Two of the most iconic fictional characters in history gearing up for one of the most anticipated showdowns to ever hit the big screen: Batman versus Superman (BvS) was always going to have big expectations to live up to. Taking place at a time when the ‘Golden Age’ of superhero movies is going into overdrive (with somewhere in the region of two dozen films set to come out between now and 2020) with its rival franchise, Marvel, giddy with success, and having to fill the shoes of Christian-Bale’s immensely popular Dark Knight, the pressure was well and truly on.
The build-up to the film didn’t exactly go well either. A litany of spoiler-revealing trailers that just didn’t stop coming, controversial casting choices for Batman, Wonder Woman and Lex Luthor as well as fears of yet another overly-destructive death-match in the final scene, all marred the excitement leading up to the film’s release. One cannot help but be painfully aware of these criticisms when taking their seat in the cinema, but if you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, perhaps you shouldn’t judge a film by its trailers either: the doubts, fears and critiques, whilst some still hold merit, feel less than fatal as you watch the story unfold on-screen.
That last statement will likely have many staring at their laptop screens in disbelief- so let’s build up to a justification by looking at what went wrong with the films predecessor. BvS takes one of the heaviest criticisms of Man of Steel (MoS) and makes it a strength in this film. Starting with a brief but well-produced insight into to the origin of the Bat, we see a very raw, emotional introduction to the first of our two protagonists, which is then placed into the context of the mass destruction and loss of life in Metropolis by Zod and Supe’s battle royale at the end of MoS. Many fans felt that level of destruction uncharacteristic of the Son of Krypton and a poor attempt at making up for an underwhelming plot. Instead, with the reactions of Bruce and other characters to these events, Snyder and co have transformed a cover-up for lack of plot into an interesting and powerful plot device for the follow up. This is in tune with the current superhero zeitgeist, with Civil War (as well as the most recent Daredevil series immediately preceding it) also exploring more grounded characters having to deal with how the real world would actually react to them and their actions.
Drawing on the ramifications of that titanic clash, we capture an insight into the kind of Bruce Wayne we are dealing with in this incarnation- one that is closer to the billionaire than even Bale’s could be, driven above all by family, or what little of it he has created in his life. This gets to the heart of what sustains the existence of the Caped Crusader- a lethal cocktail of anger and guilt over the loss of his family, and a desperation to secure some sort of consolation, whether it be through training young prodigies, or subconsciously creating a vicarious familial relationship with the employees of his company.
We see in BvS, perhaps for the first time on screen an introduction to Batman that actually makes the viewer afraid, exactly how he is meant to make criminals feel. This Dark Knight is much more brutal than Bale’s incarnation was, Affleck is physically dominating, breaking through walls and flinging criminals across rooms- this is a raw, emotional Bruce Wayne, a vulnerability reflected in the brutality and horror his alter-ego dishes out. The fears around casting were not just assuaged by Affleck- Jessie Eisenberg brilliantly plays a deliciously disturbed Lex Luthor, one whose quirks, mannerisms and riddles can’t help but keep you interested in the character. Gal Gadot too brings a truer-to-the-comics incarnation of Wonder Woman, with a bold, intelligent character more than able to compete with the two protagonists, with subtle smirks in the midst of battle a nice nod to her true warrior nature.
That said, the presence of Wonder Woman in this movie, whilst played well by Gadot, wasn’t really necessary. One suspects that she was there not for any literary purposes, but to usher in as quickly as possible the beginning of the new holy grail of cinema: the expanded universe. Without revealing too much, there does come a nod to the start of a wider battle that is coming for our heroes literally in the final minutes of the movie, almost as if thrown in as an afterthought. Yes, we all want to see an expanded and inter-connected DC universe to rival Marvel’s, but we want it to be populated with meaningful characters and driven by engaging and nuanced plot arcs too. There is powerful storytelling and character development in BvS- DC needs to build on this and deepen our ties to these characters before it rushes off into hero coalitions and cosmic battles. The screen time spent on WonderWoman could easily have been used to develop the characters of Batman and Superman and their struggles throughout this film more.
There were parts where the CGI was bordering on crude, and the major fight scenes (bar an incredible sequence where Batman takes on a group of thugs, sadly already revealed in the trailers) were disappointing, yet, for the present author at least, these were mere interludes in the real project of the movie. Approached as essentially a drama about two heroes struggling to cope with the world and their place in it, BvS really delivers. Perhaps people want something simpler from their comic-book adaptions, perhaps all the film needed to do was deliver some knock-out fight scenes- but for this fan at least, we need to have characters we care about first- the cosmic death battles can come later. For an expanded universe that will stand the test of time, we need to get some grit, emotion and nuance in our heroes, and BvS manages to go some way to giving us this.