Friday, March 25, 2016

Review: Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016)

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016)

Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action throughout, and some sensuality

Score: 2 out of 5

I'm just gonna come right out and say it. Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, the grand debut of Warner Bros. and DC Comics' answer to the Marvel Cinematic Universe (after 2013's Man of Steel), is a turkey. A misfire. A dud. A plain bad movie. A mountain of thinkpieces are probably gonna be written in the coming weeks about what this means for the future of the planned DC Extended Universe (which still has Suicide Squad coming out this summer), for Warner Bros. as a studio (who had pretty much bet the farm on this hypothetical franchise carrying them through at least the next five years), and for the superhero genre as a whole (which has been facing mounting criticism from film journalists over a perceived staleness in the air), but I'm just here to talk about this one movie, and why it simply doesn't work. It wasn't an outright terrible movie, don't get me wrong, as it does have things to like about it. Most of the cast did well enough (even those who had been given virtually nothing to do), the action scenes were fun, and the political thriller style of the first hour or so did grab my interest. It was all downhill from there, though, as the film made a slew of bad decisions on the writing and directing fronts that had me going "what were they thinking!?!?" They repeated all the mistakes of Man of Steel, and then proceeded to repeat all the mistakes of another would-be franchise starter, The Amazing Spider-Man 2. This film is a grim, boring slog that squanders an interesting premise on a mix of pointless brooding, terrible villains, scenes designed purely to set up spinoffs, and empty (if admittedly awesome) spectacle.

The story follows on from Man of Steel, which ended with Superman (Henry Cavill) and General Zod getting into a massive brawl in the middle of Metropolis that saw enough destruction to fill three whole Roland Emmerich movies on its own. Among the buildings destroyed was an office tower owned by Wayne Enterprises, in which countless people who worked for Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck), including a number of personal friends of his, were killed. Bruce, who moonlights as the costumed crimefighter Batman, blamed Superman for allowing all this destruction to happen and doing nothing to prevent collateral damage and keep innocent bystanders from getting caught in the crossfire, and has spent the last two years plotting revenge, acquiring kryptonite from General Zod's crashed spaceships. (And on that note, I definitely appreciated how this film made that criticism of Man of Steel an integral part of its plot.) He's not alone, as Superman has become a controversial figure since the Battle of Metropolis, with some seeing him as a hero and others taking Bruce's stance and seeing him as more dangerous than he's worth. Senator June Finch (Holly Hunter) has been leading hearings on Capitol Hill concerning Superman, while Perry White (Laurence Fishburne) and Lois Lane (Amy Adams) of the Daily Planet have been defending him in their pages, together with a certain unassuming writer named Clark Kent. On the sidelines, a billionaire named Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg) with a grudge against superheroes, and Superman especially, has been trying to get his hands on kryptonite himself, using it and General Zod's corpse to build an "ultimate weapon" capable of defeating Superman. Also, a mysterious antiques dealer named Diana Prince (Gal Gadot) has taken her own interest in Superman, for reasons unknown.

I'm gonna start with the cast, because this was where I found what I liked most about the film, and also one of the things I liked least. First, Ben Affleck. His casting as Bruce Wayne/Batman provoked howls of outrage from the moment it was announced, partly from the many fans of Christian Bale's take on the character in Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy but mainly because of his checkered past in the superhero genre, having played the title character in the much-maligned adaptation of Daredevil in 2003. Jokes about "Batfleck" were all over the place, and to be honest, I never really understood why. He's redeemed himself and his career since then, and if Ryan Reynolds could vanquish the legacy of Green Lantern with Deadpool just five years later, there was no reason to believe that Affleck couldn't do the same after thirteen. And for the most part, he did. He didn't make me forget Bale as Batman, but he was good playing an older, weathered take on the character, one who's been fighting crime for years now and has gone through hell in the process. I bought his rage at Superman, having watched the Son of Krypton trash Metropolis and put countless people in harm's way while fighting General Zod, and his desire for revenge.

The parts of the character that didn't really work were pretty much all in the writing (spoiler alert: me complaining about the script is gonna be a theme in this review). First off, we have Batman's willingness to use guns and straight-up torture and kill his foes, something that even the famously dark Nolan films not only had him not do, but which made a big point of him not doing. Batman hating guns and death has been a part of his character for decades, the result of his backstory of watching his parents get gunned down by a petty crook; while his butler Alfred (Jeremy Irons) does bring it up here that this isn't the way he normally acts, this change in his personality and approach to crimefighting is given barely a handwave. (The revisionist takes on Batman that influenced this movie, particularly Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns, did have him killing bad guys, but it's still a jarring shift given that this is marketed as a "mainline" DC movie.) Likewise, while we get hints of Batman's past exploits (he has framed in the Batcave an old suit that was vandalized by the Joker*), the film doesn't do a lot to show us that this Batman is a guy who's getting too old for this shit. Still, the character fundamentally works, even if it's largely due to Affleck's efforts.

(*EDIT: Apparently, that was Robin's suit, implying that the Joker had killed him at some point in the past. Well, if it was, the scene was so dimly-lit I could barely tell.)

My favorite member of DC's "Holy Trinity" here, however, was the one with the least screen time: Diana Prince, aka Wonder Woman. This was the first real-deal outing on the big screen for a character who's long been seen as especially difficult to translate to film, and a lot was riding on both this movie and the actress playing the Amazon, Gal Gadot, to get it right -- especially since she's first in line to get a standalone movie. Any doubts should be tempered for now, because they nailed it here. Gadot not only makes for an alluring femme fatale in the early scenes where she's pretending to be a normal human woman, but when it comes time to put on the costume (inspired as much by the ancient Greeks as the comics) and throw down at the end, she proves she can hang with the big boys as she kicks ass with the best of them. Hell, she even breaks out the Lasso of Truth, and it's awesome! She's an action hero in the making, and the forthcoming Wonder Woman movie is probably the only part of the DC Extended Universe that I'm looking forward to, mostly because of how well both Gadot and the film in general impressed me here.

The weak link in the trinity, though, is Superman. This is the same take on the character that we saw in Man of Steel, and he suffers from the same fundamental problems. While Henry Cavill nails the look of Superman, he still doesn't quite feel like him, and again, it's less his fault than it is that of the writing. The idea of Superman being a controversial figure in the aftermath of Man of Steel is a major theme running through this film, and it's felt constantly... except when Superman himself is on screen. Neither he nor Lois Lane seem remotely disturbed by the death and destruction that he inflicted; instead, he's presented as a messianic figure when we see him, and the complaints of Senator Finch and others are pretty much dismissed. He's flat and boring here, and his grand climatic moment feels hollow as a result. And speaking of Lois, poor Amy Adams has pretty much nothing to do beyond either be an observer to the events going on around her, be a damsel in distress, or once again have a palatable lack of chemistry with Cavill, feeling like she was included simply because Lois was Clark Kent's iconic love interest from the comics. Once again, the dark tone of The Dark Knight may work for Batman, but when applied to Superman, it sucks all the energy and life out of the character and his story.

As boring as Superman was, however, at least he didn't make me angry like Lex Luthor did. I have no idea what the hell they were going for when they decided to make Lex a Mark Zuckerberg-type figure played by Jesse Eisenberg, but whatever it was, it didn't work. At all. Eisenberg is all over the place, veering between wacky, awkward, and juvenile, but never truly threatening as a villain. It felt like he was trying to play Lex as the Joker, and I honestly cringed at various points where he was on screen. I so wanted to see Batman or Superman just up and punch that little git in the face, and if they wouldn't, then I'd climb into the screen and do it myself. That's before you get into his motivations, or lack thereof. While Bruce Wayne is given good reason to personally hate Superman, Lex's loathing of the Man of Steel is never explained beyond "well, he's Lex Luthor, of course he hates Superman!", and his motivations seem to change from scene to scene. Say what you will about Marvel's reputation for having fairly vanilla baddies so as not to distract from our interest in the protagonists, but at least none of them have come anywhere close to being this annoying and obnoxious. DC took a big gamble with their take on Lex here, and they came up snake eyes. Eisenberg's Lex Luthor may just be the worst comic-book movie supervillain I've seen since the bad old days of Batman & Robin.

Yeah, I went there. And given that I'm about to get into my biggest complaints about this movie, it's pretty ironic that that comparison came up. For you youngins reading this, the 1997 film Batman & Robin is still the benchmark (for lack of a better term) for a truly bad superhero movie. Some films since then have challenged it, like SpawnCatwoman, Green Lantern, and most recently, last year's Fantastic Four reboot (all of which I have thankfully never seen), but as far as pop culture outside of comic book fandom is concerned, the Bat-nipples remain a symbol of how comic book movies can go horribly wrong. And more importantly for Hollywood, that film's failure convinced them that embracing the campiness of the '60s Adam West Batman show and the '70s Super Friends animated series wasn't the way to go, as much of the backlash was directed against its vivid, over-the-top, borderline-cartoonish style, the aforementioned "chiseled" Batsuit being the tip of the iceberg. In its wake, the early X-Men movies gave the characters black uniforms, Christopher Nolan's reboot of the Batman movies took more inspiration from Martin Scorsese and Michael Mann than Bill Finger and Bob Kane, and even Sam Raimi's Spider-Man films, while still having a sense of humor and acknowledging the character's roots, took place in a very grounded, "real-world" New York. When the Marvel Cinematic Universe took off by blending this modern Hollywood aesthetic with the more esoteric elements of the comics, it seemed that the film industry had learned once and for all how to avoid making another Batman & Robin.

Now, though, DC Comics and Warner Bros. have gone too far in the opposite direction. Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is indeed the "anti-Batman & Robin", in the sense that, whereas that film was too bright and campy, this one is too grim and dark. I'd nudged in that direction with my earlier criticisms, but they all have their roots in this same fundamental issue. It was a problem with Man of Steel that's blown up to billboard-size here, with no spark or joy to be found during the entire two-and-a-half-hour running time. This would be fine if I were watching a Denis Villeneuve movie that's designed to make me leave the theater feeling like shit, but in what's meant to be an action-packed, crowd-pleasing blockbuster that serves as the foundation for a slew of such films, despair is not what I have in mind as the sort of emotion I want to take home with me. This film mistakes brooding for depth, angst for emotion, and darkness for maturity. The worst part is that, unlike Nolan's Batman films, whose influence is heavy here, this one doesn't back up its grittiness with an interesting story that truly utilizes and justifies that dark take on the material. Without spoiling anything, the plot flies completely off the rails about an hour in and never regains its footing, and the questions it raises about whether somebody like Superman would be more dangerous than he's worth are similarly forgotten. It all ends in a big, explosion-filled effects extravaganza of a sort that I've seen before, no different from other superhero films except that it takes place in a darkly-lit battlefield. Not only is the darkness overbearing here, it's all in the style and not in what little substance this film has. All told, it reminded me of comic books from the '90s, stories in which the heroes were pretty much glorified vigilantes who killed with impunity while the blood and sex quotient was jacked up to 11. And since this is PG-13 (the R-rated version is being saved for the director's cut), we don't even get the sex and blood that made those stories enjoyable in a "cheesy '80s action movie" sort of way.

But wait, there's more! We still have to discuss the fact that this film is being pushed as the foundation of the DC Extended Universe, and if you didn't know that going in, you most certainly will by watching this film. We get cameos by the Flash, Aquaman, and Cyborg awkwardly shoehorned into the middle of the film, as well as a dream sequence for Bruce Wayne designed to foreshadow the coming of Darkseid, a major DC Comics villain, in the forthcoming Justice League movie. It's better than the relentless and blatant padding and sequel-baiting I saw in The Amazing Spider-Man 2, but that's like saying that drinking a glass of Flint, Michigan municipal water is better thank drinking a glass of diarrhea. It got in the way and stretched out the running time, and it was obvious when and where they put it in. Marvel had a great solution for this: the post-credits teaser where all of the sequel details are kept from interfering with the flow of the actual film. It worked for them, so why couldn't it have worked here? It's another case of a studio putting the cart before the horse when it comes to building a franchise.

I'll admit, however, that, while this movie had way too many problems, I didn't hate it. This was entirely due to the action scenes. I said before that they're nothing I haven't seen before, but I still believe that Zack Snyder is extremely gifted at shooting really cool fights. They're varied, too; we get gun battles, car chases, Batman fighting large groups of men single-handedly, and a massive climatic super-brawl that takes up the last half-hour of the film, in which Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, and more all duke it out. Nolan may be the better storyteller, but when it comes to pure action, Snyder has him beat. It's all incredibly empty without anything interesting anchoring it, and much of it is a bit too reliant on CGI and suffers from too little lighting, but when it came to delivering exactly what its title promised, for at least those moments, I got my money's worth. I just wish that I didn't have to sit through the rest of the movie to get to it.

The Bottom Line:

If you want a dark, gritty take on superheroes, fire up Netflix and watch their adaptations of Daredevil and Jessica Jones. The few nuggets of goodness here aren't enough to balance out what is, overall, a disappointing bore of a film.

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