Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016) - Senator Purrington's Revenge

From Watchmen to Sucker Punch to Man of Steel, director Zack Snyder manages to rile up internet film goers like no one else short of Michael Bay. The two have a lot in common; a focus on imagery over writing, consistent, unmistakable but often imitated style that will either drive you nuts or completely draw you in, a self-deprecating sense of satire (Sucker Punch for Snyder, Tranformers 4 for Bay), and a tendency to make tons of money while receiving critical and fan derision. They even went to school together at Pasadena's Art Center College of Design!

For both Bay and Snyder, negative criticism doesn't tend to begin with analysis or even dissatisfaction; instead, we get enraged rants that treat a film the writer didn't like as a sick disease that's killing the soul of man. The point is not to critique the movie, but to defeat it, vanquishing it back into the abyss with a blend of endless sarcasm and blood rage. There are, of course, intelligent writers who are able to write perfectly fine critiques; I'm certainly not saying any film's perfect here. It's just baffling and honestly gross to see YouTube comments take flesh in the form of a new, loud generation of angry critics, fed by hideously bad comedy-criticism along the lines of CinemaSins and Honest Trailers. Adam Jahnke covered this well at One Perfect Shot.

When it comes to Zack Snyder, I love the man's sense of visuals. The son of a painter/photographer, Snyder grew up studying painting and it shows; his films often linger on a perfectly composed shot that expresses its intent cleanly and, often, very bluntly. Snyder's heavy use of slow motion and speed ramping in his films functions both to give more weight to the impact of his action scenes and to allow the viewer to become fully engrossed in an image, whether it's Superman floating above a family calling out to be saved from a flood or Bruce Wayne slowly walking to his parents' tomb. Snyder's films ask you to stop and soak in every frame of the film, even when (sometimes especially when, in the case of Watchmen and 300) the image you're presented with is revolting. Snyder's films tend to have solid scores as well, and Hans Zimmer and Junkie XL did some great work with the music in Batman v Superman, particularly Lex Luthor and Wonder Woman's themes.

It's not for everyone, and it's very easy to see why someone would be turned off by this style, which places little importance on naturalism (see the blurred lines between dream, reality, fantasy, and reminiscence in both Sucker Punch and Batman v Superman) and instead exists in an almost constant dream-state, often punctuated by explosions. It's a discordant, discomforting style that can easily push viewers away. Snyder's visual sense is so strong that many of his films' scenes could be perfectly understood with their dialogue removed entirely (I'd argue several scenes in his career would actually be improved by this.) There's nothing wrong with loving it or hating it; you're not smarter or dumber than anyone else based on this. Snyder's not out to get you. I personally love it, while being about 50/50 on his films as a whole.

2013's Man of Steel left me with mixed feelings. I loved seeing Clark Kent's childhood; I felt completely uninterested in his birth on Krypton (though I dig that scene's decadent, gaudy art design.) I loved that the film made superhero violence actually look horrifying and dangerous to regular people; I didn't like how long the action scenes went on for, with a final act that left me tired. It's a film with an identity crisis, trapped between a small town coming-of-age story and an alien invasion horror film; appropriate to a story of Clark Kent awakening as Superman, but just tonally disconnected enough that it took me out of the film a few times.

I'm happy to say that the film's follow up, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, improves on Man of Steel in every way. A much more confident film that only stumbles a few times (largely in the film's final act,) I feel that BvS is Snyder's best work to date. A ponderous title serving both to tease an upcoming flood of Justice League films and to call to mind monster movies titles such as Godzilla, Mothra and King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack, BvS is a strange movie with a very human core.

The film opens inside of Batman's head and keeps us there for quite a while. From nightmares of his parents' death to the living hell that is Metropolis during the fight between Superman and General Zod at the end of Man of Steel, we follow Ben Affleck's broken, distraught take on Bruce Wayne/Batman over the edge into madness. The chaos in Metropolis is introduced by a fantastic chapter title that reads "METROPOLIS: MANKIND IS INTRODUCED TO THE SUPERMAN," which immediately, in blinding white, sets the film's operatic tone. I actually wish Snyder had used MORE title cards throughout the film. Go full-on Tarantino here, why not?

Affleck is fantastic, with great facial acting showing a quiet, reserved Bruce Wayne experiencing an emasculating midlife crisis. This man once at the top of the food chain, now introduced to beings beyond comprehension, has lost his grasp on the world. This take on Bruce Wayne is America's irrational, xenophobic reaction to 9/11 (the film makes very direct visual metaphors between the 9/11 attacks and the Superman/Zod fight and Wayne quotes Dick Cheney when making his decision to treat Superman as an enemy combatant.) He's a man with a good heart driven into the arms of brutality and extremism by trauma, resentment, and impotence, and he's not painted as a fool or a monster, but as a broken man trying to do the right thing in the most utterly wrong way.

Jeremy Irons plays a solid take on Batman's loyal butler Alfred, doing his best to keep Bruce Wayne morally grounded, even if he still enables him by working on his latest gadgets. I loved the way the two of them worked together remotely during his Bat Missions; he feels like a genuine sidekick here and that's fun to see.

On the Superman side of things, we get to see a nice mix of Superman heroics and Clark Kent's civilian life. He tries, with little success, to use the power of the press at the Daily Planet to enact positive, social change, calling out injustice and mistreatment of the poor, finding particular distaste in the violent methods of Batman's vigilante justice. Henry Cavill returns as Superman and Clark Kent, playing the two sides with enough physical difference that it's believable that people don't know they're the same guy. While Batman has a larger character arc, I really enjoyed Cavill's Superman here, more so than I did in Man of Steel. I genuinely liked his romance with Amy Adams' Lois Lane and felt she was often the heart of the movie. They're cute and endearing together and she does not feel like an accessory; she's the one figuring out Luthor's dastardly deeds and shadowy dealings. She's strong and confident as a journalist and actually does succeed at bringing social darkness to light in a way that Clark Kent, in the same occupation, simply can't. As a writer, she out-heroes Superman, even if she does need to be rescued a couple of times. To be fair, she also gets to rescue Superman.

That brings us to my favorite character in the film, and the one whose performance has received the most criticism; I loved Jesse Eisenberg as Lex Luthor. This is an absolutely perfect performance, one of my favorites of the year. It's not a whole lot like other Luthors, I know. I don't care. Eisenberg's facial acting, his little tics when he's thinking, the way he awkwardly starts and stops his thoughts, his body language where he gets just a little too close to the people's he's talking to, he's genuinely great all around. Like Bruce Wayne, Luthor's a man at the top of his world who's humbled and horrified by the appearance of a God on Earth. Batman and Luthor are mirrors to each other here, explaining the almost Joker-like tendencies he displays at times. He's a sociopath who suddenly finds himself second (or third) best and it kills him inside. Rather than embrace the self-sacrificing ideals of Superman's Christ figure, he seeks out Eldritch knowledge and it drives him mad, digging through archives in Zod's old Kryptonian spaceship and learning things no man was meant to know. 

This Luthor is a victim in his own right, burned by both God and man and unable to cope with a world beyond his understanding. His treatment of women as disposable objects, from women in political power to his secretary to Lois, says a lot about the man. He rants about awful fathers, but he's got a lot of mother issues at play here too. Luthor is essentially Bruce Wayne without the ability to pass as socially competent; a parallel is drawn between their treatment of women when we see Wayne wake up in bed next to an anonymous woman whose face is never shown. While Bruce remains absolutely fixated on his mother, Lex pushes her out of his memory and into a dark, forgotten place.

Rounding out the cast is Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman, marking the long-time hero's feature film debut. Having walked away from the world of humanity a hundred years ago, Wonder Woman goes about incognito as Diana Prince, doing her best to keep a low profile before cosmic horror in Metropolis calls her back into action. She's a fun contrast to both Batman and Superman, smiling and bringing a sense of joy onto the battlefield. Her role in the film is quite small, but I like what's there, and I liked seeing her, as a massively more experienced warrior, framed in front of the two confused boys during the film's climax. Looking forward to her own film.

As the film hits its final act, things start to get murkier. I'll hide most of this behind spoiler text. After communing with the terrible secrets of space within the Kryptonian vessel, Lex Luthor kidnaps Clark Kent's mother and forces him to fight Batman if he wants to see her alive again. It seems like a win for Luthor either way; he knows Batman stole some Kryptonite from him and weaponized it and eggs on his hatred of Superman. If Batman kills Superman, that's one less threat to Luthor. If Superman kills Batman, Luthor proves that he's just a weapon that can be controlled, far from a God. Superman tries to talk it out with Batman, who tries to kill him with a Kryptonite-tipped Lance of Longinus, the obvious weapon for assaulting a Christ figure. Eventually, the fight stops when Superman (with help from Lois) explains that his mother, Martha, has been kidnapped, and begs Batman to save her. Turns out, in a convenient twist/act of divine intervention, Superman and Batman's mothers share the same first name, a fact that snaps Batman out of his violent stupor. He's broken enough to see this coincidence as deeply meaningful, but more importantly, he learns that Superman isn't divine; he's just a man with a regular mom that he loves. Batman sees himself in the shoes of the criminal who killed his own Martha and is horrified, and by saving Martha Kent he expels some of his inner demons, accomplishing what he never could as a child.

Batman hurries off, saves the day, and Luthor unleashes Doomsday, a super monster made from his own blood and the dead body of General Zod.  I like the Frankenstein's Monster imagery, I loved Luthor, but everything surrounding the birth of Doomsday feels rushed and weird. I want to see Luthor slowly melt into his Promethean follies, but it's practically an afterthought, and it turns out this monster was probably going to destroy the world and Luthor with it if Superman hadn't survived his tiff with Batman and fought him off.

That last 1/3 or so of the movie is rougher and strangely cut, but it's certainly not bad. It's nothing like, for example, the tonal and stylistic shift in the final act of last year's Fantastic Four film. I'm hoping the Director's Cut due out later this year patches things up a bit, but otherwise, Batman v Superman is a genuinely good film, even if it's not what some in the audience wanted or expected. I very much enjoyed its study of Superman as an unwilling Christ figure, a man who never asked for worship, choosing to fight physically to save people in his super suit while fighting social issues in his reporter suit. Metropolis erects a garish monument to him, but he shows no pride in such things; instead, Doomsday becomes what's basically a living version of the statue, staring at it with hatred and confusion. In the end, the world of the film, even Bruce Wayne, learns to love and embrace Superman but accepts that you can't rely on God to save everyone all the time; progress comes from love, kindness, and sacrifice. A new tribute to Superman does away with the gaudy statue, replaced by a simple plaque that reads, "If you would see his monument, look around you," as the camera pans across a crowd of kind faces holding a candlelight vigil. Idolatry is discarded in favor of truly living his example; Bruce Wayne says "I failed him in life, but I won't fail him in death," embracing the teachings of the Superman/Jesus power combo.

My biggest issue with this film is the way it handles teasers for future Justice League films. You know how after the credits lots of superhero movies tease the next movie? This one does it 2/3rds of the way through instead, with Wonder Woman watching trailers on a thumb drive for Aquaman, Flash, and Cyborg adventures. It's awful. Terribly done, ugly, and lazy. It feels as if Snyder knew how ludicrous this was and half-assed it in a way nothing else in the movie feels. He didn't seem to care about these teasers and almost shows contempt for them with how badly they're integrated. There's also a scene where The Flash invades Bruce Wayne's dreams from the future and it's equally bad. But ultimately, this is a minor gripe in a film I otherwise enjoyed.

I'm not upset that Batman wrecks cars during some big action scenes and almost certainly kills people doing it. He does it in the Burton movies, he does it in the Nolan movies, he does it in Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns, which serves as an obvious inspiration for this film. In Batman Returns, he straps dynamite to a man and shoves him into a hole and laughs. In Batman Begins, he blows up a whole temple of Super Ninjas while announcing his intent to never kill anyone and holds Liam Neeson down on a derailing train until it's too late to get to safety. He's a hypocrite in many appearances, this film just front-lines it like no other, as his morals are shoved aside in what he may intend to be his final act of theatricality, following a mad death-drive in his quest to slay the Superman and redeem his lost manhood. Alfred comments on Batman's brutality being new and terrible, showing that this is a man who has lost himself to his need for revenge, not some sort of glorification of vigilante violence.

This isn't the pitch-black film that it's being painted as. Batman serves as an antagonist for much of the film, violently pursuing a Superman who means the world no harm, desperate to find his own meaning again now that he's discovered we're far from alone in the universe. It's not a film about how fun and awesome violence and revenge is; it condemns them as dark paths that lead to self-destruction. Peace of mind and actual justice come from cooperation and brotherhood, and Bruce Wayne's newfound friendship with Diana Prince/Wonder Woman seems like a step towards a more healthy, moderate, and respectful Batman. In spite of dark elements, this is Snyder's most optimistic film, and very much cries out that the night is darkest just before the dawn. It deserves to be given a shot with an open mind and without preconceived beliefs in what a movie, a Batman, or a Superman must necessarily be.

One last aside to finally explain this article's subtitle: Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy shows up in this movie with the unbelievably great name "Senator Purrington." I love it.

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