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Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice

#99 - Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice
Zack Snyder, 2016

Eighteen months after the events of Man of Steel, several different individuals launch their own plans to contain an all-powerful superhero.

It's hard to imagine any film facing even more of an uphill battle than Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. As if being the first live-action film to finally pit the two most iconic superheroes in popular culture against one another wasn't enough, there's also the various other factors that threaten to complicate matters unnecessarily. Audiences had already been introduced to the latest iteration of Superman (Henry Cavill) in 2013's Man of Steel, which re-invented the character to be less of a straightforward paragon of virtue and more of an internally conflicted young man whose great power did not automatically imbue him with great responsibility or the ability to save the day without severe consequences. While this is a potentially interesting variation on a hero whose general characterisation is based on his pureness of spirit and infallible nature, the execution of Man of Steel did strike audiences as a step too far in this direction as the moral complexity of Superman's struggle with himself and others gave way to nihilistic displays of death and destruction. Such a grim treatment of the character can be considered a misguided attempt to replicate the serious vibe of Christopher Nolan's Batman films, though Zack Snyder's tendency to favour hollow spectacle over the kind of nuance common to Nolan's work is at odds with that goal. As a result, while it's possible that Batman v Superman may learn from the mistakes that were made in Man of Steel, it could just as easily repeat those same mistakes on an even larger and more ruinous scale.

It is the cataclysmic climax of Man of Steel that serves as the true beginning of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, only this time it is seen through the eyes of billionaire/vigilante Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck). Wayne's first-hand experience of the city-wide carnage leads him to conclude that Superman, for all his supposed concerns about preserving human life and upholding the most important ideals of modern society, is still a potential threat who must be monitored and potentially neutralised if it should come to that. Wayne is not alone in that regard; not only do the U.S. military and government want to be able to keep tabs on Superman through either surveillance or senate hearings, but some of them are willing to turn to an eccentric young tech-genius billionaire named Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg) for a more permanent solution to the Superman problem. Throw in a few other sub-plots involving intrepid Daily Planet reporter Lois Lane (Amy Adams) digging up clumps of exposition or a mysterious woman (Gal Gadot) whose true identity isn't exactly a source of wonder and you have...a lot of stuff to get through. Given the decidedly epic nature of its central conflict, Batman v Superman seems like it'll be somewhat justified in reaching the 150-minute mark (especially since it has to reboot Batman after the decidedly definitive conclusion of Nolan's wholly unrelated trilogy), yet struggles to find enough of worth to fill out the running time.

To its credit, Batman v Superman does show signs of an interesting plot in its attempts to further expand upon the idea of what Superman's continued presence means for the rest of the world. It also offers a vastly different version of Batman in order to provide an appropriately conflicted counter-point for Superman, with Affleck's older and more embittered portrayal demonstrating a severe break from the character due to his willingness to take up arms against his enemies. To this end, the film's intense focus on establishing yet another version of the Dark Knight seems to work in the film's favour; this is mostly down to the unorthodox casting of Affleck actually paying off as he embodies the right amount of wealthy charisma and gruff theatrics as both Wayne and Batman respectively. Credit also has to go to Jeremy Irons putting in a decent effort as Wayne's sardonic but loyal manservant Alfred, with the two having good interpersonal chemistry as the latter proves a strong foil who does what he can to keep his master's budding brutality in check. Though this focus on Batman does have the side-effect of making Superman seem underdeveloped (to the point where scenes dedicated to developing and humanising him still end up coming across as forced), it arguably makes sense in trying to get us to see Superman from another perspective after having followed his own journey of self-discovery throughout Man of Steel. One could even make the point that the film knows not to drag out the all-too-familiar questions regarding superhero responsibility and only uses them to set up an excuse for the leads to distrust one another and ultimately fight.

Unfortunately, any sort of provocative text or subtext involving these characters and their conflicts are mired in a film that never seems to be even remotely sure about how to handle any of its more promising elements. In working to re-establish a much more jaded version of Batman whose qualms about killing criminals have fallen by the wayside (thus presenting a genuine danger to Superman if the situation arises), Batman v Superman not only threatens to ruin what made these characters so beloved in the first place but also runs the risk of making the film difficult to enjoy even for casual audiences. In trying to provide a balanced portrayal of both leads, the film can just as easily induce a certain apathy as we struggle to care why either one deserves to win or if they can manage to settle their differences in a mutually satisfactory manner. Even the addition of a wild card in the form of Wonder Woman does little to mitigate matters; though it is good to finally see her in action and she does intrigue enough to make a stand-alone film seem promising, her presence only adds so much to some otherwise numbing proceedings.

While you may or may not have seen the trailers that expand upon the narrative's most important beats, the resulting film still has trouble coming up with a lot of stuff to fill out everything in between and definitely dragging out its conclusion far more than what feels necessary. There seem to be at least two or three films worth of material or potential that gets shoehorned in to pad out an already straightforward narrative; this is a decision that does not seem ambitious so much as indecisive. Even when Batman v Superman opts to ease off on its grimly unwieldy approach to its material and actually act like it's your average superhero movie, it still can't seem to get things right. The chief offender in this regard is easily Eisenberg, who attempts to infuse Luthor with the sort of magnetic screen presence one tends to expect from a supervillain but instead comes across as a jarringly eccentric performance. In comparison to the multitude of understated performances that make up the rest of the cast, his scenery-chewing should feel like a respite but instead feels like an especially severe pitfall every time he shows up. Though you'd think that Snyder might be able to conjure up some action sequences that leave a positive impression, more often than not his compositions are left extremely wanting. Looking back, the scene that sticks out the most to me in a good way is actually a relatively brief dream sequence, whereas scenes that actually take place in a tactile and easily destructible environment still feel very weightless.

Another thing that does stick out to me about Batman v Superman is how the central conflict between two outwardly opposed protagonists is reflected in a number of thematic choices that seem like deliberate attempts to invoke a sense of duality. It's an intriguing thing to note how the film attempts to blend disparate elements together, but that doesn't automatically guarantee that the execution will match the concept. Even though the beats of a superhero movie narrative are fundamentally worn-out and in need of a little reinvention, this film is so oddly paced and edited (possibly in an attempt to replicate the juggling of multiple plot threads that one can find in actual comics) that there doesn't seem to be much of a discernible flow to the progression of separate scenes, especially during the rather sluggish first half or the flashy second half. The visual style also feels rather flat as it mixes complementary colours with a muted palette in a manner that only plays into any action feeling dull and unimpressive. The duality even extends to the background score, which also attempts to combine two extremely different musical styles by mixing Hans Zimmer's orchestral flourishes against Junkie XL's percussive thundering. This has a double-edged effect in that the distinctive nature of XL's work effectively overshadows Zimmer's unremarkable contributions, with the only piece that sticks in my memory being the tribal-sounding leitmotif that accompanies Wonder Woman whenever she does something significant (which still happens frequently enough for such a limited piece of music to get annoying).

The odds of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice living up to literal decades' worth of hype over its central conflict are naturally rather slim, but the end result is especially staggering in how it chooses to execute its premise. I've been mulling over the film in the hopes of seeing some greater point that might justify its outwardly drab and cynical treatment of the source material - if anything, I think the fact that (like it or not) I'm actively trying to think about the film says something about it. However, while it is one thing if the film opts to forgo simple blockbuster fun in favour of actually attempting to carry out a fan-defying deconstruction, it's another thing entirely if the resulting film still ends up being too much of an endurance test to even be appreciated on a subversive or deconstructive level. There are a few factors scattered throughout Batman v Superman that hint at a largely-unrealised greatness, suggesting that there's potential for a greater re-evaluation at some point down the line or the possibility of it being better realised in later films. However, as it stands there still seems to be far too much that's wrong with it for me to think of it as a significantly pleasurable experience.