A Dark Knight Over Metropolis
There are two big corporate comic publishers (there are lots of small ones, too!), DC and Marvel.
I like'em both, but I have a soft spot for DC, the home of Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman and all the spawn of the Justice Society/League over 75+ years of publishing. Marvel is great, but they always tried to be set in the now. DC has a sense of history... this hero led to that hero, maybe by family, maybe by inspiration, but eventually you'd learn that the original version of such and such was still around, maybe in another dimension, maybe just down the road running a restaurant or hiding out in a hospital, trying to heal after decades of fighting the good fight. There is a sense of family, lineage and history there.
[Disclaimer: Yes, I know DC is doing its best to streamline things and pretend some stuff never happened. The powers that be don't know what a good thing they have and I hope they come to their senses some day.}
This brings me to how I feel about Batman v. Superman : Dawn of Justice....
(And that is the most awkward title for an American film this century. Can a movie be at all satisfying if you have to ask somebody how to pronounce the second word of the title?)
There is a lot of good stuff in this film, mostly visual and CGI-wise. I want to be able to say the good outweighs the bad, which is plentiful, but...
First, the good...
Wonder Woman. Gal Gadot has presence and charisma to spare in what is simply the best thing about this film. Her Wonder Woman succeeds as being the beautiful mystery woman at the cocktail party and the incredible ass-kicking warrior that I've always wanted to see brought to the screen. Her costume, though dark (like every other damned thing in this film) would work perfectly well on the page and looks great on screen. Even the martial drum theme they give her lifts the movie up.
Jeremy Irons. His Alfred is very good, droll and tired and fatherly. He gets a bit more to do than give his obsessed boss the occasional pep talk... which doesn't hold up to too much examination, but he's good.
Bruce Wayne/Batman. I gotta admit it. I think Ben Affleck is our best screen Batman to date. He's got the chin for it. He bulked up considerably. They gave him a great costume that actually looks like the comics version! He's not young, rookie Batman. He's older, grieving "Robin is dead" straight out of the Dark Knight Returns Batman (but that also doesn't hold up to too much examination and it leads to really poor script choices).
The Big CGI smackdown at the end. Really well done. The only time the choice to stage most of the film on a dark rainy night actually works in its favor. The stakes are high, the human/digital blend is pretty seamless and you can pretty much follow the action (I'm looking at you Iron Man, Hulk, Thor, Other Hulk and both Avengers Movies!)
The film fails on a fundamental level because it does not understand its two lead characters. Neither acts like the characters who have survived in our hearts and mind for all these years. I'm not saying that they couldn't act this way, given a clear progression of story over time. There have been dark, apocalyptic stories for both Superman and Batman (one of which is liberally lifted from all over this film), but if the audience doesn't see that world established beforehand, we are left wondering "Who are these guys and how did they get the keys to the Fortress of Solitude?". In short, our heroes are both miserable but they haven't earned it in our eyes. Showing Bruce's progression from lone vigilante to great detective to father figure to whatever the hell he's supposed to be now would make a more interesting journey than the main story we see here.
The problem goes back to "Man of Steel", which this is a direct sequel to, going so far as to set the opening in the last moments of the previous film as Bruce Wayne watches Kryptonian heat vision slice through the Wayne Financial Tower. Metropolis is collapsing around him as Superman and Zod battle it out and we see the beginning of Bruces obsession with the "Alien".
"Man of Steel" achieved the impossible for me. It made Superman depressing. It gave us a Superman who was lost, lonely, alienated and careless. His human parents taught him to be distrustful of humanity. He killed, on purpose and by accident. He left a city in ashes in order to save it. At the end of "MoS" he knocks a satellite tracking him out of orbit and tells a General "I'm here to help". I wanted to hear the General say "Really? How about you pick up a broom and clean up this mess?" When we meet him in "BvS", he's floating above scared people like a god, pausing before he decides to save them and standing in a crowd of Day of the Dead supplicants who just want to worship him. Real Subtle!
That's not Superman. Superman may be Kryptonian, but he is not of Krypton. Superman is the most human of Superheroes, because he was raised as a human by the two kindest people on earth and brought up to use his gifts to help people. Not because it is his burden, but because he's been taught that that is what neighbors do for each other. Superman loves his job because he realizes that the greatness is not in him, it's in the people who strive and achieve and carry on without any of the gifts he's been given.
If Henry Cavill's Superman has learned anything about himself or humanity in the two years since the
Wayne Tower fell, he sure doesn't show it in this film. We never see what he did to earn that great big statue in the middle of Metropolis. Did he help rebuild the city? Did he dig people out of the rubble? Did he even order pizza for the construction workers? Who knows? He's still a god-like mystery to everyone, even himself. He's glum and dour. He's constntly floating around in the rain (Since when does it rain in Metropolis?) . He barely even cracks a smile when he jumps in the bathtub with Lois Lane! BTW, kudos to the filmmakers for not only giving us a Superman with a stick up his Super-ass, but an Amy Adams who for the first time in history looks plain on film!
Break for annoying observation: When does Superman have time to slick back his hair? And why would he even think about it? I've always thought that the reason he has that s-shaped curl is that he is always working hard and his hair falls down into his eyes. I never knew he carried hair products in his Super-Onesie. Also... terrible costume. There's nothing anymore unrealistic about trunks on a superhero suit than a formfitting alien fabric suit with no zipper made by a sentient spaceship that somehow fits him perfectly. The trunks were there on all the old style costumes to clearly define the hero's body for the reader's eye. At least his old suit had a belt. This one seems ribbed for someone's pleasure.
A lot of time has passed since the opening of the film... What's Bruce been up to? Brooding, I guess. In the rain. There's an empty Robin suit in the Bat-Condo that mockingly suggests the Boy-Wonder fell at the hands of the Joker. Okay... we've got a Caped Crusader that's ready to lay down his life to battle an unstoppable creature from space. Am I supposed to believe this guy would let the Joker get away with killing the closest thing he had to a son? That's a big story there. And just wondering...how come when it all hit the fan with Zod back then... Batman didn't show up then? "Sorry, can't help... I'm brooding!". The filmmakers are trying to backfill a shared universe but they haven't given themselves any room to plant the seeds.
So for nearly two years, Bruce (The World's Greatest Detective) has been stalking Superman online and Superman has just noticed the "Bat-Vigilante" in Gotham, who has probably been at work for at least ten years. How come these guys never even talked to each other? Gotham is apparently just across the river, right? Christopher Reeve's Superman would have shown up next to Bats as he was scaling a wall (in the rain) and said "Hi There! Got a minute?" Any decent Batman would have been researching the heck out of Superman. there's a strong hint that they each know the other's secret when they meet at Lex's party (he sure seems to know who's who!), but the only time Clark calls Bruce by name is when they're about to throw down. We have no idea how he got that knowledge. They haven't earned the cred for Superman to call the guy in the mask "Bruce". In a 2 1/2 hour movie, nobody had time to build a coherent plot.
So the first time our heroes meet, Superman rips the top off the Batmotankythingy (in the rain), warns Batman off and ends with "Consider this mercy"... what a super dick. And when Superman tries to ask Bruce for help, Bruce is all with the punch first, kryptonite spear later, talk never tactic. Bat-Maniac. It's not until Clark squeaks out "You have to save Martha!" from under Bruce's iron boot, that we see these two start communicating. It takes some of the most awkward dialogue in a movie full of awkward dialogue to get these two on the same page.
Not only is it awkward, it's not at all true to character. Superman/Clark/Kal-El would never say "Save Martha" because he'd never refer to his mother that way. He would say "Please. Save my Mom!". Here he is helpless and getting his ass kicked. He would call her his Mom. If Batman/Bruce heard that, the fight would have been over, no need for the painful "What, we both know someone important to us named Martha?" connection. Because, for all the toys, the money, and the obsession, Bruce Wayne is a big kid who never really got over losing the two most important people in his life and all he really wants is to make sure no one ever has to feel that pain again.
The movie just spirals into a well of forced plotting and wooden dialogue, and worst of all, emotions that it doesn't earn. Bruce says things like "I'm a friend of your son's" and I failed him in life, I won't fail him in death" ... huh?
And suddenly, Superman is gone (in a blaze of "teeth-gritting, overacting, I'm suffering as much as the audience is" glory)! Anyone who knows the comics knows what is eventually coming, but I wish that the director had at least let the audience have a moment to feel something at the end... but, no... before the blackout, we KNOW Supes won't stay dead for long. And when he does come back, he still won't be the Superman we know. They haven't given him a story that creates THAT Superman yet. I have an idea what story they will tell, though (given the imagery in the Bruce's nightmares). It's going to be even darker than this. This movie picks the bones of "The Dark Knight Returns", "The Death of Superman" and "The Injustice" books, but it takes all the darkest elements of them without showing us the light elements that make them count to begin with.
I guess that's what's so hard about building a shared universe and telling epic stories. You have to start small and establish your characters. You have to start them in one place and show how they get to another. You have to make the connections between them real. You have to give us a reason to care. And you have to let the sun shine once in a while.
From Superman For All Seasons by Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale - my favorite Superman story...
in the previous pages Superman arrives just in time to Save a little boy from chasing his ball off a very high balcony. "The kid says "Thanks. Wow, neat costume!"
Clark says "Thanks...