The One With “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice” In It

Batman v. Superman!

Which grim-‘n’-gritty breakfast mascot’s product do you think should win: Batman Chocolate Strawberry cereal or Superman Caramel Crunch cereal? Both are real things now in stores, and they’re banking on this movie to sell them somehow.

Look, everyone else online had a turn venting about Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice the past few days, so I want my turn now. The TL;DR version:

* Not the worst Zack Snyder film ever
* Definitely not the worst super-hero film ever
* It had good things in it
* The good things were outnumbered
* I don’t actively root against DC’s films to fail, but I’m not gonna mollycoddle them with blind adulation, because superheroes are not my religion
* Filmmakers still don’t get Superman
* This movie is more about superpowers than about superheroes
* I’ve been collecting comics for 37 years and I’m 98% certain I’m not this film’s target audience
* If Monday night’s Supergirl/The Flash crossover was an Earth-1 team-up, BvS is its Earth-3 doppelgänger

Short version for the unfamiliar: In a distant alternate present, Ben Affleck’s Batman has been on the job for 20+ years, still hasn’t turned Gotham City into paradise, still prone to PTSD flashbacks of his parents’ deaths (even in middle age he’s as broken as the Punisher and no more recovered from his grief than the kid from Gotham), and dealing with new psychological scarring after the events of Man of Steel that were like 9/11 expanded into a ten-square-mile mega-catastrophe. He’s more vengeful than ever and fixated on ensuring such metahuman decimation never happens again. So the flying laser-eye alien neck-snapper must PAY.

Henry Cavill’s Superman, raised by the most selfish and discouraging Ma and Pa Kent in DC Comics history, is sad. Saving people helps pass the time and put his abilities to good use, but he’s happiest when he’s saving Amy Adams’ Lois from danger, which he does at least four times, sometimes pulling the movie’s emergency brake so he can stop and chat with her in peace for a minute, leaving the bad guys on standby till he’s good and ready to continue filming. I didn’t see him smile once.

Jesse Eisenberg’s competently smart/creepy Lex Luthor has a scheme in mind that seems convoluted because the first two hours were julienne-sliced and patched together by someone who thought The Wire was cool but didn’t quite get it. The streamlined version: Luthor’s abusive upbringing left him with an amoral desire to avoid powerlessness by always being the most powerful man around. When Superman’s existence threatens his status and manhood, he quests for green kryptonite to defend his self-appointed ranking. When that falls through, Plan B is using one of the hoariest tricks in the Silver Age playbook to get him and Batman to fight and fight and fight, but then their death match ends in stalemate (major spoiler for anyone new to fiction who honestly thought one of them would murder the other). Plan C is Lex makes a great big monster whose super-powers are punching, evolving, and literally EXPLOSIONS.

Hey, look, it’s that one actor!: Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman wins all her seven minutes of screen time and instills great hopes in her forthcoming, very first solo movie. Our new Princess Diana smiles more times during the movie than Supes, Lois, and me combined. Any viewers unhappy that this non-American character has a non-American accent should leave the house more often.

Jeremy Irons’ grumpy, frazzled tech-genius Alfred is stuck in a poisonous long-term relationship, sick and tired of his partner never listening to him, and yet he can’t bear to break it off because he knows he’s needed and leaving will only send his partner over the edge. But that doesn’t make their incessant bickering any more endearing.

Laurence Fishburne returns as Perry White but plays him like J. Jonah Jameson and drags newspaper editors two steps back from all the progress Spotlight made on their behalf. Amy Adams also returns, mostly as a damsel in distress plus one gratuitous nude scene. Technically she helps in the final battle but would’ve been pretty easy to write out. Also returning is Harry J. Lennix from The Matrix‘s sequels, still an Army general who’s more helpful this time and rewarded with more screen time.

Diane Lane and dead Kevin Costner remain the Kents, prime scapegoats for everything wrong about Superman. Also from the Department of Lamented Parents, The Walking Dead‘s Lauren Cohan and her upcoming costar Jeffrey Dean Morgan tag in as Thomas and Martha Wayne for the mandatory “MY PARENTS ARE DEEEAAAD!” flashbacks. The one that opens the movie is actually rather stylish and deploys the same old imagery in stunning new ways. (Fun movie-math trivia: a particular item in their big scene sets it circa 1981.)

New players this time: Academy Award Winner Holly Hunter is the politician representing mankind’s anti-death interests. Argo‘s Scoot McNairy is a furious paraplegic whose life was ruined by Man of Steel. Mariko from The Wolverine is Lex’s assistant Mercy Graves. Michael Shannon’s Zod is around in flesh if not in spirit.

BvS screeches to a halt twice for gratuitous teasers for the next five DC films, replete with cameos by their respective stars and a few recognizable comics henchmonsters. A particular photo of Wonder Woman includes a glimpse of her film’s well-known costar.

Lots of cable-TV newspeople and personalities pop in as themselves for verisimilitude. Points to Nancy Grace for being the least fawning among them.

Meaning or EXPLOSIONS? In the wake of all those debates about Man of Steel‘s controversial ending, the first few dozen acts are spent contemplating the question, “Is it stupid to have gods or idols?” Lex in particular pushes this agenda with his bitter assertion that either an all-powerful God can’t be good (or else he’d just save the day for all seven billion humans every day, every minute, and we’d all be perpetually unblemished and cozy), or that if God is good, then He must not be all-powerful (like, He loves us and would really love to keep bailing us out but he totally can’t reach). His ultimate conclusion, then, is that true Power is always guilty of something and therefore innately evil. His lines don’t always make sense and his flawed theology shows he hasn’t done much related reading or introspection, but that’s where his false dichotomy lands him.

If we want to give extra credit where none was asked for, Lex’s one-line description of his abusive upbringing is a sad reminder of what happens when a child affected by domestic violence receives zero positive influence to show them better ways of living.

Superman could respond to any or all of this with some kind words or an uplifting speech about great power and great responsibility, about putting your talents to use for a greater purpose, about the importance of those dutiful citizens and role models who insist on trying to do the right thing even in the worst of times. Grant Gustin’s Flash is a young master of this discipline, once a mandatory quality in all of comics’ greatest super-heroes, but Cavill’s Man of Tomorrow receives no support from two screenwriters who must be too cool to write inspirational speeches for today’s audiences, many of whom could really use some. Instead he’s a brooding cypher, a logical extension of Tom Welling’s perpetually pouty Red-Blue Blur. If he happens to notice you about to die on live TV, or if you’re Lois, count on him to be there, but don’t expect any kind or useful words.

So after raising such complex topics, the movie answers none of them and in the end its only rejoinders are EXPLOSIONS. The final boss battle is against Doomsday, an all-CG Abomination with no credited actor inside, who continually explodes and explodes in between blows, generating his own obscured backdrop of smoke, dust, light shows, and still more EXPLOSIONS. It’s a fitting visual gimmick for the climactic showdown, set in a flattened and indistinct terrain as far away from civilization and Man of Steel atrocity complaints as possible, short of relocating to Mars. The repetitive EXPLOSIONS feign the appearance of Doomsday doing anything when in fact he’s mostly just standing there and growling a lot while everything around him turns into the formless wasteland from the end of X-Men: The Last Stand. Thus dissipates all that archly worded morality-tale setup.

Nitpicking? If the idea of Batman killing or using guns is a deal-breaker, cross this one off your list for all time for your own good. Mack Bolan Batman is not my favorite version, but I’ve seen so many minor infringements and major deviations in so many past renditions that I got tired of playing Jonni DC, Continuity Cop, and shouting “THAT’S NOT BATMAN!” years ago. Not my exhausting fight anymore.

Women and anyone else who consider Wonder Woman the primary reason to see BvS should maybe just wait for her inevitable 7-minute YouTube supercut. Her shining seconds aside, this extended wrestling tournament is by dudes for dudes about dudes plus dudes dudes dudes.

As for that much-touted title match between the Bat of Steel and the Dark Son of Krypton: if you’re looking for a live-action staging of Frank Miller’s Batman: The Dark Knight Returns #4, Snyder nails its dynamics and machismo with visual flair, but the contrivance that finally gets Bats and Supes in the ring is straight out of the Silver Age, and could’ve been solved with forms of communication. ANY of them. Bats is blinded by great vengeance and furious anger, while Supes is dumbstruck and can’t help spouting the same old series of clichés always guaranteed to get good guys slapping each other. If you’re ever this close to throwing down with someone but could clear everything up with a single sentence, by all that is holy, pretty please avoid all of the following:

* “You don’t understand!”
* “We need to talk!”
* “There’s no time!”
* “You have to listen to me!”
* “Calm down for a minute!”
* “Look, if you’ll just give me a chance…”
* “There’s a perfectly good explanation for all of this!”

Seconds before the walloping commences, Superman says three of these empty time-wasters in a row. WRONG WRONG WRONG WRONG WRONG. Skip all preambles and say the single sentence that could clear everything up. Don’t be a lunkhead straight outta 1960s comics.

Minutes later, the exact plot point that ends the battle was, to me, one of the funniest parts of the entire movie. It hinges on one of the largest, oldest coincidences I’ve ever failed to notice; if I had been aware of it sooner, I wouldn’t have been able to contain my laughter. My wife and son have already explained and agreed with the intent of the scene, but that’s not how it played to me. Snyder chooses that ostensibly emotional breakthrough moment to whip out one of the most played-out running gags in the 75-year-old Batman toolbox, and it was the wrong tool for the job. In my head I can imagine a rewrite that would make the scene work with more dignity and without undercutting the Caped Crusader’s crucial epiphany.

While we’re script-doctoring, I’d also toss out the multiple dream sequences because those are lazy on principle, and — in a fit of post-geek anti-consumerism — I’d ditch all those teasers for the next five movies. Two of them are so bewildering that I can’t imagine anyone who’s unfamiliar with the comics getting much out of them unless they brought along an annoying friend who likes listing every Easter egg he spots while you’re trying to watch the movie in peace. Not only do they hobble the movie’s already slack, disjointed pacing, but they’re all gussied-up signifiers that the DC Comics movie series will be far more about commerce than about art. Granted, all for-profit art forms are inherently objects of commerce, but I get fussy when marketing department objectives are boldly and greedily moved to the forefront at the expense of storytelling aesthetics.

Related note: I’m told the occasionally inspired desert dream sequence was a direct tie-in to DC’s Injustice video game, which I have no plans to play. Cool for those fans, I’m sure, though now all it evokes for me is transmedia marketing synergy in action.

Differently related note: the hollow “ending” is a cliffhanger that offers no real conclusion, merely a cutoff point for this epic-length chapter 1 of what DC hopes will be a saga of infinite chapters and super-infinite cash flows. We can pretend that all the philosophical conflicts will be resolved in our next exciting installment, and that the obvious denouement will make everything retroactively cohesive and meaningful in a positive manner, but I wouldn’t count on it.

Lighter, minor, eye-rolling note: axiomatic of all Bat-works across all media, whenever there’s a flying Bat-vehicle, there shall be a flying Bat-vehicle crash. Always. Another oldie from that darn Batman toolbox.

So what’s to like? Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice suffers from a severe disconnect between its Nolan-esque opening hours and its eager who’s-stronger-Batman-or-Superman schoolyard dust-up, which come off like two movies stitched together by company orders and lack of a third writer who could’ve done a much better patchwork job of syncing them up. If Snyder had kept the first two hours simplistic (and shorter) instead of attempting to get high-minded and deep, the critics’ bar would’ve remained at the intellectual bumper-bowling level of a Michael Bay carnival ride. Everyone could’ve been all like “Oh, hey, popcorn film!” and be done with it, like we all usually agree to do for Pirates of the Caribbean sequels or Dwayne Johnson vehicles. But by raising the narrative stakes and trying to play a different game, the risks are greater and the bluffing is easier to call out.

I genuinely like Affleck as Frank Miller’s aging, resentful Batman galvanized by senseless widescale destruction, and hope he plans to stick around for future Bat-projects in a more supervisory capacity. His Batmobile chase, the multi-thug fight sequence from the final trailer, and that undeniably powerful Metropolis prologue are among the movie’s best rewind/rewatch bits for action lovers. Beyond Affleck’s control, though, it bugs me that, in appointing Miller’s alt-timeline Dark Knight as their main-timeline present, and in announcing future Bat-movies continuing in that same vein, DC has decided this single-use Elseworlds offshoot shall now be the default Batman. Too bad he’s a lousy entry point for potential new Batman fans. If you’re old and you’ve seen plenty of Batmen in your time, it’s no big deal, but in a future where fans who don’t read comics want to get to know Batman and have BvS as their first attempt, they’ll meet a raging sourpuss that doesn’t match the face they’ve been seeing on cereal boxes or on the ice-cream cases at Cold Stone Creamery. I don’t envy the kids in that future.

And then there’s Superman. Heavy sigh. Cavill as a performer does exemplary work with the disappointing material and marching orders. His reluctant soldier of few words is, y’know, a viable interpretation of the forefather of all superheroes, I suppose, but I’m not really vesting too much of myself in this alt-Superman take because DC/Warner Bros.’ chosen filmmakers haven’t even proven they can get THE Superman right. All those endless, choppy scene fragments are spent tearing him down and staring inside the pieces and trying to build a case for “Why Superman?” — more for themselves than for their viewers — but then end the project without putting him back together. This is ultimately why they have yet to top the original Superman: the Movie — that one was a film made not with a cynic’s craving for analytical deconstruction, but with a believer’s heart.

And Christopher Reeve’s classic of the genre wasn’t just a movie about superpowers. It was a movie about a super-hero. Saving lives is an awesome thing that heroes do, but the world’s greatest super-heroes take it to the next level and do even more. The fine minds behind The CW’s The Flash and Supergirl get it. Here’s hoping one of the directors on those next fifty-two merchandising campaigns doubling as movie projects will figure it out, too.

How about those end credits? No, there’s no scene after the Dawn of Justice end credits, though there’s a nice “Special Thanks” section for several comics creators, including the writers and pencillers who collaborated on Doomsday’s first story arc, not too many of whom are still working regularly in the medium today.

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