This month's Total Film magazine has just been posted through my front door. The front cover is adorned by the goatee'd face of Benedict Cumberpatch as Doctor Strange. It has now become pretty much the norm for the cover of Total Film (and Empire) to put the latest superhero franchise movie on the cover. Even on the rare occasions when there isn't currently one on general release, they will carry a preview of all forthcoming releases, as they have done this month. In the last few years, the superhero movie landscape has been dominated by Marvel franchises. The Avengers, Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, Ant-Man and Deadpool, and the many associated sequels have made the studio omnipresent and, judging by the huge box-office success, omnipotent. By contrast, D.C. comic properties, the rights to which are currently owned by Warner Bros. have been lagging behind its rivals.
This wasn't the case a few years back. Though Bryan Singer's attempt to revive Superman had fallen somewhat flat in 2006 (I enjoyed aspects of the film, but it was too reverential to the Richard Donner/Christopher Reeve original and lacked an identity of its own), this was offset by the success the year before of Batman Begins. Thanks to Joel Schumacher's appalling Batman And Robin, Batman had been moribund since 1997. After a few years of knocking around various projects, Warners eventually made the inspired decision to hand the franchise over to Christopher Nolan, the genius behind Memento. What followed over the next seven years was a trilogy, continued by The Dark Knight in 2008 and completed by The Dark Knight Rises in 2012, that remains unsurpassed in terms of comic book adaptations. Nolan's trilogy had everything; respect for the conventions of the genre, great stories, huge action sequences, political allegory, and note-perfect casting- Christian Bale coming from relative obscurity to make the role of Bruce Wayne/Batman, supported by an array of reliable, quality character actors like Michael Caine as Alfred, Gary Oldman as Jim Gordon and Morgan Freeman as Lucius Fox. The baddies throughout the series were also perfectly cast; Liam Neeson as Ra's Al Guhl, Cillian Murphy as Jonathan Crane/Scarecrow, Tom Hardy as Bane, Aaron Eckhart as Harvey Dent/Two-Face and, most iconically , the late Heath Ledger as Joker, a role for which he deservedly won a posthumous Oscar. Though not without flaws, it was a towering trilogy. Dark, intelligent and complex enough to interest adults, even those with no interest in Batman, and with enough action and set pieces to please the kids. Nolan had revived the character magnificently, as well as making Warners a boatload of money.
Understandably, the studio wanted to continue this revival of its D.C. properties, and a new Superman film was quickly given the greenlight. Despite attempts to persuade him to helm the project, Nolan stayed on only as producer, with Zack Snyder signed up as director. And this is probably were things started to go wrong.
In some ways, Snyder was the obvious choice; a huge comic book fan who had had some success adapting Alan Moore's classic Watchmen for Warners, as well as an excellent Dawn Of The Dead remake. But Watchmen's success masked several shortcomings, including an over-reliance on the kind of slow-mo fight scenes that seemed to largely miss the point of the original graphic novel, as well as the fact the Snyder seemed to lack any real originality; his successes were remakes and adaptations, while his only original screenplay, Sucker Punch, was a dreadful flop.
Despite this, early signs were fairly encouraging. Snyder assembled an impressive cast, following Nolan's blueprint by casting the relatively unknown Henry Cavill as Clark Kent/Superman, and surrounding him with heavyweight dramatic talent; Russel Crowe as Jor-El, Amy Adams as Lois Lane, Kevin Costner as Jonathan Kent, and best of all, the brilliant Michael Shannon as General Zod. The positive moves were enhanced when, in the lead up to the film's release, Warners released a series of superb trailers. To this day, I honestly think these are the best trailers ever seen. Emotional, ethereal, powerful and beautifully shot, featuring a soulful voiceover from Crowe, they captured the essence of what a modern Superman film should be. I'm not sure I've ever been moved to the verge of tears by a trailer before, but the first few teasers for Man Of Steel managed it.
Alas, the trailers were in stark contrast to the film itself. Despite solid if unspectacular performances all round, the film was utter garbage. From the outset, it was unforgivably boring. When it attempted to be contemplative, the dialogue was clunky at best, and for the most part, Snyder simply relied on visual stylistics, the film ultimately degenerating into the worst kind of destruction porn at the films long-overdue climax. Man Of Shite would have been a more apt title. I left the cinema fairly sure I had just watched one of the very worst films ever made.
Having already made a hash of Green Lantern two years earlier, Warners needed a hit to revive their superhero stable post-Nolan and, undeterred by the critical savaging Man Of Steel deservedly received, pushed ahead with plans to match Marvel's Avengers success with a Justice League movie, preceded by the scene-setting Batman Vs Superman: Dawn Of Justice.
The Man Of Steel cast was supplemented by the casting of Ben Affleck as Bruce Wayne, a decision which sent the internet into meltdown. Despite his resurgence in recent years as a filmmaker of some caliber with Gone Baby, Gone and The Town, clearly the memory of the J-Lo years and Gigli were too fresh for a fan group notoriously protective of their beloved superhero characters, and it was hard to find a single positive response to the casting of someone who, even at the height of his late 90's/early 00's fame had hardly been one of the best actors of his generation. As it turned out, Batffleck was the least of the film's problems.
Since Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy, there has been a fixation with making superhero films 'dark', especially when it comes to D.C. characters. Unfortunately, the difference in what constitutes a dark film for a visionary like Christopher Nolan, and a hack like Zack Snyder, is a marked one. Nolan's trilogy was undoubtedly dark, both visually and thematically, using the superhero template to address modern, existential issues such as political corruption, the financial collapse and, most significantly, the war on terror.
Snyder's answer to this, especially in Batman Vs Superman, was simply to saturate everything with rain, and have his characters staring into the gutter. Even during the darkest spells of Nolan's films, there was humour; the relationship between Bruce and Alfred bringing not only pathos, but several genuine chuckles, whereas BvsS was utterly po-faced, and took itself as seriously as a Shakespearean drama. Narratively, it was all over the place, and had the feel of having been rewritten 2 or 3 times too many, and had some lazy and hurried resolutions. At times it also felt like a $200m, 150 minute trailer for the Justice League film, with an embarrassing piece of expositional set-up giving us glimpses of Cyborg, The Flash and Aquaman. The only things to be said in its favour were that the action scenes benefited from the fighting style Snyder over used in Watchmen, most notably one fantastic sequence in which Batman takes out an entire warehouse's worth of heavies. Also, surprisingly given the reaction to his casting, Batffleck is another saving grace. He actually does fine here, playing the grizzled, ageing crime fighter seen in comics like The Dark Knight Returns. He's no Christian Bale, and certainly over-relied on looking sad/angry, but frankly he deserved an Oscar for managing to keep a straight face while delivering some stinking dialogue. There are plans for a stand-alone Batman film, which Affleck will also direct, and one can only hope the skills he has honed in the director's chair in recent years will help to revive the DC universes fortunes.
All in all, the best thing one could say about Batman Vs Superman was that at least it wasn't as bad as Man Of Steel, but that would be the very definition of damning with faint praise. Critics mauled the film and, despite a strong opening weekend, even the fans stayed away. Not to be deterred though, Warners will be throwing the first Justice League movie our way next year and, judging by an early teaser trailer, they seem to have responded to critics, with a certain lightness, even some jokes present.
But while Warners struggle to even get the basic tone of their films right, Marvel continues to hoover up at the box office, as well as receiving consistently positive reviews. There can be very few people over the age of 12 who aren't fed up to the back fucking teeth with superhero films, but every Marvel release has been a commercial and critical hit, with the right balance of humour, pathos and action.
With Batman, Warners possess the rights for a character that remains, in my opinion, the most enduring in fiction. Only Sherlock Holmes comes close, and Superman is perhaps the most universally recognised and loved of all. It takes an extraordinary level of incompetence to take what Christopher Nolan had given them, and perform a kind of reverse alchemy in which they spun gold into shit. Yet they manage to fuck it up time and time again. It's pretty damning to think that a relatively unknown character such as Ant-Man can surpass the success of the two biggest superheros of all.
And it also says something when the best thing about your franchise is Ben Affleck.