Bat-cards on the Bat-table first: I loved Batman vs. Superman. The thing is, though, I was always going to. The film could have centred around Batman playing a six-hour game of Ludo against his Kryptonian counterpart and I would still have gladly given money to Warner Bros. to go and see it. As a huge fan of both characters – and DC stuff in general – there was never a chance that I wouldn’t enjoy the film on some level. And, indeed, I did, though I have thought a fair amount since watching it about whether or not it’s a good film.
The short answer is no, it isn’t. Given the pretty terrible reviews it’s had (at the time of writing it was on 28% at Rotten Tomatoes), this probably comes as a surprise to no-one. I can certainly see why this is the case, and in part it’s because of what BvS is and isn’t. What it isn’t is a fully-formed, singular narrative piece that can stand in isolation. It isn’t a great example of how to tell a story, nor how to draw convincing characters. This, I imagine, is the reason why critically it has failed.
As far as I can see, there are three major problems with BvS. The first is that it is trying to do too much. It’s been advertised from the very beginning that this is intended as the start of a DC Cinematic Universe, and just the first in what Warner hope will be a long-running series of films. As such, it’s trying to be a gateway to a larger world than we’ve ever seen in a DC film. Previously we’ve been concentrated solely on Superman or Batman or (shudder) Green Lantern, and – throwaway references aside – there has been no attempt to link them together. Many people who haven’t got knowledge from the comics or cartoon series may not even know that the characters are even meant to inhabit the same fictional universe. BvS is thus attempting to be a starting point for the shared continuity, as well as a blockbuster film in its own right, an introduction to a new Batman and a semi-sequel to Man of Steel all at the same time. I can’t help feeling that’s a bit too much for any one film to handle. The Marvel films had a slightly easier job, with snippets across individual early entries eventually going together to make up a shared cinematic universe that, let’s face it, probably wouldn’t have happened if Iron Man or Captain America had been poorly received.
On the subject of Marvel, another problem with BvS is that it seems DC are attempting to distinguish themselves from their old competitors by being the ‘dark’ and ‘gritty’ counterpart to the lighter, more humourous (dare I say ‘Disneyfied’?) Marvel films. Whilst I don’t quite go along with some commentators and think they that this film (and Man of Steel) go too far down the ‘dark’ path in totality, there are moments when you just wish they would take it down a peg or two. There’s the problem that the tone and the subject matter are a bit dichotomous. Whilst it’s relatively easy to make Batman into a dark, brooding figure, it’s harder to do that with Superman without losing some of the essence of what makes the character so appealing. Superman is meant to be an ‘overgrown boy scout’, a figure of hope that Batman can never be. There are moments in the film that allude to this, but they’ve overtaken by the number that concentrate on the fear of the character. It’s hard to see how the Justice League films are going to be able to carry on in this style when they introduce characters like Aquaman and the Flash.
The final main issue I had with BvS is that the central conceit as a whole was slightly doomed from the start. Okay: any superhero fan would probably want to see two of the most iconic figures in the oeuvre battle it out on the big screen, but deep down, I think we all knew it would never really match our expectations. We always knew the story arc would have to include them meeting for the first time, fighting and then – because this is Hollywood – making friends at the end before fighting a common cause. Echoing what I said before, this was just too much. The upcoming Captain America: Civil War has had the luxury of building character relationships across at least three films beforehand. BvS just had to leap into it. Any storyline would have been pushing credibility, but in honesty the film doesn’t help itself by the tack it takes. It just rather left me asking myself whether Batman truly would have been so gullible.
For all its faults, though, I did enjoy the film. I’ve read elsewhere that some people think it will be better viewed in several years time when the later films have arrived and make it a more ’rounded’ story. Whilst this isn’t meant to excuse any of its flaws, I think that’s arguably true. It’s worth noting as well that Ben Affleck – who I must admit I have previously doubted – is fantastic as Batman, and dominates every scene he’s in. Henry Cavill, returning as Superman, is also very good. Perhaps a different interpretation of the character than we would like, but still very good. Some of the supporting cast are less impressive. I can’t work out whether I thought Jesse Eisenberg was a good Lex Luthor, but then I don’t think I’ve ever seen a decent live-action interpretation of him, save maybe John Shea in Lois and Clark (Gene Hackman is a great actor, but the character wasn’t well-written in the Christopher Reeve films). Amy Adams returns from Man of Steel as Lois Lane with a surprisingly large role; she’s good but still strikes me as not having enough ‘spunk’ (no sniggering at the back there). Gal Gadot makes for a decent Wonder Woman, though we don’t get a great deal of time here to explore much about her.
If you’re on the fence about seeing the film, I’d say go and watch it. It’s definitely worth the price of admission and, whilst I can’t say you’ll come out of it thinking that you’ve just witnessed the greatest piece of cinematic entertainment since Orson Welles lost his sled, you’ll at least enjoy it on some level.