Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016, Zack Snyder)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Eighteen months after Superman was revealed to the world, two local businessmen – secret vigilante Bruce Wayne and power-hungry Lex Luthor – independently decide to do something about him…

Good guys: This is a direct sequel to 2013’s Man of Steel, so returning from that film are Clark Kent/Superman (Henry Cavill), Lois Lane (Amy Adams), Perry White (Laurence Fishburne), Martha Kent (Diane Lane) and, in a dream sequence, Jonathan Kent (Kevin Costner). None of the actors is terrible, but the characters are so hollow they don’t get much to play. The headline newcomer is, of course, Bruce Wayne/Batman (Ben Affleck). He’s been fighting crime in Gotham City for 20 years, we’re told, though no one seems to have heard of his alter ego. The soulful and sombre Affleck is the one true success of the movie and the actor skillfully implies a complex life beyond the scripted scenes. At one point, Bruce bumps into and flirts with Diana Prince aka Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), who’s over a hundred years old despite looking about 30. She’s a shadowy (ie, underwritten) presence in the story. The character is essentially just an in-film trailer for 2017’s Wonder Woman movie. We barely see her for the first 110 minutes then she takes part in the action climax. Gadot’s performance is certainly bland, but the material’s not there anyway. It’s a classic example of a movie thinking the way to make a female character strong is to have her be perfect, unflappable and never in any peril.

Bad guys: Jesse Eisenberg over-acts his wig off as an irritating and childish Lex Luthor. It feels like an actor who knows the script is garbage so is trying to lever it off the page. Lex has a very thin female PA who gets neither a personality nor much dialogue. We see the corpse of Man of Steel’s General Zod a few times. (Thankfully it’s been well preserved in the year and a half since he died.)

Other guys: Bruce’s friend/assistant is the droll Alfred (Jeremy Irons). Holly Hunter plays a Democratic Senator from Kentucky, June Finch, who’s heading up the investigation into Superman’s activities. Harry Lennix reprises his Man of Steel role as a whistle-blowing politician. The Walking Dead’s Lauren Cohan plays Bruce’s mum in flashbacks.

Best bits:
* The big action sequence near the start of the film. Cleverly, we begin in the timeframe of Man of Steel and see Superman and Zod’s city-bashing battle from a new point of view. Bruce Wayne leaps from a helicopter, jumps into a 4×4 and careers through Metropolis as skyscrapers fall around him. Once he’s out of the car, there’s a terrific shot of him running into a cloud of debris dust…
* Lois Lane and Perry White’s minor bickering over what sort of airline ticket she can buy for a story. (A very rare moment of naturalism, this.)
* Clark Kent meets Bruce Wayne. It’s a frosty chat at a cocktail party (“Daily Planet?” asks Bruce. “Do I own that one?”). Diana saunters past, dressed in red so she’ll pop out against the other partygoers, and there’s a nice touch when Clark can hear Bruce’s hidden earbud.
* During a post-apocalyptic dream sequence (FUCK KNOWS WHAT’S GOING ON HERE), there’s an impressive 53-second long take as a goggles-and-long-coat-wearing Batman fights dozens of bad guys.
* During a scene at the docks, we see a sign for Nicholson Terminal & Dock Company – surely a reference to Jack Nicholson and a much better Batman film.
* The build-up of tension before the explosion at the Senate hearing.
* Bruce finds a secret file on Diana. It contains a photograph of her taken in 1918 – ie, during events that will be seen in next year’s Wonder Woman movie. Star Trek actor Chris Pine is stood next to her.
* Lex pushes Lois off a skyscraper. (Add this to the list of people who fall from a great height in superhero films: Lois in Superman: The Movie and Superman IV, Gus in Superman III, the Joker in Batman, Selina in Batman Returns, Nygma’s boss in Batman Forever, Rachel in The Dark Knight, airplane passengers in Iron Man 3, Pepper Potts in Iron Man 3…)
* Batman sees the Kryptonian mutant ogre-type monster: “Oh, shit…”
* Wonder Woman shows up in her costume. Superman: “Is she with you?” Batman: “I thought she was with you.”

Review: After an opening flashback telling us – for the fourth time in eight Batman films – how Bruce Wayne was orphaned, we’re into a terrific action sequence. As the climactic fight from Man of Steel plays out above him, Bruce looks on in horror and it feels like this sequel is critiquing the earlier film’s disaster porn. In a sequence full of 9/11 imagery, Superman and Zod are bringing down skyscrapers, levelling city blocks and killing thousands of people… while new character Bruce Wayne is on the ground saving innocent lives. It seems like a comment on the shallowness of Man of Steel. It also smartly and economically sets up the Batman/Superman antagonism. However… All that work is soon wasted. A theme of vigilantism bubbles away, but never goes anywhere, while the action-heavy second half is just as guilty as Man of Steel for revelling in meaningless violence. Not only that but this film’s attempts at answering the critics of Man of Steel are laughable. As carnage begins in the city, there’s a woeful line of dialogue heard in a TV news report – “Thankfully the workday is over and the downtown core is nearly empty…” It’s petty sarcasm on the part of the filmmakers, like a child putting the least amount of effort possible into a chore. Just as risible is the ‘Martha moment’. The script spends *two hours* setting up an argument between Superman and Batman. Then every inch of that storytelling is made instantly irrelevant because the characters realise they have mothers with the same name. Seriously?! That’s your character arc?! So Bruce doesn’t care about all those deaths any more? He’s best friends with Superman now? And that’s just the most ridiculous of many flaws with the plotting… Mercenaries use branded bullets that will identify who they are… Someone in a collapsing building needs to be told to evacuate… It’s not clear if the public know who Batman is… A hotshot reporter has never heard of prominent industrialist Bruce Wayne… The US government holds an inquiry into an incident that happened in Kenya… Lex knows how to use an alien space ship to create a Middle Earth ogre… It’s a hopelessly muddled plot: all effect, no cause. And sadly there are plenty of other problems. For example, both Superman and Batman routinely *kill people*. This betrayal of the characters’ established myths is all the more saddening because Batman v Superman is part of a multi-film franchise akin to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. However, the film fails to grasp why that series has been so successful. Marvel built its shared universe carefully and gradually, and gave each hero moments to shine before merging the storylines in interesting ways. This movie, though, feels like it has YouTube ads popping up at regular intervals: a dream sequence features a nonsensical cameo from the Flash; we see CCTV footage of obscure characters who are getting solo movies soon; and the final scenes are more about sequels than closure. But the worst thing about this travesty of a blockbuster is Zack Snyder. Almost every aspect of the film – scripting, acting, staging, design – is poorly directed. There’s a tiresome reliance on slow-motion for emphasis, a gloomy, grimy look to every action scene, a cigarette-stained colour palette, meaningless camera moves, an astonishing absence of wit, an adolescent view of the world, an ADHD attitude to character, and a bloated running time. We’re living through an era of superhero blockbusters. Some are good. Some are bad. This is ugly.

Two buckets of piss out of 10

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Man of Steel (2013, Zack Snyder)

man-of-steel

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Clark Kent has always known he’s special – but he soon learns that his extraordinary powers are because he’s from a distant planet…

Good guys: Kal-El is born in the first scene. When his home planet, Krypton, is threatened with destruction, his parents send him to Earth for safekeeping. He’s adopted by a Kansas couple, the Kents, who call him Clark. He occasionally uses the superpowers his alien heritage gives him – saving his friends after a bus drives into a lake, for example – but his new dad implores him to keep his powers secret, even if that means letting people die. As a grown man (Henry Cavill), Clark drifts from job to job – fisherman, barman, unspecified helper at a scientific outpost. He miraculously saves some workers from a burning oilrig, then moves on before questions can be asked. At the outpost, an alien spacecraft has been discovered in the ice. It’s from Krypton and contains a hologram… type… thing… of Clark’s dead biological father, who tells him his history and gives him a skin-tight blue outfit with a red cape. This dad wants Clark to reveal himself to the world, leaving Clark in a quandary. Then Kryptonian crim Zod shows up and calls him out. (This happens when Clark is 33 – just one of a few messianic references.) After a very long fight between the two, Superman – as he’s been dubbed by some soldiers – kills Zod by twisting his neck. Clark then realises he needs a job that will let him go incognito into dangerous situations, so – despite having no experience or qualifications or degree or CV or references or previous published work – gets a job at a national newspaper. Cavill makes a good stab at the role: he’s likeable and deserves a better film. Meanwhile, the talented Amy Adams is wasted as bland journalist Lois Lane. She meets Clark when she reports on the discovery in the ice. Once back in Metropolis, she reminds editor Perry White (Laurence Fishburne) that she’s a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer. From the lifeless article she’s just read out to him, it’s difficult to see how. She then tries to track down a vanished Clark and finds him at his adoptive father’s grave. When Zod arrives, he demands that she join Clark as his hostage – this seems to be solely so she can then later escape.

Bad guys: General Zod is a Kryptonian villain who stages a coup, but is then tried and imprisoned in the Phantom Zone. He’s sent there in a spaceship that looks like a penis but later escapes… because… plot. Heading to Earth to look for the Codex (a DNA database or something), he threatens to destroy the planet if he doesn’t get what he wants. Rather than give an acting performance, Michael Shannon just shouts a lot.

Other guys: Clark has two fathers, each played by Robin Hood. Russell Crowe trots out his vaguely British accent from Master and Commander as Kryptonian dad Jor-El. He’s more kickass than the Marlon Brando version, but is killed during a punch-up with Zod. He later appears to his son (and Lois, and Zod) as an interactive, omniscient hologram. Meanwhile, Kevin Costner plays Kansas farmer Jonathan Kent, and it’s a decent performance. When a very sudden tornado strikes, Clark chooses to watch Jonathan die rather than – as earlier with the school bus and later with the oil rig – risk people seeing him do something superhero-y. Diane Lane plays Jonathan’s wife, Martha. Richard Schiff from The West Wing plays scientist Emil Hamilton: it’s a tiny role, but he’s the classiest thing in the film.

Best bits:

* In a flashback to his youth, Clark can’t cope with his hypersensitive sight and hearing – he sees people’s skeletons and veins, and hears every tiny noise all at once.

* The early scenes of Clark wandering from town to town – presumably in New England – have a gentle, airy, soft-rain quality.

* Clark’s first test flight (the music cue is terrific).

* Oh, look: it’s Harry Lennix from Dollhouse as an army general.

* Faced with Zod’s ultimatum – reveal yourself to the world or risk innocent lives – Clark goes to visit a priest. When Clark reveals that he’s the alien Zod is looking for, the priest gulps.

* Lois is just about to refer to her new friend as ‘Superman’ but gets interrupted.

* In an interrogation room, Clark can not only see through the two-way mirror but also into the next room where some soldiers are preparing a sedative.

* The dream-world image of Clark sinking into a massive pile of skulls.

* The fake Jor-El talking Lois calmly through her escape attempt.

* Lois tries plugging Clark’s zip-drive thingy into a Krypotonian panel, but it gets stuck. “It’s supposed to go in all the way!” she cries with a straight face.

* An oil tanker seen in the interminable fight sequence at the end has a Lexcorp logo on it. It made me think of Gene Hackman and I smiled. Soon afterwards, we get a shot of a satellite with a Wayne logo: Batman will be in this film’s sequel, due out next year.

* After Clake has got his new job, Lois knowingly says to him: “Welcome to the Planet.” He replies, “Glad to be here, Lois” – the final line of the film.

Review: Positives? Well, Henry Cavill and Amy Adams are likeable enough. Kevin Costner’s solid too. And the film’s flashback structure works quite well – we cut to them when they’re relevant to the narrative rather than in a strict chronological order. But on the whole, this is mediocre stuff. It was produced by Christopher Nolan, who also gets a ‘story by’ credit. The magic he brought to his Batman reboot series is woefully misjudged here. In the same way that a pantomimic approach didn’t fit the film-noir character of Batman in the 1990s, a sombre, earnest take on Superman is really missing the point of his sunny, optimistic, noble story. The film also throws away the template’s best element: the lead character *being* Superman but *pretending to be* Clark Kent. Here, he’s Clark until the halfway point, and then he’s Superman. An even bigger problem is how it’s staged by director Zack Synder. The prologue on Krypton sets the scene. It’s full of technobabble about meaningless MacGuffins that have presumably been discussed at length in story meetings but struggle to punch through in the film. There’s also a massive amount of computer-generated sets, backdrops and creatures. There are lots of irritating handheld camerawork and fake crash-zooms on effects shots. It’s very poor cinematic storytelling. In fact, the cinematography is mostly terrible throughout – the frame is often so full of stuff that all becomes confused and meaningless. And just when you’re wondering why you’re bothering to continue, you get a 35-minute action climax, which is relentlessly dull disaster porn. CGI buildings get destroyed and CGI people get thrown through the air with masturbatorial glee. It’s like watching a Transformers film – or someone else playing a computer game. Character, storytelling, wit and panache have all been left far behind. At one point, Superman races to save a guy falling from a helicopter. Later in the sequence, he couldn’t give a shit about entire skyscrapers being levelled by a spaceship *he* crashed.

Three broken necks out of 10.

Next time: Everything is awesome!