I saw Batman V Superman in Leicester Square, London, last night. While I hadn't read reviews, I was aware that there was a groundswell of dissent against this film. I believe it's misguided and here's why.
Firstly, a word from Zack Snyder and Henry Cavill asking us not to run spoilers.
And there are things I want to talk about that will wait. I will bear this in mind. Consider this a spoiler-reduced write-up, talking more about themes and ideas than plot points and revelations. But if you want to go in blind, stop now.
We, as an audience, have been guided by recent superhero movies to expect jokes, gags, one-liners. Marvel movies, told with a wink and a nod. A crack here, a joke there, tension broken or increased with humour. But there are very few jokes in Batman V Superman. This is not Ant Man or Guardians or even the Avengers sitting around wondering who can lift Thor's hammer. This is more like, well, Homeland. The character may be as utterly ridiculous as they appear on the printed page, but instead of embracing that and making a strength from it, they take themselves deadly serious.
This movie is bereft of them. The only two of three are in the trailers. The best you get aside from these are ironic lines, such as Perry White telling Clark that "no one is interested in seeing Clark Kent versus the Batman." This is a grim, joyless piece of movie making. And I'm down with that. Not everything has to be laugh-a-second, and yes this is a very bleak film with Superman in it. If you don't want to see that, don't see the movie. But it is a Superman that has been portrayed in the comics, in his darkest of times.
But you will get a Superman dealing with Man Of Steel. A film criticised, rightly, for Superman's seeming indifference to millions of casualties and his own role as an executioner. The opinion of the world, the government, the court, of Batman, of Alfred. Everyone has an opinion about what happened and his role in it – and it's one Superman is struggling with.
Even his continual rescuing of Lois Lane becomes a focal point of the film, as he repeatedly rushes in with black and white morality, saves the girl, and rushes out leaving chaos in his wake, used as an epigram for his role in the world. The comparison with American foreign policy is not accidental, nor is the result of his actions coming back to haunt him and demanding a price.
International politics is hard.
And yes, 9/11 is on everyone's lips, from the car chase while Gotham and Metropolis are destroyed in the Man Of Steel fight, mid battle, knocking down the sky scrapers willy nilly and, after a car chase through the destruction, Bruce Wayne running into the cloud of dust that billows forth from the destruction of his own building. His subsequent grimdark is seen in this context, only continuing his lifetime of horror since the death of his parents, Zorro, pearls and all. This is a Batman who only uses guns in his dreams, but does end up killing – or allowing the deaths – of thugs that go up against him.
Oh yes, and there's the branding. Batman worries Superman. Superman worries Batman. And neither sees the illogic of their inconsistencies, only exaggerating the conflict between the two. And both become the embodiment of what they hate…
This is not a desecration of Superman or of Batman, it is a story of Superman and of Batman. Not the only one, but the one they are choosing to tell today.
Bleeding Cool's Patrick Dane has already talked about the mythologising of characters in the movie, something Titan's Nick Landau was keen on underlining when I met him at the Impossible Collection exhibition afterwards. But whatever divides the two also unites them – nothing more than the image of the big man protecting the little girl, repeated through the film.
But nothing smacked of that more to me than the moment, in mid battle, when the stakes are raised and Batman and Superman are fighting alongside her for the survival of humanity – and she smiles. She enjoys it. She is a warrior, this is her time – and its a very different experience from her teammates. It's beautiful – and a moment that a lighter film could not have brought out through contrast.
This film seems to have three central go-to references, the Dan Jurgens Death of Superman with a Doomsday and destruction, the Frank Miller and Klaus Janson Dark Knight Returns full of a Batman driven further to darkness and a media commentariate analysing their every move and Geoff Johns and Jim Lee's Justice League, creating a scale of superheroness, and elements of what – and who – is to come. But amongst these Zack Snyder does have familiar themes he wishes to bring out.
His work is being reinterpreted in Randian terms of late, and that does seem present. Superman's "do gooder" appeal is questioned, and self examination sees him question his father's influence. Bruce Wayne is the driven businessman, with the same rive that sees him succeed in business, succeed as Batman. And a Wonder Woman, warrior born, doing her duty.
But the standout for me was Lex Luthor. I'm occasionally eviscerated for my love of the movie Hudson Hawk – but what makes it for me is Richard E Grant, playing a villain who you actually want to fail. Too many of these films have charismatic villains who secretly the audience wish would get away with it for once. This Luthor, you really don't. I embed him with characteristics from the actor's portrayal of Mark Zuckenberg and that really helped. Because a Zuckenberg who wants to take the control away from the superfolk to protect humanity, maybe, but himself most of all is a Randian ideal as well. And no one in the audience possibly, even secretly, wants him to succeed when he see the consequences of his actions. And Zack Snyder gives us a Randian battle of its own inconsistencies.
This is not a perfect film. There are plenty of clunky inconsistencies and missing motivation. In fact a considerable amount of working out why what Lex Luthor is doing what he does demands comic book knowledge that explain Batman's dreams, Luthor's painting and he obsession with people's roles. I'll write more about that when the film opens. But in the grand scheme these are details that annoy but don't detract.
This is a sold superhero film, thats closer to the likes of X-Men: First Class without the gags than anything else.
But coming out of the film, a head filled with gods, man and mythology, I realise that this film – in many ways about the Messiah with plenty of references and allusions towards that nature, especially the temptations in the desert, is being released for Easter Weekend.
If you really want a protest against this film, that's where I'd look… and there's a ready made sign from the crowd in the movie – You Can't Be A Christian And Believe In Superman.
One more thing? Credits up top for Jerry Siegel, Joe Shuster, Bob Kane and Bill Finger, William Moulton Marston thanked at the end and a list of comic book creators from Marv Wolfman to Louise Simonson to Frank Miller to Klaus Janson to Dan Jurgens thanked at the end…
Thanks to John for the Jane typo…