Now the dust has settled – Review of ‘Superman v Batman: Dawn of Justice’

I missed this adventure at the flicks due to babysitting duties, despite it being on the list of movies to see regardless of child welfare. Ah well. Instead, my journey involved waiting years to see it, then hearing endlessly about how awful it was from just about everyone.
The ideal of course would be that it would blend the beautiful magic of the first Christopher Reeve ‘Superman’, the bracing power of ‘The Dark Knight’ with a suitably powerful update for Wonder Woman somehow blended seamlessly in. Well, perhaps no film was capable of all that and besides, ‘Superman’ was released in 1979 and ‘The Dark Knight’ (take a breath now) in 2008. Wonder Woman meanwhile has never had a cinema outing despite her popularity, with only the fondly remembered TV show from the 70s as any kind of interpretation outside the comics.
Such was the contempt aroused by this film I was almost afraid to watch it, given my regard for the characters. There was talk of the script being too dull and Zack Snyder’s inventive visuals being too gloomy, even though this was the director who managed to make a decent ‘Watchmen’ movie and was also responsible for the gloriously insane ‘Man of Steel’. Ben Affleck got a load of unreasonable stick for taking the Batman role as if ‘Good Will Hunting’, ‘Hollywoodland’ and ‘Argo’ never happened.
What we get in ‘Dawn of Justice’ is a surprisingly thoughtful dramatization of the meaning of power. Spider-Man’s stepfather famously tells him that ‘with great power comes great responsibility’; this film explores the literal meaning of that philosophy. The most revisionist element of the story is how terrifying Superman is – not in himself particularly but to the rest of us. Bruce Wayne’s nightmare of the Man of Steel becoming an apocalyptic cult leader expresses this fear perfectly, a literal journey to hell paved with good intentions.
Batman’s own position is no less ambiguous. Affleck is a less obviously psychopathic Batman than Christian Bale was but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Besides, this character is older; there is a kind of weariness to the training sequence that cleverly foreshadows the big fight near the end; while Bruce Wayne seems to have increasing difficulty differentiating dream from reality. It takes Clark Kent to point out that the Dark Knight seems to focus his energies on the poorer parts of Gotham while the real, higher end criminals go unpunished. That Batman has started branding his targets suggests he may have gone through the looking glass completely.
It all brings to mind Google’s famous maxim: ‘Don’t be evil’ only for the company to find its astonishing success bringing it face to face with complex moral questions such as the best way to deal with censorship in China. Facebook is in an even trickier position as it attempts to negotiate the freedom of speech tightrope, while Twitter has become a byword for overwhelming abuse that was far from what its creators envisaged.
Perhaps these predicaments are why an equally revisionist Lex Luthor looks like a geeky tech genius, and an abused child at that. He has an unerring sense of evil, claiming that the devils now come from above, not below. He, too, seems wholly lost; his grand conspiracy hysterically destructive. He doesn’t hit the depths of Heath Ledger’s Joker in the pointless existential chaos stakes but then this film is more of an ensemble than ‘The Dark Knight’, which inevitably means a diminution of visceral one-on-one power.
But then it frustrates me when audiences or critics seem to expect more of the same. ‘The Dark Knight’ was of its time, ahead of the long years of grinding recession; ‘Superman’ further back still. The characters here face hard moral choices, often in the face of constant change they have no control over. One of the best, and newly realised, relationships is between Bruce Wayne and his butler Alfred, played here with waspish but practical elegance by Jeremy Irons. These two men are in the process of growing old together, which is a lovely touch; however, how much of Batman’s very real terror is actually fear of the new?
Superman meanwhile lives happily with Lois Lane; no time for lengthy flirtation and desperate keeping of secrets in this version of their story. The film doesn’t make use of Amy Adams’s talent for comedy, which is a shame because the film is not devoid of humour (when Batman rescues Martha Kent he introduces himself as a friend of her son’s. ‘I know,’ she says, with gently maternal understanding. ‘It’s the cape isn’t it?’ he deadpans back). Lois isn’t a weak point; indeed, she is central to the story. However, she has to take second place to Gal Gadot’s eagerly anticipated turn as Wonder Woman and it would have been more satisfying if the slinky super-charisma of the Amazon had been matched by the clever wit of the journalist.
Perhaps there wasn’t time, which is a shame because the film is at its strongest when it explores the characters, rather than during the fights, spectacular though these are. While Batman has Alfred to work with, Henry Cavill’s Superman seems for most of the film to be in conflict primarily with himself. Cavill’s extraordinary face is a suitable blend of sensitive and brutal, reflecting the two aspects of this version of the character. He doesn’t have a lot of dialogue either; other than brief exchanges with Lois his main confidante is his mother, Martha, played with a steely but vulnerable intelligence by Diane Lane.
Martha is Superman’s adoptive mother, however; like Bruce Wayne, this hero is an orphan. One reading of the story is the power of mothers and how devastation at their premature loss can create a rage that needs to be intelligently channelled to avoid becoming a terrible threat. We are used to it with Batman, especially in his latest film incarnations but we also get hints of it in Superman. Never have those glowing red eyes seemed so threatening.
In a flashback to the fight with General Zod first shown in ‘Man of Steel’, Bruce Wayne desperately calls his employees to get them out of the Wayne Industries skyscraper. The Kryptonians’ eye beams devastate the tower and it falls; a now familiar nightmare in the American psyche. Sure enough, Bruce runs through a dust cloud billowing along the pavement towards him into an eerie white stillness, for a moment alone and then in a brilliantly surreal moment face to face with a horse, probably a police animal, although the audience experiences that disjointed sense of being flung back to a time of medieval horror and brutality. That a monstrous version of Zod returns at the film’s climax feels like a personification of all these overwhelming emotions and it’s fitting that one of the film’s heroes doesn’t make it to the end.
These classic characters resonate in wholly different ways with each outing, and they are imaginatively played here by a cast who deserved better press. It is, after all, a film version of a comic, with characters we have waited for years to see together. That they look as terrified of themselves as they are of each other is a testament to the difficult balancing act of audience empathy required to pull the story off. I would happily see it again and feel others should give it another chance too.

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