Monday, April 04, 2016

Review: Batman vs. Superman (possible spoilers)

There are two things to consider when reviewing Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice, beyond whatever marketing genius came up with that horrific title. The first is if it is a good movie, plain and simple. The second is if you're a geek, how much are you going to love, or be pissed off by, some iconic characters that you may be heavily invested in.

The answer for neither is particularly good.

First, the movie itself. Zach Snyder is a director that does have chops. 300 is still a hell of a movie. But since then...not so much. Sucker Punch was a mess, but that's fine. Every director is allowed to have one of those. Watchman was ambitious but also a mess and I'm not sure was ever really filmable.

Man of Steel was where Snyder's worrying trend of uneven movies really crystalized. That Snyder is a director with style, that he can film a memorable scene or put together a breath-taking image is without a doubt. That he could film an action sequence is also without a doubt. But that he could put together a coherent narrative into a well edited, fun movie went pretty much out the window.

Man of Steel was a choppy movie, a little too in love with its disaster porn movie, with elements that were either badly thought out (the entire Krypton sequence) or filled with plot holes. And that continues on into B vs. S.

Again, Snyder can put together some beautiful sequences. Martha and Thomas Wayne have never been so loving murdered on the big screen before (It's 3D gun porn). There are a few sequences of Superman rescuing people are certain lovely to look at even if you hurt your eyes from rolling them so hard as they hammer home the Christ symbolism more in this movie than they did in Man of Steel.

But the pacing and editing of the movie is all wrong. Some of that can be blamed for trying to set up about a half dozen spin-offs from this one movie (Justice League, Cyborg, Wonder Woman, The Flash, Aquaman and probably a Batman spin-off). Avengers: Age of Ultron had to do this as well and it frequently didn't work well either. But the franchise had earned a degree of....leniency. If it was occasionally frustrating, you tolerated it because the characters are so fun.

The DC franchise has earned nothing at this point. And if the last Avengers movie was unsubtle at promoting its future franchise movies, B vs. S is about as subtle as an atomic bomb (literally). it really does screw up the narrative flow of the movie badly. There are scenes that are so unnecessary - a Batman dream sequence, Wonder Woman looking at future Justice League

Not helping this is bad editing. The first half of the movie, which is primarily set up, still manages to have some weird and jarring edits. By the time we reach the end, and have gone through the big action sequences the editing has become almost incoherent. Snyder is falling back on old cheats. Lot of filming in the dark and many quick edits to indicate that something is happening even if you can't really understand what that is.

And I'm going to throw one final shot here...while Gal Gadot's Wonder Woman is a refreshing breath of fresh air in the movie (she is literally the only charming or fun aspect of the movie), other woman don't fare so well. They tend to need rescuing or get blown-up to service whatever the men need doing in the movie. I mean, Lois Lane getting rescued once is a tip to the comics. The number of times she needs it in this movie is just sloppy writing.

Are there good things? Sure. A Batmobile car chase is quite good as long as you don't think about certain troubling aspects. The actual Superman/Batman fight is really quite good and pretty much the highlight of the movie. And while you might not like how dark it is shot or even the theme that DC/Warner is going for in these movies (Gods walk among us, basically), they are committed to the vision of it.

Because there is a good story buried here. That yes, after the events of Man of Steel, Batman would be traumatized and horrified by one person having that much power and being unaccountable. That he would take steps to make sure that if necessary he could stop Superman. That there should be discussion about what a Superman would mean to the world. There's a really good narrative there if you stripped this movie down to its skeleton and rebuilt. It just got in its own way.

For The Geeks
The other question is how true these characters are to what we're familiar with. Marvel's not perfect, but they put characters on the screen that are relatable and pretty true to what comic book fans are familiar with. In some cases, they hit it out of the park as they did with Tony Stark and Steve Rogers. So have DC/Warner managed to do the same here?

It's a pretty mixed bag. So let's get onto the good first.

Gal Gadot is a spot on choice for Wonder Woman. She doesn't have much to do in this movie, but she pretty much steals every scene she's in. Whether it's looking exotic and the most beautiful woman in the room at a party, or her little dig at Bruce Wayne at sharing or her looking scary and fierce as hell in the final movie fight, you'll be lining up to see her movie next year. I have no idea why they're setting it during World War I, but I'll be there to find out. She's the highlight of the movie.

Ben Affleck got a lot of crap for being cast as Bruce Wayne/Batman and, you know, the man has a rep. And it's not like he's had the best of luck at starring in blockbuster super hero movies before. But there's a legit argument to be made that he's the best Batman to grace the screen so far. The Batman of the 80s and 90s had little to do with the comics and more to do with the 60s TV show. And they really haven't aged well. Christopher Nolan's movies are much better, but even they appeared to want to have a step removed from the comics.

That's not the case here. Affleck is a solid Bruce Wayne. He has the playboy business man who drinks too much down pat, with the passion and barely controlled rage of the Batman. There's weariness after fighting the battle for 20 years, there's compassion and, thank god, brains. One of the things that previous movies tended to miss is that Batman is also the world's greatest detective. He actually does detective work here, so it's nice to see.

The fault here, and it has nothing to do with Affleck, is the astonishing cavalier attitude towards life Batman has. Batman does not use guns. It is a central aspect of his character. A gun took his parents lives, as we are lovingly shown, repeatedly, and in slow motion. He hates them. And yet, he has quite a body count at the end of this movie, and in no small part by shooting bad guys with his plane or car. That doesn't even count a dream/vision sequence where he uses machine guns to kills people.

It shows such a fundamental misunderstanding of who the character is supposed to be it's kind of breath-taking. Snyder clearly loves Batman: The Dark Knight Returns given all the references he has to it scattered throughout the movie. But he neglects one of the big ones: where Batman takes apart a gun and chastises a group of want-to-be followers, calling it "the weapon of the enemy".

I don't know. Maybe in America where you're allowed to openly carry guns to church it's now ok for Batman to shoot people and for Superman to be Christ. But it's kind of sad if that's the case.

And, ah, Superman. I've never liked the Superman as a messianic figure. And I've certainly never cared for how it's been hammered home, both in the last two Snyder films and even Superman Returns. I like him more as an immigrant, just trying to figure out his place in a new world and trying to help. That's an interesting take. Superhero as Christ is just boring.

But even if we can say that's just a matter of personal taste, Superman shouldn't be a grim, dour character. He barely smiles in the movie. You can see why some people find him terrifying because of the way he acts. One scene sees a large group of people die and he doesn't act with outrage or sorrow. He just....stands there.

Superman is a character of hope and somehow everyone involved with this has misconstrued this as meaning he has to be an angry, resentful messiah. Somehow Superman as a tortured asshole is the acceptable version and I don't know why. Maybe it's easier and cooler.

I put up this link last week on Facebook and said it was my Superman. So is this one. Or this one (scroll down until you come to the Hitman scene). Or this one if you want a scene emphasizing a more religious Superman.

There are so many good instances of well written Superman (Morrison/Quitely All-Star Superman, Busiek/Immomen Superman: Secret Identity). It's only laziness and a desire to be "cool" that screws it up. I genuinely don't think Snyder likes the character very much, or if he does it's to be used as a punchline.

DC also goes dark/grim and gritty when they're in trouble. It's been their default mode since the mid-80s, when they had classics like The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen. And given the hammering they've taken from Marvel the last 10 years both in the comics (Marvel outsells DC by about 50% these days) and in the movies (Marvel is averaging 2-3 hit movies a year while DC was trying to figure out what to do). That's fine to an extent. But Marvel puts out movies that are fun. No matter how serious the material is, like Winter Solider, there are still fun moments. There's not one laugh line in B vs. S. It's all dark and grim and not all fun. For more than two hours.

But it is, I guess, very cool.

But cool isn't going to cary these movies as far as they might think. We'll see. But if these movies don't do as well as expected, which seems to be the case with this one, it's because fans want better than what they're getting. DC and Warner might want to take that advice to heart and stop doubling down on Snyder (and Goyer, the co-writer). They have a vision. It's occasionally pretty to look at, but not enjoyable to endure over two hours. It's time for a change because I love these characters. I'm just not sure the people involved with making these movies do...

Last Five
1. Enough of the night (live) - Jackson Browne
2. Take me with you - Tori Amos
3. Before the Earth was round - Ok Go
4. She's a rebel - Green Day
5. Dance all night - Ryan Adams*

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