[personal profile] magister
Partway through BvS, Ben Affleck, playing Bruce Wayne as Donald Trump if he had a personal trainer and some self-discipline, shouts at his butler, Alfred, played by Jeremy Irons in the style of Professor Yaffle on a bad day, "If there is even a one per cent chance that he is our enemy, we must take it as an absolute certainty." Time was when the Adam West Batman used to take the piss out of the likes of Dick Cheney, not quote him approvingly. It says something of the attitudes of the makers of this that, not only does this appear in the film, it is also one of the lines singled out to appear in the trailer. Zack Snyder has history with superhero comic book movies. Sadly, by and large, it's not a particularly inspiring history.

Here be spoilers, although frankly I'd advise you to just read the review and give up on the film. Not that I'm saying the review is a great piece of writing - it'll just take up less of your life. Your choice.

Right from the start of the film, there is a thundering lack of originality. We open with the funeral of Bruce Wayne's parents, intercut with flashbacks to their murder, including Thomas Wayne's last word - his wife's name Martha. You may want to make a note of that - it'll prove important later. Fortunately, the fact that this particular rite of passage occurs in Batman films only slightly less often than poorly choreographed fistfights has obviously occurred to the makers, so they've gone on a long mental journey to find a way to make this stand out from all the other times we've seen it happen. Sadly, they've then given up and just put some sad piano music onto it. Anyway, young Bruce does a bunk from the funeral and, with admirable narrative economy, falls down a hole full of bats and finds he can fly. Just at the point where you're thinking that this skill could come in useful later in the film, he wakes up and proves to be a middle-aged Ben Affleck having a nightmare. This happens rather often in the film. Possibly a mistake - the film has such a shaky grasp of narrative logic that frankly half the time it's hard to tell who is awake or asleep or indeed whether the reels of the film are being shown in the right order.

So, following on from that flashback, we have another flashback. Also to something the audience has already seen - to wit, the climax of Man of Steel, with Metropolis being destroyed in the battle between Superman and Zod. There's a suggestion here that Snyder may have taken some notice of the criticism of the last film - namely that it's hard to sympathise with or find heroic a character apparently indifferent to thousands of people who are dying as a result of the damage he's wreaking. Certainly, it makes it seem rather hypocritical that Superman should suffer such anguish at having to kill Zod in order to save a small child. So, here we have the battle being seen from ground level by Bruce Wayne, as he tries to save his employees, working in a building directly in the line of fire, and none of whom seem to have considered actually getting the fuck out of there until he phones and tells them to.

The approving quoting of Dick Cheney is not the only dubious attitude in the film. The next scene shows Lois Lane about to be shot in the head by a black man. This kind of sets a pattern for the film's attitude to both women and people of colour. She's something of a peril monkey in this and later has to be rescued when she dives into a pond to retrieve a kryptonite spear that she threw in there and forgets the way out. She's also used as an easy way to get Superman's attention - Lex Luthor has her kidnapped and then throws her off a building, as it's the easiest way to get the Man of Steel to come running. Later a major plot point of the film comes when Superman's mother is kidnapped and used to blackmail him. This shows a whole extra level of contempt for women as anything other than plot device. Superman's dead father has had a scene where he offers sage and worldly advice to his son. His mother? This is the first time she's appeared in the film, so it was several scenes before I even realised who she was and why I was watching this random woman being kidnapped.

Attitudes to women and people of colour are neatly brought together in the scene where Batman is introduced. The police arrive to find a group of caged Asian women who had been brought to the US to be sold as sex slaves. They are superstitiously terrified and try to warn the police of "the devil" who is still lurking in the building. The police ignore them as they don't speak English. Other groups are demonised too. Lex Luthor is a computer geek with poor social skills, who it is revealed was beaten, and possibly sexually abused, by his father. A suicide bomber who lost his legs in the attack on Metropolis hides his bomb in his wheelchair. Bruce Wayne distrusts Superman because he's an alien.

All in all, it's an unpleasant worldview that Snyder offers. Visually, the film is depressing - desaturated of all colour, so that the overwhelming impression is of a relentlessly beige blur. And then there's the two title characters. Superman is interested in Earth only in as much as Lois lives there. He tells her repeatedly that she is his world. Now, there's an interesting tale to be told about a man of limitless power whose only link to Earth is through his love for a single woman. It's called Watchmen by Alan Moore, and sadly, Snyder's already filmed it once - and not very well.

The idea of a film teaming up Batman and Superman is one that has obvious attractions - one character representing optimism, the Sun, light and hope. One who is at home in darkness and the shadows. Given that we have a Superman who the world mistrusts and who seems to care little for the people of Earth, it was clearly felt necessary for Batman to also be moved further to the dark side. So, we have a sort of toned down version of the Punisher.

This is a Batman who tortures the criminals he catches. He brands them, leaving them with a bat shaped scar. and because Batman has been moved further into the dark, so too must the criminals he torments be. He brands the people trafficker whose victims Batman has terrified. We also learn of a child abuser who has been branded and who, because of this, has been beaten to death in jail. The mark of the Bat is a death sentence. This Batman also kills people directly. During a car chase so badly directed that after five minutes I still couldn't have told you what the Batmobile looked like, he blows up cars with people in them. Later, he shoots the fuel tank carried by a man with a flame thrower, causing him to explode.

Previous film Batmen have killed people. Batman Begins climaxes with Christian Bale leaving Ra's Al Ghul to die in a crashing monorail and telling him "I don't have to kill you - I just don't have to save you." In Batman Returns, Michael Keaton's Batman shoves a bomb down an opponent's trousers and flashes him a broad grin immediately before it goes off. Previous films though have had some lighter elements or sympathetic characters. This one - none. There are very broad strokes used to fill out this Batman's background. He is heavily physically scarred. Wayne Manor is a burned out wreck. The Batcave contains Robin's suit - defaced with graffiti by the Joker. Robin himself is notable by his absence. (And don't you just know there's going to be a prequel explaining how all this came to be...) Bruce's bed is surrounded by bottles from his drinking himself to sleep. It's all relentlessly grim and dark and possibly written by a 12 year old.

But not a 12 year old with a gift for dialogue. The car chase I mentioned ends when Batman drives into Superman. Literally - the Batmobile bounces off him. There's a brief conversation. "Next time they shine your light, don't answer it. Consider this mercy," says Superman. "Do you bleed? You will do," replies Batman. My main thought during this super-powered cock waving, was a line from Lex elsewhere in the film about tiny minds using 3-syllable words, but I don't think he was referring to the script. However, it at least serves its purpose of ramping up the antagonism between the two of them.

Which makes it all the more ham-fisted that Snyder then introduces an entirely different way of bringing about the titular fight between the two heroes. (As a side note, Snyder is very hot on the fact that the film is called Batman v Superman and not Batman vs Superman, as he doesn't want it to be a simple "versus" film. I'm afraid the difference between the two is a little too fine for me to grasp.) So rather than continue with the ideological differences between the two - Wayne's distrust of the alien Superman and the destruction he has brought to earth, Kent's distrust of the vigilante Batman - instead, Luthor kidnaps Superman's mother and tells him, "Bring me Batman's head or your mother dies." Superman, in a rare moment of sense in this film, tries to talk to Batman and explain what's going on. Sadly, Batman has come ready for a fight and isn't interested in listening. So the much anticipated clash of the titans turns out to be a man in a clunking robot suit repeatedly punching another man who keeps shouting "Will you listen to me!" Anyway, through a combination of brute force, kryptonite and bloody mindedness, we come to a point where Batman has his boot on Superman's head and is about to run him through with the kryptonite spear that he secreted there earlier. (Muhammed Ali used to predict what round his fights would end in, but predicting which room of which derelict tenement block it'll end in takes it to a whole new level.) at which point Superman shouts "He's going to kill Martha!" And Batman is overcome by the realisation that - why - his mother was called Martha too - and so he decides that obviously he was wrong and shouldn't kill Superman after all. (You remember how I said that would be important later?) And so Batman makes a promise that "Martha won't die tonight" and saves her and they all live happily ever after. Right?


Sadly there's still another 45 minutes of this bastard left and you come to the realisation that the much-publicised battle of the giants was actually just killing time until the real climax of the film. Luthor has managed to get hold of the Krypton ship and the body of Zod from the last film and built a monster out of it and his blood and various other things. It's a misshapen, lumpen abomination made from things that were never meant to be brought together and therefore serves as quite a decent metaphor for the film itself.

Anyway, anyone who's read any of the publicity for the film will know that this is meant to be the birth of the Justice League and may be wondering why I've not mentioned that. Well, to be honest, that sentence is pretty close to how much time the film has spent on that up to this point. Wonder Woman has appeared from time to time in the form of an exotically alluring woman who Bruce Wayne has flirted with. Flirted in the sense that he's made vaguely suggestive comments which she's not really responded to. Over the course of the film, it's become apparent that she's over a hundred years old and - well, to be honest, that's pretty much it. Compare the complete lack of backstory for her with the Batman backstory being trotted out like one of the Stations of the Cross. (Sadly I can't lay claim to that metaphor as I read it somewhere, but it's good isn't it?) Anyway, as the monster heaves into action, looking like some hideous ambulatory turd, Wonder Woman likewise leaps into action. Well sort of. First, she spends some time on youtube, watching videos of other superhumans. There's the Flash, preventing a robbery, Cyborg being created and Jason Momoa qualifying for his underwater swimming certificate, while prodding something with a toasting fork. Comparisons may be invidious, but Marvel spent multiple films over several years setting up their universe, while DC attempt to do so in a three minute scene.

Thank God, after that, Wonder Woman,Batman and Superman defeat the monster. We don't want anything too original here, and to be fair we don't get it either. The Batman/Superman fight is largely from Frank Miller (along with many of the attitudes of the film) - also from Miller is the moment with a withered Superman, having survived a direct hit from an atomic missile, being revived by the sun's rays. The final battle meanwhile comes from The Death of Superman, with the monster morphing into Doomsday. This provides the one moment of anything approaching exhilaration in the entire damn film, with Wonder Woman leaping into battle backed by a theme of thunderous drums and guitars composed by JXL, who wrote the soundtrack to Mad Max Fury Road. Sadly, it's brought back down to Earth rapidly. After she's saved Batman, there's a brief conversation between him and Superman of "Is she with you?", "No, I thought she was with you." There's an independent powerful woman - whose is she? Somehow, it just sums up the whole film.

Anyway, following a comedy of errors - minus the comedy - the kryptonite spear is retrieved and Superman kills Doomsday with it, dying in the process and leaving the BatTrump to regret his misjudgement of him. Which pretty much finishes off the film, except for Superman receiving a state funeral and memorial with much pomp and circumstance, while Clark Kent, recorded as having died in the chaos, is buried in Smallville. Presumably, I was supposed to be reflecting on the two funerals, the hollowness of the spectacle of the state one and the heartfelt qualities of the more humble family funeral. This didn't really work, as I was wondering which of the two coffins actually held the body. Maybe the military bearers had been told that he could still fly while dead and so that was why the coffin felt so light? Also the fact that the soundtrack is Amazing Grace played on bagpipes meant that I was waiting for William Shatner to emote "Of all the souls I've met in my travels, his was the most - human".

The End.

Except for a conversation between Batman and Luthor in jail setting up the arc for the next fuck knows how many films about terrible things coming from the sky, followed by ominous shots of ominous things, made slightly less ominous by the decision to have Jesse Eisenberg repeat "Ding,ding, ding, ding, ding, ding, ding" on the soundtrack, like a more annoying Crazy Frog. It's one of many misjudgements in the film. Some are misjudgements of tone - a hero who tortures traffickers in sex slaves in a film being merchandised with cuddly Meerkat Batman toys. Others are just misjudgements of what will or will not work on screen. One of Bruce Wayne's dreams features Batman undercover in a trenchcoat and with a scarf round his face. The effectiveness of the disguise is slightly muted by the fact that he's wearing the Batsuit underneath it, with the cowl and ears sticking out over the scarf.

Oh well. The film opened in the UK today. Apparently, Batman v Superman merchandise is already reduced in Sainsbury's. Hardly a vote of confidence.


James Brough

August 2017

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