“Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice” sneaks into theaters tomorrow night before its official opening on Friday, March 25, and the buzz from fan boys and early critics’ screenings is already painting a less than glowing portrait. When terms like “burdensome slog” and “joyless” get bandied about, a good time at the ol’ Cineplex on opening day seems unlikely. Sadly, this is the second Superman movie directed by Zack Snyder and starring Henry Cavill that has garnered such negative reactions. (“Man of Steel” only accumulated a 56% fresh score there.) It’s a shame too, because the DC universe doesn’t have to be played so dark, especially in Superman’s world. Even more of a shame is that DC is doing things so right on TV with “Arrow”, “The Flash” and “Supergirl.” In fact, it would be wise for Snyder and company to study how they’re nailing it on “Supergirl” each week as it proves characters from Krypton don’t have to carry gravitas worthy of a funeral dirge.
Throughout 17 episodes thus far, CBS’s version of “Supergirl” has maintained a terrific sense of drama and conflict, yet it never forgets that its main character is sunny and bright, not dark and dour like Bruce Wayne. And Melissa Benoist, the lead of the series, brilliantly brings out all the positive and light in her character to make for one of TV’s most compelling leads. Not since Christopher Reeve has someone made earnestness so utterly fun and attractive. She, as well as the showrunners and writers, realize the essence of her character is an innate sense of goodness. It’s in Superman’s nature too, but you wouldn’t know it these days as portrayed on the big screen.
Superman, lest anyone forget, is a constructive force who should not be spending oodles of screen time doubting his mission. It’s the fight for truth and justice, that simple. After all, this is a man who doesn’t disguise himself to be a superhero as most others do, like Peter Parker or Matt Murdock. Instead, his disguise is that of Clark Kent, the average Joe he’s trying to play to fit in with the rest of the world when he isn’t being all heroic and godlike.
That’s the biggest difference between Superman and most other comic book heroes. The son of Krypton is not a vigilante. He doesn’t work surreptitiously outside the law. And he isn’t tortured by his profession. He certainly doesn’t have trouble with his prowess. In his world, if others have an issue with his skill set, that’s their problem. Both Superman and Supergirl come to this planet with the purest and most noble of intentions. And the control over their ego, id and physicality is rarely in question.
So why is Snyder’s world of Superman so dark, literally, and figuratively? Is he trying to emulate the dark world of Batman so vividly created by Christopher Nolan in recent years? Perhaps he’s more of an imitator, after all for all the acclaim that “300” yielded him, he was essentially doing the color version of what Robert Rodriguez did years earlier in black and white with “Sin City.” The doom and gloom from Nolan’s Batman lingers all over Snyder’s “Man of Steel.” It’s painted with a palate over reliant on gray skies, gray buildings, gray everything.
And the big, half-hour battle sequence towards the end was so excruciating in its destruction of half of Metropolis, it was as depressing as anything this side of a month’s stay in a hospital. Where was the exuberance, the sense of the possible, the feeling of the joy that should be part and parcel of Superman?
Now, in the new film, it appears that once again Superman is throwing down with excessive violence, toppled architecture and a tortured psyche. Most of the action sequences appear to be played at night too, and while that may be Batman’s domain, it really shouldn’t be that of Superman. The son of Jor-El is no shadow dweller anymore than Kara is, only the TV show “Supergirl” knows it and those putting Superman on the big screen don’t. If you watch “Supergirl” week to week, you’ll see that most of her action set pieces take place in daylight.
Superman should also be clever and sly, with his confidence showing in his words as well as his deeds. Benoist’s Supergirl gets lots of funny lines, as did Reeve in his day, but one would be hard-pressed to find such fun in most of Superman’s dialogue in “Man of Steel.” We’ll wait to see how his character fares in the new film, but the trailer showcases more tight-lipped tension than any breezy banter.
And speaking of funny, it’s no longer amusing that the movies continually trot out Lex Luthor as the main villain for Superman. Even though Jesse Eisenberg appears to be playing him differently from many Luthor’s in the past (Mark Zuckerberg on speed, it would seem), why is Luthor always the default bad guy on the big screen? Where are Brainiac, Lobo or Mister Mxyzptlk, for starters? They all were prevalent in the brilliant Paul Dini and Bruce Timm “Superman” animated series 20 years ago, so why can’t the film’s foes be more varied? Today’s “Supergirl” series has a different villain practically every week, so there should be more than Luthor in the A to Zod of Superman villains on the big screen.
Another aspect of “Supergirl” that seems lost in Snyder’s work, is the abundance of humor in its storytelling. More and more superhero movies are demonstrating a flare for comedy with the likes of “Ant-Man” and this year’s huge hit “Deadpool”, but most DC films seem t struggle with being funny. Dark is in the Dark Knight’s moniker but it doesn’t need to be so prevalent in Superman’s world, even if he’s sharing the big screen with him.
Part of the success of “Supergirl” in how it uses humor is evident in Benoist’s body language. She has an inherent sense of comedy and could easily be the lead on a sitcom. Her ability to hesitate on a line responding to the bullheaded Hank Henshaw (David Harewood) is often as funny as her Kara answering a comically absurd directive from her prickly media boss Cat Grant (Calista Flockhart). Cavill can do so too, as evidenced by his cheeky performance in the big screen reboot of “The Man from U.N.C.L.E”, so why can’t he show some of that as Superman? Reeve made Superman funny. Heck, so did George Reeves back in the fifties. Why is Cavill being held back on the big screen?
Cavill is surrounded by actors who have demonstrated some great comic chops too, like Amy Adams, but as Lois Lane in “Man of Steel” she was given little opportunity to play with the part the way Margot Kidder did throughout the earlier “Superman” movies. One questions even how much screen time she gets in the new film as the ads and press seems far more interested in the introduction of Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot). Again, it remains to be seen, but the numerous trailers and commercials don’t promise many sparks between Cavill and Adams. It seems entirely focused on Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) and his flirtation with Diana Prince, Wonder Woman’s alter ego.
Finally, one of the great things that “Supergirl” does week in and week out is present her with conflicts that need brains as well as brawn. Perhaps the biggest mistake that has been made in the last decade or so of big screen Batman and Superman movies is a distinct lack of ‘detective’ in their characters. Christopher Nolan did many great things with Batman, restoring some serious mojo in dire need after the Joel Schumacher debacles, but his Caped Crusader was mostly a brawler. And Superman in Bryan Singer’s “Superman Returns”, as well as in “Man of Steel”, seemed to find more crime fighting answers with his fists than in genuine sleuthing.
On “Supergirl”, she’s shown thinking as much as fighting. She usually has to alter her strategy on how to stop one villain to the next. Sometimes it requires speed, or surprise, and often it requires a chess-like mind, but rarely is it driven purely by violence. Sometimes her words alone have talked a baddie out of doing a bad deed. Is anything like that evident in Snyder’s latest take on Superman? We shall see.
The trailers promise the extremes of light versus dark, according to dialogue delivered by Luthor, but one of the reasons that so many Superman fans rejected “Man of Steel” was that it played too dark. It was almost like he was as tormented as Batman. Superman should not be just another brawler. Let’s hope this new film shows some light before Wonder Woman arrives. If it doesn’t, and it drags her down into the muck too, there simply will be no justice.