One of the questions that will be flying around in conversations about director Zack Snyder’s beefed-up, bling-lathered, two-and-half hour biff-n-boff Batman v Superman is: “what’s Ben Affleck like as Batman?” The truth is, nobody knows.
I don’t mean nobody knows in the sense this review was published ahead of the film’s theatrical release, before the general public have had a chance to look for themselves. I mean nobody knows and nobody will ever know.
Actors who have previously played the Gotham City ass-kicker have all disappeared, to some extent, when they donned the suit. All have encountered or created issues when frocked up in The Bat’s freaky dark knight dress.
In the late ’90s George Clooney discovered his costume had rather pronounced nipples; by most accounts the actor failed to out-perform them. In recent years, for some reason, Christian Bale decided all that synthetic fibre covering his body meant he had to speak like he’d smoked three packs a day for the last thirty years.
The truth is that the real human element of Batman performances (Bruce Wayne is, of course, another matter) can be judged by approximately eight to ten cup-shaped centimetres of exposed human flesh, from the bottom of the actor’s nose to the depth of their chin.
In Affleck’s case, this focus on a small facial region is emphasised more than usual. In some scenes he wears a bulky tin can suit — as if constructed from old metal rubbish bins — and his eyes have been replaced by bright blue electric slits that glow like hyper-powered lava lamps.
Affleck’s bottom lip gives a solid performance, dominant but not overtly showy, channelling the spirit of lone warrior jawbones from John Ford films. It is supported by a sturdy stubbly chin, which adds some grizzly panache. We are briefly treated to a cameo from a dashing upper left cheekbone, when the caped crusader’s mask is damaged in the heat of battle.
His primary foe, for those yet to unearth a hidden spoiler concealed in the film’s title, is Superman, the comic book universe’s ultimate undies-on-the-outside nice guy.
Supes is also technically an alien. This is something screenwriters Chris Terrio and David S. Goyer remind us of with peripheral they-live-among-us inferences, such as visions of people picketing his presence and a senate inquiry questioning the validity of the Krypton-born, Kansas-raised ET’s actions. This sort of hero-as-vigilante ground was covered more effectively, and lot more extensively, in recent Batman and X-Men movies.
It still carries a kick, though, watching characters many of us grew up with put through a different kind of wringer. A manifestation of a sort of post-9/11 American angst, calibrated with the simple but stinging logic that terrorists and superheros can be broadly considered the same thing: ideologically driven forces that exist outside the law. That thought line is particularly conspicuous in a sub-plot involving one of Superman’s battles inadvertently leading to a bystander losing his legs.
Batman/Bruce Wayne (whose famous butler, Alfred, is played here by Jeremy Irons) determines that Superman’s existence is too much of a risk and decides to try to take him down. Another player out to get him is a young and cocky Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg).
The film initially hints at Luthor as a Silicon Valley, tech upstart, T-shirt clad style billionaire. The sort of hotshot who might build a social media network before breakfast and quietly plot to take over the world in his lunch break, between keynote speeches and rounds of foosball. Instead he’s just a yappy dude who inherited a family fortune, the writers missing a golden opportunity to contemporise the character in interesting ways.
Diana Prince aka Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) is given short shrift, drifting around the edges of the story before being thrown into the heat of battle during a carnage-clogged final act. Gadot’s costume is skimpy, her body positioned during these scenes in a proverbial pole dance optimised for fanboy fantasy.
Treatment of her character is symptomatic of Batman v Superman’s most galling problem: Snyder’s propensity to under-develop key ideas and characters while working in a space that could barely afford him more time (the movie clocks in at over two-and-a-half hours).
It takes a long time to get to the confrontation we always knew was coming (as if there were ever any doubt) and a short time to show us glimpses of Lois Lane (Amy Adams) in the bath, which gives you some idea of Snyder’s priorities. The director’s heavy-handed, even moody approach creates an operatic style that die hard fans, at least, ought to relish.
It doesn’t help that this territory has been so extensively explored in recent years. Also that Snyder and his team seem averse to doing anything interesting with it, despite many opportunities. Contemplating media sensationalism at the Daily Planet, for example, or really digesting what Superman’s god-like status might mean in a country with a large population of devout Christians. The film prefers straight-up fisticuffs: it’s just, well, Batman versus Superman.
But still, what about that bottom lip? And the chin. And the cheekbone. There’s no way to be sure, but Affleck probably did a good job.
Previously by Luke Buckmaster: