Saturday, March 26, 2016
What a Knightmare. My review of "Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice"
"Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice." Oh boy, I don't think it was a good movie per se, but there were a few things that worked for me and many that did not. There are shades of greatness marred down by a wonky script, a ridiculous plot, too many contrived conveniences and the ugly shadow of "Man of Steel."
There are MAJOR SPOILERS in this review.
That's the disclaimer. I'm not a "Man of Steel" fan. I don't think it was a particularly great film and I think it fails on just about every level as a Superman film, as is well-documented.
I love Superman, that much is proven by my essay "Why we look up in the sky..."
With that said, let me get this part of the review out of the way. For me, the biggest failing of this film was the treatment of Superman. There were a few things that became abundantly clear after I saw BvS, one of the most glaring things being that the filmmakers have a complete misunderstanding of Superman. That much was clear after "Man of Steel," but you'd think maybe, just maybe they'd take a different approach and take Superman and maybe present him in a more classic form. In fact, had they actually done that... made Superman that wide-eyed optimistic boy scout we all know and love, BvS might have featured a far more compelling narrative between Batman and Superman.
I for one held out hope that maybe we'd be surprised. Maybe after all the criticism of "Man of Steel" - the destruction porn, the killing, the depressing and mopey Superman - maybe the events of "Man of Steel" would make this Superman embrace a more optimistic and cautious approach to the world - hopeful, smiling, inspiring, valuing life - a way to show the people of the world he shouldn't be feared and to even atone for killing Zod.
Not only does that present a stronger dynamic for the character, its also more of a reason for Batman to be fearful. The older, more cynical Batman would push, trying to bring Superman back down to that dark, broody level and Superman resists... proving he's grown, that he is incorruptible. With a few small choices like that, we would have had a Superman that still fits within the narrative of "Man of Steel," but is more in line with who the character really is at his core. Immediately, you now have the classic tenant of the entire Batman vs. Superman argument - The Dark Knight's cynicism and the Man of Steel's optimism. That's what "The Dark Knight Returns" - the book which this film borrows very heavily - basically presents. Two good men and friends who have two completely different perspectives on the world, so much so that they have an argument with their fists.
Instead of what seemed obvious - to me at least - we're presented with a Superman who shares the same level of cynicism and lack of faith towards the world. Being Superman feels like it is a burden for Clark Kent, some people accept him, others outright hate him. In fact, some people straight up fear him and that to me is where everything about this version of Superman goes wrong. Superman shouldn't be feared by the general populace. Yes, certain powerful individuals with control complexes can fear him and look for ways to destroy him i.e. Lex Luthor and Batman - but in terms of him being generally feared? No. Never.
I guess I just don't want or need a Superman movie that is a bizarre think piece and commentary about how the world would react to a super-powered, godlike being. Which is kind of funny because I write a comic that sort of deals with it, just not on the "god" level. Especially a mopey and broody one. I'm not saying there isn't a place for it obviously, though Superman it is not.
After we have to relive the death of the Waynes (AGAIN) and the destruction porn of "Man of Steel" - though on a smaller scale but with more horrific 9/11 imagery (stop it, Snyder) - we're treated to a scene in Africa where Lois Lane and an undercover CIA agent posing as a photographer (who Zack Snyder confirmed is Jimmy Olsen... UGH... I mean really... UGH) meet a warlord/weapons dealer. There are some mercenaries there who kill the photographer with a headshot at point blank range and the warlord kidnaps Lois. The mercs then kill the warlord's men, essentially gunning down a village, they leave the scene as Superman enters bombastically crashing through a hut to confront the warlord who is holding Lois at gunpoint.
This was it for me. This was the moment that was going to show me how the filmmakers had evolved Superman. Here we had a classic Superman situation. I thought to myself, "is he going to melt the gun? is he going to disarm at super-speed? is he going to do a super-speed light tap and put the warlord to sleep?" I waited, expecting to see a classic, iconic moment... Lois nods, lowers her arm and then...
At super-speed Superman literally PLOWS through this poor guy and drives him through layers of walls. My head fell in my hands. I had all those feelings of heartbreak again. For a split second I thought "okay, maybe we'll see a scene where the guy is still alive..." No, we cut to a press conference where a U.S. Senator is addressing the carnage caused in Africa and blaming Superman. Seriously? Did Superman just turn this guy to mush?
Superman would have taken down the Warlord, then gone after the mercenaries. Of course, then we wouldn't have a movie. Instead, Lex Luthor is trying to frame Superman for shooting up a village.
It was after that scene that I gave up hope of Superman finally being Superman in this movie. I should have known better after "Man of Steel," and I struggled to stay in my seat. This Superman is also completely indifferent to collateral damage, which is 100% against the core principles of the character. Forget the killing for a second... the destruction porn in "Man of Steel" and Superman's attitude towards it is one of my biggest criticisms of that film and its a driving plot device in this movie. As I mentioned in "Why we look up in the sky..." one of Superman's weaknesses in a fight is his compassion and his desire to limit collateral damage. Call me names, call me a fanboy... whatever I don't care. This portrayal of Superman was just depressing and that ultimately is the overall tone of the film, depressing.
There are some bright spots and some cool moments, and I can see why, especially in the CGI-wild final battles people came away loving the movie or saying it was fun. Getting there for me was a slog.
Here's a massive spoiler: The final fight with Doomsday ends with Superman stabbing the beast with a kryptonite spear and getting impaled himself, ultimately dying. Yes, Superman dies. At least they filmmakers got that part half-right, that in killing Doomsday, Superman sacrifices himself... but it doesn't really count because 1) Doomsday is basically a zombie and 2) Superman isn't really dead.
As I am writing this, I came across this piece from Kastor's Korner, which I found matches my description of Superman's attitude towards collateral damage and also perfectly sums up a lot of how I feel about the way the filmmakers represent Superman. "That’s what undercuts the end of this film, as the death of Superman feels less about heroic sacrifice, and more of the filmmakers washing their hands of a character they just can’t seem to understand. All this adds up to a profoundly cynical perspective for a comic book movie, a shriveled black heart beating beneath the surface of the movie." YES.
What was abundantly clear to me in this movie and makes so much more sense looking back at "Man of Steel," Zack Snyder and David Goyer HATE Superman. This is who they are (and I back this up by reminding everyone about David Goyer's feelings towards Martian Manhunter): they are the type of readers who hate Superman because he is "too good" or "can do anything." This is one of the main reasons some people just don't like Superman. I'm curious to know whether or not either of them have really read anything beyond the "mainstream graphic novels" like "Watchmen," "Dark Knight Returns" and "The Killing Joke." Seriously, this version of Superman is the embodiment of people I know who just outright hate Superman for being the all-powerful boy scout... and you know what? It is THOSE same people who like this version.
I don't think Snyder and Goyer understand Clark Kent and Superman as human, or as what makes him human. They see what he represents as a thing of the past and that is evident through some dialogue throughout the film. They are grossly wrong, especially when you bring Chris Evans' Captain America into the argument (I hold Captain America in the same regard as Superman and Evans and Marvel Studios NAIL Cap). What's clear is they see him only as an alien or an angry god. That's the real difference. Superman doesn't see himself as a god. In fact, there's a PHENOMENAL issue of "Green Lantern" from 2002 where Superman confronts then-Green Lantern Kyle Rayner who possesses the god-like powers of Ion. As Kyle starts to intervene everywhere he can, cults start to pop up and Superman delivers this fantastic lesson about how they have to draw the line, ultimately they aren't gods and have to ensure they aren't treated as such.
I bring this up because throughout BvS, the religious iconography and blatant call-outs to mythological gods and monsters is exhausting. I get the whole "DC Pantheon is like the Greek gods" gimmick, but it is so heavy-handed in this movie that it becomes eye-rolling. I don't and never have liked the 'Superman is Christ" interpretation. I find it to be wrong and frankly stupid, though that seems to be how the filmmakers think he's meant to be.
What does the shoe-horning of "Death of Superman" into this movie mean? A couple things of course. 1) He could be the vessel for Darkseid, 2) He could be revived and less-powerful, building his strength back up or... my foolish hope... 3) He emerges as the classic Superman. At the end of the movie, the world magically accepts him in death. And when he returns (forget the insane religious implications), he could be the Superman that Grant Morrison described as "the most relaxed and laid back person alive." He would have cheated death (which is a whole new set of problems as Max Landis once so eloquently pointed out), but THAT could serve as the catalyst for Henry Cavill to put on the charm and charisma I know he has and be the Superman we deserve (Cavill is great in "The Man from U.N.C.L.E.) That ideal to strive towards. That is, simply put, the way to redeem this version of Superman and inspire next generation the same way Reeve did. I just don't need to see Zack Snyder or David Goyer attempt to handle the character again. There's a hopelessness to this, and that's the exact opposite of Superman.
Why do I care so much about how Superman is portrayed? That's a question I get a lot. When these characters are presented in the movies, the general public takes them as definitive. That THIS is who the characters are, this is basically their mainstream. I think we're moving away from that with the constant reboots (especially with Batman and Spider-Man)... my point is this: how many people thought the Joker killed Bruce Wayne's parents because of Burton's "Batman"? Yet Superman is different. Superman is much different because he means so much more, to me especially. I also have two sons. Little guys, one of whom I've been introducing to the superheroes. He likes Batman, he likes Superman, he likes "America 'Merica" (Captain America). Superman for me was the gateway to Marvel, DC, everything. That idealism is where it began and everything deviates from that - I've called every superhero post-1938 a derivative of Superman in some way and to an extent they are. So for me, and for my sons and daughter, given what Superman means to me, I'd rather not have the "mainstream" version be this misunderstood, cynical "god."
I'll come back around and touch on this idea that Snyder and Goyer hate Superman... because I don't think they just hate Superman... more on that at the end.
Okay, now that the Superman bit is out of the way, and you're probably exhausted reading that, I'll breakdown the movie the same way I did "Star Wars: The Force Awakens."
Wonder Woman. Yes, she is awesome. It is kind of random and very deus ex machina when she shows up in the finale to fight Doomsday, but Gal Gadot OWNS this role. She is absolutely fantastic and it just makes me more excited for her solo film.
Alfred. I really liked Jeremy Irons' portrayal as Alfred. The dry wit, the kind of "you're an asshole" approach to Bruce, it was all spot on. I especially liked that Alfred is as much a part of Batman as Bruce. This was a version of him that was as weathered as Bruce and hadn't lost his sarcastic charm. He's also the voice of reason, as the character often tends to be. I suspect Geoff Johns may have had something to do with this Alfred as he's similar to the one from "Batman: Earth One." Although some characterization and dialogue was off (more on that later).
Perry White. Laurence Fishburne made the most of his screen time as the Daily Planet editor. He was so unequivocally Perry that I felt his performance was the most true to any character being portrayed and was one of the absolute stand outs. And it is implied that he does indeed know Clark is Superman, which I have always believed is true of every iteration of Perry.
Soundtrack. Hans Zimmer and Junkie XL do a nice job. Really. I honestly didn't like the new Wonder Woman or Batman theme until I heard them in the context of the movie.
Ben Affleck's performance as Batman. Overall, I really liked Affleck's Batman. His performance is definitely a highlight of the film. While this Batman is inspired by "The Dark Knight Returns," it is not that version at all. This feels almost like every version rolled into one tried and true Caped Crusader. There are some things I didn't like about this Batman, but in terms of Affleck as Batman? One of my biggest takeaways is that I want to see a Ben Affleck-directed Batman movie.
The visuals. Say what you will about storytelling ability or direction. Zack Snyder does know how to create visual spectacle. Unfortunately for me, visuals aren't enough to win me over.
Lois. Lois Lane is one of my favorite comic book characters. On paper, I love Amy Adams as Lois. She was one of the better things about "Man of Steel," though here I was left underwhelmed by her use in BvS. Not Adams, Lois. She's just kind of there and conveniently shows up at all the right places. And the thing with the kryptonite spear? She throws it into water after Batman and Superman fight... then she goes to get it back during the Doomsday fight and almost drowns until Superman saves her. After all that, he's the one to get the spear... wow. Lex ultimately uses her to get to Superman multiple times, again I just think her utilization was weird.
The title fight. I was a bit underwhelmed by the titular fight. On the one hand, Superman pretty much refused to fight and did manage to show some restraint, on the other hand Batman kicked his ass (remember I mentioned that Snyder and Goyer HATE Superman?). Granted Batman had the kryptonite and all, the whole fight felt forced because (see "Martha" below). And where the hell did Batman get the armor suit? There is ZERO explanation for it.
Final fight. This is in "Meh" because Doomsday is in "Nope." The final fight itself, was neat. Unnecessary and forced, but neat. A grand spectacle of CGI. There's also something interesting here that I think is prevalent to the mixed reaction of the film. Sometimes, a movie can be really bad, yet the finale is grand and vice versa. This could be a case where that third act and final fight outweighs the rest of the movie for some people.
Between "Meh" and "Nope"
The plot. This movie is ALL OVER the place. Honestly, the Kryptonite plot-line was the strongest, there were just a bunch of others battling for screen time, including plots from other movies, and it just wades into convoluted, barely glued together territory. On one hand, I give it points for having something coherent i.e. the Kryptonite... there was just too much happening that didn't make sense.
Batman killing and the implications of the bat-brand. Seriously? Look, I get that we've seen Batman kill dudes before (see Burton) and it was wrong then and it is wrong now, but what many consider the "greatest Batman movie ever," "The Dark Knight" was basically all about how Batman doesn't kill. In BvS he does it with such ferocity that it's off-putting, not to mention hypocritical. One of the themes of this movie is consequence to actions and that's kind of the driving force behind Batman wanting to take down Superman, yet he's legit killing dudes. I get that he's been at it for 20 years and he's a bit weary and war-torn... if he's just killing bad guys and Gotham is still a mess, then he's the bad guy. Also, for a version of Batman so heavily inspired by "The Dark Knight Returns," the filmmakers missed a crucial point... when Batman kills, The Joker wins.
And then there's the bat-brand. In essence and in theory, I didn't mind it, especially from this older Batman. My issue arises when it results in guys getting killed when they get to prison? Come on. I don't mind his brutality when he fights - he's an older, angry man - but the killing and essential condoning of murder via the bat-brand was way off-character.
Why Batman hates Superman. In the comics, there's always a disagreement over methods. Optimism vs. cynicism. Here, Batman hates Superman because when fighting Zod, Bruce Wayne's building was destroyed. Totally not Superman's fault, especially according to "Man of Steel" defenders, still it serves as why Batman has to destroy Superman. This is a weird motivation because later in the movie we see Batman exercise the same kind of recklessness and destruction in the Batmobile. This was a little ridiculous.
Lex Luthor. I just wasn't a fan of this Lex. He was too spastic for my taste and there was really no clear motivation for him. Was it the destruction? Was it a thing against aliens? Was it a thing against deities? Was it an abusive father? Was he just a pawn of Darkseid (which to me is a disservice to Lex)? Eisenberg was all over the map. More or less Gene Hackman's Luthor mixed with Heath Ledger's Joker taking orders from Kevin Spacey playing Hackman's Luthor. And all that heavy-handed god-stuff I mentioned? Shut up, Lex. It was too hammy and over the top. His reasons for anything are unclear. To me, the ultimate Lex is the Clancy Brown-voiced Luthor from The Animated Series.
Retconning "Man of Steel": This is really bizarre. Superman says to Lois, "Superman was never real, he was the dream of a farmer from Kansas." Wait... what? In "Man of Steel," Jonathan Kent is a jerk. He doesn't want Clark to be Superman at all and "maybe" let a bus full of kids die. It was Jor-EL who very much wanted and pushed Clark to becoming Superman. BvS ignored the previous movie to rewrite its own continuity. The scope of the highly criticized Battle of Metropolis from MoS also seemed to be down-sized.
Pa Kent vision: What?
Doomsday. There was no point to having Doomsday in this movie. Cool final fight, yeah, but why did Lex go through all the trouble of framing Superman and getting him to fight Batman if he was just going to create and unleash the unkillable beast he can't control that kills Superman anyway? Also, Doomsday was Nuclear Man from "Superman IV" on steroids.
The script. There's a lot going on in this movie. A lot that the studio wanted I'm sure, and there are moments where things feel "by committee." For that, the script suffers. There is a lot of cringe-worthy dialogue, few clear motivations and only Batman has a real, concrete story-arc. There are way too many contrived conveniences and there are so many gigantic plot holes it'll make your head spin.
Stop destroying everything. The most Superman thing that Superman did this entire movie was fly Doomsday into space to fight. That was obviously to get that "Dark Knight Returns" moment with the nuke, however there comes a point where the destruction porn is too much. It was overkill in "Man of Steel"... there's just too much collateral damage. One of the things I found REALLY intriguing about the "Civil War" trailer is that when General Ross is going over all the Avengers battles with Cap, the human toll is minimal because the Avengers are saving lives, but the monetary cost is astronomical. That seems like a real and legitimate motivating factor for politics in that film. Everyone in BvS is just flippant about the damage and it's evident in the dialogue directed at people like me who criticized the destruction. "This building is uninhabited" and "The docks are abandoned."
The Justice League. I honestly could have done without the Justice League. I didn't like the Flash time portal bit, and the reveal of Aquaman, Cyborg and Flash was forced. It could have been a little more nuanced... no, WB decided that everyone already has their logo and we basically get a trailer for each. Oy.
Religious iconography/god complexes. STOP IT. Seriously. STOP IT.
Martha. This was RIDICULOUS. Batman spends 90 minutes preparing to kill Superman and when they fight, Batman get the upper hand via Kryptonite. So when he's about to kill Superman, Supes utters "save Martha." And now, out of nowhere, because their moms have the same name, they are bros. WHAT? Okay, I get it, that was the moment Batman realized he was being manipulated, but the entire title fight of this movie could have been completely avoided if Superman had just said "Hey Batman, Lex kidnapped my mom Martha, can you help?" Instead there is more a feeling like: "Hey Superman, people paid $12 to see us fight, so I'm going to beat you up until your girlfriend shows up and tells me Martha is your mom's name too."
The self-loathing, depressing tone. This movie, like "Man of Steel" is depressing. The film is dark, it takes itself WAY too seriously and everyone is so self-loathing. A friend of mine put it pretty well: "The superheroes were the sad people that everyone hated, who hated themselves and hated each other until they realized they looked cool when they posed together." There is little joy to be found in this movie. It starts and ends with a funeral, that's pretty telling. Look, I get some people like the more serious and darker stuff, my argument is that isn't what Superman OR Wonder Woman is about.
I've seen a lot of people point to "Avengers: Age of Ultron" as a movie "critics like, fans hate." I disagree. I don't think AoU was a perfect film at all, but the tone made a huge difference. AoU served a specific purpose - to be an Avengers movie about the Avengers avenging and setting up the next steps. They save lives, they are superheroes, the tone is lighter and more fun. The other BIG difference - I'd be fine taking a kid to AoU, or any Marvel movie for that matter. I wouldn't take a kid under 12 or 13 to see "Batman v. Superman," and if you can't comfortably take a kid to a Superman movie, that's a failure in my book.
Finally, Zack Snyder and David Goyer are laughing at you. Through their dialogue and some plot points of the movie, they are laughing at comic book fans and people who criticize them. They are essentially the same people that tell you to "grow up" or "comics are for kids" or "comics are stupid." Seriously. It is evident in bits of dialogue like Perry telling Clark "it's not 1938 anymore," which on the surface is a nod to "Action Comics" #1. In reality is their middle finger at Superman fans who criticized "Man of Steel" for not portraying a more classic Superman. It also happens again with Alfred. As much as Alfred helps Batman, he tells him to "meet a girl" and little things like that. These are veiled insults at people like me, people who were fans before the movies started happening. How do I know? Because these are the same kinds of things people say to me.
Further evidence of this? The entire existence of Scoot McNairy's Wallace Keefe. The Kastor's Korner article I posted earlier actually hit the same exact note I thought. This character's entire existence is a criticism on people who didn't like "Man of Steel." He's injured in the Battle of Metropolis, he hates Superman as a "false god" (read it as "false Superman"), and then he's manipulated by Lex and given a motorized wheelchair that explodes as a suicide device at the U.S. Capitol building. The bombing comes during a hearing about people criticizing Superman's actions. You know what Wallace Keefe is? Zack Snyder and David Goyer's way of telling people who didn't like "Man of Steel" because of the destruction and version of Superman to go kill themselves. They hate you as much as they hate Superman.
Overall, I did not like this movie and the depiction of Superman again was a big reason why. There's some hope for the character, only if Zack Snyder and David Goyer are no longer involved. In fact, I don't know if I'll ever bother to see another Snyder-led DC Comics movie. "Man of Steel" and "Batman v. Superman" were enough to tell me they don't understand the characters or the universe.
There are some really neat ideas at play here and things like Wonder Woman are really intriguing, most just aren't executed that well. There are some good scenes I could see myself watching again out of context ("Green Lantern" also has some of those). More importantly, if Warner Brothers doesn't care and just wants to make money on bad movies like the "Transformers" franchise that's their prerogative, but the long-term brand damage could be devastating.