Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice

March 31, 2016
Henry Cavill in 'Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice' (2016)
Henry Cavill in 'Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice' (2016)

At the age of twelve I read Marvel comics with religious dedication. As a fan one made a clear choice between the Marvel universe and that of its great rival, DC comics. While DC may have had those two archetypal superheroes, Batman and Superman, Marvel had a whole raft of characters that seemed more imaginatively conceived, more relevant to the contemporary world.

Decades later, I frankly couldn’t care less about either camp. There comes a time to put away childish things, and the superhero shtick is strictly for 12-year-olds. Or so I thought.

The reality is that today the entire world is in thrall to the comic book figures that once entertained children. Hollywood is churning out one expensive superhero flick after another, generating rivers of gold at the box office. Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice grossed $3.3 million on its opening day in Australia, making it the biggest earner of the year, ahead of two other superhero movies.

If these films relied solely on CGI action sequences we could write them off as dumb spectacles. Instead, the producers are only too aware they are addressing an adult audience, and keep trying to imbue the characters with Shakespearean flaws and contradictions. Tim Burton and Christopher Nolan had some success with this approach, which seemed novel in Batman Returns (1992), and assumed a kind of gloomy grandeur in Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy (2005-12).

In Man of Steel (2013) Zack Snyder took the ‘flawed hero’ idea into the realms of bathos, but in Batman V. Superman: The Dawn of Justice, it has been pushed so far that the characters have lost their original identities. Superman is sulky and neurotic; Batman angry, paranoid and sadistic. Each hero seems to be jealous of the other, as if they resented anyone else treading on their turf. Both are remarkably stupid and petty.

Ben Affleck makes a creditable attempt to bring this unsavoury Batman to life, but Henry Cavill is the Man of Wood, rather than Steel. Once again the wrinkled brow is used to express an entire range of emotions, from bewildered concern to concerned bewilderment. This is a Batman who would glass his girlfriend in a bar, and a Superman who would buy a used car from anybody.

Don’t worry, none of that happens in the movie. As for what does happen, as my viewing companion put it: “There’s always a mad scientist and always a big monster.” There are also half a dozen plot lines floating around as Snyder tries to squeeze every issue of global significance into his nasty fairytale.

We begin with a flashback to Superman’s recent dust-up with his Kryptonian adversary, Colonel Zod, that resulted in massive destruction in Metropolis. This time we see the action from the ground as Bruce Wayne races around trying to warn his employees in one of the skyscrapers. It’s all death, disaster and 9/11 revisited, for which Bruce irrationally blames Superman.

Soon we’re in Africa, where Superman is called upon to rescue Lois Lane from a group of terrorists, who are themselves preyed upon by other terrorists.

Back in America, a Senator from Kentucky (Holly Hunter), is calling for checks and balances on Superman’s activities; while Batman is stirring up controversy through his new penchant for branding criminals with a red-hot bat symbol.

Bruce/Batman, firmly in the Donald Trump camp, sees Superman as a dangerous alien. Clark Kent/Superman takes a classic liberal position, viewing Batman as a murderous vigilante.

This is supposedly the basis for the mutual antagonism that gives this movie its impetus. To make such small-minded resentment seem more portentous, Snyder repeatedly has characters refer to it as a battle between God and Man. He drives the point home with a lot of religious symbolism intended to portray Superman as an unwilling Messiah facing a new crucifixion by public opinion.

The chief architect of unrest is the young Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg), a psychotic genius just like his old dad, with the same fierce hatred of Superman. Lex is almost the only intelligent life force in this film, but he is a hopeless caricature of a villain, chortling and babbling like something from a Hanna-Barbera cartoon. Surely a supervillain should be more like Steve Jobs.

Amy Adams’s Lois Lane represents a big step back for feminism, as she has little to do except be rescued over and over by Superman. Her other great scene, intended to suggest that sexless Superman actually has a libido, finds her in the bathtub as Clark comes home. She negotiates this test without exposing a nipple.

The movie’s real sex bomb is Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman, who has received rave notices for her performance. She certainly looks the part, but her only reason for existing in this movie is to set up the next set of superhero sequels, including her own film, and two Justice League features.

In fact there are no fewer than 11 more films inspired by DC comics in the pipeline. If this sounds excessive, they are merely chasing the well-advanced Marvel franchises which have been knocking off superhero epics with industrial efficiency.

Snyder includes a little more free advertising when he has Bruce scroll through one of Lex’s computer programs that shows footage of all the other “meta-humans” we may expect to see at the movies within the next two years. This is nothing more than a commercial disguised as plot.

The long-awaited fight scene between Batman and Superman is a messy, unpleasant affair. Armed with various Kryptonite devices to even the odds, Batman acts like a thug and a torturer. He doesn’t just want to win the fight, he wants to execute Superman after making him suffer.

Superman, for his part, seems incredibly slow to realise what’s going on. He could, in theory, eliminate Batman with one blink of his laser beam eyes, but instead he lets himself get knocked around like a punching bag.

All the time these two musclebound dimwits are belting each other, Lex is laying his plans to destroy civilisation as we know it. Why? Because he’s that kind of guy.

This brainless scenario allows Snyder to do what he does best – set up an orgy of destruction on a grand scale, complete with CGI fireworks and a bombastic score by Hans Zimmer and Junkie XL that helps reduce our critical faculties to pulp. The plan, presumably devised by Lex Luthor, is to transform us into a race of zombie consumers who count the days until the next sequel.

Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice
Directed by Zack Snyder
Written by Chris Terrio & David S. Goyer
Starring Ben Affleck, Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Jesse Eisenberg, Gal Gadot, Jeremy Irons, Diane Lane, Laurence Fishburn, Holly Hunter
USA, rated M, 151 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 2nd April, 2016.