“Versus” stories are no new thing for comic books. Christ, it seems everytime you get two of these super-buggers in a room they are compelled to beat the caped crap out of each other until the inevitable team-up straightens things out. Now, I could be describing the plot of Batman Vs. Superman: Dawn Of Justice, DC’s long overdue push to get a shared universe online after letting Man Of Steel awkwardly twist in the wind since 2013, but the fight that was far more publicized at the time was Marvel Vs. DC.
The rivalry has been going on for decades but while it always seemed to be somewhat intense, there was a certain amount of begrudging respect between the fans and yet with the rise of a cinematic comic book universe to rival the MCU, the kid gloves cane off and things got nasty. Originally destined to be released on the same day as Captain America: Civil War (another movie about a superhero smackdown) and with certain DC filmmakers openly taking pot shots at their rival’s (quothe Suicide Squad’s David Ayer “Fuck Marvel!”), thing’s predictably got nasty on website forums in a hurry and when BVS’s release date got moved, the Marvel faithful retaliated in kind.
However, when the dust settled and all was said an done, it seemed all the red-faced, internet name calling wasn’t over as Batman Vs. Superman turned out to be the most polarising comic book movie since… well, Man Of Steel; Zack Snyder’s last attempt to mold heroes into his particularly bleak world view.
After Superman’s grudge match with General Zod violently gave Metropolis far more car parking spaces than it needed, a vengeful Bruce Wayne vows to bring this all-powerful alien down just in case he ever turns on mankind. Wayne, who spends his nights breaking the dental work of the criminals of Gotham City as the humourless vigilante Batman, starts setting a plan in motion to make this feasible but unbeknownst to him, gangly billionaire Lex Luthor (Jessie Eisenberg seemingly in the throes of a particularly distracting caffeine fit) has the same idea and has put in motion a ridiculously complex plan in order to bring the Man Of Steel to heel which will involve manipulating politicians, framing Superman for overstepping his mandate and hoping that no one in the film actually talks to one another and sort things out. As Batman, Superman and everyone around them gets drawn into this deadly game, it seems a showdown between the two is inevitable, but with the arrival of Diana Prince, a woman with a wonderful past (see what I did there?), there may be hope yet that disaster can be averted. Will these two caped lunkheads manage to see eye to eye or will Luthor’s rather illogical back up plan spell Doomsday for all involved.
Looking back at the backlash (and the backlash at the backlash) years later, it’s tough not to side with the unimpressed critics and regard the outraged fanboy claims that “critics aren’t comic fans” as a childish tantrum. No, some critics are not comic book fans, but they do know how to judge things like coherent story and logical character arcs and that’s something that Batman Vs. Superman: Dawn Of Justice, even in it’s extended Blu Ray version, falls down on consistently. For film that involves two of the most popular characters in pop culture history squaring off against each other, the story almost immediately starts to make things ridiculously over complicated in order to get to the fight you’ve paid to see. It’s not particularly convincing either despite scripter David Goyer giving both men huge blind spots in common sense thanks to the fact that both have a super case of emotional constipation – Batman is a borderline paranoid maniac, obsessed with the notion that a being that powerful can’t be trusted to remain good (a bit rich considering he’s sporting the bodycount of a mad gunman) while Superman is a conflicted mess, constantly fretting that maybe the politics of saving hundreds of people is just making things more complicated. These aren’t the primary coloured heroes you’re used to and I get why the filmmakers have gone so hard down this new route, but it ends up being the wrong move. A Superman movie with no hope and a Batman movie sorely lacking in justice.
Zack Snyder has always been a “my way or the highway” kind of filmmaker, sticking to his guns with impressive confidence, but his cinematic insistence that “gloomy = mature” in the face of the day-glow product that Marvel puts out comes across as pretty obvious, especially when he does everything within his power to invoke Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns with every breath he can muster.
With all this in mind, some things do actually manage to work beautifully; Affleck, who’s casting also caused a fair amount of internet breaking controversy, may be playing a Batman who’s dangerously unhinged, but he’s gifted with cinema’s best ever Batsuit (fact) and he plays him as a bitter, barely restrained rage-a-holic that fits the bleak atmosphere he’s choking in. In comparison, poor old Henry Cavill doesn’t really have much to play with except mope and look cool, but his stance on Batman’s brutality seems a little hypocritical when literally the first thing he does is utterly fucking obliterate an African warlord.
Thank fuck for Gal Godot’s Wonder Woman (yet another controversial choice), a legitimate ray of sunshine who sweeps into every scene with the grace of a nimble gazelle in stunning evening wear and who can throw down with the big boys as good as anyone as she takes a backhand from a creature five times her size and grins like a champ.
But for everything that works (Jeremy Irons’ Alfred is a joy and the scene where Batman tears through a warehouse through of thugs like a Bat-buzzsaw like the Arkham Asylum video games I’d the greatest bout of fisticuffs he’s ever had), there’s an equal amount of things that don’t. Eisenberg’s tic-laden Luthor may have a killer Hans Zimmer theme but his plans don’t make all that much sense: if he’s so convinced Batman will win, why create the hulking, cave troll-esque, Doomsday at all, and if Batman does win, who’s supposed to stop it? Why is the universe building so bad (like, far worse than Iron Man 2 or Amazing Spider-Man 2), with Luthor’s Justice League files even including the character’s logos and weird dream sequences managing to confuse when they should tantalise?
Still, at least we have that title fight to look forward to, right? Nope The central fight between our gladiators turns out to be sluggishly paced dog shit which could’ve been avoided with 30 seconds of dialogue yet somehow lasts 10 bloody minutes with most of it taken up with one or the other crawling on the floor with pain. For a film with VERSUS in the title it’s fucking inexcusable and it’s down to the last minute realisation that the movie’s going to also adapt the Death Of Superman story arc to save the film.
It does, just, but it’s also fairly derivative, which leaves the film in a sort of critical no man’s land, neither completely unwatchable or excitingly gripping. It just…. is, which isn’t really what we deserved from the first live action pairing of two towering icons of pop culture.