The success of superhero parody Deadpool (A$962 million and counting) has reassured critics that there is plenty of mileage left in the superhero movie – yet the most important lesson seems to have been missed.
Deadpool’s self-aware satire suggests that filmgoers are eager to see the genre’s conventions subverted. Yet, this month’s mash-up Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (guest starring Wonder Woman) does little to reinvigorate the familiar superhero adventure.
Director Zack Snyder has created a sequel/spin-off to his 2013 Superman adaptation Man of Steel.
The film is expected to serve as the bedrock for a planned DC Extended Universe, which will explore the other villains and heroes of Batman and Superman’s world.
Snyder’s Man of Steel was criticised for crucially misunderstanding Superman. It culminated in a third act tussle in which the big blue boy scout laid waste to downtown Metropolis in order to stop Kryptonian villain Zod.
Addressing this criticism head-on, Batman v Superman opens on this devastation from the point of view of billionaire philanthropist Bruce Wayne, who vows to stop Superman in the guise of costumed crime fighter Batman.
Superman, meanwhile, uses his alter ego, journalist Clark Kent, to investigate Batman – a vigilante “who thinks he’s above the law”. Through villainous businessman Lex Luthor’s manipulations this enmity boils over into the superhero showdown promised by the title.
As demonstrated by his past comic-book movies such as 300 (2006), Watchmen (2009), and Man of Steel, Snyder has an eye for composition and there are some impressive action beats. But Batman v Superman is limited to the colour palette of an ashtray, which dulls an already dour film.
The score is equally oppressive, with The Dark Knight (2008) composer Hans Zimmer and Dutch producer Junkie XL collaborating on a soundtrack of heavy percussion, synths, and choral music, which attempts to infuse even the most incidental scenes with an end-of-the world tension.
The performers are committed, with Ben Affleck investing his older Batman with a playful ennui. But fans are likely to be divided on how this dark knight is realised.
One of the tenets of the character on the comic book page is that the tragedy that created Batman instilled a value for human life that will not allow him to kill his enemies. Yet, Zack Snyder’s caped crusader outfits his vehicles with an arsenal of machine guns, mowing down anyone who gets in his way.
As heavily signalled in the trailers, Wonder Woman joins the fray in the third act bringing some much-needed levity. Israeli actress Gal Gadot bags two of the film’s three good lines and bounds about with an enthusiasm that makes her upcoming solo Wonder Woman film a much more exciting proposition.
While the premise is succinct, this relentlessly po-faced film takes an inordinate amount of time to get to the star attraction. When it does, the collision is robbed of its potentially interesting ideological conflict, as Luthor’s coercion is so hackneyed and transparent that it could have been cribbed from an episode of television’s Smallville.
In fact, after The Dark Knight Trilogy’s engagement with War on Terror politics and the focus on collateral damage in the upcoming Captain America: Civil War (2016), Snyder seems to have learned little from the criticism of Man of Steel. This film culminates in yet another city centre showdown that appears to cause even more destruction than the first.
While we are reassured that the scuffles are confined to “uninhabited islands” and “empty ports”, these throwaway lines feel like a facile effort on the part of the filmmakers to diffuse criticism.
The film’s purported source material, Frank Miller’s graphic novel The Dark Knight Returns, grappled with the ethics of these heroes’ worldviews in the 1980s, an opportunity Batman v Superman fails to exploit.
Still, it should be unsurprising that the filmmakers do not fully outfit these icons with rounded motivations. The real conflict here is not between the Last Son of Krypton and The Dark Knight, but the forces at Marvel and DC who are fighting it out for the hearts, minds, and wallets of the comic-book movie audience.
Batman v Superman is all about world building, establishing a shared universe for future franchise instalments and spin-offs.
Marvel is the market leader in these transmedia franchises, having carefully peppered solo superhero movies such as Iron Man, Thor (2011), and Captain America (2011) with hints of a crossover ahead of the record-breaking success of The Avengers in 2012.
Such hidden allusions are often referred to as Easter eggs within fan communities, but Batman v Superman hasn’t so much secreted these references as explicitly telegraphed them. One character even stumbles across a computer file replete with each future Justice League member’s logo as well as videos of their origins.
These inelegant attempts at fan service (read: cash grab) leave the film’s Easter eggs with the nutritional content and structural integrity of their chocolate equivalents.
It is unfortunate that the filmmakers fixed their gaze so firmly on future instalments rather than concentrate on their franchise keystone.
Of course Batman v Superman is not the first crossover film. As early as Frankenstein Meets The Wolfman (1943) studios have turned to these team-up movies to boost interest in film series.
Yet the poster tagline for a more recent ensemble movie, Alien vs Predator (2004), might also be applied to this misstep in corporate synergy: “Whoever Wins … We Lose”.