March 25:It’s a funny thing, this rivalry between Marvel and DC Comics. By common consent, DC has the better superheroes (Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, The Flash, etc.) but it is Marvel that rules the cinema box-office. While the Marvel biggies (Spiderman, Thor, Captain America, etc.) have all hit the jackpot, even the lesser characters (The X-Men, Iron Man, Guardians of the Galaxy, etc.) have made billions in the cinemas.
On the other hand, DC has struggled. There has been some success on TV (Arrow, Gotham, The Flash, etc.) but various attempts at a Batman franchise have fizzled out. The Tim Burton movies were followed by duds that killed off the franchise. A second try by Christopher Nolan ended when he walked away after three movies. And Superman, who had a good run with the Richard Donner movies in the 70s, has never found the cinematic success he deserves after that.
Meanwhile, Marvel has earned even bigger bucks by bundling its heroes together in the Avengers franchise, leading DC to wonder why it can’t do the same. The new Superman Vs Batman is an attempt to throw the company’s two biggest heroes into the same movie and even includes a cameo from Wonder Woman. If the movie, released worldwide on March 25, meets its targets, then expect a solo outing for Wonder Woman and a new Avengers-like franchise called the Justice League, which unites all the DC heroes. And depending on the reception that Ben Affleck’s Batman gets, there may be a third series of Batman movies.
So, Superman Vs Batman is DC’s grandest throw of the dice; an attempt to pack everything into a single movie to prove that it can take on Marvel.
But it’s not easy to unite Batman and Superman in the same universe. In the older comics, they were both good guys but over time, the Batman comics and movies have turned the Bat into a darker, screwed-up kind of guy who only comes out at night. Superman, on the other hand, is still the sunny, happy hero, who fights for “truth, justice, and the American way”.
Most modern takes on Batman emerge from a 1986 comic book written by Frank Miller called The Dark Knight Returns. (Miller says he invented the name, The Dark Knight.) Miller’s comic is set in the future and features an older Batman in his mid-50s who operates in a seedy Gotham where the entire system is corrupt and out to get him. Superman, who also appears in the same comic, is portrayed as a sold-out agent of the government.
Miller’s retelling has been so influential that nobody remembers the cheerful and happy Batman of the 60s TV show and comics. More significantly, director Zack Snyder, stole the same idea for his Man of Steel movie, which turned Superman into a loner who the establishment is suspicious of.
So, how can the same Snyder now create a conflict between Batman and Superman when he has treated them in roughly the same way? Plus, there is another problem. Superman has superpowers while Batman only has a utility belt. How can any fight between the two ever be a fair one?
And then, there are the worlds. Both Gotham and Metropolis (where Superman lives) are fictionalized versions of New York. And yet, in each comic only one of the heroes inhabits his own version of New York. How can any story bring them together?
It is to the credit of Zack Snyder, making up for the sci-fi nonsense that was The Man of Steel, that he manages to resolve most of these conflicts. For one, he uses age to distinguish his characters. Superman is in his early 30s and new to the job. Batman is in his mid to late 40s and has been at it for 20 years. Superman first appeared only two years before during the events of Man of Steel and while there are still suspicions about him, he has built up a fan base. As for Batman, he is still the masked vigilante on the fringes of the law that Frank Miller imagined.
There is only one way to resolve the disparity in their strength and Snyder has no choice but to fall back on it: Kryptonite. In the time-honoured tradition of the comics, when Superman is felled, it is with Kryptonite.
Snyder’s solution to the Metropolis-Gotham problem is more imaginative. He makes them twin cities, almost bordering each other, like New York and New Jersey. So, each city has its own character but events in one cast a shadow on the other.
With all that out of the way, there is still one conundrum: why should Batman and Superman, both good guys, want to fight each other?
Snyder never really resolves this as hard as he tries and unfortunately for the movie, he falls back on Lex Luthor, a villain from the Superman comics, who manipulates them into battling each other. This is never terribly convincing and when, two-thirds of the way through the movie, the two men team up, it is a relief to see the end of all the bogus hostility.
So, how good a movie is it? Well, it is a lot better than Man of Steel and I also reckon that it is far superior to the last, ludicrous Avengers movie (Age Of Ultron). It is not great but anyone with any interest in comic book movies will enjoy it.
It has many strengths, mainly Ben Affleck as an older, world-weary Batman, who is far better than Christian Bale ever was. Jeremy Irons is a more convincing Alfred than Michael Caine and Amy Adams makes a good Lois Lane. Henry Cavill will always be – let’s face it – a wooden actor but he’s a lot better here than he was in Man of Steel.
But the movie has several weaknesses, chief among which is Jesse Eisenberg who makes a godawful Lex Luthor. When he pouts and sneers, he recalls not Gene Hackman, the original Lex, but Jennifer Aniston playing Rachel in Friends.
And then, there’s the problem of the third act. Logically, the film should end once Batman and Superman make up. But DC is so keen to trailer the Justice League franchise that they throw in Wonder Woman unnecessarily. And then, in a direct lift from the 1992 comic book, The Death Of Superman, they introduce a new villain called Doomsday and kill Superman off.
Of course, Superman can’t die: he has franchises to sell. We know he will be back in the next movie, as he was in the comics, but his absence allows Batman and Wonder Woman to talk about everyone coming together to fight evil, i.e., the Justice League.