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March 31, 2016

Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice: Clods Among Us (Part 1)

You don’t know how tempted I was to make a reference to God Hand for this subtitle.  But since this title’s more fitting, I might as well do it now.

You know what, though?  I remember once on this blog, someone was under the impression that I don’t like God Hand.  That’s seriously not the case.  It’s not my favorite game ever -- and it’s not what I’d call a technical marvel -- but I like the combat, I like the customization, and I like the difficulty level (which changes depending on how well/poorly you do throughout the stages).  But what really sets the game apart from others is its sense of humor and spirit.  It’s wacky and wild, and very few games have captured that magic since.  Very few games have tried.

I’ve gone about this at length, but it bears repeating: by and large, the AAA game space has done its best to do away with (intentional) humor and charm.  So many titles are trying to be BIG and EPIC and SERIOUS and DEEP, yet so many of them have collapsed under their own hubris.  How did Capcom, the company that made the unapologetically-goofy Resident Evil 4 (and God Hand, of course) go on to make the embarrassingly-po-faced Resident Evil 6?

So in a lot of ways, I’ve built up a tolerance for products that adopt a “no jokes policy”.  It’s no surprise, then, that Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice doesn’t leave much of an impression -- but trust me, the lack of humor is the LEAST of this movie’s problems.

To the SPOILER-MOBILE, Robin!  Oh, wait.  Oooof.  Ohhhhh.  Ahhhh, that’s awkward.

So here’s the setup…is what I want to say.  But there’s a part of me that feels like I’m at a loss.  Or, alternatively, that it’s a pointless endeavor.

In terms of the latter?  You already know the story, whether or not you watched a single trailer.  It’s after Man of Steel.  Superman flies.  Batman exists.  They don’t like each other.  The two of them fight.  The two of them settle their differences to take on a greater threat.  Roll credits.  But that’s at once a suitable and unsatisfactory version of what happens.  I said that there would be spoilers, and I meant it.  So here’s a big one: Batman and Superman only do about ten minutes of fighting.  The lead-up to it is poor, the circumstances behind it are poor, the actual engagement is poor, the resolution of it is poor, and the aftermath of it is poor.  It’s almost as if building an entire movie around an event with a blatantly-obvious outcome (and finished in less time than it takes to eat a sandwich) is a bad idea.

Then again, you could say that about the whole movie.  Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice is overflowing with bad ideas.  I’ve heard the joke that Zack Snyder is actually a spy sent by Disney and Marvel to sabotage the DC Cinematic Universe -- and honestly, I wouldn’t be surprised if that was actually the truth.

I don’t want to throw all the blame on Snyder, though, because it’s not as if he made the movie alone.  (Granted I’ll probably throw shade at Snyder the most throughout this post, but we’ll get there when we get there.)  BvS is a disjointed mess from the first five minutes on, to the point where I feel like I need a wiki to understand what happened.  It’s as if no thought or care went into creating a stable structure for the movie, especially since there’s at least one dream sequence that adds virtually nothing to the plot, is never truly explained, and is such a marked departure from everything else that it might as well have come from another dimension…which it technically did

The more likely explanation is that it had been too long since the last action scene, so Snyder and crew thought it’d be cool to have Batman dream about going to Desert Dust-Up Zone -- because in the real world, he falls asleep while watching the progress bar on a decryption job tick upward.  Yep.  That happens.  Because it’s not like Batman is well-known for doing his super-heroics at night, if only to give him something to do.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.  What’s the plot of this movie?  Why is it two and a half hours long when the title fight is over and done in about ten minutes?

As far as I can tell, the movie is about building up as much as it can in as short a period as it can.  The rivalry between Bats and Supes is a key component, of course; neither one approves of the other’s methods or past (or present) actions.  Bruce Wayne and Clark Kent don’t like each other, whether it’s in-costume or out of it.  Fair enough, I suppose, but the movie also has to build up Lex Luthor -- his son Alexander, to be specific -- as well as Diana Prince/Wonder Woman, as well as the world DC hopes to raise an empire from, as well as deal with the ramifications of Man of Steel (which didn’t have to be there if that movie wasn’t a kerosene-soaked landfill), as well as introduce sociopolitical discussions…

Did I get them all?  I think I got them all.  But -- oh, wait, I forgot.  The movie also has to build up Lex’s master plan involving a globe-spanning conspiracy, which is partly there to build up the birth of Doomsday for the good guys to eventually punch, and all of that hinges on -- wait for it -- Lex’s ongoing conflict with a Kentucky senator to get an import permit.

I want to embed a video of a Picard facepalm, but there are so many things to facepalm about I’m not sure if just one video is enough.  So just take this and replay it as many times as you see fit.

Okay, sure.  There’s nothing inherently wrong with spinning a few plates in terms of adding plot points or threads.  It’s accepted, if not expected, of a lot of stories.  But it takes a sharp mind and a steady hand to keep those plates spinning, and the task gets harder every time there’s a new plate added to the mix.  BvS has plates in the form of its characters -- Bats, Supes, Wondy, and Lex, at a base level, but there’s also Martha Kent, Senator Finch (played by Holly Hunter in a largely-thankless role), Lois Lane, and Wallace Keefe (a handicapped survivor of the Metropolis battle).  

There’s even more if you decide to count Alfred and Perry White -- though I wouldn’t, since they’re out of the way most of the time.  So basically, that means there are eight plates to keep spinning.  At a base level.  Before you even get to the plot and themes of the movie.  And to be sure, the plot and themes are so important that they might as well be plates the size of tables.  There needs to be skill and wit on tap, but there also needs to be focus.  The movie needed to keep its eyes on the prize -- either strategically weave its way through the plates, or give itself a hand by having fewer plates.  But it didn’t.

So is it any wonder that the movie’s sitting at something near a 30% on Rotten Tomatoes?

I guess the best way to think about this movie is to take a good, hard look at its characters -- mostly because they’re the reason this movie will make any money (and yes, there’s a big part of me that regrets being part of the first-weekend audience).  So if we view it from that perspective, there are two questions that need to be answered: is this character good, and what does he/she contribute to the story?  Granted I’m not going to go through everyone in this movie, because that would mean spending more time with Lois Lane, but we have to start somewhere.  So it might as well be with Superman.

The immediate question that needs to be answered is whether or not this Supes is better than the one in Man of Steel.  And yeah, he is by default; he’s not quite the mindless automaton bounced between two borderline-psychotic fathers.  But make no mistake: he’s still not a good character, and nowhere near the iconic hero that the world deserves to see in a modern blockbuster.  I don’t know if I agree with the sentiment that he only saves Lois throughout the whole movie, because there’s a scene with him saving a little girl, as well as a montage of him doing some heavy lifting to help others.  It’s appreciable, knowing that he’s doing the right thing without someone aggrandizing him every step of the way.

Well, that’s what I want to say.  But like Man of Steel before it, BvS can’t hold off on the proselytizing for very long -- and this time, it makes the whole production seriously muddled.

This movie keeps talking about what it means to be Superman, and what Superman’s presence means for a modern day world -- and it’s at the expense of actually showing what Supes is all about without turning his good deeds into what comes off as begrudging lip service.  But the movie can’t shut up about gods and demons -- complete with lingering shots of paintings and windows and such with the symbolism stapled onto your face.  And it can’t shut up about it in dialogue either, whether it’s Lex ranting like a loon to anyone within earshot, or other characters doing their best to remind the audience of THE CRUSHING WEIGHT OF THE PLOT OF THE MOVIE THEY ARE WATCHING.    

They can’t even show Supes just doing something simple without making a big deal out of it.  Tugging or lifting heavy stuff is done lavishly, but it gets really excessive if and when it’s time to interact with others.  He can’t just save a girl from a burning building; he has to be fawned over by a massive crowd during a Day of the Dead festival, and heralded as a savior.  He can’t just swoop in and help people during a flood; he has to drift downward in slow motion while being bathed in light from above.  I know it’s cliché, but would it be so wrong to have Supes just pull a cat from a tree, smile, and be on his way?

I don’t really understand why there’s a debate about Superman in this movie.  Okay, sure, there’s a question about whether or not he’s really a hero in the wake of Metropolis, but the scenes presented in BvS contradict each other from moment to moment.  You can’t have scenes where he’s basically heaven-sent (including a repeat of Supes drifting through space with a blatant Christ analogy), and then have other scenes where protestors are lined up to shoo him off the face of the earth. 

I get that there’s supposed to be a difference in opinions, but the problem is that both opinions are so polarized that they’re basically invalidated.  Superman isn’t a god, and he’s not a demon; he’s just a guy from space who could bench-press a skyscraper.  Would he do that?  No, of course not.  He proves that pretty much every day (albeit mostly off-screen, much to my dismay) by being a hero who helps people and tackles problems that would be impossible for a normal man. 

That’s what makes him iconic.  He doesn’t need labels, he doesn’t need hype, he doesn’t need doubt, and he doesn’t need mistrust.   He may have handled the Metropolis situation poorly, but in the eighteen months since he’s travelled across the globe in an instant to resolve a problem.  Superman is Superman, and I’m shocked that a $250 million movie with at least three years of production time is so bad at grasping the character.

The movie gets dragged to the pace of a half-dead snail thanks to all the Super-pondering -- and it didn’t have to be like that.  You can address these societal issues and say something meaningful without sniffing your own farts.  And really, what’s gained throughout all this?  Does anyone learn anything?  Are there any major takeaways from society as a whole?  Well, there are, but it ties into the ending and I’ll have to get into that later.  But the crux of the thematic heft is built upon something that’s both overdone and treated as window dressing.  Why?  Because there’s a fatal flaw with this version of Superman -- on top of the flaws he already had in Man of Steel.

As far as I can tell, Superman doesn’t talk to anyone.  He doesn’t cooperate, he doesn’t communicate, and he doesn’t make a case for himself.  He just swoops in wherever Lois has gotten into trouble thanks to being shoehorned into the plot there’s danger, resolves the problem, and then bails.  You can’t even count on him for that, really, since the pieces of Zod’s ship are still lying around, ready to get taken advantage of by Lex.  (Even though Man of Steel didn't really set up kryptonite's existence, let alone its ability to coalesce into rock form OR be weaponized, but whatever)  But the more time you spend with the movie, the more you realize that Superman hasn’t argued his case, explained who he is, or done anything worthwhile in terms of public relations.  As far as I can tell, some people are afraid of him -- and he hasn’t done anything to lay their fears to rest.

How can you be a symbol of hope if nobody even knows what you’re all about?

The only person he meaningfully converses with is Lois.  Technically he’s also got his mom, but true to Kent Parenting 101 form, she instills some of the most ass-backwards mentalities into her son (basically boiling the conversation down to “you don’t owe this planet anything” and “do whatever you want, because you’re too good for them”).  If Superman is committed to being a global force of good, then he needs to be clear about his intentions to the world he’s lording over.  But he doesn’t.  The 18-month time skip in-universe implies that he’s basically a rogue, which is incredibly irresponsible, and moreover creates a lot of conflicts that don’t need to happen.

But what really kills this movie -- basically the moment where I checked out -- is the one scene where something amazing could have happened.  Lex’s plan ends up pinning Supes with the blame for a killing spree in Africa (done with bullets, because that’s exactly what Supes is known for using).  It leads to the big blue Boy Scout appearing in a senate meeting, on trial and basically primed to be held accountable for his actions.  So he heads into the building and stands at the podium in full costume, ready to plead his case…and more importantly, ready to establish his character more firmly than any moment in the past two movies put together.  At long last, Superman is finally going to take a hardline stance on what he is, and prove that he’s all about truth, justice, and the American way!  He’ll finally be an active participant in the movie!

Then the building blows up before he can say a single word.  Fucking perfect.

Superman started off in this cinematic universe as a charmless, gormless chunk of wood, and he ends it as a charmless, gormless chunk of wood.  And I say “ends”, because Supes sacrifices himself to stop Lex’s new pet monster, Doomsday.  Because of course he does.  Setting aside the fact that he does it in the most senseless way possible -- he has to personally jam a kryptonite javelin into Doomsday’s heart, because it’s not like he can just throw that shit or punch the baddie onto it from above -- the movie doesn’t earn that sacrifice.  It just doesn’t.

This movie made me, a guy who loves the idea of Superman, not care about Superman.  That’s an accomplishment.  And I’m not saying that this character is bad because he doesn’t conform to the ideals I have in mind; he’s bad because in-universe, in the context of his story, he’s such a nothing character that he doesn’t deserve a fraction of the concern thrown his way.  He’s stoic and brooding most of the time, still uncertain about what he should be/wants to do, and the chief emotion you get out of him is anger -- either that, or a sense of smug superiority. 

(That's the face you'd expect from a symbol of hope.  And yes, I know it's from a dream sequence, but look at the three pictures above this one.  Look at how warm and loving he is!  Also, he kind of looks like a constipated Phil Dunphy.)

The only time he cracks a smile is when he decides to have sex with Lois in a bathtub (oh God, I hope they’re not laying the groundwork for a Superson plot thread).  Even when he’s Clark Kent, he’s a confrontational asshole -- though to be fair, he’s trying to sell a sizzling Batman story to Perry White, who insists on him covering sports instead.  That’s not how newspapers work, guys.

If Snyder and crew wanted the world to hate Superman, then they succeeded.  And even though this movie is so eager to jump the gun that it has to show the start of Superman’s inevitable resurrection at the very end -- invalidating the emotional non-heft of a minutes-long mourning sequence -- it almost feels as if they went “There.  We put Superman in our movie.  Now that that’s out of the way, we can focus on all the cool guys, like Aquaman!”

But enough about Supes.  How does Batman fare?

I’ll be upfront.  I was worried that this movie would be heavily skewed toward Batman -- because I don’t think I’m off the mark when I say he’s a lot more marketable.  (Fun fact: I got a teaser trailer for The Lego Batman Movie at my screening.)  To be fair, you kind of need to have a high Bat-percentage when you’re establishing a new character…which begs the question why he’s showing up in a team-up movie instead of a solo outing first, but whatever.  The important thing is that Bats should prove why he -- and Ben Affleck by extension -- should get top billing in what’s ostensibly a Superman movie sequel. 

How does he do?  Uh, not great.

Like I said last time, it’s not that Ben Affleck does a poor job donning the cowl (or Bruce Wayne’s suits).  It’s just that he’s being guided by a script, director, and movie that turn the caped crusader into a joke.  You could say the same about Supes, in the sense that they both suffer from a major problem: they’re not really heroes in this movie.  They have their moments (Supes more than Bats, I’d say), but by and large the two pillars of DC Comics are portrayed as assholes.  More pressingly, they’re portrayed as idiots.  And I can kind of see the movie getting away with Supes being a dunce, but Batman?  The world’s greatest detective gets duped by Lex, Riddler Arrange?

As Bruce Wayne, he heads to Metropolis personally during the fight with Zod, as if he’ll somehow accomplish something besides get crushed by rubble.  He waltzes into off-limits areas during Lex Luthor’s party to steal some plot-relevant information (twice).  When it’s time to steal the kryptonite that Lex harvests from his ship, he throws down a Batarang just to make sure there’s a trail to follow.  He can’t put two and two together and reason that maybe Lexcorp-branded trucks are heading towards a Lexcorp research facility, so he decides he has to destroy everything in his path in a big dumb chase scene. 

Critically, Batman should have won his “fight” with Superman in an instant; he sets up a bunch of traps beforehand, but despite having access to kryptonite, he thinks that it’d be better to create limited gas canisters instead of loading up automated turrets with kryptonite bullets?  And why the fuck did he make a kryptonite-tipped spear?  Did he just want to turn his Super-murder into a ceremony?  I mean, the obvious answer is that it’s to facilitate the plot (i.e. create a way to kill Doomsday in the final brawl), but how often is “because then there would be no plot” a good answer?

There’s more, of course, but I’m willing to leave it at “Batman and Superman are idiots” for now.  There are more important things to tackle -- namely, that Batman is really, really angry for some reason.  I’d tell you what that reason is, but I have yet to find it.  What’s his motivation in the movie?  Why does he think that Superman is a menace?  Why does it reach a point where the only “logical” conclusion is to harpoon him like he’s Moby Dick?

If you squint really hard, you can kind of follow his train of thought.  Yes, Superman was involved in the destruction of Metropolis (which, rather frustratingly, was rebuilt entirely off-screen with no struggle whatsoever).  Yes, innocent people died, including the people working under Bruce Wayne’s umbrella.  But you know what?  Superman didn’t do it alone.  He lived among humans for more than thirty years in peace, and only rocked the boat when Zod tried to turn Earth into a crusty brown wasteland.  Does that not mean anything?  Does every good deed that he’s done since his mistake of a battle not count?

It seems like Batman’s just angry for the sake of being angry.  I understand that that’s kind of the point, in the sense that the movie portrays both sides of the dark knight as someone who’s clearly unhinged and broken-down.  But A) it doesn’t make for an interesting movie, B) it’s confusing when there’s no genuine motivation behind his actions, and C) it’s handled in a half-assed way. 

If the idea is to prove that Batman is someone you shouldn’t buy into wholesale -- or idealize, or like, or whatever -- then why do the majority of his action scenes portray him as the de rigueur badass people expect of him?  Why is it so important to see Batman beat up goons that stand no chance against him, or shooting guns, or blowing up people, or murdering at length with zero consequences besides a stern talking-to from Supes?

I think it’s safe to say that Batman -- and Superman, and the movie at large -- is a hypocrite.  He’s mad at Superman for Metropolis, and the “potential” “threat” he poses, and being a reckless vigilante that can hurt people…but superpowers aside, how is that so far-removed from the guy who dresses like a winged rat and brands people with his insignia?  Superman let people get killed by accident via collateral damage, but he’s supposed to just shrug it off when you blow people up?  You have no moral high ground, you moron.

That’s not to say that Supes can be absolved of guilt, either -- his action and inaction alike are creating problems that didn’t have to be there -- but the takeaway here is that they both hate each other because they both hate each other.  Neither one of them has the self-awareness to take a step back and realize that they’re kind of screwing up their respective cities (and beyond), and would rather point fingers at others instead of work on their problems.  (Why is Batman’s count of people saved lower than his body count?) 

But the resolution to the conflict is somehow more embarrassing than the “reasoning” behind it.  Lex manages to kidnap Martha Kent and use her as a bargaining chip -- a way to get Supes to fight Bats to the death.  So Supes heads over to talk with Batman and maybe get his help, but rather than fully explain the circumstances, Supes escalates the talk into the straight up slugfest that the title promises, because reasons.  Ten minutes later, just when Batman’s about to run an obvious ally of justice through with his big dumb spear (because of course Batman has to gain the upper hand), Supes tells him to save Martha.  And since that’s also the name of the late Martha Wayne, Bats decides to let bygones be bygones and work with Supes from then on as a loyaHRRRRRRRRRRRRRRGH

Sorry.  I think my brain just broke for a second.

(Incidentally, this gif simulates what watching this movie feels like.) 

I get what they were going for.  It’s not so much that “Your mom’s named like my mom!  We should be friends!”  It’s that Batman finally realizes that Superman, for all his power, is still almost as human as anyone else on Earth.  Fair enough…but it’s not enough.  As much as I would love to do away with this stupid-ass conflict, the reason why it ends doesn’t line up with what’s been established throughout the movie.  Bats realizes that Supes has a human mother.  So what?  How does that make him any different from the other criminals you’ve killed just to make it to that point?

How does having a mother absolve him of the crimes you were ready to stab him to death over?  Are you willing to forget the fact that he’s responsible for the death of hundreds, if not thousands of your employees (who really should have done more besides stand inside a skyscraper during a battle between Kryptonian powerhouses)?  Are you going to vouch for him from that moment on, and act as his PR guy in his stead?  I guess we’ll never know the answer to that question and others, like how the two of them are supposed to bond.  Superman’s fucking dead.

*sigh* You know, I admit that I’m not the biggest Superman fan, or Batman fan, or DC fan, or even movie fan.  But seeing Superman die because of a fight with a generic rock monster made one thought come to mind:

“Movies were a mistake.  They’re nothing but trash.”

I’ve said this before, but I’ll go ahead and say it again: if there’s one trope I hate in fiction, it’s the heroic sacrifice.  It’s noble, sure, but it’s long since been played out.  It’s a surefire way to deny a lot of opportunities in a story, and substitutes it for a more basic outcome: “wow, look at this hero be a hero”, as if that wasn’t obvious already.  And whether it’s in BvS or out of it, I could do without the religious allusions.

Killing off Superman in this movie -- only his second movie in this universe, with his character as foggy as the Swiss Alps in winter -- was a major misstep.  That’s ignoring the fact that his sacrifice is only temporary, and basically a way to avoid having the hero do anything substantive with anyone besides Lois or Bats.  It’s so stupidly obvious and easy to see coming.  And what purpose does it serve?  It’s supposed to convince Batman, the clearly-unstable, clearly-hypocritical, clearly-incompetent “hero” to become the founder of the Justice League?  No.  No.  No, no, and no.  You guys have already lost the game.

This movie acts like it wants to explore deep themes.  It acts like it wants to be taken seriously.  It acts like it’s intelligent, and full of meaning -- something to be digested, with the power to shake its viewers to its core.  And it is something to be digested, and dissected…but only to help explain why a $250 million movie could turn into such a shitshow.  It acted like it had something to offer, but didn’t; it was more concerned with cool shots, big dumb action, and setting the stage for more terrible movies. 

Aquaman, The Flash, and Cyborg are all set up in this movie, but I can’t begin to imagine how badly the DC studios are going to screw up their characters.  To wit: based on their mock teasers in this movie (basically downloaded by Bats and shared with Wondy), Aquaman is a crabby hermit, Flash is a schlub just looking to get a drink, and Cyborg is…powered by magic?  I don’t even know what happened in his scene.

But I guess I shouldn’t think about it too much.  There’s still the matter of Wonder Woman.


We’ve still got a ways to go…

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