Review – Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016)

bvsBack in 1986, as Superman star Christopher Reeve was prepping work on the ill-fated Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, he approached the writer of Superman I and II, the late, great Tom Mankiewicz, for advice. Reeve pitched Mankiewicz on his idea for Superman to rid the world of nuclear weapons, a parallel to real-world social issues of the time. Mankiewicz replied with this advice:

Don’t ever get involved with something Superman could fix. He could disarm the world in fifteen minutes. He doesn’t have to go to the UN. If he feels that strongly about it, he could get rid of all the missiles. Superman could feed the world if he wanted to. He could establish agricultural fields in outer space. Don’t bring up things like that.

I would like to add an addendum to that. Don’t get Superman directly involved with real-world issues. Do not twist his mission of peace into a political struggle. Do not bog him down with the ugliness of reality, the superfluity of man’s government, or the problems of democracy, especially at the expense of his message of hope, of inspiring the best in humanity.

I write this, because my many concerns over the past few years with director Zack Snyder’s approach to Batman v Superman were finally realized last month. Not only has the filmmaker indulged in all the above missteps, he’s delivered the most vile, morally reprehensible depiction of Superman and DC Comics on film to date. The film is a brutal assault on our senses, on the spirituality and idealism of these characters, on our intelligence as moviegoers, and on the vitality of quality filmmaking in big-budget studio tentpoles. It’s not just a disappointment; it’s a resolute misstep for the future of the DC Universe on film.

The film centers on a middle-aged Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck getting first billing in a long history of big actors being billed before the guy playing Superman) who after witnessing Superman (Henry Cavill) and General Zod topple one of his company’s buildings at the end of Manbatman-v-superman of Steel two years ago, grows weary of such dangerous forces being left unchecked.  Rather than blaming the indulgences of the director in the previous film, we are to blame Superman for Metropolis’ destruction. Bruce’s fear is shared by a great deal of the public, who endlessly debate Superman’s heroics and the fact that he “answers to nobody.” Bruce returns to Gotham City plotting to neutralize, and kill if necessary, the Man of Steel, despite repeated claims by butler Alfred (Jeremy Irons) that “he is not our enemy.” “That son of a bitch brought the war to us!” replies Bruce. Blah blah post-9/11 themes.

Back in Metropolis, Clark Kent is living comfortably with fellow Daily Planet staffer Lois Lane (Amy Adams). I guess Lois knowing Clark’s secret identity from the get-go at the end of Man of Steel hasn’t yielded any interesting twists on their decades-long will they/won’t they relationship from the comics. Contrastingly, Superman has been entirely anti-social in public, saving the world yet not really interacting with it in any way beyond that for these two years. Meanwhile, wealthy philanthropist Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg) plots to acquire the recently-discovered Kryptonite to control Superman, by manipulating a senator (Holly Hunter) and indeed everyone else around him. Oh, and there’s also other DC characters like Wonder Woman (Gal Godot) lying in the wait for the eventual Justice League movie.

It’s an overflowing plot, but there are traces of intrigue. Chris Terrio of Argo fame uses the characters as players in a larger piece about terrorism, power, corruption, and security, the groundwork of an intriguing political thriller. It is critical of heroes like Batman and Superman, examining their failings and the real consequences of their actions. It’s also a huge deviation from the reverence Snyder and his Man of Steel team showed for the universe in that film. In part to blame is perhaps the director’s long-standing love of Frank Miller’s seminal 1986 graphic novel The Dark Knight Returns; Snyder carts over that story’s older, world-wearier Batman, some talking-head-style political commentary, and perhaps intentionally or not, Miller’s own disdain for the Last Son of Krypton.

Indeed, Dawn of Justice continues the tradition of recent Superman media by placing the hero in no-win scenarios that go directly against the winning spirit the character has always been about. There is a scene wherein (avoiding spoilers) Superman enters a building and a bomb goes off, and Superman just watches somberly as everyone around him is vaporized. Uh, Zack? This is Superman. Not Doctor Manhattan.

That’s an issue I had with Man of Steel too, though to a lesser extent. The Superman mythology isn’t about “well, what if he were REAL? What if a humanoid that had all these powers came to earth?” I don’t care how the real world reacts to Superman’s presence. That’s not appealing to me. Superman is about fantasy, he’s an ESCAPE from the real world. He’s a guy flying around in a red cape who makes a difference in his community and inspires those Batman-V-Superman-Trailer-Fight-Heat-Visionaround him to pitch in themselves. Why is there debate about whether or not he’s doing the right thing? We KNOW he’s gonna do the right thing. He’s SUPERMAN. And yet here we are, watching Charlie Rose and Neil DeGrasse-Tyson (both make brief appearances) debate about a Superman that exists and whether or not his power should be checked. But this is a Superman that hasn’t even begun to build bridges with people publically, so he’s clearly failed in his mission. The Superman of the comics won people over with a smile and a wave as he flew above them. Pity Henry Cavill’s Superman isn’t allowed such joy, regulated to stand and mope idly about how people don’t understand him.

As for Ben Affleck’s Batman, he busies himself in these ridiculous, jarring dream sequences reflecting his fear of aliens from the sky. I had hope after one such sequence, wherein a bat-creature bursts from the tomb of Martha Wayne to attack him. It recalls the jump-scares of a horror movie, a cool new twist that might really transport audiences into Bruce’s tortured psyche. Yet the movie never goes anywhere with it, taking us into even more absurd (and immodestly-budgeted) nightmares, one of which is a full, unabashed teaser for the Justice League movie. Pity Affleck, who’s been suckered into this mess with the promise of redemption after the indignity of 2003’s Daredevil. The actor/filmmaker isn’t altogether unfitting in the cape and cowl, but is also far from the finest performer to fill it.

But I digress. After characters have waxed poetic enough, director Snyder yanks the film’s breaks and yells, “less talk, more EXPLOSIONS!” All political discussions or reflections on real-world politics (clumsy as they were) are gone, leaving all its ideas entirely unresolved, lost in Snyder’s blaring self-indulgence and Junkie XL and Hans Zimmer’s blatant, blaring, borderline parodical score. What of Scoot McNairy’s legless homeless guy? Why has Amy Adams’ role been all but reduced to damsel-in-distress? Shouldn’t Clark be getting in trouble every time Perry White (Lawrence Fishburne) passes by his empty desk? No answers here, we only have enough time left in the already bloated two-and-a-half hour runtime for the movie to live up to its namesake – the bout between Batman and Superman.

And…it sucks. Not only does Snyder fail to build up their conflict in any meaningful way, their fisticuffs aren’t satisfying, nor are they really even warranted in the context of the film. It’s seriously the weakest explanation for pitting these two characters against each other. And it was at this point in the movie, after suddenly becoming aware of the intense grimace on my face, I wondered, “aren’t I supposed to be having fun?”

Apparently not. There’s actually a really ugly undercurrent to Dawn of Justice, boasting such brutality, such bloodlust, such hyper-machismo bullshit that makes for the most uncomfortable, punishing experience. That’s not just during the title fight too, that’s the whole movie. Snyder and his cinematographer Larry Fong absolutely do not know when to stop with the hypermasculinity, when enough is enough, to the point where one starts to feel ashamed at being a man at all. It’s more than enough to build a case accusing Snyder, who also shoots the death of Bruce’s parents with all the slow motion and heavy breathing of a sex scene, of using DC Comics characters to work through his own crippling manhood issues.

The studio is even prepping an R-rated cut of this movie for home video release. That’s right, your favorite childhood comic book characters have been perverted into a movie that, without certain cuts, was deemed too violent and too intense by anyone under 17 years old. Wow.batman-v-superman-the-complete-guide-to-frank-miller-dark-knight

So inevitably, we know Batman and Superman are to resolve their differences at some point. And after all that thirst for blood, all that shoddy build-up, their altercation is capped off in the most mind-bogglingly stupid, overwhelmingly left-field conclusion, that literally any idea you, the audience, could come up with as to why these characters should stop fighting, will better qualify you to write this movie than the filmmakers being paid hundreds of thousands to do so.

And then they’re friends, as if nothing had happened, teaming up to destroy an even more laughably stupid threat. And if you thought this film would be answering for Man of Steel’s destructive climax, you’d be wrong, wrong, wrong. Batman v Superman doubles down on the needlessly high body count. In fact, in one scene Batman has the big baddie in a totally isolated area, but rather than returning to the city to bring the necessary tools to kill the baddie to him, he actually draws him BACK INTO THE POPULATED CITY to get HIM to the tools. Remember how Christopher Nolan’s Batman had that one rule about killing people? Apparently Zack Snyder doesn’t share that sentiment.

So we finally realize, Batman v Superman is a movie about uncomfortable extremes. Snyder has always been an overwrought mess of a filmmaker, favoring style over substance, but the responsibility of pitting together two beloved DC characters has done nothing to curb his sadist, ear-rapingly obnoxious hard-on for destruction. What the hell? Doesn’t this go against everything DC Comics characters have stood for the past 70 years? You bet. Both Batman and Superman are acting totally out of character here. Batman’s a crazy, single-minded bruiser who brands criminals and wants nothing short of Superman’s death, while Superman is totally willing to bend his own moral code if his family is threatened. In the comics, the two have had their quarrels, occasionally even violent ones, but they have never, ever been pushed to the point of foaming at the mouth, hungering for each other’s head on a spike like in this movie. Pity the children who have to witness such overt brutality by the hands of characters who should, ideally, be serving as their role models.

And again, pretty much all the problems posed by the movie would’ve been solved immediately had Superman simply TALKED OPENLY. A simple, “Bruce, we’re being played!” would’ve stopped the title fight altogether. And every single other problem of the movie could’ve been completely avoided had Superman simply stood up in front of the public after Man of Steel and been like, “Hey guys, my name’s Superman, I’m just here to help out with the problems you can’t solve yourselves and really just help everyone to do better. Sorry about that Zod character, he’s a bad guy on my home planet, and I was just trying to stop him. Next time we face a threat like this, I’ll do it in space or something so there’s not as many casualties. Again sorry, still new to the whole superhero thing. Anyway, up up and away and all that!” *woosh*

Boom. /conflict.

Even the other DC characters teased in this movie lack subtlety; they basically appear in mini-trailers for their upcoming solo movies. It’s a sad day when I’m longing for the more natural, thoughtful teases of Green Lantern.

I haven’t even mentioned Jesse Eisenberg, who gives the most abysmally misguided performance as Lex Luthor. Eisenberg, known for his mousy-yet-charming teenage characters in Adventureland and _1436830197Zombieland, is not only insanely miscast as the powerful billionaire, he’s clearly never even glimpsed a Superman comic long enough to know who this character is supposed to be. So he instead plays Luthor the only way he knows how – by going over-the-top awkward, hammy, and creepy, his hands shaking as he speaks about power at a charity event, stumbling over the girth of his words. There’s even a point at the end where he actually hums the notes of the musical score. It’s just uncomfortable, a lot like…well, Zack Snyder’s id – angry, unrestrained, bratty, unlikable, and sadistic.

And that’s pretty much Batman v Superman too, the Donald Trump of superhero movies – loud, blunt, ugly, stupid, fear-mongering, extremist, tasteless, and bearing several cringe-worthy teases of what’s to come. Zack Snyder was always the wrong architect for the DC Universe on film, merely a loud, annoying kid bashing his action figures together. I don’t think Tom Mankiewicz could’ve envisioned anything like it, but if he could see Dawn of Justice now, there is no doubt he’d be shaking his head, collecting his valuables, and leaving the theater. I’d be right behind him.

3.5/10

 

QUOTE: Rossen, Jake; Millar, Mark (2008-02-01). Superman vs. Hollywood: How Fiendish Producers, Devious Directors, and Warring Writers Grounded an American Icon (Cappella Books) (p. 164). Chicago Review Press. Kindle Edition.

IMAGES: cinemablend.com, mirror.co.uk, screenrant.com, cdn.idigitaltimes.com, i.ytimg.com

Publicity Stunt Casting: The Eisenberg-Luthor Issue

68th Annual Golden Globe Awards Arrivals Kk13rC1WKOulLoading up Bleeding Cool one afternoon last month, I glimpsed the headline, “Jesse Eisenberg cast as Lex Luthor in Batman/Superman movie.” Chuckling, I checked my calendar. Nope, April Fool’s was still months away. Odd. Good joke, though. Wonder how many sites will start circulating the obviously fake story as legitimate. Later, ComingSoon.net did just that, it’s headline reading the same. Then Deadline’s, featuring a press release from director Zack Snyder himself. Journalists, straining to remain as objective as possible, opted for a collective, “Well…didn’t see that one coming.”

Huh, I thought. Well that’s dumb. So…why, exactly, Eisenberg?

You may consider this a rant on the matter if you wish, but these days I don’t take these things nearly as seriously. To think it was a mere four years ago when I was pacing the floor agitatedly upon learning Snyder would direct Man of Steel. I have to think that angry college freshman would’ve flown through the roof upon reading this news. Regardless, such a bizarre announcement practically demands I toss my two cents in.

Since the casting announcement, I’ve largely steering clear of much of the internet’s, say, less informed discussion on the matter. Even so, I’m keenly aware it’s gotten fans riled up like Ben Affleck never could, with most people just curious as to what the flying fuck these filmmakers are thinking. Then you’ve got those anti-haters, the tools of the group discussion who post, “It totally makes sense guys. Eisenberg played Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network, he’s a modern-day Luthor, a tech-savvy, self-made businessman. And he’s so mousy, so you’d never expect him to be a threat to the world’s greatest champion.” It’s a lot of flimsy, long-winded, run-around garbage, people trying to justify how these filmmakers couldn’t go wrong. They can’t go wrong. Zack Snyder is a fucking visionary.

Then you’ve got those people who complain about people who complain about the complainers, evidently Monty Python fans.

My opinion, boiled down to its most basic, obvious truth: this casting blows.

But let’s backtrack. After Ben Affleck was announced to be playing Batman in the new film, the actor says heben-affleck-23 was able to take his criticism on the chin, but that it “seems odd” to judge a film’s cast before even seeing the movie. To an extent I agree, and certainly I’m saving my final judgment of the film for 2016. As with the case of seemingly every major tentpole movie these days, a certain degree of secrecy is required to keep fans from dissecting every element, every frame, every detail before the movie’s even out. So naturally, it makes sense to adopt a “wait and see” attitude without knowing much about what the final film will look like. Fair enough.

But dropping a huge bomb like the Eisenberg announcement, and expecting fans NOT to judge? Expecting fans not to start questioning the difference between Snyder entering a room of casting executives and saying, “Hey guys, let’s be bold and unexpected. Let’s take a chance on this actor and see what he does with the role,” and entering a room saying, “Guys, fuck everything, let’s hit so far into left field, that dude sitting in the nosebleed section will see his car getting hit by the ball in the parking lot.”?

That’s expecting a lot.

Here’s the difference: Ben Affleck is a bold and daring choice. Affleck fits perfectly with the prospect of an older, wiser, yet still handsome and physically fit Bruce Wayne. Performance unseen, his casting defies nothing of the typical, expected image of Bruce Wayne we’ve all come to know and love, nor does it impede any possibilities for Affleck to portray the character accurately and true to the source material. He is sensible left-field. Though there remains the unanswered question, does the actor overshadow the character? Will Affleck’s celebrity status purport not Batman, but Ben Affleck in a cape and cowl? I’m inclined to vote for the former, simply because, as evidenced by Val Kilmer’s charisma-less Dark Knight in Batman Forever, you can pretty much cast most traditional Hollywood leading men in the role and they’ll probably do a solid job at the very least.

Another in the sensible left-field category: Jeremy Irons as Wayne’s butler Alfred Pennyworth. Irons will no doubt put a fresh new spin on the character, and yet the actor still has the acting chops to play the traditional, fatherly Alfred of the comics we all know and love. That’s being faithful to the mythology while still doing something different and exciting that will get people talking.

Let’s say Snyder wants exactly that. Let’s say Eisenberg is exactly who the casting guys are looking for in an antagonist. In the furthest reaches of my logic, the best explanation I can come up with is this: after the (spoilers) neck-breaking climax of Man of Steel, Superman is left to grapple with his moral decision-making and overall code of ethics, to eventually and obviously settle upon a traditional “no-kill” policy. Then here comes “Luthor,” whom screenwriters David Goyer and Chris Terrio have written to be mousy and meek, as a way of better challenging Supes to stay true to his new edict. Here is this absolute weakling, whom Supes knows he could snap in half with a flick of his finger, who nonetheless has power over him. Supes, in all his power, in all his strength, can do nothing when threatened by Luthor. It’s a continuation of the themes of Man of Steel, dealing with Superman’s everyday choice to let loose or exercise restraint.

Maybe this Luthor is designed to play up the contrasts between he and Superman. Maybe Luthor desires Superman’s strength and can’t have it, forced to compensate with his knowledge and technology. Maybe, where Clark earned his powers, Luthor had to work for his own abilities, leading him to hate Superman for his entitlement. All interesting contrasts to potentially be played up.

This all, of course, ignores the reality that Eisenberg’s casting completely flies in the face of who and what Lex Luthor is and always has been as a character. And Eisenberg cannot possibly hope to portray Luthor as written in any other medium, not now or ever.

To illustrate, this is Lex Luthor:

lexluthor

Note the physical stance in each of these images. Luthor is constantly in command, caught up in his own twisted vision of what society should be. He exudes one crucial element that sets him above not just Superman, but most of humanity – power. Luthor is a commanding presence, ruling LexCorp, Metropolis, and even the free world with an iron fist. He stands toe-to-toe with Superman both mentally, and in his power suit, physically. Luthor is power that can’t be found in a gym, or near a yellow sun, or even in a lifetime of experience. The guy is practically power personified, and suffice to say, power is not something that can be found from the shy, awkward kid from Adventureland.

I asked earlier if Affleck’s Batman will prove more Affleck than Batman. I pose the same question about Eisenberg: does the actor overshadow the character? In this case, absolutely. I could never see past Eisenberg to see Lex Luthor. He is senseless left-field, and unlike Affleck and Irons, could never hope to portray the Luthor of the source material. Eisenberg has no power. He has very little screen presence. He has no way to be taken seriously in any scenario involving power. He’s a fine actor, but his range is limited to arrested-development teenager roles and smug brats. He is everything that Luthor is not, to the point where suggesting him to play Superman’s greatest nemesis would have you laughed out of any respectable casting agency. Eisenberg is the internet troll’s ironic pick for Luthor in a fantasy casting discussion. And it’s ridiculous that this even has to be said, quite honestly.

I argue not only this, but that Eisenberg’s casting is a thoughtless maneuver designed merely to get people talking about the lore’s huge change in status quo. These days, comic book movies practically demand left-field casting, as anything less would almost surely be met with an indifferent yawn from audiences. But when you’re casting someone so blatantly unfitting for the role, now you’re no longer bringing the world of the comics to life. You’re no longer trying to faithfully adapt a beloved American mythology. You’re defying expectations for the sake of defying them, and spitting in the face of your predecessors’ legacy.

“But wait!” whine certain fans. “Remember how everyone hated the idea of Heath Ledger as Joker? Look how that turned out!” I regret I was among those who championed other actors above Ledger at the time of The Dark Knight, but these fans are missing the point. Nolan cast the left-field Ledger because he had a vision. Even in Man of Steel, Snyder’s cast is filled with big names for its own sake, the director merely aping Nolan’s casting methods on the Dark Knight films (and really, Richard Donner’s on Superman: the Movie). I argue that Snyder is casting Eisenberg not because he has a vision, but because he simply wants to defy expectations.

The casting also illustrates how Hollywood seems more concerned with casting names than complete unknowns. Why not branch out and search for a more fitting Lex Luthor, an actor who has a chance to embody the role? What happened to casting the best actor for the job, not simply going with the most unexpected choice for its own sake?

Imagine this. Back in 1976, both Christopher Reeve and Sylvester Stallone walk into Richard Donner’s office. Both have auditioned for the role of Superman in Richard Donner’s eponymous film. Donner turns to Reeve and says, “Kid, you’ve got all the right stuff, you’re a great actor, but we’ve decided to go with Sly here.”

“What?” says Reeve. “Why?”

“Well kid, he’s got some experience under his belt, that much is certain. And he’s Italian, which we hope will challenge a lot of the expectations that fans have for the character. After all, Superman isn’t just American, he’s a child of the world, right? Who says we can’t cast Sly just because he’s completely ill-fitting to portray the Superman people know and love?”

You get the picture. And because of it, a little bit of excitement for the ultimate DC Comics team-up movie dies inside me. All the same, best of luck to Eisenberg, no doubt the ultimate victim in all this, and destined to receive the tongue-lashing of a lifetime right up until the film’s release and possibly even after.

Still, good joke. Looking forward also to Florence Henderson as Doomsday.

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