Batman Vs Superman

Director: Zack Snyder (2016)

Long, loud and laden with apocalyptic doom, this superhero scrap sees the two big beasts of DC comics collide for the first time on the silver screen.

Though the story is a timely nod to the galvanising effect a symbolic sacrifice can have on the behaviour of humanity, this is a suitably dour sequel to Snyder’s equally ponderous Man of Steel (2013).

More concerned with exploring humanity’s relationship with god than having fun fighting crime, it’s full of visions of hell, ghostly conversations and lashings of occasionally shoddy CGI mayhem.

Rare moments of weak humour seem included by studio diktat and every utterance is underlined by Hans Zimmer’s typically thunderous score.

Added to the huge amount of explosions and gunfire, it is for many stretches a numbing rather than uplifting or exciting experience.

At the beginning for those who may have forgotten already, there is a mercifully quick revision of Batman’s origin story. Then we plough right into the end of Man Of Steel where Superman’s titanic battle with General Zod is witnessed by an aghast Bruce Wayne.

Bulked up Brit Henry Cavill returns as Superman and a beefy Ben Affleck stars for the first time as Batman. Both are well cast though I suspect Cavill is operating at the top of his game while Affleck is operating well within his.

Affleck has himself appeared in the Superman costume in the role of ill-fated TV star George Reeves in the excellent Hollywoodland (2006). He was also Marvel comics Daredevil (2003) in a version every bit as poor as the Netflix TV series is excellent.

The super serious Man of Steel and The Caped Crusader are pitched against each other through the nefarious plans of Lex Luthor.

Jesse Eisenberg twitches and simpers as the skinny evil scientist. He sports a suit and trainers combo topped off with straggly shoulder length hair.

Contributing little, dressed to the nines and wandering around backstage like a lost contender for hottest businesswoman of the year, Gal Gadot is eventually unveiled as Wonder Woman to the accompaniment of a personal guitar riff. I’m sure I wasn’t supposed to be laughing, but it’s the only time I did.

Amy Adams is repeatedly rescued as Superman’s squeeze Lois Lane and Diane Lane returns as Martha Kent, Superman’s adoptive human mother.

 Sharing scant screen time with his employer, Jeremy Irons makes little impression as Alfred, butler and mechanic to Batman’s alter ego, the billionaire Bruce Wayne.

There is  a strong sense of design with chains and fire being recurring motifs, suitable for a film which mines the god-confronting myth of Prometheus for inspiration. The Bat-suit is nicely scarred and demonic and Wayne manor has a full complement of bat gadgets, bat memorabilia and of course a Batmobile.

Director Zac Snyder is also responsible for the ponderous and slavish adaption of the superhero satire Watchmen (2009).

Based on Alan Moore’s seminal work, it was one of two groundbreaking graphic novels of the ’80’s which contributed to making comic books acceptable cultural fodder for adults.

The other was Frank Miller’s Bat-tale The Dark Knight Returns, and Snyder lifts some ideas, images and dialogue directly from the page.

Those graphic novels use the presence of super powerful godlike beings on Earth to explore the media manipulation of disaster for political and military gain. This forms a central thrust to Batman Vs Superman.

Snyder has an impressive and sure footed visual sense but it’s superseded by self important one note storytelling. With even the smallest scene over wrought to the nth degree, emotional power seeps away from those scenes from where it’s most needed.

Outflanked by the billion dollar success of the Marvel Connected Universe featuring Captain America, Iron Man etc, Warner Bros. have taken what was conceived as a straight up Man of Steel (2013) sequel and quickly expanded it to include first Batman and then Wonder Woman.

The Dawn of Justice tagline refers to the forthcoming follow up The Justice League movie, the first part of which is slated for 2017. Characters are hinted at here and intended as competition to Marvel’s Avengers ensemble and Fox studio’s X-Men franchise.

Given the almost pointless inclusion of Wonder Woman here, there is little to whet the appetite for what will be an even more crowded super powered excursion.

 

The Man From U.N.C.L.E.

Director: Guy Ritchie (2015)

This big budget update of a much loved 1960’s spy series is sumptuous, smooth and stylish.

Although the loose vibe and fabulous locations are seductive, sadly the script and the chemistry aren’t.

4 series of the U.N.C.L.E. TV series ran from 1964 to 1968, plus there was the TV movie The Return of the Man from U.N.C.L.E. (1983).

Robert Vaughn starred as the American Napoleon Solo and British actor David McCallum as the Russian Illya Kuryakin.

Beyond the concept, period setting and character names not much remains of the show.

There’s not a radio pen in sight, no opening of Channel D, nor a hint of T.H.R.U.S.H. The U.N.C.L.E. (United Network Command for Law and Enforcement) organisation of the title receives a very belated introduction.

Director Guy Ritchie suffered a career slump with the inglorious mis-steps of Swept Away (2002) and Revolver (2005).

He painstakingly rebuilt his reputation as a safe pair of blockbuster hands with the excellent Sherlock Holmes franchise: Sherlock Holmes (2009) and Sherlock Holmes: Game of Shadows (2011).

Here he’s content to reject his customary zip and go against the grain of contemporary action movies. He is wilfully dismissive, almost contemptuous of his own plot.

Instead of constant wham bam action scenes he focuses on character and builds a mood of glamorous, languid indulgence which is rich in period detail.

It’s an admirable if potentially career-harming move by the writer/director/producer.

Having given Ritchie a name cast and a $75million budget, one can only imagine the horror of the studio’s executives on their first screening.

Certainly Ritchie can argue he included all the elements they wanted; cars, guns, girls, stunts, jokes – but the way he has editor James Herbert put it all together must have them tearing their hair out.

Even the sexually available and semi-naked hotel receptionist seems a studio imposition.

Elsewhere however there is a worrying confluence of violence and foreplay and a fair amount of dull macho posturing for which Ritchie can’t escape responsibility.

In 1963 the US and the USSR are threatening each other with nuclear annihilation.

Rogue nazi sympathiser Victoria Vinciguerra (Elizabeth Debicki) has stolen a computer disc. She’s a deliciously tall and cool glass of cyanide.

The disc contains data on how to super-enrich uranium to make nuclear bombs far more powerful than in existence, threatening the uneasy balance of the super-hot cold war. Whomever has the disc controls the world.

Top man at the CIA and art expert Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill) is unwillingly teamed up with ferocious KGB agent Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer).

Both receive orders to recover the disc at any cost.

But the two leads are hamstrung by dull, innuendo-laden banter and a desire to project a faultless accent.

While the British Cavill plays an American, the American Hammer plays a Russian.

Hammer has less dialogue and is more able to cope but Cavill’s lumbered with laborious exposition. His careful enunciation slows scenes to a crawl.

Doing his best work when not required to speak, Cavill’s – and the film’s – best moment comes when Solo takes time to appreciate the finer aspects of life as the action goes on behind him.

It’s possible he would have been a brilliant silent movie star back in the day.

With his chiselled features and broad frame he’s the most classically movie star-looking movie star since James Garner. He steps through the film with the stately and exquisitely tailored grace of the ageing Cary Grant in To Catch A Thief (1955).

The two spies recruit an East German motor mechanic Gaby Teller (Swedish Alicia Vikander). Her rocket scientist father is held by Victoria and the boys intend to use Gabby’s connections to infiltrate Victoria’s outfit.

Sporting a chic collection of outfits but metaphorically trouser-wearing, Gabby refuses to yield superiority to the boys in any department.

A grey-haired Hugh Grant shuffles on for a couple of scenes to deliver a masterclass in light comedy.

With a storming pop operatic soundtrack throughout, Ritchie saves his visual dynamism for the finale when the screen erupts into a frenzy of split screens, fast cuts and twisted camerawork.

With beautiful production design by Oliver Scholl captured with glossy delight by cinematographer John Mathieson, it makes for a very easy on the eye experience. Berlin in 1963 is expertly rendered.

Ritchie should be applauded for making a film with a strong identity and has the courage to stand or fall on it’s own terms.

But for all it’s speedboats, helicopters and a terrifically synchronised car chase, it’s a pity it’s not more full throttle.

Man Of Steel

Director: Zack Snyder (2013)

Brit actor Henry Cavill carries the weight of the world on his shoulders in this monumental rebooting of Superman.

The planet Krypton is in deadly peril so the baby Kal-El is jettisoned off to Earth for safety by his father Jor-El – Russell Crowe on top form.

An attempted coup by Krypton’s compellingly evil General Zod is defeated and he is banished to the Phantom Zone.

Zod, an elemental Michael Shannon, swears revenge on the son of Jor-El and when Krypton is destroyed he escapes into open space with his followers.

Kal-El is 33 and has developed super powers when Zod’s spaceship arrives to demand the US military hand him over – but only Lois Lane knows where he is.

The battles that follow are conducted in state-of-the-art CGI and there are some nifty flying sequences. All the costumes and space hardware are fabulously well designed, as is Krypton.

For all her no-nonsense journalist-on-a-mission attitude, Lois (Amy Adams) exists only to be rescued. The plot makes great leaps over logic to keep her involved.

Cavill is so ridiculously handsome and buff he could well be from another planet. But his Man of Steel character is somewhat flat here because of the absence of the traditional Clarke Kent alter ego.

It is not until the absolute end that the actor is allowed to demonstrate any humour, charm, or light-heartedness, which is a waste of his talent – and a lot of our time.

Superman saves more soldiers’ lives than civilian ones despite the military being stupidly belligerent and not trusting of him. Mind you, the civilian body count must be astronomical.

With the Man of Steel no longer wearing underpants outside his tights, everything is played with utter seriousness.

The tone stays in the narrow realm of the ominous and desperately solemn. Doom-laden declarations litter the dialogue, which is workaday, dull and occasionally silly with Adams’s Lois Lane having the worst of it.

A well acted and solid spectacle is bookended by two titanic battles. But taken as a whole, Man of Steel never escapes the heavy gravitational force of its own furrowed brow.