There’s a moment during the titular dust-up many minutes in to Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice where Bruce Wayne, having flung everything else at Superman, throws an actual kitchen sink at Clark Kent’s head. If only Zack Snyder’s film had the intelligence to recognise the sublime irony in this. Smart BvS certainly is not; gloriously failed and magnificently messy it certainly is.
The same movie critics who cooed over BvS to get their movie preview articles and Affleck/Cavill magazine covers queued up to turn their backs on BvS last week, and while there was much to criticise the few good points were thrown out with the bad. It stands that if BvS had been released before X2 (2003), The Dark Knight (2008), and Avengers Assemble (2012) it would have been received as the dawn of a new era in comic movies. Unfortunately for Snyder, movie fans and critics don’t view their fare in isolation.
The one upside that can’t be denied though is Ben Affleck. Despite looking glum in that interview clip last week, Affleck’s performance sticks two fingers up to all the detractors who nigh-on rioted when he was announced as the new Batman back in 2013. His Bruce Wayne is a brooding, cynical, visual delight, looking and sounding closer to the Frank Miller version of the vigilante than anyone before, even Christian Bale. Jeremy Irons’ Alfred is a pleasingly sardonic take on Batman's butler, taking the sarcastic wit Michael Caine's brought to the role to its natural conclusion. And both of them achieve this despite one of the most shambolic blockbuster scripts in living memory.
Things start promisingly, launching off of a plot point that’s been begging to be told since the comic movie renaissance began. How do these superheroes take it to the bad guys without causing thousands of deaths via collateral damage? BvS starts by replaying the headache inducing climax from Man of Steel (2013) but this time through the eyes of Bruce Wayne who is trying to manage the countless civilian casualties caused by Supes and Zod trading blows. It’s refreshing to see and a long overdue question finally answered; there are indeed everyday lives at stake here.
But fifteen minutes in BvS starts to leave the rails. Sixty minutes, narrative motion sickness takes hold. After ninety minutes you start to wonder whether anyone bothered to proof read the script, or whether David Goyer and Chris Terrio just left in every idea they came up with no matter where it fell. The veritable kitchen sink.
Things get worse; Lex Luthor is the CEO of a global corporation despite having clear mental health needs, dream sequences with unexplained character appearances crop up randomly, General Zod and some Lex blood in a Kryptonian gloop chamber can apparently create fire spitting orcs, Lois Lane thinks a spear deadly to her beloved will be safe lobbed into a shallow pool of water on an industrial estate, and Batman dismisses two hours worth of character motivation just because Superman’s mother has the same first name as his dead mum, a fact the world's greatest detective somehow missed.
And the catastrophes keep coming. Wonder Woman is suddenly French, built like a cocktail stick, and has zero chemistry with the two leads. Despite being the ‘Dawn of Justice’ League, the rest of the new JLA recruits (Aquaman, Cyborg and the Flash) are lazily introduced via five minutes of shaky security cam footage. The twin climatic battles make the run time too long. Doomsday looks like a cheap CGI reject from a lesser comic movie and the battle to beat him feels like a re-run of Man of Steel’s city smashing finale, but for a surprisingly large and conveniently empty dockyard to avoid a repeat of the civilian deaths that kicked started the plot in the first place. And, spoiler ahead, Superman is supposedly dead before the JLA even have their first board meeting.
This last plot twist might show some forward thinking by Snyder. Superman is so overpowered it’s nigh on impossible to keep coming up with credible threats for him. Team Supes up with a group of other ‘meta-humans’ and there isn’t a villain out there who can realistically make a dent (though Lex teases the coming of Darkseid from his prison cell, a big-bad who most non-comic fans will see as a Thanos rip-off by the time he arrives on the big screen).
Clark’s death follows a surprising amount of violence during the film, with Batman fodder stabbed, burnt, shot, crushed and killed (the latter drawing ire from some fans, as if Batman had never fatally injured anyone in any of his other cinematic outings). There’s even the occasional swear, all of which push the boundary of the film’s 12A certificate. Here in lies much of the films problem. Marvel’s cinematic outings have thus far remembered that they have to entertain kids as well as adults. No easy feat, but they’ve achieved it spectacularly so far. The ‘dark’ adult approach worked for Christopher Nolan’s Batman series but it was a trilogy that was easy to ground in reality; there were no flying men from outer space or ageless Amazonian goddesses to explain.
Snyder and Warner Bros. could have tried any number of different approaches. They could have brought Superman in to Bale/Nolan’s universe. They could have gone for separate Wonder Woman and Batfleck films before rushing out a Justice League picture. They could have gone for a lighter approach, though this would have been a stylistic jolt following on from Man of Steel. They could have filmed the Batman versus Superman battle as it was told in Frank Miller’s fantastic four part mini-series comic The Dark Knight Returns and detailed the Justice League’s set-up and life story in flashback. Most disappointing of all, they could have jettisoned the Lex Luther, Doomsday, Wonder Woman, and JLA story angles and just focused on Batman taking on Superman; there's more than enough material there for a film, and the Wonder Woman reveal would have made for an excellent post credits sting.
Somewhat miraculously though, despite all of these faults BvS still entertains. The star laden cast help, with nary a scene passing that doesn’t include a quality thespian wrestling with wonky cliché-riddled dialogue, ‘If man won’t kill God, the devil will do it!’ . As well as Affleck’s excellent Batman, Henry Cavill still shines as Superman/Clark Kent; he was the one saving grace in Man of Steel and he’s pitch perfect here once again. But the entertainment value goes beyond that.
After such a severe kicking from movie critics and filmgoers BvS is now an underdog of a movie, and us Brits love an underdog. It’s not a case of being a ‘Contrary Mary’ and insisting something that is genuinely rubbish is not just to start arguments with those who disagree. There is something charming about a film that doesn’t seem to care about story or character logic. Following film after film of pristine perfection in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, something a little rougher around the edges, something broken, something that draws laughs for the wrong reasons, feels different. And different at the moment feels quite good. You don't have to sit tense and anxious in the theatre, nervous that at any moment Snyder is going to screw up the coming together of American comics two biggest icons; he has screwed it up and spectacularly so.
Of course, you wouldn’t want the likes of BvS presented to you every time you sat down in a cinema seat, and god help us if this a marker for the direction cinematic comic movies are heading in. But after years of dining on caviar topped filet mignon, it’s a nice change to tuck in to a peanut butter sandwich, even if it fell in the kitchen sink on the way to your plate.