The Caped Crusader against the Man of Steel! Defender of Gotham against the Son of Krypton! Hardened city boy against country yokel!
No matter who wins…audiences kinda lose.
Twenty years Bruce Wayne has been laying his life on the line in the name of justice. He’s lost so much to crime and his quest against it. His parents. Any comforts of a normal life. His valued teammates that trusted him. He’s even beginning to lose himself. He’s grown harder, colder over the years. Alfred laments to see him now as he viciously maims criminals. If some die during the fight, well that’s collateral damage. Batman as always flown close to the darkness to keep it bay but now he’s pushed nearly to the point of being consumed by it.
Doubt haunts Clark Kent. It’s been two years since he introduced Superman to the world. He uses the powers of the race he was born as to protect the race he was raised as. He loves his home and will do anything to keep it and everyone in it safe. That’s why he’s worried that he does more harm than good. Every time he stops a warlord a village gets destroyed. What does he tell the people caught in the crossfire when he’s fighting to save others? For every person he rescues another person he couldn’t feels forgotten, shunned. Despite only the purest intentions at heart could he actually be doing more harm than good for the world he holds so dear?
The two men clash. Bruce is distrustful of any one person with such power. Clark sees Batman as little better than the criminals he claims to be bringing to “justice.” They fight. During the fight innocent people are put in danger; perhaps a building is falling. Both men drop what they’re doing to save the civilians, but Superman, weakened by Batman’s kryptonite based attacks, will surely die crushed under the building he and Batman can barely hold up. Bruce sees Superman’s willingness to sacrifice himself. He saves him, his opinion of him changing.
They talk. Clark is inspired by Bruce’s unwavering dedication. Bruce is inspired by Clark’s kind heart and value for all life. The two uncover a plot and, while not yet entirely friends, realize they’re on the same side and team up to save the city from CGI. The indestructible Superman, the alien come from above some thought to be a god, is killed. Bruce, inspired by Clark’s selflessness and sacrifice is reinvigorated and pledges to return to his old values. He will always remember that he must never again become one of the monsters he fights against. The world mourns Superman, all doubts about his value to the human race washed away now that he’s gone. This sets the stage for future movies. Batman will return to proper heroic form and when Superman inevitably is resurrected (because comic books) he will be allowed to be the beacon of hope and virtue that he should be.
Now THAT’S a good movie! And I feel like someone on the creative team of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice wanted to make that movie. Unfortunately that person was stomped down by a script that is uninterested in actually exploring those themes to any depth, performances that feel out of place, weak character motivations, and dropped seeds for an expanded universe that were handled so poorly I sometimes had no idea what I was seeing. The smallest kernel of that movie I wanted is in there, but it’s never allowed to pop.
Batman suffers most from this being our introduction to this version of the character. We’re given a lot of information to infer that Bruce has seen some shit, but if his extreme violence and idle killing of criminals is a “fall from grace” that idea falls completely flat having never seen what he was like before. I need to know him at his best for me to judge him at his worst. Despite the implied horrors he’s seen and Alfred expressing disappointment it all rings hollow and I’m left with a Batman that I just don’t like. His turning point, the same moment that finally stops him and Superman fighting, is so random and sudden with so little backing it up that it just feels like someone rang the bell signaling it was time for the ending. That’s all a shame because I like the concept of a Batman who’s gone too dark and needs Superman to bring him back.
If Batman is bringing the brooding darkness we need Superman to balance that with some light and positivity. Don’t get me wrong, I can totally get behind some brooding, but there needs to be contrast, and that should be Superman in this case. He’s not doing himself any favors by being so stoic and serious. I’m not saying he needs to run a full PR campaign but I was wishing for just a touch of Christopher Reeve’s smiling charm. I admit, I’m a Batman fan first and know little of Superman from the actual comics, but I imagine him as a bright do-gooder who is happy to help. Happy. I was more ok with Man of Steel than most. I’m ok with Supes working through issues but when both of your heroes are grimacing the whole time it gets oppressive. Even worse, I feel like after two movies Clark still hasn’t found his place in the world because this film never gives us a resolution to that question. That’s all a shame because I like the concept of a Superman who is still new to the hero game, questioning his role, and finding his way, perhaps thanks to Batman who remains ever vigilant.
And there’s the rest of the movie. Jesse Eisenberg is playing a cross between the Joker and every other slightly neurotic character he always does. The movie tries to hand wave the fact that he’s very unlike any Lex Luthor we expect by him stressing that it’s his father’s name on the building, not his, he just came into it by parentage. His characterization aside I never even fully understand why he hates Superman. Is he just power hungry? To top it off his plot to pit the two heroes against each other is almost comically contrived. Lois Lane gets some good moments here and there that are undone by some baffling actions during the final battle and needlessly being put in peril. That final battle is against a CGI monster I have no investment in. Wonder Woman’s plot line is extraneous filler that just sets up the expanded universe for future movies and bogs this one down. And for the love of Crayola someone get some color into these movies. That’s all a shame because there really could have been a good movie in here if weren’t for such poor choices and misguided priorities.
(Sensing a theme yet?)
There is some good here, albeit fleeting. Despite all of the problems I have with how Batman acts I have zero issues with how he looks or with Ben Affleck. He looks good in and out of the cowl. He’s a quality actor and he could be a great caped crusader with better material. The brutish stocky style is a welcome change from the sleeker Batmen we’ve had for years. Please make a standalone Batman movie with Affleck starring and directing. Henry Cavill continues to look amazing, albeit desaturated, as Superman. When he is given a good moment he knocks it out of the park. We need him in a better script. All of the action is fun. Batman taking down a couple dozen thugs in a warehouse easily steals the show. The title bout see-saws back and forth and allows both heroes to show off. The final fight is a kinetic interplay of strengths and weaknesses as Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman take on Lex’s CGI monstrosity.
Ah yes, Wonder Woman. I said her plot is needless and bogs this film down. While this is true, she herself is pretty fabulous. She one ups Bruce at his own detective game and goes toe to toe with him verbally. She has a badass entrance into the final fight which would be a stand up and cheer moment of we didn’t all know it was coming. She looks great in the costume and I dig the sword and shield fighting style. In her very brief time in the move she comes off as a smart and strong warrior. I only hope that her own movie doesn’t just give the writers enough rope to hang themselves with. If they take the qualities from this good introduction and carry them forward I have hope that the Wonder Woman movie will be better than this one.
This movie. I wanted to like it. It’s one thing for a movie to be disappointing. This movie is down right frustrating. I can see what it could have been. I can only just barely see it, but the elements are there, hidden away behind layers of grimdark and people who care about spectacle and franchise building more than they do about characters or story. Marvel took its time to build up to its now crowded cinematic universe. In rushing to catch up DC has hung the weight of too many plot threads and too much world building on this film like an albatross. (Has there ever been a super villain called the Albatross?) Our new Batman needed an introduction film. Batman and Superman clashing should have been a film. And then you can have a “getting the band together” Justice League film in which Lex Luthor’s plot could have been the instigating threat. By cramming everything into this one movie you ensure that none of those stories are served well. In the best of hands it could have been a disjointed but enjoyable movie. In the worst of hands it could have been…well, this. Whether blame rests with the writers or director Zack Snyder or everyone involved DC needs to get this creative team away from these movies. DC’s characters may be stellar on TV, but Marvel’s movies are still far and away the better films.
Speaking of the DC tv shows, I heard many people say the movie runners were crazy for casting a new Flash for the movies and not using Grant Gustin from the super great Flash tv show. Trust me, after seeing this movie I think we’re better off. I’d be worried that these movies would ruin what he’s done with the character. Instead of risking that I’d rather him stay on tv and remain a bright shining example of what a superhero could be. These movie guys should take notes. Because so far in two films of this universe these characters might be brave, sure.
But I’m not sure how heroic they are.
Other movies I watched this week (potential minor spoilers):
Troll Hunter – This Norwegian found footage movie follows a documentary crew as they search for bear poachers and instead come across a certified government troll hunter. When they literally use goats on a bridge to lure a troll out I knew this movie was in on its own joke. An unnecessary death in the third act slows things down but other than that there is fun to be had seeing trolls treated like any other nuisance animal and the myths surrounding them played with.
The Warriors – In the “near future” gangs have virtually taken over New York. One man tries to unite the gangs so they can overpower the cops and rule. When that man is assassinated and the Warriors are framed to take the fall our group of gang banger protagonists must get through the city back to their home turf on Coney Island while avoiding rivals and cops. A rich and nuanced story this is not. The acting is stilted and wooden. Yet there is certain level of charm here. The characters are colorful, each gang having a theme results in some really oddball groups, and the fights aren’t too bad. This has been called a cult classic and I understand it; it’s such a strange trip that it certainly must have its fans.
Starry Eyes – One of the joys of this #366Flicks project is when I’m taken by surprise by a movie I thought I had pegged before I even turn it on. With this movie I thought I was going to get a run of the mill possession or demon pregnancy movie filled with religious imagery. While some of that is indeed here it’s wrapped in an interesting metaphor and done with style. A young woman trying to break into movies gets a role for a company that asks her to do…strange things. The more she works with them the more her attitude changes. She pushes friends away, and her body seems to deteriorate and rebel in grotesque ways as she moves toward becoming “something different.” Using these horror tropes as a metaphor for allowing your ambition to change you for the worse, this movie does a great job of creating an all pervasive sense of unease as it escalates. An explosion of surprisingly graphic violence caps off the rising tension. This flick really grabbed me more than I expected a random movie I never heard of on Netflix would.
Next Friday – Ice Cube spends a Friday in the suburbs running into crazy characters and trying to score some quick cash to save his uncle’s house. While the first movie missed the mark entirely for me this one fairs a little better. Everything has gotten a couple notches wackier and I think that’s the right impulse. The moments that consist of little more of a couple people getting high and giggling still fall flat, but some laughs are to be had here and there. Still not very good, but better. Perhaps the third time will be the charm.
Final Girl – A group of disturbed young men regularly take their “dates” out to the woods to be hunted and killed. Another man has trained a young woman since childhood to be an efficient killing machine. Hilarity ensues! Watching a deadpan Wes Bentley train Abigail Breslin kept me interested early on and there are some thrills to be had when the violence starts as she turns the tables and hunts down the killers, but the middle of this movie drags while she baits the hook. There is very little substance here and ultimately it’s never remotely as interesting as its premise.