Saturday, March 26, 2016

"Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice" (2016)

Starring Ben Affleck, Henry Cavill and Amy Adams
Written by Chris Terrio and David S. Goyer
Directed by Zack Snyder
Rated PG-13: Violence, language, frightening images
Running Time: 151 Minutes

After the battle against the forces of General Zod in Metropolis, the world is divided over how to respond to Superman (Henry Cavill). Some see him as a savior, others as a potential threat. Two men in particular, Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) and Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg) fall into the latter group. For months, Wayne, as his alter-ego Batman, has been tearing apart Gotham City's underworld looking for someone or something called the White Portuguese. At the same time, Lex has been manipulating Wayne, the US Government and Lois Lane (Amy Adams) in a plot to discredit and demoralize Superman.

As Batman gets closer to his goal, his methods grow more brutal and disturbing. Superman decides he's gone too far, and delivers a warning for Batman to stop or be stopped. Lex decides to take advantage of this rivalry, steering the two heroes toward a confrontation that he hopes will leave Batman dead and Superman disgraced in the eyes of the world.

This is a tough one. I love these two characters, I really do. So when there's finally a big-budget tentpole film about the two of them meeting, I'm going to be there. Its predecessor, 2013's "Man of Steel" was a highly divisive film, and this movie was even more so before it even came out.

A quick look at the production history of this movie is probably necessary — originally conceived as a sequel to "Man of Steel," it was expanded so that DC and Warner Bros could jump-start their shared-universe series of movies in the style of Marvel's efforts over the last decade. And from that moment on, people became pre-determined to hate this movie. Every piece of casting, every photo, every clip was roasted online, viciously. Ben Affleck, having suffered much for his disastrous 2003 performance as "Daredevil," was mercilessly lambasted for taking on the role of Batman, and Gal Gadot was on the receiving end of a horrid amount of comments regarding her physical appearance.

So it's not much of a surprise when the film comes around, and those same movie critics who complained about the movie looking "too dark/grim, not fun" basically parrot what they've all been saying for the last year and a half in their final reviews.

The question, of course, is... are they right?

Yes and no.

Firstly, both Affleck and Gadot prove their haters so very, very wrong. Both of them do very fine things as Bruce and Diana respectively. In fact, much of the overall portrayal of Batman here is excellent, from his design and movements to his obsessive nature, and his interactions with Alfred (Jeremy Irons). Gadot equally nails Wonder Woman, especially in the film's climactic battle. She's fierce and powerful, and has a really great moment after getting knocked down where she wordlessly reveals her enjoyment of combat.

But for every good thing about this movie, there's another thing about it that is somewhat bewildering. For example, Batman has some kind of prophetic nightmare of the future in which Superman, driven mad by Lois' death, has essentially laid waste to the world and rules it with an iron fist. In this dream, Batman is attempting to secure a chunk of kryptonite, but ends up being captured and killed. But before he is, he slaughters a number of Superman's followers, using guns. This whole sequence is extremely strange, not just for the shocking imagery of Batman blowing people away with guns, but also because of how it ends — with a vision of the Flash (Ezra Miller) appearing from the future to warn Batman that he was right all along... which then ends with Bruce awakening with a start in the batcave. So, was this all a dream? What about the part with the Flash? That can't have been a dream because Bruce has no idea who the Flash is at this point in the movie, and yet, that's how the movie plays it.

Even in parts of the movie that aren't a dream, Batman is blowing people away with the guns on his car or his plane. More than once, he blows up cars and trucks full of bad guys. But then when he goes in and takes them on by hand, he takes out their guns first and no one dies (even though there are lots of broken bones, and a few of them are probably paralyzed for life). It's very strange (though, of course, not without precedent — particularly in the Tim Burton movies, where Batman more than once hurls thugs off of buildings, lights them on fire or shoves dynamite in their pants).

Equally disappointing is how wasted Lois Lane and the Daily Planet feel here. Clark is deeply intent on running a story about the Batman and how dangerous he might be. Perry White (Laurence Fishburne) is inexplicably uninterested in such a story, and instead demands that Clark cover a football game and a library opening. As a journalist myself, I can't tell how you strange it is that Perry doesn't want to run stories about the increasing brutality of Gotham's oddball vigilante.

Probably the most disastrous part of the movie is Jesse Eisenberg's Lex Luthor. He feels like he stepped in out of a completely different movie, chewing the scenery in a way that ruins almost every scene he's in. Michael Shannon had a particular menace as Zod that made his angry, desperate performance work. Eisenberg seems to be going for some kind of mix between Gene Hackman's Luthor and Tobey Maguire's douchey Peter Parker from that awful scene in "Spider-Man 3."

All of these things lead to a movie that's not terrible, but mostly just kind of inert. I see what they were trying to do, and honestly with just some tweaks it'd be almost there. There are a lot of fine scenes in this movie, and a good number of solid concepts at play, but when you add them all up they make a less than satisfying whole.

Like with 2014's "Amazing Spider-Man 2" — there's just too much going on here, too much franchise-wanking, for the movie to stand on its own. It feels inconsistent in tone and goal, too overstuffed for its ideas to be fully explored.

In the places where it tries something new, it works pretty well. Having Clark and Lois in a loving, committed relationship instead of falling back on any kind of will-they-won't-they stuff is great, a natural progression of how well Lois was handled in "Man of Steel." And the debate over Superman himself and his motivations by the public at large, the way the government reacts to him, all feels right. It even feels natural that Batman would see Superman as a potential threat, since that's a concept that's come up plenty of times in the comics.

But unfortunately, in a lot of places where it counts, "Dawn of Justice" is just kind of there. There were a number of scenes, particularly those involving nods to other DC characters, where it feels like the studio said, "Put in a scene with the Flash here" or "reference Aquaman here," which is very unnatural and jarring. The parts of this movie that work, work. The parts that don't... don't.

See Also
Man of Steel (2013)