Everyone loves a good rivalry don’t they? All over the world, be it sports teams, neighbouring countries, or the endless brand wars of Coke versus Pepsi, Nike versus Adidas, Nintendo versus Sega and of course Marvel versus DC Comics, wherever there is a rivalry there is desire to out-perform one another, bragging rights to profit-margins dictates that battle for competitive edge, and this drive can spark great innovation or lead to spectacular fallout.
The competition between Marvel and DC Comics is long standing and is an important issue which leads to this latest DC superhero film and many of the preconceptions and fears which surrounded it prior to launch. One of the characteristics of these rivalries is how the two factions position themselves in their respective markets, typically with one the family-friendly juggernaut corporation with the financial muscle behind it, while the second, usually the less established regardless of age, often adopts an “edgy” stance. The Cola wars and Nintendo versus Sega exemplify this, the underdogs looking to cash in by identifying with the nineties’ Generation X.
Whilst DC’s most famous duo Batman and Superman have been a mainstay of our cinema screens for almost forty years there have been large gaps between films, numerous studio squabbles and the notorious films which never happened such as the Nicolas Cage starring Superman Lives.
Meanwhile Marvel, despite having licensed perhaps their most popular and recognisable characters to Sony (Spider-Man) and Fox (the X-Men), have been building a franchise via the Avengers since 2008, a universe which interconnects plots, themes and characters which is about to enter its third phase with the release of the thirteenth film, Captain America: Civil War.
The Marvel juggernaut has every studio flicking through their back-catalogues to see whether they can emulate even a margin of their success, and DC are a long way behind, and with Christopher Nolan’s acclaimed Dark Knight trilogy set aside and Christian Bale no longer playing Batman, they have only one canon film to work from, 2013’s uneven and much-maligned Man of Steel, so playing catch up is going to be a headache.
With yet another iteration of Batman’s origins over the credits, most recently seen in Gotham a mere eighteen months ago, the deaths of Thomas and Martha Wayne and the discovery of what will become the Batcave by young Bruce as he flees the funeral are at least handled efficiently, less so the following scenes as the audience are reminded of the tedious final hour of Man of Steel, an unwanted recap of that film’s climactic battle through Metropolis, the wanton destruction and the cost of the battle between Kryptonians Kal-El (The Man from U.N.C.L.E.‘s Henry Cavill) and Zod (Take Shelter‘s Michael Shannon) viewed this time from the perspective of incoming Bruce Wayne (Argo‘s Ben Affleck).
Rushing to his offices in the city where the staff watch the incoming waves of energy without thought of escape until Wayne telephones to order them to evacuate, he manages to save a child from falling debris, arriving too late to do anymore, and as he sees people dying around him the image of these two aliens fighting above the cityscape casts the die for the man whose childhood was defined by tragedy.
Eighteen months later, as the Wayne Foundation funds the reconstruction of the decimated city, the figure of Superman continues to court controversy. The impotent rage brewing inside Wayne is reflected in society, and ambitious Senator June Finch (The Incredibles‘ Holly Hunter) looks to hold the last son of Krypton responsible for his methods if not his actions. In this she has a potential ally, businessman Lex Luthor (The Double‘s Jesse Eisenberg, no stranger to the boardroom after The Social Network), but their is a cost for Luthor’s support which Finch is not willing to pay.
Scavenging the remains of Kryptonian technology across the globe, Luthor wishes to bring a discovery of Kryptonite into the continental United States, to develop it as a weapon against Superman and any more of his kind who may arrive on the planet. Superman himself is not confining himself to his adopted homeland, going the extra mile to protect his beloved Lois Lane (Her‘s Amy Adams) when she is ambushed on assignment in a middle-east “hot-zone” which results in a shootout, the blame pinned firmly on Superman in the eyes of the conservative media.
The seventh feature film from director Zach Snyder, the strengths of Man of Steel are once again in evidence, but so are the failings, with both sides magnified. His cast are exemplary, the majority of the screentime devoted to Affleck’s very different Dark Knight, a lifetime of carefully controlled brooding anger having given birth a more fractured Batman than any seen on screen previously, not only the reclusive millionaire and philanthropist who masquerades as a high-tech detective, an unusual nod to the earliest appearance of the character in Detective Comics, but also the vengeful nightmare of the night whom even the police fear, whose branding is a death sentence for those who are prosecuted for their times.
The casting of Cavill and Adams continues to shine, though Superman feels very much a guest in his own film, and in neither of his appearances has he ever been permitted to anything actually super outside of a flashback or a montage. While it is interesting to see the previously uncompromised hero have to cope in a very dirty world, he should have been allowed at least one solo screen appearance to shine with his own light, the eagerness of DC to progress to Justice League parts one and two (expected 2017 and 2019 from Snyder) having denied the audience that which would actually make those films seem desirable.
Returning as Daily Planet editor, Event Horizon‘s Laurence Fishburne is given more to justify his salary, deepening his relationship with Lois beyond that of employer to friend, and Hunter is excellent in her complicated role, a spokesperson for the people who asks the questions but who is willing to let others have the space to provide their own answers. As the reliable Alfred Pennyworth, High-Rise‘s Jeremy Irons is more than a butler to Master Bruce, more than technical support, and deserves much more to do.
Twitchy, angry, accustomed to getting his own way and being the smartest guy in the room and not good around people, Eisenberg’s Luthor is perhaps more dangerous than either Gene Hackman or Kevin Spacey; while they would wreak mass destruction for advantage and profit, it was never personal, while this Luthor is indiscriminate, prone to tantrums and most definitely aims to hit where it hurts the most.
Where Batman v Superman is frustrating is that Luthor’s manipulations to bring about that conflict are so obvious, both characters led up the garden path to a knockabout where a moment’s thought would have made it apparent to both that the only person to benefit was Luthor; for supposedly intelligent characters, both are depicted as painfully stupid.
The other heavy chain worn around its neck is Dawn of Justice; while four time Fast and Furious star Gal Gadot slips into both Diana Prince and Wonder Woman effortlessly, she slips from the plot after the first act only to reappear in the catastrophe of the third act to demonstrate her demigod powers which appear to have rubbed off on Lois, who twice responds to dialogue given when she was elsewhere, once when she was running from a noisy helicopter, meaning it was impossible for her have overheard without superpowers herself.
Having matured slightly from his previous superhero car crash, Snyder is perhaps to be praised for his restraint; where Man of Steel was an hour of wanton destruction across a whole city, Dawn of Justice at least inflicts only half an hour of wanton destruction largely confined to the docklands, but it remains a tedious computer generated indulgence leading to a manipulative conclusion as insulting to the audience as it is unbelievable, and telegraphed to any comic fans familiar with the history of the character Doomsday.
That DC wish to go “darker” than Marvel is not the problem; that they are unable to conceive of a way of doing so other than knocking over buildings and killing characters is. That is not the sophisticated emotional range of an adult, it is the stamping foot of a child wishing to be taken seriously, the battle with Doomsday akin to the end-of-level boss from a videogame rather than the finale of a major motion picture and showing the lack of grasp of the fundamental differences between cinema and videogames.
With the publicity regarding the inclusion of Cyborg, Aquaman and the Flash actually outweighing their screentime, it is apparent that this is not so much a film as a marketing exercise for something yet to come. For their flaws, the Marvel motion pictures leading up to the launch of The Avengers did not feel so incomplete or lacking in heart. That DC, Snyder and returning screenwriter David Goyer are unable to comprehend this is a betrayal of not only their cast who are demonstrably capable of so much more and better but also the audience who they are so desperate to court.
Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is now on general release and also screening in IMAX and 3D