Saturday, March 26, 2016

Film Review: Batman v. Superman - Dawn of Justice

Sexuality/Nudity  Mature*
Violence  Acceptable**
Vulgarity  Acceptable**
Anti-Catholic Philosophy  Acceptable**

I know that I still have to get my Deadpool review up, but seeing how divided critics and audiences are on this movie, I thought this would be more timely.

As I sat in the theater as the movie began, I turned to my wife and said, "I've waited my whole life to see this movie."  As a lifelong comic book geek, I have always longed to see the great characters of the DC Universe share the big screen together.

And this movie did not disappoint.

After the opening credit sequence, Batman v. Superman picks up during the final battle in Man of Steel.  But what director Zach Snyder skillfully does is keep the camera at street level as Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) races through the chaos to his friends at the Metropolis' branch of Wayne Financial.  This scene is tense and harrowing.  Even though I saw it in the previews, the shot of Bruce running straight into the dust clouds still give me that visceral flashback to all the footage from 9/11.  And by keeping the camera at street level, Snyder visually sets up the contrast of perspectives between our main heroes:  Superman (Henry Cavill) is isolated from humanity because he is so far above and Batman is filled with fear and rage by all the damage felt below.

The events of Man of Steel loom like a large shadow over the entire film.  Congress has even called hearings regarding what to do about Superman.  Added to the mix is Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg) who is filled with impotent rage at the feeling that his genius may not be a match for Superman's power.  He is central to the events that draw Batman and Superman into conflict, as well as luring in the involvement of the mysterious Diana Prince (Gal Godot) whose true identity has been revealed by all the trailers.  I do not want to speak too much more about the plot for fear of giving away some real twists and surprises.  Perhaps people smarter than me could see a lot of the twists coming.  I, however, could not and I reveled in moments of shock and surprise that I rarely feel in big budget movies.

As I mentioned above, there are a lot of critics panning this film.  I usually don't read other people's reviews before writing my own, but I was so curious as to why there was so much venom or apathy towards a movie that filled me so much geek joy.  Some of the criticisms are a matter of taste and so are unarguable.  But others I think miss the point of the Batman v. Superman.  Regardless, let us start with the movie's deficits.

1.  Chopped scenes.  They have already announced that the director's cut of the movie will be 30 minutes longer and R-Rated.  In the early scenes especially, you get the sense that what you see on the screen was a part of a larger sequence but had to be pared down for time.  Good editing shouldn't leave you with this feeling.  The more I see this in movies, the more I appreciate The Lord of the Rings series that trimmed hours and hours of footage without making it feel abbreviated

2.  Too mature.  As a kid I would have loved to have seen this movie.  But as an adult I would not let a little kid see it.  While a movie like The Avengers has a few slightly mature moments and baudy jokes, it is for the most part kid-friendly.  Batman v. Superman is not.  The dark tone is not the issue, though many critics have cited this as a problem.  For me, it was the depiction of sexuality.  It is not a huge part of the film, but it was bothersome.  There is one scene in particular where Lois Lane (Amy Adams) is in a bathtub having a conversation with Clark.  There is no actual nudity, but there may as well be.  The scene hints at such as high level of sensuality and flirts with nudity so much to the point that I would imagine a child seeing this movie would leave thinking that they had seen a naked Lois.  I would also hate to have to explain to a child why Superman is getting into a bathtub with Lois when they are not married (this pre-marital sexuality is also my major critique of Superman II)

3.  Batman kills.  One of the best things that Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight Trilogy got correct is that Batman does not kill.  Even the Frank Miller comic The Dark Knight Returns Series, on which much of Batman v. Superman is based, emphasizes that Batman will not kill anyone, even the Joker.  But the Batman in this latest movie is a killer.  He usually leaves his prey alive, but he will deploy the machine guns on his Bat-vehicles to mow down the bad guys.  A killer Batman is my least favorite part of the Tim Burton Batman films and I was upset that they brought this back for the latest incarnation.

But beyond these, I think that the movie is fantastic

Even the issue of maturity is more of a choice than a problem.  If you take little kids out of the equation, then it is much less problematic.

So what is so great about this film?

1.  Best Cinematic Batman.  I know I may get some hate for this, but Ben Affleck's Batman is the best representation of the comic book Batman I have ever seen on the big screen.  This is not a knock against Michael Keaton or Christian Bale.  But Affleck's Batman is a grizzled, war-scared veteran of the war on crime; he is a hulking wall of muscle that seethes with righteous rage, and he projects a sharp intelligence.  The killing part is still very problematic, but otherwise it is like the Batman from the comic books came to life on the screen.

2.  Visual Spectacle.  Man of Steel was very much an atypical Snyder film, with its hard lighting and non-stationary camera work in physical locations rather than green screen.  In Batman v. Superman, the director melts the Man of Steel aesthetic with sometime closer to what we've seen of him in 300 and Watchmen.  Surprisingly both styles blend very well.  I love the fact that Snyder forces his actors to put on real muscle bulk.  Even in the midst of fighting CGI monsters you always have a concrete sense of the heroes' strength.  The action sequences were high-octane, visually rich moments.  Some have complained about the darkness (visual, not tonal) of the movie.  There is some truth to this because much of the film takes place at night, but it is nowhere near as murky as parts of previous superhero fare like Hulk and Superman Returns.

3.  Scale.  Batman v. Superman is without a doubt a transitional movie, which is why its subtitle is Dawn of Justice.  It bridges Man of Steel to the Justice League movies.  Many people have pointed this out as a flaw.  I don't see it that way.  I'm reminded of Obi-wan's words to Luke, "You've taken your first step into a larger world."  Perhaps it is my affinity for comic book storytelling that makes this so much palatable to me than to others.  For example, a typical Geoff Johns-written comic story would have an epic story arc that would feature one or two scenes that would plant the seeds for the next epic story arc.  The same is true of Batman v. Superman.  Some may see these scenes as unnecessary diversions.  I see them as intriguing windows into the future.

4.  Religion.  As a Catholic, you have no idea how delighted it makes me to see the most basic exercise of belief in a big summer blockbuster.  Towards the beginning as a man believes he is about to die, he prays to God to have mercy on his soul.  Later when a terrible decision is made, one listener makes the sign of the cross and prays.  Perhaps I am only a spiritually starving man cheering at cinematic breadcrumbs.  But between these and what we saw in Man of Steel, I cannot believe that this positive portrayal of faith is an accident.  Lex Luthor is one of the best movie representations of the modern anti-theist.  Superman stands in here for the concrete example of a Higher Power.  Friedrich Nietzsche said that there could not be any gods because if there were he could not stand to not be a god himself.  Luthor embodies that philosophy perfectly.  He is that mix of Nietzsche and Frankenstein that hates a world made in God's image and wants to remake it in his own.  And whoever wrote the script must have read CS Lewis, because Luthor perfectly summarize the only argument that claims to disprove God: The Problem of Pain.  And while Luthor casts his anti-theism on Superman it is important to note that Superman does not see himself as a Christ figure.  Some have criticized this film's Superman as being too angsty.  But it fits perfectly with the portrayal of a man who is hailed by the masses as a savior when he knows too well his own flaws.

5.  Emotion.  (MILD SPOILER THIS PARAGRAPH)  It should come as no shock that since Batman and Superman are heroes, their fight comes to a not-all-together-tragic end.  What stops the fight is an emotional revelation that is so basic, so simple, that I can understand why some might feel it to be corny.  But this key emotional tether is so primal that I completely bought into its resolution.  CS Lewis said that friendship arises when two people realize that they see the same truth.  That is what I felt when I watched the end of their fight.  The relationships all around were very potent and added so much nice texture to the story.

6.  Performances.  I already mentioned Affleck, but the rest of the cast is great.  Adams shows the contradictory fear and thrill of a mortal in love with a god.  Cavill's Superman is weighed down with the responsibility of every success and failure of his mission.  Jeremy Irons as Alfred is such a wonderfully touching turn, wrapped in humorous cynicism.  Godot, though she has little screen time, has great screen presence.  There are many who hate Eisenberg's portrayal of Luther and I do understand why.  It is whiney and fidgety and awkward.  Based on the trailers, I was prepared to hate it too.  But I think I understand what he was going for: he is the demasculanized nerd who thinks he knows better.  He is the internet activist "anti-bully" bully.  Like so many who were bullied by the stronger, Lex hates the strong because they are strong.  My observation of social media outrage was very much in keeping with Eisenberg's performance.   How often do we see people online attack with insane bile rather than offer something positive?

7.  Darkness to light.  (MILD SPOILERS THIS PARAGRAPH)  There are many who have said that the film is too dark.  I read an excellent review, with which I disagree, that compared the optimism of Aunt May's hero speech in Spider-Man 2 with the cynicism of Batman v. Superman.  It is true that this movie is full of angst, self-doubt, and cynicism.  Batman's mindset in much of the movie is that we have to kill Superman before he threatens all of humanity.  Superman's mindset is that he doesn't know if he can keep helping if his actions can potentially hurt others and the world turns on him.  But that is not where the movie ends.  I cannot go into much detail here for fear of spoilers.  Yet I can say that the whole point of the cynicism is to create a dramatic conflict that leads to trust.  That trust is hard-won, but because of that it feels earned and not forced.  This movie is very dark, but opens to the light.  That is why it is called Dawn of Justice.

My sense from the online community is that I am very much in the minority with my effusive praise for this film.  But I cannot help it.  Despite the flaws mentioned above, the movie cast a spell on me and I was enchanted for the entire time.

I loved this movie and I cannot wait to see it again.

5 out of 5 stars.

*Mature = the content may be objectionable to some, but it should only be viewed by someone mature enough to properly process the content
**Acceptable = the content may have a few morally questionable items, but it does not have enough immorality to make it mature or objectionable.   It does not necessarily support good morality

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