There are more than your fair share of superhero movies and TV shows out there. This year alone promises two superhero films from each big studio. We have 20th Century Fox setting the screen ablaze with the irreverent comedy stylings of Deadpool, and their next overpacked X-Men film. Marvel have their own grudge match on the horizon with Captain America: Civil War, but for DC and Warner Bros is the title fight the world has really been waiting for: Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice.
Of all the directors currently working in big screen entertainment, none or more bone-headed in their refusal to one – read a goddamn book, and two – listen to fans or critics than Zack Snyder. Having essentially levelled Metropolis at the end of Man of Steel, Snyder throws us back into that fight but from the perspective of Bruce Wayne racing to save people.
It’s an interesting concept that nicely undercuts that original style opening credits and Ben Affleck’s Batman certainly lives up to expectations. He is everything Frank Miller wrote, and others have worked on. He’s older, but not wiser, jaded but not learned. This Batman is a dark dark knight on a crusade that looks to be ending.
With him is Jeremy Irons as Alfred brilliantly getting that snarky tone if never quite nailing the emotional beats that Michael Caine’s turn had. Maybe Irons has that in him and future films might show it perfectly. While the returning players from Man of Steel are as great as they are, the other new additions are a mixed bag. Cameos from Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, and The Walking Dead’s Lauren Cohan are all welcome in the film though too too briefly. Even the likes of Kevin Costner and Michael Shannon are great, but Holly Hunter’s sort of bolt-on Senator type is a little lame and undercooked.
Also, flashes of our soon-to-come Justice League members are fun in their build up, Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman is everything you would hope, she is a sexy, stylish vixen that is also clever, whip-smart, and kicks notably more arse than the boys do. Jesse Eisenberg however fairs less well as Lex Luthor playing himself, or rather, Mark Zuckerberg with a higher, more annoying voice.
On the plus side, the music by Hans Zimmer and Junkie XL is great, every bit the pulse-pounding, heart-stopping thunderclaps you’d want from a smackdown movie, while also nailing to emotional beats and the reprises from Zimmer’s Man of Steel soundtrack. Wisely he opts not to redo any of his Nolan-Dark Knight era music for Batman, instead crafting one that is suitably operatic.
And that might be the problem: while the Batman V Superman looks a treat (Larry Fong is a great DP after all) and the actors are all game, Snyder himself is such a boringly serious director that, unlike James Gunn or Joss Whedon, forgets to actually enjoy the spectacle. So yes, there are philosophical questions at stake, and it’s great to explore them, but it’s also fun to see guys beat seven shades of hell out of each other.
There is also a problem with Snyder’s films that he mistakes an over dependence on dense plot for substantial stakes. There’s a lot to follow, from Batman’s hunt for the White Portuguese, to the press hounding Superman, to Lois Lane’s Africa hold up, to a conspiracy, to Kryptonite. There is always the risk that a villain can outshine the hero, but this film forgets to have a villain with everyone going around stone-faced. Even Burton or Nolan’s Batmen had comic moments, but the wry wit or even the laugh-out-loud comedy of the Marvel films.
The next problem is while action films are fun there comes a point where Snyder’s insistence of things going bang (and bang and bang) becomes head inducing and boring, there’s no elegant gun play or fight scenes it’s a punch, and then someone goes through a wall. Gone are Nolan’s interesting fight scenes, or the Marvel dance like fights, Snyder would rather put Bruce Wayne in dust and throw some 9-11 imagery at you – and it simply doesn’t work.
The final issue comes from the actual showdown which is less a gladiator grudge match as a nonsensical brawl for ten minutes in which Batman essentially cheats, Superman cries, and then it’s time to fight a big alien monster. If there was criticism that Iron Man 2 was too much set up for The Avengers, then you’ll long for a narrative through line like that. Not much really happens in the film, but it’s long.
All of the enjoyable components are critically undermined by Snyder’s oh-so serious approach to what are, let’s remember, essentially cartoon characters. The dichotomy between the dark and the light is gone as everyone mopes around and no one has fun.
One looks forward to David Ayer’s tough-but-enjoyable-looking Suicide Squad and even more so for Patty Jenkins to shake things up with Wonder Woman, but until then what we have is proof that Superman and Batman are both as strong and bankable as they always have been. What’s really needed is for Snyder to step down from these movies and let someone else do them. A Ben Affleck-directed Batman movie sounds like the best tonic for the overly sadistic criminal hailed a hero in the film.
Snyder, like he has been since Leonidas stood against the might of Xerxes, is in over his head with this: he just can’t handle the material. Go and see the film for it’s spectacle and it’s wonder, and enjoy the performances which are all great. But remember, had this been given to George Miller (who had been trying to do Justice League for years) it could have been something really special.
Still, in the mean time, this toe-to-toe will do until Marvel’s billionaire vs patriot showdown next month. Hopefully those Russo Boys keep things lighter than Snyder does. Seriously, Zack, cheer up.