What makes a classic duel?
Flair. Evenly-matched competitors aren’t as hard to find, but ones that spur each other on in varied ways are the ones that go down in history. There needs to be both Yin and Yang for a rivalry to be heralded as immortal, glimpsed in the way the precise Alain Prost needed the mercurial Ayrton Senna, the flawlessly graceful Federer needed the improbably swashbuckling Nadal or the vile six-fingered Count Ruben needed the immaculately moustached vengeance-hunter Inigo Montoya.
There is, alas, not much thought given to the slugfest that is Batman Vs Superman, a sickeningly dull film that robs both its heroes — its iconic, legendary heroes — of their personalities and lets them duke it out without any point in sight. Both Batman and Superman in this film are violent, self-involved narcissists who take things personally and pigheadedly, and all the two actors really get to do is scowl, glowering stonily as if presciently aware of the reviews their vapid film would eventually get.
The fight is, also, an utterly mismatched one, made rather apparent when Batman, in his ugly new Batmobile — a cross between a flattened DeLorean and a dung-beetle — desperately rounds a corner. It’s a tough right turn, he’s dealing with several Gs and understeer, and there’s a fair bit of drag he needs to wrestle with to straighten those wheels in order to keep from hitting into the alien standing, arms crossed, in his path. Superman stands there, adjusts his frown and puts his lips forward, as if readying for the World’s Greatest Photographer: for a second there, he’s the Man Of Blue Steel.
It’s true, of course, that Superman could toast Batman with a glimpse. Despite all talk of Kryptonite gloves and bewilderingly bulky armour, there is no way the fight is fair unless Superman reins in his own punches. This he invariably does — all the time, really, for this is a hero who punches planets — which makes every comic about the Superman-Batman dynamic compelling primarily because of their drastically opposed approaches and motivations, but this new movie makes no room for that: here they fight because Lex Luthor, using the oldest trick in the book, has kidnapped Ma Kent and says he’d like to see ‘em wrassle.
Zack Snyder’s Batman Vs Superman: Dawn Of Justice starts off lofty, building its origin story from the wreckage and falling debris of the much-criticised and over-violent climax to the last Superman film, Man Of Steel. It is a smart starting point but things soon get lost in woeful writing and a narrative that doesn’t flow as much as it hiccups along. The opening credits are an origin story music video, following which there is a dramatically white title card, then an urgently shot sequence followed by, bafflingly, a black title card which then leads us to a scene shot with an entirely different aesthetic. The film whirrs along from disjointed scene to disjointed scene, the only intriguing ones being weird B-movie moments that turn out, far too frequently, to be Batman’s dreams.
Thus, before you have it, there we have people using the Pulitzer-chasing Lois Lane as a personal Supe-signal to page the big blue boyscout, while Batman brands sex-offenders with a Phantom-like bat-logo, sadistically ensuring that they are killed in prison. None of this makes sense. None. And these aren’t even the dreams — those feature Batman playing dandiya with a gun in the desert. Why is he knocking people in the knee with a gun? Damned if I know, because this Batman clearly doesn’t mind killing, resorting even to a no-nonsense stabbing to get the job done.
The actors aren’t awful. As Bruce Wayne and the Bat, Ben Affleck has to jut his jaw out a lot and speak like he belongs to the House of Vader, but the actor breathes some life into the part — even if it is the part of an easily manipulated nut-job and not at all the World’s Greatest Detective. Poor Henry Cavill is a lot more shortchanged as Superman, disqualified from smiling and having to do a whole lot of what Joey Tribbiani would call smell-the-fart acting. Jesse Eisenberg’s Lex Luthor starts off with a whimsically bouncy energy that Snyder leans on too hard, turning the character into an insufferable yo-yo as the film drags on. Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman steals a couple of moments with her gleeful eagerness to kick butt, but the film could have used a lot more of her. As it could Alfred Pennyworth, played by the marvellous Jeremy Irons, casually saying “funnel, fairy, bubblebath” with that velvet voice to test out a microphone in a nutty film where Alfred is equal parts butler, inventor and Siri.
Here’s what I suggest the problem is: Zack Snyder doesn’t understand comics. Sure, he loves them. That’s more than evident from his loyalty to the source material, his invariably bombastic character introductions, the way he amps up scale, scale, scale… but — like Kevin Kline misreading Nietzsche in A Fish Called Wanda — I well and truly doubt he gets what makes the comics he is fond of so special in the first place. His Frank Miller adaptation, 300, gratuitously emphasised the worst aspects of the original work; his Man Of Steel robbed the world’s most loved character of all colour; his Watchmen — which I, as an Alan Moore fan, have not watched — should simply not exist, made in defiance of that grand creator’s wishes; and now comes this overblown monstrosity.
Sure, this could be his plan all along. All part of a grand supervillainous scheme to show audiences how stupid the superhero genre is by murdering their heroes on screen, impaling them with mediocrity over and over again. It may well be by design, because Batman Vs Superman is so lunkheaded it seems unreal: there is a lot of action, with Snyder literally throwing in the kitchen sink at one point, but the setpieces are all dispirited and unspectacular — made worse by the way the director keeps cutting away from the action to insert some sappy moments — and the film feels four hours long, especially when the moment for it to fade-to-black at the end happens at least a half-dozen times. It is a film that aims for big revelations which, surprise, aren’t revelations at all. There is some talk of collateral damage and superhero responsibility, but this is blatant lip-service. All this film wants — desperately, incessantly, relentlessly — is to be louder.
To me, this is the worst superhero movie of all time, particularly in terms of squandered potential. It is moronic enough to believe two people sharing a name is a coincidence of world-altering import. You, as a fan, deserve better. Superman and Batman, collectively known in DC Comics as the World’s Finest ™, deserve far better. And Zack Snyder, be it inability or subversion, needs to be kept away from these icons — at least till he figures out that the red of the cape is the colour of a bright and stunning Testarossa, not merlot spilt on the floor.
Rating: Zero Stars
First published Rediff, March 24, 2016