Wednesday, August 24, 2016

The Miserable "Batman v. Superman"

Why so serious, Zack Snyder? You're making a movie about a face-off between two of the most beloved comic-book superheroes of all time. You're supposed to be using this as a launching pad for Warner Bros. "Justice League" franchise too. So why is the finished product one of the most morose, unhappy, depressive slogs that every tried to call itself a superhero film? And who, but the most self-serious comic book fanboys would this even appeal to? But before I really get into my complaints, I should offer some context. I didn't see "Batman v. Superman" in theaters. Instead, I watched the extended version at home. More importantly, I watched it about a month after I saw "Captain America: Civil War," which handles many of the same themes in a much, much better way.

In "Civil War," the clash between Captain America and Iron Man develops mostly organically through their personal interactions, and we understand that neither side is right. In "Batman v. Superman," the conflict arises out of Superman (Henry Cavill) and Batman (Ben Affleck) fundamentally misunderstanding each other's intentions, and never being on good enough speaking terms to clear things up. After the events of "Man of Steel" result in grievous loss of life, Batman views Superman as a threat. With the help of loyal manservant Alfred (Jeremy Irons), he seeks an incoming shipment of recovered kryptonite, intending to weaponize it. Superman, with reporter girlfriend Lois Lane (Amy Adams), believes Batman is a dangerous vigilante and seeks to expose him. Then we have the U.S. government holding an inquiry into Superman's actions, lead by Senator June Finch (Holly Hunter). Also in the mix is Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg), a young business mogul, who deftly manipulates both sides against each other.

Firstly, a big part of why this movie was so hard to watch comes down to basic editing and pacing. Many scenes go on too long, which is compounded by Zack Snyder's infuriating use of slow-motion. We constantly jump between different characters and storylines, dreams, visions, and flashbacks. And it is shocking how difficult to film is to follow. There's a dream sequence with Batman which is interrupted by some sort of vision sent from the future, with no context whatsoever, and I had to go online to figure out what I'd just seen. Near the end of the film, Lois Lane appears to be kidnapped twice in quick succession by different groups of people. A exposition scene with Jena Malone was left out of the original cut, and understandably, since the movie doesn't bother to identify who her character is. Then there's the point where the movie stops dead in its tracks for ten minutes to introduce us to all the future members of the Justice League. For a major release, especially one that's supposed to be targeting younger audiences, this is borderline incompetent.

Now, in other hands, I think that this take on Batman and Superman could have worked. Ben Affleck makes a perfectly decent older Bat, and I continue to enjoy Henry Cavill and Amy Adams as Superman and Lois Lane. Lex Luthor's machinations are too convenient, but we've seen worse offenders in many other films - most spy thrillers depend on it. However, the tone of the film is so grim, and the atmosphere so relentlessly heavy, it completely sucks all the fun out of he proceedings. Scene after scene show the heroes brooding, worrying, and grappling with their fears. There's a lot of talk about gods and demons in the characters' discussions of Superman. We're constantly being bombarded by news reports and television commentators delivering grandiose, fearmongering statements about what his existence means for the world. Snyder enjoys showing Superman's power in epic, almost operatic terms - hovering in the sky like an angel, or dispatching the baddies en masse like a natural disaster. Alas, we get very little about how Supes feels about being treated like this. Cavill is terribly underused throughout.

It's hard to relate to either of our brawlers, ultimately, who are so doggedly shoved through the convoluted plotting that they have little time to gain our sympathies. Batman, who in many incarnations is a master detective, allows himself to be guilted and twisted around until he's out for Superman's blood based on a pretty flimsy pretext. Affleck has a couple of good scenes - his verbal sparring with Gal Gadot's Wonder Woman is a highlight - but the majority of his scenes involve being haunted or guilty or enraged, over and over again. It's exhausting to watch. It's a relief when there's any hint of levity - Alfred's sarcasm, some bluster form Laurence Fishburne's Perry White, or Jesse Eisenberg's nutty Luthor schtick. Now, I don't think this is a very good version of Lex Luthor, but at least Eisenberg offers some liveliness and some solid laugh lines to cut through the lugubrious murk of the rest of the film. He may have clashed with the tone at times, but it just underscored that I would have rather been watching whatever film his performance was aiming for instead of "Batman v. Superman."

I'll say kudos to the action scenes, which are nicely staged and exciting to watch. The opening scene of Metropolis's destruction from Batman's POV on the ground is perfect. The trouble is that there isn't nearly enough action to justify the two hours of nonsense around it. The title brawl lasts about ten minutes altogether. There are a couple of other set pieces where Batman and Superman fight individually against others, and a big finale where they join forces, but even so it feels like very little time was spent letting the superheroes be superheroes. I know I griped about the action scenes in "Man of Steel" being too much, but too little is just as bad. And when you've got men in masks and capes running about, a little goofiness should be par for the course. I didn't even mind the last-minute secondary villain, because his arrival signaled that we were finally getting down to the business of mindless spectacle and the heroes could stop wallowing.

In short, I'm sorely disappointed with "Batman v. Superman." However, I want to single out one particular bright spot. I was worried about the introduction of Wonder Woman, but she turns out to be one of the best thing in the movie. Unlike Batman and Superman, she's all action and no angst. And Gal Gadot looks absolutely fabulous in costume.

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