The Blockbuster's Guide to Depression
Warning: this review contains spoilers.
If you have a moment, I’d like to talk to you about Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice. It’s not an easy thing to do because the unremitting bleakness of Zack Snyder’s film atrophies the brains of those attempting to recreate the experience of watching it using language. In effect, Snyder decimates the critical vocabulary just as his heroes lay waste to discernible motivation, infrastructure and audience goodwill. From the rubble of cinemas crawls the survivors, wells of blood in their eye sockets, Bruce Wayne’s vintage claret pouring from their ear canals. Man of Steel taught us that Superman’s “S” meant hope. How funny that seems now.
There’s not a lot of hope in BVS you see, nor levity nor pause. It’s a version of comic book lore that assumes the sources to carry the same foreboding weight as the Old Testament. The New Testament also gets a look in, the story turning on Superman’s God-like status, his mission on Earth, death and (likely) resurrection. The kind of solemnity that’s calibrated for biblical verse, especially the lines describing acts of sin and sacrifice, is repurposed for teenagers and dropped into the mouths of earnest characters, all of whom are suffering from clinical depression.
Alfred, once a wry check on Bruce Wayne’s nocturnal mood swings, is reborn as Jeremy Irons channelling Sylvia Plath. He tells Ben Affleck’s Dark Knight, who’s moved to Michael Corleone’s lake house following a fire at Wayne Manor – a cruel nod to Christopher Nolan’s trilogy, that his actions are suicidal. He makes long speeches about corrupting influences, of the kind no one drops into conversation, and knocks back bourbon on the job. If people still smoked in movies he’d be dragging on fifty a day, willing on cancer. You expect Batman’s world to be a dark place of course, but this sombre? The Killing Fields had more laughs.
Why did the Batman portions of this movie make me think of Joel Schumacher? On first glance this nihilistic take on DC may seems the inverse of the camp maestro’s approach, but look again and you’re reminded of the Batman and Robin director’s 8mm; affected seriousness. Forced fun and forced earnestness are flip sides of the same coin, you see. Neither convince and both are skin deep. BVS is highly stylised and punctuated with directorial flourishes – some so overwrought they’re hilarious. The slaying of the Waynes is enlivened by a bullet shattering Ma Wayne’s pearl necklace, for example – an adaptation of panels from Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns, but on screen the effect is overstatement, recalling Alan Moore’s contention that stories cast in one medium can’t simply be literalised in another. Snyder’s film may be composed like a comic but at no point does it have dramatic integrity; tone is maintained at the expense of characterisation.
No where is this more apparent and infuriating than with the treatment of Henry Cavill’s Superman. You’ll recall that in the hands of Christopher Reeve, Clark Kent and the Man of Steel were joyful, decent characters – one sweet and bumbling, the other charming and resolute; an indefatigable champion for justice. In Snyder’s movie Superman is a sinister lost soul, viewed mostly through a fearful Batman’s eyes and not enough using the end of the telescope that the rest of the world peers into. When we’re told “most people” think he’s a hero, we have to take it on trust; his heart doesn’t seem to be in it.
We endured Man of Steel so Clark could finally feel he belonged with us, but if he were at ease and universally accepted, as Superman used to be, then Batman would have little cause to fear him. A movie written backwards with a battle promised in the title demands a fight be contrived. It requires the Kryptonian retain emotional distance for the new movie’s duration. Perhaps the idea was that Superman remain enigmatic and cold so Batman’s beef, the idea he could turn on humanity at any moment, be plausible, our sympathies in flux, but the effect is to make a former bastion of decency and kindness look demonic, vacillating and creepy. In short, the only way to meet the brief and have Superman be inducted into Batman’s world (movie running order be damned), is to make the former more like the latter. If Christopher Reeve were alive he’d be suing for character libel.
Of course everyone attending BVS understands that the characters will reach an understanding long before the end, after all their mothers have the same Christian name, they’re practically brothers. But even with that cast iron certainty you’d expect the movie to work harder in establishing the central conflict’s credentials. Batman’s post Metropolis 9/11 paranoia seems fuelled by dreams and flying envy, rather than any concrete evidence, or plausible misunderstanding, pointing to Superman’s dishonourable motives. Meanwhile, Superman, hypocritically irked that a disguised vigilante’s dealing with dangerous criminals in an urban jungle, apparently sees the Caped Crusader as a villain, despite being aware of his city sanctioned signal. This contest was always going to be a tough sell, but the contortions required to make it work here, snap the movie’s spine. By the time Jesse Eisenberg’s twitchy irritant Lex Luthor, portrayed as a malfunctioning synthetic from the Alien universe, has brought on the movie’s long climax by kidnapping Martha Kent in a bid to blackmail Superman into killing Batman (who he’s implausibly manipulated into suiting up for battle), the premium on audience patience has gone through the roof.
The cumulative effect of jarring scene on jarring scene, then, is a film that looks and feels overstuffed and underwritten; a product of studio impatience and bad planning; and that’s before all the additional elements – Doomsday, Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman (who, in a move symptomatic of the film’s backwardly conceived bent, is introduced before her standalone origin flick) – are folded into the noxious mix.
Seldom has a movie this superficial been presented with such self-importance, and never has the need for humour and character advancing asides been more keenly felt and necessary. In the end it’s no longer Batman V Superman, rather Snyder V audience, and as the end credits roll and the last blackened strip of a withered soul peels off and is carried away on the farts of patrons full of cola and butter popcorn, it’s clear the public have been defeated. Yet the biggest losers are surely Warners Bros.’ suits. They’ve bet the house on a series to rival Marvel with two torrid and joyless flicks. It’s quite a thing to have invested so much in an expanded universe no one wants to spend time in. Perhaps that explains the movie’s funereal atmosphere. It’s a requiem for a dream.