Saturday, March 26, 2016

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice

2016, d. Zack Snyder

[It gets totally spoilery below, fair warning]

Let's get my conclusion out of the way, BvS:DoJ is not a bad experience, but it is a bad movie.

Just like it's title, the film is ungainly, trying to be two major stories at once, that being the titular heroic conflict and the other being the (titular) setup for the Justice League movie to come.  While the film as is does present both, it doesn't serve either particularly very well.

If the various rumours over the past two and half years of this film's production are any indication, the "Dawn of Justice" half of the film's title was a later addition to the script at hand.  Even without those rumours it's fairly evident that the Justice League set-up is just crammed in, with lengthy dream sequences and metahuman discovery asides that are far too long to be teases.  They're meant to have meaning, but until the JL movie hits, they have zero context and they stop the story at hand cold.  As a big time DC nerd, I can extrapolate meaning from these sequences.  As a savvy filmgoer, I can also see the hand of Warner Brothers executives, worried about being so far behind Marvel, thrusting their franchise-building desires into play. 

There's already a lot at play in this film.  Lois Lane is investigating a massacre pinned on Superman.  There's a senate hearing to investigate the impact of Superman and what to do about him.  Batman is investigating how to stop Superman.  Lex Luthor is investigating how to stop Superman.  Clark Kent is investigating the Batman.  Bruce Wayne is investigating Lex Luthor.  Lex Luthor is investigating all the Kryptonian tech and biology left over from Man of Steel.  Diana Prince is investigating Lex Luthor.  Bruce Wayne is investigating Diana....  There's a lot of circling here, and in the end it actually does all connect, but unfortunately the film is so garbled by its multiple raison d'etres that it's up to the audience to figure out exactly how all the pieces fit together.  There's no clear throughline that makes any of it feel meaningful. 

Part of the problem is the film seems to have sacrificed its characters and their motivations for spectacle and set-up.  In theory you can interpret why people are doing what they do, but you never actually get a sense of that on the screen.  Why is Batman branding criminals?  Why does he hate Superman so much?  Why is Superman so detached and sullen?  Why is motivating Lex at any point in this film?  There are dozens more questions about why anyone is acting the way they are and why they are doing what they do.  A little more time with the characters would most certainly provide answers, as would a little understanding from the writers and director of who these characters are.

Going back to Man of Steel it's evident that director Zack Snyder doesn't fundamentally understand who Superman is and what makes him a hero.  Snyder focuses on the godlike aspect of the character, the burden of his abilities, but makes no time for the man, and that continues here.  Clark Kent isn't brooding, not in the same way Bruce Wayne is, but he's sullen.  He rarely smiles, and he doesn't ever seem kind, or good.  He seems troubled, put upon, reluctant.  Definitely not heroic.  The imagery Snyder puts on him is of being above it all, of power-tripping, even of arrogance.  It's been said in multiple reviews that it's apparent Snyder hates Superman (at least how he's been portrayed for the past 75 years) and I'm inclined to agree.  There's digs at the character, at being a relic of the past, of being a boy scout, and it's clear that Snyder is trying to forge some new vision for Superman, but he really doesn't know what it is.  So, in the end, he just killed him off, because he didn't really ever know what to do with him. (Yeah, I know, big spoiler).  The typical superhero movie theme is "what does it mean to be a hero", but here it's more "Can man be god? Can god be man?", but even still it never follows through on that theme, instead focusing on "can man destroy god?"

If the rumours are true, and it seems fairly certain they are, the studio asked that this film, intended to be a proper sequel to Man of Steel, put more focus on Batman.  Batman's been a huge, multi-billion dollar success at the cinema for Warner Brothers, so there's a certain financial logic, but as a lover of characters, story and film, the sacrifices in Clark/Lois/Superman's story to regurgitate more of the same Batman is just a damn shame (the film opens with yet another retelling of the death of Bruce's parents, interspliced with yet another retelling of Bruce's discover of the bat cave... it's a very well done bit of intersplicing but it's nothing most filmgoers - particularly the 13+ audience for this film - haven't seen many times before).

Acting both as sequel and prequel doesn't allow BvS:DoJ its own real identity.  It's stuck in between, as everyone is still reeling from the destruction rained down upon Metropolis in the first film...and I mean everyone, the 9-11 imagery is hard to ignore...but it is rather spectacularly revisited from Bruce's ground-level POV.  I often said about Man of Steel that the only way it can make up for its major failing (being Superman's careless fighting leading to the destruction of Metropolis) is if the sequel deals with its fallout.  It does, but it doesn't feel like Superman has learned anything or grown as a character as a result.  It feels more like he's saying "deal with it",  rather than "I'm sorry. I'm racked with guilt and feel devastated by the loss. I will do better next time"

As noted before, Warner Brothers is desperately trying to play catch up with Marvel, throwing out a full universe of characters before they even measure the response to it.  They're lowering their head and charging forward full speed.  But they've missed the fundamental element of what people are responding to in Marvel films.  Beyond generally great storytelling and excellent production values, they're fun to watch.  You want to go back and watch them over and over, as their own films and as part of a larger whole.  There's little joy in BvS:DoJ, and just like Man of Steel I did not feel any desire to revisit it after it concluded.  The rewatchability factor of Snyder's entries is very, very low.  At times this film felt like it was a slough to get through.  Things were moving forward, but in no manner that could be described as fun... confusing and bewildering, sure, but not fun.

Once I heard that critical reception was despairingly low, I started reading them.  Normally I would avoid reviews for a big tentpole picture like this, as I want to discover things for myself, but I wanted to be well armed before I went in (there was actually a moment where I thought about not even going, but I thought if I'm going to have an opinion about it I should probably actually see it).  Almost everything the critics have been saying is true.  I find it hard to argue with most of the examination of how bad this film is.  Yet, audience reception has been almost the opposite, and if there are apologists or genuine fans of this film, I can see their side too.  The raw materials of a good story and film are there, but they're not assembled very well.  Snyder makes things look good, but in the studio demands for more Batman, less Superman, and a Justice League setup, the editing is dire, and the fundamentals of good storytelling have gone missing.  The excising of character and story is evident, and rather than compare BvS:DoJ to any particular Marvel film, it feels more in line with a Marvel's Netflix series.  This could have been a six hour mini-series, rather than one film.  It's densely packed with enough story and character to support it.  The promised extended cut blu-ray can only serve to make it a better told story (if not exactly a better film).

Of the main complaints from critics, the one that didn't ring true for me was the final battle.  While the creation of Doomsday has no logic with what's presented on screen, the actual battle with Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman (with some military intervention) was about the only time I experienced anything close to joy in this movie.  On the one side is an unstoppable beast, it can't be killed, for every killing blow only makes it stronger, more dangerous... and on the other is three of the most iconic superheroes of all time, never having appeared on the big screen together before.  The fight is epic and it plays out largely as it should.  Superman taking the lead, with Wonder Woman tactically taking on the creature while its distracted and Batman trying to figure out how to participate when the gods are fighting.  I'll go so far as to say, visually, it's the best superhero end battle yet. 

I even enjoyed the Batman versus Superman tussle, which went down exactly like it would in the comic book.  Batman only needs to survive long enough to employ his tactics. It's true, it's not even the major bout that the title implies (but I take the "Batman versus Superman" of the title to also mean the cagey cat and mousing Bruce and Clark do throughout the film), but it's very well done up to the resolution which is "clever" in the most eye-rolling way.  Between the Batman v Superman and the Trinity v Doomsday, Batman takes on two dozen mercenaries in a three story warehouse and it is, again, spectacular (what the closing fight of Daredevil season 2 should have been).  Snyder nails the dust-ups if nothing else.

What disappoints me most about this film isn't the lack of clarity, the mishandled stortelling, the lack of character motivation, or the bungled themes, but rather just how dark the film is.  And I'm not just speaking visually.  I accept Snyder's style, though I don't agree with it, but tonally the film is just so dark.  It's not just lack of joy, but a bleak, weariness that feels more burden than delight.  The score from Hans Zimmer and Junkie XL is so heavy, and at times Snyder goes into full-on horror mode.  The gunplay is pretty extreme (I can't even count how many people were shot in the head) and there's comments on child molesters and massacres.  This is not a film for young audiences (that the upcoming extended blu-ray is R-rated is not surprising given what we see here), which is a damn shame.  A Batman/Superman movies should be a major draw for kids, should be a tentpole for selling action figures and costumes, not something traumatic and horrifying.  As good as the Nolan Batman films were, they weren't kid-friendly either, and I think the younger audience deserves a big, bright superhero spectacle with the DC characters, just like Marvel's Avengers.  It's shameful.

I went in expecting the worst, and it's not the worst.  It's not great either, but at least I didn't come out vehemently hating it like Man of Steel.  In fact, it's kind of the inverse.  The further I got from Man of Steel the more angry I got at it, whereas with BvS:DoJ my feelings seem to be getting a bit kinder with passing time, even if I'm never going to be fully on board.