So, I fucking hated “Man of Steel” (MoS, henceforth). I loved the trailers so much. Particularly the Costner voice-over version (Damn you, Costner and all your manly, melancholy sucking me in!). I was genuinely excited to see this new Superman. I didn’t hate “Superman Returns”, but it fell a little flat – essentially being Superman II, with a bit of Superman (I saw both as a boy in the cinema, and the impact – particularly of the first – was significant). Loved the homage to those films: the music, Marlon’s voiceover. But the script, the cast…well…
So, a new Superman seemed like a good thing. Boy, how wrong I was!
Regardless, there was something in the trailer for “Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice” (BSDJ, henceforth) – again with the damn trailer – that made me, what, hopeful? Kinda. Affleck looked right, as both Wayne and Batman. Wonder Woman was a real possibility after all these years in the shadow of Lynda Carter. Still, I never went to see it. Shit reviews. Other things on. Too much better stuff to watch.
Finally, it came to…heh! I was about to say DVD, but, of course, I streamed it (I should stress I watched both the theatrical and the Extended Edition, which was, in fact, better re: clarity around certain story/plot points). Silly old bugger! So, yes, it finally came out for home viewing, and I took the plunge. Twice, in fact. And guess what? It’s not that bad. And here’s why (oh, and SPOILERS AHEAD)…
So, BSDJ picks up about a year and a half after the events at the end of MoS. What’s really interesting about the film – and the title really gives it away – is it starts with the Batman origin story, admittedly with movie credits laid over the top. Then we’re off to North Africa (I think) where Superman goes to the rescue of Lois after a deep investigation goes mysteriously (read: confusingly) wrong. Back home in Gotham, Bruce Wayne seethes. You see, Superman (and Zod, of course) killed all this friends during the battle in Metropolis. Wayne sees this powerful alien as a threat and potential enemy of humankind. Meanwhile, wee Lex Luthor is hatching a plan of his own, involving both these protagonists, while quietly in the background a dark haired beauty mysteriously glides around with an eye on everyone.
I’m not going to go into spoilers – you could probably guess the outcome, anyhow – but first up what makes BSDJ not only better than MoS, but generally watchable is Bruce Wayne/Batman. More specifically, Ben Affleck. When I heard about the casting, and the furor surrounding it, I was confused: he’s a much better choice than Christian Bale. For one, he can actually do Bruce Wayne. Bale’s Wayne was far too curmudgeonly. And getting Wayne right is 50% of the job. Affleck nails both the rage and the occasional quip (it’s a Snyder film, so minimal quipping and maximum growling are the default). He (and the script, of course) conveys the confusion and impotent frustration of a man being left behind, who may have seen his usefulness disappear in the face of real power. This is Frank Miller’s Batman, not Christopher Nolan’s Batman, who, while generally agreeable, in many ways stands outside the Batman universe as something altogether else.
Make no mistake: Affleck/Wayne/Batman is the beating heart of this film, and he beats loudly. Superman may be the hero, but Wayne/Batman is the protagonist. I should also add that the Alfred of this film, very much in line with the Alfred of the Batman’s comic history, is brilliant. Iron’s (and, again, the writers) brings a gravitas and power somewhat missing from Caine’s performance. And while Caine’s Alfred isn’t Iron’s Alfred, Iron’s relationship with Wayne/Batman is a more mature and meaningful one. This isn’t butler and rich toff, this is moral conscience and spiraling, misplaced anger. These are colleagues, fighting together for years (more on that later), who may have lost their way. There’s nothing forced about this pathos a la MoS, it’s real, earned and bristles off the screen.
But they’re not the only great influence on the film. Though very slight, the appearance of Diana Prince/Wonder Woman is a welcome addition to the otherwise testosterone-soaked story. Gal Gadot was a surprising choice. A model (Israel’s Miss Universe entrant) by trade, she moved into acting in the late 2000’s via Israeli television shows before heading to the US for a number of low profile roles in a variety of Hollywood action movies and franchise sequels (with a kinda interesting but brief appearance in 2015’s Triple 9). Could she stand to eat 47 more muffins a day? Hell, yes (and follow those up with another 20 or so!) Yes, I would’ve have liked someone more in line with Star Wars’ Daisy Ridley’s athletic physicality. But Gadot makes up for that my being…herself, really.But the casting of Gadot was something of a masterstroke. Her Israeli poise, her look, the accent – brilliant. Wonder Woman is ethnic! And now she is ethnic.
Of course I loved Lynda Carter. Yes, Megan Gale would’ve been an interesting choice. But there’s an ethereal, urbane, melancholy to Gadot’s Diana Prince that genuinely shows up all the posturing machismo (she gets one of the film’s great lines: “You know it’s true what they say about little boys: born with no natural inclination to share”). And Wonder Woman is powerful. She’s clearly close to Superman’s equal.
Does this Prince/Wonder Woman fall into the ‘woman of mystery’ trope? You bet! Because that’s what she is – well, to the boys, anyway. Moreover, this Wonder Woman may very well be the least sexualised female superhero in, well, ever, especially in regards to film and television adaptations. Snyder eschews his typical ‘male gaze’ stuff and presents us with a warrior. Full stop. Her stand-alone movie might be the the one superhero movie to which I’m actually looking forward.
The third thing that makes BSDJ a half-decent film, and certainly a long way better than it’s predecessor, relates directly to these previous points, and that’s melancholy and genuine pathos. In many ways this is a grown up movie. Even in the cinematography and mise-en-scene (when it is most like Snyder’s best film to date: Watchmen) there is at times real emotion (Batman fighting off hordes in his nightmare; Superman landing amongst a gathering who reach out to touch him). And, of course, it is inherently about grown up things: responsibility; fear in the face of uncertainty; understanding. Bruce Wayne, Alfred, Diana Prince, they’ve lived lives. They emanate the kind of ennui of adult people who have been fighting the (good?) fight for a long time and have lost their way, or entirely given up. They’re tired and confused but still, deep inside, want to do good. They are, in point of facts, adults.
By comparison, Superman’s pathos (both on BSDJ and MoS) is a little ‘m’eh’. Should I help humanity? Am I accountable for my decisions? These are the questions adolescents asks themselves. And I’m not sure Cavill is capable of making us care enough. Reeves’ (and even Routh’s) vulnerability was affecting. Cavill, with his 80 kilograms of extra muscle mass and baritone voice, just doesn’t make me care. He is, in fact, best when playing this Superman for what he is: powerful and a little dim – as in the scene when he confronts Batman in the middle of a car chase by simply standing there and letting the Batmobile bounce off him. “Next time they shine your light in the sky, don’t go to it.” he threatens. “The Bat is dead. Bury it. Consider this mercy.” Just like a bullying boy scout.
All this might make you think BSDJ is a great film. It ain’t! Far from it. First up, there’s Lex Luthor/Jesse Eisenberg. What were the writers thinking? Luthor, the smartest person on the planet, and his brilliant plan is to kidnap Clark Kent’s mother (though the Martha-thing was nice) and force Superman to kill Batman? Then what, dickhead?! Oh yeah – i’ll ‘release the Kraken’ (re: Doomsday). But wait! What about Wonder Woman? I mean, we even have files on her. She’s in the city, right? What if she decides to help? Damn! I know! I’ll just start going crazy! That’ll explain everything. Genius? Fucking moron, more like it.
And the casting of Eisenberg? I mean, I get it. Someone who, while physically only human, has an intellect so cunning that he is easily a match for Superman. Well, we discussed his brilliant plan, but Eisenberg himself just doesn’t have the gravitas to pull of Luthor, or to even stand in a room with Affleck and Cavill, really. Why make Luthor so young? Why not make him the ‘equal’ of Wayne and Clark, at least in age and charisma. I mean Spacey kinda worked. I’ve heard interesting suggestions like Ben Foster (mmm…), Vincent Cassel (ooh!), and Bryan Cranston (yes!). All, I’m afraid, far better choices. Still, none of this is actually Eisenberg’s fault. It comes down to the script and the decisions made early on about Luthor, and that decision was not good at all.
Then there’s the 87 storylines going on, and 12 antagonists – something superhero film sequels seem to suffer from as they attempt to raise the dramatic ante. Who is the protagonist in BSDJ? Who is the antagonist? Does it matter? Fuck, yes. Clarity please, people. Simple is always hard, I know, but you need to give it a go. And while I hate being spoon fed, in the theatrical cut – even knowing some things about the plot – I was flat out confused for fair swathes of time. The Extended Cut helped a little, but it may well also have been the fact that I watched it twice that really helped. BSDJ is a messy, messy film. Not just in terms of storyline, either.
The one thing that keeps niggling at me is the Batman timeline. The film establishes (quite late in the film with an ‘establishing’ shot – another problem) that Metropolis and Gotham are ‘across the bay’ from one another. We also see that Batman has already battled Joker and lost his Robin (the shot of the costume marked with graffiti – taken straight from the comic A Death in the Family). And clearly Bruce Wayne is not a young man, and, as stated earlier, his relationship with Alfred is tense with history. So, why is it then, that no one seems to know who Batman is? Clark Kent refers to him as the “Bat vigilante”, as though he’s just appeared. And why the sudden concern? Because he branded one guy? Really? That’s piqued Kent/Superman’s interest in a guy, dressed as a giant bat, who for well over a decade, it would seem, has been dispensing justice in the city just across the bay?! Even the immigrant slaves he rescues don’t know who he is (“the Devil”). I mean, even if you’re from some out of the way village in Cambodia (and I’ve been to one) what are the odds you haven’t heard of Batman? All dozen or more of you? There was a better way of handling it. And in the theatrical cut it was downright confusing compared to the simple clarifications in the Extended version.
Nope, BSDJ wasn’t great. I’m not sure it was even good. It’s a deeply flawed movie, certainly from a script level. However, there’s plenty to enjoy as long as you can relax enough and let go of any Bale/Nolan baggage you may be carrying. Affleck’s Batman is excellent. There’s a marked lift in direction – like Watchmen, Snyder finally brings some meaning to his framing. And perhaps most importantly, BSDJ may shine a dim torchlight on the way forward for DC and its movie empire. Character, emotional stakes, and pathos. If you’re going to go bleak, be truthful about it. Don’t try to make a weak copy through poor writing and strained expressions. Go to the heart of the question. Keep it simple. Be truly adult about your superheroes. Oh, and get on with the Affleck/Batman movie. That’s going to be very interesting, indeed.