I went to see Batman V Superman on Easter Sunday, and then the internet exploded. The critics hated it. Fans loved it. Other fans didn't. It made pots of money. It might not make all of the money. It might do. There's a petition to remove its director Zack Synder from the DC universe. There's a counter-petition to keep him. Its all so dramatic, and I think, dear reader, you may have your mind made up already. But, you know, I've written a lot about this film, so here's my short essay on the film. Here be spoilers. And no, this isn't an April Fools Day prank, although the word fool could be used here very easily.
The fairest comparison I can make at the time of writing is to Star Wars: The Phantom Menace. Its breaking financial records. Its fulfilled a deep emotional need of fanboys. But no matter how much Warner Bros. tries to say you should ignore the critics, its not very good.
I'm sorry, I tried, but it isn't a good film.
Batman V Superman is a functional action film, with a few flashes of brilliance, but falls over once you stop to think. Before anyone says I shouldn't be thinking too hard about superheroes, the film puts Superman in a government hearing, and Zack Synder adapted Watchmen, so the intellectual angle is already invoked. The film is overly fond of dream sequences that may or may not be visions of future films, and tends to jump from scene to scene suddenly, so what should be a simple story becomes convoluted. Character motivations are muddy, often boiling down to "we need these characters to fight", or "because comics", but not "in these circumstances, he would do this". Lex Luthor is particularly bad on this front, he just seems to have spontaneously decided one day that Superman was a threat and is trying to justify it after the fact. Rumours fly about multiple different drafts of the script, with different villains, being amalgamated into one, and this would be easy to believe. Lex isn't alone with the silliness either, Lois Lane has her reputation ruined by the third act, WE NOW ENTER SPOILER TOWN, where she damsels herself through an act of stupidity. Having chucked a kryptonite spear into water, she must retrieve it for something to do, and then almost drowns as a result.
OK, lets put aside matters of writing for moment, as a sufficiently charming or directed film can overcome this. Lets give it the fairest shake, and talk action sequences. And these are good, when they eventually happen. You've seen most of the memorable bits in the trailers, Batman being a highlight, but its a long wait between sequences, and an even longer wait for the title fight. If you ever wanted to see Superman beaten up, including the use of a sink, this is your movie. Its just a shame about how it starts and ends. The fight could have been prevented by Supes saying “He's kidnapped my Mum”, and it ends with him saying “He's got Martha” instead. “Martha” is coincidentally the name of both Bats and Supes respective mothers, a piece of trivia that gets treated as a revelation here. I mean how often do you use your mother's first name?
I'm sorry, I realise I was meant to be talking about the action.
Ahem, well, as entertaining as seeing Bats punch people is, things go south once Doomsday wakes up. In a prolonged CG sequence not dissimilar in feel to the Micheal Bay directed Transformers films, we get another big fight. One that is hard to follow, done in contrasting colours, and goes on far too long. Wonder Woman makes her present felt, and is welcome, but Doomsday himself is a deeply unconvincing CG creation that seems to have been borrowed from the first Lord of the Rings film. And, at this point, I really have to start addressing the adaptation.
Now, if you watched Man of Steel and felt they'd missed the point of the character, bad news folks, they doubled down. Superman is still the perpetually depressed alien of minimal charisma, repeated religious symbolism, and generalised destruction. While the trailers imply his arc is about facing the consequences of the last film, its more about him having a crisis of confidence that he's causing harm by rescuing people. There's an odd dream sequence with Pa Kent, which seems to be the film's statement of principle, where Pa recounts how his attempt to save the family farm from flooding drowned some horses downstream. If you believe that he should be a symbol of hope, this film will anger you as the tone is utterly opposed to that. Not only does Supes flat out murder someone in the first five minutes, a terrorist admittedly, but still, the movie goes places that should have been struck down at the first draft. There's a suicide bomber in a wheelchair. Superman standing in the flaming remains of that attack. A big jar of urine. A frankly horrifying origin story for Justice League member Cyborg. Government officials believing Superman would need bullets to kill people. An alien spacecraft left to rot in the Indian Ocean. Batman branding people. Pa Kent. Those dream/vision sequences of a post-apocalyptic future. An ICBM being able to hit a man sized target in flight. Batman killing a bunch of people, first with guns, then with cars. Jesse Eisenberg's entire depiction of Lex Luthor. Jimmy Olson being shot dead as an exposed CIA agent. And then, Superman is killed by Doomsday, as part of a forced heroic sacrifice.
Yes, they killed Superman.
Warner Brothers grand plan for a shared cinematic universe is to build one on Superman's corpse.
Funeral scene and everything.
Then something starts to happen to the casket.
It's not that better for the rest of the trinity. Gal Godot's performance as Wonder Woman bodes well, but we don't get that much time with her. She doesn't actually speak to Supes either, and her main function seems to be a vector for all the world building stuff. Said world building has subtlety of a party political broadcast, because if its not dreams, its what amounts to a playlist of 30 second teaser trailers. Ben Affleck's Batman works well, but he was never going to be the problem, was he? He's won an Oscar, and Batman is a comparatively easy character to do at this point. He's compelling as Bruce Wayne too, interactions with Jeremy Iron's Alfred being a highlight. That said, this Dark Knight is a multiple murderer, so its not perfect.
So how did we get here? Well, as I suspected, this film is drawing heavily on two different comic series, Frank Miller's “The Dark Knight Returns” and the Death of Superman storyline. Both are well-regarded in their way. Frank Miller has largely ruined his reputation at this point, but TDKR is still considered a classic, if one that's notable for an unflattering depiction of Superman. The other is exactly what it sounds like, and was one of the big, huge, 90's comic events that sold gangbusters. Obviously, it didn't take, and as it was essentially an extended publicity stunt, its got its detractors. Doomsday on screen isn't that far from the comic depictions, if only for the fact that he only really does one thing, show up out of nowhere and kill Superman. While there is merit in adapting either, the themes therein don't really make sense for movie #2, or together. At the barest minimum, if you are killing Supes, give us a while to get to know him, and do it for his third or forth movie. That way, they would have earned it. If you want Batman to be an angry old man, as he is in Miller's work, let him age a bit on screen first, as opposed to promising the answer in future sequels. What WB and co actually did was latch on to these stories due to popularity, not because of merit, but because they were in a hurry. Too much. Too soon. All in a desperate, desperate, I say, attempt to catch up with Marvel. What story is there for Superman now beyond resurrection? What is there for Batman other than flashbacks? Not much that's obvious or good. Maybe he's killed all his big name villains by now.
Just don't. I hope I never have to talk about this film again.
Images Copyright Warner Brothers and DC, used under fair use provisions.