Monday, April 04, 2016

Batman v Superman: Bleak and nonsense

I despised Zack Snyder's Superman reboot, Man of Steel. I despised it because it was almost a good Superman movie. Despite a bunch of clever ideas and a central plot concept (Phantom Zone Kryptonians terraforming (ha!) Earth to make a New Krypton) that showed some imagination, it all went to naught because Snyder made Superman a broody, self-absorbed prick who, if he bothered to do something even remotely heroic, did so grudgingly. Since then, I've learned that Snyder is a devotee of Ayn Rand, which pretty much explains his apparent worldview that anyone who willingly does the right thing for the right reasons is a chump.

So I finally saw the Bats and Supes slugfest last night at the Alamo Drafthouse, and had my expectations set suitably low. I'm sorry to report that the film lived down to to them. So as not to come off as relentlessly grim as this film, I'll list what worked for me: 1) Ben Affleck's Batman/Bruce Wayne is mostly great. I say mostly, because Bats' indiscriminate killing and disregard for the safety of innocent bystanders is almost as egregious as Superman's from the first film. As the world's greatest detective, Batman figured out that Lex Luthor was manipulating public opinion against Superman--and directly caused the bombing of the U.S. Capitol Building with all the death that entailed--yet still decided to go ahead with his plan to kill Superman because, I dunno, he'd already gone through all the prep and it'd be a shame to let those cool SFX go unused. 2) Gal Gadot's Wonder Woman is mostly great. I'd worried that Gadot might not be physical enough for the role, or be too sword-and-shieldy, but once all was said and done, Wonder Woman's brief screen minutes count among the highlights of the film. And her accent made me very happy--I've heard people complain that they couldn't understand what she was saying, but these people are morons. Wonder Woman is not an American, and does not speak English as her first language. Having a vaguely Mediterranean accent brought the character home for me. That said, the Macguffin of getting her involved--Luthor had stolen a photo of her that she was trying to get back--makes absolutely zero sense, as what she eventually chases down is a digitized scan which has been copied at least three times (and probably more) by the end of the film. Huh? Ultimately, I came away looking forward to the upcoming Wonder Woman film, although the World War I setting remains something of a head-scratcher.

Beyond that, the movie is vastly inferior to the sum of its parts. Snyder didn't just take cues from The Dark Knight Returns, he lifted entire sequences and vast chunks of plot. But what wasn't widely reported in advance was the fact that Snyder also folds in large chunks of the Death of Superman storyline from 1992. Yes, Chris Terrio and David S. Goyer are credited with writing the actual script, but they wrote the script Snyder wanted. Snyder's fingerprints are all over this, and looking back over his previous films, this movie falls squarely within his oeuvre. Here's the thing: I don't think Snyder has ever actually read The Dark Knight Returns or The Death of Superman or heck, even The Watchmen before that. Oh, sure, he owns the books, and they're probably well-worn and tattered from his thumbing through them constantly, but I am convinced Snyder doesn't actually read them. He only looks at the pictures. How else to explain his slavish recreation of spectacular visual sequences from said comics whilst completely misunderstanding (or simply missing) the substantive underpinnings to those sequences?

When Superman SPOILER ALERT! dies at the end, this is supposed to be emotionally devastating for the cinema audience. It's not, because throughout two films now, Superman has not been presented as a hero to cheer for. He's a self-centered jerk who seemingly only dies to impress his girlfriend at the end. Snyder was rightly criticized for Superman's lack of regard for saving human lives in the first film, so in this film he tries to rectify that with a montage early on showing Superman saving people from burning buildings, exploding rockets, deadly floods... except none of these rescues actually come off as heroic. They're filmed like sequences from horror movies, with ominous music playing as Superman slooooowly descends. Often scowling. There's no urgency, no emotion, no concern. He stands around brooding as the unwashed masses fawn over him. A number of characters in the film tell us that Superman is beloved, but the film never shows it. If anything, these ominous "rescue" sequences serve to validate Batman's nightmare visions of the coming of Darkseid and Apokolips--hardly something that will ensure the audience is emotionally invested in the character. Ditto the people of Metropolis' (and by extension, the world) sudden grief at the loss of Superman. Not very much earlier, everyone had turned on Superman when a crazed bomber took out half of the U.S. Capitol, then started destroying both Metropolis and Gotham when Doomsday showed up (and really, as problematic as the comic version of Doomsday is, at least he was visually distinctive and menacing. This one looks like a cave troll extra from Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings). The emotional arc is not there. Chris Reeves' Superman? Not a problem. He was beloved by the people in his cinematic universe as well as audiences. Brandon Routh's? More problematic, but ultimately, yeah, he'd be mourned. Cavill's? Apart from those few people he grudgingly saved, this Superman hasn't really given anyone reason to trust him, much less like him.

Snyder, as a director, is very much a poor man's version of J.J. Abrams. They are both about the on-screen eyeball kick, and in my opinion, come up with various eyeball kicks for their films first, around which they then construct a script. For this reason, their films don't normally make a tremendous amount of sense and are rife with logical inconsistency and plot holes. The difference between Snyder and Abrams, however, is that Abrams understands character and gives the audiences compelling personal narratives and motivations even if they exist within an exploding world of dazzling nonsense. Snyder, instead, only offers nightmare dream sequences of Jack Kirby's unrecognizable New Gods, bizarre non sequiturs so disengaged and irrelevant to the events at hand that I was at a loss to explain any of it to my baffled family even though I probably understood what was going on better than anyone else in the half-empty theater. Jesse Eisenberg's lunatic, evil Mark Zuckerberg take on Lex Luthor conveys nether genius nor menace. His unhinged erraticness is more evocative of the Joker than a worthy rival of Superman, but hey, his insanity allows him to scare Batman by confirming his bad dreams about Darkseid coming are all true! For Snyder, this is what passes for subtle foreshadowing.

There are rumors circulating about an extended director's cut, an R-rated cut, all sorts of cuts of this film that will "restore" all the sequences and scenes left on the cutting room floor and make the choppy, helter-skelter nature of the film flow better and make more sense. Sorry, but watching more if this mess is the last thing I want to do. Even if an hour of film that is pure character development is added back in, that doesn't change the fact we're still starting with two-and-a-half hours of celluloid that has none to start with. I've seen every one of Snyder's films at this point apart from the cartoon about the owls--yes, even his "passion project" Sucker Punch--and I've yet to see anything that leads me to believe he has any better grasp on pacing than he has on character. The best thing that can be said about Bats vs. Supes is that it's rapid collapse at the box office may finally be enough to convince Warner Brothers to remove Snyder from any future DC Comics films and give them to those who've show an ability to deliver movies with coherent character, narrative and emotion in addition to pure spectacle--and preferably all of the above.

Once all is said and done, I can't even bring myself to despise Batman v. Superman the way I do Man of Steel. The latter has an arrogant contempt for the source material that is simply wrong. This one... Batman v Superman is a hapless kid who sits in the back of the class and eats paste all day. You can't hate that. You just pity him and get on with your life.

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