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.

Review – Birdman

At one point in Alejandro González Iñárritu’s fluidic and freewheeling latest a character points out to Michael Keaton’s actor-on-the-edge-of-a-nervous-breakdown that he “confuses love for admiration”.

Birdman is a very good piece of work, at times brilliant; I just wish I could have soared with it as much as I'd hoped

Birdman is a very good piece of work, at times brilliant; I just wish I could have soared with it as much as I’d hoped

It’s a charge that can be levelled at Birdman; a whirlwind of industrial wizardry and an actor’s dream that’s very easy to admire, but more difficult to love.

It will be fascinating to see how Birdman is regarded in five or 10 years time. Iñárritu has a habit of making films that profess to profundity at the time of release, but come to be dismissed as the river of time flows; his English-language debut 21 Grams (2003) and its emperor’s new clothes follow-up Babel (2006) in particular.

Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) and his nemesis/alter ego in Birdman

Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) and his nemesis/alter ego in Birdman

One suspects his latest will weather more favourably, if for no other reason than the career-defining central performance by Keaton, an actor whose scarcity in front of the camera is all-the-more tragic in light of his turn as the calamitous and anxiety-ridden Riggan Thomson.

Thomson has ploughed his finances and fragile soul into staging a Broadway adaptation of a Raymond Carver short story in the hope of injecting new life into a flagging career defined by playing the superhero Birdman in a series of big budget movies.

Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) prepares for opening night with fellow actor Lesley (Naomi Watts) and lawyer Jake (Zach Galifianakis) in Birdman

Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) prepares for opening night with fellow actor Lesley (Naomi Watts) and lawyer Jake (Zach Galifianakis) in Birdman

His troupe of actors includes the deeply insecure Lesley (Naomi Watts) and the revered, but unpredictable Mike Shiner (Edward Norton), while backstage his best friend and lawyer Jake (Zach Galifianakis) tries to keep the production afloat and he struggles to connect with his daughter Sam (Emma Stone). With opening night fast approaching, the cracks in Riggan’s splintered psyche start to widen and the voice of Birdman in his head manifests itself in his everyday life.

Keaton has spoken in interviews of the huge technical demands placed on the cast to ensure they hit their marks so as not to spoil one of cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki’s lengthy shots, which have been masterfully stitched together to give the impression of a single, unbroken take.

Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) goes toe-to-toe with method actor Mike Shiner (Edward Norton) in Birdman

Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) goes toe-to-toe with method actor Mike Shiner (Edward Norton) in Birdman

As a technical feat, it’s second-to-none and Lubezki deserves his plaudits for a job very well done. However, the many tricks Birdman has up its sleeves end up getting in the way of the film itself and become a distraction from the character-led comedy drama going on in spite of everything else. Similar accusations have been levelled on Wes Anderson’s work, which has often divided critics and filmgoers alike.

The film has some interesting things to say about what constitutes art in the social media age and cheekily gives Thomson the final word when confronted by an embittered theatre critic (played by Lindsay Duncan) who promises to wield the Sword of Damocles on the play because she hates what he stands for.

Riggan Thomson's long-suffering daughter Sam (Emma Stone) in Birdman

Riggan Thomson’s long-suffering daughter Sam (Emma Stone) in Birdman

By focusing so tightly on the emotionally fractured Thomson, Iñárritu asks us to question what is and isn’t real, right until the film’s final shot. Meanwhile, the presence of Birdman is akin to a winged devil on his shoulder whom Thomson must confront if he is to salvage his imploding soul.

Bottled up within the claustrophobic confines of the theatre for the most part, the wild ride the camera takes is matched by Antonio Sánchez’s jittery jazz drum score, which rattles around in the head, but doesn’t distract as much as some critics have suggested.

Birdman is a very good piece of work, at times brilliant; I just wish I could have soared with it as much as I’d hoped.