Batman v Superman may contain two of the most bankable super heroes in existence, but don’t let that fool you: this is a huge bet by Warner Bros and DC Films. If this movie flops, it heaps an unbelievable amount of pressure on this summer’s upcoming villain-caper Suicide Squad. And if that were to flop too… Well, who knows what that would mean for the slated adaptations of DC Universe titles including Aquaman, Shazam!, Justice League and Cyborg.
The good news is Batman v Superman isn’t a flop. At its best, its the most intelligent super hero movie to date, concerned as much with Big Questions as it is with big characters and big muscles. What place does a normal person have in a world in which there are gods? Is it better to do the right thing in the wrong way, or to do nothing at all? Should you make things better against someone’s will?
This philosophising isn’t tacked-on: it’s in the film’s DNA. Each character wrestles with and is driven by their fears and anxieties. The titular face-off comes across as a natural, necessary side-effect of these characters existing together in a universe made too-small by the presence of gods.
Ben Affleck was a controversial choice to don the cowl after Christian Bale: he’s brilliant. Rather than duck the uncomfortable implications of the character – a sociopath, a narcissist and a vigilante with no faith in the law – Affleck’s Batman takes these ideas to their logical conclusion. An early scene shows the city of Metropolis in the aftermath of the fight between Superman and General Zod (from the end of 2013’s Man of Steel). Terrified people run screaming from a collapsing building; Bruce Wayne runs aimlessly into the cloud of dust and rubble, a neat metaphor for his futile crusade.
Watching Metropolis fall cements his hatred of Superman; however good this alien’s intentions may be, destruction inevitably follows him. Bruce Wayne’s own actions, meanwhile, become more extreme – not content with merely stopping crime, he begins to brand sex offenders and pimps with a hot iron, knowing they’ll be torn apart in prison. When he saves a room-full of trafficked women, they refuse to leave the building, afraid not of the aggressors but of the Bat. The nights he doesn’t spend taking apart the criminal underworld, he drinks himself to sleep. This is very much the broken character from Frank Miller’s seminal The Dark Knight Returns, an ageing, jaded, super-rich, borderline fascist obsessed with protecting his city. It’s a Batman for the Donald Trump generation, using fear to justify his unpalatable ends. Allowing such a saleable character to plumb such depths is a brave decision.
And while there are tonal similarities with Christian Bale’s deep, dark portrayal of Batman, Affleck looks and moves like a very different beast. Gone is lithe, lightning quick character – Affleck is a heavyweight, hitting slow and hard, especially when he dons a tank-like suit of armour.
Superman, meanwhile, tends to work better as a metaphor than he does a super hero and Snyder gets this spot-on, too. He’s the backdrop against which issues are explored, an image of perfection whose angst is given a backseat to the film’s more human concerns.
Jesse Eisenberg’s Lex Luthor will be anathema to comic fans – he’s essentially a new character with a recognisable name – but he’s a necessary counterbalance to all the darkness, bringing a Joker-like, deranged charisma to the part, although a little too much of his dialogue is incomprehensible. Some of the more peripheral characters, however, struggle to compete with the top-billing talent; Wonder Woman in particular feels like she’s only there to plug her upcoming solo film (there’s also a teaser for the Aquaman adaptation, which looks every bit as bad as it sounds).
While director Zack Snyder has maintained the pitch-black, psychological subject matter of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, the visual style is very much his own. This is far glossier, less coated in grime, resulting in a more traditional comic-book aesthetic (never more apparent than in the stylised opening credits depicting Batman’s origin story – yeah, again).
Based on its opening hour, Batman v Superman is up there with the very best super-hero adaptations. It’s a shame that some of the good work is undone in a finale that’s jarring in its embrace of cliche. A hastily constructed villain, introduced in the final reel, exists solely for the purpose of tying up plot points – it feels anachronistic in what’s an otherwise a forward-looking movie.
But most frustratingly, Snyder struggles to do justice to the fascinating ideas his film raises. One tantalising sub-plot, for instance, sees Bruce Wayne’s vision of a possible future where he leads a Mad Max-style group against a dictatorial Superman, an idea plucked from The Dark Knight Returns that’s never again referred to.
But Batman v Superman’s flaws are relative to the epic promises it makes, and are far outweighed by everything it gets right. Marvel’s is no longer the only super-hero universe in town.
First published in City A.M.