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Saturday, March 26, 2016

DAMN Good Movies -- BATMAN V SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE


That's right, I'm back once again with another movie take, this time on the movie Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, based on the classic DC Comics characters.  As always, if you haven't seen the movie yet and you don't want it spoiled for you, then please step back from your computer or whatever electronic device you're reading this on and stop reading now.  If, however, you're wise enough to know that movie reviews with spoilers are always more interesting than the ones without them...well...the Red Capes are coming, the Red Capes are coming...

A few years ago, Warner Bros. and director Zack Snyder unleashed their Superman reboot film Man of Steel, hoping to make everyone forget their disappointing Green Lantern movie starring Ryan Reynolds that was supposed to launch the DC Cinematic Universe in 2011. The film was a financial success, bringing in over $668 million worldwide, but was met with mixed reviews from both critics and fans.  Actually, that's something of an understatement, because the film's controversial third act, with an overload of Metropolis destruction porn and Superman's decision to snap General Zod's neck to save a family of innocents, effectively split fandom into hostile "Loved It" and "Loathed It" warring factions on the interwebz.

Regardless of what diehard Superman fans and grumpy old comics pros on Twitter thought, the film still made Warners a lot of money so a sequel was inevitable.  Snyder and screenwriter David S. Goyer were announced to return, with the promised story that Superman and Batman would finally meet one another on the big screen, with hints of Frank Miller and Klaus Janson's '80s classic Batman: The Dark Knight Returns as a major influence.  In December 2013, Chris Terrio was brought in to rewrite Goyer's script, an interesting result of Ben Affleck, who worked with Terrio on the film Argo, being announced as the new Batman. 

Six months later, the film's title was officially announced as Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, a clunky mouthful that a number of fans mocked for sounding more like a legal drama than a superhero film.  And as additional casting was announced, it became apparent that the promised Man of Steel sequel had transformed into a backdoor pilot to spinoff Justice League films and (re)launch the DC Extended Universe.

The movie opens with the first of a number of dream sequences, retelling the murder of Bruce Wayne's parents, even though we've seen it all before in Batman (1989), Batman Begins and the first episode of Gotham.  It plays out as you'd expect, although Thomas and Martha Wayne now die in 1981, as evidenced by the "Excalibur Coming Soon" theater marquee sign.  This means 34 years pass to the movie's setting of 2015, effectively making Batman roughly 44-46 years old.

And sure enough, we see a Bruce Wayne with graying temples waking up to life eighteen months after the devastation in Metropolis from Man of Steel.  We learn that Bruce arrived in Metropolis when everything went down (rather conveniently, Gotham is right next door as a twin city of Metropolis), only to witness the total collapse of the Metropolis branch of Wayne Enterprises.  Snyder makes a deliberate attempt to echo September 11th imagery, showing Bruce running into the cloud of smoke and ash from the building's destruction as if he were a first responder.  He rescues a man named Wallace Keefe, who ends up a pawn in Lex Luthor's game of supervillain chess, and glares angrily at Superman flying above to set the film's grimdark tone.

Bruce later attends a fundraiser hosted by the mentally erratic Luthor to retrieve data from LexCorp's mainframe, encounter Daily Planet reporter Clark Kent and a mysterious antiques dealer named Diana Prince.  It's here in the film's Second Act, where non-comics fans start feeling numb and overwhelmed, as Diana learns that Luthor has files on herself (teasing the Wonder Woman spinoff set in World War I), as well as other metahumans -- one with superhuman speed (The Flash), one who gets a cybernetic body (Cyborg), and one who can breathe underwater (Aquaman).  Bruce, meanwhile, keeps having strange nightmares that convolute the story unneccessarily, one involving a time-traveling Flash abruptly arriving by Boom Tube to warn Bruce about Dark Superman, and another of Dark Superman allied with stormtroopers in black and a swarm of Parademons to tease another supervillain, Darkseid.

Everybody got that?

Okay, so Bruce gets the drive back from Diana, learning about her and the other metahumans, along with Luthor's fun little experiments with Kryptonite.  Batman attempts to steal Luthor's Kryptonite, but gets intercepted by Superman, who shrugs off a Batmobile attack like bumper pool and declares "The Bat is dead."  And as if this isn't enough for the audience to deal with, U.S. Senator Finch summons Superman to a Congressional hearing at the U.S. Capitol to highlight public resentment of his actions, where Luthor masterminds a bombing that kills dozens of people, including Finch.  The public blames the bombing on Superman, even though it's reported someone else was responsible, so Superman flies off to Kansas to see his mom.

Things pick up in the Third Act, where Snyder gets to indulge himself with all kinds of CGI destruction and gritty camera filters that his heart desires.  And it's here, as Batman and Superman head into their hyped superbrawl, we get a strange hybrid of The Dark Knight Returns with 1992's "The Death of Superman," with a climax that doesn't really satisfy fans of either saga.

Batman finally gets his hands on the Kryptonite and trains like Rocky Balboa in Rocky IV for his showdown with Superman, building a familiar set of armor with a Kryptonite-powered arsenal.  Luthor, becoming totally unhinged by this point with rampant xenophobia, use the Kryptonian scout ship left over from Man of Steel and splices his own DNA with Zod's corpse, because comics.  And after learning Superman's true identity, he goes after Lois Lane to lure Superman to LexCorp Tower and blackmails him into duking it out with Batman by holding his adoptive mother, Martha Kent, hostage at a location unknown even to him.

Superman tries to explain this to Batman, who can't be bothered with actual criminals (like Luthor) and nearly kills Superman with a Kryptonite spear.  It's only Superman's plea for Batman to "Save Martha," reminding us that both of Superman and Batman's moms have the same first name, that snaps him out of being a total douche and realize that maybe Superman isn't the real threat here.  And since nobody's paying attention to Luthor, he unleashes his pet project Doomsday that Superman and Batman join forces to stop.

At this point, the film's only true sense of...um...wonder...takes place as Diana suddenly joins the fight in a great entrance, now fully garbed as Wonder Woman.  With the DC Holy Trinity now united on the big screen at long last, we get another superbrawl that demolishes another good chunk of Gotham City (thanks in part to Batman, who deliberately lures Doomsday back to Gotham so he can use the Kryptonite spear, instead of -- oh, I don't know -- getting the spear and bringing it back to use on Doomsday?).  Thankfully, Superman gets a moment of actual heroism as he retrieves the Kryptonite spear despite the harm to himself and sacrifices himself to impale Doomsday with it, while Doomsday stabs Superman with a bone protrusion, apparently killing him.

And at the end of this two-hour, thirty-minute sensory overload, things are tied up rather neatly.  Luthor is arrested off-screen, after Lois exposes his various crimes, and his annoying mop of hair is finally shaved off while in prison.  A memorial is held for Superman in Metropolis, and another for Clark, who is also declared dead, in Smallville, Kansas.  After the funeral, Bruce reveals to Diana he plans to form a team from Luthor's file subjects to protect the world in Superman's memory, so yes, Justice League.  

That, of course, means we need a faint heartbeat from Superman's grave to tease his return, as the dirt atop his coffin begins to levitate, because Mostly Dead as Opposed to All Dead Superman somehow causes dirt to levitate.  Yeah.

There was a lot going on in this film, with various DC Comics characters finally interacting with one another at long last.  Here are some of the things that stood out:

BATMAN/BRUCE WAYNE -- For all the fanboy resistance to Ben Affleck as the latest Dark Knight after his 2003 version of Daredevil, Affleck (or BatFleck, take your pick) actually turns in a solid performance here.  The problem with this Batman, however, isn't Affleck but this specific version of the character.  As an older Batman who's fought crime in Gotham for twenty years, he feels like Batman at the end of his run.  Stately Wayne Manor is in ruins, Robin (any Robin) is nowhere to be found and presumed dead, and Old Man Wayne is more concerned about the guy who saves astronauts from exploding orbital rockets than he is about muggers in dark alleys.

SUPERMAN/CLARK KENT -- Henry Cavill is considerably more grim and humorless in his second outing as the Man of Steel, although I chalk most of that up to the script and director than I do him.  Thankfully, Superman comes to life in his scenes with his scenes with Lois, showing good screen chemistry with Amy Adams.  And as trivial and superficial as it may sound, yes, Cavill's receding hairline is getting to be a bit of a problem.  I don't suppose we'll get a hairline filler with that resurrection in Justice League Part One...?

WONDER WOMAN/DIANA PRINCE -- The real winner of Batman vs. Superman?  Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman.  Her debut as the Amazing Amazon introduces the character well, giving her a sense of mystery and teasing the solo Wonder Woman film in the process. But it's in Wonder Woman's standoff with Doomsday alongside Batman and Superman that becomes the film's biggest moment, with Gadot giving WW a smile of enjoyment as she throws down with Doomsday. 

LEX LUTHOR -- When Jesse Eisenberg was first announced as the new Lex, a number of comics fans shuddered at the idea, and I'm sad to say they were probably justified in doing so.  Eisenberg gives his Lex Luthor a squeaky, weasally voice, heightened by this version's runaway xenophobia and mental instabliity.  This isn't the intimidating, dangerous Lex Luthor fans are used to, but a troll who gets quickly blocked on Twitter for his nonstop and tiresome rants.  Near the end, he hints at a possible alliance with Darkseid, meaning we'll probably see him return in Justice League Part One.

DOOMSDAY/GENERAL ZOD -- Michael Shannon returns as Zod, albeit Dead and Naked General Zod.  In the Third Act, Zod's naked corpse ends up replaced by Doomsday, who really deserved better for a movie reported to be made for $250 million.  At first, Doomsday starts off looking like Cave Troll from the Lord of the Rings films, until he starts juicing on energy and eventually grows some traditional bone protrusions.  Both incarnations, however, are poorly crafted CGI that looks great in a Batman v Superman videogame, far less so on the big screen.

LOIS LANE -- After Man of Steel was criticized for not giving Lois much to do, Amy Adams thankfully has a more meaningful presence here.  Her relationship with Clark has progressed to the stage of showing a carefully-edited nude scene in a bathtub, she gets to do her reporter thing with a known terrorist, she talks Batman down from killing Superman, and she stands with Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman after Doomsday is brought down.  And more interestingly, the Flash warns that she's key to whatever happens in the two Justice League films.

PERRY WHITE -- Laurence Fishburne returns as Perry, playing the gruff editor of a great metropolitan newspaper that nobody reads in 2015.  He tries to keep Lois in check and gets some good lines, particularly one about Clark clicking his heels together to go back to Kansas, but that's about it.

MARTHA KENT -- Diane Lane returns as well, in a lovely scene where Martha tries to reassure Clark after public starts hating on him.  She disappears until the Third Act, ending up as little more than Luthor's hostage to get Superman to do what he wants, but does a get a funny moment when Batman introduces himself to her as Clark's friend.

ALFRED PENNYWORTH -- As the new Alfred, Jeremy Irons serves as BatFleck's right hand, but without any of the grace and charm of previous actors in the role.  No, this Alfred is pretty much tech support, tinkering with Batman's voice modulator and manning an ops room that isn't even located in the Batcave.  He tries to be Bruce's moral compass, but ends up being largely forgettable.

MERCY GRAVES -- Tao Okamoto, who was terrific in The Wolverine and Hannibal, is the first live-action version of Lex Luthor's henchwoman, but doesn't get to do much apart from follow Bruce Wayne around Lex's fundraiser and look up ominously from a tablet device.

SENATOR JUNE FINCH -- Portraying the Senator from Kentucky heading up a Senate investigation into Superman's actions, Holly Hunter plays up the Southern for all it's worth as she stonewalls some of Luthor's machinations.  You don't really care about her character, though, so it's no big loss when she dies in the Capitol explosion.

SECRETARY CALVIN SWANWICK -- Harry Lennix is another Man of Steel vet, whose character apparently ended up with a promotion to Secretary of Defense.  He's essentially Lois' inside man here, but at least he gets a first name this time.

JIMMY OLSEN CAMEO -- After the grumbling that Jimmy wasn't in Man of Steel, it was great to see Michael Cassidy debut as the character...until he's quickly killed off in a cheap, throwaway moment.  (Insert Price is Right Fail Music here)

JONATHAN KENT CAMEO -- Kevin Costner returns as Clark's bizarrely paranoid (and deceased) father in some form of hallucination or dream or I don't know what.  How this scene made Snyder's final cut, I have no idea.

THOMAS & MARTHA WAYNE CAMEO -- Jeffrey Dean Morgan and Lauren Cohan are the latest Waynes to meet the wrong end of a gun in Crime Alley.  Morgan, I get, because he was The Comedian in Snyder's Watchmen, but Cohan?  Well, she does know Morgan from The Walking Dead...

AQUAMAN/ARTHUR CURRY CAMEO -- As part of the Justice League teases, Jason Momoa debuts as the King of Atlantis, where we see Khal Drogo Aquaman underwater in the bowels of a sunken ship until he swims off...somewhere.

CYBORG/VICTOR STONE AND SILAS STONE CAMEO -- Our first official look at Ray Fisher as Cyborg shows Vic at some point after his accident that leaves him little more than a head and a torso.  And then we have a pretty horrific moment, as Vic's father Silas (played by Joe Morton) brings over some strange, swirling technology to fuse with his son, who screams right out of a horror film.

THE FLASH/BARRY ALLEN CAMEO -- Ezra Miller debuts as Barry Allen, even though he's the Barry Allen nobody wants.  He first appears in clunky, ugly armor by way of time travel and a Boom Tube, warning Bruce that he was right about Superman and how Lois is the key...to something.  Later, we see him as part of Luthor's files in footage from a convenience store, sporting hideous long hair and a skeevy thin goatee that's mercifully been done away with in recent photos of the actor.

All in all, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice isn't as bad as some critics think it is, but not as good as some fanboys believe it is.  It's primarily a vehicle for Zack Snyder to address some criticisms made about Man of Steel, while setting the table for Warner Bros.' DC Extended Universe shared film franchise.  There are moments of greatness, sure, but the film doesn't really know what it wants to be and as a result, often comes off as forced and emotionally hollow.  Snyder's already slated to return for Justice League Part One, which starts filming next month, but unless significant changes are made, I'm looking forward to Wonder Woman -- directed by Patty Jenkins -- a lot more.

And for those who may be wondering, here's the updated list of my Top 20 Comic Book Films:

1. Superman (1978)
2. The Dark Knight (2008)
3. The Avengers (2012)

4. Batman Begins (2005)
5. Man of Steel (2013)
6. Spider-Man 2 (2004)
7. Spider-Man (2002)

8. Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)

9. Iron Man (2008)
10. Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)
11. Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)
12. Watchmen (2009)
13. Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)
14. X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014)
15. Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016)
16. The Dark Knight Rises (2012)
17. X-Men: First Class (2011)
18: The Wolverine (2013)

19. X2: X-Men United (2003)
20. X-Men (2000)

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