Saturday, April 9, 2016

Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016)

Directed by: Zack Snyder
Runtime: 2hrs, 31mins

Poor DC. Their animated stuff seems to work, and of course their comic books are well liked. But something always goes wrong in their films (when not directed by Christopher Nolan, and sometimes even then). Certainly they feel the pressure to keep up with Marvel, but sadly that has lead them to attempt whatever it is Marvel is doing only darker and much worse. Even the trailers for the upcoming “Suicide Squad” seem to be channeling what Marvel did with “Guardians of the Galaxy” (I’d like someone to put both trailers side by side for comparison sake).

I should set the record straight, I’m neither a Marvel fan nor a DC fan, though I appreciate characters from both worlds. I feel no allegiance to either universe, but as an impartial lover of film I have to call it like I see it. Marvel has set the bar fairly high (though they still stumble quite often themselves), and DC has stumbled every time they’ve tried to answer the call (minus Nolan’s first two Batman films).

They’ve got a handful of Batman films, Superman films, and even a couple of television series (including a series devoted to the Flash who is played by a different actor than the person set to portray him in their upcoming films). Yet “Man of Steel” and now “Batman V Superman” mark a new world for DC characters. As disjointed as their various disconnected efforts have been up to this point, I really shouldn’t have expected anything less from this film. It feels very oddly disjointed throughout, but especially during the first hour or so. That’s due in large part to DC’s fast tracking this “Justice League” stuff in an effort to gain ground on Marvel’s “Avengers” films in order to pit a competing “versus” film against Marvel’s coming “Civil War.”

The sad truth is this film had the cards stacked against it from the get-go when we consider it had to introduce us to a new Batman, Wonder Woman, Lex Luthor, and hint at a few other DC characters, all in an effort to establish the coming “Justice League.” It also has to pit two of DC’s most iconic characters against each other despite the fact that at least half (or more) of the potential audience for this film have no desire to see them kill each other. Worse yet, what’s painfully apparent is the missing “Man of Steel” sequel that delves into Clark and Lois’ relationship, and establishes Alexander Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg) explaining his hate for Superman (which likely has something to do with his absent father Lex Luthor). Without it, parts of this film feel out of nowhere. (Alexander Luthor goes by Lex for short by the way)

Instead it all just exists already and is intercut by flashbacks, dream sequences, and other such setup for all of the various characters in ways that don’t particularly flow well together. In fact there were points where I wasn’t sure if I was watching a flashback, a dream sequence, or a set of current events. And because of all the choppy, willy nilly editing and the disjointed series of events, none of the many things going on were able to gain the necessary momentum to string us along in any meaningful way. I know nothing more about any of the characters involved now having seen the film than I did while I sat waiting for the film to start. I wondered several times throughout the film if some of the random scenes might have been better off on the cutting room floor. One in particular finds Clark Kent in his Superman suit randomly back in his home town without context (he’s in Metropolis both before and after) getting emotional encouragement from his mother (Diane Lane) just before he’s due in court for a hearing. This scene feels even more out of nowhere due to the fact that it breaks away from action involving other characters doing very different things. Yet that becomes fairly typical. There’s such a varied range of tones to each character and the scenes they inhabit that crosscutting them all in such a haphazard way makes for a very peculiar and inconsistent film.

The first half of the movie is all politics, and setup that feels so disjointed (have I used that word too much already?) it’s quite confusing to keep up with. The opening credits are broken up by flashbacks to the Batman origin story we know all too well at this point. And until the main battle kicks off, half of the film is Batman investigating Superman’s weakness, Lex Luthor investigating Superman’s weakness, and Superman grappling with the love and hatred his actions have caused. Bruce Wayne angrily recalls the devastation Superman caused in his fight with Zod at the end of “Man of Steel,” which included the destruction of his Metropolis branch of Wayne Enterprises. It fuels his quest to destroy Superman both for the sake of vengeance and in order to keep this ultra powerful being from turning evil (which the film constantly portends is an unavoidable eventuality). Meanwhile, Clark Kent investigates reports of a masked vigilante branding a bat logo into various criminals around Gotham. They may be criminals, but they don’t deserve treatment like that, especially after they’ve been subdued. And if this weren’t enough fuel to the fire to start a war between these two titans, young Mr. Luthor helps things along by scheming ways to make sure they square off against each other.

It all leads to the inevitable climactic battle. Yet that battle is particularly short for a film titled “Batman V Superman,” it also continues to fall off the rails the longer it goes on until the characters are forced to redirect their attentions elsewhere. Obviously we know they can’t fight for too long, because when it comes down to it they’re on the same side, even if what convinces them they should work together is anticlimactic in the extreme. In fact, it’s downright eye-roll worthy. After a lengthy setup to get them fighting, they seem to turn on a dime to support one another, and not for reasons that outweighed the fear and distrust of one another the film spent so long setting up.

And of course DC should be shamed for their marketing of this film. Almost every reveal the film had to offer, almost every unique piece of information we waited to see was spoiled by various trailers and pre-release scenes made available to the public. In fact there is very little, if anything I could say about this film that would spoil anything the trailers hadn’t already (except for maybe one thing, but anyone with knowledge of the comic book source material will see it coming a mile away).

As for the performances, Ben Affleck gives a solid performance as Batman. He’s built like a tank and fights with nasty aggression. Though that leads me to one of the problems with this characterization from a conceptual level. It’s such a stark contrast to the Batman we know, that the character feels more like a fake using the same name than an honest representation of the character that has endeared himself to us for his uncompromising standards of upholding justice and the law right down to his non-lethal methods of subduing criminals. The fact that he isn’t made to grapple whatsoever with the mere idea of fighting Superman to the death is an obvious missed opportunity. For all it's early politicking and questions of morality in the early portion of the film, as muddled as it is, the script never bothers to pay any of it off in any sort of way. It offers no resolution nor clear direction on the moral quandaries it attempted to bring up at various points throughout the film.

Henry Cavill is fine as Superman. Sadly that’s about the most I can say for him. If you didn’t like what they did with the character in “Man of Steel,", this film won’t change your mind about him. While this film tries to work in themes of anxiety we suffer from all too often in a world full of terrorists and law enforcers crossing the line, this film eventually dilutes that purpose into a basic revenge piece that lacks any sort of conviction. Superman's reasons for distrust of Batman don't even end up factoring into their inevitable fight, nor do they reemerge as something worth addressing at any point later on.

Gal Gadot gives a fine performance as Wonder Woman, but her scenes are too few and too short to be given any higher praise than that. Aside from jumping into action during the film's climax so that we can start to anticipate her stand alone film, the character feels shoehorned into this film in a bad way. Also, it's hard to imagine a less satisfying way of revealing her character. Recall all the imaginative ways better films (like "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" for instance) revealed things in ways that made fans cheer in excitement. That is completely absent here. And they had a golden opportunity here with Wonder Woman, but Snyder didn't even try. Though I suppose I should be grateful for her presence if only for her ability to breakup the monotony of this moody testosterone fueled grudge match. 

Side characters like Amy Adams’ Lois Lane (among others) feel just as superfluous here as they did in “Man of Steel.” And Jesse Eisenberg is all over the place. He’s always been an actor that, to me, is better when playing versions of himself. As soon as he starts “playing a character” it becomes impossible not to see through. Here he plays a younger, “Joker-ish” version of Lex Luthor who fails to create any compelling reason for doing whatever it is he’s doing. As far as I can tell, rather than having a specific purpose, he was taking a page out of Christopher Nolan’s playbook by trying to “introduce a little anarchy in order to upset the established order.” It just so happens that the established order is super humans and masked vigilantes. Yet Eisenberg’s performance is such a lackluster imitation of what Heath Ledger did with the Joker, it’s impossible not to scoff at the attempt. In fact, rather than a competent characterization, there are certain scenes in which he goes far enough with the little ticks and stammers that he starts to resemble Nicolas Cage’s character in “Matchstick Men.”

And as for the visuals, Snyder attempts to add gritty realism through hackneyed dark color tones and shaky handheld camera shots that make the stomach turning movements during action sequences that much harder to follow. He pairs it with a throw everything at the wall sensibility that manifests itself as a handful of “cool looking” shots or bits of choreography thrown together in haphazard ways that barely makes sense. Aside from a couple of Batman’s brutal fight sequences, the action here is nearly completely incomprehensible. That only gets worse when the film’s badly animated CGI character (that looks like a cave troll from “Lord of the Rings”) emerges to cause random explosions of bright lights and fiery lasers. It isn’t as though Snyder is incapable of solid sequences. He pulled off a number of them in “Watchmen,” and a couple in “Man of Steel” even if the lasting memory of that film is its awful, overly destructive finale that a large portion of this film is dedicated to reconciling before committing a similar crime yet again during the finale here.

Are these characters true to original source material or different in a satisfying way? I don’t have the answer to that, but considering what a mess this film is, I’m inclined to say it doesn’t even matter. When it comes right down to it, “Batman V Superman” is a bad film. It’s a poorly conceived and poorly executed mess that feels very transparently like both a direct response to what Marvel has been up to lately and an attempt to right the wrongs of the last Zack Snyder effort. It tries to do so in a dark, dour, joyless film that not only fails on both of those levels, but doesn't even offer any satisfying bits of fun that would make fans cheer or laugh the way better action blockbusters do. Yet sadly it’s made enough money at the box office that this train-wreck of a series is destined to continue, and likely with Snyder as one of the main directors at the helm.

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