Saturday, 2 April 2016

Filmflam: Batman V Superman – Dawn Of Justice

Batman V Superman – Dawn Of Justice
Directed by Zack Snyder

Admit it.  You wonder how they'd kiss.
Curse you, morbid curiosity.  As if getting 29% on RottenTomatoes wasn’t proof enough, I had to go and check.  Now I’m forced to conclude, like Michael Bluth opening a bag that says DEAD DOVE – DO NOT EAT: I don’t know what I expected...
Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice – and take a moment to marvel at that title, so brazenly artless that it might as well say “Who even cares what it’s called?  You got Batman, you got Superman.  Roll up.”  Anyway: it is as bad as everyone’s saying.  It’s a long, boring, mopey, disjointed, don’t-worry-we’ll-fix-it-in-the-sequels-(yeah-right) cluster bomb.  But before the inevitable autopsy, it does have its bright spots.
An early scene revisits Man Of Steel’s mind-numbing finale from the perspective of Bruce Wayne, heroically rescuing a few employees from a doomed building.  It’s the kind of non-fighty heroism you rarely get in superhero films, which on the whole tend towards Goodie Vs. Baddie battles (because they’re predictably spectacular) rather than anything pro-active.  It’s one of the reasons Heroes was so disappointing (forget all that prophecy nonsense – go and rescue somebody!), and it’s why a random scene of Perry White trying to save a co-worker was my favourite bit in Man Of Steel.  I’m not going to credit Man Of Steel with foresight here, knowing that Superman’s casually destructive attitude wouldn’t sit right with audiences and then fully intending to respond.  There are simply too many insistent references to EMPTY and UNPOPULATED and DEFINITELY NO PEOPLE IN THEM battle-zones not to suspect this movie is a touchy reaction to those audiences and critics.  But I’m glad they addressed it at all.
As for other examples of heroism, we see flashes of Superman doing good things, like saving a girl from a fire or rescuing the crew of a rocket.  It’s crammed into a montage and people talk over it, but hey, at least they remembered he occasionally helps people and stuff – it’s not all Goodies Vs. Baddies.  Then again, this is a movie so determined that this is the point of superhero stories that there is a “V” in the frigging title.  Also, the public perception of Superman as a hero is not one the movie seems at all comfortable with.  Strangers touch him when he’s near, or reach out to him in desperation when he’s above.  It’s all very pointedly (and clunkily) messianic, and not at all the “Hooray, here comes Superman!” world conjured by the mighty John Williams theme.  Which, good god, do I miss.  Those movies were far from perfect, but at least you were glad to see Superman.
"If I wanted it, you'd be dead already!"
But I’m drifting – bright spots!  Ben Affleck’s very good.  Playing a more seasoned and misanthropic Bruce Wayne than we’re used to, he brings a weary history to the part, and manages – unlike several of his predecessors – to be a commanding and interesting presence even, or perhaps especially when he’s out of the Bat-suit.  It’s difficult to comment on him as Batman for reasons I’ll get to (autopsy incoming), but the fight scenes recall some of the more tactile and exciting bits in the Arkham games.  They certainly look good.  Oh, and his Bat-voice is electronically disguised, which is much less silly than just growling all the time.
Let’s see, other good bits… there are some very good actors in it.  They don’t necessarily have much to do, and little of it makes any sense, but they’re… in the film, I guess?  The score has its moments; for better or worse, I’m still humming Wonder Woman’s shrieky electronic theme.  She’s an interesting presence, although all the information we need for her character has been reserved for a different film, leaving her a shiny and conspicuous add-on in a movie that more and more resembles a shopping list – never more so than in an astonishing scene where, on her way to the climactic battle, for no reason at all, Wonder Woman pauses to watch video-clips of other soon-to-be Justice Leaguers.  I mean, wow.  Was that really the best way to introduce those characters?  It’s so badly shoehorned that, despite the movie’s obviously JUSTICE-themed title (and reason for being), it manages to smack of a reshoot.  And you know what, screw it: autopsy time.
This whole film revolves, or should revolve around the conflicting ideologies of two characters.  As anyone sitting down to watch this will know, they need a damn good reason to fight one another.  In The Dark Knight Returns, the seminal and nihilistic book Zack Snyder so clearly admires, they got one: the two heroes did things differently for years, and Superman’s complicity with authority led to him being muscle-for-hire for a corrupt President.  Batman, raging against everything in his old age, needed to remind him where he stood, by almost killing him if necessary.  In this?  Not so much.
Batman just has this certainty that Superman will eventually snap and kill everybody.  To be fair, a lot of people died when Superman didn’t take the fight away from Metropolis.  To be fair-er, Bruce is easily egged on by the machinations of Lex Luthor (so much for the World’s Greatest Detective), as well as… dream sequences?  What kind of half-arsed movie advances its plot with dream sequences?  Anyway, it doesn’t feel like enough.  It’s contrived.  At no point does Bruce consider that Superman is actually out saving people most of the time, which you’d think would be obvious.  “If there’s even a 1% chance, then we have to treat it as an absolute certainty”, says he.  And what happens when the next Zod shows up?  Sure, this is exactly the lesson our winged chum needs to get into his thick skull by the end of the movie, but you’ve got to wonder why he doesn’t consider things from more than one angle to begin with.  Or talk to Superman, for god’s sake.  (For his part, Superman doesn’t like Batman’s methods, but I suspect he’d still be content to slap him on the wrist if he wasn’t lamely manipulated at the last minute by his mum being kidnapped, and Batman’s murder being the only way to save her.  Is this really the best we could do?)
With the script desperately hopping from a Batman movie to a Superman sequel to a Justice League prequel, there’s barely time to remember this all started with Clark Kent, leaving Mr Red And Blue strangely the least interesting selling point.  All Henry Cavill can do is fill a codpiece and glower while he does it.  But is this news?  The biggest failing of Man Of Steel was its treatment of Clark Kent, making him moody and angsty and relegating his day-to-day dual life to lip service.  He shows up at the Daily Planet, newly bespectacled and ready to start his life as a reporter, in the final scene; it’s like someone ran into the cutting room weeks before the premiere and shouted “Guys, we forgot the glasses thing!”  BVS picks up where that floundering mess of a character left off: Lois Lane already knows he’s Superman, they’re already a couple and nobody else seems to know him as “Clark” at all.  He’s got little interest in being a reporter, or in… anything at all, actually.  There is really only Superman, with or without glasses, glowering and moody and dropping by at intervals so the plot can lazily happen around him.  What does he think about all this?  What is his everyday life like?  Is it a big deal that Lex Luthor knows his identity?  What, other than their shared secret, does Clark like about Lois Lane?
She’s even worse: nothing more than a ditzy thing Superman must drop everything to go and rescue, at the expense of everybody else.  It doesn’t matter if others get shot or killed, oh no, only when Lois is imperilled does he show up.  This is an actual plot point, by the way.  You’d think she’d be under house arrest by now just to give Superman a bit of free time and to make everybody else less doomed, but she’s such a determined Dorothy Dipstick that she can manage it all by herself.  During a climactic three-vs.-one battle she’s not directly involved in, Superman must drop everything because she’s lost her way underwater and is seconds away from drowning.  For fuck’s sake, Lois!
Not for the first time, I’m left pining for Lois & Clark.  Yes it’s campy, no it hasn’t aged perfectly, but what it did do was give Lois Lane a boat-load of personality and chutzpah (imagine a kickass Liz Lemon), and come up with a Clark Kent who made emotional sense.  Raised by humans and driven by their values, “Clark is who I am.  Superman is what I can do.”  Durn tootin’!  He is also able to take off and land without smashing the shit out of the pavement, and defeat people without snapping their necks, not to mention he has a winning sense of humour and respect for the law, and they didn’t even need to kill off his dad for a heroism excuse, but this is a Batman V Superman review, not a Lois & Clark.  Don’t even get me started on John Shea’s immeasurably superior Lex Luthor.  (Oh, all right, in a minute.)
The plot, which is dumb, generally advances because characters don’t talk to each other enough.  (It also doesn’t bother to explain things, like what a “Kryptonian abomination” is other than a convenient third act monster.)  There are speeches – poor Alfred seems to exist just for this purpose – but when it counts, the right words don’t come.  Such as “Bruce, we’re being set up by Lex Luthor, let’s work together.”  Or “Bruce, I’m sorry about all the devastation in Metropolis but I wasn’t the only Kryptonian there, didn’t you see the other guy?”  Or “Clark, why haven’t you learned anything from Metropolis when it comes to controlling your powers?”  Or “Bruce, how can you be mad at me for killing people by accident, when you’re doing it on purpose?”
Oh yes – not content with fudging Superman’s no-killing rule, for the hilariously tortured reason of “He needs to learn not to kill people”, because after all that’s how the rest of us figure it out, Snyder also manages to fuck up Batman’s fairly well-documented philosophy.  Whether he’s branding criminals (branding them!), a move the film acknowledges is a prison death sentence, or blowing up cars with people in them, or tossing back armed grenades, this Batman is The Punisher with better gadgets.  Which completely throws away the bit about not killing people being harder to do, ergo a greater act of heroism, ergo one of the main reasons we like these bloody characters in the first place.  In a recent mealy-mouthed interview, Snyder blamed this on previous Bat-filmmakers tacitly doing the same thing.  Stuff like “I won’t kill you, but I don’t have to save you”, or Tim Burton’s surprisingly deathly Batman Returns.  He’d have a point if he said Batman wasn’t as criminal-friendly as he likes to believe, but what kind of reason is that to go all out baddie-killer in his movie?  Mind you, Snyder also cited The Dark Knight Returns, a relatively famous story in which Batman so pointedly cannot commit murder that the Joker commits suicide to get the last laugh.  So god knows what’s going through Snyder’s mind.  Explosions and pectorals, one presumes.
All better!
Alfred at least acknowledges that Batman is “crueller” now, but there’s little in the way of an explanation.  Similarly, we get a half-arsed (like everything else) reason for Lex Luthor’s hatred of Superman: his dad used to hit him, so there’s no God, so boo Superman?  Jesse Eisenberg is yet another actor lost up a creek, spouting a lot of portentous speeches and resorting to a bundle of twitches and mannerisms to build a “character” that is ultimately just the most annoying person in every room.  Devoid of charisma, he gives off great big “I’m a bad guy!” signals in exactly the way Lex Luthor shouldn’t.  For reference, as promised, John Shea: the best Lex, he was rich, powerful, brilliant and caring (outwardly, at least), and as such, convincingly unsuspected by almost everybody.  He was actually likeable, his major failing being a fascination with Lois which humanised and, even he knew, “doomed” him.  See also NetFlix’s Wilson Fisk: apparently mild-mannered and as such sympathetic, genuinely driven by a desire to help his community (or so he believes), again you can see how this guy commanded an empire.  (It also helps that he’s a very good actor.)  Next to these guys, Eisenberg is a lazily-written shit-stirring irritant.  But this is a plot that turns only when it walks straight into a wall.  Not content with their contrived reason for starting a fight, Batty and Soupy have an even more contrived reason to stop fighting.  Your mom’s called Martha?  So’s mine!  Well, I guess I’ve misjudged you.  Sorry about planning your death for the last year.  Hug?
Yes, that bit’s a necessary reminder that Superman is a person too, which shakes Batman out of his now-that-you-mention-it contrived fury and maybe rids him of some of that cruelty he’s had of late, but delivering this revelation by way of a convenient family hostage, not to mention underlining a cringe-worthy piece of comic book coincidence, just isn’t the same as showing Superman to be a person Batman can relate to.  You know – character development?  Still, dumb logic brought them here.  Why should good logic save them?
In all likelihood, rush-reverse-engineering DC’s version of The Avengers was never going to work.  You’d inevitably end up with a confused and unready Justice League movie.  This one also functions as an unsatisfying Batman film and a barely together Man Of Steel sequel, barely keeping its attention on one thing for ten minutes.  Is there hope for the franchise, with even more plates spinning in the next movie?  Not with Zack Snyder, who seems almost completely oblivious to who these characters are and why they do things, and how stories work.  Bringing Batman and Superman here and smashing them together was his goal and, apparently, that’ll do; if your expectations go no higher than that, you might enjoy it.  (Then again you might not, as the much-ballyhooed-fight is barely longer than what you saw in the trailer.)  But then, who even cares what it’s about?  Roll up.