Film discussion

The Road to Shazam… Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016)

With Shazam!, the latest DCEU movie, imminently on the horizon, we’re revisiting the films that came before it from the shared cinematic universe…

With a $668 million box office gross internationally, it stood to reason that Man of Steel would get a sequel. Despite the divisive opinion on the film, there were those who genuinely liked it, and while it may not have made The Dark Knight numbers, it still grossed more box office money than Batman Begins when that film tried to relaunch Batman and that ended up becoming a billion dollar grossing franchise, so there was a feeling that the only way was up.

With its references to Lexcorp dotted throughout, not to mention a cameo from a Wayne Enterprises logo, the feeling was that Man of Steel was very much the beginning of a shared cinematic universe of DC Comics characters, so interest was high in what was Warner Bros. and Zack Snyder were going to do next. Their plans became clear at San Diego Comic-Con 2013, the same summer as Man of Steel’s release. Expectations were high that at the very least a sequel to Man of Steel would be announced, but instead, the follow-up film was going do something that nobody expected.

With a passage from Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns read out to the audience by General Swanwick actor Harry Lennix, Snyder announced that Batman would appear in the Man of Steel sequel and that it would be taking its cue from Miller’s seminal 1986 work.  The question on everyone’s lips of who would play Batman was answered when Ben Affleck was announced and right away the film would gain controversy from that decision onwards, right through to its eventual release. Casting controversies in comic book properties is nothing new, especially in Batman movies; going back to 1989, the casting of Michael Keaton caused many to write to Warner Bros complaining about the casting of Mr Mom as Bruce Wayne, and in 2007 many were up in arms about the casting of Heath Ledger as The Joker. Both decisions turned out to be brilliant moves.

In the end, after we had all seen the film,  the casting of Ben Affleck as Batman, and how good he was in the role, would be one of the few things in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice that everyone would agree on. The resulting film would prove to be even more divisive than Man of Steel.

READ MORE: The Road to Shazam… Man of Steel (2016)

It always seems strange that nobody at Warner Bros. had thought to try to create a shared cinematic universe with its rights to DC Comics characters right at its fingertips. There had been an attempt at a Justice League film, famously by George Miller in 2007, right around the time that Christian Bale and Brandon Routh were both playing Batman and Superman, but no attempt had been made to try and do it as a means to cross over those properties. Some of this was down to Christopher Nolan wanting to keep Batman separate of course, but Warners had owned DC Comics for a while and it still seemed strange that nobody had thought of it, or even watched Smallville and its bringing in of other DC characters such as Green Arrow, Cyborg and Aquaman and thought “let’s do that as a movie series”.

The onslaught of the Marvel Cinematic Universe took everyone by surprise in the summer of 2012 when, after a series of moderately successful and profitable films, with the Iron Man film themselves being the heavier hitters, Avengers Assemble grossed well over a billion dollars. From a series of moderately successful productions, Marvel was now a major commodity in Hollywood, and the success of that film would influence not only Warner Bros when it came to their approach to DC Comics adaptations, but also Sony when they would take the lovely charms and grounded approach of The Amazing Spider-Man and turn into a more over the top production with its sequel; stand-alone stories were out, myriad references to other characters and plotlines, and easter eggs to set up spin-offs and sequels were in.

The debate even raged as to whether or not Dawn of Justice was even really a Man of Steel sequel. It was a follow-up for sure, but even by Henry Cavill’s admission, it was a separate entity that was about introducing Batman to Superman’s world. The fact the film was scheduled for December 2015, subsequently moved to March of 2016 and was effectively rebooting Batman not long after Nolan’s trilogy felt like a sting of sorts. When Nolan rebooted Batman in 2005, it was after an eight-year gap and a film that had all but destroyed the character; this film was rebooting the character a mere four years after a series of films that were incredibly popular and critically acclaimed.

With the film being used to further set up a shared universe, the film would also introduce audiences to Wonder Woman, with Gal Gadot in the role and instantly becoming one of the few things everyone agreed on as being great in the film; Jason Momoa would make his first on-screen appearance as Aquaman, Ezra Miller similarly as The Flash, Ray Fisher as Cyborg and Jesse Eisenberg as Lex Luthor, while the script would be written by Oscar-winning Argo writer Chris Terrio.

The film was hyped to the hilt, and a massive box office opening weekend was expected and subsequently delivered, but it was once everyone watched the film that a new set of controversial opinions would be opened and the floodgates to a larger Marvel vs DC debate would be set in stone, with a large section of DC fans loving the film, critics being largely dismissive, thus giving the film a low Rotten Tomatoes score, and with many fans crying out loud on social media about a conspiracy that Disney was paying of critics to bad mouth the film, while giving Marvel productions favourable reviews.

Dawn of Justice is not a terrible film. In fact it’s grandly ambitious in many ways, not least of which is trying to lay down a fully thriving cinematic universe in the space of a two and a half hour run time if you’re watching the theatrical version, or a three-hour run time if you’re watching the Ultimate Edition, the superior cut of the film. That it tries to do this in its own way instead of adapting itself to the light-hearted Marvel formula is commendable.

Snyder double downs on the dark tone he established in Man of Steel and even goes further in somewhat trying to deconstruct these heroes in a way that reminds one of Watchmen; Superman is brooding and tortured, split on how to be a hero while the world reacts to him either in awe or fear; this portrayal of Batman is as dark as anything portrayed on-screen before, not afraid to take lives if need be; Wonder Woman is an isolated and lonely figure, hiding herself away from the world instead of saving it, the reasons of which are explored to a brilliant degree in her stand-alone movie courtesy of Patty Jenkins, while this interpretation of Lex Luthor is less of the suave entrepreneurial figure, and more of a modern-day tech figure in the mould of Mark Zuckerberg, so it stands to reason they would cast the actor who played Zuckerberg in The Social Network.

The film aims squarely for a tone that is a clear world away from Marvel, and what Sony was trying to do with The Amazing Spider-Man 2; the action is brutal and unforgiving; we spent time in Senate hearings; on top of being Superman, Clark has to deal with major differences of opinion in his work with Perry White (a returning Laurence Fishburne in what might very well be his last time playing the role), there’s a scene involving someone being shivved in a prison, not to mention infamous use of a jar of urine and the mere mention of the name Martha, the latter being a point of derision for many, an anti-climactic and clumsy way to end the antagonism at the heart of the film.

With a title like Batman v Superman, it was inevitable that the film would have the two characters fight, but even this is never a fun duel; forced into choosing between saving his mother or killing Batman by Lex Luthor, the two meet on a rainy rooftop, Batman clad in the metallic costume made famous by The Dark Knight Returns and the two of them punch, fly around, and are generally mean to each other.  Stupidly Superman gets the upper hand and could easily have told Batman what’s was going on, but instead keeps the fight going until he’s at the receiving end of a kryptonite spear and has no choice but to call out Martha’s name.

In other hands, or even in the pages of a comic, it might have worked, but here it basically amounts to; “Your mum is my mum’s name? Let’s be friends.”

After establishing a dark and realistic tone throughout much of its running time, the film then goes and drops a version of Doomsday into its narrative, thus prompting Wonder Woman to show up and much in the way of over the top action. Admittedly the last third of the movie when the three characters team up is great fun, and as someone who is a massive fan of these characters, there is much fun to be had in watching the spectacle play out. The moment Gal Gadot shows up in costume complete with that amazing Hans Zimmer theme playing over it is genuinely iconic, and the subsequent brawl, away from the public this time so no collateral damage, is good fun, but it cannot help but feel like it’s come in from a different movie given the tone up to that point.

Far from a disaster, the film has lofty ambitions and plays better in its extended version where the film feels better paced and builds to its climax much better, but it cannot help fix the clumsier moments. For all the controversies about his casting, Ben Affleck makes the role of Bruce Wayne his own and feels like the first time someone who looks like the character from the comics has played the role. Unforgivably dark, but with a hint of charm behind the eyes, this was a Batman that had the potential to be the best, but fate and reactionary decisions from the top brass put paid to that. Cavill works well as Superman once again, but one cannot help but feel what it would be like if he had the opportunity to play the character in a more charming way than what he’s given here and in the previous film.

Of the supporting cast, Gadot makes a considerable impact even if she is on-screen for a limited amount of time, but the acclaim her performance gained here meant that there was a sense of goodwill waiting for when Wonder Woman’s solo movie the following year. As for Jesse Eisenberg, his Lex Luthor is different than anything before and one wants to applaud the film for trying something new, but he’s more of an annoying hindrance than a genuine threat throughout and it’s not until he blackmails Clark into killing Bruce that he feels anything like a genuine menace.

READ MORE: Captain Marvel – Review

For all its flaws, there was the groundwork for something interesting, new and different. While the final act is over the top, it never goes overboard in the way Man of Steel does and Chris Terrio’s script does attempt to put character and plot over action and spectacle, but with an eventual $873 million box office take, it was considered somewhat of a commercial disappointment. It ended up breaking box office records in both its opening weekend and second weekend in the US, with its second weekend setting a record for the largest drop from its first.

Snyder’s approach was brave for sure, but despite the bravery of its ambitious tone and attempt at trying something different from everything else, audiences clearly didn’t warm to it, and while some may put it down to the tone, more than anything it was the film itself and how it approached that tone that was the most off-putting. Nolan’s trilogy was a darker series than other movies coming out around it and they did just fine. In the end, what audiences probably wanted was for the characters to be themselves, even if their world is dark. A Superman bemoaning how nobody stays good in this world may not be want audiences want from their Superman no matter how powerfully it’s performed by Henry Cavill, while a Batman who isn’t afraid to rack up a body count when fighting villains was deemed a step too far from some who prefer it when he keeps his “no killing ” rule.

The latter would prove to be a major talking point even today. At the time of writing, Zack Snyder courted new controversy for claiming that anyone who thinks Batman doesn’t kill is ‘living in a dream world’, comments that reignited heated debate online with those who either loved his vision for these characters and those that didn’t. It maybe shows someone willing to take a chance and tell these stories with these characters in a way that was risky and challenging, but maybe that’s all for nowt if the film itself cannot be fully successful. Neither masterpiece nor disaster, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is an admirable attempt at trying to tell a narrative with characters who feel as if they have been around forever in a way that was fresh and new. That it never quite gels completely doesn’t make it the worst film ever made, but it’s never the great misunderstood masterpiece that many DC and Snyder fans want you to believe it is either.

The extended version makes for a welcome slice of enjoyably dark superheroic viewing, but in the end audiences voted with their money and they clearly didn’t want Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman to be taken into the realm of a Watchmen-style alternative reality to ours complete with Senate Hearings and dark scenes involving bombs and jars of pee.

They just wanted them to have fun, but as we’d soon see, even trying to do that with this cinematic universe would prove elusive and divisive.

Let us know what you think of Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice…

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