Wednesday, March 30, 2016

The Real Losers Of BATMAN V SUPERMAN Are Our Wallets, Our Time, And Us

BATMAN V SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE: (directed by Zack Snyder, 2016)

 [WARNING: There may or may not be spoilers below. You're an adult. Do what you feel is best.]

Who woulda thought a movie could make us yearn for the nimble storytelling prowess of Joel Schumacher?

"Batman v Superman: Dawn Of Justice" (referred henceforth as "BvS") is a failure of a movie, flat-out, full stop. It's a failure as the launching pad for an extended cinematic universe. It's a failure as a match between arguably comic books' two most iconic characters. It's a failure as a collection of lines and scenes using characters.

At no point did I believe I was watching a movie about people. At few points did I believe I was watching a movie made by people. This is a Hollywood cash-grab at its ugliest and most cynical, built on a story disregarding wit, soul, or coherence knowing that, like a grimacing caped crusader in the shadows, the Warner Bros marketing team will swoop in to save the day. When you describe moments to your friends the next day, it will be with the stony detachment used when talking to a police detective. You're not even sure what happened. You just want to put the pieces together and move on with your life.

What follows is a plot summary mostly stitched from Wikipedia, because god help me if I know. Roughly two years after the ridiculous carnage of "Man Of Steel," the world is still unsure if they need or want Superman (Henry Cavill). A junior Kentucky senator (Holly Hunter) leads an investigation into the legality of his actions during terrorist stuff in Africa, I think, where Lois Lane (Amy Adams) was reporting some story. Meanwhile, Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg) harbors resentment because his daddy hit him or wants to take over the world or just wants to see Superman and Batman slap it out. Either way, he takes steps to pit them together, which isn't hard, because Bruce Wayne/Batman (Ben Affleck) still holds a grudge against that other dude for destroying his Metropolis office building during the climax of that first movie.

Buried in "BvS" are at least half a dozen nuggets worth exploring. Is Superman worth anointing as our protector if his amazing power also wields the chaos of "Man Of Steel"? Can his old fashioned "truth and justice" ideals still exist in today's world of ambiguity? Meanwhile, what if Batman grew some grey hair around his temples after fighting crime for 20 years and decided he's tired of it? Could we still justify his brand of vigilante justice when he abuses it for personal vengeance? 

I'm not saying these concepts aren't present in "BvS." I'm saying they're blended with the finesse of putting Oreo crumbs in a McFlurry, and honestly, I'm not sure who to blame. Certainly one must look at director Zack Snyder, responsible for bringing all elements together in a package that ideally should be intelligent but accessible, thoughtful but entertaining. And what of writers Chris Terrio and David Goyer, whose clumsy screenplay juggles so many storylines that none get the chance to breathe? Or maybe it's ultimately the fault of Warner Bros and their feeble attempt at launching a DC Extended Universe. At every turn, you can practically feel them tying Synder's hands behind his back, blocking the movie he likely wanted to make for the sake of the movie they needed him to make.

Or maybe it's everyone's fault, and that's the problem. "BvS" is a lifeless product, strung together by committee and brandishing no true personal stamp. In this era of extended superhero universes, any individual movie will always further a brand. We know this. Usually we accept this. One of the greatest feats of Marvel Studios is convincing us in the moment that mere competency can be something greater. We know we're being manipulated by cinematic capitalism, but that doesn't matter if we're having fun now.

"BvS" can't even accomplish that much. No doubt the gross domestic product of a small country was thrown at the screen, and it shows. That can't hide what a ponderous and dull affair this is, one that's incoherent to an almost surreal degree. We're not talking advanced level stuff. We're talking about the basics. Character and story and motivation. The soil from which all must grow.

Characters in "BvS" don't behave like individuals. Plot points don't evolve organically from previous ones. Everyone and everything happens because the movie needs it to, because the pieces on the board game need to be assembled just so. "BvS" is not only an advertisement for the DC Universe, it's an advertisement for itself. It's a haphazard mishmash of its own reasons for existing without ever justifying why.

And what a shame, because for all his faults, Snyder is a visual artist capable of moments of poetic grandeur, and you can sense, sniffing around the frames, an urge to tell the epic story of Greek gods brought to the modern day. Instead he crumbles under the weight of franchise filmmaking and caves to his worst impulses. He doesn't adjust his style scene by scene, asking what this moment requires and what's the best way to film it. Everything adheres to the same grand but glum tone, offering no shortage of splendor but little in the way of perspective.

We don't know what we're supposed to think because even Synder doesn't seem to know what we're supposed to think. Everything just kind of dutifully trudges along, waiting for that finish line. 

That sort of bland consistency explains why he so thoroughly botches the title fight. And really, when you ruin a battle between friggin Batman and Superman, I can only summon the immortal words of William Hurt in "A History Of Violence," - how do you fuck that up? Lets examine. What does a battle between these two characters really mean? Beyond the iconography, why is it powerful? Because, I think, of the contradiction. Superman represents goodness and faith and decency - the classical American Way. Batman, on the other hand, is the darkness and hazy morals of the real world. The pain and anger and fear we all house within us. When they fight, it's meant to be a clash between the two extremes of American superheroes.

But "BvS" essentially paints them as the same person. The same morose, brooding figures. The same dark, grim personalities. Without that contrast, all thematic weight of the moment is lost, and what are we left with? Ten meager minutes of mindless, indiscriminate CGI hurtling through walls and windows. Loud crashes and punches and grimacing that quickly loses its novelty once we realize Snyder isn't taking it beyond the first level.

Then just like that, it stops and the movie picks back up to where it was before. The clash of the titans to end all clashes, and in Snyder's hands, it wields the power of that moment in every "Teletubbies" episode when they show a short film on one of their bellies.

If there's anything good to be said for "BvS," it's that Snyder and Warner Bros assembled a heckuva cast that do what they can to rise above the dreck. Affleck in particular creates a Batman not quite like any we've ever seen before, a little more cynical, a little more weary (although the branding of his captives to ensure they're killed in prison is comically overdone). Well-performed hogwash is still hogwash, though, and if this is what they're cooking up for the impending Justice League movies, count me out.

Christ. What a humorless, joyless slab of work. What levels of arrogance and pretension it takes to pretend this is thoughtful, then what a lack of vision and clarity to execute it so blandly. "BvS" will go down as one of the great missed opportunities in comic book movies, a baffling collection of nearly every possible wrong choice.

If I wanted these kinds of philosophical ramblings about good vs evil, I'd listen to a teenage employee at Hot Topic who just enrolled in a freshman seminar.