Review – Batman vs Superman: Dawn Of Justice

As a curtain raiser for Warner’s belated attempt to muscle in on the extended comic book universe market, this latest white elephant from Zack Snyder gets things off to the worst possible start.

If Batman vs Superman is the dawn of what's to come, goodness knows what's awaiting for us with the rest of this franchise

If Batman vs Superman is the dawn of what’s to come, goodness knows what’s awaiting for us with the rest of this franchise

As the anointed poster boy of the franchise, Snyder’s limitations as a director are laid bare, while every one of the film’s 151 minutes merely compound his weaknesses.

Snyder certainly has a unique visual signature, one that he has been refining since embarking on his first graphic novel adaptation, Frank Miller’s 300, in 2007. In the case of 300, the director’s penchant for uber-violence and fan-serving visuals (a number of the frames looked like they had been lifted directly from the graphic novel) was the perfect fit for the source material.

It's mano e mano in Batman vs Superman: Dawn Of Justice

It’s mano e mano in Batman vs Superman: Dawn Of Justice

When Snyder moved on to adapt Alan Moore’s seminal Watchmen (2009), that same dark and moody palette was used, but all the nuance was notably absent, which resulted in an experience that was akin to observing someone turning the pages of a comic book instead of watching an actual movie.

With 2013’s Man Of Steel, you got the sense that Christopher Nolan’s guiding hand was at least having some influence, especially in the early scenes when Clark Kent is coming to terms with his extraordinary gifts. However, that was before an extended last act which saw Snyder give in to his natural tendencies by practically destroying a city and wiping out thousands of innocent bystanders – presumably with the intention of pulverising his audience into submission.

That movie’s final rampage forms the prologue of Batman vs Superman: Dawn Of Justice, which sees Batman/Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) swear revenge on Superman (Henry Cavill) following the Man of Steel’s apocalyptic bust up with General Zod (Michael Shannon). Batman sees the son of Krypton as a clear and present danger to humanity (his logic doesn’t convince Alfred (Jeremy Irons) – nor us it has to be said), while Superman views the Dark Knight as an increasingly unstable vigilante whose brutal methods, including branding his prey, have taken a sadistic turn.

Jesse Eisenberg trying not to overact as Lex Luthor in Batman vs Superman: Dawn Of Justice

Jesse Eisenberg trying not to overact as Lex Luthor in Batman vs Superman: Dawn Of Justice

Megalomaniacal mogul Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg) also sees Superman as a direct threat and seeks to use Kryptonite as a ‘deterrent’ against him alongside other, even more deadly, weapons.

The hype machine that cranks into gear when a tent pole release is on the horizon rarely works entirely in the movie’s favour as the final product invariably fails to match the expectation that has been ratcheted up. In the case of Batman vs Superman, it feels as though that machine worked so hard and for so long to generate buzz that it practically incapacitated itself in the process.

It says a lot about the film that, within the space of a single week of its release, the feverish anticipation had already fizzled out and we were left with what this really is: smoke, mirrors and sledgehammers that equals far less than the sum of its parts.

Intrepid reporter Lois Lane (Amy Adams) in Batman vs Superman: Dawn Of Justice

Intrepid reporter Lois Lane (Amy Adams) in Batman vs Superman: Dawn Of Justice

Although it’s not entirely fair to compare this to Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy (those films are directed by someone operating at a far higher level), comparisons nevertheless demand to be made and it doesn’t take long to notice the chasm that exists between them. Whilst Nolan’s triumvirate had something to say about the dichotomy between justice and vengeance, the danger of becoming the thing you swore to fight and the ease in which civil liberties can be sacrificed when fear is allowed to take over, Snyder’s Batman is a virtually unrecognisable washed up fascist who has seemingly forgotten what it is he’s supposed to be fighting for and sees threats in every nook and cranny.

Liewise, the work put in to humanise Superman in Man Of Steel has essentially been tossed to the sidelines as we are presented with a figure who is given little more to do than look bewildered at the turning tide of public opinion against him.

Chris Terrio’s and David S Goyer’s script feels like it has been chopped to pieces, as evidenced in the dreadfully disjointed narrative that flits all over the place and throws in discombobulating dream sequences that may look cool, but simply don’t serve the story and are shameless attempts at sprinkling breadcrumbs for future movies.

Ben Affleck plays an aging Dark Knight in Batman vs Superman: Dawn Of Justice

Ben Affleck plays an aging Dark Knight in Batman vs Superman: Dawn Of Justice

This universe-building reaches new lows when Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman (the best thing in the movie and the only person who breaks a smile throughout) sits at a laptop and goes through Luthor’s secret files (how does he have all of this stuff??), watching footage of metahumans Aquaman, Cyborg and the Flash that play out like teaser trailers.

So what of the fight itself? Well, like everything else in the film it is laden with ponderous dialogue and the sort of action choreography that Michael Bay would be proud of. It also goes on for an exceedingly long time, although it is the mere aperitif for the main event involving Doomsday, which smashes you over the head so relentlessly you’ll be screaming for it to end.

The Holy Trinity of Superman (Henry Cavill), Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) and Batman (Ben Affleck) in Batman vs Superman: Dawn Of Justice

The Holy Trinity of Superman (Henry Cavill), Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) and Batman (Ben Affleck) in Batman vs Superman: Dawn Of Justice

Cavill does his best in a movie that, instead of being Man Of Steel 2, sees him playing second fiddle to the Dark Knight, while Affleck, to his credit, emerges with his head held high in spite of the serious limitations placed on him by the script and director.

In spite of the character being touted as Mark Zuckerberg’s (even more) evil twin, Eisenberg is horribly miscast and gives a dreadfully mannered turn that exudes little or no menace. Amy Adams, meanwhile, does her best as Lois Lane but is again given very little to work with, while Irons shines in his all-too-brief moments on screen.

Even Hans Zimmer’s score (working with Junkie XL), normally so rock solid, is patchy and unsure of itself; reflected in the composer’s admittance in interviews that he struggled on this occasion to produce something distinct from what had gone before.

If Batman vs Superman is the dawn of what’s to come, goodness knows what’s awaiting for us with the rest of this franchise.

Advertisements

In Retrospect – Batman (1989)

It’s difficult to overestimate just what a seismic impact Tim Burton’s reimagining of the Dark Knight’s on-screen persona had on the movie landscape.

Twenty five years on, the cracks and holes in Burton's first of many forays into blockbuster filmmaking are all-too glaring to miss

Twenty five years on, the cracks and holes in Burton’s first of many forays into blockbuster filmmaking are all-too glaring to miss

While Steven Spielberg had given birth to the Hollywood blockbuster with Jaws (1975) and George Lucas had taken it into the stratosphere in Star Wars (1977), ‘event’ cinema reached a whole new level with the arrival of Batman in 1989.

I was one of the many millions seduced by the carefully orchestrated marketing hype that became known as ‘Batmania’ and queued as a young lad with barely contained excitement on the opening day… before watching it again the following day.

At the time I recall thinking it was “ace”. However, 25 years on, the cracks and holes in Burton’s first of many forays into blockbuster filmmaking are all-too glaring to miss.

The Nosferatu-esque Batman hunts his prey in Tim Burton's Batman

The Nosferatu-esque Batman hunts his prey in Tim Burton’s Batman

Taking its lead from Alan Moore and Brian Boland’s classic graphic novel The Killing Joke, the film follows the early days of Batman’s war against crime in Gotham City, an urban cesspool riven by police corruption, terrified citizens, desperate politicians and mob rule.

An intervention by the Caped Crusader (Michael Keaton) at a chemical plant inadvertently leads to the ‘death’ of senior mob enforcer Jack Napier (Jack Nicholson) and the ‘birth’ of the cackling, psychopathic Joker and soon Gotham turns into the playground in which these two opposing sides of a scarred coin go mano-a-mano. Dragged into the fray is star photo-journalist Vicky Vale (Kim Basinger), who’s lured to Gotham by the fantastical news of a “winged freak” terrorising the city’s underground.

Gotham City, as depicted in Tim Burton's Batman

Gotham City, as depicted in Tim Burton’s Batman

The first thing that strikes you is Anton Furst’s astonishing vision of Gotham City; a mish-mash of conflicting architectural styles that’s brought to life so vividly it practically dwarfs everything else.

With such eye-opening visuals to contend with, Burton’s long-time collaborator Danny Elfman needed to bring his A-game for Batman‘s score and did just that. Elfman threw everything and the kitchen sink in, from the dark and sinister to screwball via operatic organs and the pulse-quickening march which memorably opens the movie.

The Joker (Jack Nicholson) hatches another dastardly plan in Batman

The Joker (Jack Nicholson) hatches another dastardly plan in Batman

However, a great score and production design do not a great film make. Despite several quotable lines – “Think about the future”; “I think I’ve got a live one here!”; “This town needs an enema!”; “Have you ever danced with the devil in the pale moonlight?” – Sam Hamm and Warren Skaaren’s screenplay is all over the place (Burton subsequently admitted that chunks of the script were improvised on the hoof).

Burton allows scenes to go on too long, usually to indulge Nicholson, while others are clunky or completely unnecessary, most notably the sequence in Gotham City Museum wherein the Joker and his henchmen bespoil a series of valuable artworks.

Batman (Michael Keaton) protects reporter Vicky Vale (Kim Basinger) in Batman

Batman (Michael Keaton) protects reporter Vicky Vale (Kim Basinger) in Batman

Elfman’s score is so memorable that the inclusion of Prince’s soundtrack feels jarring next to it. The decision to draft in Prince – one of the most popular musicians on the planet at the time – was savvy thinking on the part of the money men at Warner Bros, but the film has an awkward time crowbarring the tunes into the narrative.

Burton works hard to create a dark and brooding tone akin to a 1940s-era noir (everyone wears hats!), but counterbalances it with a series of cartoonish moments (Napier’s bleached white hand emerging from the chemical waste; Wayne caught hanging Bat-like upside down by Vale) that seek to remind us we’re watching a comic book superhero movie. The movie also nods not once, but twice, to Raiders Of The Lost Ark‘s swordsman scene.

Batman's coolest shot

Batman’s coolest shot

It’s difficult to believe that neither Vale nor fellow reporter Alexander Knox (Robert Wuhl) would know why Bruce Wayne – Gotham City’s most well-known businessman after all – is an orphan. Furthermore, it stretches credulity that so many people fail to suspect the Joker (who, let’s not forget, had tried to kill the city’s citizens a short time earlier) has an ulterior motive when he announces he’ll be staging a night parade in which he’ll dish out millions in cash.

In a parallel with Gene Hackman’s casting of Lex Luthor in Superman, the film’s biggest name is its villain. Nicholson seemed like the most logical choice at the time and there are moments when he truly strikes the balance between humourous and homicidal. However, too often his performance feels like a big screen extension of Cesar Romero’s take in the 1960s camp TV show. Meanwhile, Keaton is better than you’d expect as Batman, although Wayne inevitably takes a back seat.

The Batmobile, as imagined in Tim Burton's Batman

The Batmobile, as imagined in Tim Burton’s Batman

The homage to Nosferatu when we first see the Dark Knight is nicely done, as is the nod to Batman creator Bob Kane (in spite of being refered to as a “dick” by Knox when he shows the young reporter a mock-up of what the Bat Man looks like). There’s also a cool moment when the Batwing flies in front of the moon. However, these moments are too few and far between to override the feeling that this is a film which has dated badly.

Burton himself summed up Batman better than any critic when he said on reflection: “I liked parts of it, but the whole movie is mainly boring to me. It’s OK, but it was more of a cultural phenomenon than a great movie.”