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Thursday, 23 June 2016

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice

Batman v Superman
Dawn of Justice.

Yeah, I know, it sounds like a court case. We've all heard that joke before, might as well get it out of the way early.

So yesterday, I reviewed Captain America: Civil War, with a view to comparing these two films, and in all honesty, I wasn't keen. While a technically very strong film, its premise just made me more irritated than anything else, and there wasn't enough that interested me about it to make me forget that one. To be honest, it was always pretty doubtful that Batman v Superman would do any better: For starters, I hold that Zack Snyder is one of the worst filmmakers currently in the business, and David S. Goyer has a rare talent for mangling comic book properties to the point of unrecognisability. Perhaps more to the point, I hadn't liked Man of Steel, pretty much at all.

Picking up a few years after Man of Steel, Batman v Superman sees the deaths of numerous people pinned on Superman, after he rescues Lois from an interview with terrorists gone wrong, starting an international debate over whether Superman is good for humanity. Against this backdrop, a conflict starts brewing between Batman, angry with Superman for the deaths caused by his battle against General Zod and concerned about Superman's intentions, and Superman, who takes issue with Batman's brutal treatment of criminals. The flames of their conflict are fanned by Lex Luthor, who has his own plans for Superman, that involve either publicly making him into a killer or seeing him killed.

The glowing red eyes are not helping you seem less evil, Clark.

I'll start with the idea of universality, since I spent a lot of time talking about that in the Civil War review: Batman v Superman is a lot more anchored in the US and US politics than Civil War is, in a way - the US political process factors into the plot at one point, and Lex Luthor and Senator June Finch quite often talk about American politics and culture, and how that relates to Superman. Its focus is a lot narrower, with the only time another country really factors into the storyline being when Superman intervenes in Nigeria, setting off the events of the story, and much like Civil War, it ties into predominantly American cultural narratives. 

(Incidentally, while Civil War makes almost a concerted effort to dehumanise the victims of the explosion in - again, Nigeria, wow, these films are more similar than I thought, Batman v Superman has a scene where we actually get to see a grieving relative, kind of starkly humanising the civilian casualties. It's not a lot, but it's a difference I did notice.)

I can see some people arguing that that narrower focus would make it even less viable for international audiences, but it doesn't: For starters, none of the cultural narratives it utilises are of the 'scary foreigners want to control us' type, which already gives it a head start, but also, it overtly acknowledges the narratives it's using, in a way that Civil War doesn't. In fact, sometimes it overtly acknowledges them to the point of distracting monologue, and that's less good, but nevertheless, it and Civil War make for good examples of the difference between 'a story grounded in a particular time, place, and culture' and 'a story whose writers don't quite realise the political and cultural climate they're writing in isn't universal.'

Technically, it is quite a weak film, though. 

That batsuit really looks awful. It's not the one he uses for most of the film, but still.

Stronger than Man of Steel, certainly, and in fact has some truly inspired moments: The opening sequence involving Bruce making his way through Metropolis, giving us a ground's eye view of all the destruction and panic caused by Superman and Zod, was a particular delight to me, because after griping about how Man of Steel had no sense of weight or substance to it, getting that kind of vivid look at how awful the final fight was for the people of Metropolis made me quite happy. Similarly, the fights between both Batman and Superman, and the trio and Doomsday, were both actually really good, with a weight and a sense of real tension behind them. Moments such as the Senate hearing were also very well-pitched, with plenty of suspense.

But its pacing is awful: The film's never sure how much time to spend on set-up of each individual plot point and how much time to spend on action, leading to odd situations where some plot points are rushed through and some are dragged out to torturous length. 

Not to mention, its scriptwriting could use a lot of work. While it's sometimes masked by the fact that it has, as a whole, a very strong cast of actors, dialogue is very, very often clunky and awkward, bordering on Lucas-esque levels, and quite often there's not any particular difference in how the individual characters talk - with Lex Luthor and his over-the-top, hammy, can't-quite-organise-all-of-his-thoughts schtick being the notable exception, and actually despite that being panned by critics, I didn't hate that. 

Doomsday. Or Zombie Zod. Some people were miffed at this change, but since
Doomsday has always had the approximate personality of a plank of wood, who really
cares if his backstory gets changed.

Not to mention, there are turns of writing that just do not work. I'm thinking of the now-infamous 'Martha' scene - and a few more things, like Barry turning up for all of six seconds (even though 'Barry Allen tries to sort things out with time travel and only makes things worse' is the distillation of the man's entire comics career), but we'll focus on the 'Martha' scene, since that's by far the most infamous part of this film. The film tries to set it up near the beginning, by showing us that Bruce has a very distinct memory of his father whispering his mother's name as he died, but that never gets brought up again, and moreover, I'm not sure any amount of set-up in the world could have improved it.

I kind of feel like the spirit of that particular writing turn could have been preserved while making it rely less on 'our mothers have the same name' coincidence by having Thomas Wayne (or even Bruce as a child, that might have worked better) yell 'help her' or 'she's going to die' or something else of that ilk as Martha was dying, and then setting those words up over the film as something Bruce is constantly hearing, and then having Clark yell it. 

Which leads me onto character writing: It's - somewhat all over the place. I'm going to say now, I don't think the 'Bruce has gone dark and brands people and uses guns' things works for the character, because while I can see what they were going for, I think the end result has a lot less to do with 'exploring what Bruce could have become' and a lot more to do with Zack Snyder's weird fantasies. Moreover, I think Bruce's decision to kill Clark would feel a lot more weighty if he had to agonise over it, if it was something he really didn't want to do, that ran counter to all of his morals. Ultimately, the only thing his brutality is really used for is to make Clark hate him, but that feels poorly fleshed out, and moreover, isn't really necessary, because Lex convinces Clark to fight by taking his mother hostage anyway.

Wonder Woman's in this film too, for about five minutes.

As for the rest of them: Lois is written really well, actually. Clark comes off as a bit cardboardy, and I think more time focusing on him as Clark Kent as opposed to Superman would have done him some real good. Alfred is wonderful, as is Perry. Lex is - interesting. I understand why they made him a bit more unhinged, because I'm not convinced that comics!Lex, who is quite serious and urbane and suchlike, would have worked in a film already filled up with people being very serious - he probably wouldn't have stood out much at all, and like I said before, I don't hate the Lex in this film. I'm not sure if I like him either, though.

All in all, this was a film which took a lot more risks than Civil War, and a whole bunch of them really didn't pay off. Despite that, I think I actually enjoyed watching it more. It's definitely the technically weaker of the two, but for me, at least, it was also the more enjoyable one.

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