Thursday, March 24, 2016

O Superman

There may be one or two minor spoilers ahead.

By now we know what to expect from a Zack Snyder film, and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, the first in a projected series of films about the superhero team that's been a staple of DC comics since 1960, doesn't disappoint. Stylised bouts of ultraviolence disrupted by slow- and fast-motion; fantastically detailed fan-pleasing set pieces; carefully composed shots rendered in the dark tones, high contrast and shadows of comic-book noir: all are present and correct. Characterisation, narrative logic and light and shade, not so much.

Still, although it's clearly less important than the apocalyptic action, there is a kind of through-line to the story of this long dark noisy film. The boss fight between Superman and General Zod that wrecks much of Metropolis towards the end of Man of Steel is shown again, this time from the point of view of Bruce Wayne. The skyscraper offices of Wayne Enterprises are demolished and many of his employees are killed; he wants to avenge them. Meanwhile, the government is trying to undermine Superman's reputation because they fear he is uncontrollable, and Lex Luthor, who bamboozles the government into giving him access to Zod's wrecked spaceship and Kryptonite technology, wants to get rid of him too. But first, he wants Superman to deal with Batman, who is causing all kinds of trouble for Luthor's criminal empire. Or maybe Luthor just wants to see a good fight -- played by with jittery malice by Jesse Eisenberg, he's given to fractured, inarticulate monologues that suggest he doesn't know himself.

Maybe, like the Joker in The Dark Knight, Luthor is into chaos, but at least the Joker had a coherent ideology. And while the Joker reveled in his villainy, Luthor seems to find it a burden. One of the film's problems is that no one seems to be having much fun. Poor Superman: only his mother and Lois Lane have faith in his innate goodness. And Batman's pursuit of vengeance is similarly joyless. In the Christopher Nolan films, Bruce Wayne was driven, but he had fun playing the recklessly flamboyant billionaire. Here, he's just driven, drowning the sorrow of a joyless one-night pick-up by chugging a bottle of vintage wine. All is grim and dark and gritty. There are explicit visual references to 9/11, and as in the aftermath of 9/11, the end justifies the means, from torture to pre-emptive assassination, the government is militarised, and there is much talk of vengeance, but no sign of forgiveness. Batman has reverted to his early, gangster-slaying incarnation, torturing criminals for information and branding them so that they'll be killed in jail by the other inmates. Despite the explicit code embedded in his origins, Superman (is that a bird about to crash into that building? is it a plane? no, it's . . .) continues to kill. If we get the superheroes we deserve, then the superheroes we get here mean that we're in deep trouble.

That's not the only problem. Motivation and characterisation are mostly realised through flashbacks,  dreams, and terse statements of intent. There's much exposition via computer files, including teasing glimpses of the Flash, Aquaman and Cyborg. Superman's dead human dad shows up in a dream to give a pep-talk, because (I guess) the dead Kryptonian dad of a previous incarnation showed up as a hologram in Superman Returns. There's a dream sequence in which Superman commands stormtroopers whose uniforms are emblazoned with his sigil: a foreshadowing of a possible future storyline that will puzzle anyone who has only a glancing knowledge of the mythos.

It isn't an entirely terrible film. The fights are nicely choreographed, and there are some lovely moments of eye-candy (not a few borrowed from Miller's The Dark Knight Returns). Both Henry Cavill (Superman) and Ben Affleck (Batman) are excellent (Affleck's chin is definitive). Amy Adams does her best as the sparky girl reporter who keeps needing to be rescued. Laurence Fishburne continues to bring gravitas to Perry White. The acid quips of Jeremy Irons' Alfred are rare glimpses of humour. And Gal Gadot is a wonderful Wonder Woman, but doesn't have much to do until the final showdown, when her crooked grin suggested that she actually enjoys being a superhero facing up to a desperate fight to the finish with a super foe.

Such a shame, then, that the film too often strains for profundity it doesn't deserve, and its muddled, ponderous story hinges on the bathos of a stupid coincidence. Its relentlessly nihilistic grim one-note tone also threatens to taint the upcoming films in the League of Justice universe, whose inception, here, is almost an afterthought to the gladiatorial excesses. So far, Marvel's Avengers won't be quaking in their boots.


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