Saturday, March 26, 2016

Review: "Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice" - These are not the heroes you're looking for

The eponymous fight in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is the most unpleasant sequence I have suffered through in quite some time. Utterly one-sided, unrelentingly bleak, and violent for the sake of being violent, it is sickening to watch as one iconic American hero is distilled to the most toxic version of his id and made to pound unceasingly on another cultural icon, one who has, for the purposes of this moment, been reduced to the most paper-thin version of himself. There is no meaningful narrative drive towards this moment. There are no stakes that actually matter. There are no motives on display, by Batman or by Superman, that lend any of these actions gravitas or narrative worth. There is only the violence, only the pain, only the misery of watching one supposed hero get beat into righteous submission by another alleged do-gooder. Frank Miller himself would look at this moment and tell the filmmakers to take it down a notch, to imbue these characters with something resembling humanity. Me? I just sat in stunned silence, queasy at the sheer grotesqueness of this moment. Nobody else in the half-full opening-night IMAX auditorium made a sound either. Many had arrived excited, in Batman and Superman t-shirts and apparel. By this point, nobody was reacting to anything on the screen, audibly or otherwise.

By the time that sequence arrives, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice has long since started to burst apart at the seams, the unwieldiness of its title reflected in the scattershot, back-and-forth nature of its storytelling. There are good things and bad things on display, inspired creative choices and baffling ones, and as the film moves in aimless circles failing to ever cohere, the offensive outcome of all its narrative dithering can be seen on the horizon well before the movie ever gets there.

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For while the film may have the names of two heroes in the title, it is a vastly more engaging Batman movie than it is a Superman movie, and that kind of imbalance can only lead to creative ruin. Much of the credit must go to Ben Affleck, who would easily, were this a better, sharper, more focused and intelligent movie, walk away with the title of best live-action Batman. As Bruce Wayne, he is quietly engaging in a way most of his predecessors are not, wearing the character’s damage on his sleeves but also managing to make him seem like a believably functional human. His interplay with Jeromy Irons – unlikely but inspired casting as Alfred – is solidly entertaining, and even amidst the film’s larger narrative mess, the character’s detective roots shine through stronger than they have in past live-action incarnations (which is not, to be fair, saying much).

But the main reason Batman is more engaging is because the film regards him as only one of two characters worth having any interest in, and no, the other one is not Superman. The film begins with an extended flashback to Batman’s tragic origin story before transitioning into a street-level view of Superman and General Zod’s infamously destructive battle from the climax of Man of Steel. The sequence is effectively horrific, so much so that it is easy to believe Bruce Wayne would have a deep-seated mistrust of all things Superman, and hard for we in the audience to maintain any affection for this incarnation of the last son of Krypton. Batman comes out of that sequence with a clear, understandable mandate – never let anything like this happen again – but planting that seed also irrevocably stacks the deck against Superman, and it doesn’t help that for the rest of the movie, Snyder keeps both Superman and Clark Kent almost entirely aloof from the audience. Many people talk about Superman in this movie, but Superman himself is a distant and more or less inconsequential character in the film’s actual narrative, and whatever spark Henry Cavill showed in Man of Steel is thoroughly extinguished in Dawn of Justice. It isn’t just that Cavill has so little to play, but that those brief on-screen moments he is given render both Clark Kent and Superman either petulant, detached, or both.

Actual heroism, it suffices to say, is nowhere to be found. A brief montage of Superman doing vaguely admirable deeds – all with a miserable, conflicted expression on his face – is the only indication we get of what Superman means to this world, while the extent of Batman’s heroic actions is confined to the off-screen rescue of a basement full of sex slaves, a dark scenario that is only made darker when we see Batman has branded the flesh of the criminal responsible so that he will be targeted and murdered in prison. Noble, inspirational, aspirational – if there is a word you might commonly associate with heroism, you won’t find an ounce of it on display here.

At least Batman, as previously established, has some shred of motivation for acting the way he does. There are intimations, amidst the sound and fury of relentless mechanical plot developments, that this is a Bruce Wayne who has been beaten down hard by life, who had taken one punch too many before Superman came along, and who finally started to crack on the day the world was literally torn apart. I think that’s actually a very compelling direction to take the character, one I cannot immediately say I’ve seen before, and it’s clear that Affleck is up to the task of steering this character into such thematically complex territory. I even think there’s a way to do that story where Superman doesn’t automatically come across as the villain, and where both characters might ultimately find redemption and understanding in one another’s friendship. That is a film, in fact, I would very much like to see.

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is not that film. Even if Snyder and company had such an interest in nuanced character portrayals, they would be much too busy fulfilling the franchise-minded legwork this film requires to find any amount of time to do so. For in addition to keeping Batman and Superman in play, Snyder has given us the most obnoxious incarnation of Lex Luthor possible – a cartoonish, bouncing-off-the-walls Jesse Eisenberg, whose beautiful train-wreck of a performance nevertheless provides the only moments of levity and laughter (much of it unintentional) in the entire film – and used the antagonist as an awkward master key to unlock the rest of the extended DC Comics universe. The shoehorning of mythology is so relentlessly mishandled that at one point, Wonder Woman literally sits at a computer and watches what looks like three online viral marketing trailers, one after the other, for upcoming Justice League spin-off movies. Crass does not even begin to describe it. Poor Lois Lane, meanwhile – a game but utterly wasted Amy Adams – is relegated to playing the role of MacGuffin hunter, and every single time the film cut back to her strangely paced subplot, I found myself surprised to remember she was still in the movie. And while the barrage of dream sequences provide the most aesthetically inspired moments in the movie, their inclusion is also the most baffling, a strange, half-hearted attempt by Zack Snyder to do superhero psychodrama by way of David Lynch, a feat he is not nearly talented enough to pull off.

All of which is to say that Dawn of Justice is a hot mess well before Batman and Superman ever come to blows. And yet I still found it astounding just how further the film has still to melt before that fight can begin, creating the most nonsensical motives imaginable to get Superman into the ring, and selling out every ounce of supposed intelligence we were meant to believe Bruce Wayne possessed. It is clear, by the time the fight arrives, that its existence is not in the least bit organic, nor that Zack Snyder or writers David S. Goyer and Chris Terrio have any genuine interest in the hearts, minds, or souls of these iconic characters. They just want to see them fight.

Or, at least, to see one of them fight, while the other gets wailed upon for the better part of ten minutes. For in stacking the deck so heavily against Superman, and in the specific choices Snyder and company make in visually fetishizing Batman, the film indulges heavily in the aesthetics of fascism. Such visual choices are not new to Snyder’s work – both 300 and Watchmen glorify the power of the male body in ways that eerily recall Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympia and the cinema of the Third Reich – but the context in Batman v Superman makes his choices more problematic than ever. Here, we not only fetishize and glorify the power of Affleck’s muscular physique, but lend him the refrain of teaching Superman ‘what it means to be a man’ in their eponymous fight. To Snyder’s Batman, Superman’s prime fault lies not in his aloofness or human failings, but in his lack of adherence to masculine principles. It is not a theme that comes entirely out of left field; the most meaningful alteration Snyder makes in depicting the death of Bruce Wayne’s parents is to have Thomas Wayne attempt to attack the mugger, an action that directly results in Thomas and Martha’s grisly deaths and instills a sense of toxic masculinity in young Bruce – a belief not that violence begets violence, but that violence is what men must resort to when push comes to shove.

That toxic masculinity – the authoritarian masculinity of fascism – is all over Dawn of Justice, from Batman’s branding of criminals to Superman’s stoic reluctance to let his image be anything other than that of a chiseled God. Certainly it affects the film’s treatment of its female characters, which is wholly deplorable from beginning to end. Just as Snyder fetishizes the strength of the male body, he fetishizes the image of the woman in peril on multiple occasions. Of the film’s three major female characters, he paints one of them as frail and na├»ve – Holly Hunter’s Senator Finch – one of them as incidental and beholden only to her boyfriend’s whims – Adams’ Lois – and of them as a silent participant in a man’s world. The last, of course, is Wonder Woman, played well by a largely wasted Gal Gadot. Gadot is game to give this character as much personality as she can muster. A brief flash of a smile in the climactic battle is the most alive any character feels in this entire movie. That this moment is nonverbal is no coincidence, for Gadot gets maybe two or three lines tops in the entire film, and even when she joins the men for the climax, she is only there to be part of a pose, not to be a character, well-developed or otherwise, in her own right.

Of that climax, all I shall say is that it is dull, numbing, and embarrassingly lazy in its conception and execution. Once the eponymous fight between Batman and Superman takes place, there is no plot left for the movie to resolve, so it simply introduces a new one, and seems content to let bombastic visual effects distract the audience from the fact that no coherent narrative has taken place in over two-and-a-half hours of film. Of Snyder’s widely criticized penchant for destruction, which led to the main source of controversy surrounding Man of Steel, the director merely doubles down, upping the carnage quotient to positively ludicrous degrees. We are reminded, in brief snippets of dialogue, that most of this carnage is taking place in largely uninhabited areas, which only goes to show how deeply Snyder misunderstands the root of those criticisms.

Nothing can compare, however, to how deeply Snyder, Goyer, Terrio, and every executive at Warner Bros misunderstands these iconic characters. Say what you will about the Marvel model, but when Marvel releases a movie, be it Iron Man or Ant-Man, it is crafted with a clear, undeniable sense of enthusiasm and passion for the characters being depicted. Marvel’s movies work because Marvel loves their characters, and that love has proven infectious to audiences around the world. Zack Snyder and his fellows at Warner Bros do not love Batman. They certainly bear no enthusiasm for Superman. The apathy is apparent throughout this poor excuse for a film, and when it all builds to the image of one tentpole hero brutally assaulting another, it is clear that love, passion, and enthusiasm could not be further from the filmmakers’ minds. Only violence. Only cruelty. Only misery. And the ultimate victims are we in the audience.

Follow author Jonathan Lack on Twitter @JonathanLack.

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