Seeing the runaway success of Marvels cinematic Universe, DC have decided to launch a franchise of their own. Whereas Marvel have taken a slow(ish) approach to the creation of their universe by testing the water with solo films for each of their main characters which formed the foundations for team-up adventures and a wider cross-film narrative, DC have plunged into their universe head-first, putting many of their most famous characters into only the second film of the whole franchise which has been mapped out for the next six years. At the same time that DC unveiled its centrepiece for its bigger plans, Marvel have released season two of Daredevil on Netflix, the follow-up to their highly successful season one which just shows Marvel’s ability to innovate in their quest to dominate the market.
After a mixed response to its predecessor, Man of Steel; Batman v Superman was announced as a sequel to much excitement. A further announcement added the ‘Dawn of Justice’ part to the title of the film and at this point it was said that this film would launch DC’s Justice League as a rival to Marvel’s Avengers. Many felt that this seemed a bit rushed and stunk of a desire to cash in on the current popularity of superhero films and the initial excitement about seeing two of cinemas biggest characters square off subdued. After a teaser trailer, excitement grew again as it created a belief that DC and Warner Brothers might just pull this off. Unfortunately, it would seem that the thirty second teaser trailer was the pique of excitement as subsequent trailers and, indeed, the film itself seem to have killed the Justice League before it has even begun.
I tried to watch the film before I read any reviews but after watching the trailers felt that this would only be disappointing. In the end I did sort of like it. But not for reasons that you might expect someone to like a comic book film for. In a way, I feel like I have to offer two reviews for this film. I will begin with a ‘classic comic book film’ review and present the second review later on.
Under the ‘classic’ criteria for a comic book film, it is a shambles that just reflects Warner brothers’ and DC’s desire to cash in quickly, making the whole plot look a bit rushed. There are good bits of course. I like Ben Affleck’s Batman. He is older and much more hardened than other versions of the character. This version is poignant in that after twenty years of fighting crime Affleck portrays a character whose different personae seem to be growing more indistinguishable from one another. This is understandable an early scene shows that his parents were shot dead in front of his face and there is a hint that his close friend and son-like ally, Robin met a horrific demise that he might feel responsible for. The idea to continue after the events of Man of Steel where Metropolis had been destroyed was interesting and served as good motivation for Batman to take down Superman. By the end of the film, however, they sort of misused these interesting ideas to prove my suspicion that this whole film franchise is being made up as it goes along.
One of the main criticisms comes from the fact that the film-makers fail to create a belief that the two title characters really do want to fight. The fight itself was pretty good to look at. It definitely looked like some men were punching each other up the face and all but it was the lack of tension building that made it anti-climactic. In sharp contrast to this came Marvel’s Daredevil. Marvel have received much praise for their universe building. They build characters over time and their motivations seem much more believable because of this. So, daredevil received much praise as his reasons for wanting to punch people up the face were something we could believe. This season, the show-runners went one further and gave its title character a moral dilemma: is punching bad men in the face enough to stop them doing bad things or should they be shot?
This moral dilemma was introduced when Daredevil is confronted by a new character. Frank Castle, aka, The Punisher, was not your average plot device, it is said. He was a well crafted, snarly but sympathetic one. After watching his family get torn apart in the crossfire between several different gangs, Castle decides the only course of action left is to shoot those responsible for pulling the triggers. And with this setup begins a long narrative about how one attains justice; do we beat the crap out of bad guys or just shoot them? By the end of the season, the threat to the city becomes so great that debate about the ins and outs of justice takes a backseat so that our main hero can ensure the survival of an unwitting public. It seems that the question of whether it is morally OK to kill does not matter when one feels that his extinction might be imminent. Perhaps that was the point.
The depiction of Frank Castle garnered much praise. It was referred to as the best screen adaptation of the character yet. Unlike Daredevil, the main supporting character from Batman v Superman did not attain much praise. I would agree that Jesse Eisenberg’s portrayal of Lex Luthor does not deserve much praise. Not in the traditional sense, at least. Eisenberg reportedly stated that he was not a fan of comic books before getting the role and it looks like he carried that disdain into filming. The whole time it looks as if Eisenberg is on a one man mission to point out how ludicrous it is for an actor to play a comic book character by going on to be so hammy that I thought this film was a spoof. This is where I would like to offer the second review of the film.
The key to the second review relates to the presence of Jesse Eisenberg. His performance was so bad that you have to believe that his best performance happened behind the camera where he somehow managed to convince director, Zak Snyder, that he was giving a good one. This performance, if ever seen, might deserve an Oscar. I struggle to believe that Snyder or the production team could have allowed this to happen. Surely there are auditions where they could have snuffed out the caricature-like portrayal pretty early on? It was so bad that it seemed like someone who could not act was playing charades and they had the task of playing a cookie, weird, evil genius, but that person felt patronised by the task and was not afraid to let it show. I like Eisenberg’s acting. I am lost for ideas as to how he got it so wrong. Which leads me to my reasoning for doing a second review: maybe DC and Warner Brothers have set up their universe as a piss take of the whole superhero genre. Maybe their lack of humour reveals an incredibly dark and incendiary one. DC want to do their movie universe in their own style. They do not want to copy Marvel’s quirky, well-planned and humorous one that has made shit tonnes of money. Perhaps Eisenberg’s overly dramatic, silly, yet destructive performance portray exactly the direction that DC and Warner Brothers want to head in: down the shitter.
Batman v Superman portrays either a naivete or a disdain for its audience. If the filmmakers intended this disdain, I feel that it portrays a sort of Brechtian quality. It’s main characters portray a detachment from their actions. Batman easily breaks his old golden rule of not killing without batting an eyelid. Superman seems more concerned about the problem of being misunderstood than helping to make the world a better place like the historical Superman. I have read reviews where people have talked of being furious that such great characters have been used in such a way. They have taken the film-makers apparent inability to make exactly what they wanted to see in their heads as evidence of the film-makers intent to harm. There is a sort of moral outrage about the film which itself is tragic but hilarious. It is for this reason that I think the film-makers deserve a lot of credit as they have done something which art is, perhaps, supposed to. They have provoked a reaction which reveals something about our current Zeitgeist.
The fact that Batman v Superman has received a lot of virile abuse because it did not give compelling reasons for the main characters’ violence becomes more interesting when contrasted with the praise and admiration given to Daredevil for its depiction of violence. The calls for fake violence to be more real is very shocking when one considers the very real violence that has taken place around the world recently. It is strange that we analyse and probe for reasons as to how our fake violence can so miss the unspecified mark when all we seem to do when faced with very real violence is give a rather bewildering “isn’t it awful,” wait for something else to happen, then move on.
What does our reaction to these different franchises say then? That we do not mind violence as long as the reasons for it happening are presented in a narrative? Is that why the violence in Daredevil seemed more real and praiseworthy? It is because of the bombastic, over the top, detached violence of Batman v Superman that I think it is superior. Of course, it could be said that the film-makers never meant to present their product in this way, and I doubt that they did, but this actually makes it an even more pertinent essay on our relations to violence today.