Wednesday, March 23, 2016
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.