Wednesday, March 30, 2016

What-to-Watch Wednesday - Batman V Superman (Who Wins? Who Loses? Where Does It Go From Here?)

***SPOILER ALERT***

I found I couldn't say all I wanted to say about this film without putting in some significant spoilers. Consider yourself warned.

So, I'm doing something a little different with this entry of my W2WW series. Instead of highlighting older and sometimes lesser seen films, I'm tackling a movie that is poised to become one of the blockbusters of the year as well as one of the most maligned: Batman Vs. Superman - Dawn of Justice.

From the moment it premiered, I have steadily watched Batman Vs. Superman (BvS) get struck down by critics (although ones I actually respect and read on a regular basis gave the film a more measured if not altogether positive review) while the general public has flocked to see it. Audience reaction has been more positive but hardly overwhelmingly so.

Here's what I think: it isn't as good as I would have liked it to be, but it is far better than most are giving it credit for.

Ironically, the reason for my personal disappointment is the same for why it is better than many are saying. My thirty plus years of reading comics (primarily DC Comics), of steeping myself in the lore of these fantastic characters paradoxically hinders and heightens my enjoyment. For me, the movie was an emotional roller coaster ride of highs venturing on the sublime and lows sinking into the bitterness of missed opportunities.

Furthermore, I can say unashamedly that the vast majority of my affection is reserved for the characters of DC Comics far more so than those of Marvel. Don't get me wrong - I have enjoyed many Marvel comics over the years as well as the films, and I have great admiration for several of its characters. But, DC has always reached back to something from my childhood, a mainline connection of sorts that has never been there with Marvel. I just get the DC Universe and have always had little difficulty walking around in it.

Does that mean I'm biased when watching a DC Comics movie? Probably. But, only in that it makes me more mindful of blunders and, as I stated before, missed opportunities just as much as it causes me to rejoice in the successes. And, it should be noted that I am peculiar amongst my fellow comic nerds in that I am nowhere near as enamored of Superman and Batman as I am other characters in the DC Universe, namely the Flash and Wonder Woman. So, my expectations going in were slightly different than most, and I was looking for things other than the much talked about Battle Royale between the two icons.

But, first, let's start with the plot. I am surprised that so many have called it nonsensical and even incomprehensible because I saw all the major plot points coming from a mile away. This is where my comic book background both aided and hindered me. Super-hero team-ups are a long established tradition in the comic book genre, and one of the tried-and-true characteristics of them is that the partnered heroes have to fight each other at some point in the story before finally teaming up to take down the real menace. And the reason they end up fighting each other is almost always because the characters have had some major lapse in judgment or thought the other to be in the wrong somehow. BvS religiously adheres to this formula, slavishly so in fact that a more accurate criticism would be its lack of originality. But once I got over the disappointment of such a rudimentary plot, I stopped focusing on what was going to happen next to enjoy the moments leading to the next plot point.

And, it is in those moments that BvS shows some real brilliance.

Much has already been said and written in praise of one of those moments of brilliance: the involvement of Wonder Woman in the story. I enthusiastically echo those sentiments. Wonder Woman's presence in the film was indeed a major highpoint. I have nothing to add to the resounding applause other than Wonder Woman is a second banana in BvS only because the story isn't centrally focused on her. At no point is she diminished as a character or overshadowed in favor of her male counterparts. In fact, had they given her more screen time, she would have completely stolen the film out from under the other two. As a result, I came out anxiously anticipating her solo film, which I'm sure was the intention all along. So on that front, well played, Warner Brothers.

Many have also hailed the soundtrack as something special, and indeed it is amazing. Probably the best I've heard for an action movie and certainly for a comic book movie. It is powerful and operatic with moments of fun and whimsy thrown in for good measure. Most of the tracks, especially Wonder Woman's theme, have been on constant rotation on my iPod. I would go so far as to say it is Hans Zimmer's best score since The Lion King.

The action scenes are stylish and expertly shot as is usually the case in Zack Snyder's films. Of particular note is a fight sequence in which Batman takes on a gang of thugs that is reminiscent of a similar scene from The Dark Knight Returns. Highly energetic and visually stunning, it is singlehandedly the best Batman fight scene put on film to date, outshining even the work done in the Nolan trilogy.

Speaking of the Nolan trilogy, that brings me to a major bone of contention with BvS: whereas those films found moments of fun and joy to sprinkle into a dark story, BvS is gritty and ponderous and doesn't fully allow the sense of awe and majesty that these characters deserve. Some have said that they felt no connection to either Superman or Batman, and I have to agree. The versions presented in this film are not the Batman and Superman I've known my whole life. Superman is unsure and conflicted about his role in the world and more than a little obtuse about the effect he is having on those around him; Batman is an alcoholic womanizer who has devolved into a brutal, angry, and largely ineffectual avenger. There isn't a lot to admire, much less like about either of them.

Those qualities more than anything made me initially dislike the film. Tonally, it had its two main characters all wrong. Then I remembered two key lines of dialogue that made me think differently:
"Be their hero, Clark. Be their angel, be their monument, be anything they need you to be... or be none of it. You don't owe this world a thing. You never did." --- Martha Kent
 "That's how it starts. The fever, the rage, the feeling of powerlessness that turns good men... cruel." --- Alfred Pennyworth
Reflecting on these two lines of warning/advice from parental figures in the story, I realized that BvS is showing Superman and Batman at stages in their lives that have not typically been depicted for these characters.

Superman is at the beginning of his life as a hero and is under assault from a world that both fears him as much as it reveres him. He wants to do the right thing but has no idea what that might be. His adopted mother tells him essentially that regardless of the outcome, he needs to make a choice. And eventually, in sacrificing himself to stop Doomsday, he does and also gains a measure of selflessness and heroism he hasn't had up to that point.

Conversely, Batman is approaching the end of a long and (I assume) secretive war on crime that has left him bitter, resentful, and feeling powerless. As Alfred implies, Bruce Wayne has gone from a good man seeking to do good to someone mean and cruel. His being easily manipulated by Lex Luthor and subsequent plan to outright murder Superman are a clear extensions of this. This Batman is damaged goods at a time when he should be at the height of his mental prowess, and he finally comes back to himself by witnessing Superman's sacrifice.

These converging contrasts intrigue me for the storytelling possibilities they present. However, BvS falls short on delivering on these ideas by not allowing us to really connect with either hero in a meaningful way. It is as though Zack Snyder views these heroes as figures from a distance and expects the audience to do the same. I get that Snyder is trying to tell an epic along the lines of Beowulf or a Bible story, but that is the wrong approach to take in modern storytelling with characters who are facing personal struggles even if they have powers and abilities the rest of us don't. Modern audiences need the emotional connection to the characters that ancient epics, Bible stories, and fairy tales don't provide because the audience's values and expectations are different.

That isn't to say that I am calling for Zack Snyder's removal from handling the DC Cinematic Universe as some are currently petitioning for. Yes, he is limited as a filmmaker, but there are far more good things he has established in his DC films than bad. And, I am interested in how other filmmakers are going to build upon those things. Perhaps by the time the two Justice League films are made, he will have learned how to put some heart into his films and characters, or maybe (and this is the more likely) other directors will have laid the necessary groundwork with the individual films so that audiences can go into the team films already invested in the characters.

With all this said, is BvS worth going to see? Yes. It is an entertaining film from start to finish. Is it incredibly flawed? Yes, but they are flaws that I remain hopeful will be addressed with subsequent films. The super-hero film genre may be nearing the end of its course, but the fanboy in me really wants to see the DC characters receive the cinematic treatment they deserve. If anything, I would advise filmmakers to listen for the constructive criticism inside the cacophony of naysayers. Man of Steel and BvS have taken small, tentative steps in that right direction, but some bigger, more assured leaps need to be taken before the window of opportunity closes.

Note: Some of you may be wondering why I didn't mention anything about Jesse Eisenberg's performance as Lex Luthor (one of the more universally hated aspects of the film) or the appearance of the Flash.

In regards to Eisenberg, I am reserving judgment for two reasons: 1) Eisenberg is a good actor who usually makes good acting choices and 2) given the allusions to the coming of Darkseid, I am wondering if the Luthor we saw was so unhinged and out-of-character because of some influence similar to the visions Batman was having.

As for the Flash, the jury is still out on Ezra Miller, but I am not a fan of the man-bun. However, I did get chills at how his appearance was an homage to Crisis On Infinite Earths.

Oh...Bother (Or No Good Deed Goes Unpunished)

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