Pocketful of Kryptonite

I started this review shortly after seeing the Batman vs Superman film back in April. It’s now August. This is simply how my life works at the moment. Still, here it is. Finally. 🙂

So, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (from henceforth known as BvS). There’s a thing. The film that started off as a straightforward Man of Steel sequel and then became a (sort of) World’s Finest film and then eventually a bridging film between Man of Steel and the newly conceived Justice League movies has been released and I have watched it.

Even someone with the most superficial of social media presences could not avoid hearing or reading something about the film in the run-up to its release. Most of what I heard was not especially promising. The trailers and the press releases led me to the following conclusion: BvS would be an interesting but imperfect film; it would be typically Snyderish – big on spectacular visuals and bent on wrestling with big philosophical themes in a generally unsatisfactory way. Oh, and it would be coated liberally with a layer of grit that managed to be both shiny yet somehow very very dark.

And I was right. More or less.

BvS is indeed a bombastic big-screen iteration of the kind of self-consciously ‘dark’ stories popularised and taken to their sterile extreme by both the big two comic companies (and their many, short-lived imitators) in the early 90s. It is imperfectly structured and presents a story that hangs on one (or two) too many coincidences. It is violent and tackles its big theological and philosophical themes in an entirely predictably over-stated and relatively unsubtle way.  It is also weighed down by its function of introductory vehicle for a wider DC Universe that its audience has yet fully to experience. (An almost complete reverse manoeuvre of Marvel’s more systematic and thorough build-up to Avengers Assemble.) And yet…

I really rather enjoyed it.

At least part of the reason for this is the first ten minutes. The film opens with a re-telling of Batman’s origin story, an in-credit-sequence revisiting of the death of his parents which, though arguably unnecessary, is nevertheless stylishly and powerfully done, although cinema’s fetishisation of Martha Wayne’s pearl necklace has surely now reached its apotheosis. (The impracticality of Joe Chill placing his pistol inside the necklace makes the moment more than a little bizarre.)  That said, the re-telling is not as laboured as others, boiling the origin down to its essential elements and it’s always good to see Jeffrey Dean Morgan (although perhaps not if you’re a fan of The Walking Dead).

The movie then shifts to one of the most gripping sequences of the entire film – a ground level view of the battle of Metropolis, and it is executed pretty much flawlessly. Snyder’s direction is kinetic and exciting without being unnecessarily jarring (Larry Fong’s cinematography is generally very good throughout, too) and we get a very powerful and clear understanding of how vulnerable and powerless human beings are while the supergods fight it out above them. Affleck’s Bruce Wayne is introduced here and he is excellent – heroic, fearless and ultimately traumatised by the experience of being at ground zero as the city is destroyed around him. We see buildings collapse, streets choked with dust and civilians trapped under rubble – all grippingly desperate stuff. And, to a large extent, genuinely new. While we’ve seen similar scale destruction in the two Avengers films, it has not quite been portrayed to make this particular point or from the perspective of ordinary people caught up in the devastation and reduced to the role of victims rather than the grateful rescued (although the discarded Maria Hill-narrated opening to Avengers Assemble would have come close). In some respects, it reminds me of Kurt Busiek and Alex Ross’ Marvels, the seminal comic book series that presents the significant events of the early Marvel Universe from the viewpoint of an ‘ordinary’ photographic journalist. As a powerful introduction to the main themes of the movie, it is very effective; as a piece of cinema it is extraordinarily engaging.

It’s a shame, then, that shortly afterwards the film makes its first serious misstep. Having established the moral ambiguity and material threat of Superman’s collateral damage-filled ‘saving’ of Metropolis, the film takes us to the Middle East and a poorly explained encounter between some unpleasant looking terrorists and Lois Lane accompanied by a photographer who turns out to be a CIA agent and, much later – and more shockingly, turns out to be Jimmy Olsen. There are numerous things wrong with this section of the film, not least of which is the fact that it is utterly superfluous to the plot and dilutes the power of the previous few minutes of Metropolis carnage. While Amy Adams is excellent, the stand-off scene is resolved in a distinctly unimaginative way and the slaughter of one set of terrorists by another set of mercenaries (which is meant to ‘frame’ Superman) is heavy-handed and unnecessary when there are already perfectly valid questions to be asked of Superman after the rather messy way he handled Zod in Man of Steel.

In a sense, these two sections are representative of the film as a whole – bold and almost viscerally watchable on the one hand; awkward and disappointing on the other. Superman, after all, is possessed of heat vision, super strength and super speed. He is, in fact, literally faster than a speeding bullet. He really doesn’t have to bludgeon his opponent through two brick walls at super speed to save his girlfriend.

While that scene is disappointing on a number of levels, some of the subsequent Batman scenes raise more specifically moral questions. Batman has always been a morally ambiguous character. His Golden Age appearances frequently presented him as a vigilante who was singularly unconcerned about the eventual fate of his enemies. Indeed, his very first ‘case’ is resolved by punching a murderer into a vat of acid. Later comic book interpretations of Batman, however, have seen him adopt a ‘no-killing’ rule that most creators have believed to be a fairly important aspect of the character. It becomes clear fairly early on that Snyder does not share that belief. Behind the wheel of the Batmobile, Batman guns down enemies and blows up cars with ruthless precision; in hand to hand combat, he flips a grenade from one foe into the path of another, and disarms a knife-wielding thug before stabbing the hapless man in the shoulder with his own weapon. He also sets off another enemy’s flame thrower tank in one of the film’s more improbable sequences. The fact that all of this is stylishly and fluidly directed can’t quite mitigate the uneasy revelation that this is a Batman who kills without too much remorse.

It’s a good job that Affleck is so good, then. It could be argued that, in one or two scenes, his Wayne is a little anaemic, but his Batman is a brutal and driven force of nature, skilled in both unarmed and (in a breathtakingly impressive flash forward) armed combat and mercifully unencumbered by Christian Bale’s guttural and occasionally incomprehensible orc-voice. One of the film’s pivotal scenes (the resolution to the Superman/Batman fight) which relies on a coincidence so obvious I’ve never really noticed it, only works because Affleck sells it so well. The obsession with Superman that leads him to this point is similarly believable precisely because Affleck makes it so; he is ably assisted in this by Jeremy Irons’ Alfred, who is marinated in a world weary irony that softens the sharper edges of Affleck’s dialogue. It is Irons who provides most of the humour in the film (although Diane Lane gets the film’s one genuine laugh out loud line), and it is of a particularly dry, fine vintage.

Batman

Jesse Eisenberg is similarly excellent as Luthor. Although he is largely playing a slightly more megalomaniac version of Mark Zuckerberg (mind you, I have my suspicions about him) and much of what he does doesn’t really make a great deal of sense or relies too much on coincidental timing to be indicative of genius, he is never less than watchable. While he wears his bad guy status reasonably lightly, there are moments of genuine menace, not least in his scene with Holly Hunter’s rather impressive Senator Finch. Yes, his performance is eccentric, but we understand that this is at least partly Luthor’s attempts to disarm his opponents. It’s telling that it is only when he meets a politician who isn’t prepared to go along with him that he gets more serious.

You’ll have noticed that I’m focusing a lot on performances rather than plot. There is a reason for this. The plot, as I’ve already suggested, is a bit of a mess. Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman (more of her in a moment) wants a photo that belongs to her, and ‘steals’ it by copying it while still leaving it on Lex Luthor’s hard drive. This is a hard drive that contains files on other metahumans, all of which are identified by icons that suggest Lex knows rather more about the DC Universe than he really should. Lex’s plan consists of forcing Batman into an anti-Superman obsession by sending him paper clippings with provocative messages scrawled across them in red ink and manipulating one of his former employees, while also pushing a stronger anti-Superman sentiment onto the wider world. He imports Kryptonite into the country so that Batman will steal it (how does he know this?), betting that Batman will fight and kill Superman with it. Just in case Bats doesn’t, he also has some Kryptonian DNA in the form of Zod’s corpse with which he bio-engineers an ‘abomination’ who, we all know, will become Doomsday and make an appearance in the final act. He pushes Superman into fighting Batman by kidnapping Superman’s mother, but doesn’t seem to notice when they stop fighting and Batman goes off to rescue her.

Despite the plot holes, the movie remains an enjoyable experience and there are, I think, a few reasons for this. Firstly, Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman is magnificent. She is elegant and supremely confident out of costume and utterly enthralling in the film’s climactic fight scene. The moment when Doomsday knocks her to the ground and she looks up at him with a smile of genuine relish on her face might just be my favourite bit of the entire film. It gets to the heart of the character and is one of the film’s few punch the air moments.

Wonder woman

Then there are the intriguing references to the wider DC Universe. Admittedly, if you’re not a fan with some pre-existing knowledge of DC comic history, these will most likely serve to confuse and weaken the film’s coherence quite significantly. Arguably that’s a cardinal sin that the more objective side of me has to acknowledge as a serious weakness, but, for the fanboy side of me, the Crisis on Infinite Earths-influenced appearance of the Flash, the Mother Box-enabled origin of Cyborg and the parademon-infested future vision of Bruce Wayne all serve to add extra excitement to the movie as well as hints to the possible future direction for the DC films. (It seems very likely that we’re heading for New Gods territory, which, honestly, is just fine by me.) Even then, though, there are still missteps. The flash forward really does need more context and the Aquaman clip is just… weird. (I’m assuming that this section of the movie was sponsored by L’Oreal, but I could be wrong.)

What does intrigue me, however, are the philosophical questions being asked by the film. I said earlier that I was expecting the film to grapple with some big issues in much the way that Snyder’s Watchmen and, to a certain extent, Man of Steel do. Although BvS doesn’t deal with them terribly well, they are at least framed in visually interesting ways and they are dealt with more thoroughly than they are in the otherwise superior Avengers: Age of UltronBvS does at least have a stab at examining whether the notion of superheroes still has any relevance in the early 21st century and, in doing so, it suggests to us that heroism and its counterpart villainy are not always (or ever) absolute qualities.  Key to this examination are the two main characters of Batman and Superman.  I’ve heard (and read) a number of critics point out that the film’s characterisation of Superman is off, that it is not, in fact, at all representative of the Superman of the comics. Superman is, in that sense, the film’s very own Kryptonite – he weakens the film and allows Batman to ‘steal’ it. I have some sympathy with that point of view.

When I first encountered comics in the early 80s, neither Superman nor Action Comics were titles I read with any regularity, unlike the Doug Moench/Don Newton/Gene Colan creative team on Batman and Detective Comics. There were a number of reasons for this, I think. For one thing, Moench was weaving a fairly densely plotted set of tales with a cast of recurring characters and an almost soap operatic style of storytelling; Newton and Colan’s artwork was phenomenal, too. (Gene Colan remains one of my all-time favourite artists; his Doctor Strange and Tomb of Dracula work is sublime.) Those stories were also kind of weird – dark in a pulpy, slightly twisted kind of way, rather than the more self-consciously brutal manner of post-Dark Knight Returns Bat-titles later on in the decade. Superman, by contrast, was, well, a bit bland, typified by stalwart artist Curt Swan’s solid but undemonstrative style. The stories tended to be one or two-parters and there wasn’t much sense of a more sophisticated building narrative. They were entertaining enough in their own way, but ultimately unmemorable. In these stories, Superman was the archetypal hero – good, earnest, powerful and possessed of a clear moral code. He was the DC Universe’s moral centre in many ways, its constant. The silly de-powerings and increasingly outlandish foes and scenarios couldn’t disguise that, in many ways, the character and his world were resistant to change.

Crisis on Infinite Earths was the wrecking ball that finally broke down that archetype. The 12-part epic which saw the ‘streamlining’ of the DC multiverse into a more coherent singular whole also gave the company the opportunity to reboot some of its more venerable properties. While George Perez was breathing new life into Wonder Woman (which should really be the subject of its own article), John Byrne did the same to the character of Superman, first in the Man of Steel mini-series and then in the new ongoing Superman title which saw a noticeably powered down version of the character take on both familiar and unfamiliar villains in entertaining and inventive ways. While the early stories were mostly self-contained, the sense of the world around Superman changing and developing was clear, with traditional characters like Lois Lane and Jimmy Olsen given an 80s facelift and joined by new ones like Maggie Sawyer and her Special Crimes Unit. This developing world made Superman and its companion title Adventures of Superman worth investing in and the character proved his heroism by invariably finding, if not peaceful, at the very least non-lethal solutions to the situations he faced. The way he solved problems was always as important as the fact that he did. With reduced levels of power, it was more difficult – and thus more potentially dramatic – for Superman to save the day.

The 90s saw the Death of Superman storyline and the introduction of Doomsday, both of which are important plot elements in BvS. While Superman didn’t stay dead for all that long, DC continued to experiment with the character, even transforming him into an electricity-based character at one point (utilised memorably by Grant Morrison in his run on JLA, which included a scene in which an electro-powered Superman magnetically charges the moon and stops it from crashing into the Earth by the power of magnetic repulsion – yeah, yeah, another article).  Through the various changes and tribulations, though, the core of the character – his confidence, his awareness that means matter as much (if not more) than ends – remained pretty much unchanged. What is significant about BvS’ portrayal of Superman, however, is how uncertain he is (except, to be fair, when bludgeoning girlfriend-threatening bad guys through brick walls). Coming so soon after his outing in Man of Steel, this is a Superman who is fundamentally unsure of his place in a world that is sharply divided about whether it wants him at all. (This lack of certainty is not especially helped by Martha Kent whose declaration that her adopted son doesn’t owe “the world anything at all” would surely be something of a surprise to Metropolis real estate developers.) In some respects, this makes the character very interesting; in others, though, it means that the only sympathetic character who appears to be 100% sure of her values and is willing to stand by them – who is, in a sense, truly ‘heroic’ – is a politician.

The film’s climax is impressively spectacular, but also a little disappointing. The gloomy CGI is oppressive and murky as if reflecting the film’s moral ambivalence and the Superman-as-Christ imagery (already introduced earlier in the film) which includes a nuclear crucifixion and solar-powered resurrection (no three day wait, mind. This is the movies) is beautifully shot but, well, just a little obvious. What is interesting, though, is the Excalibur homage in the very final confrontation between Superman and Doomsday. Having introduced the film in the opening credits (Excalibur is the movie showing at the cinema the Waynes walk past prior to being gunned down) as what I assumed was a neat way of fixing the movie temporally, Snyder demonstrates that he’s much more of a fan of John Boorman’s Arthurian epic than I thought, liberally borrowing the iconography of that film’s climax for his own. And I kind of like it. BvS’ coda shows us a Batman determined to rebuild a super-powered ‘Camelot’ in Superman’s honour, having been forcibly and dramatically reminded what the whole superhero thing is all about by Superman’s actions at the end. Arguably, Batman’s character arc is the emotional heart of the film and we can perhaps safely assume that there’ll be much less outright killing of bad guys in future outings for the character.

Superman

In that sense, by the end of the film we’ve returned to much surer and safer ground than the murky, treacherous footing we’ve been on for most of the film. Snyder’s movie can perhaps best be read as a somewhat over-blown but nevertheless rigorous examination of the very concept of the superhero and, while the ending is reassuring in its affirmation that, yes, the idea still has legs, the questions it asks us about the use of superior power and the potential dangers of intervention remain with us, both unsettling and sharply pertinent.

Overall, then, the film is very much a mixed bag – enjoyable but by no means perfect, thought-provoking, but not especially subtle. The expanded version has just been released on DVD/Blu-ray and it, apparently, improves the film. I’ll be interested to see it, but, if I were you, I wouldn’t expect a review of that any time soon!

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