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Batman v Superman tries so hard to be gritty it forgets to be good

There’s a single line of interesting dialogue wedged beneath the rubble of Zack Snyder’s superhero juggernaut Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.

Review by Anders Furze
 
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“I learned that the world makes no sense unless you force it to,” growls Batman/Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) to Superman/Clark Kent (Henry Cavill), regarding the death of his parents when he was a child.

It seems like that death is the only thing that matters about Batman, judging by the number of times that we’ve been subjected to it in popular culture.

Whereas Christopher Nolan elected to kill Wayne’s parents outside an opera theatre at the outset of 2005’s genre-reinvigorating Batman Begins, here they’re shot dead in front of a cinema.

But explicitly depicting the murder of Wayne’s parents would be too violent for this kind of movie. Instead, Snyder shows us repeated close-ups of a gun firing and Wayne’s mother’s pearls dropping to the ground.

The world doesn’t make sense unless you force it to. Batman v Superman is a compelling piece of evidence suggesting that Hollywood has given up trying to force sense out of chaos.

Later, after being treated to extended shots of Amy Adams naked in the bathtub, a sexual encounter between Lois Lane and Clark Kent is reduced to water spilling out of a bathtub and Kent’s glasses falling to the floor.

Snyder is a director who fetishises such visual details. Anything too explicit for a general audience is displaced from the frame by sleekly designed floating images, often repeated. The supposed grittiness of the Batman property is, in Snyder’s telling, polished into a barely discernible surface-level smear.

Snyder doesn’t restrict this displacement to moments of character-arcing sex and death. In perhaps Batman v Superman’s most offensive and revealing move, the trauma of September 11 is invoked in the movie’s prologue by big, beautiful shots of smoke billowing from computer generated images (CGI) of collapsing buildings.

The last Superman movie Snyder directed, 2013’s Man of Steel, was criticised for a final fight scene that levelled an entire city without showing any of the consequences (Buzzfeed estimated that close to a quarter of a million people would have died, had it been real). The prologue to Batman v Superman is clearly an attempt to respond to these criticisms — it shows us that fight scene again, only this time from the point of view of those on the ground.

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In the space of two movies Snyder has gone from wilfully ignoring the human cost of CGI destruction to invoking September 11 — now that’s overcompensation.

Worse, he seemingly does so for only one reason — to give Batman a reason to dislike Superman, thus setting the events of the film into motion. Alarm bells should be ringing when you have to invoke September 11 in a direct response to the critics of your last movie solely to shove one of your characters down a particular plot path.

Jesse Eisenberg gives an insufferably mannered performance as Lex Luthor by way of The Joker. His Luthor is vaguely presented to us as a young Zuckerbergian billionaire (he plays basketball at work and dresses rather casually), which could be interesting if the idea were teased out. But it’s not.

We’re never really treated to the character in situ again. This is a major screenwriting problem afflicting all sorts of American blockbusters: the assumption that once is enough. The thinking goes that he plays basketball once, ergo, he’s a cool millennial billionaire. This character trait doesn’t need to be developed or creatively investigated: once is enough.

And why does this cool millennial billionaire want to destroy Superman? It’s not particularly clear.

Nothing is particularly clear. That’s the whole problem with Batman v Superman: there’s plenty of teasing, but little teasing out.

If Batman v Superman has a saving grace it is in the form of Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman. Her character is woefully underserved by the script, and she only shows up properly right at the end of the final battle. But Gadot brings a watchable enjoyment to her performance that is entirely lacking from Affleck, Cavill, Adams and Eisenberg.

In an approach that sees DC attempting to emulate Marvel’s money-printing success, Wonder Woman gets her own movie next year. And Batman appears in Suicide Squad, out later this year. And so on and so forth until in a decade’s time we’ll be drowning in these characters and have completely forgotten that this movie exists.

The world doesn’t make sense unless you force it to. Batman v Superman is a compelling piece of evidence suggesting that Hollywood has given up trying to force sense out of chaos. That it will be one of the biggest movies of the year suggests that many of us have given up too.

► 2 stars

► Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is in general release.

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