Friday, August 5, 2016

Yes, he died for your sins, too (but, if we're being honest, mostly Batman's)


BATMAN V SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE

Well, let's leave aside the fact the sole good thing to come out of this movie's hilariously awful name is the subtitle of a Deadpool miniseries currently being published by Marvel ("The V is for VS"!).  Let's also leave aside all the grating little issues that seek to tear down the towering edifice of this film, one brick at a time.  Because if we do leave that aside, it's certainly the best superhero film of 2016 so far (including the one that came out today)and by no small margin, too.

Directed by Zack Snyder
Written by Chris Terrio and David S. Goyer (with a lot of distant assistance from Frank Miller, Dan Jurgens, Louise Simonson, and Roger Stern, amongst others)
With Henry Cavill (Clark Kent/Kal-El), Ben Affleck (Bruce Wayne), Amy Adams (Lois Lane), Gal Godot (Diana of Themyscira), Jeremy Irons (Alfred Pennyworth), Laurence Fishburne (Perry White), Diane Lane (Martha Kent), and Jesse Eisenberg (Lex Luthor)

Spoiler alert: high
Content warning: this one clocks in at about 2900 words, because three years later, and I still can't talk about Superman at a length that wouldn't make any cognitively normal person run for the hills; does it help any if I say that it's also a long movie?


There's something to be said for having one's expectations obliterated, but seriously: how this film came to represent everything bad about on-screen superheroics is absolutely beyond me.  After all, the last few years have provided far choicer examples of $250 million mediocrities.  BvS has much the same disadvantages as its competitors, that's true.  But it has one huge edge over all the rest, and while it's not the be-all, end-all of anything, it is nevertheless a real and palpable thing that you don't just get to ignore: it doesn't quite feel like product.

Oh, I see that look.  That look like you just bit a half-pound of flesh from inside your cheek.  First, there's nothing inherently wrong with product.  (Ant-Man is product; hell, Casablanca is product.)  And, of course, BvS is still product.  So maybe that's why the film stumbles so hard when the demands of its financiers collide with the passions of its director, Zack Snyder, a man who tends to put all his soul into everything he does, even if he tends to leave the thinking to others (and whose best work is therefore almost solely bound up in shot-for-shot recreations of preexisting comics).  Truly, only one word can come close to describing what exactly happens to this film when Snyder was commanded to perform a task he had no apparent interest in performinglike interjecting a Justice League teaser trailer into the middle of his movie's third act crescendoand that one word is "tantrum."

I mean, sometimes, it's like somebody hit the movie with a crowbar till there were pieces of skull stuck to it.  Stuck to it by brains.

But if one word only gets us halfway there, two might yet do the trick.  Especially if those words are "industrial sabotage."  Thus does a brand-building exercise for a DC "Extended Universe" become the occasion for BvS to (temporarily) dash itself against the rocks of what looks like straight-up online viral marketing material, while the world keeps turning, waiting for our heroes to finally set it on fire in their operatic rage.  And I mean that is literally what it looks like, for it is presented in the format of Wonder Woman, sitting calmly at her computer, clicking on links sent to her by the fearsome Batman.  Perhaps the only thing that could've been more momentum-wrecking would've been a five-minute sequence of full-mast bat-dick picsthough I'm not even sure about that.  Of course, it's also boneheadedly boring enough that this scene even manages to steal the crown marked "This Film's Very Worst Moment" away from a couple of pretty fierce competitors, which (guess what) are also brand-building exercises.  One of them references Crisis on Infinite Earths, only with an opacity that comes off as scornful even to a viewer who actually got the reference; the others allude to Darkseid for no immediately-sensible reason.  Sigh.  (But, you know, calling either of those things "the worst part" means I forgot the bit where a U.S. senator is flabbergasted by a mason jar full of urine.  Classic?)

Anyway, it's mostly where Snyder's grandiose vision collides with the commercial realities of his endeavor that BvS ever goes badly wrong.  Indeed, to Snyder's credit, the parts of his corporate mission that he seems to enjoy, like the apparent necessity of introducing Wonder Woman in the first place, wind up feeling almost organicespecially in comparison to the clumsy networking that obtains in so many of Marvel's offerings.

Now, mind you this: this review is based (predominantly) upon the theatrical cut, not the 182-minute ULTIMATE EDITION flogged to us physical media aficionados.  Fortunately, I didn't find the shorter cut to be nearly as incoherent as its detractors have claimed.  The longer version apparently corrects a nasty little plot hole, and builds the characters more.  And these are good thingsperhaps it makes the first act of the film seem a little bit less like scene-setting, and that would be a great thingbut I could still follow this cut's story without any special difficulty.

Sounds like it's your problem.

So: in the aftermath of Man of Steel, Metropolis has physically recovered from being lain waste by Kal-El and the other, less-friendly Kryptonians; but the psychic wounds that were wrought by the revelation that the Superman exists have only festered in the meantime.  In two men, they've positively turned to gangrene.  The first is Bruce Wayne, whom the film quite wisely assumes you already know as a certain bat-themed crimefighter.  He was in Metropolis during the great battle, and found himself, for the first time since the death of his parents, made equal to the rest of humanity: just another man, wandering through the smoke and ash, as impotent before the superbeings as all the rest of us.  (And we are reminded, immediately, that Man of Steel was vastly more dedicated to allegorical cosmic horror than it was to superhero romping; but since this was reminding me of my favorite aspect of the previous film, it was perhaps the best possible way to open.)  Well, Superman is still at large; and as far as Batman is concerned, he presents a threat so great that trust is simply out of the question.

The second man is Lex Luthor.  And he has also looked upon the Last Son of Krypton, and seen nothing but a monster from outer space whose mere existence belittles the accomplishments of humanityespecially his own.  Presently, both these men pursue Superman's destruction, each in their own idiom: Lex manipulates him into a morally-compromising and potentially-deadly trap; and Bruce plans and schemes underground, developing or stealing the technology to defeat the Kryptonian, while getting the brunt of his emasculated anger out either by doing tons and tons of chin-ups, or by brutalizing his fellow Gothamites, in order to at least feel superior to somebody.

And how!

As the title promises, it climaxes with a duel between heroes; and, obviously, it keeps on going from there, because you'd have to be honest-to-God braindead to walk into this movie and somehow expect Superman and Batman to actually kill one another.  (Frankly, you can't be all that bright if you even thought that the World's Finest team might still be harboring any serious hard feelings by the time the credits rolled.)

There are subplots, mattering in their shrugging, subplotty way: there's Lois Lane's world-hopping paranoid thriller, poorly served by the decision to cut the film down from Snyder's preferred three-hour bladder-buster; there's Lex's contingency plan, involving the revival of Zod as a Kryptonian zombie that might as well be called "Doomsday" (although they regrettably dial back on the beast's unforgettable 1990s X-TREME! aesthetic); and, of course, there's Wonder Woman, who ricochets off Batman in ways that seem intriguing enough, even if you do already know where it's heading.

And sure: BvS, just like practically every other superhero film, ends in a long sequence of overwhelming, unrestrained, self-consciously "epic" action; but unlike about two-thirds of the superhero films being made these days, it mostly pulls it off.  And if there was nothing else special about BvS, this alone would recommend it.  Admittedly, the very last battle is, in fact, more-or-less more of the samejust better. (Plus, at least it ends with something of a surprise, underlining why it was ever important that we pay attention to all this whirling CGI nonsense.)

Indeed, even that predictable lightshow has more than its share of genuine grandeur.  Let's just lay it out there: Snyder doesn't get half the credit he deserves as an action stylist (not even as an inspired plagiarist!).  The last forty minutes of BvS is effectively one fight after another after another; but this viewer, at least, never got exhausted from it.  Each one's so different in tone, tempo, and visualization that you can just sit there and let it wash over you in a three-cycle breathless fangasm, if that's your thing.  (And it's totally my thing.)  Meanwhile, the moment where a dose of kryptonite starts to wear off, while Batman's still trying to wail on Superman's face like a screeching psycho, occasions what might be the best comedic beat of all 2016.

Which is a whole other reason to praise BvS, and maybe even a better one: for all the pearl-clutching (ha) over this film's dark mood, it isn't half as dour as the Dark Knight Trilogy, or even its own predecessor.  Outrageously self-important and deeply committed to its juvenile Superman-based theological metaphor?  Absolutely.  But never, ever dour.  The filmand its directorare so madly in love with these characters that neither even really sees them as characters. 

Yes.  Like that.

For his part, Snyder demonstrates his love in the only way he knows how: by framing them as larger-than-life gods, before smashing them together in a glorious ragnarok of overt, excessive, and (frankly) even laughable mythmaking that strives to out-portent the Biblical epics of the 1950s.  Kyrie eleison, indeed.

But I said I laughed, and, oh, how I laughed!  (I'm so glad I saw this at home.)  But it was never out of mockery.  It was out of happiness, that something this wonderfully earnest about Superman could actually exist, even if it was bound to be kind of stupid as a result.  Maybe that surprises you, but it really, really shouldn't: because superheroes are always kind of stupid.  They're supposed to be kind of stupid.  The art is in pretending that they're important.  And so is the pleasure.

On this essential count, BvS delivers like few superhero films ever have; indeed, between the majestically pretentious presentation of its superhero iconography, the half-baked religious themes, and the self-conscious mirroring of its deuteragonists, it frankly delivers on a level usually reserved for John Goddamn Woo.  (The only thing BvS is really missing is some slow-motion doves.)  On occasion, it even out-Nolans Nolanno mean feat, given that The Dark Knight is the most flamboyantly self-serious superhero joint ever made.  Maybe it's because Snyder is simply so much better at the pure image.  Clearly, the return of Snyder's regular cinematographer, Larry Fong, is one big reason why.  BvS isn't just generally superior to Man of Steel, it also looks a whole lot better, with better motivations for its darkened color palette thanks to Batman's involvement, not to mention a camera that doesn't try and fail to mimick documentary realism in the dumbest possible ways (though it is latterday Snyder, so, yes, there is some ugly shakycam, here and there).  For what it's worth, it sounds better too, with Hans Zimmer totally reinvigorated, thanks in part to the new blood Zimmer injected into BvS' score, from Fury Road's own Junkie XL.  In any event, the score is fantastic (particularly the motifs Zimmer and XL bring to bear on behalf of Lex).

But perhaps it's simply because Superman pulling a ship across the Arctic or catching a freaking rocket are simply worthier subjects for cinematic deification (so much Christ imagery!) than Nolan's "grounded" crybaby billionaire.  Batman isn't grounded here, that's for damned sureand one of Snyder's best decisions is to push Batman into the same place that a Superman can exist in.  The Bat-origin recap that opens BvS is mostly content to pay its necessary homage to Frank Miller (so much Frank Miller!), but it ultimately reaches a point of wholly-original magical realism that captures, in one genius conceit, what the Batman is: an adolescent power fantasy that Bruce Wayne has spent his whole life chasing, right into the thin air.  No, Bruce, I'm sorry: you can't really fly, for you are of the same wretched human flesh as the rest of us.

...Even if you do have more of it than most.

Naturally, the film's funny in more conventional, more intentional ways; it's vastly less cheerless than old Man of Steel, where the inevitable gags were so atonal they felt like nails on a chalkboard.

BvS wouldn't have fallen apart without them, but I do wonder if I'd have found it half as entertaining, and so somebody needs to say just how delightful Laurence Fishburne and especially Jeremy Irons are, as Perry White and Alfred Pennyworth, respectively.  Both mirror one another (albeit imperfectly) as the cranky comic relief mentor figure who's always yelling at our heroes.  Fishburne, who only plays Clark Kent's boss, naturally gets the less interesting stuffconsidering how indifferent these Superman films are to Clark Kent in general, there's just no way around itbut he sells his cantankerous old newsman like he needed the money for his mom's surgery.  But then there's Irons, and Irons has gifted us with the most extraordinary rendition of Alfred yet seen in eight Batman movies.  He gets to play the world's most famous butler not as a servant, and not just as a fatherbut a father who's so hilariously disgusted by his loser son's inability to give him grandchildren or be a productive member of society, that every single line he utters has the tinge of disappointment laced through it.  The thing is, it's all Irons' delivery: in another actor's mouth, it would seem like mere needling; in Irons', it has the venom of actual angerand maybe it even is, given that Irons has been forthright about how much he despises this flick.  But on the screen, it feels exactly right: like Alfred's wasted a whole life on an egomaniac's neverending battle.  It doesn't just make it funnier, either; it fits together perfectly with BvS' take on Batman.  This is the cinematic Batman I've always wanted, and which I've only ever gotten in The LEGO Movie: it's a Batman whose own film quite clearly holds him in a little bit of contempt.

Not for nothing is everything that goes bad for the world in BvS actually Batman's fault.  The Caped Crusader finds an ally in Ben Affleck's eye-opening performance, too, which is leagues beyond Christian Bale's dull-as-dishwater hollow man.  (But still with the voice modulator, these people.  Why?)  Well, it doesn't matter: Batfleck is an unhinged monster who's stared himself blind into the abyss for nigh on twenty years.  There hasn't been a Batman this dangerous and unbalancedand frankly murderous, because, guess what, nerd, this Batman kills motherfuckerssince Michael Keaton had a broader stage to put on his own slightly-subtler version of the same Crazy Asshole Show.  Since Keaton is (was?) my favorite cinematic Batman, I award Affleck all the points in the world for going straight to the source; likewise, I nod approvingly to Snyder for pandering to my personal conception of the Batman, which is (essentially) a weeping infant narcissist who believes that the monopoly on violence should be held by himself, a man who thinks guns are the devilunless you mount them on a vehicle, and then it's okayand who (in every incarnation) beats people in the skull until they pass out, whilst claiming he has "rules" against killing.  Except BvS actually gets that he's a walking sack of contradictions, resolving them in favor of an outright madman barely clinging to decency, who desperately needs to be shown a way back by a much better hero.

But, of course, there are other actors in this movie.  Not everyone gets to operate on Affleck's level.  There's Amy Adams as Lois Lane, who has the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to play a woman who gets tied to the metaphorical railroad tracks approximately one time per act.  And there's Henry Cavill, who puts on a frankly strange performance as Kal-El, in that he seems incapable of delivering most of his actual dialogue with any conviction at all, but whose face and body somehow manage to be sincere in every shot, even when his voice isn't.  And I don't just mean that he's as pretty as picture, but that he moves (or doesn't move) just like a Superman should.

And then, yes, there's poor Jesse Eisenberg, apparently given the instruction to play Lex as the Science Joker.  I've got to admit: I don't even dislike Eisenberg's ticcy, half-camp performance as this film's pompous-as-shit Pontificator of Themes.  Rather, it's simply wrong.  Yet I found myself admiring the sheer commitment to the bit, both in Eisenberg's performance and the screenplay itself.  It almost overcomes unbelievable ludicrosities like his use of a Jolly Rancher as a propand, in fact, it does overcome some of the mild incoherencies in the theatrical cut's plot, so I suppose it's some kind of qualified success, at least on its own weirdo terms.

BvS is not a perfect film; even with its cut scenes restored, I know for a fact that it doesn't fix the very biggest problems, and I doubt it could fix the systemic ones, either.  But if it is better than the theatrical cut, then it's something I have an aching need to purchase soon, for even the theatrical cut is pretty close to the best superhero film they've so far made.  Certainly, it's the one that best justifies its constant yelling, and the worst thing about it is that these self-serious Snyder Superman films have probably preempted a proper Miracleman movie for all time.  (Update!: the Ultimate Edition is indeed ever-so-slightly more amazing.  Aside from mostly fixing a hole in one subplotand, somehow, making the hole in another one a little bit worsethe biggest benefit of the added space is a less choppy flow, alongside a little bit more characterization for our heroes and a little bit more room for Eisenberg to take a much-needed breath.  Sadly, Lois Lane still doesn't get to be more than hero bait, but so it goes.  And however Snyder avoided the temptation to have shot a scene where Superman crushes a piece of coal into an engagement ring diamond is just totally beyond mebut then again, obviously I'm the fool, for ever thinking somebody might sneak just a little bit of Silver Age wonder into a modern-day DC Comics movie.)

Well, even if it's still not quite perfect, there's still so much to love: BvS squares a circle that it shouldn't even be able to, which is to somehow make its hero-on-hero battle conclude with genuine satisfaction, rather than mere anticlimax.  More shockingly still, it gets there from the dumbest damned starting point it could have possibly found: a deeply spurious coincidence involving the fact that Bruce and Clark's mothers just so happen to share the same Christian namea name, mind you, that no actual woman has been named since the 1940s, so it's not something you'd ever think would be wise to bold and underline.  And yet they do; and yet it works!

And, hell, maybe this is just my thing; maybe I'm just too prone to doing the work for a movie I wanted to love (and God knows that if this were just a half-dozen issues of Detective or Action, it wouldn't be a fraction as special).  But, anyway, what this said to me wasn't that there's some magic word that can stop Bruce Wayne dead in his tracks if you utter it aloud and trigger his Mommy Complex.  Instead, it's actually clevereven subtleand "clever" and "subtle" are two things that BvS, for all its other strengths, only ever manages to be in this very instance: it's that Batman never even imagined that Superman had a human mom in the first place.  The surprise that stops him from completing his dire mission is that Superman is human, tooat least, in the ways that counted.  And, about twenty minutes later, he well and truly proves it.  It's as good a foundation for a legendary friendship as you could ask for, and not at all a bad way to push this whole DC Comics movie universe forward, either.

Then they went and made Suicide Squad.

Shame, really.

Score:  9/10
Fuck it, I gotta be me (and that longer cut don't hurt either): 10/10

Other reviews in this series:
Superman
Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice  

2 comments:

  1. This review really clearly expresses your perspective and I can now completely understand why someone might conceivably like this movie.

    I still think you're a lunatic, but good work.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yeah, I'll cop. I'm kinda nuts for this one. It even made me like the first one more.

      ...Am I Zack Snyder's biggest fan? Does that make me a bad person?

      Delete