So I finally plucked up the courage to go and see Batman v Superman. I’d done my best to avoid the mounting number of mixed reviews. I’d held the negativity surrounding the release at arms length.
I told myself, whatever my misgivings about the casting of Ben Affleck as Batman, and whatever the film’s flaws, at the end of the day this was still going to be a film with Superman and Batman in – two of the most iconic figures in the history of popular culture. Right?
1. This is not a film about Batman or Superman
I know, confusing… I mean, sure, they’re wearing the costumes, and they’re being referred to by those famous character names, but the ‘superheroes’ you see in this movie are imposters, counterfeits, bearing no emotional or philosophical resemblance to their comic book counterparts.
In fact, these iconic characters are so shorn of the traits that have made them so popular it’s hard not to feel the filmmakers have either never read a comic in their life (which I know isn’t true, but watching this film will make you wonder) or, more likely, simply do not care or like the characters as they are portrayed in the source material.
Zack Snyder’s Superman is joyless, spineless and without an ounce of an internal compass throughout his impressively muscled body.
Then we’ve got Batman, who seems to enjoykilling – whether by decapitation via flying batmobile, death by machine gun, hand grenade or just a good old snapped neck – there is none of the pathos or internal conflict that fundamentally makes Batman who and what he is.
His wrestling with the question of how far is too far, the line between heroism and criminality, the refusal to kill which separates him from the Joker in the famous Christopher Nolan iteration – all of this is gone, replaced by a trigger happy fiend in a cape with a penchant for Rocky-style montages and crossfit training.
And I know what you’re thinking. Is that really so bad? After all, the first 20 issues of the original Batman comics had a caped crusader who shot villains too.
But when Batman’s sole reason for opposing Superman in this film seems to be that he views him as an inscrutable figure with zero accountability who thinks he’s above the law – the words ‘pot’, ‘kettle’ and ‘black’ come rather swiftly to mind.
On top of all this you’ve got Jesse Eisenberg playing Lex Luthor as a jazzed-up mix of Mark Zuckerberg and Max Landis on a fairly heavy dose of speed, rather than the lugubrious and charismatically sinister figure he cuts in the comics.
I mean, I’m all for innovation and re-imaginings, but these kind of personality transplants make seeing this movie as a continuance of the Superman canon nigh on impossible.
And that, for me, is a problem.
Because Zack Snyder is not interpreting or translating these characters for a contemporary audience, he is trying to simply replace them altogether. They have the right names, sure, but everything else is a facade.
2. Ben Affleck is not the problem
Yep. I know. It was shocking for me too. But I actually thought Affleck did a pretty good job with what he was given. He did what I’d imagined unthinkable before seeing the film, he made me forget about Christian Bale and believe that he, Affleck, was Bruce Wayne/Batman.
Considering the clusterbomb of a narrative unravelling around him, the fact Affleck managed to impose himself on his character enough to make him half-way believeable is quite an achievement. I shall never again doubt the man. The only shame was that he wasn’t also given the opportunity to direct the film, a mistake (the above video would suggest he wasn’t happy about, and) that will apparently be rectified in the upcoming Batman standalone in which he is scheduled to star.
3. The film is not ALL bad
And this is really what makes the viewing experience so excrutiating. There are glimpses of greatness here, sequences that feel genuinely fresh and innovative; like the talking head montage with Neil DeGrasse Tyson and others, inviting us to consider how 21st century society – our politics, our religions etc. – would be asked to re-orient itself around the existence of an apparently altruistic and high-powered extraterrestrial. What Superman would mean to a world like ours is a genuinely interesting question, one this film begins to explore.
I even liked the Batman dream-within-a-dream sequence. Seeing the parademons was pretty cool and played into Snyder’s sweet spot. For all his flaws as a storyteller, when it comes to visuals and aesthetic he has a vivid and distinctive imagination.
The problem was that these bright spots were just too few and far between.
The film felt episodic and clunky, there was never the sense of continuity you need for the drama to really build in a meaningful way. You felt like you were watching a series of loosely related shorts rather than a film with a genuine narrative arc.
With the convoluted nature of the storylines, and the conspicuously shoehorned-in set ups for sequels, the whole thing became incoherent and exhausting to watch, compounded by the customary Snyder calling card of rendering as much onscreen destruction as possible in the final act.
In the end I came out of the cinema feeling like I’d had my head held to a 10 ft speaker for the entire duration of a SlipKnot concert. And this, I think, brings us to the film’s main problem.
Batman v Superman was trying to do way, way too much – a fact demonstrated by the 4 hour running time the movie allegedly had to be cut down from. There are shades of The Death of Superman, The Dark Knight Returns as well as the various Justice League comics, all clumped together in this film.
The thing is, those comics harbour iconic storylines that would each need a film of their own to really do justice to. Which makes me wonder why Warner Bros felt the need to shove them all into one.
In a world where studios typically try to parse well known source material into as many instalments as possible (The Hobbit, which is a pretty short read, becomes a film trilogy. The final instalment of the Harry Potter series is split into two films, as is the final part of The Hunger Games and Twilight), why would they now try and force three separate sources into one film like this? Why have a single potentially lucrative property, when you could have four or five?
The Dark Knight Returns. Batman v Superman. The Death of Superman. The Dawn of Justice League…
You’d be sure to get better films with better developed storylines and characters. You’d make way more money, maybe 8-9 billion dollars worldwide. And you’d set up multiple franchises – like Wonder Woman and The Flash – in a more authentic and organic way.
In short, you’d get to where Marvel is now, except you’d have the advantage of better known characters, and therefore better earning potential (the only Marvel superhero able to rival Batman and Superman for popularity is Spiderman).
And so aside from the fairly significant headache I left the cinema with, and the countless questions about the glaring plotholes in the story, the overwhelming feeling for me wasn’t one of disappointment but something far deeper. Loss.
You see, today our most resonant stories feature dystopian futures in which young protagonists are forced to overthrow a middle-aged and plutocratic hegemony. The Hunger Games, Divergent and The Maze Runner each share this same narrative trope, reflecting the hopes and anxieties of a generation of millenials who’ve been left a legacy of economic instability, narrow employment opportunities and climate change.
A well rendered Superman film, one that depicts the character as he actually is – incorruptible, altruistic, aspirational etc. – could have meshed well with the zeitgeist and provided a meaningful cultural touchstone. One that is, as corny as it sounds, hopeful.
Instead, it seemed to me the makers of this film were more interested in bending these characters into an agenda with which they are incompatible. An agenda that is cynical and fatalistic, aimed at maligning morality and portraying ideas like ‘change’ and ‘hope’ (i.e. The Hunger Games’ bread and butter) as naive or stupid.
I mean, when you’ve got Superman, of all people, referring to the ideals of the father who raised him as no more than ‘a dead farmer’s dream,’ it’s clear we’re a long way from Kansas.
And it’s then the truth hits you; this film doesn’t want you to believe in better, it doesn’t even want you to believe in superheroes. It wants you to believe, as Superman himself says, that;-
No one can stay good in this world
You see, Batman v Superman is not a superhero film at all. It’s the opposite; the world’s first anti-superhero movie.
And to make a movie this overtly cynical with a character like Superman, and at a time like this, isn’t just ill-advised and disappointing, it’s a staggering waste of what was a pretty special opportunity.