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Entries in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice [2016] (1)

Wednesday
Mar232016

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016)

Battle of the Sentient

Should I review Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice as a comic-book movie or as a film? Maybe as the load-bearing beam of a quarter-billion-dollar business decision?

My film-critic conscience can't help but paraphrase Agent Smith in answering, "Two of these options are legitimate. One of them is not". Yet here I am, stranded in a social-media/nerd-culture wasteland where pop art is judged more on its popularity than its art--where objectively awful blockbusters become subjective touchstones for an increasingly unimaginative and undemanding audience. Comic-book-movie fans are the worst, so grateful to be catered to by corporate interests that they'll praise mediocrity and line up early for repetition. "Hey, man," the argument goes, "at least we live in an age where they make awesome comic book movies!"

Like most things, "awesome" is in the eye of the beholder. Yes, The Avengers: Age of Ultron had some of the best special effects ever projected on a movie screen. Yes, it employed a top-notch director and skilled costumers who turned four-color printed characters into flesh-and-blood 4k marvels. They even got award-winning thespians to take on these iconic roles! It's almost as if a company with more power than Thanos was cutting massive checks or something.

Never mind that the film had zero stakes and less logic. Never mind that we saw the same character and story dynamics play out as they had for nine previous films ("Oh, no! We've got to overcome our differences/believe in ourselves and stop that [death ray] [bomb] [CGI army] from blowing up [New York] [London] [Made-up-European-Country]!"). As long as Hulk smashes things and Tony Stark says something snarky, all is right with the world. Besides, if we don't encourage everyone we know to see every capes-and-quips flick multiple times, the movie studios might not let us see them anymore.

Fandom is, of course, fickle: four two-plus-hour Michael Bay films involving CGI robots smashing each other to pieces while their human counterparts look on in cartoonish awe equates to irredeemable trash. As do Sony's "off-brand" Spider-Man films and the wilted lettuce of DC's Green LanternThe Dark Knight Rises exists in the shadow of a legit (according to most) masterpiece, so it gets a pass--kinda. But slap the "Marvel Cinematic Universe" stamp of approval on anything, and every imperiled-by-a-laser city is the first imperiled-by-a-laser city, by God!

What does any of this have to do with Batman v Superman?

Everything.

After 2013's financially successful but critically dubious Man of Steel, Warner Bros handed the keys to its DC Comics kingdom to Zack Snyder--thus kicking off a desperate game of catch-up with Marvel Studios, who'd already enjoyed a half-decade lead. MoS wasn't the game-changer execs had hoped for, which is why some (including yours truly) suspect they shoehorned proven box office commodity Batman into the sequel. Interest grew when it was announced that the Caped Crusader would get top billing in the alleged Superman follow-up, and went through the roof when DC revealed plans to introduce fellow Justice League heroes Wonder Woman, Aquaman, Flash, and Cyborg. A veritable avalanche of incredulity followed: "Wait, Lex Luthor is the villain? And Zod is back? Is that Doomsday in the trailer? Hold on, there's a Darkseid rumor?"

At the beginning of this year, we were treated to a trailer for Suicide Squad (DC super villains team up to...save the world?) and footage from the Wonder Woman stand-alone film--along with casting announcements for the Justice League team-up and other spin-offs. Warner Bros had adopted Disney's pre-fab marketing model wholesale: announcing a road map assures audiences that they're buying into one big story,and that skipping one or two movies would put them at a disadvantage when trying to follow movies six and seven. The difference is, of course, that Disney had record-breaking brands like Marvel and Star Wars to back up their gusto; Warner Bros had a comics-movie gravy train that showed no signs of slowing down. Sure, $250 million* is a lot to sink into a single film, but the audience is guaranteed--especially if the studio is confident enough to put two more movies in the can before anyone's seen it.

Right?

Not so fast, Barry Allen.

The fundamental problem with Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is the that filmmakers got so caught up in laying the ground work for a DC Cinematic Universe that they overlooked the fundamental need for a coherent, interesting story. Long-time collaborators Snyder and cinematographer Larry Fong reunite to deliver a sufficiently dour yet magnificently rendered tale of gods and men. Unlike Amir Mokri's wheat-tinged palette for Man of Steel, Dawn of Justice is soaked in rain and dust and angst. The first half of the movie feels "grown-up" and "important", like a gritty, brand-name successor to Snyder/Fong's Watchmen.

The aesthetics' ability to hold BvS together withers in the first five minutes. The problem isn't that we're walked through yet another filmic representation of billionaire orphan Bruce Wayne's (Ben Affleck) origin story, but that he escapes a cave full of glowing-eyed bats by levitating to safety. This is the first of four "gotcha" dream sequences, and the last of any kind of spoiler-y information I will provide--just setting the stage for the kind of audience-jerking Snyder and co-writers Chris Terrio and David S. Goyer have in store for you.

Because I'm bound by studio request (and a pre-screening video from a fidgety Zack Snyder himself) to not ruin BvS for fans, I will talk about the plot in terms of its numerous movie-morgue sources, each of which were patched together by five-year-olds playing "Frankenstein".

If you've seen the trailer, you know the film's broad strokes: Bruce Wayne witnessed the climactic fight in Man of Steel, in which Superman (Henry Cavill) defeated the evil General Zod (Michael Shannon) before he could use his giant squid-ship to remake Earth in Krypton's image--but not before leveling half of Metropolis. One of MoS's biggest critiques was the relentless 9/11-style imagery in the last act. Snyder revisits that in the sequel from a different vantage point, as Wayne dashes through the city, working to rescue people from his collapsed office building. He looks to the sky and silently vows that his alter ego, Batman, will do something about this otherworldly menace.

Eighteen months later, we meet tech billionaire Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg), whose people uncover a large chunk of kryptonite in the Indian Ocean. He wants to harness the mineral into a weapon against Superman, but must cut through a senator's worth of red tape to get it into the U.S. Thanks to some good ol' fashioned terrorism, female-hostage leverage, and mind-trickery that our heroes, sadly, fall for way too easily, Luthor successfully pits Superman against Batman in a fight to the death. Oh, and Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) arrives just in time to help fight the monster from The Amazing Spider-Man, in a climax borrowed from Spider-Man 2. The ending is straight-up Star Trek 2 (pick your version), topped with a pre-cut-to-black Inception reference (perhaps as a nod to executive producer Christopher Nolan).

The movie is two-and-a-half-hours long,** so you're right to expect a dozen more subplots thrown in to lend an air of legitimacy (aka "epic scale"). It's all filler and red herrings and set-up for more movies that we may never see. At one point, BvS stops dead in its tracks to give us three minutes of post-credits-style stingers for Flash, Aquaman, and Cyborg. Between this nonsense and the artsy fartsy dream sequences (two of which are also allusions to sequels), it's apparent that the creators of Dawn of Justice needed to sleep on their myriad ideas and come back to the table with something resembling an actual story.

Snyder and company had that story, in the form of Frank Miller's groundbreaking graphic novel, The Dark Knight Returns, which turns thirty this year. It's full of political intrigue, 9/11-style imagery, and a battle royale between the Last Son of Krypton and an over-the-hill Batman. Snyder, Terrio, and Goyer lift dialogue, visual motifs, and whole scenes from TDKR, mistaking those components as the heart of the material. Miller was ahead of his time, crafting a layered story about ubiquitous, manipulative media; cunning political buffoons; and the nature of insurgency in the face of overwhelming state power. These are mere filigree on the buckling frame of the overwrought painting that is BvS--interesting details that get shaved off in the last hour to make way for a monologuing villain and a mindless, leaping Thing That Must Be Stopped.

Besides great writing and a cinematic approach to visual storytelling, The Dark Knight Returns made waves because it was unlike any of the thousands of bland superhero comics that had come before it. Miller revitalized the elements that made these characters iconic by asking, "What would these supernaturally resourceful creatures do in the real world? How would the real world react to them?" The resulting mini-series shattered sales records and helped promote comics as a bona fide art form (before TDKR and Watchmen, the most popular "graphic novel" was probably Lady Chatterley's Lover).

Batman v Superman does nothing to advance the form, or even make a case that DC needs to make more films like it. It feels front-loaded with Stuff That's Worked Before, cynical mathematical calculations meant to pique interest just enough to win a stellar opening weekend:

Ben Affleck = Award-winning actor/director who says he's very proud of the work he did on this film.

Jesse Eisenberg = Oscar-nominated actor who played Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network--a role that, on paper, easily translates to the sniveling, egomaniacal genius Lex Luthor.

Gal Gadot = Actress from the mega-popular The Fast and the Furious series, playing the first top-tier female superhero in a feature film. Plus, she's getting her own movie after this! To not support BvS is to stand against equality (or something)!

More propaganda, more illogical spaghetti. Affleck is very good in BvS, but the pride-in-this-project thing must be taken with a quarry of salt: remember when James Cameron said that Terminator: Genisys was the best Terminator sequel?

I'd had high hopes for Eisenberg after seeing him in my favorite film from last year, The End of the Tour. His character was super-smart, highly insecure, and downright conniving in the face of anyone he perceived as powerful. The actor's performance in BvS is an embarrassing-to-watch hybrid of the Zuckerberg character and The Joker--all giggly affectations, stammering, and singing***

As for Gadot, I would love to see her take on Wonder Woman in a more substantial film. Her brief screen time in BvS is a highlight. I anxiously await the fan edit that cuts around the Superman elements and provides a Wonder Woman-and-Batman-undercover mini-thriller. But there's nothing here that women should be particularly proud of. As Wonder Woman, Gadot fights a CGI monster while wearing an objectification-ready outfit; one can also see this kind of thing, in mercifully abbreviated form, by putting on any of Xena Warrior Princess' six seasons (or watching The Avengers, or Mad Max: Fury Road, or...).

And what of Superman? Once again, Henry Cavill makes the most of a nothing role. The Man of Steel is still on a grim-and-gritty hangover from Man of Steel, moping about the film in an existential crisis that makes him far less interesting to watch than Batman (perhaps another reason for losing top billing). A shame, since Cavill exhibited great presence and a gift for comedy in last summer's The Man from U.N.C.L.E.

The Superman character is also wildly inconsistent, showing deep affection for a particular person in one scene, and then exhibiting Spock-like detachment in the middle (yes, literally the middle) of a grand-scale human tragedy. I don't expect BvS to be airy, but it's so oppressively humorless that there's no thrill, no contrast, when the title characters engage each other. It's just two soft-headed, depressed lunkheads beating the shit out of each other while destroying (again) the city they supposedly love.

Batman v Superman won't be DC's last comic-book movie, but I suspect its inevitable under-performance will make Warner Bros reconsider who they let play with their toys. On one hand, I hope I'm wrong: it's never good when the work of talented people (including  the legions of carpenters, lighting technicians, digital artists, etc.) is jeopardized by poor box office results. On the other hand, there's no reason those same artisans shouldn't be put to work on a project that actually lifts the genre out of the cinematic ghetto. Snyder has made another loud, incomprehensible mess that dresses like a film but doesn't act like one--a movie so long, violent, and thematically grim that its balance sheet will likely sting from lack of repeat business, family business, and repeat family business.

But it's a comic-book movie. In the minds of far too many indiscriminate fans, that makes Dawn of Justice bulletproof.

*This figure doesn't include marketing, which some estimate could jack the price past $400 million. Why can't we have free college again?

**There's no post-credits stinger, so it's okay to duck out an pee when the lights come up.

***Not a typo.