Thursday, July 28, 2016

The Ultimate Edition of BATMAN V. SUPERMAN is more movie, but definitely not a better movie

About four months ago, I came away from the theatrical cut of BATMAN V. SUPERMAN with a lot of disappointment tempered by appreciation for some elements like Wonder Woman's cameo and Ben Affleck's Batman. This ended up being posted in a climate where battlelines were drawn - a lot of critics really hated it and it provoked the wrath of fanboys who loved it unconditionally (and who were sending the critics death threats before they themselves had actually seen the film.)

An interesting part about the reaction to my review was that I saw it being shared by the pro-BVS partisans, often with the caveat that it was a "fair" review. I was proud of that observation, as I always strive for intellectual honesty. However, it was weird to see it being use as an apparent brickbat against the "biased" critics because my post was fairly critical. Perhaps that was obscured by the fact that I didn't assign a grade of any kind. One friend told me he thought my review was "pretty damning," likely because it came from a Superman fan whose biggest issue was that it wasn't a very good Superman movie. If I had rated it from one star to four stars, as Roger Ebert used to, it probably would have been a two-star affair.

Even before the film was released, there were rumblings that an Ultimate Cut would be arriving. Not only would this version be rated R, but it would add an entire half-hour onto a movie that was already two and a half hours long. With so many scenes to be reincorporated, I was willing to keep an open mind. It was not unlikely that many of my issues with the theatrical cut could be resolved with the additions. Indeed, about a month ago, there were special screenings of the Ultimate Cut to hype its digital release, and a good deal of the advanced word seemed positive. However, upon closer examination, you might notice that the fans screaming "This is SO much better!" and "This is the version WB should have released" were often the same people who were way in the tank for the theatrical cut.

Last week I finally got a chance to watch it. The succinct reaction is that I'm baffled by anyone who thinks this cut is significantly better than the theatrical cut. Virtually all the cuts were smart cuts on the part of the studio. There's precious little in the new half-hour that shifts your perception of anything on screen. The vast majority of the restored material merely underlines beats that were already present. The additions make the film a longer movie, but not a better one. I'm stunned that the Ultimate Cut moved the needle for viewers in either direction.

The Africa subplot benefits most from the new scenes. In the Ultimate Cut the mechanics of how Superman was framed for the deaths in the village are made clearer. Bodies are burned so it looks like the work of his heat vision, key witnesses against Superman are coerced into giving false testimony. The bad news for the film is that the additions make the plot just clear enough that it's plain as day that this is a TERRIBLE subplot.

All of this nonsense in Africa is totally irrelevant to the core conflict between Batman and Superman. It adds nothing to why either of these two hates the other. Batman's distrust of Superman is perfectly laid out during the sequence that leaps back to the day of Zod's attack. That's probably the best sequence in the film and it lays out right there why Bruce sees Superman as a threat - AND it's thematically on point in terms of the question of if Superman is a good thing for the world.

The Africa storyline never intersects with Batman. At best, it's a device to make Superman mopey and question himself, which is one of the film's worst creative decisions. There needs to be a bigger contrast between Batman and Superman's worlds. Superman's world should be as bright as Batman's is dark. With Batman making the anti-Superman case, we don't need to see Superman the target of a PR attack until he's hauled into the Senate to testify. This is especially true since that plot comes to a dead stop when the Senate blows up. There's no need to burn so much screentime on this shaggy dog story.

I understand there's a case to be made that the Africa/Senate thread lays the groundwork for Lex's plan. He sets up the entire Africa scenario to convince a Senator played by Holly Hunter to let him import some kryptonite he's discovered, and give him access to both Zod's body and the crashed Kryptonian ship. It feels like there's a lot of unnecessary shoe leather here, particularly since Lex's "deterrent" cover story probably wouldn't even need the Africa incident to provoke things. If someone as powerful as Superman showed up, the U.S. government would immediately be figuring out what kinds of weapons they'd need against him.

So all of this is a long way of saying that adding more running time to the Africa/Senate deceit is not a positive in any sense. You might get clarity, but it's the kind of clarity where you clean your glasses and realize the dirty room you're in is actually a large septic tank.

The other big addition comes in the form of scenes showing Clark investigating the Gotham Bat. All this does is hit the same points that were already made in the theatrical cut. At least twice, perhaps three times, in the theatrical cut, we saw Clark being chewed out by Perry for chasing this story when he's been assigned other work. We get it - Clark doesn't like Batman's vigilante tactics. In particular, he holds Batman responsible for the deaths of criminals who get killed in prison because they've been branded with Batman's symbol. In fact, we even see one of those murders.

So let me get this straight - a criminal is sent to a secure facility with scars from the vigilante who put him there, and when the guy gets shanked by other prisoners, the crusading social justice reporter's issue is with... the vigilante? Not the incredibly lax prison security that facilitated those deaths? I mean, if it's happened enough to be an established pattern of what the brand means, why on earth hasn't the prison taken strong measures to protect those who've been branded? How are so many people being killed on the guards' watch and there's been no outcry? Clark, the story's not the vigilante - it's the incredibly poor administration at the prison!

Hitting these beats harder means I find it even less believable when Superman interrupts Batman's chase scene to let him off with a warning. Seriously? Several scenes communicate that Clark thinks this guy's a criminal and the best he does is wreck his car and give a stern finger wag? That's not even getting into the fact that Superman is entirely unconcerned by the devastation in that chase, or in stopping the actual bad guys who Batman was pursuing.

Don't get me wrong - I like that the UC has a little more balance between Clark scenes and Bruce scenes, but I wish Clark's screentime was more substantive and less mopey.

The same film, only more of it. That's my assessment of the Ultimate Cut. I've seen a few editorials that take WB to task for not trusting in the longer version, but I think they made the right call here. I don't think the UC would have been any better received critically had it been released to theatres. Virtually all of the elements that people took issue with in the TC are present in the UC. Chopping 30 minutes out merely reduced the agony.

They probably could have gone even further. Losing the dream scenes might have saved 10-15 minutes, and slicing out Wonder Woman watching Quicktime videos of the future Justice League would have saved another few. I'm sure the dystopian nightmare scene didn't come cheap, but it's unnecessary and is borderline incomprehensible to non-comic book fans. Neither it, nor the Flash's appearance to Bruce are germane to Batman v. Superman.

I'd like to be optimistic about future installments, and while there are things I liked in BVS, I'm perplexed at any reactions that this film is significantly better or worse than what we saw in theaters last March.

1 comment:

  1. "At best, it's a device to make Superman mopey and question himself, which is one of the film's worst creative decisions."

    I disagree. Going back to Man of Steel, I like that this version of Superman is conflicted. I like that he is unsure of himself, his place in the world and if he's doing the right thing. This makes him interesting, more dramatic and gives him a bit of depth that other versions kind of lack. Don't get me wrong, I love the classic version of Superman, too. They both work in their own ways.