Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Phantom’s Thoughts on Batman V Superman

Preface: This is an entirely different post from the exclusive, spoiler-free review that is available to Patrons on the all-new Phantom Troublemaker Patreon. The material posted there will never be posted anywhere else. If you like what I do and want to support me, go check it out. Or just share it with your pals.

This is a different sort of post. I’m at work on a Sunday morning and, like many people, can’t stop thinking about Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice. We’ll be recording an episode of the Needless Things Podcast about it to post this Friday, but I have some thoughts to get out now. This isn’t so much a proper review, but there will be spoilers.

***SPOILERS***SPOILERS***SPOILERS***

I hadn’t been waiting my whole life to see Tony Stark put on a suit of flying armor.

I hadn’t been waiting my whole life to see Joe Dredd perforate Mega-City One perps with rounds from his Lawgiver.

I haven’t been waiting my whole life to see Spider-Man and Captain America in the same movie.

Heck, I hadn’t been waiting my whole life to see four teenage reptiles face off against a walking Cuisinart or to see six adamantium claws pop out of a man’s knuckles. X-Men and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles are two of my favorite things, but I didn’t love them until I was old enough to be cognizant of trends and pop culture.

Superman and Batman have been with me from the start. They’re ingrained into the core of my being. They’re part of my heart.

And I have been waiting my whole life to see them in a movie together.

Under other circumstances that might have set expectations at an unreachably high level. But we all knew who was in charge and the direction this movie would likely take. It wasn’t going to be bright or fun or inspiring. It was going to be grim and gritty and, at best, show us the larger-than-life awesomeness that the three biggest characters in the history of comic books should deliver when they finally appeared together on the silver screen.

And yes, I said three. Wonder Woman – Diana Prince – is just as big and important a part of this movie as Batman and Superman. And thanks to Linda Carter just as big a part of who I am. Her classic TV show was regular viewing in most houses in the country just after I was born and it stayed on the air in reruns for years. On top of that, I saw these three characters interact in animated form across various cartoons and they were always equals to me. I never cared one bit about who was wearing more clothes or had breasts or long hair or whatever. These were three superheroes that took turns saving the day and being imperiled.

Wonder Woman is the female name in comic books. There isn’t even a close second. It’s ridiculous that it’s taken this long for her to make it to the big screen, but no matter what you want to say about anything else in Dawn of Justice, they did Wonder Woman right. Except, of course, for leaving her out of the title.

She may not have gotten as much screen time as Superman or Batman, but she was just as integral to the plot . The movie should have been called Trinity or some such thing and there’s just no way around that. Or simply Dawn of Justice. But the powers that be were building everything around one scene in one comic book and would not be deterred from making that reference and that tone the overwhelming factor of everything that surrounded it.

Gal Gadot is fantastic and the Wonder Woman in this movie is the Wonder Woman I have been waiting my whole life to see.

I’m going to start in a weird place – I love her non-American accent. It’s such a small thing, but so huge and such a key piece of why this Wonder Woman is so excellent.

Wonder Woman is not from around these parts. She is Diana of Themyscira. She is powerful and exotic and strange. She should sound like it, and Gadot does. I don’t know what the heck kind of accent she has, but it’s different and does more to define a portion of her character than any ten lines of dialogue. It’s a constant reminder that she’s foreign to our American pals Bruce and Clark.

This Wonder Woman loves battle. She is smiling and laughing even as she is being thrown around by a seemingly invincible monster. She delights in every blow and every bit of violent contact. She is a warrior woman. And at no point do Superman or Batman treat her as anything less than equal. As a matter of fact, there was a sense that Batman was more than happy to let this obviously superior being do the heavy lifting while he worked other angles. Even Superman left the fight to her at one point because it was apparent that she could not only hold her own, but that she was doing the best of the three of them at battling Doomsday.

I worry that this version of DC will besmirch Wonder Woman and Superman by having them become romantically involved while Clark is still with Lois. It seems like a Snyder thing to do and the seeds for such a thing were sown in this movie with talk of Lois’s vulnerability and Superman’s need to be above mortal concerns.

I worry that Henry Cavill will never get to be the bright, shining superhero that I see struggling to emerge from under the artificial pathos that is being heaped upon him by a misguided creative team.

I worry that, film after film, I will continue to see versions of characters that are “the best we can expect from this”. I don’t want fantastic villains that share names with characters that are utterly unlike them. I don’t want character names shoehorned into stories as fan service.
I want characters serviced and utilized. If a certain character doesn’t fit the narrative, don’t fucking use them. And if they do fit, don’t change them beyond recognition and just keep the name. Fuck it, make a new character if you have to.

Obviously I am referring to Jesse Eisenberg here.

I thought he was absolutely fantastic in this movie. He was sinister and devious and had a plan that puts him in the top tier of cinematic supervillains, regardless of how well said plan was developed and executed by the filmmakers (and I didn’t think it was executed poorly; not as well as it could have been, but not poorly). His damaged, cynical, and diabolical performance was mesmerizing every time he was on screen. I loved watching him taunt Lois and Clark. He was pure, delicious villainy that stopped just shy of mustache twirling.
But he was an absolutely terrible Lex Luthor, which is what I had been expecting all along. I just wasn’t expecting him to create a character that was just as good.

Eisenberg should have been a different character. I’m sure there’s some minor villain that could have been pulled from the annals of DC history and tweaked to use. Making him Lex Luthor set up certain expectations, and while I thought Eisenberg was great, my expectations were not met and that left me feeling disappointed. As realistic as I’m being about this and as much as I’m forgiving so many things about Dawn of Justice, there’s no way around the fact that I didn’t see Lex Luthor in this movie.

That’s not on Eisenberg. I’m sure he played the role exactly as Snyder and company wanted it played. Probably better. It’s all on the filmmakers who just snatched the most recognizable name and then did what they wanted with it rather than sticking with the basics of the source material. And here’s another thing – Eisenberg’s character is very specifically referred to as “Alexander Luthor” and there are many references to his father. I don’t know that I’d bank on it, but it’s entirely possible that we will see a proper Lex Luthor at some point. Possibly even played by Bryan Cranston?

I think that Ben Affleck is the best on-screen Batman we have seen.

Michael Keaton was a great Bruce Wayne and a fine Batman. Christopher Nolan presented Christian Bale as a menacing and terrifying Batman. But never before have we seen an actor get both so right. Affleck displayed charm, determination, menace, and some of the most convincing rage I have ever seen on film. He was the rock of this movie. Whatever else was going on, when Affleck appeared on screen there was a feeling that the ship was righted. That as long as we were looking at that face – masked or not – things were solid.

And to Zack Snyder’s credit, we had never seen Batman truly be Batman on screen until Dawn of Justice. The fights in this movie aren’t just good for Batman fights, they’re badass fights where Batman is competent and experienced and the violent force of nature that the comics have always depicted him as being. Granted, much of it was taken directly from the Arkham video games, but I have to give credit to the filmmakers for recognizing and lifting greatness.

Note – the warehouse fight at the end of Dawn of Justice blew me away and I just finished watching season 2 of Daredevil. That’s some high praise, indeed. Sure, CGI was a crutch, but in this instance it was handled well.

In other instances, it was not.

Much of the computer work in the movie looked terribly amateurish, which is shocking considering we’re talking about Zack Snyder. Doomsday was awful, there were many times where the landscape and atmosphere had no weight and looked shockingly artificial, and the incredible Batmobile sequence was marred by some dodgy effects. It was reminiscent of the jarring badness of Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull.

The final battle is also marred by some overwhelmingly fake CGI, but it is as epic as I could have wanted. Doomsday, Superman, and Wonder Woman come across as the forces of destruction that Lex Luthor fears them to be. The battle is isolated to an island this time to head off internet outrage. As a matter of fact, all of the references to Superman taking the fight away from populated areas, the time everyone leaves work in Metropolis, and how abandoned a section of Gotham City is become a little silly.

Superman dies twice. The first time he is blown up by a nuclear missile that is shot at him by the US government while he is fighting Doomsday. I very strongly feel that this is done because Snyder just had to film that one shot of the yellow sun restoring Superman from Dark Knight Returns. It’s pretty cool, but it undermines his second death.

He dies again when Doomsday stabs him in the chest. This is happening while Superman is driving Batman’s kryptonite spear through Doomsday. With a final brave, titanic effort Superman thrusts the spear completely through the monster, which actually doesn’t make any sense because wouldn’t the kryptonite head of the spear do more damage if it had been left inside?

Everyone in the movie is all sad that Superman is dead and they don’t even spend one second discussing that he just survived a motherfucking direct nuclear strike so maybe give the Man of Steel a few days in direct sunlight to see if he can shake off a stab wound.

It’s another instance of ignoring logic and sane storytelling in favor of just getting to the thing. But in the end we see the dirt rise off of Clark’s coffin (a callback to the dirt rising around him the first time he takes flight in Man of Steel) and we know what every character in the movie should have known – he’s gonna be fine. 

This didn’t bother me as much as Anderson Cooper did.

One of the biggest flaws of the movie were the real-world references. The DCU features Gotham City and Metropolis as its major cities for a reason. This is a different reality from ours. Fantastical things happen here and it is much easier for us to suspend our disbelief and go along for the ride when gigantic plants are assaulting a mythical city. I can sit back and enjoy the destruction of Metropolis because I know it isn’t real. I can watch a man defy physics because my touchstones for this universe are fictional and the rules are different.

The more I think about it, the more I feel like the decision to include celebrities like Neil DeGrasse Tyson, Charlie Rose, and Anderson Cooper went beyond being bad and wrong to being moronic.  Every time one of these faces popped up in the movie, it became fake. It was like finding broccoli in your chocolate cake. These people that we all know from our everyday lives dropped in to remind us that this might be a lot of fun, but that the real world was waiting for us. The one thing that qualifies Snyder for making DC movies is his flair for creating hyper-realities and he intentionally grounded this one with some mundane faces.
Man, what a terrible decision. With ZERO payoff. Nothing was enhanced by including these real-world personalities. I didn’t take the threat of the Kryptonian ship any more seriously because it was Soledad fucking O’Brien reporting it. As a matter of fact, it removed some of the gravitas of the scene because it was like, “Oh, well she’s a real person.”

It’s different in the Marvel Cinematic Universe or Ghostbusters because those have a tone that allows for a little more fun and tongue-in-cheek nod and wink stuff. The world that WB is creating for DC does not have that tone. It is Very Serious.

Ugh. I need to move on because I really didn’t hate this movie, but thinking about how dumb this was is making me angry.

The metahuman cameos were handled shockingly well. Luthor had files on Aquaman, Flash, Cyborg, and Wonder Woman. Bruce Wayne stole the files. Wonder Woman knew about the files because she (somehow) knew that Luthor had a picture of her that revealed her extraordinary nature. They were a key plot point because it all tied into Luthor’s grand scheme and his paranoia about there being gods among men.

During scenes of Bruce and Diana examining the files we see the footage that Luthor has stolen and gathered from various sources and it totally works. Aquaman’s is a little stupid and Cyborg’s sort of looks like it was taken from a SyFy movie (but holy shit is that a fucking MOTHER BOX!?!) and I don’t like Ezra Miller as Barry Allen at all. But for the purposes of the movie and planting the seeds for further DC superhero movies, this gimmick totally worked.

And yes – that was totally a Mother Box. If there’s any doubt, there’s a scene at the end of the movie when Luthor is in jail. He tells Batman that, “He is coming” and starts making noises. Mother Box noises. Not to mention the Parademons in Bruce Wayne's vision.

Parademons.

AND HOLY SHIT IS LUTHOR NOT EVEN REALLY A BAD GUY!!???!!

This just hit me as I was writing this. Luthor clearly has knowledge of Darkseid. Is he the way he is because exposure to a Mother Box or some other Apokoliptic element has made him crazy? Is he, in some weird way, trying to protect Earth from what’s coming? Is there a whole lot more to this Lex Luthor than this movie revealed?

Or is Luthor working directly on behalf of Darkseid?

WOW.

I’d love to believe any of that was true. We know that a plan is in place, but I’m not sure I have faith in the powers that be to be executing on such a potentially satisfying level. Only time will tell.

I forgot to mention the opening. the movie opens with the Wayne deaths. Again. Because we don't all already know why Batman is Batman. But there is a critical difference here that makes the scene worth replaying and that explains why this Batman is the way he is.

Typically the Wayne family is accosted and Thomas is shot while trying to stop the murderer from taking Martha's pearls. Then after Thomas is shot, Martha is shot. Both Waynes are victims reacting to a horrible situation and young Bruce is left with his parents' bodies because they were helpless against a criminal with a gun.

In this version, when the crook pulls out his pistol and demands the Waynes' valuables, Thomas attacks him. He tries (and fails) to take the initiative and stop the villain. He's proactive. After Thomas is shot, Martha also attempts to attack the robber. Her efforts fare no better, but this Bruce Wayne has witnessed his parents aggressively attempting to stop injustice rather than just taking bullets. They did something. Bruce witnessed his parents acting in defiance against a superior force, flying in the face of reason to try and protect what was theirs no matter the cost.

And that is the Batman we have in Dawn of Justice. And I am good with that.

As far as Batman killing people goes, I don't like it. I don't like the assumed deaths in the 1989 Batman, I don't like the murder-by-Batmobile-turbine in Batman Returns, and I don't even like the death of Ra's al Ghul due to Batman's inaction in Batman Begins. But onscreen Batman has been a killer since '89. There's no way around it and the deaths that this Batman causes are no different. There's no way around the fact that he is directly responsible for some collateral damage during the Batmobile chase, and probably in some other instances.

The only straight-up murders he perpetrates, however, occur during the Evil Superman dream sequence. Everyone that hasn't done some crazy shit you would never do in real life in your dreams, raise your hand.

That's what I thought.

Is there a way around Batman killing people in movies? Sure. But that's not a path the filmmakers have ever chosen to go down. If you don't like it here, you can't like the others, either.

I know I’ve pointed out a lot of things that I perceive to be negative about Dawn of Justice, but I promise you I don’t hate it. I had a good time for the most part and I appreciate all of the greatness that shone through the crap. I want to see this movie again. The plot is murky, but as poorly executed as much of it was, it was solid. It makes sense. I get it. And I enjoyed what I saw. For me, the good far outweighed the bad and that’s really saying something for the good because the bad was pretty heavy. The editing was a mess. Things seemed to be happening out of sequence – and not in a clever Tarantino way. In a, “Fuck it, it’s just dudes in tights” way. Laziness and a cavalier attitude towards character and plot development prevailed.

But the stars shone through. Every actor in the movie brought it and brought it hard. Even the ones that weren’t behaving the way I think their characters should behave were captivating and powerful and compelling. They rose above what they were given in many cases.

I’m not going to give this a number rating. I’m going to say that I know it isn’t what I wanted. I know it isn’t what I would have done. I know it should have been better.

But I can put all of that aside and take it for what it is. I can enjoy the elements that did work and that did give me those tingles of joy up my spine. And I can hope for better in the future. If not from Snyder, then certainly from whatever is coming from Affleck’s Batman projects. Not only was he the Batman, we all know now just how competent a filmmaker he is and from set reports that he is dedicated to the character.

Another thing that gives me hope for the future of DC films is Suicide Squad. It is tonally different from Man of Steel and Dawn of Justice. It is brave and experimental to be making a villain movie at the dawn of a burgeoning superhero universe. It could have been severely off-putting to a public waiting for more adventures of Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman, but Warner forged ahead with something different. That gives me hope. That makes me think that a day could come where we are blown away by the diversity and possibilities available to the DC Universe on film.

If you hate this movie, I get it. But don’t hate it without seeing it. Give yourself the opportunity to see the three most important characters in comic book history on the big screen. Because amidst everything else this movie throws at you, there are genuine moments of joy and wonder to be had.

Be sure to join the Needless Things Podcast Facebook Group and get in on the conversation for this week’s episode! Let us know what you think!


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1 comment:

  1. I thought lex got all his info on darksied when he gained control of the ship. He tells it he wants to know everything

    ReplyDelete