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Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Movie Review: Batman versus Superman: Dawn of Justice

Hey there Chaos fanatics! No, I haven't forgotten about you, not at all. Its just that I've been really busy the past few weeks. I am working on a large painting project which I will show off when its done. I have a ton of 40K stuff that I have to put together... Wowza.

Anyway, like the title says, I'm going to share my two cents on Batman Versus Superman: Dawn of Justice. No doubt you've heard the film is divisive, to say the least. Well, Old Man Chaos intends to wade into those waters, with his own take on the proceedings. So- away we go.

First, I must acknowledge that Batman Versus Superman is not a perfect film. Indeed, it has serious flaws. However, it is also a very entertaining movie, with some thought provoking ideas and two incredible performances (and a bunch of good ones as well). Indeed, I feel the good far outweighs the bad.



To start, one must admit that BvS, like The Force Awakens, serves many masters. TFA had to accomplish a TON- show that SW is viable and relevant, get the bad taste of the prequels out of our mouths, dial up the nostalgia/fan service, create new compelling characters, create an exciting movie in its own right, and lots more. TFA is, frankly, a minor cinematic miracle in how many of these things it accomplished. We can quibble about having yet another super-death star and the like, but the fact is TFA did what it HAD to do to save the SW franchise and pull it forward- and the result is a highly entertaining film to boot.

BvS also serves many masters. Snyder and co had to: make a quality sequel to Man of Steel, try to deal with fan anger over the "mass deaths" issue, try to create a new Batman after Bale/Nolan's definitive take, lay the groundwork for a new DC franchise, go head to head with Marvel, and lots more. BvS accomplishes many of those as well. However, while JJ made it look EASY in TFA (seriously, the movie feels like seeing an old friend), Snyder runs into problems in BvS. For some people, these problems derail the whole thing. I however do not see it that way. I think the whole is stronger than the sum of its parts.

I want to start with the negatives first, if I may. First and foremost, the damn flashbacks / dream sequences / warning from the future. Right here is where the filmmakers try to build their universe too quickly. They throw so much at you, stuff that makes little sense. But worse, these sequences stop the film dead in its tracks. The movie just starts to build momentum when the first dream happens. Then the film chugs to recover when a (thankfully) shorter dream takes center stage, once again jarring the viewer out of the main thrust of the film. Both annoyed me- I think they should have been trimmed into a melange of images that make no sense- but happen quickly. Or perhaps they should have been excised entirely. The flow of the film suffers for these sequences.

The flow of the ending is very choppy, as we jump from ending to ending. Once again, I wish this had been done in a more linear fashion. But instead we jump from place to place, backwards and forwards. This diminished what I felt could have been a truly powerful conclusion. Instead it gets muddled, and again their eye is on setting up the future DC franchise, taking it off the BvS film itself.

I wish that the Lois Lane story was given a bit more import and time- I think showing Lois as a peerless investigative reporter is essential, and the "bullet" mystery is great, but it gets lost amidst the rest of the film's bombast. And its so important, but that importance has been blunted because of the truncated feel of her "side story".

There are some pacing issues overall, and a few things that don't make 100 percent sense to me (admittedly, I think I need to see the movie again to sort it out. I say that because as I think about it so much in BvS actually DOES make sense. It may be me. It may be that scenes were deleted).

Now, I really want to get into the plot and our three leads, as I feel these aspects are what makes the movie better than a casual look and/or the negatives might suggest.

First, Snyder and company throw a lot of questions at you about the Man of Steel. Should he be held responsible for the battle of Metropolis? Is he a hero or not? Should he be held to the same rules as the rest of us? Is he a god? A savior? An alien? The film devotes some time to these questions- politicians and the TV pundits / talking heads debate these quite a bit. Some criticisms have been laid that Snyder doesn't resolve these. That's outrageous. Of COURSE there's no consensus or conclusion to these. Look at the US right now- we argue about EVERYTHING. Nothing is "settled". I think the film does a fine job of building all of these up without a "full" resolution. That would be too easy, and Snyder doesn't fall for it.

Indeed, that is the core of the film. If such a "Superman" existed, how would the world respond? How would people view him? The entire film is about this very issue. Both Batman and Lex Luthor are, for their own reasons, consumed by these questions.

 Let's start with the easier of the two, Batman. First, I want to say that Ben Affleck gives this his all and then some. His performance is so good, so on the mark for THIS version of Batman, that its practically a revelation. Not only does he have the physical presence, the gravitas, the determination- he also has doubts about his "mission", and his witty banter with Alfred (played nicely by Jeremy Irons)- all done to near perfection. I cannot wait to see "Batffleck" in future DC films. He's that good. I still think Bale is the best, but in time... who knows?

Now let's look at Batman's motivation. He has been fighting crime for years. He has grown frustrated in his mission (criminals pop up like weeds, he laments to Alfred). He has lost Robin, and possibly other allies. You sense the weariness. It seems that fighting crime is a losing proposition. As he hits this point and becomes so bitter, his life is changed when he witnesses Superamn fighting Zod in Metropolis. Wayne Enterprise workers are killed, and Bruce can do nothing. He sees gods fighting with him and his people as nothing but ants. This feeling of powerlessness is added to his frustrations of a weary Batman, creating an even more bitter and vindictive Batman.

The film makes it quite clear that Batman has been getting worse. He has, as the film starts, been branding some criminals. In the film he does indeed kill (indirectly with the Batmobile and plane, but still). While many are screaming that this is breaking Batman's cardinal rule, I say not so fast. First, every modern film Batman (except for Clooney- and that should tell you something) has killed. Burton's Batman killed the Joker, Joker Henchmen, Penguin Henchmen, Penguin... Val Kilmer killed Two-Face at the end of Batman Forever. And Nolan... try as he might, he didn't avoid it either. How many League of Shadows goons did Bruce kill escaping their mountain citadel? He then later KILLS Ras (the line "I won't kill you... but I don't have to save you" hardly absolves him). In TDK he doesn't kill, but in TDKR his Bat-Plane surely blows up a few LoS henchmen (along with Talia). He may not kill Bane, but Batman doesn't even blink when Catwoman guns him down. Hell, Batman doesn't even check to see if Bane is alive! So please- don't give me the Batman doesn't kill thing. At least in film.

However, and more importantly, it serves the plot and arc for Batman. He has no hope, and he descends, ever closer to that line, the abyss that will make him what he hates. A villain. He's so close to that. And the appearance of Superman makes Bruce feel as if his entire career as Batman is pointless. What difference does a criminal make when you've got Superman and others who could destroy the world. Batman has been fighting small fires (and losing). Superman upends Bruce entirely.

Now, while Bruce is internalizing this, he comes to the conclusion that Superman must be destroyed. This may be the only thing Batman might do to keep the world safe, the only thing Batman can succeed at. Bruce becomes determined to stop Superman, using ANY means necessary. He believes that only such a measure can save THE WORLD. Not Crime Alley or Gotham- the future of the world.

Batman cannot see that Superman is good, as Bruce is too far lost in his own despair. Alfred tries to act as Bruce's conscience, but Bruce may already be too far gone. All he can see is the danger. He cannot admit to other possibilities. So, he sets out to fight and destroy Superman.

That brings us to... Lex Luthor. Now, Jesse Eisnberg's performance may be the most divisive thing in the film. And while I get some of the complaints, I find that the character is actually well handled in the final analysis. And what he symbolizes in the plot is just enormous.

First, this version of Lex is an amalgamation of all the versions of Lex. So many people want the bald ruthless industrialist version. The fact is this version has only been around since the 1980s. Lex has gone through LOTS of incarnations. In the Golden Age, "Luthor" was a mad scientist with red hair, with futuristic weapons at his disposal- he threatened the world many times over in the 1940s. Later versions have Lex Luthor as a bald mad scientist type blaming Superboy for an accident that caused the baldness.

 The eccentric and outlandish insane genius persisted for years (and is the basis for the Gene Hackman version). Then, in the 80s, Luther got reinvented as the megalomaniac industrialist billionaire businessman that we know and love today.

BvS Lex Luthor is a combination of those elements, combined with the new billionaire, the tech guru. Look at guys like Jobs, Zuckerberg, Beezos, and any of the other silicone valley billionaires. They are an eccentric bunch- nerds and geeks. But- they are a major force in our economy and just about every other facet of our lives. Indeed, their nerdiness and tech have made them VERY powerful. The Internet not only has info on EVERYBODY, it also has the power to mold people, shape events, change the world. In fact, it is scary how much power and influence the tech world has over us.

Eisnberg's Luthor combines the various Lex incarnations with this modern "tech industrialist" sensibility. The result is a Lex who is full of insecurity, nervous tics, and eccentricities. Underneath that veneer though, is a man used to getting his own way. His company literally has the sum of human knowledge at his fingertips. as well as the money and power that goes with that. Luthor is truly the (invisible) master of his domain. He is used to having total control, with everyone dancing to his tune- other businessmen, consumers, the media, and naturally politicians...

Luthor is king of the world- but like Batman, his world changes when Superman fights Zod. Suddenly, like Batman, Luthor's accomplishments feel VERY small. He is the king of nothing. He is an ant to Superman. This feeling of powerlessness drives Luthor. But, rather than be like Bruce, wanting to protect the world, Lex only sees his own ego. He views Superman (and the meta-humans that he is researching) as a personal challenge. Lex will have all of these beings dancing to his tune, one way or the other. Its the only we he can stay powerful and, frankly, relevant.

Some critics have said Luthor's intentions are murky. Nonsense. He spells it out (in his eccentric way). Luthor compares himself to Prometheus at a party. This legend tells how Prometheus challenged the gods- stealing fire and giving it to man. That is exactly how Luther sees himself- he is going to take on the gods. What other challenge is there in life for someone like him?

This scene takes on new meaning when you realize Lex KNOWS who both of his guests are long before.
 So- Luthor does many things- and you have to sort though his many layers of machinations. He begins to keep tabs on meta-humans (and Batman presumably). He learns a lot about them- facial recognition software is a wonderful tool- Luthor quickly figures out that Batman is Bruce, and Superman is Kent. Lex learns about Kryptonite as well. So he sets out to put the two against each other. Lex engineers events that make Superman look questionable (the dessert bullets, the explosion of the Senate). Meanwhile, he ALLOWS Batman to dig in a little into Lex's knowledge, with Batman discovering Kryptonite. Lex WANTS Batman to get the Kryptonite. He wants to make Bats kill Supes. Why should Lex get his hands dirty? After all- he's making this happen, and that gives him his kicks.

But- why would Superman fight Batman? Lex kidnaps Ma Kent (and in his best scene) Luthor explains that if Supes doesn't fight Batman, Ma Kent will die. Some have criticized this, after all is this all Lex is capable of- brute force against an old woman? Nonsesne. He manipulated Batman so well, testing his intelligence. For Superman, brute strength will do (hence the crude threat to Ma Kent). As Luthor throws pics of the captive Ma Kent at Superman, the hero falls to his knees. Lex is exultant, and Eisnberg gives him a cruelty unmatched by many modern comic movie villains (he exudes more menace and evil in this ONE scene than Mandarin, Ultron, Dark Elf, Ronan, and most of the other Marvel movie villains put together). In this moment he is evil, despicable and perhaps, MORE powerful than Superman.

So, Batman and Superman fight. Now lets get to the third piece, Superman himself. Henry Cavil does a good job here, though his role is less flashy than either Batman or Luther. Superman is a man still unsure of himself, his powers, and his place in the world. He WANTS to help, and doesn't want reward. He is idealistic (a dream of a Kansas farmer). But, even he sees how dark and hopeless our world is. Can he stay pure? Can he truly "save" others? Superman is uncomfortable of the hero worship, and he is truly hurt by the criticism and jealousy. He has many doubts. However, he does have convictions. As Kent, he appears to be a bit of a crusading journalist, feeling that Batman only attacks the poor and disadvantaged, and his tactics are brutal, savage. To Superman, Batman is bad- and worse, represents what Superman could be if Kent LOST his moral compass.

For both good and bad, Superman is forced into a bit of a reactionary role, reacting to Batman, Lex, and events that Lex has caused. This both strengthens and weakens the character's portrayal. When he confronts Lex, he is hamstrung- he wants to protect both Lois and Ma Kent. He has no choice but to dance to Lex's tune. Or does he?

When Supes goes to fight Batman (unaware of the Kryptonite threat), rather than fight Superman tries to reason with Batman, but Bruce is past that. The fight is brutal, but Batman has the upper hand with the Kryptonite. As Batman is about to land the killing blow (with a Kryptonite Spear of Destiny no less), Superman calls out Martha- his mother's name AND ironically Bruce's mothers name. Now, some asked "Why did Superman call out his mother's first name rather than say 'mom'"? They didn't hear the whole thing- Superman is struggling to breathe- he says to Batman that he needs to save Martha Kent- how else would Batman have known who "mom" was? No. So it actually makes sense. With that, Batman stays his hand- he and the god have something in common after all. All of Bruce's doubts (and Alfred's lecturing) come to the surface. Batman has been a fool. Superman is GOOD. Bruce was wrong. But he vows to correct the mistake by rescuing Ma Kent. Batman's line "Martha will not die tonight" sent shivers down my spine.

Meanwhile, Lex plays his last hand. He has spent a part of the film researching the secrets of Kryptonian knowledge and technology. Once again playing Prometheus, he uses this knowledge to build Doomsday- again, to prove his superiority, but also as insurance against Superman (should he win) and the other meta-humans. The battle with Doomsday is brutal, with Wonder Woman making her appearance (a minor role, but Lex had her in his file and she was concerned about it). When all seems lost, Superman grabs the Kryptonite spear, and destroys Doomsday with it. In the process, Superman is also killed.

(For those complaining about Doomsday- in the original Death of Superman comic storyline, Doomsday was one dimensional, to say the least. A force of nature without direction or goal. Indeed, Doomsday is just a plot device to kill Superman. The main meat of the storyline is the Return of Superman- which involves various Super-imposters and versions of the Man of Steel. Now, Doomsday has been upgraded since. But in the original story, he has ZERO character or motivation. For me, Lex's engineering of Doomsday is good enough for me. There are more Superman villains out there- to me Doomsday is sub par at best- so I'm glad they got him out of the way). 

In the end, Bruce realizes the error of his way, and vows not to fail again. He swears to honor Superman's sacrifice. It is clear that Superman's example has redeemed Batman. Batman has come out of the darkness, morally and spiritually. And now Batman wants to assemble these other meta human heroes to protect the world. The life and death of Superman now serve as an example, and Bruce means to live up to that as best he can. It is a great conceit, and it flies in the face of the "comic standard" idea that Bruce is reluctant to join  the Justice League. I loved the turnaround. It also plays into Jor El's lines in MoS saying that Superman should be an example to all mankind, and I appreciated the callback to that.

To me- that is what the film is about- Batman's redemption. Naturally, Superman will come back (I think...). We will also see new DC heroes as well. The film successfully makes you WANT to see what happens next. But it is Batman's character arc (compared/contrasted with Lex's) that make the heart and soul of the film.

I left a ton out, but that's OK. I think the film is a good, but not great one. It's flaws detract from what could have been a great movie. I give it 3 out of 4 Marks of Chaos. Subsequent viewings may change the rating, but that's what I'm thinking right now.