Saturday, March 26, 2016

"Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice": review

[SPOILER ALERT. Read only if you don't care about spoilers.]

John Lee, over at The Korean Foreigner, wrote an excellent rant/review that goes in depth about the many, many logic- and story-related problems infesting "Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice" (DOJ). There's very little I can add to what John wrote, and I agree with every flaw he found. Be sure to read his review.

That said, DOJ didn't enrage me as much as I thought it might. The story by Chris Terrio and David S. Goyer was long and draggy, especially during its first half; I also felt that, despite the significant running time, the film didn't do as well as it could have in establishing the main characters' motivations. I did appreciate the spiritual themes and tropes that were woven through the narrative—there were distinct theologies of Batman and Superman that were dripped into the audience's consciousness, and this angels-and-demons dimension of the film did mitigate—albeit only slightly—my generally negative impression of the story.

I knew the plot was going to be largely derivative of Frank Miller's vision, and to that extent I wasn't disappointed: whole snatches of dialogue, and even whole scenes, from Miller's 1986 The Dark Knight Returns are included in the film—enough so that I could predict what was going to happen next. One wonders when the DC Comics universe will finally be rid of Miller's influence; as much as I like Miller—his attitude and his take on story writing—too many superhero films have been beholden to his vision, going back at least as far as Tim Burton's first "Batman," way back in 1989. Some things are different in DOJ, though, and among those differences is the nature of the conflict between Batman and Superman.

This, for me, is my biggest complaint about DOJ. Although Batman and Superman have battled in the comics both before and after Miller's seminal graphic novel came out in the mid-1980s, The Dark Knight Returns became such an instant and powerful classic that its version of the Batman/Superman conflict would forever become the template to follow. But director Zack Snyder and his pair of screenwriters utterly changed the motivations underlying the conflict in Frank Miller's original story, opting instead to make Superman's purpose in fighting Batman as simpleminded as possible, and to make Batman's animus against Superman something of a puzzle. But before we get into the butchery by Snyder et al. of the original conflict, let's go back in time to Miller's story.

Frank Miller is one of the first creative people to engage in what would eventually become known as a reboot. In a reboot, an artist takes a known quantity—something or someone that has an established history—and changes it up, from top to bottom, essentially reimagining everything, or almost everything, about it. Wikipedia describes a reboot as a discarding of previous continuity, which is largely what Miller did with Batman. Miller's Batman wasn't the Batman that American culture had grown familiar with, especially after the campy 1960s TV series, starring Adam West, turned Batman into a teddy bear, leading the public away from Batman creator Bob Kane's original dark vision. Miller's Batman was old, monstrously huge, and inhumanly strong. There was no Robin at the beginning of the story, and when a Robin did come back into Batman's life, he arrived in the form of a teenage girl named Carrie Kelley. At the beginning of Miller's graphic novel, Batman is in retirement, but he's still smoldering with old anger—a rage that hasn't left him since the murder of his parents all those years ago. Batman operates outside the law, but over time he gains the trust, and eventually the cooperation, of police commissioner James Gordon. Batman is, paradoxically, a renegade with a code, and he has little patience for people like Superman, the "big blue schoolboy" who naively continues to color inside the lines.

In Miller's universe, the essential conflict between Batman and Superman comes down to the fact that Superman—who still fights for truth, justice, and the American way—has become an arm of the US government. Miller shows scenes of Superman in the field of battle, killing enemy troops by the hundreds on the orders of his government. He may enjoy almost godlike status, but Superman is chained by politics because that's his nature. The US president (Miller makes him look and sound like Reagan) gently asks Superman to rein Batman in, precisely because Batman's heedless vigilantism is a chaotic force that threatens power structures. Batman, meanwhile, knows his time is coming: he's going to have to face Superman at some point. He also knows full well that he can't beat a god, so as he plans for the upcoming fight, he doesn't plan to win it. All he wants is to get Superman—the clearest incarnation of governmental power—off his back. Even all these years later, I have to admire how Miller painted this picture. He totally upended and revamped our notions of Batman, but he kept Superman essentially unchanged: it was the world that had changed around Superman, making him, as Batman bitterly observes, into "a joke." Because the world has changed, Superman is capable of doing dark things like ripping off one of Oliver Queen's arms to prevent Queen—the Green Arrow—from misbehaving. Something like this is in store for Batman, and Batman is keenly aware of this. How pure can Superman's service be when the powers he serves are no longer pure? This is Miller's subversive take on Superman.

Meanwhile, Zack Snyder & Co.'s take on the Batman/Superman conflict is utterly different. Bruce Wayne, like the rest of the world, becomes aware of the existence of an extremely powerful, extremely destructive alien. Somehow, this awareness leads him to believe that Superman must be taken down, despite Superman's seemingly good intentions. Superman, meanwhile, doesn't approve of Batman's vicious, unorthodox methods (Batman is portrayed as branding some of the criminals he catches), but he has no real desire to hurt or kill Batman. Instead, Superman goes after Batman only because Lex Luthor kidnaps Martha Kent and demands that Superman bring him Batman's head. (Batman had stolen Luthor's stash of kryptonite.) This reworking of Frank Miller's original conflict was utterly disappointing to me: in Miller's world, the difference between Batman and Superman was deep, philosophical, and well-nigh unbridgeable. In Snyder's movie, the conflict between the two superheroes seems to rest on little more than a major but reparable misunderstanding. This cheapened the conflict and made it superficial. I was sorely disappointed.

As my coworker and I discussed, DOJ would likely show Superman and Batman fighting to a draw, then turning to face a mutual foe—Doomsday, as seen in the second preview trailer, a trailer that basically gave the whole game away. Doomsday was extremely powerful, but if you've seen the Hulk at work in any of the diarrhetic torrent of Marvel movies that have been released, then you already know what Doomsday is going to do. Just imagine the Hulk, but a Hulk capable of releasing massive amounts of energy. As super-foes went, Doomsday wasn't all that impressive.

The list of disappointments also includes the under-used Diana Prince, a.k.a. Wonder Woman (never named as such in the movie), played by ex-soldier Gal Gadot (she did a two-year stint in the Israeli Army, so she brings a native toughness to any role that requires her to "Sigourney up," if you will). Gadot is gorgeous; when she's on screen, you can't take your eyes off her. We get hints of her Athenian, sword-and-shield fighting prowess, but in terms of fight choreography, she doesn't have much to do that requires great agility or spectacular martial-arts technique. Some critics have said that her role in DOJ amounts to little more than a preview for the upcoming, stand-alone Wonder Woman film. I can see that. (The same goes for Jason Momoa's Aquaman, who gets the briefest of underwater cameos—sort of a Khal Drogo for the fishes. Other cameos include the Flash and Cyborg.) Diana doesn't get to let her hair down, combatively speaking, until the final third of the film; that's one of the problems with overstuffing a movie with too many characters.

Two further disappointments: Jesse Eisenberg as Lex Luthor and the use of the term "meta-human." Eisenberg's Luthor is twitchy, jumpy, high-voiced, and entirely too young-looking to be taken seriously as a heavyweight villain. I didn't care much for Eisenberg's performance; in my mind, Lex Luthor is older, more filled-out, more deliberate, more of a diabolically cool customer. Even though he's normally considered Superman's antithesis, he'd make a wonderful antithesis for Bruce Wayne—a fellow genius billionaire—as well. As for the term "meta-human," this was an obvious attempt at classifying and branding most of the DC Comics superheroes as their own type of X-Men—a different class of beings who walk the earth (or swim beneath it), hiding from most of humanity and just trying to live peaceful, quiet lives (in "Avengers: Age of Ultron," Captain America uses the term "enhanced" to describe the Maximoff twins). Batman notes, toward the end of the film, that he has a feeling all these meta-humans will have to learn to fight together against a common, possibly extra-planetary, enemy. I didn't like that scene, either: why would Batman, of all people, be talking about banding together? Batman's the consummate loner.

Bruce Wayne's beef against Superman began when Wayne's financial tower in Metropolis was destroyed during the climactic battle between Superman and General Zod. This scene in DOJ was, in part, a response to a complaint about "Man of Steel," namely, that Superman and Zod used all of downtown Metropolis as their battleground, but no one seemed to get hurt or killed, as if all those buildings had somehow miraculously been evacuated. In DOJ, we learn that there had, in fact, been massive collateral damage, and that this is why Superman, however good his intentions, is viewed by some as a menace. Unfortunately for Snyder's film, the superhero-as-menace theme was dealt with better and more maturely in Pixar's "The Incredibles," in which the entire American public rose up as one and demanded that superheroes stop their heroic efforts, which often did more harm than good. DOJ is never entirely clear about what the public actually thinks of heroes like Superman—or like Batman, for that matter. And I, for one, was never entirely clear as to why Bruce Wayne concluded that, just because Superman's heroics could be dangerous, Superman was clearly someone who could one day destroy the earth, and who therefore had to be stopped.

So while I appreciated the spiritual dimension of DOJ (Kevin Costner gets something of a Jedi Force-ghost cameo on a snowy mountaintop, offering us viewers what is perhaps the most mature commentary apropos of the yin and the yang of heroism), there were simply too many big negatives that prevented me from liking the film. There was Gal Gadot's underused Wonder Woman; there were the lame baddies, Doomsday and Luthor; there was the obvious and desperate attempt to evoke X-Men with the term "meta-human"; and worst of all, there was the screenwriters' complete trashing of the original reason behind Batman and Superman's conflict. The movie also failed to engage me emotionally; it squandered far too many opportunities to make things more visceral, more personal, and the inevitable result was a bone-dry narrative that dragged on for far too long. And after three highly demythologized Batman films by Christopher Nolan, it felt strange to see Batman plunged into a world of science fiction and spirituality. DOJ is a film I might watch on cable during some rainy evening when I've got nothing else to do, but compared to many of the recent superhero efforts I've seen, like "Guardians of the Galaxy," "Deadpool," or Christopher Nolan's "The Dark Knight," it's just not worth an expensive ticket for a big-screen experience. And that's a shame, considering that it cost almost half a billion dollars to make.

ADDENDUM: I'm guessing that "Dawn of Justice" refers to the dawn of the Justice League, which will spring from Bruce Wayne's suggestion that all the world's heroes and meta-humans will need to gather together to fight large-scale evil heading our way.

ADDENDUM 2: A fair-minded YouTube review can be found here.

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