Thursday, May 19, 2016

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice

Alternate Title:  You Either Die a Hero...

One sentence synopsis:    Manipulated by the evil Lex Luthor, Batman and Superman clash over contrasting ideologies to crime fighting.

Things Havoc liked: In a world filled with internet outrage culture, and the raging anger of fanboys galore, 2013's Man of Steel was one of the most contentious movies I have ever seen cross the cinema. I have had multiple violent arguments over the qualities of that film, watched grown men devolve into fistfights over the question of whether it was a faithful adaptation of Superman, or a disgusting betrayal of all that is right and good in the world. As those who remember my review can attest to, I liked the film, for its visual splendor, for its iconography, for the titanomachy-grade action that was unlike anything I had ever seen before. I liked it despite many glaring flaws as to tone and characterization and unfulfilled promises from the best trailer I have ever seen, but I liked it nonetheless. And yet in retrospect, the vitriol directed at Man of Steel by the many, many individuals who did not like it, not one little bit, served to taint the entire enterprise in my mind looking back. Perhaps my opinions are more malleable than they should be, or perhaps I was wrong initially and came slowly to see the light, but while I never came to hate Man of Steel, its star has definitely dimmed in the years that have passed from that moment to this one. With the raging hatred of those who abominated the first movie undimmed, and indeed increased, as we closed on the release date of its sequel, I decided to make a concerted effort to be objective with this one, above and beyond my customary disposal of preconceptions. Come Hell or High Water, there was a large segment of the internet that was going to hate this movie, and I refused to let that color my impression of Warner Brothers' go-for-broke attempt to have The Avengers' lunch.

Things Havoc disliked: All in vain...

If I have skipped over the "things I liked" section, understand that it is not because there was nothing in this movie that I liked. There was. I liked Jeremy Irons' turn as Alfred Pennyworth, a performance that is less rooted in Michael Caine and more in Michael Gough. I liked small touches that the movie introduces almost as throwaways, such as the fact that Batman, in this movie, eschews Christian-Bale-voice in favor of an actual vocoder. I liked Holly Hunter's turn as a wisecracking senator from Kentucky who chairs a senate committee charged with clarifying Superman's legal status. I even liked the effrontery with which Zack Snyder chose to hypothesize, rather than tone down, the christological parallels that the movie is riven with when it comes to Superman, explicitly including sequences where worshipful throngs of people kneel before his advent as though he were the second coming, while desperate encyclicals from the Vatican and other religious leaders declare that Superman is not actually Jesus Christ incarnated. The Christ parallels with Superman are inevitable, and were enormously thick in Man of Steel, but by calling them out explicitly, Snyder turns the subject around into a discussion of how people might actually react if an invulnerable alien god representing good and righteousness were to descend upon the planet. I liked this and all the other things I have cited, and yet I did not lump them all together within the "Things Havoc Liked" section, as is my usual wont. And I did not do that, because they are all ultimately irrelevant next to a single, impenetrable fact.

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, is a piece of shit.

Not merely a piece of shit, but a huge, steaming, foul-odored piece of intestinal filth, enormous in scope and terrifying in impact. We live in an age of cinematic superheroes, not merely the shining lights of the MCU, but also the other great movies that have traveled in its wake, the Deadpools and X-men and all of the rest. And yet, confronted with the ranks of angels that have graced our screens for a decade and more, what has DC, Warner Brothers, and Zack Snyder, the man I have defended for years and years, done? They have produced the cinematic equivalent of a war crime, a movie that is and was and will remain one of the most cataclysmic misfires in modern history. For all the patience I have laid upon this collection of would-be dignitaries, forgiving Green Lantern, forgetting Catwoman, defending Man of Steel in the face of withering criticism, this is how I am repaid? This putrid abomination of a comic book film? This wholesale, willful negation of not just superheros but film as a medium and narrative as a concept? This is what they presented to me, in the expectation that I would lay praise at their feet and number them among my sainted elect? This was truly the best they could do?

Well they have sown the air, dear readers. Let them reap the whirlwind.

Batman v Superman is a disaster on every level of filmmaking I can cite and several others still waiting to be invented, a calamity that recalls parallels to the Hindenburg disaster, before which a critic and cinephile such as myself can do nothing but weep and lament the humanity that was lost in devising and producing it. It is a sour, bitter thing, a vindication to all of those who insisted to me that I was wrong to defend Watchmen, wrong to defend 300, wrong to defend Man of Steel, because they all led straight to this twisted, broken failure of imagination, creativity, and thought. No one, no one touched by this enterprise escapes it unscathed, certainly not Henry Cavill, whom I appreciated in the last movie for his earnestness and physicality, but who here has become a mopey, depressed un-character, shunting about almost robotically from scene to scene, as if he has read the script of the film and knows that nothing awaits him here but bitterness and ash. Superman is a character designed to embody our best natures, optimism, strength, courage and justice, and if Zack Snyder sought to do nothing more than piss on all four concepts through this portrayal, he succeeded. Ben Affleck meanwhile, who is an Oscar-winning director in his own right of great skill and talent, plays Batman like a man under the influence of several particularly dangerous steroid-PCP cocktails, a grunting, sweating dude-bro whose plotline through the movie is possibly the single stupidest plotline I've ever seen for a major superhero, and I remember both Spiderman 3 and Superman 4. In grotesque violation of the core tenets of the character, Snyder turns a hero famous for his legendarily inflexible prohibition against killing, into a cowled version of the Punisher, who slaughters his enemies with machine guns while obsessing over the possibilities of murdering Superman for no reason at all. I remember reading Frank Miller's All-Star Batman & Robin, a comic in which Batman referred to himself as "The Goddamn Batman", gloried over breaking his enemies' spines, and forced a small child to scavenge sewer rats for food, and this movie is still the worst version of Batman I have ever seen realized in any form, a character assassination so complete that no actor, be he Affleck, Keeton, or Lawrence freaking Olivier, could possibly have salvaged it.

And yet even with all of this, Affleck and Cavill are probably the best parts of the movie, for the true depths of awfulness on display here belong not to them but to Jesse Eisenberg, who is so staggeringly miscast as Lex Luthor that I considered seriously the possibility that the entire movie was arranged by a conspiracy of his sworn enemies. There have been many versions of Luther over the years, from Kevin Spacey and Gene Hackman's goofy versions to the more serious take Clancy Brown put on the character in the Justice League animated series. But Eisenberg, presented with infinite possibilities, is absolutely unable to make his mind up, switching motivations at least a dozen times throughout the movie, in some cases in mid-scene, from an arrogant tech-god in the (inevitable) Steve Jobs style, to an abused child lashing out at his dead father, to an atheistic terrorist desirous of literally killing God, to a mad scientist seeking the coolest toys, to a twisted harbinger of some terrible threat yet to come, to another thing and another and another. Eisenberg has no character except annoyance, no standard traits except stupidity, and his "evil plan" is not only one of the stupidest I have ever seen committed to film (a key element of his plans involves a jar of his own piss), but is additionally layered with redundancies, elementary mistakes, continuity-shattering plot holes, and utterly baffling decisions not just from him but from everyone he interacts with for any length of time, be they hero or not. But for all of his many, many flaws, Eisenberg's Luthor is at least occasionally entertaining to look at, if only from the sense that baffling stupidity may arise at any time while he is on the screen. The same cannot be said of Gal Gadot, an unknown Israeli actress and model who is called upon to finally, after infinite screaming by comic fans, to portray the most famous super-heroine in comics, Wonder Woman. She sucks. Gadot cannot act to save her life, not that the screenplay does her favors in this regard, relegating her to a handful of cameo appearances so nebulous that I seriously mistook her for a different comic character altogether. Shoehorned into the movie for no reason other than franchise maintenance, she has nothing to do with anything, and the tiny collection of scenes she appears in, either as Diana Prince or as Wonder Woman herself are nothing more than cheap fan-service, hoping to keep people hanging on until next year, when DC finally intends to release the Wonder Woman movie they proclaimed to be impossible so many times.

And yet, to simply call this or that actor's performance bad or even terrible does not even come close to the baffling anti-thought that permeates this movie like a miasma, afflicting everything from the derivative, over-bombastic Hans Zimmer score to the godawful cinematography and world design, to the plot and effects, which are so lackluster that they would not have appeared out of place in a mid-00s X-men spinoff. One of the few undeniable high-points of Man of Steel was the thunderous scale of the thing, a movie in which Olympian gods vented destruction and wrath upon their enemies in staggering, awe-inspiring spectacle. And yet of all the things from the original film to discard, the filmmakers chose not the fractured storytelling, not the stupefying plot contrivances, not the mutilation of beloved, century-old characters, but the sense of wonder that they had managed, against all odds, to produce. The action in Batman v Superman is almost uniformly some of the most boring action I have seen from a superhero film, a factor not helped by the "big bad" that our heroes must punch repeatedly being the laziest rendition of seminal Superman villain Doomsday that I've ever seen. The movie's version looks like someone crossed a troll from Lord of the Rings with The Scorpion King, and has CGI that would have been laughed off the set of Catwoman. There is no sense of scale, not to the final fight nor to the movie as a whole, as most of the titular Batman v Superman fighting takes place in an environment of Kryptonite gas, turning the entire thing into a battle between a meatheaded, drunken bully, and a depressive head-case who just wants the entire thing to stop. Not one fight has a sense of interest, of stakes, of personal agenda or emotion or even wow factor, but then neither do any of the dialogue or exposition scenes either, so why should I be surprised. This includes an extended sequence in the middle of the film where Wonder Woman is given a thumb drive containing top secret information from Luther's corporation, which turns out to be a series of trailers for future DC continuity movies. Which she watches. For five minutes. Yes, that means the movie stops dead in its tracks for five whole minutes so that it can advertise other movies to you that have not yet come out. I know some people think Marvel congratulates itself too much, but at least they usually save their ads for the next movie until after you have finished watching the current one!

But all of this, all of this, I might have forgiven (might), if it weren't for the final, damning element of this colossal misfire, the fact that the movie is so goddamn ugly. I don't mean ugly in the visual sense, although it absolutely is that, with a visual style that washes out the primary colors these characters are so well known-for into a dour, faded mockery of themselves, shot primarily in what appears to be a Detroit junkyard at night. No, I mean the ugliness of the sensibility that would lead to someone making a movie like this, a movie where Batman is a grotesque caricature of the sort Frank-Miller used in his more militant, crap works such as Holy Terror, a grunting parody of a "real man" who spends his time crossfit training before running out to murder people for no reason other than his own ego. I mean the ugliness required to produce a movie in which Superman, a character so defined by his moral sense that many people consider him boring and arrogant, undergoes an existentialist crisis before picking up the idiot ball and refusing to put it back down. I mean the ugliness and cynicism required to produce a movie ostensibly starring Wonder Woman after literal decades of denying women a place at the table, and then effectively whisking her off-screen like Charlie Brown's football and demanding that we go see another movie next year if we actually want to see her. I am talking here about a movie that reduces Lois Lane to a complete idiot with nothing better to do than find her way into death traps, that turns Lex Luthor into a simpering asshat whining about how unfair it is that people like superheroes, that turns the very notion of catharsis into a cruel joke, and then has the gall to turn around and mock Marvel's films for being too "unrealistic". I am talking about a movie that is ugly, nihilistic, and cruel, not merely in its worldview but in its active actions towards fan-base and casual film-goer alike. I am talking about a movie so irredeemably awful that I, comic book fan that I am, instantly wrote off every other movie in the DC canon from here on out, including this year's Suicide Squad. Because if this is the sort of product that the flywheels at DC and Warner Brothers believe is worthy of me and mine, then I suggest that they take a good solid look in the mirror, and then proceed to literally fuck themselves to death.

Final thoughts:     One of the great mysteries of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, beyond the fact that it exists at all, is the consistent level of quality that it has maintained, such that weaker movies like Iron Man 2/3 or The Hulk still maintain a sense that serious people tried to make a good movie through the best methods they knew. The results are not always excellent (though the majority definitely are), but they are never the sorts of gross insults that a truly awful movie can feel like. But while I generally resist the temptation to describe bad or even terrible movies in such hyperbolic terms as "slaps in the face", Batman v Superman leaves me with little choice, made as it seemingly is by people grasping and jealous of the MCU's success, who could not stop themselves from voiding contempt for all those who supported Marvel in their endeavors instead of indulging in the "grim and gritty realism" that they offer up like offal disguised as ambrosia. As such, what is staggering about this film is not that it is bad, for a whole slew of DC-comics-related failures have adequately prepared me for that possibility, but that its badness comes in forms so ugly and hateful to myself and others, particularly given the fact that I was never a great fan of DC's characters in their comic form, and consequently have no fond childhood memories for them to stomp upon. Consider my rage then a cathartic thing, channeled on behalf of others, whose childhoods were spent between the pages of a Batman or Superman comic, and who have come to see their heroes realized on screen only to be confronted with one of the worst superhero films I have ever seen.

Where this series, for it is explicitly intended as one, goes from here, I cannot say. At time of writing, Batman v Superman did indeed make the hundreds of millions of dollars that superhero movies are wont to, and yet a steep and pronounced drop-off in second-day and second-week receipts point to something more than a handful of highbrow critics raging that their theaters have again been taken over by "teenager" fare. The deep apathy with which this movie was received by a public which may have bad taste but resents being spat upon does not speak well for the cornucopia of DC-comics movies that Warner Brothers has planned for the immediate future. I do not know if the lessons of Batman v Superman can be metabolized by a production unit so debased as to loose it upon us in the first place, and if I'm being entirely honest, I could not care less whether they can or not. Batman v Superman stands as a repudiation of the very reasons why I began this project, a cynical, slimy exercise in contemptible arrogance and shocking stupidity, a movie that hates you for liking superheroes, and hates itself for containing them. A studio capable of producing such a thing is one that I have no intention of supporting further by any means, and thus, in keeping with my stated policy of only going to see movies that I suspect have a chance to prove worthwhile, consider this my preemptive rejection of the entire DC cinematic universe. I do this project for many reasons, but one of the main ones is to let my readers know what films are worth seeing and what ones are not, but there is a limit to even my cinematic fortitude, and in consequence, I am afraid that if you wish to know how the future movies in this series will turn out, you shall all have to find out for yourselves.

And if, in doing so, you discover that the followup movies are nothing but cynical exercises in nihilistic defecation, thinly excused by wild gesticulations towards terms like "gritty realism" and "hardcore", then, in one way at least, I will be able to say that Batman v Superman told me the truth.

Final Score:  2.5/10

Next Time:  This film was DC's last hope.  But there is another...

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