Monday, August 8, 2016

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (Warner Bros., Atlas Entertainment, Cruel & Unusual Films, Ratpac Entertainment, DC Comics, 2016)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film I wanted to watch last night was Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (the lower-case “v” in the title, instead of “vs.” or just “v.” with a period, was supposed to evoke the nomenclature of court cases — though the court pleadings and opinions I’ve seen use “v.” with the period), directed by Zach Snyder from a script by Chris Terrio and David S. Goyer and a 2 ½-hour long movie (though there’s an “Extended Edition” that’s a full three hours, which would be too much of an indigestible thing) that, though it has its moments, for the most part is a lumbering behemoth of a movie that epitomizes much of what’s gone wrong with the superhero genre in films. I come to a movie like this not having read either a Superman or Batman comic (except for reissues of the older ones) since my own teen years in the 1960’s, and I have fond memories of the mythos surrounding both characters and the DC Universe as they stood then but haven’t really kept up with later developments except through watching the movies. Batman v Superman is more or less a sequel to Man of Steel (2013), which was scripted by Goyer and Christopher Nolan (who has a vague credit on this one among the usual laundry list of “producers”) and also directed by Snyder. When Charles and I watched Man of Steel together I called it “one of the most disappointing movies either of us had seen in quite some time!” — and it’s a measure of its unmemorability that last night Charles couldn’t recall whether or not he’d seen it — though it comes off as at least a minor masterpiece compared to Batman v Superman. Young(ish) British actor Henry Cavill (a lesser light in Woody Allen’s masterpiece Whatever Works) returns as Superman, and Batman is played by Ben Affleck — a weird bit of casting, especially since a decade ago he played, not a superhero himself, but an actor who’d played one in the marvelous Hollywoodland (an historical fantasy about the last days of actor George Reeves, who played Superman on the 1950’s TV series and found it disqualified him from being considered for more substantial roles — he had a minor part in From Here to Eternity but was cut out of the film when audience members at preview screenings recognized him, cried out, “That’s Superman!,” and started laughing) — though he’s O.K. in a surprisingly small part that, like Nolan’s own Batman films (especially the last, The Dark Knight Rises), gave him considerably more screen time as Bruce Wayne than in the Batsuit. (Lewis Wilson and Michael Keaton remain my favorite big-screen Batmen, and the films they were in — the 1943 Columbia serial directed by Lambert Hillyer, and the 1989 feature by Tim Burton that kick-started the modern-day Batman franchise and also featured Jack Nicholson as the best-ever Joker — remain, at least in my mind, the best Batmovies of all.)

There are two big problems with Batman v Superman, and they’re worth noting since they afflict a lot of the superhero movies being made today: first is a “plot,” if you can call it that, which flits from incident to incident and story to story in a way that’s supposed to be powerfully ambiguous but just ends up being confusing. The second is the continuing attempt to use the superhero mythologies to tell some great, enduring “truths” about human nature in general and its penchant for violence, as well as its desire to worship someone or something greater than ourselves, in particular. One thing the film does do well is show just how many innocent people get hurt when superheroes duke it out for control of major urban areas like Superman’s “Metropolis” and Batman’s “Gotham” (the latter was obviously supposed to be New York City but the former is a bit more obscure — Superman creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster lived in Cleveland when they worked out the character, so it’s likely that was their model even though it’s not that big a city and the “Metropolis” in the movie is actually Jersey City, so it could be spotted just across the river from New York); according to one “Trivia” poster Batman kills 30 people during the course of the film. In the brief original phase of the Bat-legend, creators Bob Kane and Bill Finger showed him as a vigilante with an ambiguous relationship to Gotham’s official law enforcement, often murdering criminals himself instead of turning them over to the authorities, but that version of the character lasted only three years (1937 to 1940) before they softened him up, introduced Robin the Boy Wonder (who hasn’t been seen on the big screen since the last of the four 1980’s-1990’s Batman movies, Batman and Robin, the one with George Clooney even more miscast than Affleck as Batman and Arnold Schwarzenegger as Mr. Freeze) and gave him the same aversion to killing in the name of “justice” Siegel and Shuster had built into the character of Superman. Then in the 1980’s the comics started getting darker, Robin ceased to appear as a character, and the so-called “Dark Knight” version of the Batman mythos was created by Alan Moore and Frank Miller. According to contributors far more up on the modern-day evolution of the Batcycle than I will ever be, good chunks of the plot line of the Dark Knight comics (or “graphic novels,” the term of art for a comic long enough to be an entire book) found their way into the script for Batman v Superman.

The film certainly qualifies for the much-abused term “all-star cast,” since among the dramatis personae are not only Ben Affleck and Henry Cavill but Jeremy Irons as Bruce Wayne’s butler Alfred (and, curiously, this time he’s just a butler rather than a scientific genius in his own right the way Morgan Freeman was in the Nolan cycle, and he never appears on screen with anyone other than Affleck), Laurence Fishburne as Perry White, Kevin Costner and Diane Lane as Superman’s adoptive parents Jonathan and Martha Kent, Amy Adams as Lois Lane (she doesn’t get nearly enough screen time but she’s superbly spunky in the best Noel Neill tradition), Holly Hunter in a great turn as U.S. Senator Finch (alas, she gets blown up one-third of the way through the film by a terrorist attack during a Senate hearing at which Superman has agreed to testify), and the man who really makes this movie and gives it whatever entertainment value it has, Jesse Eisenberg as Lex Luthor. At first I was fooled by a bit of dialogue that referenced Luthor’s father growing up in East Germany and thought that Eisenberg, playing Luthor as a young high-tech CEO with a full head of hair, was supposed to be, not the original Luthor, but his son and heir — but it was clear by the end of the movie that he was the real deal, especially when at the end of the movie he’s put into an insane asylum and all that lovely hair gets shaved off by the staff, turning Eisenberg into the bald Luthor we all know and love to hate from the comics. Eisenberg’s performance here is an odd cross between Cillian Murphy’s Scarecrow in the last stand-alone Batman movie, The Dark Knight Rises, and a parody of Eisenberg’s own performance as Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network. Babbling away at a mile a minute and saying things that seem to contradict themselves even before they’re quite out of his mouth — at a high-class fundraiser for literacy he’s supposed to give a speech and comes up with, “Books are knowledge and knowledge is power, and I am … no. Um, no. What am I? What was I saying? The bittersweet pain among men is having knowledge with no power because … because that is paradoxical, and, um … thank you for coming” — Luthor as shown here comes off not as the dour revenge-driven monomaniac he was in the comics but as Donald Trump on crystal with a cuter (but still pretty anarchic) hairdo. Eisenberg is the one actor in this movie who really gets to create a character we can identify with — he may be a bad guy (though in this sort of story the villains are usually more interesting than the heroes anyway), but he’s also witty, charming, discombobulated and vain but also oddly self-deprecating (one thing that definitely differentiates him from Trump!).

He’s a breath of fresh air in a movie that otherwise seems to be presenting as dour a vision of the world as its creators could imagine — instead of creating superheroes and holding them up as visions of what normal people could be and what they should aspire to be, the modern comic-book writers and the people who film these sorts of stories keep trying to make their “heroes” as conflicted and darkly driven as their villains, to bad effect. Indeed Batman v Superman presents such a dark vision of the world one could readily imagine its writers doing Trump’s speeches — one of the chief criticisms of Trump at (and immediately after) the Democratic convention was that he’d managed to create such an apocalyptic picture of America that one was startled to wake up the next morning and find the sun was still shining and the birds were still singing. Not much sun shines in Batman v Superman — most of it takes place at night and even the few daylight exteriors are cloudy — and no birds sing, though in one sequence when Superman rescues Lois Lane after Luthor pushes her off the top of his “LexCorp” building there’s just a hint of the sheer joy of the “flying date” Superman and Lois went on in the first Superman film with Christopher Reeve and Margot Kidder. I wonder if this is a Zeitgeist issue — if Zach Snyder and his writers are responding to the same dark forces in the American psyche that are fueling the rise of Trump, who essentially presented himself as Superman at the Republican convention, telling Americans that they live in a deeply broken country — and, for that matter, a deeply broken world — and declaring, “I alone can fix it.” (That’s one reason I liked the Senator Finch character: the script had her actually wonder if, on balance, a character like Superman is good for the world — though that plot line gets taken out when she blows up.) Also one annoying aspect of this movie is that much of it assumes a familiarity with the most recent graphic-novel incarnations of the characters, to the point where important beings in the DC Universe like Aquaman (Jason Momoa) and The Flash (Ezra Miller) get introduced with virtually no clue for the non-cognoscenti as to just who they are.

Even Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), who’s given an important role in the ending as a “bio-enhanced” human who has been alive and young-looking at least since 1918 (there’s a photo of her ostensibly on the front during World War I) that’s supposed to set her up for future Justice League of America movies as well as a stand-alone Wonder Woman film set for next year, is never referred to by that title (only by her alternate identity as “Diana Pierce”), and while there’s a hint of romantic (or at least sexual) interest between her and Affleck’s Bruce Wayne, they don’t make it anywhere near the bedroom. The closest we get to a love scene here is when Clark Kent shows up at Lois Lane’s apartment while she’s taking a bath — though at least I give writers Goyer and Terrio credit for acknowledging that Lois knows Clark Kent and Superman are one and the same instead of asking us to believe that this otherwise intelligent woman hasn’t figured that out long ago — and the biggest emotional wrench is a scene copied from the most controversial Superman comic ever, in which the character actually “died.” There’s a confusing fight to the finish between Batman, Superman (whom Luthor has got to kill Batman by kidnapping Superman’s adoptive mom Martha Kent and holding her hostage — though the writers never really explain why Batman wants to kill Superman, to the point of bringing Luthor’s Kryptonite-equipped weapons into battle, and they stop fighting each other only when they realize that both had mothers named Martha, which gives them an emotional connection), and a monster Luthor created from captured Kryptonian technology. The monster looks like that ugly creature Sea World’s latest ads have dredged up as the main attraction to get people to go there, and once he’s created it in a blood-soaked tank out of the corpse of General Zod, the renegade Kryptonian who escaped his planet’s destruction and was the principal villain of Man of Steel, Luthor introduces it to Superman as “an ancient Kryptonian deformity; blood of my blood, born to destroy you! … Your doomsday.” It wasn’t until I read the “trivia” posts that I realized that “Doomsday” was supposed to be the creature’s name! The film ends with a double funeral for Superman and Clark Kent (presumably “Kent’s” coffin is empty) and a double story in the Gotham City Times, announcing the death of Superman on the front page and a minor story inside that Daily Planet reporter Clark Kent was killed covering the big fight, and we see Lois Lane scoop up a handful of dirt and throw it on Superman’s coffin — and then the coffin begins to move and the dirt agitates and starts coming off the top of the coffin. Charles was hoping for a post-credits sequence showing more of just how Superman resurrects himself, but I said, “This is DC, not Marvel.”

Batman v Superman is that most frustrating sort of bad movie, the bad movie that could have been good or even great, and its box-office failure sparked a lot of hand-wringing at Warner Bros. about how and why Disney has been able practically to mint money off their Marvel franchises while Warners has had poor to mediocre results with the DC characters. Their conclusion had been that Disney (reflecting company traditions dating back to when Walt Disney the person was still alive and running the place himself) keeps a tight rein on the Marvel films’ directors, suppressing their personal styles to make sure all the Marvel films mesh with each other, while DC has let individual filmmakers have too much control over their “takes” on the mythic characters. Ordinarily I like it when studios allow directors to make their films essentially their own way, but the Warners bean-counters may have a point — even though when Snyder’s Watchmen was a huge flop they decided that the problem with it was it was R-rated and they would never make an R-rated superhero movie again. That wasn’t the problem with Watchmen (it and Man of Steel are the only other Snyder films I’ve seen); one problem was that Snyder is the sort of director who never lets a minor detail like plot coherence get in the way of creating a striking image — a bad filmmaking habit that’s only exacerbated when your characters originated in comic books, which are all about creating striking images. The other problem is that today’s superhero movies are just too damned serious; while I’m not expecting anyone making a film with the DC characters today to go whole-hog into the campiness of the 1960’s Batman TV series, it would be nice if they brought an awareness of the absurdity of the entire concept of the comic-book superhero to their projects and were able to work that in (as Tim Burton did masterfully in his two Batman movies) while still delivering the action goods. There are nice things to say about Batman v Superman, like the 104 credited stunt doubles (which indicates that Snyder was staging a lot of the action with real humans instead of relying on CGI for everything), but overall it’s just another draggy superhero movie that’s too long and too self-important for its own good.