The notion that Batman and Superman exist in the same fictional universe dates back to 1940, when the heroes – both published by National Comics (later DC) – appeared together on the cover of the one-off New York’s World’s Fair Comics, which led to the long-running World’s Finest Comics title. At first Superman and Batman (and Robin) only shared the covers, but they eventually teamed up to fight evil, becoming – along with Wonder Woman – the core of DC’s Justice League of America, which added the Flash, Green Lantern and others to the roster of – as a 1970s animated TV series called them – Super Friends. If Superman and Batman fought on a cover, there was always an explanation (alien mind-control, a hoax to fool a mutual enemy) and the playground debate of which hero was toughest was left open. In 1986, Frank Miller Jr’s influential miniseries The Dark Knight Returns represented the former friends as bitter enemies (though their fight to a standstill had no clear winner); ever since, even mainstream depictions of the characters have played up their antagonism.
Certificate 12A 152m 39s
Director Zack Snyder
Bruce Wayne, ‘Batman’ Ben Affleck
Clark Kent, ‘Superman’ Henry Cavill
Lois Lane Amy Adams
Lex Luthor Jesse Eisenberg
Martha Kent Diane Lane
Perry White Laurence Fishburne
Alfred Jeremy Irons
Senator Finch Holly Hunter
Diana Prince, ‘Wonder Woman’ Gal Gadot
Wallace Keefe Scoot McNairy
Anatoli Knyazev Callan Mulvey
Mercy Graves Tao Okamoto
Which brings us to Batman v Superman, the latest attempt by Warner Brothers to make a franchise out of properties they obtained by buying DC Comics outright – on the obvious model of Marvel Comics’ ascent to global monolith status with their interlocked film universe (actually, Marvel have their brand on two separate universes, with Disney and Fox as partners). Previous Superman and Batman films confined themselves to throwaway jokes (“the circus is halfway to Metropolis by now” from 1995’s Batman Forever) – though there have been team-ups in animated and LEGO versions of DC properties.
Setting aside the misstep of Green Lantern (2011), Warners had director Zack Snyder and comics specialist David S. Goyer (of the Blade and Dark Knight franchises) seed a universe with Man of Steel (2013), a dour effort yoked to the ‘New 52’ comics reboot of Superman (itself wound up before this sequel could arrive). As if building a new, simplistic frame for the fight scene from issue 4 of The Dark Knight Returns weren’t enough, this is required to introduce Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot, aptly doing wonders with thin characterisation and drab armour) plus the Flash, Aquaman and Cyborg (a character DC have vainly plugged on multiple platforms who stubbornly refuses to catch on). Rebooted characters compete with ghost versions who seemed to be here only five minutes ago: Jesse Eisenberg’s Luthor is a maniac Mark Zuckerberg whose evil grace note is sacrificing his own devoted assistant to a suicide bomber just to make Superman look bad, while Ben Affleck is a grimly bulked-up Bruce Wayne with a mother hangup, swayed from xenocide only because Clark Kent’s ma and his share the same name.
It’s all too much, of course – and littered with in-film trailers for unmade, perhaps unmakeable spin-offs. A vision of a future tyrant Superman (derived from the computer game Injustice: Gods Among Us) is predicated on things which don’t happen in the climax, while Marvel-like hints suggest a Big Space Bad is coming to bother the whole Justice League – blink-and-miss Flash Ezra Miller and Aquaman Jason Momoa included.
The film’s title bout set aside, the third act segues into a précis of the 1991 ‘Death of Superman’ storyline that Tim Burton once developed as a film in itself. Paying off an early glimpse of the movie advertised on the marquee under which Mr and Mrs Wayne are shot, this climaxes with a lift from John Boorman’s Excalibur (1981). The drab, monotonous fight-and-destruction spectacle of Man of Steel carries over here, and Batman’s tooled-up, homicidal vengeance-mania goes even beyond the off-model, murderous Superman to make these heroes as unredeemable as the Punisher. This is a superhero film which opens and closes with funerals and requires the world’s finest detective and an avatar of truth and justice to batter each other (and everyone else) senseless for two-and-a-half hours.