“I just want to say, I was here fifteen years ago or something, and, uh, I had no idea what I was doing,” said Ben Affleck in his acceptance speech when his unremarkable political intrigue thriller, Argo, won Best Picture at the Oscars, “And, uh, I went out, you know, and I never thought that I would be back here. And I am—because of so many of you who are here to-night, because of this academy, because of so many wonderful people who have extended themselves to me when they had nothing to benefit from it in Hollywood—you know what I mean? I couldn’t get ‘em a job. I wanna thank them and I wanna thank what they taught me which is that you have to work harder than you think you possibly can, you can’t hold grudges—it’s hard, but you can’t hold grudges—uh,” he paused while the audience laughed politely, “And it doesn’t matter, uh, how you get knocked down in life ‘cause that’s gonna happen. All that matters is that you gotta get up.”
But Affleck spent his cache of good will no enact a huge grudge on the big screen with Zack Snyder’s Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice. To put it like Pop Leibel in Vertigo, he was the mad Ben Affleck, the grateful Ben Affleck and then, finally . . . the sad Ben Afflick.
How could Batman v Superman be a bad movie? It was meant to be a good movie. It was paid for. And how could Ben Affleck have been in it if it was bad? Hadn’t he earned the love and respect of the right people? Yes, Ben Affleck is sad, and that’s partly why I really do like Ben Affleck. He’s genuine. He really wants to believe in what he does. But somewhere along the line in Hollywood, a weird hybrid heart was made in his chest, one that accepted “how things work” in Hollywood while wanting to believe what he was doing was genuine, was real artistic expression. I really think he had convinced himself he was appropriate for the role of Batman.
As much as I hate Zack Snyder, I know Affleck couldn’t possibly have been his choice. Snyder, as has been abundantly clear since he had Harry Lennix read lines from the comic at Comic-Con, wanted to make Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns in which an older, embittered and scarred Batman finally goes head to head with the idealistic, eternally young boy scout, Superman. Snyder would’ve wanted someone who looked old with a deep and/or gravelly voice but who could still get in insanely good shape. Maybe he’d have gone with his 300 star, Gerard Butler. Someone like Russell Crowe, maybe. Considering no-one had heard of Henry Cavill, Snyder would very likely have gone for an unknown. Ben Affleck is 43 but you can tell he’s going to seem 30 when he’s 60. But Affleck is who the studio wanted. Affleck was owed. So despite having already played Daredevil in a notoriously unsuccessful movie, Affleck’s headshot was pushed across the table to Snyder who was informed, as though by Dan Hedaya in Mulholland Drive, “This is the guy.”
Casting someone other than Ben Affleck would not, in itself, have made Batman v Superman a good movie, but igniting the imagination of the potential audience with someone who embodied not just Batman but the particular manifestation of Batman may have made the film a bona fide box office success. But the people who made the decisions don’t know from bona fide. Anyone else playing Batman in the film would have had to contend with the fact that Zack Snyder has no real appreciation or vision for Batman or Superman and that the core concept of the film, the idea of Batman and Superman fighting, doesn’t make sense. It made sense in The Dark Knight Returns and scenes in Batman v Superman of Affleck pulling weights with his feet while doing pull ups show that Snyder still loves the enthusiastic machismo Miller so often indulges in. But Snyder’s Batman is the most impotently created version of the character ever to hit the big screen. For all the derision justly heaped on Joel Schumacher’s two Batman films, Schumacher at least had his own clear artistic attachment to the characters, a clear enthusiasm for exploiting the camp value of the characters leading to stylistic, garish coloured lighting and the absurd nipples on Batman’s chest plate. Snyder’s film vision of Batman is little more than a greatest hits of other versions of Batman. The movie opens with an amalgam of both Tim Burton’s version of the death of Bruce Wayne’s parents and Christopher Nolan’s version of Bruce discovering the Bat Cave. There’s young Bruce falling into the well and being surrounded by a swirling cloud of bats, like in Batman Begins, and closeups of the gunman pulling the pearls from Mrs. Wayne’s throat from Tim Burton’s movie. As many people have pointed out, Batman’s fight choreography in Batman v Superman almost precisely copies fight sequences in Arkham Asylum.
Maybe all this would have been good enough, maybe what Snyder wanted to do was conjure some vague, general, community impression of who and what Batman is for the purposes of this film. But Batman v Superman isn’t really a Batman and Superman film so much as it’s a Batman film that happens to have Superman in it. Snyder has some idea of who Batman is, or the superficial aspects of Frank Miller’s version, anyway, but he has no idea who Superman is. Oh, he’s evidently been told by people who do know that Superman is a Christ figure, a saviour for people to believe in. But Snyder is so resistant to actually showing this that, after the film spends time only dwelling on how people criticise Superman for collateral damage and for selfishness, when we’re shown a statue of Superman as part of a monument to him, I thought, “Why’s he got a statue when everyone hates him?” The movie is set just over a year after the events of Man of Steel yet the public has already gone through worshipping him as a god to criticising him for causing destruction. The problem is Snyder, instead of finding his creative footing crafting a version of Superman that’s his own is instead trying to exploit the fruits of decades of commentary on other incarnations of the character.
Snyder finally gives us a scene where Superman saves a little girl from a burning building over half an hour into the movie. This after he’s already shown us Bruce Wayne saving a little girl from the collateral, city-wide destruction caused by the battle at the end of Man of Steel and Batman saving people from an underground slave ring. We’d seen Superman save Lois Lane by this point—breaking into a terrorist camp where she’s held captive and people criticise him for the reprisals taken on civilians in response to his actions. This becomes part of the primary conflict between Batman and Superman, that Superman is inhuman and doesn’t care about all the destruction he causes. Presumably Batman would prefer General Zod had destroyed the planet? Jeremy Irons is pretty good as an oddly bitter Alfred who tries to reason with Bruce but even he never says, “But what about all the people Superman saves?”
Snyder is trying to take the primary criticism aimed at Man of Steel and use it as the conflict for Batman v Superman, which would have been a good idea if Snyder had understood the criticism. He thinks people are criticising Man of Steel for Superman not preventing everyone from dying when actually people were criticising it for not showing that Superman cares that all these people are dying. When people say, “Isn’t the point of Superman that he’s supposed to help people?” Snyder replies, “You want to make an omelette, you gotta break a few eggs.” Not understanding that the omelette is supposed to be the people that Superman saves and the eggs are supposed to be beating up the bad guys, not the other way around. But this comes from a disconnect with the concept of Superman that is far from limited to Snyder. People haven’t really believed in authority figures and public servants that way since the 60s. Batman v Superman becomes an allegory for man versus God but how can you really portray that argument when you’ve never had any appreciation for God, or saviour authority figures, to begin with?
Jesse Eisenberg hams an excruciating Heath Ledger impression as Lex Luthor, spouting what Snyder regards as the deep thoughts where Lex becomes Satan as advocate for humanity in reply to an uncaring God. That’s a lot of responsibility put on the shoulders of a character as confusingly developed as Snyder’s Superman. It might have been better if Snyder had given no dialogue at all the Superman and left him as a mysterious force but instead we’ve got the hasty sketches of the good kid from Smallville with Ma and Pa Kent to believe in him and his date nights with Lois which do seem pretty shallow when you think about what else he could be doing. But however negligent he might be, even saving one little girl makes Batman’s desire to kill him seem ridiculous.
Visually, the film is more of the drab mud from Man of Steel. Gal Gadot is a dull, uninspiring Wonder Woman who manages to seem shoehorned into a shoe that hasn’t even been properly assembled.
So, yes, Batman v Superman is a mess, the ugly child of laziness and selfishness, of stupidity and vanity, of hubris and shallowness.