If one wanted to watch two boys fight for petty reasons – jealousy, glorified ideas of “revenge” and some weird thing to do with machismo – watch an ice hockey match.
If one wanted the boys to be powerful, try a Mafia movie.
But if one wanted to watch your favourite and most respected superheroes reduced to these childish rascals, so incomprehensible in their actions that they are hard to defend, you’ve hit the jackpot with Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.
No, DC’s hurried answer to Marvel’s ensemble magic is not a comic book fanatic’s dream come true. Instead, it is a comic book fanatic’s wet dream (the supposed “greatest gladiator match”) buried underneath 150 minutes of muddled mess.
And it all crumbles into rubble and soot, less the result of the superpowered punches than of the monstrosity that is this self-destructive narrative.
MINI-SPOILER MARK: Minor plot details discussed beyond this point. No major spoilers revealed
Superman’s (Henry Cavill) showdown with General Zod in Man of Steel might have been the Smallville native’s heroic debut as a vigilante. But it left Metropolis in a mess as countless lost their lives in the trail of destruction, and Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) – Gotham’s secret Caped Crusader – is not impressed. As American authorities begin to question the legitimacy of Superman’s actions and the meaning of his existence, Batman devotes his attention to bringing the Man of Steel to justice. Meanwhile, young CEO Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg) uses his resources to orchestrate the great showdown.
As a Christopher Reeve fan myself, I thought I hated Man of Steel because it threw only the punches and absolutely nothing else (while vapourising any semblance of a Superman plot). It turns out that watching the next Superman outing continue to throw the punches, while at least attempting but still failing desperately to throw something else, is just as frustrating.
Riding off the high of Christopher Nolan’s brilliantly dark and complex The Dark Knight trilogy, DC has decided to stick to (what it thinks is) the formula and suck the red and blue out of Superman’s glory. It still insists on giving Superman a grim palette, when really, it is just not working.
Their Man of Steel is dull. And in Batman v Superman, they attempt to portray him as ethically questionable and almost eerily powerful. “False God”, they brand across his chest in graffiti. And so continues the Superman defaming for the rest of the movie.
Yes, Batman v Superman seems to almost dislike the superhero, and strings together scenes of unnerving Superman worship, ethical commentary via the critical Senator Finch (Holly Hunter), and a brooding Batman directing his anger at the red cape, all in a determined effort to make us distrust Superman. No doubt, this is simply an (unsuccessful) attempt at an intelligent and insightful plot at work.
But if fans wanted to see someone bad mouth Superman for two hours, we would go to the most extreme and bizarrely competitive corners of a Marvel convention. We don’t need that in a DC movie that already has a lot on its plate, no matter how intriguing this dark and questioning material might be.
After forcing us to ride on the anti-Superman campaign, and attempting (terribly) to keep the Man of Steel’s likeability afloat – with fleeting glimpses into his life as loving (lustful) co-habiting boyfriend of Lois Lane, or as a Daily Planet reporter who defies his editor’s instructions – we are brought into the Batman and Superman rivalry. And it goes further south from there.
Batman wants Superman dead because he feels the near-invincible alien is unaccountable. Justifiable, but at the heart of this rage, we just find a billionaire who is mostly mad that Superman smashed his office building 18 months ago. Superman’s rationale is a lot harder to believe; he wants Batman to disappear because “You think you are above the law.” Did you really just say that, Supes? Talk about double standards.
Really, it all just feels like jealousy, rage and machismo. Teenage angst rather than righteous men fighting for a cause. But Batman and Superman continue in their rivalry, while two half-baked mystery sub-plots are also unfolding in the background. If that is not heavy enough, the ethical commentary is still rambling on. Not heavy enough? Lex Luthor gets thrown into the mix.
Batman and Superman are too distracted by their rivalry to notice that Luthor is planning to wreck havoc. Because the psycho rich kid, too, is jealous of and threatened by Superman’s power. And while we are on the topic of Luthor, the character is a complete hit and miss. Gone is the subtle brilliance of Gene Hackman and Kevin Spacey; Eisenberg portrays Luthor like his version of Mark Zuckerberg (in The Social Network) went completely nuts. And not in a good way.
The movie is a mess, a mountain of trash that grows as time drags on. But in the pile of rubble, some pretty solid pieces can be found.
For starters, it does an impressive job at introducing future characters of the DC Cinematic Universe. Affleck is fine as Batman, who fits much better into this movie’s tone (than the Man of Steel) because darkness and distrust actually work for this character. Sure, he does not have anything close to the brilliant development that Nolan bestowed on Christian Bale, but Affleck’s Batman suffices.
Wonder Woman makes her live action big screen debut with actress Gal Gadot, and she is certainly a welcoming presence and featured more than anticipated. And pleasantly so. Her scenes are really a teaser for her solo movie next year, but it is nonetheless an effective teaser that builds our anticipation with exciting glimpses into her life as Diana Prince, and as Wonder Woman in action. The warrior-princess kicks ass here, and she arguably steals the spotlight whenever she appears.
Then there are the really brief intro clips for Ezra Miller‘s Flash, Jason Momoa‘s Aquaman and Ray Fisher‘s Cyborg. The future Justice League initiates prove to be potentially exciting material in their cameos. And thankfully, like Wonder Woman, they are not in the movie long enough for it to harm them with a terrible backstory.
Once again, the action does not disappoint. It is massive. It is ambitious. If only it had a more solid and meaningful base, and more developed combatants, to give the over-destructive fist fight some colour and heart. But alas, it all amounts to a petty squabble.
Like Man of Steel, Batman v Superman delivers the punches, and delivers them well. Also like Man of Steel, it is terrible as a narrative.
And if not for our desire to see the live action feature debuts of all those other DC characters, we would be begging Martha Kent to step in and pull the two big boys apart. Grow up and stop destroying our stuff, she would tell them. And boys, clean up this mess.
Rating: 2.0/5 (TALK-o-meter: “That’s a thumbs down, Gladiator-style.”)