'Batman Vs Superman is where you go when you've exhausted all possibilities. It's somewhat of an admission that this franchise is on its last gasp.'
In case you're not familiar with the source or context of that quote, it's from noted comic-book movie writer and director David Goyer, explaining in 2005 why it was decided not to go with Wolfgang Petersen's proposed film of that title. Eleven years is a geological age in Hollywood, of course, which is why Goyer now has his name on the script of Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice, the crucial second instalment in DC's attempt to establish a franchise featuring its own roster of superheroes. Nevertheless, does something about this strike you as a little off? It may well.
BvS (I can't be bothered to type the full title out every time) is the follow-up to Man of Steel, and as before is directed by Zach Snyder. I'm going to cut to the chase here: as a movie it seems to be the result of two distinct creative agendas, neither of them exactly surprising. Firstly, DC have been casting envious eyes upon the massive critical and (particularly) popular success of the Marvel Studios movies over the last nearly-ten years, and want a slice of the same cake. So BvS has the job of singlehandedly jump-starting a similar enterprise, introducing a slew of new characters and concepts (something which, you may recall, Marvel split across three or four movies).
Secondly, it – like every other Batman film of the past 30 years – is utterly preoccupied with Frank Miller's graphic novel The Dark Knight Returns, which features a grim, brooding, slightly unhinged Batman in an everyday story of how to make slightly fascist social views acceptable for a young and liberal audience. The climax of Miller's book is a spectacular showdown between Batman and Superman (here presented as a tool of the corrupt establishment).
Whatever your opinion of Frank Miller's politics, he is undeniably a great storyteller when he's on form, which is not something I'm sure anyone has ever said about Zach Snyder. Hmm. Well, the movie opens with a brief, portentous recap of the Kryptonian attack on Metropolis at the end of Man of Steel, in which we get to see Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) trying to save some of the bystanders and generally being appalled by the chaos and destruction the aliens have caused. This makes him miserable for the rest of the movie, as if Batman isn't usually miserable enough.
Flash forward a couple of years and we learn that being miserable has made Batman even more brutal and savage in his war on crime than usual, to the point where Daily Planet reporter Clark Kent (Henry Cavill) is quite outraged by what he sees as unjustifiable terror tactics and unchecked vigilantism. This at least takes Kent/Superman's mind off the fact that his various super-deeds have proved rather controversial, because good deeds can sometimes have bad consequences (yup, this movie is that morally profound). This makes Superman miserable for the rest of the movie, too.
Also fairly miserable is brilliant entrepreneur/scientist Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg), who considers the presence of Superman on Earth to be an affront to human supremacy. To this end he has laid his hands on some interesting green rocks extracted from one of the destroyed Kryptonian ships, in the belief they may have interesting effects on Superman.
(Also hanging around the plot is Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), who, to her enormous credit, isn't miserable at all and actually seems to be enjoying herself.)
Or, to put it another way, the standard structure for this kind of story goes as follows: two superheroes meet for the first time. There is, inevitably, some sort of misunderstanding, and the two of them take each other on. However, they soon realise they're on the same side and join forces to deal with the genuine, much more significant threat.
That's a classic structure (and one which I adhere to myself when running superhero RPGs, for instance) – it's done properly in the first Avengers movie, for example. However, it kind of presupposes the hero-on-hero action will be happening in the second act, which is at odds with the desire to do Dark Knight Returns on the big screen – there, the hero-on-hero stuff is the climax. The film has to compromise, which means it doesn't really do either story justice.
And structurally, the mashing of structures hobbles the whole movie. This is a long film (and it certainly feels like it), and with the big battles all held back for the third act, it struggles to find things to do for much of its running time. In the end it settles for lots of brooding, apocalyptic dream sequences, heavy-going quasi-theological discussions, laborious setting-up of planned future movies, and characters glaring miserably at each other, prior to a final half-hour or so made up almost entirely of things going boom.
The real victim of the mangled plotting is Lex Luthor, who seems to have half-a-dozen schemes going on simultaneously, not all of which make complete (or even partial) sense. Or, to put it another way, his plan is to frame Superman as being responsible for various terrorist atrocities, get his hands on some Kryptonite to kill him with, blackmail him into killing Batman to further besmirch his good name, and then breed a giant half-Kryptonian monster to batter him to death. Now that's what I call multi-tasking. To put it another way, Luthor is basically just a plot device rather than an actual character, which is why a talented actor like Jesse Eisenberg has to resort to an array of tics and quirky mannerisms just to give him any kind of identity. As it is, the character still doesn't convince.
As you may have gathered, once it's (reluctantly) finished trying to be The Dark Knight Returns, the movie has a go at being (spoiler alert) The Death of Superman, complete with a CGI version of Doomsday. Even this is not that interesting to watch, due to Snyder's preferred aesthetic of everything that's not actually exploding being grim and gloomy – although, to be fair, once the three heroes team up to fight the monster it actually starts to feel more like an actual superhero film (plus the only two proper jokes in the film are both near the end).
Actually, I would say that the glaring problem with BvS is not that the structure of the film is wonky – other blockbusters have got away with as much – but that the tone of the thing is so relentlessly depressing. Oh, God, it's so horrible that Superman is flying around saving people and averting disasters! It's so awful that Batman is fighting crime in Gotham City! The whole thing is literally this ponderously gloomy – there's none of the joy or colour or imagination of even a so-so superhero comic. Are DC doing this just to be different from the slightly self-mocking and frequently goofy Marvel movies? If so, then distinctiveness arguably comes at too heavy a price.
You could also argue that a mainstream audience most likely hasn't read The Dark Knight Returns and isn't going to get all the references to it here (there are, of course, many), and isn't going to recognise this conflicted, adversarial take on these two iconic characters. Certainly, the big thing – the colossal thing – BvS has going for it is that it puts Superman and Batman on the big screen together for the first time. But for some reason Zach Snyder seems to think he can only do this by making them essentially unrecognisable – Superman is a guilt-racked, despairing victim, Batman is a vicious, paranoid loon.
A friend of mine has written quite an impassioned piece in defence of BvS, saying he found it quite heartwarming to see the two characters come together and interact with each other, and that you shouldn't criticise it just because it deviates from the minutiae of comics lore. I understand entirely where he's coming from on the first point, but the movie doesn't just get the little details of comics mythology wrong, it completely fails to grasp what makes these two characters so iconic and beloved.
(The only thing about the movie which is even vaguely successful is Gal Gadot's Wonder Woman, but here they have the advantage of not having to compete with numerous other recent on-screen versions of the character, plus she isn't actually in the film that much outside of the climactic battle.)
To understand all is to forgive all, or so the theory goes. I suppose it's possible to understand the reasoning behind the creative choices the makers of BvS made – the perceived need to be tonally distinct from the Marvel films, the hope of launching a slate of further spin-offs, the desire to (once again) borrow liberally from The Dark Knight Returns, the importance of 'being taken seriously' (whatever that means in this context) – but does that excuse the film-makers making such a botch of a promise with so much potential? I have to say I think the answer is no. There's probably an argument to be had over whether this is just a disappointment or an actual disaster, but what's inarguable is that it really could and should have been much, much better.