Monday, March 28, 2016

Brad Ladner on Batman V Superman

Brad Ladner is a friend of the site and appeared on episode 61 of the Needless Things Podcast to talk about his massive collection of Batman memorabilia. He doesn’t just collect Batman stuff, he’s like a repository of knowledge of the Dark Knight and the attached franchise and history.

He sent me his thoughts on Dawn of Justice this past Saturday and I thoroughly enjoyed reading them. I think that you will, as well. Keep in mind that this is a collection of musings sent to me as a message and not a formal review.

As such, here’s Brad with his perspective on Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice.

-Phantom

THE GOOD

*They show the obligatory death of the Waynes, but it is done in the most artful way you have ever seen.  It is the type of artful direction you would imagine from something like Batman: The Animated Series.  They get it over with quickly, showing it during the opening credits.  Ultimately though, this is less about Batman’s origin or motives for why he is Batman, and more for explaining a choice he makes later in the film.

*Any sane person has to admit that this is the best Batman to date.  Of all the good and bad in the film, and there are equal parts both, Ben Affleck is certainly the best thing.  When Christian Bale was Batman, I thought he was really good.  With this version, I see improvements both in Batman and in Bruce Wayne.  Batman’s improvements are obvious, but Bruce seems to be able to handle more pathos while at the same time is seemingly less depressed.  I never thought of Bale’s Batman as the “Emo” Batman, but in comparison I can see it now.  I don’t necessarily think this is due to acting choices as much as the writing, but still Affleck does a more than capable job.  Batman is kind of like James Bond in that many people can put on that suit and play that character, and some are right for the times they are in, some don’t hold up, and some are never good.  I think that Ben may be the Sean Connery we’ve always been looking for, with Michael Keaton being our Roger Moore (and any Bond fan knows that is not an insult) and Bale being the morose Daniel Craig.

*I was 100% surprised and shocked when the wheelchair blew up.  All the chess moves by Lex to get this lined up, with the audience the whole time assuming tarnishing Superman’s reputation was the only goal.  With that one twist, it pushes both how you see Lex as a character in and of himself and how he relates to our other characters as a villain to the next level.  He may not have the classic Lex look, or the cool and calculated demeanor of the traditional comic book billionaire foil, but something about his hyper, almost manic behavior coupled with how clever he can be and how evil you realize he is seems to work really well.  People have made a lot of fun from the trailers where “Bruce Wayne meets Clark Kent,” in both the tone Lex is speaking, and the specific words he is saying.  In hindsight, he knew who both men were, and was most assuredly acting extra merry as part of an act.  His words weren’t just a wink to the audience, but a little inside joke for himself.  Even his line to Bruce asking if they can get together to “partner on something” is all subtext to the manipulations he is doing to Bruce.

*There were rumors that Aquaman was going to be shown in a kind of found-footage style.  They actually showed all three superhero cameos in this manner, all one on top of another, and I have to say I feel this works better than trying to introduce them organically in different ways.  It would be less believable to follow another storyline of Vic Stone injured and being “repaired” as well as throwing in random interactions with Flash or Aquaman when that is already happening with Diana.  With the movie having not much exposition or fat, we aren’t told how Wonder Woman knows Lex has the photo.  Right off the bat (pun), we are given a Wonder Woman who is spying on Lex to find evidence that proves her social security number would be 3.  Lex is looking for other metas because of his obsession with Superman.  Bruce and Diana are looking at Lex for different reasons, and that is how we are introduced to the other future members of the Justice League, which does not feel shoe horned or unnatural at least as an idea in and of itself.

*There are a few times when Bruce and Diana converse.  As Bruce has been Batman for 20 years, and Diana has been Wonder Woman for a whole hell of a lot longer, their short hand way of speaking to one another, despite just meeting, can be understood.  It is the same as meeting someone at a business convention who does your same job, same tasks.  You don’t have to do so much getting-to-know-you chatting because you already have so much in common.

*I was afraid Lois wasn’t going to have much to do in the film except be the girlfriend and damsel in distress.  She does get a little more to do, and though not a huge role, she does serve to be Superman’s Alfred in some respect.  And let us not forget how effortlessly wonderful Jeremy Irons is as Alfred.  Michael Caine was great, but his softer advisory role doesn’t quite compare to Irons’ defeated sarcastic wit of a man who obviously cares for Master Bruce, but learned a long time ago there is no changing the man’s mind once it is set.

*Naturally the gladiator match of the century happens, and it is beautiful.  It is beautiful despite the fact that we all knew how it would end.  The only thing I wasn’t sure on was how it would be brought to closure.  A few minutes before the climax of the fight, I was already thinking that Superman would mention his mom, and that would change the status quo.  Still at that point, I hadn’t put together that both his and Bruce’s moms had the same name.   Superman calling out his mother’s name, “Martha”, asking Bruce to save her, both mirroring his father’s use of the name in his last breath, and reminding him of the mom he couldn’t save.  I gotta be honest, it gave me a tear and goosebumps.  It was such a brilliant moment, and showing why we yet again needed a scene where we saw the Waynes die, and giving Batman the extra stakes of not only needing to save Martha Kent for two dozen armed thugs, but that he is essentially getting the second chance to cathartically save his own mom.   This subtext adds to the powerful warehouse fight scene, to explain how berserker Batman takes it.

*When Doomsday is affected by the nuke, and his spikes start coming out, making him look far more like the classic comic version, I can feel the force of millions of voices that cried out in terror suddenly silenced.  He doesn’t look 100% like the traditional comic version, as in no paints or hair, but he looks closer to the comic Doomsday at that point than Wolverine in the movies looks like his classic comic self.

*Not only do we get the Dark Knight Returns inspired fight, but we get Superman nuked, Batman grabbing a thug with a machine gun through the wall and quoting a line directly from the Frank Miller masterpiece.  Though Doomsday is in the movie, no one expected there would be even more borrowed from “Death of Superman”, and this opens a lot of questions of where DC Films goes now.   Will Justice League part 1 be about these heroes coming together to fight Darkseid, or is that something being saved for part 2, and instead we will have a story borrowed more from “Reign of the Supermen”.  Hard to say.

THE BAD

*I pointed out that Lex obviously knew who both Bruce and Clark when they were at his party, and was verbally toying with them to his own amusement.  Hard to believe, though, that knowing you invited Batman and Superman into your home, one being a reporter who investigates, the other a crimefighter who naturally must also be an investigator, that he would not have someone watching them the entire time.  Mercy does follow Bruce once, but that doesn’t seem like she has foreknowledge of who Bruce is.  Of course, having them followed would reveal that Lex knows who they are.  Also, if they are followed, then Bruce and Diana don’t steal the computer files, or at least get them as easily as they did, which then keeps Bruce from learning about Kryptonite and the other metas.  So, in this regard, not shadowing your enemies you invite into your home does have benefits to the story.  Plus, you could argue that Lex wants Batman to steal the files.  Still, feels like there could have been a better way of getting Bruce the info on the Kryptonite that would, at the same time, keep Lex’s prints away from it.

*Superman, throughout the first 2/3rds of the movie, is mostly reactionary.  Superman is Superman, and the plot moves forward around him.  He doesn’t have an arc, though he is certainly different at the end than at the beginning.  Lots of people say they are fucking up the character, with no mention of HOW it’s being fucked up, and how to fix it.  The first thing that needs to be done, and something they should take away from almost every other version of Superman, is that no one should have to wonder what his motivations or intentions are because he’s not one to shy away from the press or public.  He shows up for events, he’s a public face.  The whole fucking point of the Lois/Superman dynamic is that she’s the reporter he talks to.  He doesn’t just rescue, but if he is flying around and sees someone in need, whether it be an old lady across the street, help taking a couch up stairs, or the stereotypical cat out of tree, he lends a hand.  He’ll rescue someone from drowning, and then gather everyone to explain proper swimming safety.  That seems hokey and old fashioned, but that is why we love Superman.  You get the sense that very few people in this universe have ever actually talked with Superman, and that type of standoffishness while being all powerful will make people afraid every single time.  You could argue that we don’t get the same plot as we have in this movie with an open Superman, but an honest Superman can still be set up to look like a danger or fraud, and his innocence and frankness would just seem like a mask of lies.

*I have seen some reviews that say the fight in the apocalypse nightmare seems very choreographed, and I can’t argue otherwise.  Is it as bad as the choreographed mob fighting in Dark Knight Rises? No.  But after a weekend of watching the best choreographed fighting in a super hero anything in Daredevil, it does seem a bit lame.  Of course, the fight with Superman and warehouse scene more than make up for it.

*Also on the nightmare sequence, yes, Batman uses a gun and kills.  This can be forgiven, since it is a dream, and since he seems to be in the most extreme and dire circumstances.  We even see him out in the day in this dream, though there is a long precedent in Justice League stories of Batman being seen in the day.  There are a couple of times, in real life (not a dream), where he is crashing cars, blowing up cars with the Batplane (Batwing?) and uses a gun to shoot a blowtorch backpack.   With blowtorch guy he simply emptied more gas into the room, and the blowtorch man killed himself by pulling the trigger.   Still, Batman most likely did kill a few people.  As far as the thugs in the cars, or holding the machine guns on the trucks, we don’t see them “die”, and it is possible they are still alive, but I’d also honestly say highly unlikely.  I am fine with a Batman in a movie that kills every now and then indirectly, because I know it is a movie, and in movies the hero kills the bad guy.  Also, where it is more realistic from a sense of logic that Lois knows who Clark is since they are so close together, the same logic dictates that being in massive fights against men with guns and throwing sharp Batarangs, there will be casualties.  On one hand, dead villains are essential to the storytelling of movies.  This is the reason you have a dead Nicholson, Devito, Jones, Neeson, Eckhart and Hardy.  Not all of those are directly killed by Batman’s actions, but essentially in movies, some bad guy needs to die (hence Doomsday).  On the other hand, I can still be satisfied that he generally has a rule against killing, which is more in the form of not executing, i.e. he sets out to just hurt and capture, but some may die either purely in self-defense or to save the life of another.  I can give this a pass.  As far as wanting to kill Superman, Batman has never had a problem in the comics with killing non-human life, whether it come in the form of Parademons, Darkseid, or something else.

*In the end, Lex alludes to a future threat, that someone is coming.  Given the nightmare Batman has, and his drive at the end to find the other metas, it seems obvious that this references Darkseid.  As I’ve said about Snyder’s style, there is little exposition and little fat, so what we miss from the movie or at the end are the following obligatory scenes we would have gotten in a Marvel version of the movie:

1.         Lex seeing information on Darkseid or Apocalypse in the ship
2.         Batman asking Lex who he is referring to
3.         Any image or scene with Darkseid, at all

We can assume he means Darkseid, and assume he found out about Darkseid in the Kryptonian archives.  After all, why else are those archives and knowledge of a hundred thousand worlds there.  The problem with all of this is a paradox in Lex’s motivations.  He wants to show Superman as a fraud.  He wants a “silver bullet” for this alien threat.  He wants Clark dead and all his actions on and off screen are meant to cause that death.  If, however, he learned of Darkseid, wouldn’t the obvious knowledge and fear of a Darkseid require not killing Superman who is our best silver bullet to battle a god and his army of Parademons?  Lex does everything he can to cause Superman’s death, and in his last scene warns that said death is now an invitation to something worse.  This is what happens when you shove too many ideas into one story.

*And then we come to the biggest problem people have with the movie.  I love the reviews of it, because a lot of words are thrown around by a lot of people, and I don’t think they know what they mean.  They talk about tone, pacing, no story, no humor.  Let us delve way deep into this.

First off, there is humor, but far far less than a Marvel movie.  That is fine.  I’d like to think of Marvel as Scrubs, and DC like House.  Both about doctors in hospitals, both good, but different tones and sensibilities to each.

The biggest overall problem with the movie, beyond the fact that it is a few different movies shoved into one, is that combining them the way it does basically perverts the structure of the film.  Almost all movies have the same structure, no matter what they are about.  Think of a movie like a car.  A chick flick may be a Prius, and a horror movie may be Kia, and a Spielberg film may be Audi, and they all have different colors, types of cloth interior, navigations systems, etc.  Still at the end of the day, all have four wheels, all in the same place.  Steering wheel, four seats, four doors, a trunk, an engine, windows, all basically in the same place on every car.  Doing what they did by combining everything, they essentially made Homer Simpson’s car design; seemingly brilliant and what everyone would want but turns into a mess.  You got two main stories going at once (Bruce wants to take down Superman, Lex is setting up Superman) and two B plots (Lois following a bullet, who is Diana Prince and what does she want/Justice League).  A normal movie involves following one key character involved in their own A and B plots, and everything has a natural domino cause-and-effect till the end.  Batman V Superman seemed to start with writing the fight the writing backwards to explain how those two got there.  This is the problem where you write a story to get to a specific point as opposed to getting to a point because you were writing a specific story.  You have stories going on at the same time almost independently of each other, with clear tone shifts and jump cuts between them.  The placement of some scenes are random and unnatural, and really screw with the flow of the film.  Some examples:

EXAMPLE 1:  Superman has been told by Lex that Martha will die if he doesn’t face Batman.  He goes to Lois, says, “No men stay good, “ and flies off.  It will only take him seconds to fly over to Batman, so naturally, the next scene is Wonder Woman in something like a hotel room, opening an email from Bruce and watching videos from the Justice League.  Now, is that scene in and of itself bad?  No.  Does it belong right between when Superman leaves Lois and Superman lands in front of Batman?  Fuck no.  They should have did the email in the middle of the film, or saved it for the very end.

EXAMPLE 2:  Perry walks into the bullpen  looking for Clark, who isn’t there.  Next, the White Portuguese arrives, and there is the long sequence of the crates being loaded to truck, Batman tagging the truck, lots of radical Batmobile action, and Superman appearing out of nowhere and breaking the Batmobile.  Ask yourself, “when you saw Superman, you thought, “How’d he get there, where did he come from, this is random’”.   It isn’t.  The scene where Perry was looking for Clark came a few scenes after Clark got the Polaroids of “Judge, Jury, and Executioner.”  This is all one scene, one thought, one action, divided by a lot of movie.  Clark gets the anonymous photos, stuff happens, Perry is looking for Clark (by now you forgot about the photos), stuff happens, Superman breaks Batmobile (by now you forgot about Perry looking for Clark).  They all tell a story, and in the right order, but they cut two much between the scenes so what you saw at the time seemed insignificant and forgettable.  They could have edited the first two scenes into one scene, where Clark gets the envelope, opens it, sees the Polaroids, then cut to Perry coming out of his office looking for Clark, who is now gone.  By doing that, combining them, we read that Clark has left to do something about Batman.  Then, when Superman appears out of nowhere and breaks the Batmobile, we at least have a better idea why.  Not so random.

EXAMPLE 3:  Lois with the secretary, in the bathroom, with a bullet.  A quick back and forth where she is dismissed in her quest.  “You can’t put that halo back on your boyfriend.”  Several scenes later, they meet in the rain, at night, and she gives him a retort and the bullet.  All this could have been done in the bathroom scene, which not only would have saved time and made that part more cohesive, but also saved production money.  No reason she doesn’t say something then, and then he begrudgingly takes the bullet before exiting the bathroom.

EXAMPLE 4:  This is what actually happens in order:

1.         Martha is kidnapped
2.         Bruce turns the symbol on
3.         Lex sees the symbol, makes a call
4.         Lois is kidnapped
5.         Lois brought to Lex.

In the chronology of the movie, Martha is kidnapped at random before Lex even knows it is time to initiate the fight.  Then, Lex sees the symbol and makes a grand assumption that it is for Superman.  There is a thing in the language of editing where you can edit to show a character’s reaction to something they cannot actually see, but is supposed to mimic the audience reaction (I forget the name of it as film school was a long, long time ago).  With Batman setting up his arena and lighting the symbol, Lex’s reaction is meant to portray this rarely used trope.  Lex, logically, did not watch Batman set up the trap, but because we watched it, and we see Lex’s reaction, we subconsciously accept it.  This is fine use of the trope, but is essentially ruined because when you mess with the pacing and editing of scenes as Snyder has, you bring on too much scrutiny.  You start thinking, “Why was Martha kidnapped BEFORE the trap was set, and why was Lois kidnapped AFTER?”  Then you think, “If they show that symbol in the sky all the time, how does Lex know it is for Superman?”.  Any easy way to fix that would have been switching symbols.  Showing the Superman symbol in the clouds would have been a clearer indicator to Lex that Batman was calling him out.  Also, they should have done Martha’s kidnapping after the symbol and actually kidnapped both her and Lois at the same time, cutting back between and forth between the two, and showing them both get bags on their heads at the same time.  This would have kept those themes together, juxtaposed, and you would have thought, “Are they both in the chopper?  Just Lois.  Then where is Martha?”

IN SUMMARY


We could go on and on, but the bottom line is that the movie isn’t bad, and the sum of its parts are pretty awesome.  The biggest problem is that this is a beautiful masterpiece of a puzzle that got dropped, and put back together very poorly.  Pieces are in the wrong place, and though it could look beautiful, it looks like a mess.  People who love it appreciate the parts they can make out, and in their head can move the pieces around so that everything fits.  People that hate it are judging it as a whole, and their opinion in that regard isn’t wrong.  Critics are being really rough on it, but in fairness their job isn’t to judge what it easily could have been with a different edit.  Still, there are way, way worse movies with higher scores.  In trying to go against Marvel, whose movies all follow a standard cookie-cutter format that you could compare to pop music, it seems like Warner, in trying to be different, told Snyder to ahead and try to do Jazz.  Jazz is beautiful, but chaotic, and is sometimes good and sometimes bad.  Instead of doing a safe version, they let too much creativity run loose, too many people putting ideas in, and instead of something fuel efficient and comfortable, you end up with a car built for Homer.

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2 comments:

  1. This is not good movie. Not by far.

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    Replies
    1. If you'd like to write more than eight words supporting that opinion I'd be happy to post them as a counterpoint.

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