Batman v Superman is neither fish nor fowl, but hey, it’s better than Man of Steel
It has been genuinely exciting to see the superhero genre come together in the 21st century as a force to be reckoned with. From the pioneering beginnings of Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man films to Christopher Nolan’s monumental Batman trilogy and the now-ubiquitous Marvel Cinematic Universe, it’s become obvious that a new genre has emerged. In a way, it’s even more than a genre—it’s about establishing an American popular mythology, on the basis of the Greek tradition. The Romans, after all, renamed the Greek gods and retold some of their myths in an adapted form. The U.S.—a modern Roman empire if there is one—has done the same, while celebrating the myth as entertainment instead of theology.
Zack Snyder, whose own Watchmen was a visionary take on the superhero genre, deserves some credit for embracing that ideal with zeal and operatic gravitas, but let’s face it—his attempt to set the foundation for a DC Cinematic Universe has been maddeningly uneven. If Snyder’s Superman reboot, Man of Steel, was frustrating for its flavourless look and interminable fight scenes, the follow-up—Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice—provokes pity rather than disappointment. It’s sad and even somewhat remarkable to see a film so eager to please, so willing to improve itself and address its flaws, but so lamentably incapable of capturing even a fraction of the greatness Nolan once brought to the franchise.
For better or worse, after four years of absence, Batman is back. There was a massive fan outcry—including a petition—against Ben Affleck being cast as the character, but he turned out to be one of the film’s stronger attributes. This Batman is obsessive, unhinged and bear-like, determined to stop Superman after witnessing the damage done to the city of Metropolis in the previous chapter of the series. This should have the viewer on his side—after all, the disproportionate and nearly irresponsible destruction was one of the key complaints against the first film—and it does, especially when Henry Cavill’s Superman is absurdly bland in comparison. Acting or personality, you say? Give him a break, he put on a ton more muscle than last time.
The many characters that spice up the storyline all have killer music themes written for them, but too little screen time to make an impression—Wonder Woman feels intercut into the film rather than an organic part of it, and even Batman and Superman struggle to comprehend what she’s doing there—except, of course, for Lex Luthor, played by Jesse Eisenberg, of all people. Eisenberg is truly cringeworthy, single-handedly derailing even the scenes that do otherwise achieve a certain harmony, at least on paper. Playing a sort of cocaine-fueled Mark Zuckerberg after a lengthy stay at Arkham Asylum, he squeezes out the jokes and the quirks with so much self-restraint that he never feels crazy, just annoying, so very annoying that you don’t know if you want to knock out him or yourself to bring the trainwreck to an end.
The fight between the two icons is psychological at first during a surprisingly decent first hour of exposition. Despite the film’s title, the conflict is mostly upstaged by the subtle—and not so subtle—references meant to establish the future of the series under the Justice League, a DC equivalent to The Avengers. What this inevitably leads to is a storyteller who is so focused on what’s ahead that he fails to engage in the story he is telling at present. This approach is the exact opposite of Nolan’s, who made each of his own films as if it were to be the last.
In fact, it’s important to mention Nolan—who has been an executive producer on Snyder’s last two films—to understand what went wrong with the DC Cinematic Universe. Instead of completely breaking away from his aesthetic and thematic style, which would have been the sanest thing to do, Snyder attempted to emulate it, compromising his own trademark vision in the process. Even though Snyder has now reunited with his usual cinematographer, Larry Fong, Batman v Superman only hints at what it could have been had it fully embraced its comic-book roots instead of settling on unsubstantial grittiness and illiterate psychology. For all its extraterrestrial wars and CGI-happy fight scenes, this series has been much too down-to-earth. Traumatised by the successful realism of Nolan’s trilogy, the DC universe is left in an ongoing identity crisis.
Release date: March 25, 2016
Directed by: Zack Snyder
Starring: Ben Affleck, Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Jesse Eisenberg