Tuesday, March 29, 2016

MMorse v Batman v Superman: Dawn of Too Many Words

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice: Birth of the DCU: Embodiment Of Wearying Divisiveness And Gateway To The Sale of Subsequent Merchandise (hereafter referred to as BvS, because come on) has a 29% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. A bunch of people whose opinions I respect really don't like it. My wife disliked it. We as a nation collectively pressed pause during an epically ugly and divisive election year to gang up and punch the holy hell out of this movie. And yet, somehow, I walked out of the film jazzed and smiling and convinced that I'd just seen something admirably huge and ambitious and cockeyed and unbalanced and painstakingly crafted and operatic and messy and strangely personal and surprisingly, genuinely weird; something that I enjoyed as an experience.
…Good Lord. Is this what it feels like to be a fan of the Transformers franchise?
[Please See FOOTNOTE ONE, at the bottom of this piece, in which I discuss supplementary explanations for my enjoyment of the film]

I have exactly no idea whether you're going to enjoy/have enjoyed BvS. I do know that you and I are nevertheless going to have to weather a seemingly never-ending online slapfight between (a) the hardcore vocal contingent who WANT THE DCU TO GET THE RESPECT IT DESERVES DAMMIT BECAUSE THIS MOVIE IS AWESOME AND CRITICS ARE RUINING THE MOVIE, and (b) the hardcore vocal contingent WHO WANT EVERYONE TO KNOW: THAT'S NOT THEIR SUPERMAN DAMMIT THIS WHOLE THING IS TOO DARK AND NIHILISTIC AND WARNERS/SNYDER IS RUINING THE MOVIE. You'll forgive me for pointing out the religiously-tinged element to all of this total ideological certainty, centered as it is around the morality of mythic/theological archetypes.

The DC People's Front knows that superheroes are Better When They're Adult (with “adult” usually meaning "violence and tits," basically). They know that This Movie Is Going To Be F*cking Badass And Screw You If You Think Otherwise, You're Probably Being Bribed. They are scornful and intolerant of heresy: namely any questioning of the greatness of the movie (regardless of whether they've, y'know, seen it). The People’s Front of DC knows that Superhero Movies Don’t Look Like This and that Superman Does Not Kill. They know that the One True Superman cares more than that, loves more than that, is better than that. They are scornful and intolerant of the heresies of Man of Steel, BvS, Zack Snyder, and an empty fanboy culture that would tolerate them.

You probably don't fall into either category – but you probably know several someones online who do. Neither group seems to find anything…off about their ongoing vitriolic feud over subjective interpretations of malleable iconography, nor about the fact that they are very clearly feeding off of each other in what could very easily be history's single worst pop culture ouroboros. Let's set the record straight at the outset: I am proudly unaffiliated with either side.
[Please see FOOTNOTE TWO, also at the bottom of this piece, in which I over-articulate my thinking on all of this some more]

All of that said, and speaking only for myself, the idea that BvS is significantly worse than Days of Future Past, Age of Ultron, Batman Returns, or Iron Man 2/3 strikes me as odd (come at me).
The sheer disgust/contempt/disappointment/derision I’ve seen in the past week seems so out of proportion with the movie I saw that when I tried to mentally bridge the gulf between my opinion and that of, say, GQ’s Helen O Hara, it felt like something in my brain was going to break. At least in the case of Prometheus, another highly divisive movie that I dug, the majority of critics seem to have agreed that Ridley Scott's movie was probably worth a watch. That’s certainly not the case here.
Just LOOK at this monster!

BvS is a big, weird, messy, disjointed, feverish, and seriously pulpy sci-fi melodrama, and I kind of love it for all of that. Its very disjointedness, its bloated haphazardness, is part of the draw (just like this review, probably!). Reminiscent, in different ways, of Shyamalan’s Unbreakable and Singer's X-Men films, with its strangely internal, brooding tone, thematics-as-narrative, and desire to go overtly socio-political with its superheroes, this movie's narrative AND meta narrative is "how did people react to Man of Steel,” and that’s a story choice I really love. Long story short: this is an unusual blockbuster in a lot of ways - especially for audiences who are used to the Marvel Method - and like Man of Steel before it I find its weaknesses to be among its strengths.
The collision of Snyder's direction and Goyer and Terrio's script is more than a little bit like watching Carolco Pictures make the Ten Superhero Commandments and there is nothing about that I don't love (if Charlton Heston were alive you know that he'd have played Alfred). BvS is epic and crazy, somber and solemn, but (for me) there's a strange, strong joyfulness and outsized optimism amidst/hidden inside all the epically crazy bombastisomberlemnity.  Fault the film for all its perceived missteps but don't fault its evident, crazed ambition. From the strong evidence here, Justice League is going to be absolutely bananapants, and a total blast, at least as far as this lunatic/viewer is concerned.
[Please see FOOTNOTE THREE, once again at the bottom of this piece, re general bananapants-iness.]
For this viewer BvS's heightened, operatic absurdities are what make the film - not even ironically, at least not consciously. Snyder and the brass at DC have apparently rolled the dice on a take that emphasizes the outsized mythology, symbolism, dualism, and iconography of the DC Comics universe, and that's a fascinating choice, diametrically opposed to the Marvel Method. Grant Morrison originated the concept of the Justice League as a pantheon of Greek gods, and despite the wealth of Judeo-Christian imagery in Snyder’s films, it's that take we see here and will assumedly see again in the forthcoming Justice League movie(s). In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, writer Chris Terrio confirmed that Morrison’s concept is influencing him:

“It’s impossible to know everything in the DC universe, but I threw myself into it and tried to learn as much as possible and I found such intelligence in so many of the comics…writers like Grant Morrison, who asks difficult philosophical questions in an extremely smart way…I began to think Batman and Superman occupy different parts of the mythic imagination. In superhero stories, Batman is Pluto, god of the underworld, and Superman is Apollo, god of the sky.”

The film itself is overloaded with mythic and religious symbolism. It outright compares Superman to Horus (god of the sky), Apollo (god of sun and light) and Jehovah (God of imagery that Zack Snyder and other Superman directors love to draw from), but Chris Terrio’s quote above locates the mythic heart of the DCCU in Bullfinch’s Mythology. The decision to view these characters from that perspective is an important one and a fascinating one.
"Sing, O Muse..."

What Snyder's film hones in on and wants to explore, what so many Greek myths center around, and what I suspect is both an essential component of this burgeoning cinematic universe AND of the dislike the film has engendered, is genuine fear - not just of wild-eyed super-villains with grandiose world domination plans, but of the very idea of meta-humanity, the unknown and the alien among us, and the loss of control their emergence would signal.

This instinct to make Superman an object of awe and of fear in spite of his visibly good intentions and because of his immense power is directly at odds with what many critics seem to want from a film like this. I don’t blame those folks, or hold anger toward them. They wanted something different. In no way are critics being bribed to pan this movie, nor are they coordinating en masse to give it terrible reviews for some nefarious purpose. I do think, however, that BvS, like Man of Steel before it, suffered from the sort of collective ill will that turns some middling reviews into savagings, that inspires some folks to dip deep into the wells of humor and hyperbole in order to mount a round of can-you-top-this critiques. That happens sometimes, and it’s safe to say that some of these reviews fall into that category. Some movies are marked early as turkeys that are fun to shoot, and BvS was marked early. That doesn’t imply ill intent on the part of any critic, but it would be disingenuous to pretend the phenomenon doesn't exist.
It would also be disingenuous to ignore that many critics have written excellent, thoughtful essays on the film that are well worth reading, and that sometimes hyperbole, excellence and intelligence coexist. I very much enjoyed Walter Chaw's intelligent, viral review/essay on BvS, for instance. I found his observations about the ways in which BvS reflects our times, and the ways in which we can compare the film to the films that Japan made in the wake of Hiroshima, enormously compelling. At the same time I mentally rebelled from a good number of its hyperbolic assertions re the "morality" of the film, just as I’ve found myself mentally rebelling from many many many many similar assertions being made.

My face, as seen reading some of these assertions.

Despite the insistence of Chaw and many, many others, Superman murders nobody in this movie (“What about that warlord who puts a gun to Lois’s head,” you say, and I point to Clark’s dialogue in the film: “I didn’t kill those men.” Then you say “but at the speed he was traveling—” and that’s where I cut you off, Neil DeGrasse Tyson).

I disagree with the insistence on labeling Cavill's Superman as cold, or menacing, or uncaring, or unheroic. Superman is not "a sociopath" in this movie or in Man of Steel, as has been claimed more than once. He's a lot more uncertain than past incarnations, sure, but I'm also preeeeetty sure that a willingness to sacrifice your own life for humanity twice in one movie qualifies as heroic. As do the multiple rescues he performs. I'm also pretty certain that vocally questioning the ways that Batman abuses people's civil liberties is right in Superman's square-jawed wheelhouse, as is his visible discomfort at being venerated on the day of the dead. So are his attempts to talk to Batman (his subsequent willingness to go ahead and throw down, as opposed to simply floating above Batman's head and making Wayne listen to him, is pure Snyder).
In BvS, Superman is selfless and self-sacrificing and is for the most part exactly the sort of thoughtful, growing hero I wanted to see after Man of Steel. The notion put forth that "the Superman symbol [has gone] the way of the Confederate flag," as Chaw writes in his piece, strikes me as the height of groundless hyperbole (or it would, if so many others weren't ambitiously scaling those same heights). Superman spends the entirety of this movie, having clearly learned from the events of Man of Steel, helping the bejeezus out of everybody.

It's not Superman who has declared that the American conscience died with the Kennedys - it's Perry White. Superman does what he's always done, saving those who need saving, visibly conscious that certain people want to question everything about him. That’s genuinely interesting to me. More interesting to me is the way in which his actions visibly inspire Bruce by the end of the film, and maybe it's the crazy pills talking, but that inspiration feels nicely tentative and grounded and a good foundation for their partnership going forward.

"Look, I'm having an existential gardening crisis here and I'd like to take it out on you."

Superman isn’t really Bruce Wayne’s main beef in BvS, though he certainly insists otherwise. Wayne’s real issue when the film opens is his own growing sense that his life has been meaningless; that the world is out of his control and hurtling toward chaos. Batman isn't just looking to kill Superman - he's looking to kill his own sense of helplessness in the face of a world filled with endless weeds to be pulled and re-pulled. He's looking for the simple solution to a problem that has none. For 2/3’s of this movie he and Lex Luthor are mirror images of each other in nearly every way. They’re both hyper-rich introverts/closet-extroverts with a desire to do something that history will remember them for – namely, eliminate the perceived threat of a dangerous foreigner.
Batman begins the film rescuing an orphaned child as Superman battles a genocidal monster. He ends the film rescuing Martha Kent as Superman battles a genocidal monster. What’s changed is his perspective on what those rescues mean. Pulling endless weeds doesn’t have to be the description of his calling; he can redefine that calling so that he is the one responsible for rescuing individual innocents from chaos, for keeping an eye on the sparrows, so to speak, as gods battle above him. He can inspire hope as well as fear, and it’s Superman who helps him come to that realization.
This is a version of Batman I’ve never seen onscreen before, and I like it. I like that he ends the film ready to partner with others. I like that we witness the birth of Grudging Team Player Batman, who is without a doubt my favorite Batman.

There’s a core of genuine optimism buried in BvS, and it expresses itself through Batman’s evolution in the film. In a world that feels like it's spinning out of control, a world that seems so conflicted about itself and suspicious of others unlike itself, "men are still good." There is redemption and resurrection to be found, but only when we step out of our own isolation, when we recognize the humanity of the Other and (gee whiz!) work together. For all its artfully composed gloom BvS is also movingly old fashioned in the way of DC's far more ridiculous and charming Silver Age. Wayne's moment of epiphany and conversion occurs when he realizes that the "alien threat" has a mother who is in danger - a mother who happens to share the name of his own dead mother (in its entire history has DC Comics ever recognized that coincidence?). It's a moment that's at once ludicrous and winning, a moment that feels RIGHT from the perspective of a longtime DC fan. OF COURSE Wayne and Kent are going to form a bond based on parents, and on what those parents mean to them. OF COURSE.

"Hi. I'm here to steal your movie, boys."

...Now let's briefly talk about Wonder Woman. Having only seen Gal Gadot in the Fast & Furious films I was legitimately worried about her casting. Those worries have been partially put to rest, based on the little that we see in BvS. Gadot is very good with very little, bringing an excellent, dynamic physicality to the character, and it bodes well that she was just as interesting in her introductory scenes as  she was in her big Led Zeppelin Immigrant Song moment. It remains to be seen whether she can carry a solo film and bring emotional depth to the role, but I’m excited to watch what she does in 2017.
None of what I've written here means that I don’t have issues with the film. Pretty clearly this movie is a structural mess. That more or less passed me by completely on my first viewing, so caught up was I in seeing lifelong icons sharing the screen. The second time through, though, I felt it. You can feel the presence of an earlier draft throughout in a way that's unusually strong.  Let's take one example that will serve as a summary of the whole, shall we? The character of Wallace Keefe (Scoot McNairy) was very clearly John Corben in an earlier draft, right? AKA Metallo? Wallace is crippled in the Superman/Zod battle, is approached by Lex to "stand for something," and then... he simply dies/is exploded. On the surface that plot works, sort of, until you think about it. I mean, giving Wallace an easily identifiable prototype wheelchair filled with explosives is a pretty great way of ensuring you'll be caught. This entire subplot suggests that (a) the writers just said “screw it” at some point and abandoned attempts to make this work; (b) Lex is very dumb and/or truly insane in a way that makes the character way less interesting, or (c) this wasn't how the character's arc ended initially.
Initially, I suspect, Lex gave Wallace/Corben that chair as the first step in a relationship that would culminate in Luthor transforming Corben into a cyborg with a Kryptonite heart. In the comics Metallo has always seemed like one of Superman's blander foes, but in the context of this film series he could have been powerful and memorable as the walking embodiment of the destruction in, and anger about, Man of Steel. Instead he becomes the unimportant and uninteresting delivery system for Lex Luthor’s bomb instead, and so remains a disappointingly dashed-off sketch of a person. McNairy’s entire arc could and should have been cut once it became clear that Metallo wasn’t going to appear. Barring that, his arc needed something more than what’s on the screen. Does McNairy know about the bomb? Is he colluding with Lex? And what is the film trying to say by utilizing him? “Something-something-mad-at-Superman,” as far as I can tell. McNairy adds nothing to the film that isn’t already being underlined three times over by both Bruce Wayne and Lex Luthor.
Doesn’t the above make a lot more sense, as a sequel to Man of Steel? As much as I genuinely love all of the Darkseid/Justice League/Doomsday stuff in BvS, it feels overlaid onto the story in a way that’s shaggy and totally all over the place.
...and Peggy.

And speaking of all over the place: Jesse Eisenberg. I’d like to say I know what Eisenberg, Terrio, and Goyer were going for with Lex Luthor in this movie, but I sure don’t! I am perplexed by his weird breakdown in the middle of his charity speech. I am befuddled by the choice to have Luthor half-sing a good number of his lines. I am bewildered by his schemes. Luthor is an oddddd duck in this movie.
Part of me wonders whether (a) some of this (the breakdown, the scheming) is resolved in the “Ultimate Cut” that’s coming this summer, or (b) some or all of this is set up down the road for a reveal that he’s being controlled/manipulated by Darkseid and his elite. Either way, Eisenberg is weird here, for sure.
[Please see FOOTNOTE FOUR, in which I talk about deleted scenes, the "Ultimate Cut," and the undeniable appeal of seeing Zack Snyder interpret the New Gods. You know where it is.]
Did BvS disappoint you/offend you? Let me offer you some well-meant, sincere advice:
Enjoy Marvel, have patience, and take solace in the fact that Warners will view these characters as evergreen so long as other studios continue to turn healthy profits. If this iteration fails they'll try something else, because there's serious money to be made when they get it "right." Remember that there's a lighter TV universe out there right now - and that DC is a multiverse; they can hit that reboot button any time. One day your vision for the DCU will likely be up on those screens. Well, maybe not yours. Yours is a little weird. The rest of you though, should take hope.
As for me? Well...
BvS is thrillingly overwrought, powerfully messy, intriguingly fractious. It is bombastic. It’s funny (intentionally, even!), it's uneven, it's bizarre (I am in danger of overstating/overselling this aspect, but it's true). Hooray! If it’s a “trainwreck” it’s a spectacular, immaculately visualized trainwreck; but it’s not a trainwreck, at least, not in my eyes. Rather, it’s a hugely flawed, hugely ambitious movie that was consciously created to stand apart from Marvel and its undeniably successful method on multiple levels; a film with a clear gonzo authorial stamp and a palpable desire to swing not just for the fences but for the goddamn moon. It does not, in fact, put a baseball on the moon but it sure does look good in the attempt. I admire the hell out of its outsized ambition, and underneath all those carefully composed shots is a core of optimism and reassurance that is the film’s true foundation. BvS has Something to say. It’s not a particularly deep and deeply-explored Something. It’s not even a particularly coherently articulated Something. But that Something is nonetheless surprisingly, resolutely optimistic and effective, and it always will be: "Men are still good."
Yes. And Zack Snyder is still one of our weirdest blockbuster filmmakers. I'm very glad BvS exists, in all its shambolic glory, and I cannot WAIT to see Justice League
***Post-Credits Footnotes***



Let's list out some plausible alternate explanations for my enjoyment of BvS:

1. I am a dad to very young children. I get to see PG-13 movies in theaters a piddling handful of times a year. I'm excited every time. Plus, I got to go to an advance screening! Plus, there were free snacks!! F*ck yeah parents night out BEST MOVIE EVER!!! That's one explanation.

2. I am openly biased toward DC's characters/universe. I sincerely want to see all these characters on screen interacting. I sincerely want a cinematic DC Universe with Easter eggs and cameos and hints and all of that embarrassingly nerdy stuff, and you should have seen my face during that extended Bruce Wayne apocalypse/Apokalips "vision," or that scene where they open Luthor's metahuman files. An edited transcript of some of my thoughts follows:

Those weird flying things from the trailer ARE Parademons?...!!
Is that…is that a Mother Box???? AHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!!!
…It’s a Mother Box!!!! AHHHHHH! AHHHHHHHH!!!!!
Grant Morrison-esque Flash cameo from the future!!! YAAAAAAAAAAYYY!!!

...And so on. Most people who see this movie aren't going to know what the hell any of those things are, much less get excited about them. Not only do I know, I'm obscenely excited about them. The fact that DC's cinematic universe is founded in part on Jack Kirby's Fourth World saga is just unreal to me as a fan of that cosmic magnum opus and its weirdo characters. So. That's another explanation.

3. I have always loved that DC is a company that actively offers multiple interpretations of its characters. I love that Batman '66 and Batman: Year One and Batman: Red Rain are all about the same guy who dresses up AS A BAT TO FIGHT CRIME, but with vastly different takes. On some level I like all of those versions, just as I like Superman: Red Son and All-Star Superman and John Byrne's Man of Steel. I'm not opposed to seeing DC's characters cast in different lights. I don't see doing so as a root betrayal that poisons the tree. I see their reinterpretability as strength.
4. I liked Man of Steel. For a number of people Man of Steel is poison ground where nothing good can grow, and if that's your starting point it's virtually impossible to view BvS and enjoy it.

Just for the record: I am by nature a man who loves, and is drawn to, optimistic portrayals of heroism. I love Superman because he works to be a moral example. I also love fun! Who doesn’t love fun? You would think that would lead me directly into the camp of people who outright hate the universe that Snyder is constructing. However I am also by nature a man who (in theory) welcomes a degree of greater moral complexity in his comic book movies. Marvel is very good at what they do, but 90% of their films are all essentially the same. Good-hearted, quip-spouting charming rogue(s) battle villain for control of a Macguffin, learning the importance of selflessness along the way. The outlier to that repetitive formula is Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and it's no coincidence that it's the best Marvel film in my opinion.

The above isn't a knock on Marvel. Their films reinvigorated my interest in their characters, which is no small thing. Their films are lots of fun, and I own nearly all of them. I cannot WAIT to share them with my children. But I'm ready for something different and I've been ready for some time; ready for the sorts of differing perspectives on power, control, intervention, and heroism that DC Comics offers up on a regular basis in their pages.
Four words: Zack Snyder. Boom Tubes.
More words: The brief glimpse of Earth-as-wasteland that we’re given convinces me that Snyder and Terrio are the perfect pair to bring the nightmare world of Apokolips to life in Justice League. There’s a wild, wooly, boldly gonzo feel to that entire segment, and in general the “knightmare” sequences in the film are terrific, with a fever-dream weirdness and intensity that act to suggest they’re all connected and part of a larger premonition that Wayne is having/receiving. I love the way in which Wayne’s dream of his parents’ murder bleeds directly into his dream of discovering the Batcave – with one of Martha Wayne’s fallen pearls resting by young Bruce’s hand as he lays at the bottom of the old well he’s fallen into. I love that the image of him rising toward the light both acts as symbolism for his becoming Batman as well as a premonition of Superman himself, and how the two of them are connected. I love the image of Martha’s crypt bursting open, and the giant bat within devouring Wayne alive, functioning as a wonderfully Freudian warning from his own subconscious. I flat-out adore the way Wayne wakes up from his Apokolips “dream” and lands in a sci-fi time travel intervention courtesy of Ezra Miller’s Flash, who is wearing a ridiculous, awesome/awesomely ridiculous knight-like helmet that’s assumedly to protect him as he time travels, and is exactly the sort of out-there detail I like best in my comics.
All of this more than arguably leads to the film feeling “overstuffed” and sloppy, but all of this is so very much in my wheelhouse as a fan of DC and as a fan of crackpot cinema that I genuinely don’t care. Pile on the crazy. Let’s see a Justice League Part 1 that’s mostly nightmare dream sequences and ominous signs.
I’ll tell you this: I can’t wait to watch the “Ultimate Cut." Warner Brothers has already released one of its deleted scenes for some reason, and it is exactly my brand of WTFery. It’s superweird and almost intentionally confusing and I want to see the film again with it reinserted back in right now pleaseandthankyou. Presumably that horned guy is one of Darkseid’s lieutenants and those boxes are Mother Boxes (AHHHH!), which is only going to render this movie MORE inscrutable to some. Not me, though. I am allllll in on this. I am ready for all the New Gods-related insanity that Warners and Synder want to throw at me. If they want to spend a few hundred million to bring Kirby’s creations to life, who am I to object?
I want the whole kit n' kaboodle: Darkseid, the anti-life equation, Apokolips, fire pits, Steppenwolf, Kalibak, Granny Goodness, the Female Furies. And even though I think putting Justice League in the hands of another director would make for a more coherent, more pleasing, more commercially sustainable experience, I want to see what Snyder would do with all of that now. I'm imagining Kirby by way of Heavy Metal magazine, and/or Mad Max meets Frazetta.


1 comment:

  1. 😊😊😊😊😊😊 i loved reading this and had the biggest smile in knowing someone shared the "weird joy from the batshit craziness" just as I did.