Saturday, March 26, 2016

'Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice' (2016) directed by Zack Snyder

I've always gone to bat for Zack Snyder, often despite my misgivings. Sure, 300 was queasily fascistic, but it was visual dynamite. Watchman was flawed, yet studded with nuggets of brilliance, the Dr Manhattan origin sequence alone making the whole affair worthwhile. I even gave him the benefit of the doubt on Sucker Punch - sure it looked like a creepy fetishistic wet dream, but it's really a commentary on action film sexism..... right? 

So it was with Man of Steel. It's by no means a great film but there's enough interesting stuff going on in there that you felt he was on the cusp of an artistic breakthrough. And now, with millions of dollars of studio money behind him and two of the biggest cultural icons of the 20th century meeting for the first time on screen, I figured Batman v Superman was going to be that breakthrough.

Christ almighty. What the hell was I thinking? Zack Snyder is a fucking hack.

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is a misjudged calamity of a film with ideas embarrassingly far above its station. Boiled down, it's trying to do two things. The first is to launch the DC equivalent of Marvel's cinematic universe. So we get shoehorned in cameos from characters we know (and care) nothing about, together with ominous rumblings of the 'real' bad guy to come. The second is a high-minded philosophical exploration of the relationship between man and god, via examining the psychological effects of the 9/11.

This is all told by a convoluted story pieced together from, among others, clandestine CIA gun-running to African warlords, people smuggling, high-level Washington political machinations, and Frankenstein-like genetic meddling. The aim of this incomprehensible narrative is, as the title of the film suggests, to get Batman (Ben Affleck) and Superman (Henry Cavill) into a scrap.

Simmering away in the background is a barmier than usual Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg), a personality free Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), the perpetually concerned looking Lois Lane ( Amy Adams) and a smattering of supporting talent (Lawrence Fishburne, Jeremy Irons, Diane Lane, Holly Hunter), all of whom desperately try to salvage some semblence of character from a script that has none.

The film lumbers from set piece to set piece, tosses in half-baked moral queries, constantly spouts cringeworthy dialogue and has some serious performance deficits, mainly from Cavill's charmless Superman. But I think the core problem, the thing that makes the film so astonishingly unbearable, is a surreal lack of humanity.

Batman and Superman are essentially reduced to embodiments of philosophical posturing draining humanity from a film that already looks glossily CG sterilised. On top of that, Snyder is utterly self-serious about superheroes. Sure, they can be used to convey complex, mature ideas - but you need a dose of self-awareness that they're essentially there to amuse children. Even Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy, despite its reputation for maturity, still recognised the basic ludicrousness of it's core concept.

So Batman v Superman has a comical lack of self-awareness of how ridiculous it is, perhaps best demonstrated so than in a pivotal scene where Superman portentously strides through the US Capitol building in Washington to deliver evidence to a Senate Hearing. Serious looking man in suits turn in slow motion to regard coolly regard Superman's presence, as if a man in a skin-tight primary coloured jumpsuit and cape just fits smoothly into The West Wing like it's no big deal.

This certitude that superheroes are serious business for serious grown-ups poisons every part of the film. Batman now sadistically stabs, shoots and brands criminals while rescuing/terrifying a prison cell of sex-trafficked women, Superman sports a constant miserable glower and spends his time joylessly floating around looking like he wishes he was anywhere else. The rest embody a low-level misery; Irons' Alfred clearly not giving a shit anymore, Fishburne's Perry Mason fruitlessly watches his newspaper go down the tubes and Lois sitting naked in her bathtub traumatised by guilt.

The nadir is the treatment doled out to Superman's Mum. She's kidnapped by Lex Luthor, who taunts Superman by scattering torture porn polaroids of her at his feet. These show a terrified, gagged woman with 'WITCH' scrawled on her forehead, shot in sickly pale snuff film lighting. It's tone deaf - and powerfully unfun.

No film has an obligation to be 'fun', but perhaps a summer superhero blockbuster should be, at minimum, enjoyable. The film isn't even an interesting fuckup; theoretically a superhero film with a stick shoved this far up it's ass should be interesting if only in its peculiarity. Yet, the predominant emotion experienced here is boredom - boredom with the lumbering narrative, the dull as dishwater characters and the ominous sense that they're setting us up for countless more servings of this tripe.

It's perhaps appropriate that the film ends on a vague promise of nihilistic horror to come. Just before the climax, Wonder Woman opens her laptop and stops the narrative in order for us to watch three teaser-trailers for The Flash, Cyborg and (god help us) Aquaman. This isn't even the most blatant sequel hook in the film - that comes when, apropos of nothing, a man rips a hole in space and time to yell confusing gibberish about the sequel at aperplexed Batman.

I can't quite believe I'm saying this, but Batman v Superman made me appreciate the dull competence of the Marvel films. Sure they're content with averageness, but at least they achieve that with broad professionalism. And, mercifully, at least there we're spared ridiculous intellectual pretensions that mercilessly eradicate any pleasure from the simple concept of strongman in silly costumes doing outrageous things.

What's that Zack Snyder? You're currently developing an adaptation of Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead? Of course you are. 

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