Tuesday, March 29, 2016

DC’s Doomsday – Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice

Ben Affleck and Henry Cavill in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.

I felt so, so bad for the five- or six-year-old boy sitting with his family in the row ahead of me for my screening of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. He got up from his seat several times and capered about through the aisle, barely paying attention to the noise blaring around him, and when he did, asking pointed and, I thought, very excellent questions like, “Who is that?” and “Mommy, why does Batman hate Superman?” His parents shushed him each time, but I wanted to high-five the poor kid. What a tragedy it is that these people brought him to this film, thinking he would have a fun time watching his heroes on the big screen. What cruelty for Zack Snyder and Warner Bros to have done what they did to these characters, and by extension, to him. When Batman v Superman isn’t a violent, grim, tedious slog, it’s an unforgivable corruption of some of comicdom’s most beloved characters, who are twisted to serve a ten-year marketing plan and Snyder’s galaxy-sized ego. It’s one of, if not the single most unpleasant and incoherent comic book movies ever made. And all I can do for that kid is be grateful that the Marvel movies and shows are still there to remind him how this shit is supposed to be done.

I neglected to put a spoiler tag on this review because I actively want to spoil it for you. I want to stand at the door to the cinema, holding my hands out and shaking my head, screaming “no, don’t go in there, it’s a trap.” I want to warn you that Jesse Eisenberg hams up his performance as Lex Luthor to a degree that may cause you to contemplate self-harm. I want to warn you that a jar of human piss is the central object in a critical plot scene. I want to warn you that, if you like or admire Batman, you’ll have to come to grips with the fact that this Batman (Ben Affleck) murders people. Yes, you read that right. You remember Superman, humanity’s protector, the Kansas farmboy who embodies altruism and the American Dream? Well that guy must have wanted too much money, because this Superman (Henry Cavill) is an inscrutable, self-serving asshole, whose main concern is getting laid. Warner Bros did one thing right, and that was using the fight between these two characters – I cannot call them heroes – as the focal point for their marketing campaign, because it’s literally the only thing I can point to that you might expect to see going in, and actually receive for your money. Nothing that that little kid might have recognized, thematically or functionally, as something that belongs in a superhero movie actually occurs.

What does occur is a series of beautifully-constructed visual tableaux (Zack Snyder’s strong suit) that beat you over the head with nonsensical plotting, violent action, dark and scary music, and a woeful mishandling of subtext (Zack Snyder’s other strong suit). The central conflict of the film revolves around humanity’s adoration and fear of Superman, whose power they cannot control and whose motives they cannot guess, and Batman’s decision to try and take him down, for the same reasons. Luthor manipulates things behind the scenes because… I think because he’s a twitchy psycho, and that’s what twitchy psychos do. (Oh, and twitchy psychos apparently also appropriate Kryptonian technology to manufacture CGI ogre monsters that look like they’re from a movie from 2002.) The “Dawn of Justice” part of the title refers to the shoehorned presence of Diana Prince, a.k.a. Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), who says a few lines and then shows up at the end for a hero pose and the final action sequence, and also to the rest of what will become the Justice League in a future sequel – Aquaman, The Flash, and Cyborg – who are relegated to tiny, confusing cameos in either a) video files stolen from Luthor or b) upsetting hallucinations/dream sequences. If that sounds like it doesn’t make any sense, and also doesn’t represent a solid foundation for an ensemble superhero movie, that’s because it doesn’t. At all. (To say nothing of the weirdness of the Justice League receiving their names and even their iconic character symbols from… Lex Luthor?)

Jesse Eisenberg as Lex Luthor in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.

It’s really all symptomatic of Warner Bros’ nakedly pathetic attempt to play catch-up to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, who, since Iron Man in 2008, have steadily tested the waters for how superhero movies can be done (and for how much of them audiences can tolerate). But WB is doing it backwards, introducing us to new and old characters alike in one big, bloated film, with a plan to spin them off down the road. To think that a reversal of the MCU’s successful formula (setting up individual heroes in solo films and then bringing them together in ensemble blockbusters, along with spinoff TV projects that explore minor characters and diverse tones) is a good idea, especially when they’re almost a decade late to the party, is, frankly, hilarious. I’d chew my popcorn and happily watch the DC dirigible crash and burn, if it wasn’t so upsetting to see some of my favourite heroes screaming in the flames.

One of the worst aspects of Batman v Superman is undoubtedly its editing: scenes are thrown together willy-nilly with no connection to one another or any general sense of flow. The film reads like a series of vignettes that barely have anything to do with one another. Lawrence Fishburne’s Perry White asks of an absent Clark Kent, “Where does he go? Does he just click his heels three times and end up back in Kansas?” – which you, as an audience member familiar with the basic language of cinema, would expect to cut directly to Superman, doing whatever it is he’s doing. But Snyder cuts instead to Batman, carrying out a plan to steal some kryptonite that is wholly unrelated to Perry White, and then to some other isolated scenes, before finally getting back to Kal-El. The film is so ineptly constructed that, were it not for the high-gloss visuals, you might think you were watching an amateur project. Last I checked, amateur directors aren’t paid in the millions.

It’s almost worse for the film that there are small points of light shining out through the grimdark, because they function less like indicators of quality – or even enjoyable elements in their own right – and more like reminders of how awful the rest of the movie is, like marshmallows in a bowl of soggy Lucky Charms. Jeremy Irons is, of course, a total pro, and his Alfred is wonderfully laconic. Gal Gadot inspires with her brief presence and her energy during the fight scenes – it’s just cool to see Wonder Woman on the big screen, swinging her sword, deflecting energy bolts with her golden vambraces, and lassoing the big ogre guy – despite the fact that she doesn’t have any kind of character to play. And, despite what’s done textually with the character, Ben Affleck acquits himself quite well as both Bruce Wayne and Batman. For the first time, I buy the “playboy” part of the “billionaire playboy” thing – this is a Bruce Wayne motivated by dark urges, whether it’s a need to sear a Bat-brand into the flesh of criminals so their prison inmates will target them for execution, or a need to leer at long-legged women who frequent charity balls. We never actually see him waking up next to a supermodel, sadly; his obsession is of a more barrel-chested Kryptonian variety. (I can’t speak to Henry Cavill’s success at playing Superman, because the character is mishandled so extensively – when his motivations aren’t obscured entirely – that no matter how well he performed, he wouldn’t satisfy.)

Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.

I had already endured nearly two and a half hours, but I still came close to walking out during the last ten minutes. Superman appears to die at the hands of Doomsday, and we're treated to an intolerable set of scenes in which Lois and the world mourn his passing. I was wriggling in my seat trying to restrain the scream of "HE'S NOT DEAD, JUST SHOW HIM THE SUN" that was bubbling in my chest. Am I really to believe that not a single character thinks to do this? It's been established in this movie that the sun rejuvenates him, and even Bruce Wayne – who we would assume pulled some all-nighters studying every strength and weakness of his former foe – stands by at the funeral, mugging sadness for the camera? I'm sorry, Snyder, but I'm not as stupid as your characters are. I know there are two Justice League movies coming: quit wasting my time! I'm ultimately glad I stayed in my seat, though – because I learned something crucial during the credits. At one point early in the film, a photographer visiting the Middle East with Lois Lane is shot in the face by terrorists. The credits informed me that this character, whose name is never mentioned onscreen, was Jimmy Olsen. As in, Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen. I submit to you that this is, in itself, nearly enough to condemn the film.

I’d like to explore in greater detail what I mean by the ineptitude of the characterization in Batman v Superman, or the incoherence of the plot, or the inappropriate tone, but writing it out is akin to experiencing it all over again, and I beg you not to inflict that upon me. Trust me when I say that Snyder does not understand the characters he’s using, whether it’s a Batman whose all-important morality appears not to exist, or a Superman who, according to one character, “answers to no-one, not even to God” (unless they are currently sleeping with him and their name is Lois Lane). I’ll likely explore some of the darker implications of the way Snyder plays with his toys in another article, because there’s a quagmire of unconscionable thematic material broiling under the surface here – but it’s enough to say that all he wants to accomplish is that fleeting moment of “wow, neat” when a visual tableau comes together, and that he will sacrifice every other piece on the board – scripting, acting, audience engagement, you name it – to create that one perfect moment. He reconfigures beloved characters and themes with an arrogance that borders on hubris, his justification appearing to be that he thinks he knows better than everyone else does. He has proven himself an accomplished visual stylist who simply cannot tell a coherent story.

Batman v Superman made me feel bad inside. I want better for you. Don’t watch it.

– Justin Cummings is a writer, blogger, playwright, and graduate of Queen's University's English Language & Literature program. He has been an avid film buff, gamer, and industry commentator since his childhood cinema first installed an arcade. He is currently helping to make awesome games at Ubisoft Toronto, and continues to pursue a career in professional criticism.

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