Sunday, April 10, 2016

Some Thoughts on Batman v Superman Dawn of Justice

This is going to be a LONG post so here's the bit you might have come over to find out: I liked it.

It's far from perfect but overall it's a large bucket of popcorn and a giant soda full of fun.

Spoilers ahead. That said, the movie's been in the theater for two weeks at this point so you've either gone and don't care about spoilers or you're not going and you don't care about spoilers. That said, last spoiler warning. I'm not holding back.

Okay, still here? Let's forge ahead.

Months ago there was an uproar on the Internet about how bad Zack Snyder's Man of Steel was and the upcoming Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice was going to be just as bad, if not worse.

Well, I liked Man of Steel. I've defended it and I'll continue to defend it. I get where Snyder is going. Let the Internet go hang for not getting the 'perfect' Superman because Warner Bros. decided to let Snyder go for his vision. It's a lot like when a creative team switches on a comic book: the new look of the artist and the new voice of the writer have fans and detractors.

As you know if you follow these films, Zack Snyder is NOT popular amongst the hardcore nerds. He's a capable director whose eye for sharp visuals is getting better with every film but his vision of the DCU is the polar opposite of some very vocal denizens of the 'net who feel they must offer fixes to DC.

But storytelling is not his strongest skill. Maybe he doesn't quite get Clark Kent/Superman or maybe he's angling for a more fully realized character later but there's not a lot of growth for him in this film. He frowns a lot. He still loses his temper when he shouldn't, eighteen months after the events of Man of Steel. He's introspective. This is unusual for Superman as we're all used to him being confident and sure. There have been times in his comic book history, and even cinematically, where he's unsure. In MoS and BvS it's writ unavoidably large.

Batman, on the other hand, is angry. Not just angry, but pissed off. He's been operating for twenty years and still can't see how he's ever going to rest. He's sneaky and confident that he'll eventually win any fight he's involved in. His motivation is the fact that the destruction of Metropolis by Superman's fight with Zod affected him in a personal way. He's so pissed off that he kills people without thinking. In this film he personally kills dozens of bad men, which in his mind I guess makes him better than Superman in MoS. It all comes to a head when the man Bruce saves is influenced by Alexander Luthor to do something terrible.

As for Luthor, this is the son not the father who put the Lex in LexCorp. He's obviously insane from the start, obsessed with Superman. I have an idea that he might not actually be a Luthor but could be one of the New Gods from Apokolips but I'll save that for later. He certainly acts like a couple of them.

Anyway, Luthor's plans to gain access to Zod's body and access to the Kryptonian ship that crashed in the city telegraphs the appearance of Doomsday in the climax. His acquisition of Kryptonite cements the obvious plot but ti doesn't really matter. We all knew what was going to happen. Just as we knew that the story is built on events from The Dark Knight Returns and The Death of Superman and that it was going to setup a Justice League film too. So there's a lot to accomplish but in the end the film didn't feel overlong.

I want to point out the soundtrack. Hans Zimmer and Junkie XL have written and performed perhaps the strangest-sounding superhero soundtrack ever. Well, so far. We'll see if Doctor Strange is as weird as I would want it to be. I digress.

The music is a mash of the themes from Christopher Nolan's Batman and Man of Steel. But there's a new weirdness to it, especially with the addition of Wonder Woman's theme. Powerful drums tell us the beat of her warrior's heart, the violin and guitar over the top of that emphasize her shrewdness and cunning. It's the most interesting theme of the Trinity. And its placement in the film, during her first appearance in costume (after she's beguiled Bruce Wayne when he's stealing information from Luthor) is perfect. It amped up the action way past ten.

Which brings me Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman. She's as fantastic as everyone is saying. Not just in costume but also as Diana Prince though she's never named until the point where she's going to join the fight. Probably by design, but if her function in man's world is ever really pointed out I didn't catch it. There's also a death early on in the film that doesn't have any emotional impact because we don't know it's Jimmy Olsen. I could swear we were told that for Man of Steel Jimmy was gender-swapped to Jenny but checking IMDB I don't see a last name on the character. I'm too lazy to go back and look for the reference so we'll have to let that one go for now.

My friend Steve pointed out that this film, and Man of Steel along with it, may be best viewed as a meditation on the feelings of powerlessness in America after 9/11.

This makes sense, especially from Batman's point of view in BvS. Bruce is fearful and pissed off and that has shaped him in ways that the murders of his parents couldn't have. He's still a good man but he's reactionary and his reactions are WAY over the top. To the point where he'd likely be unrecognizable to a lot of the movie-going population.

But it's plausible given the way Pa Kent was doubtful and afraid in MoS. In BvS we get a timeframe for these films as Bruce is about seven years old when his parents are murdered in 1981. (The Excalibur reference is heavy-handed one, too.) With Batman being visibly older than Superman here, with eighteen years more experience, that places Clark about 30 or so in 2013. Bruce has got to be well into his forties, I'd think.

That picture of a license plate above is the last year these were used in Kansas and started about 1989. We saw one on the back of the school bus in MoS. It's important for the placement in time, and the politics of that time, which shaped Bruce and made Pa Kent fearful. Pa had witnessed the Iranian hostage crisis though Bruce probably didn't know anything about it. That event likely shaped Pa's thoughts in MoS which continued to influence Clark well into BvS. Another point to consider is that Diana tells Bruce that the country can only honor him  [Superman] as a soldier.

Given how politics has shaped America in the last fifteen years, that sense of powerlessness really resonates here in BvS. Batman represents the American people who want to do something extreme, who misunderstand what's really happened. Batman misunderstands Superman's humanity until the revelation that their mothers share the same first name. (Which is just silly.)

The message, then, is that misunderstandings can be overcome. Yes the world is a grim place and there are events that terrify, but there's hope. DC is playing a long game here, going from dark to light, placing Batman squarely in the darkness, as a product of the darkness, and by the end of BvS there's hope again. And as we all know by now Superman won't be dead for very long.

I told you this was going to be a long post.

G. Gordon Godfrey from Legends.
Art by John Byrne.
A while back, up above, I promised you some thoughts on Luthor. Jesse Eisenberg's performance may have been influenced by Heath Ledger's Joker but not executed nearly as well. Some of the asides, the digressions, the non sequiturs Luthor uses are bound to be clues to things to come. This Luthor is quite mad and that led me to some further questions:

  • Is it possible that Alexander Luthor, the son of the original Lex,  is not necessarily human? What if he's one of the New Gods? What if he's one of the New Gods from Apokolips?
  • He could possibly be DeSaad, couldn't he? Sent to torture the heroes? He has impersonated people before and his hair, while not greasy, certainly recalled some images of DeSaad. Perhaps Darkseid put him on Earth without any memory of his godhood. It's not like Darkseid hasn't done things like that before.
  • Or could he perhaps be Glorious Godfrey? Luthor is making an attempt to influence public opinion in more than a few ways: by framing Superman for murders in the Middle East, by using Keefe  as a weapon in the most literal fashion, by sending Superman to kill Batman.
  • Or maybe he's another New God that I haven't considered. These were the two obvious ones given the comic book stories that have played parts in the development of the DC films. What do you think?
Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is a big movie full of ideas and promise. It's not perfect but it's entertaining and that's all I wanted out of it. There's going to be more to unpack, I'm sure, because of everything it's trying to achieve. 

In the end, I'm happy with it and I like where I think it's going for the Justice League film. First, though, I'm seriously excited to see Wonder Woman. Gal Gadot stole every scene she was in and that's against Ben Affleck as a really great Batman. The biggest knock against this movie is that the filmmakers seem to not know what to do with Superman. He seems tentative, too tentative, to be the big blue boy scout from the comics. But that may be the larger story. I hope it is. I hope we get the Superman we all recognize from the comics in a couple of years. 

As much as it's fun to kick on Zack Snyder for some people, he's doing right by the characters and the stories. There's a rich, deep history to pull from and he's doing pretty well with it. Even though I don't care for Doomsday having heat vision it sort of makes sense for the world that's being built here.

Sort of.

But it doesn't diminish my enjoyment of the films. I found things to like about them. I more people did. The best superhero comics are also full of social commentary. These films are packed with it. At the start I said this was a large bucket of popcorn and a giant soda full of fun. That's true. But it's got layers to it that make it a better film than is obvious on the surface. Maybe it'll grow on viewers as it ages. I hope so.

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