In the entire world, there is just one symbol more recognisable than Superman’s famous ‘S’ shield: the Christian cross. The Batman logo cannot be far behind. So famous, so iconic are the figures of Batman and Superman that their first on-screen meeting should, by all accounts, have made for a truly unforgettable film for the ages. Instead, these cultural giants have been underserved by something disappointingly inadequate. There is little remarkable or memorable about Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, save for its mediocrity.
The main problem here is not conceptual – comic book fans have been dreaming about a clash between Batman and Superman for decades. The issue is that the conflict between these two heroes is not the primary interest of the film. Keen to pave the way for future films and to rival the success of Marvel, it is far more occupied with establishing a ‘DC Universe’ than it is with plot or integrity. The narrative begins as a globetrotting political thriller, asking heavy-handed but well-meaning questions about the nature of power and role of gods and heroes in society, yet quickly descends into an exercise of shoehorning in as many names and cameos as its mammoth two-and-a-half hour running time will allow. In one particular sequence, a number of DC icons are introduced one-by-one via e-mail attachment. It is so shockingly lazy and uncreative a scene that even the most diehard of fans cannot have been impressed. Pure spectacle is no substitute for plot. But it is, unfortunately, just a taste of the lack of imagination which underlies the film.
Of course, the problem with cramming Batman v. Superman with superfluous names and characters is that many of those who do belong in the film are painfully underused. Lois Lane and Alfred Pennyworth are just two examples of well-loved characters who feature at the peripheries of the plot and fail to make any meaningful impact – a dreadful waste of the respective talents of Amy Adams and Jeremy Irons. Meanwhile, far from being the villainous mastermind of the piece, the inclusion of Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg, in a bizarre Social Network-esque turn) comes across as nothing more than an afterthought.
However, the most notable and unforgivable casualty of this error is none other than Superman himself. In Man of Steel, Henry Cavill showed rare potential; no actor will ever replace Christopher Reeve in hearts and minds as the Man of Tomorrow, but Cavill appeared ready to follow in his footsteps, to bring Superman to a new generation in a way that his predecessor, Brandon Routh, never did. But there are no signs of this promise in Batman v. Superman. There is none of the charm or wit which makes Superman Superman, nor is there any of the kindness.
However, one does have to wonder how much of this is to do with the script itself. Penned by Chris Terrio and David S. Goyer, it meanders about, drifting in and out of dream sequences and visions. Bizarrely, it sidelines Superman/Clark Kent for large chunks of the film and demands little more from him than scowling, chest puffing and sentimental moping. It presumes an inherent familiarity between the audience and Cavill’s Superman, forgetting that he is not yet the character whom the audience knows and loves. The film talks about him as the kind of superhero gentle enough to save a kitten from a tree, but this is a side it never actually shows. Throughout the whole two-and-a-half hour film Superman remains, effectively, a distant stranger. Perhaps this is intentional – the script does, after all, ponder the human reaction to an alien saviour – but it is a poor choice if so. Consequently, the few moments where the script yearns for empathy for the Man of Steel instead feel frustratingly hollow.
Yet, for all its flaws (and there are many), Batman v. Superman is not a ‘bad’ film. It is no Dark Knight. It is no Spider-man 2. But there is still plenty to like about it – certainly enough to render the vitriol that hoards of seething critics have directed towards it somewhat unfounded. Ben Affleck in particular is terrific. If Christian Bale’s Batman was young and angry, Affleck’s is world-weary, brutal, and morally ambiguous. This is the kind of superhero who thinks nothing of branding those he brings to justice with his own logo; Adam West and Michael Keaton’s Dark Knights were positively fluffy in comparison. And even though his eventual showdown with Superman does, admittedly, leave something to be desired, Affleck has proved all his naysayers wrong, providing an intelligent, refreshing take on a familiar character.
As Diana Prince/Wonder Woman, Gal Gadot is similarly excellent. Though she is seen only sparingly, she punctuates the film with moments of brilliance and elevates every scene she is in. Even Batman and Superman appear in awe of her, and rightly so. Laurence Fishburne, meanwhile, is given relatively little to do as Daily Planet editor Perry White but provides the film with the touches of humour of which it is so desperately in need.
Ultimately, Batman v. Superman‘s biggest strength may well turn out to be its biggest weakness. When Zack Snyder decided he would bring together two characters as unversally beloved as Batman and Superman, he knew financial success was guaranteed. What he didn’t perhaps account for was that his audience would settle for nothing but the best. Expectations were sky high and the bar well and truly raised.
Batman v. Superman‘s greatest sin is that it is simply average. It is enjoyable enough but not outstanding. Had this been any other film, critics and audiences could well have forgiven it for this. But this is a film which promises so much but delivers, bar some saving graces, so little. The greatest irony is that it claims to herald a ‘Dawn of Justice’, yet provides none for two of the most loved comic book and film characters of all time.