Wednesday, March 23, 2016

My spoiler-free review of BATMAN V. SUPERMAN

Note: I've taken pains not to directly spoil anything that hasn't been exposed in the trailers. Even when discussing the ending, I've done so in terms that shouldn't blow any of the many, many surprises for viewers. I suspect the comments will be rife with spoilers and if you want, you can find spoiler-heavy follow-up post here.

BATMAN V. SUPERMAN is a complicated film to review for a lot of reasons. There are incredible moments that land with strong visual impact, coupled with some decisions that I struggle to justify. It's not as simple as it being a rip-roaring crowdpleaser or a total off-the-rails mess. Director Zack Snyder and credited screenwriters Chris Terrio and David S. Goyer clearly mounted this film with a lot of ambition. There are some weightier themes here than are usually dealt with in superhero films (though the comics have long covered similar ground.) The risk of flying so high is that now and then, you're gonna glide too close to the sun.

The casting of Ben Affleck was one of the earliest sources of fanboy rage on this project. As I suspected then, the results seem poised to make those detractors eat their words. Affleck's Batman owes a lot to the Frank Miller Batman - for both better and worse - but he's very recognizably Bruce Wayne. His outfit might be the best Bat-costume on film and Affleck looks equally at home in a tux and beating the ever-loving snot out of gun wielding nutcases. There will be rioting from the "Batman doesn't kill" crowd as the Batmobile's machine guns are decidedly non-lethal, but anyone who rationalized Burton's Batman won't have to reach any further than that here.

Continuing the tradition of casting announcements setting of fanboy rage, Gal Gadot got her share of attacks, and again, Snyder knew what he was doing. Gadot's role is small, but when she unleashes the lasso and bracelets, the result is nothing short of crowd-pleasing. There's a glorious moment mid-battle where she's battered back by her opponent and for a moment, almost seems to relish being able to cut loose. Owing to the film's more mature target audience, we'll probably still see more little girls dressed as Rey than Wonder Woman this Halloween, but her solo film next year is going to open HUGE. Seeding her in here was smart, despite the flak the filmmakers got for not jumping straight to a solo film. Most audiences are going to walk out of this movie hungry for more, and a great victory of BVS is how it is an excellent springboard for solo films featuring Batman and Wonder Woman.

I wish I could say that it does the same for future standalone Superman films.

Longtime readers of this site know that I've been a lifelong Superman fan, and so I'm accustomed to vastly different interpretations of the mythos. Generally even if there's an interpretation I don't like, I find it pretty easy to ignore. I'm less concerned with 100% fidelity to the comics I loved than I am in just getting a good story revolving around the character. You can poke around all my old Superman posts for evidence of that, but the fact that I loved both SUPERMAN RETURNS and MAN OF STEEL for very different reasons probably speaks to the diversity of incarnations I can enjoy.

Three years on, the destruction of Metropolis and the killing of Zod is still very much a sore point for a segment of Superman fans. In this film, they find an ally - Batman. Bruce Wayne's been stoking a deep mistrust of the all-powerful being ever since that day in Metropolis. In one of the film's most effective scenes, we experience the Battle of Metropolis from a street-level perspective through Bruce Wayne's eyes. Some see a savior in their visitor from the stars, he sees only a destructive alien who we need a countermeasure against.

Lex Luthor shares that view, though he's decidedly less motivated by the greater good, than by his own power-hungry nature. (And possibly... something else, as the ending suggests.) Jesse Eisenberg proves to be the right man for the job of embodying this interpretation of Lex. He's brilliant, he's dangerous and is possibly insane. There are a couple holes in the logic of his plan. (He claims credit for having masterminded a long-game clash of these titans, but some of that isn't entirely borne out on screen. Also, when he unleashes Doomsday, one wonders how in the world he planned to stop the beast from destroying Metropolis after it took out Superman.)

I like that the film attempts to grapple with the impact a powerful being like Superman would have on the world. When you've got a demi-god who can act unilaterally, there's understandably going to be a concern about whose interests he represents. Superman's entrance into the film comes rescuing Lois Lane from an African terrorist camp. Inexplicably, he's blamed for a loss of life there. The culprit might be either unclear writing or the result of editing, but this plot is unfurled so confusingly it's hard to understand how he's considered culpable. (I'm not even sure exactly who was killed by the actual bad guys in that scene, and considering the only innocent is the reporter ON SCENE who's saved by Superman, I don't get at all how this incident ends up a black mark against Superman.) There's also a big turn in this story about midway through that gets amazing little follow up.

As we see in montage, Superman has done a lot of good for the world too. Most of these gorgeous shots have been revealed in trailers, and I had assumed some of these incidents - like Superman aiding flood victims, Superman intervening in a rocket explosion - would have been awesome set piece sequences. Instead they're a montage and it puts us at a remove from Superman's own internal perspective.

The first half of the film makes a deliberate decision to stage most of Superman's heroics from a street-level vantage point. The flood moment is a good example. We see the victims looking up to their savior, and while Snyder's shot composition is gorgeous, it projects Superman as a god hovering above the peasants. He's not rushing to the rescue, he's floating above them, observing. There's an emotional distance between him and us.

Contrast that with the best sequence in MAN OF STEEL, the moment when Clark first takes flight. There's genuine elation and joy in that moment. We see Clark's face at every step. We feel his exhilaration at being finally able to cut loose. It's a WOW moment that invites the audience to experience that own power fantasy and wish fulfillment. We relate to the guy who feels the wind in his hair. It's harder to feel anything for the cold demi-god who's seemingly staging his own Messiah imagery.

And that's why despite the presence of a lot of a lot of elements of the Superman mythos - Lois Lane, Lex Luthor, Perry White, the Daily Planet, Ma Kent - this feels very much like a Batman story with special guest stars from another franchise. The movie doesn't give Clark Kent's perspective quite the same emotional identification as it does Bruce Wayne's. This is not to say that we don't get scenes that try to let us in to Superman's thought process, but the overall tone and imagery tips the balance to the Bat agenda.

Particularly in the first half, it's troubling how alienated the film is from Superman's inner arc. The angst mined here doesn't land as successfully as it did in MAN OF STEEL, and even though Superman's arc eventually comes around to a place where I felt more positively towards him, that's not without its own problems. This isn't entirely the sacrilege committed upon the character within Frank Miller's work, but the film misses an opportunity to make the clash of champions more effective by playing Superman in the same tone as Batman.

There's a brutality to some of the violence here that exceeds even the Nolan Batman films - and I'm not talking about the superhero feats. Snyder doesn't quite drag things all the way into WATCHMAN levels of bleakness, but he gets a little too close for my comfort. Surely that's Snyder's prerogative but it would have been great to walk out of this movie with a little more of an uplifting sense. A film need not be as weightless as some of the weaker Marvel installments to achieve this.

As I exited the theater, I found myself wishing that Snyder and his collaborators had attended one of The Black List's talks with renowned "script whisperer" Lindsay Doran. I hope I don't mangle her point, but the focus of her talk is how positive psychology can help craft a more satisfying viewing experience. One example she uses is ROCKY. The hero loses the big fight there, but few remember that because the emotion of that moment is still uplifting. Rocky "goes the distance" and he shares that achievement with Adrian.

Not to get too far afield, but I encourage anyone interested in writing to check out this NYT article focusing on Ms. Doran.

"Ms. Doran’s second 'aha!' moment came when she consulted a veteran market researcher who oversees hundreds of previews annually. 'I listed the five elements of well-being, and he said, 'I can already tell you one thing: Audiences don’t care about accomplishments.'' She was thunderstruck. Wasn’t the Hollywood ending about accomplishment?

"No, he said, adding: 'Audiences don’t care about an accomplishment unless it’s shared with someone else. What makes an audience happy is not the moment of victory but the moment afterwards when the winners shares that victory with someone they love.' So she mentally rewound the concluding scenes of these 'accomplishment' films. Ms. Grey leaps into the arms of Patrick Swayze at the end of 'Dirty Dancing,' and after that she reconciles with her father. Jaden Smith performs that impossible kick at the end of 'The Karate Kid,' but afterward makes peace with his opponent and shares the moment with his mother and trainer. Colin Firth conquers his stammer at the end of 'The King’s Speech,' and then shares his victory with his wife, daughters and the crowds cheering outside the palace. The film closes with a title card that reads that the king and his speech therapist remained friends for the rest of their lives."

That element is missing in BATMAN V. SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE. The film very deftly sets up other pieces of WB/DC's cinematic universe, including a completely surprising dream sequence/vision that appears to homage a major storyline familiar to longtime fans. (This is NOT the dream that has been teased in the trailers, by the way.) But any anticipation for future installments comes from those, not the ending, which left me more emotionally unengaged than I wanted to be.

It's also an ending that complicates any future solo Superman films, as some key elements to the mythos have been taken off the table in a way that will be hard to reverse without massive contrivance. Doors are opened for Batman and Wonder Woman, but I'm left with the concern that no one will walk out of this movie craving a return of the Henry Cavill Superman. Candidly, that might even be acceptable if I felt this film dealt with Superman in a way that satisfied at least within the constraints of this installment. Alas, I don't.

The R-Rated cut is supposedly 30 minutes longer, so perhaps there are sequences that restore the balance to Superman's story there. I can only judge the movie in release. Despite the presence of a lot of awesome, the big miss on Superman mars it. I don't think it's a bad movie, and I respect its ambition. When I'm hungry for superhero battles, I'll probably turn to it before THE AVENGERS, but when I'm hungry for a great Superman film... it won't be my first choice.

This is not a film that invites passive viewing. More than likely viewers will walk out with plenty to process and certainly elements to argue about. I wish I looked forward to that conversation, but after three years of seeing fighting about MAN OF STEEL, I lack faith in substantive discourse.


  1. Haven't seen the movie yet, but the last two sentences I agree with. Really not looking forward to three more years of thinkpieces whining about digital buildings being destroyed. I do hold this as the model of a fair even handed review which has given me a lot to consider. Still looking forward to seeing it Friday. Thanks.

    1. J., I really appreciate you calling this "a fair even handed review." I've seen a lot of anger directed at critics who wrote negative reviews of this film, and so I was concerned some of that venom would find its way into these comments. I get that even that rage is coming from a place of the audience really WANTING to love it, so I can understand it.

      I didn't enjoy being as hard on the film as I was, but hopefully the review is an honest reading of my thought process post-viewing. I hope you enjoy the movie when you see it.

    2. Thanks. BVS likely isn't going to win Best Picture, but I can't believe it's the worst comic book movie ever. I know that because i recently rewatched Quest for Peace. People can be a little immature about these properties not being rated Triple A unanimously and that's unfortunate.

      I'm largely disappointed this coming weekend will fuel the clickbait industry and comment sections for the next three years. (Sample Headlines: "25 Things Batman Needs to Rectify In Justice League," "Clinton v Trump v Superman: Dawn of Electoral and Cinema Injustice," "Why Batman is the Champion for Climate Change Deniers") I don't want to sound dismissive of film editorials altogether. There's value in some of them, but when it comes to these comic book properties, the end result just appears to be a lot of shouting and name calling.

    3. BVS isn't even the worst superhero film of the last 12 MONTHS. FANTASTIC FOUR has got to be an all-time debacle.

      For what it's worth, here are a list of superhero films that are EASILY worse than BVS:

      Fantastic Four
      Thor 2
      Iron Man 2
      The Incredible Hulk
      Green Lantern
      X-Men 3
      Amazing Spider Man 2


      And I agree. I'm dreading the thinkpieces on this.

    4. I haven't even seen the movie yet but I'm inclined to agree about this review being fair. It's clear this is the product of actual thought and contemplation. So much of what I've been seeing has been an exercise in meaningless snark, so much so that it's baffling really. Taking into context the "attacks" (for want of better term" this movie has gotten in the 3 years since it's been announced (seriously, casting choices, trailers, Gal Gadot's breasts) I'm just going to assume people are looking to justify viewpoints they arrived at long ago, instead of actually considering the material on its own terms.

      Personally, I wasn't that big a Superman fan till Man of Steel. I never read Superman comics, my first real exposure to the character was Superman: The Animated Series (all of which I recently rewatched and discovered is still awesome) but Man of Steel made me curious to see what would be done going forward. That said, I'm still very eager for this. I'm a big fan os Snyder's work. I think he understands visual poetry in a way most blockbuster directors cannot, or don't seem to even be trying to. I also like that he has a point of view of his own and isn't trying to stick to a proven formula. Very weird that people would rather an artist sandpaper away his voice and do what everyone else is doing.

  2. Nice review! Can't wait to go see it, I just hope it doesn't let me down. By the way, I just read your post about Kurt Busiek and it was great, I'm actually I big fan of his work. In fact, I've written about Superman: Secret Identity in my blog (wich I encourage you to visit):

    I hope you enjoy my review, and please feel free to leave me a comment over there or add yourself as a follower (or both), and I promise I'll reciprocate.



  3. I hope to shed some light about the Africa thing, which I also blame on an unclear script. But I don't think I can explain properly without spoilers, so: SPOILER WARNING.

    The issue everyone has with Superman in Africa is that, instead of stopping the guys on motorcycles who then went on to murder heaps of people, Superman solely focused on saving Lois Lane from that one guy. And it seems that the guys on bikes were mercenaries hired by Lex Corp and lead by KGBeast to infiltrate the terrorist cell that Lois was there to interview. And then they just decided to kill all the surrounding villagers once they were done killing the terrorists. So people held Superman (indirectly) responsible for those deaths as he focused on saving Lois instead of the "big picture" of saving the many innocents.

    Hope that helps. Thank you for the review; you do raise some very valid concerns, though I don't quite agree with your feelings about future Man of Steel installments.

    1. That makes about as much sense as anything I could piece together. Thanks Grom! It's baffling to me that the movie could be so unclear about it.

      My hunch is that this plot got trimmed to the bone. It serves more than one function - give Lois something to investigate, provoke the Senate hearings - but then all of that mostly disappears after the big Senate scene. The weird result is that we have an attack on the US Senate without any real follow up. It's just there to give Superman a big loss.

      MORE SPOILERS - my concerns about future Superman installments include the fact that they go out of their way to declare Clark Kent dead to the world. In the comics, he was simply "missing" and a cover for his whereabouts was pretty easily contrived. Here they actually had a body displayed, so I'm not sure how they'll get out of that.

    2. Are you sure? What does the (horribly stereotypical) African woman testifying say? What role does maybe CIA Jimmy Olsen play, bugging Lois before the henchmen shoot him in the head?

      I understand its narrative purpose it just doesn't seem to hold all.

    3. I feel like it's going to take a copy of the script or a novelization to sort this out. (IS there a novelization? I haven't seen one yet.)

  4. It doesn't sound like you want to do it, but I'm hoping in a few weeks that you do a spoilers-included review like you did for THE FORCE AWAKENS.

    There are several elements that I'm very curious to see what you REALLY think and there could be some interesting lessons in your takes on them.

    For instance (without going too far into spoiler territory):

    1- dream sequences. You own a YouTube post titled "Dream Sequences Suck." Granted, in context, that probably applies to amateur scripts as opposed to pros artfully utilizing an effective literary device. But, this film has 3 or 4. Did that seem excessive to you?

    2- You criticized THE FORCE AWAKENS for having coincidences play a key role. This film has a WHOPPER of a coincidence that is a game-changing moment in the final act. How did you react to that? Or is it not this film's fault (it's not like the origin stories were altered to create that was there all along).

    It seems like, if you knew more about how this thing was put together, you could provide an interesting discussion on the process going from the film that is scripted, the film that is shot and the film that got edited. There seemed to be some choices and decisions made in each of these stages that affected to the outcome of this film and potentially some interesting lessons to be learned.

    Personally, I was greatly entertained. As long as the run-time was, I was never never dragged on for me. There were times I was in awe of what I was seeing and it still left me with wanting more despite the fact that I had seen A LOT.

    1. I might do one later this week. It's all going to depend on commitments. The bear of doing those is that unless I write it up for posting immediately after the first weekend, it feels like a dozen sites run similar stories. I don't want to add to the noise, so if I can find the time and a way to add to the conversation, I will.

      But I can give some short takes on your questions:

      1. Yeah, I think that the dream sequences went a little overboard. The "totalitarian Superman" one is beautifully shot, but ends up amounting to little more than foreshadowing JUSTICE LEAGUE (and in a way that makes that film really unappealing to me.) The visit to the Wayne tomb struck me as completely unnecessary. The one with the Flash vision felt like something that should have been presented in the context of being a dream. Am I forgetting another one?

      Shorter answer: I might have cut one or two of them.

      2. Ah, yes. The much-mocked moment. As you point out, it's sort of a coincidence and sort of the writer being impressed with their own cleverness. It's not the dealbreaker for me that it is for others because of how that moment is mined. I'll make a note to deal with this point specifically, because it's a clumsy way to get everyone's arcs where they need to go.

      I don't have any direct knowledge of the process, and I'm loathe to build too much speculation upon the foundations of rumor. There are some really weird extrapolations I've seen people making based on out-of-context information.

      How about this? if I don't get to a spoiler article this time, I'll make a point of writing up a piece about the R-rated cut, if the material added ends up altering the film significantly.