Money brings the two superheroes together but Zack Snyder offers an intriguing take on Batman and Superman – before mass destruction fatigue sets in
Like its headlining contenders, everything in superhero smackdown Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (****) feels big, bruising and more than a little bizarre. Mostly in a good way. Zack Snyder’s follow up to his 2013 Superman reboot Man of Steel may have sidelined the story that film’s origins-of-Clark-Kent ending seemed to be building towards, but in embracing the new, financially lucrative, Marvel-inspired reality of shared-universe blockbuster filmmaking, it does something much more interesting and entertaining. Reframing Superman’s arrival on Earth as a Batman movie, Snyder lets the freak flags of both characters fly more freely, with Batman – now played by Ben Affleck – older and bolder about indulging his psychotic vigilante side, and Superman (once again played by Henry Cavill) forced to see himself as others see him: an alien life form, as feared as he is revered.
In the film’s smartest move, Snyder locates the roots of their superhero enmity in the city-levelling chaos that ended Man of Steel. Turning criticisms about the carnage of this scene into a plot point, he lets us see Superman’s Metropolis-wrecking fight with General Zod through the eyes of Bruce Wayne, who’s at ground zero, trying to save people close to him amid the 9/11-style destruction being wrought upon the city by these two indestructible god-like titans.
Fast-forward 18 months and Wayne’s determination to enforce some checks and balances on the Son of Krypton is giving his Batman alter ego a focus at a time when 20 years on the frontline of the fight against Gotham street scum has driven him towards dispensing ever more brutal forms of Bat-branded justice to smalltime hoods. The latter development is, coincidentally, starting to attract the attention of the Daily Planet’s Clark Kent, whose righteous take on might versus right is complicated by his own willingness to exploit his Superman powers to keep Lois Lane (Amy Adams) safe whenever her journalism career takes her into hotspots she can’t talk her way out of.
Working from a script by David S Goyer and Argo’s Oscar-winning writer Chris Terrio, Snyder weaves all this into an even bigger story involving the political efforts to deal with the superhero problem and the malevolent power that benign-seeming corporate entities are starting to exert on a world held prisoner by fear. The latter is symbolised by the re-introduction of Superman’s nemesis Lex Luthor, played this time by a perfectly cast Jesse Eisenberg, who riffs on his role in The Social Network to play Luthor as a more sinister, Mark Zuckerberg-esque tech-nerd, one who’s starting to lose his grip on reality.
The first 90 minutes of this is all pretty fantastic. Snyder dispenses with Batman’s origins quickly and effectively, Affleck proves himself a worthy inheritor of the cape and cowl, and there’s a cracking intro for Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) that nicely teases the Wonder Woman film currently in production. The action is also visceral and distinctive, particularly during the build up to the main event, which draws on a similar grudge-match in Frank Miller’s landmark graphic novel The Dark Knight Returns.
On the downside, the film does sometimes fall back on dream logic to negotiate some of the myriad plot jumps and, like virtually every other superhero-movie director, Snyder still hasn’t found a way to resolve the problem of escalating action set-pieces that wear out their welcome long before the climax. But while in the past it has been easy to be snide about Snyder (who divided opinion with Watchmen), there’s something about his full-throttle visual style, his penchant for hard-hitting (sometimes eye-watering) violence, and his willingness to embrace the ridiculous, that works in this instance. Arriving in the midst of a bananas American presidential race that’s not exactly short on worrying theatre-of-the-absurd-style extremes, Batman v Superman feels like a superhero film that’s right for the times.
Weirdly enough, trenchant political commentary can be found running through the week’s other big release. In Zootropolis (****), the latest film from Disney Animation, the tale of a rabbit trying to make it as the first bunny cop on the eponymous city’s interspecies police force turns out to be a pretty sophisticated meditation on race relations dressed up as a delightfully entertaining, gag-packed and inventively plotted police procedural. The latter revolves around the mismatched buddy pairing of officer Judy Hopps (voiced by Ginnifer Goodwin) and her conman fox partner Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman), a reluctant snitch she’s corralled into helping her solve a spate of disappearances that’s threatening to disrupt the delicate harmony of a city comprised of 90 percent prey and ten percent predators.
The Club (****) is also about predators and prey, but of a very different sort. It’s the latest film from Chilean director Pablo Larraín, who made the excellent Tony Manero and No, both of which dealt with the legacy of Pinochet and the lengths to which powerful institutions go to conceal their misdeeds. The Club, however, delves into the murky machinations of the Catholic Church to explore territory similar to recent Oscar-winner Spotlight, albeit from the even-more-uncomfortable perspective of a group of paedophile priests who’ve been put in a “safe house” in a small seaside village. The film explores in quite unexpected ways how the culture of collusion has created an unrepentant, almost defiant breed of criminal within the church. The film’s shocking and brilliantly handled finale, meanwhile, serves as a salient metaphor for the damage this scandal continues to cause to society at large. Sobering viewing for Easter weekend, in other words.