Sunday, April 15, 2018

Sunday Best: Top 25 Superhero Movies of All Time #2 - Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice

The two titular heroes, Batman and Superman, are confronting each other, with the film's logo behind them, and the film's title, credits, release date and billing below.
This was one of those movies that made me question my own perceptions.  My reaction to and judgment of this film are so at odds with the majority of film critics and online geek commentators that I honestly took stock of my thoughts to see if they were askew.

But after two years and repeated viewings, I can confidently say that the critics were wrong and I was right:

Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice is one of the greatest superhero films ever made.

And yes, it is better than The Dark Knight.  Why?  I shall address this point later.

As I wrote in my original review:

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.


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.

[I would add here why this movie is superior to The Dark Knight.  It ultimately hinges on the portrayal of Batman.  Visually, he is much better in this film.  He is a mountain of mostrous muscle hiding in the shadows.  He is terrifying.  And he is obsessed in a way that is beyond Nolan's Batman.  In the Nolan trilogy, Bruce wanted to ultimately inspire people to be good and then leave the stage.  The Batman in Snyder's movie is one who has never left the stage nor will he ever.  The Batcave is his tomb and his costume is his shroud.  Alfred sees this and laments it with sarcasm.  But the ultimate place of departure is in its move from fear to trust.  Bruce makes the very rational argument that if there is even a 1% chance that Superman is the enemy, then they must kill him.  How can you ever really know if you can trust someone.  And the only way for that to be removed beyond a shadow of a doubt is for them to lay down your life.  The Dark Knight ends with the heroes embracing a lie (though this gets resolved in the sequel).  Batman v. Superman ends with the redemption of Batman's spirit.]

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.

And as I wrote in a later post upon the release of the ultimate edition:

1.  Becoming

I think the thing that most people misunderstood about this movie was this: Batman and Superman are not the heroes we know and love yet.  This can be very confusing especially since Superman had his origin movie in Man of Steel and we witnessed the unconnected but influential Dark Knight Trilogy by Christopher Nolan.  But in this movie Batman kills.  Superman is filled with angst.  These are things that we usually do not find in these icons.  But when the film begins they are not yet icons. They are in the processes of becoming the heroes we know.  This goes against what we've seen in most superhero team ups.  The Avengers is a great film and there is some level of character development.  But the main heroes are already who they are by the time they get together.  But Batman and Superman are not who they should be when the movie begins.  It will be the influence of each other that will teach Superman to be resolute in his convictions and Batman to see hope in a hopeless world.

I give Zack Snyder a lot of credit for taking this journey, because it is much riskier.  I remember watching the first season of Arrow and being disgusted that they had Oliver Queen kill people.  This was antithetical to the character.  But it wasn't until about the middle of the second season that I understood that they were showing how Oliver moves from darkness to the light.  And that is what they are doing with Batman and Superman.

2.  Understanding Luthor. 

The biggest holdback for me was the portrayal of Lex Luthor.  In the comics, Lex is strong, domineering alpha-male.  He is a shark in an Armani suit.  He exudes power with the lightest gesture or touch.

But Eisenberg's Lex is a rage-spewing science geek.  It was difficult to understand and accept it.  But once I did, it felt like a wonderful critique of the modern man.  Clark and Bruce are archetypes of traditional masculinity, both physically and in personality.    Those who don't live up to those standards will either idolize or demonize them for it.  Lex has chosen to demonize.

They are everything he is not.  He is the perfect embodiment of the "anti-bully" bully.  These are the people that experience some kind of abuse from someone stronger and so they feel justified in releasing their venom on anyone they think belongs in that group.  You see it in high school when the nerds hate the popular jocks and the perfect cheerleaders for no other reason than they are not like them.  You see it online when the Twitter Inquisition tears down someone who breaks with popular ideology.  These are the people who hate the idea of anyone being happier or better than they are and so must tear them down.

I saw this especially in the scene where Lex taunts Superman with the polaroids of his mother.  There is a triumphant exhilaration at bringing a god to his knees that you can see in his pipsqueak face.  There is a hatred of Superman's heroism, his manliness, and his power because Lex, like so many men today, lacks these qualities. 

It's interesting because this is almost the reason Batman hates him as well.  He tells Superman that he isn't brave: "Men are brave."  In Superman he sees someone who hasn't really acted and risked anything.  From Batman's perspective, he is a man with unearned power.  Batman had to train and work and sacrifice to become who he is.  Superman is someone born into his abilities and because he didn't earn his power, he doesn't respect it an therefore cannot be trusted with it.

But Lex will embrace any abomination for his ends.  And once I embraced this movie's version of Lex Luthor, I appreciated it on another level.  He literally plays God by creating new life in his warped image.  He is Dr. Frankenstein, the new Prometheus.

3.  The Role of God

Perhaps I am reading way too much into this small moment, but the scene of the man praying before his death gets me every time.  He doesn't pray to God to rescue him.  He doesn't ask God where He is?  The man even addresses God by the title, "Creator of Heaven and Earth," a very creedal title.  And his one prayer is for mercy on his soul.  This means a lot to me because as someone who is steeped in the pop culture, particularly that of superheroes, this display of Christian spirituality is so very rare.  Yes, there are some references here and there spread throughout comic book movies, but this felt very real to me.  I could see myself praying these words in moments of calamity.

But I like that Snyder uses Superman more as an analogy for religion rather than the direct comparison, which would have way too much baggage.  That isn't to say that he avoids the existential implications of this.  He does not go so far as he did in Watchmen when the arrival of Dr. Manhattan causes someone to say "God is real and he's an American."  But he does show a world that is in upheaval at the revelation of Superman.  Notice how movies like Thor don't deal with the real world implications of a "god" living among the humans and what that would mean for some in our society. 

But mainly, what I found so striking was the religious imagery was so strong in pointing out good and evil.  Lex's wild atheism is clearly evil.  And Superman's sacrificial love is purely good.  I love the Pieta shot towards the end.  Not only does this occur after laying down his life, but you can see crosses in the background.  He becomes even more of a Christ figure than in Man of Steel.  His death not only saves everyone from the unkillable Doomsday, it redeems Batman and brings Wonder Woman to the fight. 

The reason this is so refreshing is that I usually have my defenses up when God is brought up in the pop culture.  Usually he referenced in order to sucker punch the faith.  But here, the view that is on the side of traditional religious sentiment is on the side of goodness.

4.  Visual Beauty

I have Zack Snyder ranked as the 19th greatest director of all time.  I may have to move him up a few notches.  His flayer for kinetic, dynamic visual storytelling has been known for a long time.  But I was struck by how well he was able to tell the story and get the emotions with the visuals.  This was the first time I noticed the visual symmetry of the first shot of the film with the last.  And movie is filled with great visual parallelism between Bruce, Clark, and Lex.

I read some complaints about the retelling of the origin story of Batman.  But this scene was actually incredibly short and important: it set the emotional reality for Bruce Wayne.  His world is literally turned upside down and he falls into a pit from which the only escape is the bat.  And I have never seen the death of Martha and Thomas Wayne done with such tragically poetic cinematography.

I found I could not take my eyes off of this movie.  Everything in it was fascinating to watch. 

5.  My Favorite Alfred

Jeremy Irons' Alfred Pennyworth gets very little screen time.  But he is now my favorite movie Alfred.  Michael Caine was fantastic as the paternal stalwart companion.  But Irons' Alfred is filled with sarcastic bite that constantly pulls at Bruce to get out of his death spiral but you never question that Alfred will follow him into the jaws of death.

6. Primal Emotions

This movie is about primal things.  I think if we an understand that it will unlock a lot of the character keys.  Notice the shot of Bruce holding the orphan child as he looks at Superman.  Bruce became an orphan and was powerless to save his parents.  But when he holds that child, orphaned like him, you can see him project that rage onto Superman.  The murder of his parents created the primal rage and fear and understanding that makes his hatred of Superman make so much emotional sense.

Lex is the child of abuse.  He will always be the boy who was hurt by his father, the original bully.  That pain broke him and he projected his rage onto Superman too.

Clark's love is also primal.  Lex knows that the first love of his life is his mother.  Superman is reduced to a helpless child when his mother is in danger because of that primal love.

And this is where the key turning point rings hollow for many people but not for me.  Many believed the use of the name "Martha" was a cheesy cop out.  I disagree.  Remember, Bruce became Batman because of his failure to save Martha and Thomas.  The mention of saving Martha would obviously give him pause.  But when he learns that Martha is the name of Clark's mother, he is able to make an emotional connection he had not even considered.  Remember, he said that Superman wasn't brave because "Men are brave."  That means that he does not see Superman as a man.  He is an alien threat like the invaders from Independence Day.  But the moment he realizes that in his last moments, all Superman wants to do is save his mother Martha, Batman cannot help but see him as a man.  And not just a man: he is a son trying to save his mommy.

That is the primal connection between Batman and Superman and that works perfectly for me.

7.  Great Dialogue

I love the dialogue of this movie.  I found it witty, philosophical, evocative, and provocative.  The characters raise questions that your mind chews on like "Must there be a Superman?"  The conversation between Clark and Bruce when they first meet has such wonderfully delicious subtext and Bruce begins to peel back the facade the angrier he gets.  I love it when he calls Clark "son" in such an emasculating tone. 

I hope that more and more people come around to see the genius of this film and that it will eventually have the esteem it deserves as the second greatest superhero film of all time.

Stay tuned for #1

1 comment:

  1. I was wondering if this would be #1, so if my prediction is correct, we'll be agreeing on #1.