Saturday, March 26, 2016

Batman vs Superman Review

Like this here Bat-suit, Batman vs Superman is cool looking and ripe for symbolic communication, but ultimately empty.
I’m not sure how much I would have liked Zach Snyder’s Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice, DC’s maiden voyage into the cinematic realm of a shared universes for people with capes, if I were a ten year-old eager to see my Saturday morning heroes come alive on the big screen. The action, only moderately impressive when it occurs, is far outweighed by attempts at ponderous brooding and political pontification.

As an adult, that’s exactly what I was hoping for from this movie: explorations of justice, acting outside the law, and man’s hero worshiping tendencies. Sadly, despite what are clearly some sincere attempts by all involved, neither the genre-demanded action nor the more cerebral themes (mythic and political alike) really pay off. With the exception of some visually striking storytelling beats, the film isn't able to hold up under it’s own weight.

An answer to the high casualty finale of 2013’s Man of Steel, Dawn of Justice jumps 18 months ahead to catalog the world’s varied reactions to having an alien savior inhabit their world. Some see him as a god, and others a threat. Enter Ben Affleck’s Bruce Wayne and Jesse Eisenberg’s Lex Luthor, members of the latter group who propel the plot.

Wayne has it out for the Kryptonian after he witnesses a Wayne Enterprises building full of employees crumble as a result of the Metropolis Superman-Zod Showdown, a scene which evokes the imagery of 9/11 with striking effectiveness. Luthor’s antagonism is rooted in a sort of humanistic narcissism communicated through incessant references to the relationships between God and man or angels and demons: he wants Superman gone because, we are given no reason to suspect otherwise, such easy power invalidates his natural human superiority owed to intellect. He even laments that knowledge is no longer power during a speech at a library fundraiser.

Much of the film’s 2.5 hour run-time is spent unraveling a drawn out conspiracy plot which ends with the titular showoff. Luthor capitalizes on Wayne’s vendetta-prone personality to bait him along while simultaneously planting doubt in Kent’s mind by slowly turning public opinion against him. Meanwhile, Amy Adams’ Lois Lane follows clues to Washington (because we needed something for her to do), slowly sniffing out the conspiracy only to, ultimately, accomplish nothing but become a damsel in distress to summon the Man of Steel.

Superman stands before a Senate committee, ready to defend his actions. 
The character arcs of the primary protagonists Bruce Wayne and Superman (and those labels are intentional, given the screen time of these characters in and out of costume) start strong. Affleck's Bruce is neurotic, charming, obsessed, and violent in appropriate measure. An experienced Batman already, Bruce focuses his personal, quasi-fascist war on Superman, the alien threat who could “burn the whole place down.” He seems to even be past his “no killing” rule now. Cavill’s Superman remains largely unchanged from the preceding film. He wants so badly to do good, but like a presidential candidate, every move elicits polarized reactions, especially as he breaches into foreign policy and political sovereignty (a tragically underdeveloped element of the film - just as Superman is about the address a committee assembled to hold him accountable, stuff goes boom and the genre laughs at me once again). In the midst of all this, reporter Clark Kent finds himself appalled by the “Bat of Gotham,” whose “brand” of civil-rights-denying justice differs from his own.

And it’s in this contrast, despite its attempts to weave so many threads together in a thematically poignant epic, that the film missed a very simple but very rich opportunity only briefly explored. Our first exposures to the two heroes in the film illustrate their fundamental differences.

While Superman flies around the world saving girls from burning buildings and flood survivors waiting on roofs, Batman hunts, interrogates and brands sex traffickers. Superman protects the good. Batman pursues the evil - the threat.

"Bruce, please, we can just talk about our differences. We
don't have to resort to violence." 
Fundamentally, and this honors their comic book origins, too, these two men see the idea of justice differently. If Mr. Snyder wanted his pontifications to have the poignant payoff he so clearly sought, he would have been wise to focus on this simple difference of perspective and ideology rather than attempting to weave a number of character arcs and conspiracy plots which come up shallow and end in an ultimately disappointing slug fest.

And this leads us to the final act, which - as trailers have already spoiled - is composed of two rounds: Batman vs Superman, and later Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman vs Doomsday the CGI mess. The former of these two is slightly more exciting. Superman is strong and fast. Batman uses technology and tricks to even the playing field. Hans Zimmer scores crescendo. We get it. Aside from a sink being bashed over a hero’s head and a throwaway line about attributing meaning to tragedy, nothing too exciting happens. But at least it was interesting.

When Doomsday - a CGI giant reminiscent of one of Peter Jackson's uruk hai - is released, the screen becomes a dark, albeit kinetic, mishmash of flying punches, slashes, laser beams, and - of course - explosions. This is sad considering some of the more memorable fight scenes in Mr. Snyder’s resume from Watchmen and 300.

Humorously, a clear reaction to criticism of Man of Steel’s collateral damage, the film goes out of its way to assure viewers multiple times that there is nobody around who could get hurt in the fray. You can almost hear Warner Bros. P.R. squad in the background whispering into poor Mr. Snyder’s ear.

The highlight here is Batman’s little excursion to a crime hideout where he goes toe-to-toe with a room full of human combatants. This is the most “Batman-esque” scene in the film. He dominates the room with visual deception reminiscent of early scenes from Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns, which Mr. Snyder has acknowledged as a source of visual and thematic inspiration for the film, gadgets, and properly fierce melees. Unlike the reserved predecessor played by Bale, this Batman operates on screen more like the Batman from the Arkham video games: fast, maneuverable and undeniably powerful. One imagines this rendition of the Bat would have little difficulty dispatching Tom Hardy’s Bane or avoiding becoming the butt of “Hawkeye” jokes in the inevitable Justice League.

In addition to a chase scene with the new Batmobile (more dune buggy meets indycar than tank, now) earlier in the film, these Bat-scenes steal the show in terms of eye-candy. They are tense, well-shot, and relatively innovative, in contrast to the unimaginative, unmemorable brawls that mark the movie’s conclusion. Mr. Snyder clearly flourishes when he can manipulate one protagonist against a number of “real” combatants. Just as actors struggle with tennis-ball acting, Mr. Snyder seems to have difficulty with tennis-ball directing.

What I did enjoy was the film’s emphasis on one’s past as a means for making meaning. Without ever becoming pandering, Mr. Snyder spends some time on these characters’ pasts and their understandings thereof. In ethereal shots reminiscent of the same ilk seen in films like Aronofsky's Noah and Inarritu's The Revenant (as well as in the skull scene from Man of Steel), these characters confront their pasts. Bruce sees a giant bat burst from his mother’s tomb, and Kent listens to his deceased adoptive father tell a touching parable of zero-sum gain. And in the moment that matters, it is in fact these heroes’ pasts that bring them together.

Unfortunately, the many other explorations didn’t fair as well. Like the many allusions to Christ in Man of Steel, themes, allusions and character arcs seem to left alone towards the end. The religious imagery and discussion from Lex never amounts to narrative influence. There’s no invocation of mercy or sacrifice. Though such acts occur, they seem disconnected from those discussions or unaffected by the audience's’ experience of that symbology. Maybe there’s something there to be discovered upon future viewings, but I feel like I’m simply doing too much work on my end with the film’s content that I can’t attribute my conclusions to the skill of the film’s creators.

Jeremy Irons' Alfred is as snarky as he is handy, finding
time to quip about Bruce's lack of love life while fine tuning
his employer's latest suit of armor. 
As for the acting, aside from Affleck, Cavill, and Eisenberg, there’s not much to say. And again, this is evident of the film’s over-confident aspirations, not a criticism of the all-too competent supporting cast. Affleck and Cavill do well in and out of costume (though there’s no difference between Cavill's Clark Kent and Superman here, unlike Reeve’s portrayal). Eisenberg is certainly the more polarizing. I actually preferred his manic, Silicon-Valley douche portrayal of Lex. His tics and eccentricities communicated well on screen and bolstered the character’s psychotic, narcissistic nature. Addams isn’t given nearly as much to do as she was in the last film, but what she does, she pulls off with a brassiness meritous of the Lois Lane brand. Gal Gadot is welcome surprise, lending an easy severity to the Dianna Prince/Wonder Woman character. Fishburne and Irons as Perry White and Alfred respectively are also given little to do, but they steal every scene they inhabit with gravitas (remember when Irons was watchable even in the Eragon movie?).


In end, the film’s sin - like that of the Satan character it evokes through Lex’s painting reminiscent of Paradise Lost - is Pride. It tries to do and be too much. There’s a lot to like here, don’t get me wrong. The story has potential. The characters’ struggles resonate (at first). The theological and mythic themes are awesome. But like a kid at a buffet, the film stuffs its pizza, sushi, chicken dumplings, and mini tacos on the same plate and learns that they simply don’t work as well together as they would separately.