Batman versus Superman! I mean, how could you resist a premise like that? It’s the appeal of that simple yet exciting premise that’s fuelled three years of rocket-fuelled fan excitement from the initial announcement in 2013 to the breathless final stretch of publicity in 2016. ‘How could you screw up a movie with a premise like that?’, the internet seemed to say, and despite myself, I was pretty much sucked in too. The only catch in that premise? That’d be Zack Snyder, returning from Man of Steel, a hugely divisive movie whose take on Superman was… controversial, to say the least. But still, Snyder wouldn’t be too much of an issue, would he?
Erm… yeah, he was.
Batman v Superman is a strange, deeply weird, very odd movie, so much so that it needs a couple of synonyms of the word ‘weird’. Even calling it ‘a movie’ feels like a misnomer; this is at least three movies, plus some trailers crammed into one, and the greatest moments in it are actually just random visuals that are often disconnected from the narrative. Maybe it would have worked better as a series of paintings, or a large tapestry. as a two and a half hour superhero epic, it’s, well… an epic mess.
The pacing of this movie is terrible. The first half is completely haphazard, featuring a handful of choppily sequenced separate plotlines that only tie in every now and then with different characters, edited in a way that makes it feel like there’s no forward momentum. Ever watched a TV show where there’s so many separate plotlines and characters that, in the show’s need to service everything, it feels like nothing has happened with the overall narrative because the story being told is so fragmented and spread out? You haven’t? Well, anyway, that’s the first act and a half of Batman v Superman – a cluster of incidents and mysteries that can be summed up in a few sentences. This movie is generally fast paced, as displayed by the extremely short scenes and hyperactive jumping about, but it doesn’t feel like that – the movie ends the second act feeling like it’s inched forward five metres because it’s been zig-zagging its way there. It’s also not helped by a series of increasingly abstract dream sequences in which obnoxious, shallow symbolism takes the place of actual storytelling, which only serves as a way to supply more of those painting-esque visuals.
The second half then throws everything at the kitchen sink – the only two major set-pieces of the movie are crammed into roughly twenty minutes to half an hour, with underdeveloped ideas and plot twists being thrown out with absolutely no basis in what we’ve seen or what could logically be achieved off-screen. Batman v Superman can’t even muster up a messy, bone-headed stampede to the finish line, however – there’s an extended, pointless detour to set up future DC movies in the most painfully lazy manner possible (put it this way: it’s like had a post-credits scene and decided to put it in the middle of the third act instead), and a circuitous bit that prolongs the movie by having a character throw away an important object for no reason, then have to return to find it about five minutes later.
So, the pacing’s a mess from start to finish. How about the movie’s themes, trumpeted as DC’s major advantage over the ‘shallow’ and ‘frivolous’ Marvel? Yeah, those aren’t done well either. The whole ideological debate about where Superman should stand is interesting, but it falls flat partially because of a lack of nuance – other than one line of dialogue that ponders if he’s just a regular guy, it’s more or less restricted to a ‘god/monster’ dichotomy rather than a sliding scale. Mostly, though, it fails because it pivots around the role Superman should play on Earth, when this movie’s Superman is almost hilariously aloof, barely ever expressing a view on the debate at all. As one review put it, he’s a sociopath – for the most part, his defining characteristic is not really giving a shit, which means his character arc is essentially learning to give a shit. He’s cold, harsh, quick to resort to lethal force, and 99% devoid of warmth – his only good deeds are done to save two specific people, and are virtually never simply because it’s the right thing to do… which is, like, the entire point of Superman. Superman’s so far above this debate that it falls down to minor characters and talking heads to debate in soundbites with Batman and Lex Luthor equally restricted to this dichotomy of good and evil, so it’s just really hard to invest in.
‘Is there anything good in this movie?!’, I hear you cry (just kidding, that implies I have readers!). Well, relax. Batman v Superman is not an irredeemable pile of shit. (You can put that on the posters, Warner Bros).
One thing this movie generally (and ‘generally’ is an important word here) gets right is Batman. Batman v Superman‘s take on Superman is poor because it takes the beating heart of the DC universe and makes him into a very angry god who struggles to care about mortals. It’s grim, but ‘grim’ works for Batman, because that’s kind of his thing. Ben Affleck is good as Bruce Wayne, slipping into the role with ease while adding a sense rugged, beaten-down charm of his own, even if the movie doesn’t really give him anything huge to sink his teeth into. Jeremy Irons is also a very fun Alfred – a genial snarker who’s thoroughly involved with Batman’s quest, which should be fun to see in the eventual solo movie. Batman’s character arc also provides the cleanest through-line of the movie – he goes through a change which is substantiated by his experiences, and by the end there’s a clear and satisfying path to A to B. While the idea of a cynical Batman who’s already cycled through most of the tragic events of the DC canon is a fascinating and clever one, Batman v Superman does overegg Batman’s cynicism – most obviously shown by the fact that this incarnation of Batman kills people, something which the dialogue never explains, so it just comes across as Zack Snyder imposing his obnoxious grimdark malarkey again. But, on the whole, Batman works, and if they’re going to make him the centre-piece of the Justice League, that group’s on firm ground.
There’s other good bits, here and there – an awesome opening action scene which viscerally provides a foundation for Batman’s hatred of Superman in an ingenious way, the solid supporting cast and Wonder Woman, who despite being entirely extraneous to the narrative, gets all the best moments in the muddy and confusing final CG slop that I believe people call ‘a final fight’. So this isn’t a terrible movie, and I admire Zack Snyder for trying. But the bad outweighs the good here – from Jesse Eisenberg’s Lex Luthor, a performance that substitutes sinister depth and inner pain for a collection of weird tics and idiosyncrasies that give the impression that Lex Luthor suffers from a crippling cocaine addiction, to Doomsday, an ugly lump of CGI who also happens to be a total shell of a villain.
I can see why people like Batman v Superman. If you’re a fan of the pervading idea of superheroes as godlike figures, and prefer a bit of ‘weight’ (an overused, meaningless word, but I digress) and gritty darkness in your superhero cereal, then by all means, tuck in. But if this movie’s made anything clear, it’s that Zack Snyder’s vision of the DC universe is not for me. The critical storytelling issues are one thing, but, at a simple level, Zack Snyder seems to misunderstand superheroes – even his solid take on Batman is heavily muddied by the excessively gritty murderous side of this incarnation – specifically Superman. The idea of doing good for the sake of good seems fundamentally alien to Zack Snyder, or at least Zack Snyder the filmmaker, who instead fills that hole with a mix of brooding, pseudo-meaningful and skin-deep philosophy and generally incomprehensible wankery (for want of a better word) about gods.
As a result, we have a film about two very angry, aloof men pouting and sniping each other, with an insane crack addict of a businessman watching on the sidelines, armed with his uncanny ability to find out literally anything when he needs. It is, although many will hate this description, deeply pretentious in its unremittingly nihilistic grimness, desperate to reach the level of Greek myths but instead playing as a fantasy of a 14 year old boy who is convinced that the world oppresses him and that no-one can understand his inner turmoil. It’s that weird scene in Avengers: Age of Ultron where Thor goes into a magic pool and has visions conveniently teasing the next five movies extrapolated out into an entire feature film. It’s… I’ll shut up now.
Since I’m doing grades now like the pretentious douchenozzle I am, here’s my grade for Batman v Superman:
On the bright side, there’s another DC crossover on Monday, and this one involves sunshine, smiling and ice cream! I know, God forbid, happy superheroes.