Monday, September 5, 2016
Obligation Watch: Batman v Superman - Dawn of Justice (theatrical cut, 2016)
So, I was in no rush to ever see Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016).
In summer of 2013, despite the many positives of having a Man of Steel movie even existing, a stellar score by Hans Zimmer and Amy Adams cast as Lois Lane, I never cottoned to the movie, and, in fact, despite the fact my completionist self purchased a deeply discounted BluRay of the movie, it's never found it's way onto the platter for a spin.
But, you know, WB and DCE seemed aware of their problems with Man of Steel. It was a little hard to ignore when adults watching the movie started saying "holy @#$%. Did I just watch a movie where Superman was turning presumably occupied buildings into rubble and started his public career by snapping the neck of the bad-guy? Yeesh." So, despite the return of Zack "I don't understand characters or motivations" Snyder as director and the casting of Jessie "Two Modes of Nebbish" Eisenberg as Lex Luthor, I'd tried to withhold judgment until the reviews hit. And, mostly, the reviews were not kind on many levels. So, I'd stayed away.
But, ha ha ha. One of you (JimD) decided to just send me a copy of the BluRay in the mail. Over the course of two evenings, I watched the movie, trying not to open my computer or look at my phone when the movie got dull (which was more or less 90 of the 150 minutes). I tried to make note of what I liked and didn't like, but - I guess unsurprisingly - the movie offered little to enjoy that was not Amy Adams.
It's not the worst movie I've ever seen. for example - Suicide Squad was just a dumber movie. But BvS:DoJ felt positively adolescent in some ways, and had the storytelling instincts of a five year old relating the events of the day. But it has some interesting stuff in it, too, as far as DC Comics lore.
It's just not a terribly good movie.
I'll go out on a limb and say I probably pay more attention to Superman and Batman than the average bear, have a pretty good feel for the characters, how they work, etc... In particular, it's kinda been my thing to be a study of Superman as a fictional construct, a character and a pop culture artifact since about, oh, 1998 now. And, of course, prior to that, too, but that's when I started digging in. I'm no Mark Waid, but I like to think I can hold my own when it comes to Superman trivia (especially if I'm well caffeinated).
Because "I like Superman" and "I like them there superfolk", people really wanted me to see BvS:DoJ, and I actually wrote a post about how tired I was of being asked about the movie.
Were I, say, a scholar specializing in the life and times of Franklin Roosevelt, and an FDR biopic hit the theater which took FDR up to WWII, with a planned sequel that covered WWII, I'd probably show up to see the movie. But if, in the first installment, the movie forgot FDR was ever in a wheelchair, gave him a deep southern accent and saw him talking about how much he loathed people, and yet they did manage to capture aspects of his election correctly, had a great score and many period-correct details about wardrobe and sets - I suspect that most folks would forgive me if I skipped the second installment in this two part project. Maybe not. But seeing someone write off that movie in a world of FDR books, documentaries and other films, doesn't seem that great a loss or crime.
The night BvS:DoJ hit theaters, I started receiving messages, mostly from JimD, asking if I'd seen the film. Finally, we just had a phone call and he outlined the movie.
"So, that's it?" I said.
"It sounds like it was 80 minutes."
"It was two and a half hours."
"The fight scenes really went on for a while."
"Oh," I said, remembering the interminable 3rd act of Man of Steel. "Right."
"And it takes about an hour before anything actually happens."
"Oh. My god."
Of course, a sizable portion of the audience didn't actually like the movie, and so details escaped into the internets (because nothing gets a laugh like an "Aqua-Martha" joke). By the time I actually watched the movie, the only things I didn't really know were more in terms of texture than anything else. I'd heard a lot about the relentlessly grave tone (except when it suddenly isn't, and it feels like a different movie just popped on the screen for fifteen seconds) and loopy plot by Luthor. But I have to beg to differ about some of what folks said was a highlight of an otherwise not-very-good-film.
The movie is beautifully visualized, has a great score (mostly) and doesn't suffer from the unnecessary and motivation-free shakey-cam of Man of Steel. It features some interesting visuals for superhero action that contain a different pace and framing from anything Marvel is currently doing - which feels more like a videogame than the Jason Bourne-esque work of, say, Captain America: Civil War. On that, your mileage will vary. The movie hews to a worldview that wants to reflect a certain version of CNN-flavored reality (complete with appearances by Anderson Cooper and Soledad O'Brien) to give it gravitas - and it does include characters who are not Avengers or SHIELD agents, putting our characters into a world where there is a public and what they think matters a bit. And, as should be obvious to anyone but 3 out of 5 Superman comics writers, the cast of The Daily Planet exists to play proxy to humanity and remind us that Superman is pretty special even in his own comic - and the movie fully embraces that idea.
But... Look, this movie is a mess, and whether it starred Superman and Batman or Marcia Brady vs Marie Osmond in a life-or-death brawl, I'd have a lot of the same criticisms.
Based upon this film and Suicide Squad, DC's decision to jump in the deep end and avoid solo-origin-features in favor of team movies in media res (a notion cheered by comics fans who claim to be tired of origin stories) has meant that you must spend considerable screen time establishing characters, their status quo, etc... anyway. Funny how that works out. And, if I thought Suicide Squad's introductory title cards were a little on the nose, literally opening file folders to plow through "and this is this guy, and this is this guy" is an incredibly mangled way to avoid the pitfall of telling instead of showing.
I was told by a few people "It's like Zack Snyder never read the comics". And I know why they'd say that, but it's very clear Snyder read Dark Knight Returns (and maybe only DKR) as there are at least three or four direct lines of dialog from the comic shoe-horned into the script - sometimes to awkward or clunky effect. Example: Bruce's inner monologue about what his parents taught him versus what Superman's parents taught him sounds like a pedantic thirteen year-old with no perspective, not a grown-assed adult with life experience. The shared history of the DCU that informs DKR doesn't exist, so none of the weight of Batman's statement regarding their parents means much. There are also a few visuals he must have liked (Batman bursting through a wall, Batman holding a heavy machinegun at someone holding a hostage, nuking Superman, etc...). Keep in mind, this is the guy who just storyboarded straight from Watchmen and then STILL managed to put together a movie that didn't seem to quite get what the comic was actually about.
I've been gritting my teeth about WB's hard-on for wanting to do a Superman v Batman picture and "Death of Superman" picture since the 1990's. Those things work in context - once you've got both characters firmly established and something feels like it's at stake (see: Captain America - Civil War), but are otherwise like wandering into a wrestling match. Yeah, you can see two colorful characters pummeling each other because that's what it says on the marquee, and that'll sell some tickets, but it's not exactly epic storytelling.
Since Watchmen, I've felt Snyder doesn't really get "character" or "motivation" beyond what's on the page for him, and barely lets the actors act in favor of camera movements and on-the-nose musical cues. He gets what looks and *feels* cool, but not why it has meaning. While he's technically gifted from an art-direction standpoint, I sometimes wonder what it's like to have an actual conversation with Snyder and hear what he thinks other people must be thinking - because his characters never show much inner-thought process beyond the emotional range of the aforementioned teenager.
Now, in BvS:DoJ, motivations are stated over and over and over, but they mostly make no sense, and when characters are finally pushed into action, that doesn't make any sense, either. And, yes, abso-f'ng-lutely nothing makes any sense about any aspect of Lex's plan, let alone his motivation (and do not tell me to reference the Special Cut or whatever. This is the movie WB put out. This is the movie. If it doesn't work here, it doesn't work. "The Director's Cut is better" is, actually, fair game, but that doesn't "fix" what WB released for consumer consumption to the cinema.) But that holds true for Batman as well.
Batman hates Superman for basically taking part in trying to stop Zod - which, if anything, this Batman should hate Superman for not getting the hell out of town with his fight - which is sort of true. But when you see Batman in action, he's firing missiles and machineguns in populated areas, he's plowing through buildings (possibly through load-bearing walls), and straight up murdering dozens of people when he absolutely doesn't have to. So, what, is he just jealous of the scale on which Superman gets to operate?
In short, Batman's anger with Superman works a whole lot like plain 'ol vanilla xenophobia, which fits pretty neatly, frankly, with the "Bruce Wayne is a paranoid oligarch" narrative the comics have to constantly fight in order to keep Batman from becoming a rich guy solving society's ills by punching people instead of working within the law and maybe helping stop the causes of crime such as poverty and social injustice. Yes, of course Superman could become a tyrant, but outfitting yourself with machineguns and armor plated cars and running over people with no legal authority isn't exactly not the work of the proto-fascist (and this movie quotes Bruce from Dark Knight Returns, stating "Of course we're criminals. We've always been criminals." which made sense in the context of DKR, but in this context just makes Batman a highly motivated jerk who can't believe someone took something away from him.).
The fact that Superman then spends time in what I'd consider some very pretty scenes saving people in true Superman fashion, illustrating that he's a helpful sort of chap (but, heaven knows he's miserable now), makes no impact on Lex, Batman or anyone we see in public aside from people in Mexico who know a good thing when they see it. Despite his career as a reporter, it seems the notion has never occurred to Superman or his Pulitzer-winning live-in-girlfriend that maybe he should talk to the press about the incident which leveled Metropolis, or what he's up to these days. And, thus, his motives remain mysterious. It just seems odd (or not) that the two people who seem to really have it in for our selfless humanitarian who has spent 18 months asking for nothing as he goes about rescuing people again and again are the two rich industrialists, and both set out to kill him.
I mean, there's a lot about people I don't get, and maybe it's possible my sensibilities are so far gone from those of Snyder, Goyer, et al., that I can't really even get what they think is happening in their movie, but it fails to make any sense to me.
Superman apparently lives a bay away from Batman, and so notices that, hey, for 20 years someone has been ruthlessly beating criminals. And, I mean, he seems pretty steamed. But rather than just take Batman in, after surely witnessing him killing a half-dozen to a dozen guys (and letting the bad guys get away), Superman just shows up and tells Batman "hey, knock off being Batman. I totally mean it." Like, there's literally nothing to stop him from wrapping Batman up in a bow and delivering him to the police at that point, but instead, Batman gets a firm "stop it!". Which, of course, just makes Batman really, really mad.
I don't know how I feel about Ben Affleck as Batman. Fine, I guess. He just walks around angry for two hours and twenty minutes of the movie and then walks around feeling like an asshat for getting duped and not seeing "the guy who helps everyone wasn't here to kill everyone". In some ways, he's not given much to do, and angry is easy to play.
Henry Cavill, on the other hand, is given even less to do. I'm maybe a bit more sympathetic to the "it suuuuuucks being Superman" stuff than I thought I'd be. The movie is absolutely about how people are dicks to people trying to make a difference and maybe acknowledging that the first movie had some huge issues with giving a crap about human beings. I'm not sure the right choice was to spend 2.5 hours focusing on that mistake. But, man, even when Superman climbs into a tub with a wet and naked Amy Adams, it feels like a call for help more than sexy time. The man just can't find joy, and seems in need of some deep therapy (and to quit reading comment sections). He's stuck being cut and looking rad in that pants-less Superman suit and looking goddamned miserable as both Superman and Clark.
Meanwhile, Clark is living in the same city he helped destroy and where he killed thousands (maybe a good motivator for protecting Metropolis), and his Editor-in-Chief at his cockamamie newspaper job you-cannot-figure-how-he-got-it can't seem to decide what the hell beat he works on. Is he sports? Is he hard news? Is he doing puff pieces? And his mom is helicopter-parenting him and telling him he gets an f'ing participation trophy for showing up.**
Amy Adams, who is a joy and delight for merely existing, is fine as Lois, as usual, and you can absolutely tell that her contract states she'll have x-minutes of screentime in this movie and written so she doesn't become the helpless girlfriend, because her plotline about bullets doesn't ever really impact the story, and we spend a curious amount of time seeing her do things that don't really move the ball down the field.
Lex hates Superman because... the uh... he's a space god, and his dad beat him and god didn't help him? So, he has weird bullets and somehow Superman's involvement in a Middle Eastern conflict when he rescues Lois Lane (lifted incoherently from Greg Rucka's Superman run) makes headlines and causes international confusion in a poorly elaborated manner with no consequences other than to make CNN talk about him a bit.
Lex clearly doesn't particularly care about civilian casualties or property damage, so his motivation is not to help people.* He's literally just the bad guy to be the bad guy in a movie that's trying to exist in a universe that's more "real" than the Marvel Universe, according to WB execs.
No, I didn't particularly like Eisenberg's casting or character choices. Yeah, it was an entirely new take on Lex Luthor, but seemed to fit more in the Jim Carrey riffing on Frank Gorshin's Riddler school of super villainry than anything else. Likely he wanted to get as far away from what he'd already done as Mark Zuckerburg in The Social Network, and I get that he was trying for a certain mania - it's just not something I associate with the character in any other media, and, ultimately, it felt more irritating than menacing. But, you know, I kind of suspect the scariest thing in the world to WB execs are Silicon Valley dweebs who suddenly make a billion dollars off an idea and being able to execute on it.
I'd also point out that there are some stunning similarities between the techno-science-magic of BvS:DoJ and Superman IV when it comes to the radiation-powered bad-guy who Superman must fight. I wonder if anyone noticed the combo of Kryptonian DNA and Lex Luthor's DNA and a bullshit science-fiction cloning scheme took place in both films.
The appearance of Doomsday seems to be from a fairly straightforward first script before DC/ WB executives arrived with a punchlist of items they were going to need for the rest of their movie slate and to make sure the movie went from being a typical comic-booky team-up formula to setting up the rest of the DCEU. One can see how "Superheroes fight, figure out they've been duped, go after the big bad - uh, oh, he's got a monster" works as a script. If you've read comics for 6 months, you've run across this exact story in some way. But the movie is also about that punchlist.
For even casual DC Comics readers, it's pretty clear DC intends to bring Darkseid in as the Big Bad worthy of the Justice League as he's the most formidable and scales towards more understandable in villainy terms than Starro or Despero or Starkiller. Batman's "dreams" include visions of Parademons, the Omega symbol and the fire pits of Apokolips on Earth, an idea first visualized during Grant Morrison's JLA run. And, frankly, that's something I would dearly love to see visualized on screen (I mean: big screen Granny Goodness! Barda! Scott Free! Orion!).
Still, if we're headed towards Apokolips in upcoming films and we're going to half-ass the Doomsday storyline, anyway, why not use someone else in Doomsday's place? Why not Kalabak or a made-up Apokolyptian monster to cue Batman to be on guard? Why not make it all one thing instead of finally realizing the dreams of WB producers from 1994 who wanted to see Superman die on screen more than they wanted to make a watchable movie?
But - as was widely noted - Wonder Woman also feels like a part of that punchlist, providing nearly nothing to the story other than distraction. Her parts tie to the parts where we line up what else is coming, and her introduction to the fight - while obviously well visualized in production - could have not been in the movie at all. Or those extra, clunky character introductions (I like that you can buy an action figure of Aquaman from his full 10 seconds on screen).
I'm going to risk what little sympathy I've got here to also say - for all I heard about how much fun it was to see Wonder Woman show up and fight (about which I agree about 75%. I don't know I was as excited by battle-lust Diana as some of you as that felt a bit out of character), I wasn't particularly excited by what scenes I saw with Gal Gadot as Diana Prince, and with a whole WW movie coming that has to rest on her shoulders, that makes me a bit twitchy. Nothing would make me happier than to have a kick-ass, not-dumb Wonder Woman film.
But I have to wonder (ba-dump-bum) what folks who weren't DC Comics fans thought was even happening? I guess they got excited? Felt like they were paying to basically see the set up for more future films? Is that fun? Is this what we're doing with movies now? I can't answer that question for that audience. But I'd assume that this movie being good would be a key component to wanting to see what was up with Batman and his magical dreams (bonus points if DC somehow works Dream of the Endless in at some point to explain how Batman was having magical dreams).
Look, I don't know. I could go on and on, but this post is longer than it needs to be already. The movie just doesn't work on a multitude of levels from a "story" perspective, and I'll define that here as logically consistent characters and events. In particular, it seems character gets exceedingly short shrift in favor of "cool" scenes and teeth gritting, and it's possible the longer cut fixes those things. I'll watch it eventually and get back to you, but the idea of spending three hours with this movie again is not exactly something I'm looking forward to.
A movie is a 2-hour-ish experience and part of what you need to work to get to know and like a movie is internal consistency, not a lot of rationalizing for getting from one scene to the next.
I'm not entirely surprised. The movie was rushed into production and was part of a corporate strategy that felt designed in a boardroom (right down to the ludicrous title) and seems to be a mix of compromises, too many people with a say in the important places and no one taking responsibility for the final product. DC has lacked a Kevin Feige, Diane Nelson never exposing herself in her role as DC President and Snyder - who is usually put out as the mastermind of the movies - has a pretty bad track record critically and is just mind-bogglingly baffled by the criticisms of the movies.
That's now 3 movies I've seen out of the three attempted by DC Entertainment, and - wow, all of them have been pretty much terrible in one way or another. Sure, there are small bits to enjoy (I still like that Hans Zimmer Superman score and let us always treasure Amy Adams), but they're just so badly put together, and not in that "gotcha!" way that was super popular on nerd-websites a few years ago, but in general construction that I'm not sure would have made it out of a critiquing session in my screen-writing class in film school.
I do take heart that Geoff Johns, who has deeply restored my faith in DC Comics this summer with the editorial edicts of Rebirth, has taken a leadership position at DCE, and in the stories goinga round that DC is thinking of rushing another Superman movie (the next was slated for something crazy like 2021), in order to remind people Superman isn't an emo kid with a lantern jaw. There's always hope.
*what does LexCorp do, exactly? Is it a hip tech power a la Google? A biomed research organization? A weapons manufacturer? It's all of these things, and that's actually okay, but a line of exposition wouldn't have killed the movie's momentum, exactly.
**look, I know I don't have kids, but I kinda think part of parenting is not just always telling your kid "you can quit when the going gets hard". It's not just impractical, that's kinda how you build character, and if Superman is supposed to have anything, it's character. Here's a key difference between where we are in 2016 versus what we were up to in 1938, I guess.