To say 2016 has been a year (which is barely four months old) for contentious movie releases is an understatement. Accusations fly and still do regarding The Force Awakens being a Jawa in Jedi’s clothing, and now we have Batman v Superman, which shares the dual dubious honors of some of the highest grossing weekends for a movie but also amongst the highest drop-offs of profit, and some of the lowest critical and fan ratings since Fantastic Four (2015).
So why is this movie so contentious? To that we have to look at both the positives and the negatives of the movie itself. Zack Snyder tries an ambitious approach to the material, setting a darker, more mature tone than the movie that set this up; Man of Steel. It tries to explore the ramifications of Superman’s actions and the reaction of Bruce Wayne, aka Batman, a twenty-year veteran of fighting ‘freaks dressed like clowns’. Through various reasons and actions (clearly alluding to the movie’s title) we have a situation where these two heroes confront each other.
Snyder’s approach is uneven. When dealing with the quieter human moments of the major players, he shows an ease in letting the actors show some depth and humanity, letting the audience empathise with them and allowing backstory and some character development for Bruce Wayne particularly.
However, Snyder does not have a handle on Jesse Eisenberg’s Lex Luthor, who is characterized by nervous twitches and borderline manic actions. It’s jarring and goes heavily against the tone Snyder is trying to impress upon his audience. This in turn impacts Henry Cavill’s Superman and Ben Affleck’s Batman. Intriguingly, the supports in Amy Adams’ returning Lois Lane and Jeremy Irons’ Alfred are spared this, and they are allowed a measure of contrast in unfortunately very small bouts of screen time.
As usual, Snyder’s strength is in his action scenes which he commands gracefully. There are few directors of action with such an innate sense of how an intense action scene should be staged, let alone executed. He is unafraid to let singular characters be center frame in setpieces, and also does not shy away from letting characters like Superman fight in open spaces as well as locales. When the action is there, the film does a fabulous job of reminding us who these characters are.
In terms of acting, the highlights are Ben Affleck and Gal Gadot as Diana Prince/Wonder Woman. Affleck brings a measured understanding to his role as the older and more cynical Batman, and allows him to be sympathetic in the role, which is difficult given the protagonist role he must play. This is arguably a Batman film much more than it is a Batman and Superman film, and this arguably is necessary as this is his introduction to this universe. As such, Affleck dominates most of the screen time and is a capable lead.
Gal Gadot is a memorable cameo. She knows how to play aloof and shows genuine passion and attitude in her very brief appearance as Wonder Woman, the first time the character has been seen on the big screen. It’s hard to fault her appearance, but that is equally as because she doesn’t have enough time on screen to be more closely looked at.
Henry Cavill suffers here as Superman, one who seems world-weary, depressed or even disconnected from the Clark Kent we met in Man of Steel. As such, his range is very limited and muted. It’s so distinctly different from his first outing, that it’s a mark against him in the role.
In that assessment of Cavill’s performance, we hit the true problem with the movie. The story intends to provide a concrete reason why Batman and Superman should be antagonistic towards each other, yet fails beyond a surface level misunderstanding to capitalize on that. Additionally, the script sets up a reason for why there should be distrust in Superman, but again fails to provide both sides of the argument, making for a very biased story decision to malign the Superman character.
When this happens, Cavill’s Superman seems unable or unwilling to act, and an important plot point picked up by Lois Lane is literally dismissed, never to be raised again. Similarly with Bruce Wayne, telling and arguably glaring plot points are put forward to him yet he does not react as one would expect Batman to do so who is used to seeing criminal masterminds at work. The script compels him to ignore those in favour of the seemingly inevitable confrontation. Both characters also act with excessive force against those they oppose, in scenes that leave viewers confused as to whom they should lend loyalty or sympathy. Batman uses guns (contrary to decades of the character having a moral code against them) and kills, and Superman seems uninterested in helping people and more those only closest to him.
When we come to the inevitable confrontation, the characters act like petulant high schoolers with a grudge. Batman’s line seen so often in the trailers of ‘Tell me, do you bleed?’ is spoken to a Superman who is flying away, making him seem foolish rather than vengeful. And when the moment does come (as it must with a subtitle of Dawn of Justice) that differences are set aside for a greater threat, the catalyst is contrived and not consistent with the story that’s come before it. In one scene, the pair suddenly become what’s been termed as ‘super-bros’ and all is forgotten.
Multiple lines of dialogue from supporting characters either lend affirmation that Superman should not care about helping people, and paradoxically little is said against Batman. Criticism has been lain heavily at director Snyder’s feet over his public comments of his preference of Batman over Superman, and as co-writer, it could be argued that this plays out here in the screenplay.
At the end of the day, a promising story of morality and the responsibility of power is compromised heavily by story and directorial decisions along with the burgeoning need as seen by Warners to expand their filmic universe. A scene where this happens is shoehorned uncomfortably into the late stage of the story, and another scene with no context or relationship to the story of the movie is inserted early that does nothing to further the plot but rather provide a vague suggestion of a future storyline. These things are confusing and very obvious distractions to the story at hand which is already struggling to reconcile its premise and its outcome.
Marvel Studios has always had a clear guiding hand with Kevin Feige and allowed its universe to largely grow and breathe. But with DC Studios we have no such central figure and a scrambling attempt to keep up. Time will tell if they can find their feet and rise to the occasion.
our comic heroes are immortal in our hearts, but the creators behind them need to realise that without feeding the fans with the level of skill and expertise we have come to expect, they will never follow in that immortality.