Far From The World’s Finest
It’s been a while since Ben Affleck was in a Michael Bay film. This isn’t one, but it will do… While filmmaker Zack Snyder may lack the tone deaf humor of the bigger and badder Bay (or any humor, for that matter), his filmography is, entry by entry, inching it’s way closer to the brand of unrelenting mayhem and empty spectacle evidenced in Armageddon and Pearl Harbor.
Snyder’s latest, the long-brewing Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, is his largest sensory assault yet. Devoid of any real stakes, engaging story, or even action for the longest time, the film overcompensates by being dark, being loud, and just plain being big. The pervasive adolescent preening that permeates the work, as though there’s a line of vital intellectual stimulation underneath it all is a particular kind of four-color pop culture kool-aid that’s gone sour ten years ago.
Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice is every bit the mess many of us have been dreading that it might be, a feeling evident when we first found out the title would be “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.” Although it is a direct sequel to Snyder’s 2013 Superman revision Man of Steel (a work that has proven to be no less than the most divisive superhero movie ever made), with most of that film’s supporting cast carrying over for this go-round (including Amy Adams as Lois Lane, Diane Lane as Martha Kent, and Laurence Fishburne as Perry White) Henry Cavill’s Kryptonian lead is, just as the title indicates, pushed to the side in favor of Warner Brother’s favored property, Batman.
This, thankfully, is one of the film’s few pluses, as Affleck’s aged and experienced depiction of the caped crusader proves to be one of the movie’s functional positives. Greying at the temples and steely eyed, the actor, God bless him, gives this his all and then some. To his further credit, we never see him trying. He’s got little to no character arc, per se, but his presence is such that it feels like he might. And in this film, we’ll need to settle for that.
A year and a half following the improperly harrowing mass destruction of Metropolis at the end of 2013’s Man of Steel, Bruce Wayne, plagued by bad symbolism, decides that Superman, whom he’s never met, being an all-powerful alien, might not be trustworthy. Meanwhile, Superman, plagued by a costume that appears to be made of sequins, has settled into dividing his time between his true self and his disguise of Clark Kent of the Daily Planet. Murmurings of a six foot Bat in Gotham City catch his ear, and, despite the fact that its clear elsewhere that the Batman of this film has been around a while, he’s determined to get to the bottom of this mystery vigilante he’s only now hearing about.
Such is the ramp-up to the film’s “soft versus” (as Snyder put it, when addressing the use of “v” rather than “Vs.” in the title). Inevitably, these two icons must clash for real. When they do, be prepared for anti-cinematic eyesores including but not limited to under-lit rubble brought on by pervasively bright orange heat vision and electricity. Things fly all over the screen, challenging the eye to follow both the blocking and the cuts. Bring earplugs. The assault aesthetic of the film itself is, in this post-Michael Bay world, unfortunately nothing new. Sadly, it is an attack that not even the world’s greatest heroes can conquer. In that short plus column, however, these are climactic battles that at the very least – finally! – demonstrate a base understanding of stakes, of engaging peril.
But first, two hours of boring convolutions and claptrap: Bruce Wayne snooping around for a database. Superman’s unspecified internal struggles. Lois Lane running around doing Lois Lane stuff. Gawdawful foreshadowing. There’s even a scene, apropos to nothing of this film’s “plot”, smack in the middle of everything that seems to be part of another, future Batman v Supermanmovie. [Spoilers in the next sentence? I don’t even know…] It involves a gun-totting Batman wearing a duster rather than a cape, and shooting Super-soldiers in some kind of apocalyptic wasteland. Maybe that film can use the “hard versus” in its title.
It’s all more headache than movie; an experience far more like Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen than Marvel’s The Avengers. Even for devoted superhero fans who love these characters, this permutation of the DC universe is a chore. One that no child should be subjected to. (And that’s before the supposedly pending R-rated cut promised for the blu-ray release.)
Batman v Superman is actually stocked with great actors who deserve the movie around them to be infinitely better. Holly Hunter is a standout as a concerned senator, as is Harry Lennix as another political figure. Jeremy Irons shines, however briefly (all his scenes may’ve been shot in an afternoon), as Alfred the butler, here more of a tinkering assistant and the rare source of levity in this very oppressive film.
Dawn of Justice is simply a murky slog, what one would expect from a fevered self-serious thirteen year old boy with an unlimited budget and possible colorblindness. Maybe the indulgent two hour and forty minute running time could’ve been pared down if the numerous shots where characters stride forth in slow motion either played at regular speed, or were not there at all.
Everything Juliette Binoche had to say in her Clouds of Sils Maria dismissal of superhero films bears glaringly true here: Visual effects wrapped up in cheap pop psychology. The characters don’t speak in dialogue so much as bullet points, superlatives, and oblique pronouncements.Worst of all is Jesse Eisenberg’s manic Lex Luthor, an insufferable performance of a terribly re-imagined key character. When he speaks, it’s as though screenwriters who’ve spent twenty years ruminating on ancient mythology, folklore, Joseph Campbell, fairy tales, Lewis Carroll, et cetra (because, you know, super heroes are our modern myths! And everything that comes with that tired truism) finally crafted a dumping ground for their pretentious wealth of knowledge. Every line is a mini lecture on any one of those things, delivered with facial ticks and twitches through a mop of stringy hair. Whomever envisioned Mark Zuckerberg on his worst day as the most powerful mogul in Metropolis needs to do better of job of considering the source material next time. Not for one second does this annoying whisp of a Luthor convince us of being anything near the threat that the film makes him out to be.
In the light of Marvel’s major success with their “shared universe” approach, it’s little surprise that Warner Brothers, with their DC stable, wants in on the action. This film is the one-stop-shopping springboard for taking things from Superman by himself to an entire array of angst-ridden super friends. Besides retroactively inserting Bruce Wayne into Man of Steel’s replayed 9/11-on-steroids battle of Metropolis, Batman v Superman prominently ushers Wonder Woman into the fold. With less than a quarter of the screen time, we are given more evidence in her debut that Gal Gadot will make a decent Wonder Woman than we were that Henry Cavill would make a good Superman in his, which was feature length. That said, all of her scenes as Diana Prince that lead up to her eventual arrival in costume amount to nothing but pointless teases. “Yes, we know that that’s Wonder Woman – get on with it, already!!”
Fans can (and will) argue this point, but there is a fundamental abuse of these icons at the heart of Snyder’s two DC universe films. (A third and forth – a two part Justice League extravaganza – are on the way.) Screenwriters Chris Terrio and David S. Goyer take narrative detours by depending upon the audience’s collective knowledge of previous iconography (who Bruce Wayne is, who Alfred is, etc.) while also, simultaneously, setting out to upend that knowledge, willfully supplanting it to forcibly make a mark. Such is the corporate desperation to recreate and present these stalwart icons as something terminally here-and-now. (In fifty years, Affleck’s hardcore Batman will have aged worse than Adam West’s go-go dancing version has today.)
All the more frustrating then is the fact that in between this and Man of Steel, better, more interesting tales lie untold: How did Clark and Lois, a couple at the start of this movie, gettogether? And why, pray tell, has Metropolis embraced Superman despite their introduction to him being its utter devastation? They’ve even erected a huge statue of him!
Finally, and perhaps the worst problem of them all, is the way that the relationship of the title characters plays out. Everything that is to follow, in terms of the Justice League and whatever else, hinges on this. Yet these developments are less convincing than the romance of Anakin Skywalker and Padme Amidala in Star Wars.
Whether we like it or not, there is much more of this sort of thing with these characters (and many more!) in the pipeline. But for many a filmgoer, Batman v Superman‘s ear-piercing smackdown will spell doomsday – or should I say, armageddon? – for this emerging franchise.