Monday, April 4, 2016

Review - Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice

          The opening paragraph of my film reviews usually consists of a brief introduction and a description of the context leading up to it. However, when it comes to Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, I feel inclined to present my reaction to it up front, before any kind of introduction, which, while trying to be as poetic and elegant as I can while staying true to my raw feelings, can best be captured as follows: WHAT IN THE HOLY FUCKING SHIT WAS THAT?? Ok, now that I have gotten that off my chest, my review can continue as normal. I return to the realm of writing after something of a hiatus since my Deadpool review. There were a number of reasons for this, the most pressing of which being recent financial obligations that I have to prepare for, which require that I invest more time into things both at work and outside of work. That, and a lack of films to write about that would generate a decent review (I will admit that I started brainstorming and writing a new philosophical piece last month, but, while working on it, I quickly realized that that particular piece will take some time to produce). Thus, I figured that the release of Batman v Superman would make for an opportune moment for me to come back to writing. And it appears as if superhero films continue to be the flavor of the decade, despite the strong performance of Mad Max, Jurassic World, and Star Wars last year. New to the arena this time around is Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, DC Comics' attempt at entering into the fray with Marvel's Avengers, directed by Zach Snyder.
          Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is the second installment of the DC Comics Cinematic Universe, after 2013's Man of Steel, and is meant to ultimately segue into a full-blown Justice League movie at some point in the future. And, in case you've lived under a rock for the better part of your life, the Justice League is DC's amalgam of their most famous superheroes, including Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman, who band together to fight evil, not unlike Marvel's Avengers, both of which appeared in the 1960s. The film stars Ben Affleck as Bruce Wayne/Batman and Henry Cavill as Clark Kent/Superman, with a supporting cast consisting of the likes of Laurence Fishburne, Diane Lane, Jeremy Irons, and Gal Gadot, and pits our two heroes against Superman's arch nemesis Lex Luthor, portrayed by Jesse Eisenburg. This also marks the first silver screen appearance of Batman since Chris Nolan's The Dark Knight Rises in 2012, and comes on the heels of Man of Steel, which, while not groundbreaking, is usually considered the most successful silver screen iteration of Superman to date (after a long list of failed attempts).
          The film opens up with a re-enactment of the ending scene of Man of Steel, except told from the perspective of Bruce Wayne. Wayne finds himself running around frantically trying to save friends (and, interestingly, employees) from the chaos and destruction wrought by the final fight between Superman and General Zod. Faced with the sorrow and grief caused by all of the collateral damage, Wayne begins to harbor animosity towards Superman that festers as the film plays on. Fast forward to about two years after Man of Steel ends. Superman has become a kind of "on call" hero figure, appearing around the world to thwart evil wherever it may arise, while working as a journalist for the Metropolis newspaper The Daily Planet as his alter ego Clark Kent. Despite saving the world from General Zod and becoming a kind of celebrity figure, overall doing good throughout the world, Superman also has his share of detractors, including influential public officials in the U.S. Senate. These detractors see Superman as a kind of authoritarian figure, or a figure of unlimited power without any kind of checks or balances. Among them is the young, wealthy business and engineering tycoon Lex Luthor, who, through some shady business dealings around the world, comes across a large chunk of Kryptonite from Zod's failed attempt at terraforming Earth, found not far from a beach off the coast of the Indian Ocean.
          Meanwhile, across the river from Metropolis in Gotham City, Batman continues to live up to his reputation as the mysterious vigilante, using his various gadgets and gizmos to bring evil-doers to justice, who, as far as this film is concerned, are usually petty street thugs. Of course, both heroes get their share of face time in the local media, Batman usually portrayed as a rogue vigilante, Superman as the paragon of righteousness, a messiah to some, a burgeoning dictator to others, including Wayne and Luthor. And it is through the media that Superman develops the perception that Batman is a kind of oppressor, skulking around the underbelly of Gotham to intimidate and threaten the destitute and dispossessed, many of whom have to resort to petty crime in order to survive. While this rivalry is developing, Luthor lobbies certain members of the U.S. Congress to help him weaponize the chunk of Kryptonite he managed to get his hands on as a kind of deterrent to Superman. After his proposal is ultimately rejected, he bombs the U.S. Capitol building, indirectly implicating Superman in the process. Wayne is then given reason to suspect Luthor of foul play, so, after researching recent projects that Luthor has been working on, Batman then manages to steal the chunk of Kryptonite from Luthor and uses it to create a spear designed to kill Superman. Eventually, with a little bit of coercion from Lex Luthor, our two heroes meet face to face and duke it out. That is, until the eventual interference of Lois Lane who manages to convince Batman to help Superman stop Luthor from using General Zod's ship to create an abominable Krypton creature. By the time our heroes put aside their differences, however, it is too late. The creature is released and the end of the film consists of our two heroes trying to find a way to stop it, eventually even getting help from Wonder Woman, who, quite literally, appears from nowhere.
          As can be inferred from my opening evaluation of Batman v Superman at the outset, my overall impression of the film was pretty dismal. Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice more or less embodies everything that is wrong with superhero films, arguably even more so than the Avengers. It's difficult to even find a place to start critiquing it, there are so many to choose from. Perhaps the narrative and characters are a good place. Frankly, the story was mediocre and the character development is more or less what I would expect for a superhero movie, which is to say, virtually non-existent. I will admit that, while there are several comic series and superhero movies that I really enjoy (including Batman), Superman was never among them. The Superman series always struck me as boring and uninteresting. Superman is just too ridiculously overpowered - he flies, is faster than "a speeding bullet", near-impervious to damage (unless, of course, he is around Kryptonite), and shoots lasers out of his eyes, not to mention the fact he is jacked with an 8-pack and his pectorals always look like they are about to burst out of his shirt. He has virtually no flaws, and, for the flaws that he does have, they are not easy to exploit. Quite literally, the only creatures that stand a chance against Superman are otherwordly, much like the creature at the end of Dawn of Justice. But then, at this point, we have gone beyond the willful "suspension of disbelief" and completely detached the narrative from the viewers, instead focusing on an absolutely over-the-top fight between two ridiculously overpowered creatures. I continue to find myself perplexed by the fact that people are actually entertained by this - one thing that can make fiction really interesting is watching the characters grow and develop - watch their flaws be exploited, watch them learn from their mistakes, and watch them cope with everyday life, which makes them relatable to an audience. None of this applies to Superman (unless, of course, you're a shredded hunk with an 8-pack who can shoot lasers out of his eyes).
          Of course, the film's problems go well beyond those of Superman. The overall narrative was a minefield of plot holes, arguably leaving more questions than it answered. Why exactly was Lex Luthor so hell-bent on destroying Superman? Luthor was portrayed as one who has a kind of fanatic devotion to the cause of destroying Superman, but his motivating factors are never made clear. Bruce Wayne at least had the excuse of revenge, but Luthor never seemed to have anything to worry about when it came Superman. Was Luthor always this fanatical, even before Superman appeared? Even in the first five minutes of his screen time, Lex Luthor gave off the impression that he belonged in a straight jacket, leaving one to wonder how exactly he got to where he was as the CEO of LexCorp. Granted, a Superman fanboy may try to refer me to the comics for answers and attempt to defend Dawn of Justice's portrayal of Lex Luthor with religious zeal, but this would be a poor cop-out. Chris Nolan's Dark Knight series was able to give an adequate backstory to Bruce Wayne/Batman without having to refer the audience to the comics for answers. Speaking of Batman, there also seemed to be a gross disconnect between this iteration of Batman, and the character archetype set for him in the previous films (and, if I may say so, this iteration of Batman is even at odds with the characterization of him in the Emmy Award-winning animated series from the 1990s). Specifically, there are several points in the film where Batman is portrayed with guns and actually using them to kill people, such as his vision of the future where he leads a resistance against Superman, as well as his big fight scene with Luthor's Russian henchmen while trying to save Superman's adoptive mother. This is starkly at odds with the identity of Batman established for him in previous film iterations; Batman famously doesn't kill people, let alone use guns to harm others, preferring usually to just beat them into submission. It's one thing to reboot a character, or take a character in a different direction (clearly, Chris Nolan's Dark Knight is radically different from the Tim Burton version of Batman from the late 80s/early 90s), but it's an entirely different thing to break away from one of the core traits that has come to define the character. This would be like having Captain America suddenly start fighting for Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union, something wholly incoherent with the character.
          The introduction of Wonder Woman and the rest of the Justice League didn't help the film's odds either. In fact, their introduction felt a bit rushed; this is only the second installment of the DC Cinematic Universe and already we have the Justice League assembling on screen. I'm sure this is DC's and Warner Bros' attempt at catching up with Marvel's Avengers, but, as is typical with Warner Bros., they are just making things worse, and are always late to the party (see Mortal Kombat vs DC Universe). There were five installments in the Marvel Cinematic Universe before the release of the first Avengers film, allowing Marvel to really dig deep into the narratives of each of our primary protagonists, however silly those may (or may not) have been. With DC, however, it looks like they just want to skip to the part where a whole bunch of random superheroes appear on screen at the same time. This is a pity because it makes Wonder Woman's appearance feel very rushed and arbitrary; she is literally given no background at all, other than arguably a random photo from what looks to be World War II, and just shows up out of nowhere to help Batman and Superman fight the Krypton creature at the end. There is so much potential with Wonder Woman; this is her first really big live-action iteration, but the character's background wasn't established at all. And while there is a full-blown Wonder Woman movie in production for a slated 2017 release, it doesn't really help Dawn of Justice for it to be released after the fact. A similar criticism can be aimed at this version of Batman - there is a lot of untapped potential here as well. One of the defining characteristics of Chris Nolan's Dark Knight series is the fact that he tried to situate Batman in the realm of crime drama, using believable villains and mobsters as the scourge of Gotham that Batman is dealing with. This framework inevitably ruled out some of Batman's more "sci-fi" antagonists, such as Poison Ivy or Mr. Freeze. I think there is an opportunity here in the DC Cinematic Universe to really push Affleck's Batman, and perhaps revisit some of these more sci-fi villains that, while wholly inconsistent with the Nolan version of Batman, would seem plausible given what we have seen so far in Man of Steel and Dawn of Justice. Besides, it would take little effort to improve upon Poison Ivy and Mr. Freeze since their last silver screen appearance in 1997's Batman and Robin ("WHAT KILLED THE DINOSAURS?"). In fact, on that note, it might even be a good idea to revisit the Riddler as well (one of my personal favorite Batman villains, along with the Scarecrow).
          Is there anything that Dawn of Justice does well? Well, yes and no. The area where I can give praise to Dawn of Justice is in its special effects, but, at the same time, I could also make the case that this works to its detriment. Make no mistake, Warner Bros. pumped a lot of money into making sure that Dawn of Justice was at the forefront of special effects, from Superman's eye lasers, to Bruce Wayne's apocalyptic dreamscape, to General Zod's crashed ship. This is in stark contrast to The 5th Wave, that alien invasion movie from earlier in the year that didn't look like an alien invasion at all, partially because of a lack of special effects. Dawn of Justice is at the complete opposite end of the spectrum. But that's also the thing that works against it. While The 5th Wave had no special effects at all, Dawn of Justice feels like it was directed by Michael Bay and seems to have gone completely overboard with its special effects. In many ways, I can't fault Dawn of Justice for this; this seems like the inevitable side effect of having Superman in your movies, and such an addiction to special effects, by this point, seems inherent to superhero films, as evidenced by the Avengers. But again, we can contrast Dawn of Justice and the Avengers with Nolan's Dark Knight series. Another thing that works in favor of Nolan's Batman films is the fact that they are not over-laced with special effects, making them more relatable, and facilitating the suspension of disbelief. It's difficult to maintain that when the primary protagonist just drops in to a terrorist stronghold and begins shooting lasers out of his eyes.
          Overall, my dissatisfaction with Dawn of Justice can be summarized by two major points. First, DC has a tendency to show up late to the party, so to speak, and, as a result, everything seems so rushed and incomplete. Much in the same way the Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe didn't offer anything above and beyond Marvel vs. Capcom, Dawn of Justice doesn't really offer anything that sets it apart from the Avengers. In fact, the Marvel Cinematic Universe at least developed its primary characters by giving them their own individual stories, something sorely lacking from the DC Cinematic Universe. Second, Dawn of Justice appears to have also jumped on the bandwagon of over-done and unnecessary special effects, using that as a mere distraction from an otherwise silly and underdeveloped plot. Like my feelings towards the Marvel Cinematic Universe, I would be much more interested in the characters' individual stories; there are a lot of unique character points that could be had with Batman and Wonder Woman, and I think developing those characters individually would greatly benefit the series before cramming them together into a hodge-podge of convoluted superhero action. On that note, though, this gives us something to look forward to in the Wonder Woman film due out next summer. And, speaking of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, now that Dawn of Justice is out of the way, this paves the way for Captain America: Civil War as the next big superhero film coming out in the next several weeks.

          Lastly, I bring some good news for my (currently nonexistent) fans: I believe I have finally found an outlet for my writing in the form of LIKEYOUSAID Magazine. A punk/alternative music magazine based out of Boston, I have been in talks with one of the lead editors to contribute rock-related articles to their cause. As those get published, it is my intention to also post them to the blog. My first submission for the magazine, "Is 2016 the Most Punk Year in U.S. Politics?", should hopefully be making it to the "Features" column of LIKEYOUSAID soon!

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