Monday, March 28, 2016

Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice Review

Batman vs. Superman is a grand dramatic deconstruction of superhero mythology – an ambitious film that ultimately does not live up to its big vision. It is, if you follow its marketing, at once a simple popcorn blockbuster action flick and also a modern day fable about the obligations of power and the will to do good in an amoral society. It is a story of three orphan boys – Lex Luthor, Bruce Wayne, Kal El, and their attempts to live up to their father's ideals, and the misplaced anger at god that the first two men focus on the third. Batman vs. Superman moreso than any other comic book movie in recent history is a film that had the potential to really transcend, but as one character in the film says of another, the movie “flew too close to the sun,” and ultimately crashed under its own weight.
To fairly criticize a film you have to understand what it is trying to do. Once you understand a film's goals, you can break down how effectively it accomplishes them. In terms of goals, some films are more ambitious than others. The Avengers, for example, had only a few simple goals: Put together a bunch of heroes against a decent villain, have tons of great action, and be funny. It succeeded in all three cases and thus was very well-regarded. By contrast, consider The Dark Knight. It had far more complex goals. It had to complicate and develop the story of Batman, introduce a new Joker, improve on the action and effects from the first film, tell the tragic story of Harvey Dent and Rachel, and all the while, tell a noir-ish story that exemplifies complex moral themes about sacrifice, justice, and the nature of heroism. It succeeded on all fronts, some spectacularly (Joker) and thus is by my measure a better film than Avengers.

Man of Steel and Batman v Superman are similar to Dark Knight in that they too are films with lofty ambitions. In that regard, I have a genuine respect for them, in the same way I respect the guy who falls short trying to paint a Mona Lisa more than someone content to make really good stick figures. I also respect Warner Brothers' willingness to take risks. They tried to appeal to nostalgia with Superman Returns, and failed. They went in the other direction and gave us not-your-daddy's Superman in Man of Steel. It was ballsy to go so dark and heavy with a character that iconic. In BvS, they go even further. They make Superman emotional and menacing at times, do away with Batman's no kill rule, and present an unsettling, mercurial version of Lex Luthor that fans are not likely to recognize. In a world of endless safe, soft remakes, reboots, sequels, and rehashes, I have to give credit when I see a big corporate studio put hundreds of millions of dollars into such a daring interpretation of their biggest properties.

That said, not all risks pay off in the end. One of the problems Warner Brothers has run into with Nolan and Snyder helming their DC properties is that their movies seem to assume that, for a movie to be 'serious', it has to be bleak and oppressive in tone. This is a false dichotomy; DC does not have to copy the light, popcorn-flick tone of Marvel to be successful. The issue is that the dark, angry tone worked for the Batman trilogy as his story is very much about the blacker parts of human nature. Superman, however, represents something different. His film needed a serious but more aspirational tone, something between The First Avenger and Interstellar. In fact the better parts of Man of Steel have that vibe, and it isn't just because of the soundtrack. BvS unfortunately doubles down on the grittiness, resulting in the narrative's inadequacies coming into sharper relief.

So what exactly is BvS trying to do and how well does it do those things? Lets start with the first question. It seems to me the movie has six goals:

1. Introduce Batman, give us his basic characterization, and establish his motive for fighting Superman.
2. Develop the character of Superman by having him wrestle with his role in the world.
3. Present a thought-provoking moral theme about accountability and power.
4. Introduce Wonder Woman, make her intriguing, make us care about her story.
5. Introduce a new take on Lex Luthor.
6. Build a foundation for the Justice League movie and other individual character movies.

As we have learned from Spiderman 3, movies with more than three or four big goals are likely not going to succeed at all of them. BvS is a movie trying to do a lot of stuff, even with a full three-hour runtime in the uncut R-rated version. Before I break down each goal and how the film did, I'll just give my basic grade for each one:

1. B
2. D
3. C
4. C+
5. C
6. B-

Lets start with the introduction of Batman. The movie economically gives us the tragedy of Bruce's parents in a well-done opening section. His motive for mistrusting Superman is established convincingly. I thought Affleck embodied the character with a quiet rage that worked well for the film's first half. In terms of the look – the suit, the car, the gear – this is probably the best Batman that's ever been put to film. I was even OK with him being willing to use lethal force as this is a much more jaded war-weary character whose no kill rule probably led to personal tragedy. Where it breaks down is in the film's final act. The setup for the fight involved a needlessly convoluted plot with Luthor forcing Superman to attack Bruce. They should have just let Batman strike first (there's even a great mention of the Wayne family having a heritage as hunters) by tracking Superman. Furthermore, Batman's change of heart regarding Superman felt really contrived and abrupt. Not much payoff for such a long-hyped showdown.

Superman is not done many favors by the story either. When he isn't being a tough guy, saying things like “consider this mercy,” and “I'll take you in without breaking you, which is more than you deserve,” he is either babysitting Lois or feeling sorry for himself. The relationship with Lois I felt dragged down his presence a good bit. What's more his one big opportunity to make a speech and maybe say something interesting is literally blown up. Superman has some great moments, to be sure. He genuinely tries to be a hero and is willing to sacrifice himself when needed. He also has some of the greatest visuals in the film. There is one really powerful scene where he rescues a girl from a fire and is surrounded by an awe-struck crowd. Unfortunately the movie just does not do much to improve the character.

Part of the reason the character is not served by the film is the fact that the core theme is basically abandoned by the film's final act. The story takes pains to set up a reasonable critique of Superman's choices with a subplot involving his intervention in Africa to save Lois. There is a fantastic montage featuring some very famous writers and thinkers that digs into some of the more abstract ramifications of a being like Superman. It's great stuff that the rest of the film does not live up to as the story instead opts for wacky villain plots, kidnappings, and monster fights. In The Dark Knight, the action of the story embodies the abstract ideas. “You either die a hero or you live long enough to see yourself become the bad guy,” “We burned down the forest,” “When the chips are down these civilized people will eat each other.” The story's ending is powerful as a result. In BvS, by contrast, there's just a lot of self-serious talk divorced from heavily contrived fight scenes. As a result of this (and other reasons), the ending felt quite cheap.

As for Wonder Woman and Lex, I think both were a mixed bag. Gadot looked the part and was great in the action scenes. She just does not have much charisma out of the costume. Great actors own the role – make you feel like no one else could do what they did, like Robert Downey Jr.'s Iron Man or Ledger's Joker. I am pretty sure 100 other actresses could have done what Gadot did and likely better. Still, she wasn't bad, and her plot thread got me intrigued about Wonder Woman's story. I am looking forward to that film next year.

Eisenberg's Luthor was also interesting but flawed. I really respect what he was trying to do with the role. He did not ride the coattails of Hackman and Spacey, which is good as the cigar-chomping real-estate scheming Luthor of the 70's would have felt anachronistic. Instead Eisenberg went for a manic narcissistic millennial vibe. He speaks cryptically and drops lots of references, to show off his intelligence. He dresses like a hipster, plays pick up basketball, awkwardly flubs public speeches, and does inappropriate things with candy (I'll leave that to your imagination if you haven't seen it yet). He is young, a genius, and extremely rich, so it makes sense that he has some idiosyncrasies. I think Eisenberg succeeded in making the character unpredictable and unnerving. The problem is that he never came off as a true mastermind type of threat, and it is for a simple reason: His Big Evil Plan was dumb. I don't even really know why he hated Superman to begin with. In the comics, Luthor is one of the smartest men on the planet with ten different contingency plans and a thoughtful, humanistic motivation for hating Superman. In BvS, he's just a snotty weirdo who isn't even clever enough to stay out of prison.

Finally there is the question of future movies – the universe building. BvS does this in a few points. Batman's dream sequence which foreshadows the true DC big bad, Darkseid, is one of the film's most interesting moments. A cameo from the Flash at the scene's end will add to your curiosity. Beyond that what we get is a weirdly-timed montage of security footage confirming the existence of three other Justice League members. On the one hand, I like that the movie introduced the characters in a way that did not feel forced or interrupt the main story. On the other hand, it does feel cheap. It could have used some polish and maybe a bit more screen time. Suffice to say we now know that the next movie will feature Batman seeking out the other Justice League members. There is potential there for an quality, unconventional superhero movie if done right.

Ultimately Batman v Superman is a missed opportunity – another ambitious big budget adaptation from DC that is bound to divide critics and fans. While Warner Brothers is already full steam ahead on Justice League and Wonder Woman films, I do hope they reconsider Snyder, Goyer, and Nolan's approach, if not replace some of these guys. They all have talent, sure, but it just has not translated into good Superman stories. I say this as a comic fan who is glad to see Marvel have some competition at the box office from more mature, challenging superhero movies. Here's hoping Suicide Squad and the next batch of non-Snyder DC movies can keep the genre interesting.