Look! Up in the sky! Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No — and it’s not Superman either.
“Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” sees the classic DC Comics characters meet on the big screen for the first time, but they’re such dark versions of the beloved superheroes that they’re barely recognisable as either super or heroes.
There’s a lot riding on “Dawn of Justice”, which is meant to lay the foundation for DC’s answer to the wildly successful Marvel cinematic universe. Under the singular but divisive vision of director Zack Snyder, “BvS: DoJ” is an extreme and very grown-up vision of the DC universe. It’s a barely comprehensible, overstuffed, overloud, unrelentingly bleak hot mess. But I also think I loved it.
“Dawn of Justice” picks up just before the end of “Man of Steel” in which Superman was drawn into a super scrap that toppled half of the city of Metropolis. Amid the devastation is millionaire Bruce Wayne, who decides Superman is just too powerful to trust and sets out on a quest to take the alien down.
In his first outing as Batman, Ben Affleck is great, a jaded salt-and-pepper dark knight tortured by his misguided obsession with Superman. Another new face is Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman, who…well, actually “Dawn of Justice” doesn’t tell us who she is, what she cares about, or indeed anything beyond the fact she looks nice in a posh frock.
In the villain stakes,
Jesse Eisenberg’s jittery Lex Luthor is fun to watch, his entitled Silicon Valley nerd a Zucker punch of a reinvention
. But again, it’s never that clear who he really is or why he does what he does.
There isn’t a lot of time for character because the film has so much other business to get through. It must set up “Suicide Squad” and “Justice League” movies, which means there are parts of the film that may make sense in 2019 (alongside plenty of scenes that may never make sense).
It also pointedly addresses criticism of previous movies, from the disaster porn of “Man of Steel” to Christian Bale’s funny Bat-voice in the “Dark Knight” films.
In fairness, the shadow of Christopher Nolan’s “Dark Knight” trilogy doesn’t fall over “Dawn of Justice” nearly as much as I expected. It’s very much its own thing. That’s largely due to Snyder’s distinctive, bombastic filmmaking style. I’ll say one thing for the guy: He knows how to translate a comic book to the screen in a faithful and yet consummately cinematic way. He can’t do compelling characters or a plot that makes sense or a joke, but, hey, he sure knows where the volume knob is.
Ultimately, “Dawn of Justice” is ambitious, existential and frequently beautiful, but boy howdy is it hard work. It’s barely Superman and it for sure ain’t Batman.
The most expensive ‘what if?’
Here’s the thing about comics: They come out once a month. Superman and Batman are featured in multiple titles every month — Batman is in more than 10 different comics this month alone — and they have been doing so for 75 years or more. The thing about comics, then, is that there are loads of them. Loads of comics, loads of creators, loads of stories.
This means there is space — no, a necessity — to approach those characters and tell those stories in different ways. Different tones, different styles, different eras and, sometimes, radically different alternative versions. Alternative versions that ask questions like, what if Superman landed in Soviet Russia instead of America? What if the Justice League was set in the Wild West? What if Batman lived in the future? The sheer depth of the comics medium means you can push to the very edges of a character and beyond, making fundamental and unthinkable changes — while the essence of the character remains safe in more conventional titles.
Films are different. Films come out one at a time. They appear only every few years. And when they do appear, they enter the public consciousness in a way no comic can. More people see the movie, and not only that, they see the movie on billboards and on buses and on lunchboxes.
Kids grow up with a movie. The movie version of a character is, like it or not, the version that is seared on the public consciousness. The movie version of a character becomes the definitive version for a generation. I’d argue that that comes with a certain responsibility to make a movie that feels true to the stuff that makes a character definitive, unique, inspirational.
“Dawn of Justice” doesn’t do that. Instead, it’s the most expensive “what if?” story ever made. It pushes to the very edges of the characters and makes fundamental, unthinkable changes. “Dawn of Justice” asks: What if Superman were a callous god? What if Batman killed people? What if the fictional world of fantastical heroes that has delighted and inspired kids of all ages for the best part of a century was a thoroughly joyless, miserable, awful place?
Now, personally, I love a bit of deconstruction. I love grand guignol and what if? stories, and that’s the “Dawn of Justice” I really, really enjoyed. Like the totally bonkers bit in the middle where Snyder completely jettisons plot, century-old lore and any shred of narrative logic for an apocalyptically baroque mini-movie. The more I think I about it, that’s probably going to end up as my favourite bit of the whole film.
But if the dark vision of “Dawn of Justice” is the Batman and Superman that will be the definitive versions for this generation, I feel sorry for this generation. My friend asked me if he could take his 6-year-old to see it. Nope. No way. The endless philosophical chat, the unremitting doom-laden score and the brutal, graphic violence will surely inspire more sleepless nights than daydreams that a man can fly.
This Superman is not a beacon of hope, a cheerful reminder that helping others is always the right thing, that power doesn’t have to corrupt. Instead he’s a troubled god, blotting out the sun above us. Actor Henry Cavill is either snarling or frowning, eyes glowing demonic red, his handsome features more evil Prince Charming than kindly benefactor. The tone is set from the start. After all the agonising over killing at the end of “Man of Steel”, in “Dawn of Justice” he kills the first person he sees.
This Superman is legit scary. And he lives in a world that’s inherently scary, full of sudden and pointless death, random mass destruction, anger and flame and horror. The world is an awful place, kids, and there’s nothing you can do it about it.
I’m not saying kids need to be cosseted. It’s perfectly possible to make challenging drama for younger audiences that’s smart, considered and compelling. But Snyder thinks grown-up means Batman straight up mutilating people.
Very dark knight
If Superman is dialled over to the mardy end of the spectrum, this Batman is so dark you couldn’t see him with a bag of carrots and night vision goggles. Batman has, remember, one rule: no killing. This Batman, however, doesn’t seem to have read the same comics we have. He drives round in a tank pancaking and barbecuing cars full of henchmen, spraying bullets all over the shop, casually sending grenades and knives back the way they came.
The Batman persona is meant to scare bad guys. But when we meet him, we see this horrifying apparition not through the eyes of unnerved baddies, but through the eyes of the victims and police officers whose side he’s supposed to be on.
Beginning and ending with a funeral, Snyder’s vision is as nihilistic as ever. He can’t help showing bones breaking in loving detail, can’t keep away from violence away even when there’s no reason for it. One scene, which involves Bruce Wayne chatting with a suspect and could take place pretty much anywhere, takes place in a bare-knuckle fight club with attendant face-pounding and bone-crunching sound effects. This is where your heroes live, kids.
As much as I loved this very adult take on these fantasy figures, it’s a shame there’s no concession to younger audiences to experience the magic and fantasy. Won’t someone think of the children? Snyder isn’t.
Sure, the superhero myth is inherently violent, and in some ways it’s admirable to interrogate those power fantasies, to confront the implications of fictional violence. But that hardly makes for a fun day at the pictures. Is it too much to ask for a bit of escapism with our capes? “Dawn of Justice” is so grim, so bleak, so devoid of joy, especially compared with Marvel’s fun-packed Avengers adventures. It isn’t so much a superhero movie as a movie about superheroes. It’s like reading a think-piece about power fantasies…while someone hits you with a hammer.
I love that “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” is so dementedly ambitious, so bizarrely messy, so balls-to-the-wall weird. But it’s neither the Batman and Superman movie our kids need, nor the one we deserve.