Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Batman v Superman: Yawn of Justice

If I had to sum up Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice in one sentence it would be: "This sluggish and grim testosterone fest only really comes to life during those moments when Wonder Woman is (briefly) on screen." For a movie named Batman v Superman, the Amazonian warrior princess was the real star. There were a few other aspects of the film that also worked; it isn't the unmitigated disaster the Internet and critics have declared it to be. That doesn't mean it was good; instead of a coherent narrative it was more of a series of disjointed scenes that varied in quality. Characters' motivations were seemingly assigned at random. Simply put, it was boring and cinema's first meeting of these icons deserved better than that. Let's take a look at what worked and what didn't, and why.

Gal Gadot stole the movie. Admittedly there wasn't much to steal, but she was by far the highlight of what was otherwise an overlong and tedious affair. She brought a spark this movie desperately needed. Unfortunately she's only on screen for about ten minutes out of the film's two-and-a-half hour running time. Easily the coolest moment was when Wonder Woman joined Superman and Batman in battle against Doomsday and promptly took charge. She was fierce and powerful and kicked major butt. She used her bracelets to deflect Doomsday's blasts and even wrangled him with her lasso. For fans of hers, those were fist-pump-in-the-air moments, in a film that had precious few of them. Gadot looked and acted the part wonderfully (pun intended) , portraying Diana as sophisticated and intelligent in her civilian identity and then displaying phenomenal strength and agility in her action scenes. Gadot absolutely nailed Diana's look of fierce determination and stoic confidence several times, to the point where it almost felt like she was bringing a comic book panel to life. Wonder Woman's June 2017 solo movie can't come fast enough now.

Ben Affleck carried the film for long stretches as Bruce Wayne and as Batman. As an older, seasoned crime fighter he gives us glimpses of how two decades of doing that work can wear you down. I wanted to know more about his Batman. I feel like we only got a partial picture of him, which is fine because it was compelling enough thanks mostly to Affleck. The writing let him down often though, which is partly why I never really bought his anger and rage towards Superman. It seemed too convenient and more like a lazy narrative device than anything else. Maybe Affleck will get to flesh out the character more in future films.

Laurence Fishburne as Perry White and Jeremy Irons as Alfred Pennyworth were solid, providing some of the film's few lighter moments with witty asides or caustic jibes. Neither one has much to do in the film, but their presence adds both humor and gravitas to a film that was sorely lacking in both. That said, both characters seemed irrationally upset for most of the film, often at times when it made no sense. For example, why was Perry always forcefully telling Clark Kent that no one cares about the Batman? Seems like news to me, Perry. This falls on the writers; both actors did the best they could with what they were given.

Unfortunately, Lex Luthor, Lois Lane, and Superman are either cringe-worthy or completely forgettable in this film. Jesse Eisenberg makes some bizarre acting choices here that bring the movie to a halt whenever he's vamping on screen. Never once did I see him as Luthor, but instead like a new, made-up character who walked in from another film. I was reminded of Heath Ledger's ticks and oddities in his performance as the Joker, but not in a positive way. Where Ledger's choices made sense for that character, Eisenberg's didn't for Luthor at all. Since when is Luthor a jittery mess of awkwardness? It's fine if the filmmakers wanted to craft a different version of the character, but it lands with a thud and fails miserably. Amy Adams is a wonderful actor who is completely wasted in her role as Lois in these films. Her big moment is attempting to rescue the Kryptonite spear and drowning so Superman can save her. Obviously, Superman has saved Lois hundreds if not thousands of times in the comics, but it's 2016 and it would have been nice to see her accomplish this on her own. Henry Cavill has been a nearly non-exist presence in these two Superman films. A huge part of it is that he's given so little to work with in the script, so I don't necessarily blame him. He's not allowed to smile much (perish the thought) and he's repeatedly on his heels, having to defend his place in the world which results in an awful lot of angst-ridden moments. As many critics have said recently, Superman should be an aspirational figure. He represents the best of what humanity can be, even though he is not human himself. But he's chosen to live and protect this planet and in doing so has shown what a true hero can be. There are some of those elements in the film, but they're mostly buried under an absurd amount of Sturm und Drang. It's exhausting.

The film's excessively dark tone (it wasn't just tonally dark but also literally dark, with the limited number of colors used blending into one mass of black for large chunks of the film). It could have used more of a sense of fun and whimsy, but clearly those words are anathema to Zack Snyder and the producers of the last two Superman films. They seem to fundamentally misunderstand the appeal of these characters and instead apply an oppressive aura of grimness and conflate too many disparate ideas, resulting in a dour, confused film. We're firmly entrenched in the era of ultra-realism in our superhero adaptations, but there needs to be room for lightness when you're dealing with aspirational characters like Superman and Wonder Woman. Hopefully as these films add more characters in their lead up to the Justice League film, they can find a much better balance, although at this point I have serious doubts about that happening.

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