“They pull a knife, you pull a gun. He sends one of yours to the hospital, you send one of his to the morgue.”
So said Sean Connery’s ageing beat cop in Brian De Palma’s classic thriller The Untouchables, and it’s an aggressive way of thinking which could apply to director Zack Snyder’s Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice. Even compared to the Sturm und Drang of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, this latest entry in the DC movie universe is intense, bleak and relentlessly kinetic.
Ben Affleck plays the latest incarnation of the Caped Crusader, by now a grizzled crime fighter who’s grown sinewy and embittered in his middle years. Having witnessed the events of Man Of Steel’s conclusion first-hand, Batman (and his alter ego Bruce Wayne) has funnelled all his disillusionment, anger and sense of loss into the messianic figure of Superman (Henry Cavill again), whose halo remains tarnished after the previous film’s Metropolis-wide chaos.
Convinced that Superman is the equivalent of a weapon of mass destruction – that is, capable of going off and killing millions in the blink of an eye – Batman resolves to fight the super-being and stop him at all costs. Fomenting the tension between the two heroes behind the scenes is billionaire maniac Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg), who has his own reasons for goading Batman and Superman into staging the mother of all wrestling matches.
Taking its cue from the indelible visuals of Frank Miller’s seminal Dark Knight Returns comics, Batman V Superman weaves a sometimes beautiful-looking opera about a man versus a god. In some respects, it delivers on some of the things that Man Of Steel (somewhat controversially) only glancingly portrayed: Superman leading his private double life as cub reporter Clark Kent. Perry White (Laurence Fishburne) bawling at Kent for obsessing over Batman’s vigilantism instead of writing about the latest football game. Superman saving Earth’s hapless citizens in some quite beautifully-realised montage scenes.
At the same time, we see how the older, angrier Dark Knight goes about his nocturnal vigilantism. Snyder gives Batman an almost demonic presence: here’s he is loitering in the corner of the room like a poisonous spider, waiting to pounce. There’s Batman lunging out of the shadows to terrorise the life out of his criminal prey. In between, we’re given a view into Batman’s private inner world: his ongoing grief at the loss of his parents; his nightmares, which are often so vivid and chaotic that even we can’t always discern between them and his waking reality.
Snyder, together with writers Chris Terrio and David S Goyer, introduce a version of Gotham and Metropolis where everything seems somehow spiky and dangerous. They portray Batman and Superman as two disillusioned, angry men whose rage is turned outward against the other. Even Jeremy Irons’ butler – and quartermaster – Alfred Pennyworth has a new line in world-weary, cutting humour.
Affleck may have been a controversial choice for some, but it’s hard to argue with the commitment he brings to the performance; convincing when he’s suited up and breaking villains’ faces, and bringing a Bond-like smoothness to Bruce Wayne, he’s a more than worthy successor to Christian Bale’s Caped Crusader.
If there’s a problem with this incarnation of Batman, it springs not from Affleck, but from the movie’s glum tone. The heroes spend so much of the movie locked in their private emotional labyrinths that, even in their day-to-day guises, Batman and Superman are guarded, scowling enigmas. Clark Kent lacks the affable, unassuming quality that Christopher Reeve bought to the role. In fact, Cavill looks so poised, commanding and conspicuously muscular in his Clark guise that it’s a wonder why Perry White doesn’t shout at him for spending more time down the gym than at his desk.
With Batman and Superman weighed down with suspicion and turmoil, it falls to Jesse Eisenberg’s Lex Luthor to bring a few moments of levity. Either sociopathic, high on energy drinks or both, this version of the supervillain is undeniably watchable, though his fast-talking, mischievous persona more immediately recalls the Joker or the Riddler than the brawny Lex from the comics.
For the first hour, Snyder manages to balance the grounded and fantastical elements of his DC heroes. The director finds a clever way to introduce Bruce Wayne as a bystander to Man Of Steel’s events, bringing us back down, chillingly, to street level where we see Metropolis’ destruction through Wayne’s eyes. We’re shown in no uncertain terms that those cataclysmic events have real, painful consequences on flesh-and-blood humans. Superman may want to be a force for good, but his strength soon becomes something to fear more than admire. “He’s accountable to no one,” a character in the movie says; “not even to God.”
The harsh world Snyder creates may not be to everyone’s taste, but it has weight and a sense of its own reality. Most intriguingly, it makes both heroes seem elemental and borderline frightening; there are moments in Batman V Superman’s first half that wouldn’t look out of place in a horror movie. Here, Batman and Superman aren’t characters to be afraid for, but to be afraid of.
Having established all this, Batman V Superman gradually overloads itself with sub-plots and extra characters – some you’ll know well if you’ve seen the trailers (such as newcomer Gal Gadot, who’s very good), others small surprises we’ll leave you to discover for yourself. It’s arguable that few if any of them improve the plot in any meaningful way; in a film which trips effortlessly over the 150 minute mark, they often feel like lead boots on a story which is already hefty in scope.
By Batman V Superman’s final hour, the multi-pronged assault of swirling visual effects, relentless action and Hans Zimmer and Junkie XL’s apocalyptic score begin to drain the senses. Like Man Of Steel, the last act reaches a level of mayhem and fireworks which goes on for so long that it starts to feel not so much like a crescendo but an exhaustingly violent war of attrition.
Explosive, visually stunning and sometimes thought-provoking, Batman V Superman is a feast for the eyes and ears. Yet as the final credits roll, the overwhelming sensation is not of satisfaction, but of shell-shock. Like Snyder’s divisive Man Of Steel, Batman V Superman goes for a maximalist approach which is likely to thrill some and alarm others. Once again, Snyder brings a gun to a knife-fight.
Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice is out in UK cinemas on the 25th March.