Thursday, March 31, 2016

"Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice" Review: It May Have 99 Problems But Ben Affleck Ain't One Of Them


When Man of Steel came out it caused a massive outcry from comic book fans who found it's brooding aesthetics and moral allegories an unfit match for the usual hopelessly optimistic and bright outlook that accompanies the son of Krypton. Endless debates about whether or not having Superman kill someone destroyed everything the character stood for clouded the real conversation that needed to happen which was if the movie was actually any good or not. Well it seems that history is about to repeat itself as the new comic book blockbuster Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice is about to cause a whole new uproar amongst the comic book community as it is likely to go down as one of the most divisive superhero movies of all time. Read the full review after the break.

Review Vital Stats:   
Projector Type: 2D Digital           
Film Rating: PG-13
Film Runtime:  2 hr 30 min
Studio: Warner Bros.
Release Date: March 25, 2016

Biases:  
Loves: Batman (1989), Christoper Nolan's Dark Knight Trilogy, Superman (1978)
Likes: Man of Steel, Watchmen, 300
Neutral: Ben Affleck
Hates: That DC and Warner Bros. didn't take their time leading up to this moment
The next big thing?: That upcoming solo Ben Affleck Batman movie could be amazing.

Superman isn't quite as popular as he used to be.

Two years after the invasion of General Zod ravaged Earth we find a planet figuratively split right down the middle as to whether or not their alien savior Superman (Henry Cavill) is to blame for all the catastrophic damage and thousands of casualties suffered in his wake or if he is indeed a hero for saving the entire world from total annihilation. There are two people who know for sure how they feel about the man of steel though with the billionaire Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) who was at ground zero during the attack looking for some juicy revenge and the child industrialist Lex Luthor Jr. (Jesse Eisenberg) looking for a way to put Superman on a leash. With the world populace conflicted on their feelings towards the god like figure both Wayne and Luthor set plans in motion to ensure that Superman will never cause harm to the people of Earth ever again.

Ever since Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice (henceforth known as BVS) was released both the filmmakers and cast have been fending off all the negative buzz surrounding its many controversial decisions (which we will get to in a little bit). There have been many fans who have come out in defense of the film in the face of an onslaught of critical bashing while audiences in general have responded fairly warmly despite its many inherent narrative issues. But before we get into what I think of BVS let's just say out the gate that if you are the man in charge of how a film is made and need to explain half of the things in your movie in order for people, not fans but general audiences, to fully understand what was happening the whole time then your job as a director and storyteller has been a complete and utter failure no matter how you defend it in hindsight. Let's look at some of the more positive things in BVS first.

Bruce Wayne is gonna get revenge for all his dead employees.

While you can point to just about any one thing in BVS and find some way to tear it apart the irony of it all is that the singular thing that all the fans collectively whined about over 2 years ago is actually the only part of the film that works. Ben Affleck as Bruce Wayne/Batman is a revelation and arguably the best actor to don the caped crusader's two distinct personalities yet. Adam West was camping up it, Michael Keaton was a good Batman but just an OK Bruce Wayne, Val Kilmer was a good Bruce Wayne and just an OK Batman, George Clooney was only OK as Batman and Bruce Wayne and Christian Bale was OK as Batman and good as Bruce Wayne. For the first time in cinematic history we have an actor, who everyone rallied against, that delivers not only a fantastic Bruce Wayne but one of the most badass portrayals Batman to date which will have all his naysayers eating a massive slice of humble pie.

Joining him are a stable of impressive actors, some new and some carry overs from Man of Steel. Say what you will about director Zack Snyder's version of Superman, Henry Cavill is still one of the best actors to play the role ever and in BVS he even gets to go to some new and surprising emotional places that if nothing else solidify him as the right man for the job. Amy Adams is still a great Lois Lane despite neither film giving her much to do aside from being the person Superman has to save all the time, although their relationship does get expanded upon in some of the film's more rare quieter moments. Laurence Fishburne gets some good moments as well but is hardly in the film long enough to make much of any real impression.

At least Lex isn't trying to pull a real estate scam for the 4th time in a row.

The newcomers are a slightly more mixed bag with the main addition beyond Batman being Jesse Eisenberg as Lex Luthor Jr. (that's right, he isn't the REAL Lex Luthor...sigh). Watching him in the role you can already hear all the jokes about Baby Lex or Lex Zuckerberg but you really can't deny just how perfect his casting was. While it would have been amazing to see someone like Bryan Cranston in the role (who was rumored to be one of the other possible choices), the decision to go with Eisenberg works perfectly in contrast to both Batman and Superman's more mature presence. He does go a bit manic and seems to be hyped up on too much caffeine at times but his performance is exactly what it needed to be.

Then there is Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman, another actor who was attacked the moment she was cast. Just like Ben Affleck, naysayers will be shutdown the moment the scene where after getting knocked down she cracks this sly little smirk at her enemy. If her small role here is any indication we are all in for a real treat when her film is released next year. The other two new faces are Jeremy Irons as Alfred and Holly Hunter as Senator Finch both of whom take their severely underwritten characters and turn them into two of the most interesting people in the film. While Irons had the luxury of playing a character most audiences already knew going in Hunter had to develop a brand new character in a very short period of time and quite frankly knocks it out of the park.

Despite being blamed for thousands of deaths, Superman isn't about to quit his day job.

So the cast is fantastic but what about the rest of the film? Once again one of things BVS is being attacked for is having Zack Snyder as its director, the same man who made Superman kill someone (and now has Batman murdering people). Let's touch on this one for a second. Snyder is a more than capable director (Michael Bay he is not) but he does fall into that oh so dreaded style over substance sub category. His films always have been more about fancy camera movements and lots of lengthy action sequences as evidenced by films like 300 and Sucker Punch and he does tend to retain some form of a narrative most of the time (well, maybe not Sucker Punch so much). Man of Steel had a lot of problems but it had a cohesive story at its core and was still an entertaining movie when all was said and done. Even his Dawn of the Dead remake was way better than it had any right to be which seems to indicate that Snyder, as misdirected as he might be at times, is a competent filmmaker.

When it comes to BVS though the more appropriate comparison would have to be probably his (now) second most controversial comic book adaptation, Watchmen. Much like BVS, Watchmen also deals with a large number of superheroes where he had to quickly introduce, provide backstories for and eventually bring closure to their individual stories all within the span of two plus hours. It is safe to say he has some experience in this regard although Watchmen has its fair share of detractors out there as well due to a lot of artistic licenses that were took in regards to the choices made in adapting such a beloved comic book story into a feature length film. No one can say it was a bad or even poorly made film but more like a film where some of those decisions, mostly important ones, were what had fans crying fowl and BVS is in a very similar situation.

If you didn't already know this was Wonder Woman then good luck figuring that out.

If there is one area Snyder excels at though it is the action. Say what you will about his tendency to over use slow motion effects during all of his action scenes (made popular by his very own 300) he knows how to frame and shoot action in exciting ways (you won't find any heavy editing or shaky cam effects in his films). Nowhere is this more evident than one of the more impressive scenes in BVS where Batman must face down a couple dozen bad guys all at the same time. Never before have we seen Batman move this fluidly and striking with this much precision as here. Gone are the days of a Batman who can't look up or is forced to rely on gadgets for mobility. Batman in BVS is a force to be reckoned with and will have fans grinning from cheek to cheek as he plows through hordes of baddies.

Continuing our comparison of Watchmen with BVS, instead of making just poor decisions pertaining to the accuracy of the adaptation (which this also is guilty of) it also makes a large number of basic narrative stumbles as well. Many have blamed the poor plotting on bad editing and Snyder's inability to pull all the pieces together in a satisfying way but there is more to it than that. While I won't go so far as to defend Snyder since he was the man who decided to take credit for the film, but the problems with BVS go much deeper than just a poor script or a filmmaker in over his head. As we leave behind the more positive parts of the film it is time to delve into the real culprit behind the laundry list of problems BVS has, studio meddling.

Batman is playing for keeps this time which includes killing your ass if he needs to.

While it's true that the filmmakers are responsible to some extent, there isn't much anyone can do when the studio decides to jam 5 years worth of content into a single film. Remember the first time you saw The Avengers and how great it was that there was no need for origin stories or establishing characters since all of that was done prior with the films leading up to it? We got individual films for Thor, Captain America, Hulk and even two for Iron Man which allowed Marvel and Joss Whedon to just jump into the action right away with the Avengers since they laid the groundwork down for it years in advance. Now imagine watching The Avengers without ever seeing any of those other films before it and what a mess it would have been trying to introduce all those characters while also trying to create an entire mythology surrounding their individual stories and how they all related to one another. That is similar to the experience many non comic book fans are likely to have the first time they watch BVS.

Warner Bros. and DC Comics saw what Marvel had done and wanted to capitalize on their masterful execution of the MCU (Marvel Cinematic Universe) but the problem was Marvel took their time where DC decided to cut corners and jump ahead in an attempt to play catch up. Most of the issues in BVS are directly related to this poor decision to forgo the building blocks that made The Avengers what it was and skip ahead straight to the payoff and that gamble has resulted in a muddled mess of a movie. Multiple characters introduced in BVS are never given any real introduction beyond what audiences may already know about them going in which unless you are a DC Comics super fan is very little. Superman and Batman are relatively well known among general film audiences so that problem lies with how every other character introduced suffers from this approach.

Why aren't I more excited by seeing these three together like this?

Take Wonder Woman for instance with how she keeps popping up all throughout the film as her alter ego Diana Prince (where she is never referred to in the film by either name) but is never given a proper introduction. The first time we see her she is at a party where she steals something from Bruce Wayne. Next time we see her at another party talking to Bruce Wayne where she gives back the thing she stole. At this point she just seems like another potential Bruce Wayne girlfriend. Then, near the end of the film we see her boarding a plane as all hell is breaking loose in Metropolis. At no point will anyone know who she is until that moment where she finally puts on her Wonder Woman costume and joins the fight and that is just bad screenwriting. It's startling how blatant the film is with its expectations towards how the audience SHOULD know who she is as if she were already introduced in her own movie. At least she wasn't introduced via a video file in an email...

That's right, Wonder Woman may have been handled a little sloppy here but compared to her future Justice League team members she was given the red carpet treatment. In one of the most bizarre and ridiculous attempts to jam a few extra superheroes into a film they clearly weren't supposed to be in, we meet Aquaman, The Flash and Cyborg through some viral videos that Bruce Wayne emailed to Wonder Woman. Yes, they had an already poorly handled character just sit at her computer and watch what are equivalent to mini trailers for each character's upcoming stand alone movie. The best part is that none of this has anything to do with the story of Batman and Superman, it is all explained away as Lex Jr. having some sort of obsession with superheroes and likes to collect videos of them in much the same way Marvel uses its Agents of Shield television series to collect data on its heroes.

The few fleeting moments between Lois and Superman are actually quite good.

As poorly handled as all that was though nothing tops just how much of a mess the story surrounding Batman and Superman is. First of all the entire basis of BVS is that Batman hates Superman because he inadvertently killed some of Bruce Wayne's employees during his battle with Zod (who was that guy Bruce Wayne was talking to on the phone anyway? Were we supposed to know him?). Aside from being the most devoted boss of all time (hey, it's not every day your boss goes to battle with a god over your death or dismemberment) Bruce Wayne's animosity towards Superman makes very little sense. It's not a cut and dry situation as Superman was sort of forced into a corner when Zod arrived but Bruce Wayne, who is usually a pretty smart guy, let's his emotions take over and not only wants to stop Superman but outright murder him. Yeah that's right, this Batman likes to murder people...a lot of people. Something about the pot calling the kettle black springs to mind.

Let's move on from that for a second and focus a bit on...well I am not really sure what to call this. In an attempt to circumvent the lack of a proper lead in to BVS we get a number of dream sequences that at best are disposable and at worst a total disaster. Unless your a DC comic book fan most of anything in these dream sequences won't make a lick of sense. While the scene with Superman visiting his dead dad on a mountain top is completely nonsensical it is the large dream scene for Batman where most audiences are bound to get lost. One moment we are watching Bruce Wayne at his computer and the next (sans the proper nodding off moment to inform us we are about to enter dream territory) we see Batman on what appears to be an alien world filled with insect like creatures and a Mad Max-esque landscape where he is after some artifact just before having his army (yeah, he has an army) wiped out and faces off with a very evil version of Superman.

Don't get too excited by this, it's only a dream...a very long and drawn out dream...that means nothing.

As if that wasn't jarring enough just after he wakes up from that we get another dream(?) where some guy pops out of a bright light and starts yelling at Bruce about some nonsense just before we get the cliche wake up from a dream within a dream moment. Now after some internet digging I was able to learn that the first dream with all the insects was apparently a prelude to the (possible?) arrival of the DC villain Dark Seid who might be the big bad guy for the upcoming Justice League movie. How and why any of that matters here is any ones guess but that leads into the other dream which apparently was The Flash traveling through time (I suppose he can do that) to deliver a message. What that message is and what any of this means doesn't really matter though because guess what, it has nothing, absolutely nothing to do with anything that happens in BVS. You could literally remove those scenes and nobody would ever notice.

Why is any of this a big enough deal to go into in such detail? Because the rest of the story is such a hot mess that when we get such elaborate fodder as that which doesn't pertain to anything in this particular story it is sort of infuriating when you realize that time could have been better utilized to help flesh out THIS film more instead of trying to set up a film that is years away. The sad fact is that much of BVS is nothing more than an excuse to introduce audiences to the new DC Comics film universe and it shows. Not since Iron Man 2 has a film studio tried and failed on such an epic scale to integrate their future projects into a film that should have been more focused on itself than what was coming next. But at least we get to see Batman and Superman fight though right? Well, sort of but not really.

That moment you realize you aren't so super anymore and Batman is about to kick your ass.

You see, here is the other big problem with BVS, there isn't much Batman versus Superman in Batman versus Superman. Their motivations for wanting to fight aside (which makes zero sense mind you) the fight itself is extremely underwhelming begging the question as to why even bother? It's simple really, fans wanted to see the two heavy weights throw down and it seemed like the perfect hook, line and sink her to lure all of them into what is essentially a big advertisement for the upcoming Justice League movie. Sure there are some fun moments such as Batman using his wits and intellect to take down the indestructible Superman and their fisticuffs are every bit as amazing as one could hope (as long as it lasts anyway) but the moment they decide to stop fighting (in one of the most forced and ham-fisted reveals in film history) and start working together the true nature of BVS reveals itself which is that it is nothing more than a poor imitation of what Marvel did with The Avengers.

BVS is a hard film to really digest as there are elements here and there that are really well executed such as the scene where Superman goes to congress to answer for his actions and just about every scene with either Bruce Wayne or Batman doing his thing. But then you get stuff like Lois being used as a plot device not once, not twice but THREE times as she is put in peril only to have Superman come save her or how Lex's motivations for anything he does remains a mystery simply because he has no reason to do anything that he does beyond just wanting to be bad. Watching BVS you will literally be thrilled one minute only to be scratching your head the next which will lead most audiences down a path of true frustration by the end.

Despite all it's problems, seeing these three together was still pretty awesome.

This one is difficult to call but chances are if you are either a (well informed) fan of DC Comics, have a love for Batman or like some of Zack Snyder's other films (particularly Watchmen) then you will enjoy BVS despite all the problems it has. However if you aren't that knowledgeable about DC Comics, could care less about Batman (seriously though, who doesn't like Batman?) or can't stand Zack Snyder then chances are you will find every single flaw and use it in a way to tear it apart limb by limb. The one thing that both sides can agree on though is that without a doubt Ben Affleck is the best thing in the entire film. BVS has got 99 problems but Ben Affleck as Batman ain't one of them.


FINAL THOUGHTS:

The more I think about it the more BVS seems like that film years down the road everyone will look back upon and just kind of shrug their shoulders about. There was a lot of hype surrounding it only because it was the first time ever that Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman were in the same movie together. While that is pretty novel right now chances are when the Justice League movie rolls around everyone will see BVS for what it was, a desperate step forward by a studio looking to take advantage of all the superhero hype. It won't be looked upon as a bad film but more likely considered an extremely flawed experiment that hopefully led to bigger and better things in the DCEU.

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