Well, I guess I ought to write something about this shouldn’t I? After all, the thing’s made well over half a billion worldwide already. It’s funny though. How life happens. I renewed this enterprise with the conviction of: ‘it’s only 30 min a week, how hard can it be?’ And now here I find myself already a couple of weeks behind. And because of what? A part time job? Working out? Taxes? It piles up.
But I digress.
WARNING: Herein lay spoilers for the end of Man of Steel and minor-ish spoilers for the actual movie we’re discussing. Please shut up about it already.
I did not mind Man of Steel. In fact, I found it funny that, after all the years I’ve spent watching movies where heroes and villains duke it out in metropolises (a literal one, in this case), crashing through buildings and levelling entire blocks, Man of Steel was the one where audiences finally developed a problem with that. Audiences (or at least movies nerds on the internet) thought it mighty callous of Superman (Henry Cavill) to smash General Zod (Michael Shannon) through a bunch of buildings, but it seemed pretty par for the course to me. I also did not have a problem with Superman being forced to kill Zod at the end, or with his parents’ repeated pleas with their son to not risk his identity to save others, lest his powers be discovered. I thought they were interesting ways to introduce shades of grey in a post-Dark Knight superhero world. Overall, I thought Man of Steel was an entertaining, inoffensive diversion.
What was most exciting about it was that it was the cornerstone of the DC Extended Universe, Warner Bros.’ attempt to finally compete with Disney and Marvel’s now multi-billion dollar franchise of Iron Men and Thors and Hulks and Captain Americas and what have you. Now, three years after Man of Steel and nearly eight years after Iron Man kicked this whole thing off, Warner Bros. finally commits whole-heartedly with Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, an epic of epic proportions. That’s not necessarily a good thing, mind.
What am I even being coy about? The fact of the matter is that Batman v. Superman is just not a very good movie. It’s messy, bloated, overlong, underwritten, overplotted, and takes itself far too seriously. Which is not to say I was made angry by this movie. I’ve been thinking about that distinction lately. It’s very rare that I watch a film so bad nowadays that I am actively upset. I wonder why that is. Maybe it’s because I’m a generous type and usually able to find something to compliment. But I think it’s more because I don’t see the point in getting upset at something when you know the risk you’re getting into. I remember watching Cowboys & Aliens in theaters when it came out, because it was directed by Jon Favreau (Elf, Iron Man, the upcoming Jungle Book remake) and because the initial trailer actually made it look kinda spooky (there is a neat idea in there, of a comparatively primitive culture trying to survive an onslaught from a species and technology even more advanced than us.) My dad saw it on a plane and was nearly apoplectic when describing it to me later. I agreed with his points and even pointed out some criticisms of my own. But again, the name of the film is Cowboys & Aliens. If it turns out to be stupid, you can’t really be surprised.
What was at risk here is director Zack Snyder. I try to be nice because, though the substance is often lacking, he truly is one of the best visualists in the business. He has real skill at using the frame to illuminate information; note how many times in this film the camera pans across a frame to slowly reveal a symbol, and then text. It sounds simply but it never loses its effectiveness. His film is chock-a-block with blink-and-you’ll-miss-them visual homages to panels from the comics that inspired it. His introduction of Batman is truly nightmarish. He’s one of the few directors who knows how to shoot action scenes that are almost entirely CGI and present them in ways that are compelling and (for the most part) comprehensible. He even managed to inject the murder of Bruce Wayne’s parents – one of the most overdone sequences in any medium – with a few fresh visual elements. And in the rare moments where he lets himself calm down for a minute, he can find the occasional grace note. In a sequence where Superman goes to testify before Congress, there’s a brief close up of his hand slowly, politely opening and closing the gate between the audience and the tribunal. It’s a nice moment, the image of an all-powerful deity on a human level.
And yet the one thing Zack Snyder does not possess is a sense of subtlety. Snyder doesn’t make his points on the nose. He takes a hammer to the nose and smashes clear through to the other side of the head. This is the man who, in his film Legend of the Guardians, an animated film about warrior owls who reside in an avian city, scored a montage to a band literally named Owl City. Superman is a god amongst men? Cue one messianic image of the dude after another after another after another. The destruction of Metropolis is kind of like 9/11? Let’s hammer home homages to the devastation we all witnessed! Do you get it? Does it strike a chord with you? Isn’t it relevant? When the fight between Batman and Superman comes – and when it is resolved for the flimsiest of reasons – Snyder will make sure understand the reason for it five times over.
Of course, the script here does him no favors. I mentioned how the script for this film is bloated, but that doesn’t really cover it. This film tries to encompass, amongst other things: a kidnapping plot, corporate espionage, congressional inquiries, a civil war in Africa, romance troubles, spaceships, a mutant monster thing, time travel, several dream sequences, several bombings, several funerals, and Neil deGrasse Tyson. All this without even touching on the attempts to start laying the groundwork for the inevitable Justice League movie – each of which bring the momentum of this film to a screeching halt – or, y’know, the actual fight between the two guys we paid money to see? There’s something to be said for ambition, but each storyline is so fragmented, and each character’s motivation so plot-driven, that events that should majorly impact the story don’t, emotional beats that should register don’t, and I’m serious when I say I don’t even remember what the reason was for these two to fight in the first place. Like, seriously, why did the bad guy want them to fight?
Which brings us to perhaps the weakest link in the proverbial fence: Jesse Eisenberg as Lex Luthor. Which is truly a shame, because Eisenberg is a talented actor, and I embrace it when actors are given the opportunity to play against type. I thought he was going to do a spin on his Mark Zuckerberg portrayal from The Social Network, an intense, snarky genius who oozed intelligence and menace. Instead, we have an entirely misjudged performance; high-pitched, snickering. Joker-lite, basically. His dialogue consists almost entirely of ham-fisted speeches, seemingly extolling the virtues of power… or how bad it is… or something… about God? “You know the oldest lie in America, senator?” he says in a line oft-quoted for the trailers. “It’s that power can be innocent.” What does that even mean? I expected the answer lay somewhere in the context of the film, but if you can find it, please tell me, because it seems like he speaks in these cryptic riddles just to sound smarter than he is. (Maybe that’s the point?) Perhaps most depressingly, his final lines in the movie fall completely flat. What ought to be an ominous warning from a man whose sanity has completely fractured – something that should feel deeply disturbing – is instead unintentionally hilarious. It’s unfair to compare the performance of the actor you have to actor you wish you had, and casting the relatively young Eisenberg seems like an attempt to potshot the ‘wunderkind’ techno-billionaire trend going on right now (again, reminiscent of Zuckerberg.) But when you recall that Bryan Cranston and Denzel Washington were rumored to be cast in this role, and you know the depth of their talents, and you know how they would take each and every line and spin it into something unexpected yet perfect – well, it’s hard not to be disappointed.
So what was cool about this movie? Batman, DUH!! Two years ago, all the goodwill Ben Affleck garnered by finally winning an Oscar for directing Argo was undone when he was announced as the new Batman because… reasons? I dunno, the Internet was mad. But as you’ll see in almost every other review, Affleck’s Batman is pretty much the best thing about this movie, and in my estimation the best live-action Batman yet. Instead of the blank slates essayed by the Keatons and Kilmers and Clooneys and Bales of the of the past, Affleck is a barely contained fount of rage, not only still stuck in his parents’ death, but compounded by two decades of fighting the unending slew of criminality the lurks in Gotham City. So resigned is he to his vigilante status (“We’re criminals, Alfred. We’ve always been criminals,” he says wearily in an early scene), this is a Batman who doesn’t try to play the high-and-mighty card so much as one who straight-up MURDERS people. A bold choice, I know, considering the vast majority of modern Batman stories are about the dilemmas caused by the character’s staunch commitment to not killing anybody, but one that pays off spectacularly, most notably in a late action sequence where Batman takes on a warehouse full of goons. Again, credit must be paid to Snyder’s visuals here, as this feels like a Gotham-flavored reskin of The Raid, one of the most exhilarating and brutal action movies in modern memory. Note how the camera zooms and swerves with Batman’s movements to make you feel the impact of every hit. It’s a badass sequence. Jeremy Irons’ Alfred is no slouch either, and is so entertaining it’s a(nother) disappointment that he isn’t given much to do. So exciting is the Batfleck that it makes the prospect of the much-rumored stand-alone Batman film, to be written, directed, and starring Affleck that much more of an enviable proposition.
The other good thing about this movie? How I saw it. iPIC is a luxury theater chain that specializes in comfy seats and gourmet finger food! I got a blanket and a pillow with my recliner and free popcorn! And yes the drinks we’re $15, but when the waitress discovered I’d been undercharged by a dollar they gave me a whole other drink to make up for it! You have to enter it from an alley and then a woman behind a polished mahogany desk directs you to descend two sets of escalators into a dimly-lit, golden hued room with old books and modern art and shit. It’s like entering a secret movie club from Eyes Wide Shut, minus all the weird sex stuff! ‘But Grant,’ you say, ‘was Batman v. Superman worth the $32 you paid, before concessions, to see it in this venue?’ Of course not! But if you’re going to subject yourself to two-and-a-half hours of event movie, would you want to see it any other way?