The critics are right, this is not a good film. But the box office is right, when it is (intermittently) entertaining, it’s very entertaining indeed. It’s far more enjoyable than MAN OF STEEL, though it retains the same washed out, joyless colour palette that makes everybody look about a decade older than they really are. It’s superheroes done the Kubrick way: seriously, with lots of heavy philosophizing, then ultra-violence treated like ballet. In other words, it’s all rather distasteful.
Despite that, there are some big plusses.
I’m no fan of the Nolan Batman films. Christian Bale’s gloomy, masochistic and introspective Batman bored me. Immediately, Ben Affleck not only becomes the big screen’s best Batman, but makes this the best Batman film. In fact, if you treat this as a Batman film with an intrusive subplot about Superman, it all starts to look a lot better.
Batman bookends this film, with a mercifully brief revisiting of his parents’ murder at the start and another graveside scene at the end. Affleck brings a grizzled, weary charm to the role but there is CHARM in this Bruce Wayne. When we see him schmoozing at Lex’s reception, responding with candid sexuality to Diana Prince (Gadot in her civvies and wearing a dress only superheroines can make stay on) and feigning drunkenness to pull off some espionage, he’s immediately a more charismatic, feistier and funnier batman than anyone since Michael Keaton.
So when the titular smackdown finally arrives, it’s Batman you’re rooting for and he doesn’t disappoint. Affleck brings aggression, pride, indignation and fear to this role and the fight is beautifully choreographed around his emotional journey. Fear, you say? Yup, this Batman winces, even cowers. But that’s the one solid ethical point this films make: gods can’t be brave because they’ve got nothing to be frightened of; men are brave, because they feel fear but overcome it.
It all gets interrupted, of course, by zombie-Zod/Doomsday, who starts tearing the city up (again!). But into the middle of all the solemnizing, acting like she’s starring in a completely different film of her own, comes Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), a luminous presence who steals the show with one “Gee, it’s FUN to be a superhero” smile. Although Superman slays the beast with a Kyrptonian weapon, you almost want to advise him to hang back. “Wonder Woman’s got this!” you want to tell him.
So. Superman. The elephant in the room – or in the blue mesh body suit. Henry Cavill’s Superman remains as craggy, morose, violent and impenetrable as ever. While Christopher Reeves used to wear the blue-and-red and look like a clear-eyed god with the soul of a boy scout, Cavill always looks like his mind is on some really difficult Maths problem while his boots are really heavy. He clumps. Everything about him is massive and inelegant. Even his Clark Kent is bullish and, though he seems awkward, it’s not in the mild self-effacing way that Reeves used to pull off; this Kent is awkward because he’s just not very good as being human. Of course, that might be deliberate. Maybe Zac Snyder wants Clark to be an unlikeable lunk so his character can have an “arc”.
If so, it’s a relief to see him redeem himself for the damage and death he’s caused by sacrificing himself at the end. I liked Clark a little better for having the decency to die. Burying Superman buries what’s wrong with this film, and makes the prospect of a Justice League uniting (at least at first) without him a little more attractive. Maybe when he inevitably returns we’ll see a different sort of Superman: someone gentler, more nuanced, kinder, lighter of foot, someone who smiles.
However, in the meantime, it doesn’t make it any easier to enjoy spending time around Superman/Clark in this film.
Or Lois Lane (Amy Adams). Really, all the problems from “Man of Steel” come home to roost. Adams is a fine actress in the right sort of role, but Lois Lane is the wrong role. It’s no good having supporting characters refer to Lois as “feisty” and “ballsy” if she never _does_ anything feisty or ballsy. Lois Lane is supposed to be a woman so driven, so sexually and psychologically potent, than normal men are just bowled over by her energy and single-mindedness. Only the Man of Steel is man enough for her and, out of all the women on earth, she’s the only one who challenges him. Margot Kidder had it in the ‘70s/’80s films, Terri Hatcher had it in “New Adventures/Lois & Clark”, Erica Durance had it in “Smallville” – but Kate Bosworth did NOT have it and neither does Adams.
It wouldn’t be so bad if Snyder gave Lois something to _do_ but all she does is get into peril and need to be rescued, again and again. After an early Lois-in-peril scene, Snyder makes his contempt for her character manifest by depicting her naked in the bath, having a bit of a sob. Clark comes in, fully clothed, and Lois is vulnerable and whiny until Clark offers her some sexual consolation. Barf. Way to go stripping the character physically and emotionally and subjecting her to male gaze. Nice work Snyder, you idiot.
It’s as if all the effort of generating one awesome, magnetic female character (Wonder Woman) has so exhausted Snyder and his script buddy Goyer that they can’t treat other female characters as anything other than victims.
Then there’s Jesse Eisenberg’s Lex Luther. Some people have complained that his tics and nasal voice are annoying. I quite liked the mannerisms. The real problem is that Goyer and Snyder simply have no idea what this character is doing. He’s just being “bad” in an aimless, unfocussed way. He has no mission statement, no endgame and his cunning plan, though laborious, is pointless. Why get Bats and Supes to fight if you’ve built Doomsday to kill them anyway? This Lex Luther doesn’t come across as a “9th level intellect”; he’s just a gurning sociopath, like Heath Ledger’s Joker without the face paint. As such, he's a wasted villain.
Doomsday’s final appearance has enough fireballs to look like an apocalypse, but it’s so sketchily foreshadowed that it doesn’t have any menace. The Kryptonian Codex suggests that “abominations” like this have been banned on Krypton, but that’s all we get. It’s odd that, in a film that staggers under the weight of its dream sequences, flashbacks and cut-away expositions, nothing is invested in Doomsday, even though the Codex provides a perfect mechanism for showing Lex (and us) what an abomination nearly did on other worlds.
Instead, we get shown just about everything else: the Waynes dying, Jonathan Kent in hallucinatory-ghost form, the Flash from the future, Aquaman, Cyborg, a future dystopia with parademons… There are so many nods to the comic material that the film unravels under the weight of the canon. Now look, I’m more familiar than most moviegoers with comic book stuff, but I’m not into DC. I would never have understood the appearance of the Flash, or recognised Cyborg, or known what a parademon is, or that Darkseid is being alluded to, or any of these things, unless a more knowledgeable buddy hadn’t clued me in. And these allusions aren’t throwaway references, like the nods towards Thanos in “Avengers”. These allusions are lengthy and intrusive and utterly baffling to any mainstream moviegoer. They are also, in terms of this film, irrelevant. The Flash appears to warn Bruce Wayne that “Lois is the key” and “don’t trust him”, but Bruce ignores this advice so, even in terms of plot devices, it contributes nothing.
In conclusion, there’s much to annoy in this film. It’s a broken narrative, bloated in some areas and starved in others, with beloved characters sold short and the whole thing weighed down by the burden of the (to my mind) failed Superman reimagining undertaken in “Man of Steel”. On the positive side, its entertaining sections (anything with Bruce Wayne or Wonder Woman in and especially with both of them at once) are up there with the best comic book cinema. Here’s to the forthcoming “Wonder Woman” movie but, until then, Marvel’s crown is secure.