“Live as one of them, Kal-El, to discover where your strength and your power are needed. But always hold in your heart the pride of your special heritage.” – Jor-El, Superman The Movie (1978)
Forgive me Jor-El, for I have sinned…. I have taken the internet’s need to shame in vain and didn’t mind Batman Vs Superman – Dawn of Justice.
It’s not perfect. The reaction thus far is partly justified. It starts as a Batman movie, ends as a Superman film, sorely misses any of what original Superman The Movie director Richard Donner called the all-important ‘verisimilitude‘ and both characters fall through some narrative earthquake cracks in between without chance to wind back the earth and clock to rectify things. But unlike the ever tiresome and increasingly cinematically barren Marvel movie universe, this new Superman VII Meets Batman IX enterprise somehow retains a through line of order rather than Marvelling into an attention deficit mess.
Despite pitching Bruce Wayne as a morally confused bully and wavering Superman between social pariah and national hero, there is proper chemistry between Affleck and Cavill. However, they have been pitched into a film and the ever pallid and sadistic visions of director Zack Snyder which is clearly fearful of any real comic book red, white and blue heroics. It certainly doesn’t want to see these two icons just hanging out and being what neither of them has – a pal. Would it have been so amiss to drop in a scene of Bruce and Clark having some bromance time at a baseball game (which then needs both their superhero skills) or comparing the coolest ways to extract information from a street thug? Would it have hurt to see the kings of G0tham and Metropolis actually on the streets of said cities, grabbing a beer, comparing world saving methods or hanging out back in Smallville during the holidays? Are the billowing grey dust clouds of 9/11 really the only destructive touchstone American superhero cinema can – tastelessly – mine?! Did we really need the umpteenth dutch-tilted prologue of the Wayne family’s ill-fated departure from movie night (John Boorman’s Excalibur it seems). That personal pain could have been equally signposted by what the film already has – Diane Lane’s great Martha Kent adding some surrogate mother poignancy for a visiting and always orphaned Bruce.
Batman and Superman are the kings of movie superheroes. They are the regal box office and critical principalities the others forever want to be. As great as Ant-Man is (and it is a cracking exception to Marvel’s ever-dogged movie plan), the world wasn’t holding its breath for a movie version. But this Marvel-ification of the project – of overstretching a character’s wings before they literally fly – is waving Kryptonite in the face of all comic book movie heroes. It is also wrongly pitching the world of the comic book into a cinema one. They need to be different. What may work as an ensemble piece in newsstand ink does not automatically fly on the movie screen. If handled erroneously these multi-character superhero flicks become expensive trailers for themselves. Bruce and Clark deserve better. Batman and Superman deserve better than yet another Jesse Eisenberg-is-better-than-you performance (it worked in The Social Network but is getting patronisingly irritating now), a dubiously pinned disabled veteran come suicide bomber and a clunky Martha, Martha, Martha turning point.
Whatever Batman and Robin‘s faults are, failing to have an eye on the next two unmade sequels is not one of them. Whilst Batman Vs Superman’s insane insistence – in part fuelled by that Marvel obsession of ensemble – that Bruce Wayne, Clark Kent, Batman and Superman are not four characters enough to withhold a narrative, Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman is a welcome breeze. Her story is one of the few strands introduced here that just does it visually and with a certain panache and launch-party glamour rather than pugilistic bun-fights ad-nauseum.
Henry Cavill is not wooden as Kal-El and totally flies (!) with the dignity and humanity afforded to the DNA of onscreen Superman by Christopher Reeve. It is a welcome improvement on his Superman From U.N.C.L.E. mugging and verbal tumbleweed. He also remembers that Superman is a world hero with all that baggage of responsibility, whereas Bruce Wayne forgets he is merely an east coast city icon. This film does however have a bipolar view on Kal-El. In one beat he is social pariah and in another he is national hero being heralded by the masses in Washington. Fortunately Cavill keeps his [red] eye on the role throughout. And, as expected, Ben Affleck makes a sterling Bruce Wayne. With his grey flecks of hair and ability to flatter a lady when needs be, gone are Christian Bale’s over-moody internalisations. This new Dark Knight however is oddly bound to a graceless, over-bulky Bat Suit and some seriously unintelligent decisions (wouldn’t a chat and some sparkling dialogue with Superman have determined things a bit better than beating the hell out of him to appease online forums and the “VS” marquee banner?).
But oddly, weirdly and refreshingly this Superman fan bought it. Despite Zack Snyder’s sadistic world view (there is nothing very comic book or matinee special about beating up Diane Lane’s Martha Kent with some ISIS hostage leanings) and his pallid insistence on not only draining every frame of all colour, immediacy and reality, this film is instantly more fluid and watchable than either Avengers carnage fest. It suffers for missing its chance to be a modern commentary on male camaraderie, heroism, sexism and the American political system (when a real Lex Luthor is circling the White House the movies do need the likes of Superman and Batman to step up to the mark). Also, for a Batman Vs Superman marriage of a movie concept whiteboard session to come out barely a year after America got Equal Marriage and to not have some quick passing fun with it is another indication this film is not wholly sure of its place in current culture. Superman II had 1980 stamped all over it. Batman Vs Superman is not sure when it is set. Superman The Movie balanced a homespun 1950s nostalgia in the face of a Nixon-fatigued America. But when it works, this new film does sort of work. Batman Vs Superman is far from the steaming pile of Kryptonite some vloggers want us all to hear. It is a folly of a movie. And if this film exists because Man of Steel didn’t quite ultimately rescue the Superman franchise from being stuck up a tree, then it is a Bat-wards step of sorts. But sometimes a folly has its merits. Sometimes a bloated pantomime of a movie still has its moments.
There is still great fun in this film. Holly Hunter plays Nancy Pelosi playing Hillary Clinton, Amy Adams’ Lois Lane gets in a Margot Kidder helicopter fall homage, Bruce Wayne has a really cool new driveway and Kevin Costner’s cameo is welcome and full of dignity. Ignore what kneejerk haters bound to the sub-industries of comic book lore want to spout about it. To its utter credit, Batman Vs Superman doesn’t get obsessed by its future film cousins to the detriment of the movie you’re watching (Marvel’s fare is fast becoming an industry trade show of future intent over current content). Maybe now a new director might bring some renewed zeal before cod….?
Man Of Steel thoughts.
Man of Steel Magnolias via OUT magazine.