Monday, March 28, 2016
Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice
While I loved The Dark Knight Rises back in 2012, I've soured a bit on it. I still quite like it, I think, despite its massive flaws (both structural and narrative). TDKR is 165 minutes long and contains little real emotion. Instead, it's a film of spectacle and heavy handed political incoherence. Yet, in its 165 minutes, there is a moment of pure pathos that a) is narratively important, b) thematically important, and c) completes the circle started in Batman Begins. When climbing into the cockpit of the Batplane or whatever, Batman says to Jim Gordon, "A hero can be anyone. Even a man doing something as simple and reassuring as putting a coat around a young boy's shoulders to let him know that the world hadn't ended."
Gordon looks at Batman and says, "Bruce?" The moment works because, firstly, Gary Oldman is a terrific actor. It also works because of the previous 150 minutes, taking Batman from his lowest point to finally realizing the meaning of heroism.
Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (hereafter, BvS, without italics because I'm lazy) is 151 minutes long and there is no moment that even approaches the pathos of this aforementioned sequence. Not for lack of trying, of course, as BvS presses heavily on emotion, but with all the nuance and complexity of a cat stepping on your testicles. With the plodding step of a cave troll, BvS constantly asks you to remember that this is heavy shit, man, but it's heaviness for the sake of it, a gargantuan effort to mine the heaviest possible element without considering whether its heaviness means anything.
The film opens with yet another depiction of Bruce's parents' death while crosscutting to young Bruce, fleeing his parents' funeral and falling down a well. It is here in this very first scene that we learn director Zack Snyder does not understand superheroes at all and that Watchmen was an accident. Usually, in depicting the Waynes' murder, Thomas dies trying to shield his son. In BvS, he dies because he tries to punch the mugger. Even though he's a physician and philanthropist, a wealthy man, laden with expensive schooling, he escalates a fairly mundane Gotham situation into death. I'm trying not to blame the victim here, but I thought it common knowledge to simply provide one's wallet; the inconvenience of replacing your ID and credit card isn't worth your life. Snyder shoots this death with all the operatic slow motion he's known for, typically fetishizing the violence. Yet, he's not done. He escalates the paean to senseless tragedy by having Martha shot right in the fucking face. No wonder this version of Bruce Wayne is a fucking psychopath.
Switching temporal gears, the film takes us to the climax of Man of Steel but from adult Bruce Wayne, driving through a 9/11 analogue to save his employees that he doesn't even know. This might be the most effective and successful moment in the entire film. While I find 9/11 references to be tedious now, this sequence works because it provides Bruce with clear and apprehendable motivation. The audience completely understands why Bruce begins his war against Superman: Bruce himself is witness to the manic and excessive mayhem possible when gods do battle. The 9/11 bit works better to explain why Bruce would don a suit to fight a superhuman than the death of his parents could explain. If an audience member was 100% unfamiliar with Batman's mythos, surely an impossibility but bear with me, the opening ballet of overblown murder would tell this hypothetical audience nothing of Bruce's motivations. What is the tissue that connects his parents' murder and his vigilante war on crime? Instead, the Battle of Metropolis provides absolutely crystal clear reason for the "v" of the title.
This should, then, have been a 90 minute film in which the two superheroes come to blows at the end of the second act, realize their different tactics achieve the same results, and then a team-up to defeat Lex Luthor. That's it.
Instead, we have an extraordinarily long first hour that sets up a gaggle of plot points that have little causality, not to mention the dream sequences, of which there are too many (there are always too many dream sequences, really). I won't go through the motions of demonstrating the lack of connective tissue in the first three quarters, suffice it to say, the screenplay squanders the lucid motivation of Bruce Wayne by complicating the plot with a miasma of convoluted schemes.
Rather than recapitulate the plot, I'd rather discuss a thread woven into the structure. Firstly, we must send our condolences to Holly Hunter, Academy Award winning actor, who is forced to say lines involving the words "jar of piss." Burdened by a terrible wig, Hunter has the unenviable position of criticizing Superman and getting blown up for it. Hunter plays a Senator on a committee that oversees, I guess, superhuman political problems. During a very confusing and unclear attack in Africa, a bunch of people are shot and the American government suspects Superman of killing these innocent Africans? I guess? The Senator convenes a hearing and asks, via the media, for Superman to attend.
He does attend, but it's all a ploy by Lex. He explodes a bomb, killing everybody but Superman. It doesn't take long for the authorities to figure that it was not Superman (as he does not explode), which truly begs the question of why Lex would go to this trouble. What benefit is there to destroying the Capitol Building? Strangely, the public, despite the overwhelming evidence that Superman is innocent, begins to hate Superman, the same man they fawned over religiously in previous scenes.
Regardless of the logical incoherency here, what remains important to observe is that following this tragedy, Superman has himself a temper tantrum and goes into exile.
Instead of investigating the crime as an investigative journalist would do, instead of connecting the dots between Lex and the bomb, instead of addressing the public, this Superman flees civilization, for introspection, I suppose. The film never shows why Superman exiles himself or what motivates him to do so in the first place. This Superman, already aloof and distant, proves himself unable to confront his accusers. He moodily pingpongs from one plot point to the next.
His moody funk appears, by the logic of the film, to be born from a Senator asking for the barest minimum of accountability. Holly Hunter's character appeals to democracy as basically discourse in order to convince Superman to avail himself of some oversight. Just this little criticism is enough for Superman to act like a big baby in the film.
This is a common and disturbing thread in BvS: a powerful man sees his power being slightly sapped and he overreacts, perhaps violently. Batman sees Superman with too much power, so he must be destroyed. Superman sees Batman operating outside traditional paradigms of law and order, so he must be stopped. Lex sees two gods and wants to bring them down to his level, so they must be destroyed. BvS, in this way, frightens me. I worry that this film is be the new Fight Club for a generation of young disaffected white dudes, who already have power, but perceive their position as changing for the worse.
Much of the disturbing content of BvS comes not from its grotesque and grim violence, but from its treatment of women. In this film, women are simply pawns in a game between men. Lois Lane finds herself in need of rescuing three times in this movie. Martha Kent needs to be rescued from vaguely Eastern European thugs. Holly Hunter needs to be rescued from a jar of piss (I'm not joking). Only Wonder Woman seems to stand on her own feet (often to the tune of a wailing electric guitar, much to my amusement).
Perhaps the most illustrative moment in the film comes from the single scene that Henry Cavill and Diane Lane share. After Holly Hunter politely requests Superman's presence at the US Capitol, Clark visits his mother, who, shockingly, informs him that Clark doesn't owe the world a damn thing. He can be a hero if he wants or if he doesn't want. He's free of earthly concerns in his status as god. Certainly a far cry from the "with great power..." mantra of Spider-Man. We could possibly conclude that Superman pays for this hubris with his death, but the twin logic of escalating blockbusters and comic books compels us to deduce his death is only temporary.
The film wrestles with godly thematics, but stumbles and collapses under the pretension. Most of Jesse Eisenberg's scenes consist of his squawking about gods and men, that power must be taken, etc. BvS wants to flirt with deconstructing deities, but this deconstruction can only occur after something has previously been constructed.
Again, taking my hypothetical viewer, unfamiliar with Batman or Superman, this person could only conclude that Superman needs to be stopped based on the destruction and chaos of the 9/11 analogue. This god must be held in check for the good of the many. What other possible conclusion could there be? In what universe is this particular depiction of Superman anything but scary and threatening? This god is guilty, even by Batman's astonishingly loose standards of morality.
BvS looks to be the first film featuring the psychopath who dressed as a bat that openly acknowledges that the more militarized a Batman, the more ridiculous the hand waving must be to dismiss claims he kills. BvS just fucking revels in Batman killing people with machine guns, bombs, and other "deterring" weapons. Around the halfway point of the film, Batman engages in a lengthy car chase with a semi (that he's tracking, so really the urgency of the situation is a bit overblown). He blows up a car, with people inside, then attaches a cable to it, driving along, using this destroyed car as a wrecking ball to destroy another car with people inside it. This is also a Batman that brands criminals, even though, in the film's world, the brand is the same as a death sentence in prison (we're told this, helpfully, by a talking head on a television, always a terrible venue for exposition). Batman no longer adheres to a code. He's a stonecold murderer.
Frustratingly, BvS wants to kill its cake and save it too. The film goes out of its way to inform the audience that the buildings destroyed during the climactic battle with the cave troll from Lord of the Rings are empty, devoid of civilians because—I shit you not—it's after 5 o'clock. Despite somehow possibly internalizing the criticism of Man of Steel (Metropolis would have had thousands of casualties) and integrating this into the plot, BvS turns around and destroys a good chunk of Gotham (which, by the way, is quaintly across the bay from Metropolis—you can see the Bat Signal from Metropolis!). Once Doomsday dusts himself off from the nuclear device detonated on him and Superman, Batman growls to Alfred that he must lead Doomsday back to the city! This is just galling and awkward justification for Snyder to indulge in the same demolition that plagued the climax of the previous film.
I've always maintained that Snyder would have been a terrific cinematographer rather than the horrendous director he's become. He has, as always, a fantastic eye for iconic imagery. On an image-by-image basis, BvS is gorgeous, filled with totemic painterly moments. Yet, he is stymied when forced to string them together coherently. He imbues BvS with portentous and hefty pictures but struggles with concatenated them into a meaningful narrative. Here, in BvS, he demonstrates all of his greatest weaknesses as a storyteller: he has no skill with character and he misunderstands that which attracts people to mythology like Batman and Superman.
BvS is practically a crime against cinema. Mistaking meaning with loaded buzzwords and gestures towards paintings, BvS stumbles around, never locating comprehensibility. It has confused itself with a film that actually means something. This was one of the most aggressively unpleasant films I've ever sat through. In a particularly revealing feat, my partner managed to sleep through half of the film. When I asked them how they accomplished such a task during a film of enormously punishing volume, my partner replied that it was all simply noise, not sound, not anything, just noise.