder and company have served up here. It is better than what some critics have been saying - but you’ll need to check your brain at the door to notice why.