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Josh Reviews Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice

April 1st, 2016
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Well, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice isn’t the catastrophe that I’d thought it would be based on the terrible trailers, but that doesn’t mean it’s anything approaching a good movie.  The film is fun to watch, in a brain-dead sort of way.  Seeing Batman and Superman (and Wonder Woman) on screen together is certainly a thrill, but the movie is such a disjointed mess, such a blatant advertisement for the next ten DC universe super-hero movies that Warner Brothers wants to make, that it barely functions as a movie despite (or because of?) its lengthy run-time.

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Let’s start with what the film does well.  Let’s not forget what a groundbreaking thing it is to have Superman and Batman on screen together.  In this age of the Marvel Cinematic Universe it’s easy to forget that no one has ever done what Marvel has so successfully done, creating a shared universe in which the super-hero characters can team up together in one another’s movies.  This is still a pretty cool thing.  A Batman/Superman crossover movie has been talked about for a while now — and Warner Brothers came very, very close to making one about a decade ago (I believe a billboard for that aborted project can be seen in the Will Smith I am Legend film) but it’s never actually happened until now.  This sort of crossover is commonplace for comic book fans, but seeing it happen in a live-action movie is still pretty exciting.  I love seeing these characters together (and wish that they were actually together more in this long movie, but wait, let’s hold my litany of complaints for another few paragraphs), and it’s great fun seeing Clark Kent use his super-powers to listen in on Bruce Wayne’s earpiece communications with Alfred, or to see Batman and Superman slug it out underneath the bat-signal.

This film’s biggest success is its depiction of Batman.  I absolutely love Ben Affleck in the role.  I think it’s a great choice that, rather than re-tell the Batman origin yet again, instead the filmmakers decided to give us an old, grizzled Batman, one who has already been operating in the shadows for years before Superman’s arrival on the scene.  This is a brand-new movie version of Batman, and it works like gangbusters.  Director Zack Snyder has borrowed heavily from the depiction of an old Batman in Frank Miller’s iconic, wonderful “last Batman story” from 1986, The Dark Knight Returns.  This is not a version of Batman that I ever expected to see on-screen, and I love it.  It makes a lot of sense to contrast a bitter Batman with the more noble, idealistic Superman (except that this movie’s near-total betrayal of the Superman character gives us a Superman who is not noble or idealistic at all, but again, let’s hold the complaints for a few more moments).  Anyways, Ben Affleck is great at playing the haunted, now-cynical crimefighter.  He’s great in the bat-suit and out of it.  This is a rare Bruce Wayne who I enjoyed seeing in his normal Bruce Wayne guise.  Rather than Christian Bale’s self-punishing version from the Nolan films, this Bruce Wayne likes to sleep around and drink wine.  (Alfred’s great line about hoping that the Wayne grandchildren won’t face an empty wine cellar is taken right out of The Dark Knight Returns.)  I love the mechanized, Superman-fighting Batsuit (again, ripped right from the pages of The Dark Knight Returns and brought to glorious life on-screen), but I actually like the regular Batsuit even more.  How great is that first glimpse of this film’s Batman, when the cop spies him hanging from the corner of the ceiling?  Marvelous.  I love that this is a much bulkier Batman than we’ve ever seen before.  It’s a great look.  This is a Batman I’d love to see in additional movies.

One of my complaints about Man of Steel was the way Superman pretty much destroyed Metropolis in his battle with Zod, and yet no one in the movie ever seemed too upset about that, nor does the movie ever show us the consequences of that insane battle.  Thankfully, the repercussions of that battle form a key story-point here in the sequel.  At the beginning of the film, we get to see that crazy Metropolis fight from the point-of-view of Bruce Wayne as a normal human being on the ground.  This is a great choice, and it’s a high-point of the film.  Zack Snyder and his team borrow heavily from 9/11 imagery, but it works powerfully and is a great instigating device to set Batman at odds with Superman, as Bruce Wayne now hates and fears this godlike being who wreaked such havoc on an American city.

In a movie jam-packed with a million characters, I’d expected Lois Lane to be mostly ignored, but I was glad that she still had a relatively large role in the film.  I love that first scene of her and Clark together, with her in the bathtub.  I was surprised that the film jumped to having Lois and Clark so deep into a relationship together, but that totally worked.  Again, this might be familiar to comic book fans but isn’t something we’d ever really seen on-screen before.  I loved that first scene, very sweet and intimate.  (And adult, what with Lois being nude in the tub!)  I wish the two characters had more good scenes together as the film went on.  (Oops there I go again with the complaints!)

OK, so what didn’t work?

So much, I hardly know where to begin.  There are going to be some SPOILERS ahead, gang, so beware if you haven’t seen this movie yet.

Let’s start with the movie’s near-total misunderstanding of Superman/Clark Kent, and also of Ma and Pa Kent.  This was a huge problem with Man of Steel, in which Pa Kent — rather than providing Clark with the moral upbringing that would make him the greatest, most noble super-hero of them all, and teaching him of his responsibility to use his powers for good — instead spends the whole movie telling Clark not to help others, and instead to hide away.  They double-down on this in this film, and it’s very upsetting.  Pa Kent appears in a dream/flashback, telling a story about the unintended terrible consequences of a time when he tried to be a hero.  The moral being, don’t try to help anyone ever?  Meanwhile, Ma Kent tells Clark that he doesn’t owe the world anything, and he should go and do whatever he wants and forget about everyone else.  Holy cow, what a complete and utter misrepresentation of these characters, and of the values that they should be teaching to their son!

It’s no surprise, then, that they also get Clark Kent/Superman even wronger than they did in Man of Steel.  The core of this character is his deep, unwavering and unbreakable core of nobility.  But this Superman is a scowly, mopey jerk.  Why doesn’t he seem to do anything to stop people from worshipping him when he helps them (as seen in a montage early in the film)?  Why does he spend much of the movie debating whether he should be helping people at all?  Why does he respond to the bombing of the Senate by running away?  Why, when he first meets Batman to lecture Bats about being mean to criminals, does he just let the ARMED GOONS who Batman was chasing get away?  Why, when he meets Batman again in an attempt to get Bats to help him save Martha Kent, does he let himself get drawn so easily into the fight that Batman is spoiling to have?  (Instead of punching and throwing Batman, how about Supes just use his super-strength to hold onto Bats for two seconds and actually TALK to him??)  For that matter, why doesn’t Superman actually talk to ANY character in the film other than Lois Lane?  (Seriously, instead of being super-aloof, Superman should be genially chatting with everyone he encounters.)  Why doesn’t this Superman ever smile?  Most egregiously, why does Superman, for the second movie in a row, not one single time spare a second during the epic final battle taking place in a city look around to make sure that all the innocent people are safely out of the way?

Meanwhile, for all that I meant everything I said above about how much I enjoyed Ben Affleck’s depiction of Bruce Wayne/Batman, I can’t believe how often they show Batman killing in this film.  Let’s forget the ridiculous dream sequence in the desert when Batman shoots a ton of guys with a handgun (not only should Batman never kill, but a core tenet of the character is that he HATES GUNS because a gun was used to murder his parents!), but look at the big Batmobile chase in the middle of the film.  Batman kills like a dozen of those goons, right?  Seriously, at one moment he uses the guns on the Batmobile to shoot up one of the bag guys’ cars, then he DRIVES RIGHT THROUGH the car with the Batmobile, utterly obliterating it in a huge explosion!

Devin Faraci, in a phenomenal piece on BirthMoviesDeath, compares this movie to the brilliant Mark Waid/Alex Ross comic book story Kingdom Come.  That story was a perfect example of what this film was trying to do: to create a darker, grimmer, more “modern” world around these characters.  Except, as Mr. Faraci points out, the reason Kingdom Come works, and indeed the whole point of that story, was that it was all about how Batman and Superman never compromised their innate goodness, even in a darker, more violent world.  Indeed, their ideals and values were more important than ever, and that’s what made them heroes.  Devin quotes the great line from the book, in which Superman, pleading with Batman to bury the hatchet on their deep grievances so they can stand together once again, tells Bats: “The deliberate taking of human — even superhuman — life goes against every belief I have — and that you have.  More than anyone in the world, when you scratch everything else away from Batman, you’re left with someone who doesn’t want to see anyone die.”  That’s a brilliant distillation of who Batman is — and who Superman is too.  And yet Batman v Superman totally misses that point.

The next problem is that, time and again, the film ludicrously over-complicates everything in a way that totally dilutes what could have been an interesting story.  Let me give a few examples.  First, let’s take Lex Luthor’s bombing of the Senate hearings.  For a brief moment I thought that was an interesting plot twist.  With Superman as the only survivor, the public would never know what happened inside — did Superman get angry and kill everyone? — and this would be a great reason for the public to start to turn against him.  But no, seconds later we see a news report that has the whole true story, that it was a suicide bombing.  But the public DOES still turn against Superman, because instead of his coming out and explaining to everyone what happened, he has some sort of weird crisis of confidence and goes into hiding.  Not only does that not make any plot sense (as how could Lex have possibly known that would be how Superman would react, and so therefore what were Lex’s intentions with the bombing in the first place?) but it is also a ridiculously nonsensical and out-of character way for Superman to react.  We have to jump through a lot of complicated narrative hoops to get to a place where the public turns on Superman, when the writers had a much more direct route right there in front of them.

An even more egregious example is this: the movie spends its first hour and a half building up reasons for Batman to hate and fear Superman, so we have plenty of reasons for the characters to fight — Batman is going to lash out at Superman and try to take him down.  We therefore don’t need all the business with Lex Luthor kidnapping Martha Kent and forcing Superman to go fight Batman.  It’s a lot of wasted time to get us to the Batman-Superman fight that the movie had already set up just fine!

There are so many examples of things like this in the film.  Lois Lane spends a scene trying to decide how to dispose of a Kryptonite spear, and then five minutes later we have to have a whole sequence of her trying to get it back from where she’d put it.  Why waste our time with all that, just have her hold onto the spear!  (And by the way, how on Earth did Lois know that the spear would be helpful against Doomsday, anyways?)

I love Jesse Eisenberg but his whiny, tic-filled depiction of Lex Luthor is a big swing and a miss.  (Zack Snyder was apparently originally in talks with Bryan Cranston to play Luthor, before he met with Mr. Eisenberg and decided to go a completely different way with the character.  Hoo boy, can you imagine how great Bryan Cranston would have been as Lex Luthor?  That’s a big missed opportunity.)  Poor Jesse Eisenberg is also totally let down by the script, in which Lex does all sorts of crazy things for no discernible reason.  Why does the Lex in this film hate Superman?  Why does Lex add his own blood to Kryptonian DNA — isn’t pure Kryptonian DNA pretty much all-powerful?  Why does Lex create a murderous unstoppable monster (Doomsday) — what does he possibly hope to achieve?  How, at the end of the movie when Lex is in prison, does he seem to know all about Darkseid (who I expect will be the villain of the upcoming Justice League movies)?  None of it makes much sense.

Speaking of the upcoming Justice League movies, this film is basically a long advertisement for the ambitious slate of DC superhero movies that Warner Brothers plans to make in the next few years.  I am all for planting seeds for future movies to develop — the Marvel movies are great at that — but this movie is embarrassingly clumsy in the way it goes about this.  The movie’s very title is a blatant advertisement for a future movie.  Dawn of Justice.  Sigh.  We get it, a Justice League movie is coming next year.  But it gets worse.  Wonder Woman has a surprising amount of screen-time in a movie called Batman v Superman, and actress Gal Gadot seems to be doing a fine job (she certainly looks and sounds like a good depiction of Wonder Woman), but she gets zero, and I mean zero, character-development of any kind.  Do we get to know her at all or learn anything about her?  No.  If you removed every single scene of Wonder Woman from this film, it would have absolutely no impact on the story.

And Lex Luthor just happens to have files on every single Justice League member?  And he’s labeled those files on his computer with their individual super-hero emblems/logos?  And each clip shows us a perfect little snippet of the actors cast to portray these characters in Justice League?  Double sigh.

But the worst example of this, and one of the most staggering mis-steps in a film filled with staggering mis-steps, is the bizarre long dream/hallucination/vision that Batman gets in the middle of the film.  Suddenly Batman is fighting goons dressed in black and labeled with Superman’s emblem in the desert?  Superman has gone evil because Lois Lane was killed?  Batman is shooting people with a handgun?  There’s a symbol of the villain Darkseid carved into the ground?  The Flash appears to give Batman a warning from the future?  This sequence is totally out of left field and impossible to understand as it is happening.  It didn’t make any sense to me, a big comic-book fan, and I can’t imagine what any non-fan would possibly make of it.  If this sequence was meant to build excitement about future films it totally fails because we don’t have a clue what was going on.  (If Zack Snyder thought that 90% of film-goers would recognize or care about that Darkseid symbol, he was dead wrong.)  Rather than being an exciting tease of a future villain, like the amazing Thanos reveal at the end of The Avengers, this sequence totally threw me out of the story of the film.  And, to add insult to injury, the whole thing winds up being completely irrelevant!  Batman doesn’t do anything with the information given to him by Future-Flash.  In fact, he never seems to think about it or mention it ever again in the film.  As with Wonder Woman, you could cut this entire sequence right out of the film and the story of the movie wouldn’t be the least bit disrupted.  This is basic failure of narrative story-telling, folks.

Sigh.  Here are some additional comments, both positive and negative.  OK, mostly negative.

* Let’s start with a positive.  Just as I loved Ben Affleck as Batman I also LOVED Jeremy Irons as Alfred.  This is a very different version of Alfred than we’ve seen before in a Batman film, and I loved that.  This Alfred is younger, more a peer to Bruce than a father-figure.  He also seems to be just as involved in the design/maintenance/operation of all of the Batman tech as Bruce Wayne is.  But he’s still 100% Alfred, still seeing things exactly straight when Bruce gets himself a little lost.  Great.

* Stuffing Doomsday into this film would have been a mistake even if they’d done a great job with the depiction of the character.  Spoiler alert: they don’t.  Doomsday is a generic CGI mess, a cross between the Cave Troll from The Fellowship of the Ring and the hideous-looking Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles from those new CGI Turtles movies they’re making.  The character looks awful and is also boring and uninteresting.  This monster has no character and no personality.  It’s just something for Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman to punch for a while at the end of the film.

* And come on, in a movie building up to the uniting of the DC Trinity on-screen — Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman — wouldn’t you think you’d like these characters to, you know, actually say something to one another during the fight?  Wouldn’t you want to see them using their different strengths to work together to defeat the monster, thus learning that they’re stronger together than separate?  Nope.  They just take turns punching the thing.  For a contrasting approach, look at Marvel’s two Avengers movies.  When the big super-hero slugfests come, they’re marvelously choreographed so we get to see the characters fighting together in interesting ways, we get to see them each using their powers in their own manner and working together to take down their enemies.  Not so here.

* I was also surprised by how let down I was by the actual big Superman-Batman fight at the center of this film.  I objected, above, to using the kidnapped Martha Kent as a plot device because I felt it needlessly over-complicated the story.  It also resulted in me, as an audience member, not thinking the Batman-Superman fight was fun because poor Martha was suffering while Superman and Bats fooled around.  Zack Snyder takes a lot of beats from the fight right out of Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, but the context is all wrong.  There, readers could enjoy Bats beating the stuffing out of fascistic Superman, but here, by having Martha Kent’s fate dangling over the fight, as a viewer I wasn’t enjoying it, I just wanted it to be over.  That was a story-telling mistake, I feel.  Also, Frank Miller’s original fight was perfectly paced, a clever build-up to the eventual reveal of Bruce’s dosing Supes with Kryptonite.  But here, Zack Snyder cuts to the Kryptonite gag way too soon, and after that there’s not much more to the fight except for, wait for it, Batman doing the exact same thing again a second time.  Sigh.

* As is my usual complaint about modern super-hero films, I wish there were actual strong themes for these characters.  I enjoyed Hans Zimmer’s reprise of his quiet theme on a piano for Clark Kent/Superman from Man of Steel, but there’s no great action music for Superman, nor was I able to discern any recognizable theme for Batman.  During the Batmobile chase/fight, in my head I started playing Mr. Zimmer’s great, propulsive score for the big Batmobile chase in Batman Begins. I missed that sorely here.  I know Mr. Zimmer needed to compose new themes for this rebooted Batman, as opposed to using anything he had composed for Christopher Nolan’s Bat-trilogy, but on my first viewing at least I wasn’t blown away by anything he came up with here.

* Was that Jimmy Olsen who got shot in the head in Africa?  What??  Really??

* Speaking of which, I don’t understand how anyone thought Superman killed people in Africa.  The people who were killed were shot by Luthor’s mercenaries, right?  (As usual for the film, they didn’t exactly explain what was supposed to have happened.)  Why would anyone think that Superman was responsible for the deaths of someone shot by a gun?

* For that matter, why did Lex Luthor give his mercenaries rare, special bullets?  How about using good old regular bullets so that they couldn’t be traced right back to him?

* I was glad to see General Swann back from Man of Steel.

* I was glad to see this film take the time to explore many of the ramifications from the end of Man of Steel.  Not just Batman’s reaction to the destruction of Metropolis, but other details.  I liked that we learned what happened to Superman’s Fortress of Solitude (which he crashed into the World Engine over Metropolis), what happened to Zod’s body, what happened to the huge crater now in the middle of Metropolis, even what happened to the second World Engine on the other side of the globe.  (Though the answer to that one was stupid.  Superman just left it there?  All that alien technology there for anyone to scavenge?  All that who-knows-what alien chemicals and materials leaking out into the ocean?  All that Kryptonite just waiting to be found?  Silly.)

* I loved how faithfully Zack Snyder and his team were able to recreate the iconic imagery from Frank Miller’s depiction of the murder of Bruce Wayne’s parents.  Very cool.  The pearls were perfect.  (Though that added bit of Batman’s dreaming the bats were carrying him back up to the surface?  Super-weird!)

* Once I knew Doomsday was in this movie it was pretty clear how the film was going to end.  So no surprises there, and no real emotional weight either because we all know Supes will be all better by the time the Justice League movie rolls around.  I also can’t say I’m all that excited about still more Christ imagery added yet again onto a film depiction of this character (his resurrection to come and his using a “spear of destiny” in this film, on top of his arms-outstretched moment of floating back down to Earth from Man of Steel) who is really a Jewish, Moses figure created by two Jewish guys from New York.  But I digress…

Although I had far more negative things to say about Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice than positives, as I wrote in my introduction, it’s not a total catastrophe.  Zack Snyder is a great visualist and, until we get to ugly Doomsday, the film looks pretty great.  I love most of the Ben Affleck Batman stuff.  And it is a whole heck of a lot of fun to see Superman and Batman and Wonder Woman on-screen together.  This is a film with a lot of interesting ideas at play.  I like the strong core idea of why these two characters would be antagonistic to one another at the start of the film, and I like the way this film follows up on threads left dangling by the end of Man of Steel.  But this is a movie that needed a page-one rewrite, giving the film a more coherent plot and stronger development to all of the main characters.  Batman v Superman isn’t horrible, but as a big launch of the upcoming wave of DC Universe movies from Warner brothers I would say it failed almost completely, because this movie doesn’t leave me all that excited for lots more movies in this universe.

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