Friday, March 25, 2016

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice review


Warning: This review contains spoilers.

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is the child of two parents. On the creative side, there is a tradition of DC's two flagship superheroes who sometimes fight. On the business side, there is the invisible presence of Marvel's cinematic Avengers franchise, which has produced blockbuster after blockbuster, tying several successful sub-series together to build a massive, shared audience of devotees – and revenue. DC's superheroes have had success on the big screen only as individuals, and only occasionally. Unmistakably, Warner Brothers is now trying to build on the success of 2013's Man ofSteel as the anchor of a multi-hero megafranchise like Marvel's cinematic Avengers (and, for that matter, X-Men).

In the world of BVS, Superman's debut took place in a world where an elder Batman has been fighting crime in Gotham City for twenty years now and sociopathic businessman Luthor are already prominent, as had been hinted via allusions back in MOS.

BVS provides two strong impressions: First, it is for most of its ample running length absolutely magnificently scripted, directed, and acted. The photography is gorgeous. Characterization is well-rounded yet recognizable as versions of the archetypes from comicdom. This is a very well made movie. The second impression: This movie contains perhaps the least fun of any superhero movie ever. Astonishingly, it begins and ends with funerals.

To a considerable extent, those two outstanding aspects of the film hold most true for the first hour and a half. Then, as the careful setup turns to climactic action (there is plenty of non-climactic action earlier) the script tosses some red meat for fanboys and fangirls to cheer, and the film turns into a movie. This is perhaps a good thing, because, to fulfill the goal of launching a major cinematic universe, BVS needs to convince moviegoers that it's not going to be a bleak, depressing (albeit well-written) cinematic universe.

No one will leave the theatre complaining that there wasn't enough movie or love for DC source material. BVS covers the themes of three or four landmark DC works. It has about a half-dozen lines from The Dark Knight Returns, which is unquestionably the central source from printed media, but it also features a dream scene right out of Red Son, a massive plot to frame Superman a la Lex Luthor: Man of Steel, and then launches right into the Death of Superman story while introducing the Justice League-to-be very economically. There is even a scene where Lois Lane dives into water to recover some kryptonite just like Miss Tessmacher did in Superman: The Movie. Perry White mentions Superman's origin year of 1938 in some canny dialogue, and there's a kidnapping in Smallville reminiscent of the early Byrne issues of Superman.

Despite the heavy borrowing, the overall plot is original. About half of it had already been communicated in the trailers. The film opens with cinema's nth retelling of the Waynes' murder. At their funeral, young Bruce falls into a cave at Wayne Manor and – this part is just a dream – bats swirl around him, flying him back to the surface. Then we see a second defining trauma in Bruce Wayne's life: His physical presence in Metropolis during the Superman-Zod battle that killed some people Wayne was close to.

We flash forward 18 months: Superman has become the world's greatest hero… but nobody whatsoever seems to be happy about it. Awed, sometimes grateful, but nobody in the movie is happy, so they aren't happy when Superman saves someone's life, either. Batman, meanwhile, has become darker in his operations, branding the criminals – the news calls them his victims – with a hot bat symbol. Superman and Batman intensely dislike one another from afar – Superman loathing the cruelty that Batman shows and Batman loathing the lack of controls in place to stop Superman. This is a sentiment shared exactly by a U.S. Senator and a giggling, rich, brilliant, and mentally ill Lex Luthor. All three – Wayne, Luthor, and Senator Finch – undertake plans to take control back from Superman. As it turns out, Luthor is the master chess player directing the others like pieces on his board. Knowing that he can't hurt Superman directly, Luthor gives Wayne and the world more reasons to fear Superman, using his own gunmen to cause collateral-damage deaths during a Superman mission in Africa. When Superman arrives in Washington to testify before Congress, the film unleashes one of its biggest surprises when a massive explosion caused by Luthor kills the committee and many civilians Superman is unharmed, but the world wonders if he somehow caused it.

Batman is, in the meantime, playing the world's greatest detective, working on a case that leads towards an unknown master criminal who turns out to be Lex Luthor, importing kryptonite via ship from MOS's Indian Ocean battle site back to Gotham/Metropolis. Batman infiltrates Luthor's headquarters, stealing the kryptonite for himself, which was Luthor's plan all along. Bruce Wayne keeps catching sight of a gorgeous, elegant, and mysterious Diana Prince who is also investigating Luthor. While following the breadcrumbs that Luthor intentionally left in order to drive Batman into battle with Superman, Batman also finds Luthor's computer files indicating the existence of four meta-humans – Wonder Woman, Cyborg, Flash, and Aquaman. Batman also sees the Flash in a dream and/or interdimensional interlude reminiscent of the Flash speaking to him early in Crisis on Infinite Earths, in which Flash gives Batman a warning – one that's hard to hear, but apparently useful. Meanwhile, Clark Kent has become Batman's biggest detractor, which leads to Superman zooming down and threatening Batman, telling him to end his bat career now, or else.

Luthor plays his first plan to kill Superman just past the film's midway point. To summon Superman, he throws Lois Lane from the top of the LexCorp building. She's safe, but Luthor shows Superman photos of a bound and tortured Martha Kent. Luthor tells Superman that Martha Kent will die unless Superman kills Batman. With no choice, Superman goes to Gotham to try to talk to Batman, who is ready for him in a battle a la Dark Knight Returns. Sonics and machine guns slightly irritate Superman, but kryptonite powder/gas has its intended effect, allowing Batman to pummel Superman for a while. The gas wears off, giving Superman the upper hand, but Batman fires a second dose at him, beats him for a while, then lifts a kryptonite spear over him. Begging for his life, Superman tells Batman that he has to save Martha. Here the film catches one of the DCU's least-noticed quirks – that Martha Wayne and Martha Kent share a first name. Hearing his late mother's first name, Batman becomes insane with curiosity – why did Superman say "Martha"? Lois Lane arrives in time to tell Batman why, and this intel ends the fight, making the two men allies.

While Batman saves Martha Kent, Superman goes to corral Luthor, who unleashes his Plan B – a creature he created by combining his own DNA with that of General Zod. This is sort of a combination of the origin stories of Kon-El and Bizarro, but the result is unmistakably Doomsday.  This raging, superpowered behemoth begins to pummel Superman in a battle reminiscent of MOS's Superman-Zod battle. Suddenly, Wonder Woman shows up, and the two superpowered heroes swap blows with Doomsday while Batman manuevers around the battle scene, looking to make a blow of his own. Wonder Woman's skill and zeal in fighting Doomsday is one of the lightest moments in the film, but only manages to hold the monster off for a while. Superman retrieves the kryptonite spear that Batman crafted and, after resisting Lois Lane's pleas for him not to do so, flies in to plunge the weapon into Doomsday's heart. At the same time, the monster plunges a massive, bony spear into Superman's chest, killing him. Wonder Woman and Batman stand over the two dead combatants.

Now Superman is dead and the world knows that Clark Kent was his alter ego. Superman has a glorious funeral with, suddenly, America's gratitude. Bruce Wayne tells Diana Prince that they must find the other superheroes and prepare to fight as a team. Luthor, from a prison cell, gloats to Batman that by killing Superman, he has "rung the bell" to summon a new, dark force, which seems to introduce Darkseid as the next Justice League film's villain. Bruce Wayne and Lois Lane mourn at Superman's funeral, but in the film's final moment, we see Superman's coffin and get a sign that there will be a resurrection.

There are virtually no missteps in Batman v Superman. It's wonderfully crafted: Every scene, every shot, every line of dialogue achieves just what the creators intended. It's also relentlessly dark and brooding, with sex trafficking, child molesters, torture, and terrorism just part of the background. This cinematic DCU, even with superheroes, is worse than our own world. Warner Brothers is betting that people will enjoy visiting this dark place one or two times a summer for the next few years. I'm not sure of the audience they are hoping for, but they seem to be intent on an audience closer to that of The Godfather than Superman: The Movie. Serious comic book fans may enjoy seeing their heroes in such realistic fight scenes. Families and couples on dates may find themselves watching Avengers movies at the next movie screen over.



16 comments:

  1. Well, now that I've read what the movie is about in a possitive review, I know this one is definitely not for me.

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  2. Surprised to find you liked it as much as you did Rikdad. the BvS trailers seemed to suggest this movie doubled down on everything I disliked about MoS. It doesn't look like BvS is for me, but maybe I will have to consider seeing it anyway based on this review...

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  3. Unknown: I hope it helped! This movie definitely did a lot of things right, and it is definitely not for everyone.

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  4. Jonny, I think BVS was superior to MOS in a couple of ways. MOS had some scenes that just didn't work; they were awkward. The scene in the desert where the general's aide fawns over Superman is forefront in my mind. The Daily Planet scenes seemed pointless, just to get those supporting characters onscreen. In contrast, BVS was executed almost perfectly. Really remarkably well. And, MOS seemed to go out of its way to fill the action scenes with excess. The smashing and bashing in Metropolis was redundant to the point of being boring as well as senses-numbing. BVS was thoroughly violent, but the violence moved along from one thing to the next instead of repeating the same bash-smash shot over and over. And MOS had plotholes I couldn't forget: Why did the Kryptonians pick Earth to colonize instead of Mars or Venus?

    I felt like MOS could have been improved enormously by editing about 5-10 minutes out. However, BVS was pretty tight. It may have been improved by approaching the subject in an entirely different way, but I have almost no small suggestions to make. It was bleaker and darker than MOS, but it approached its bleakness and darkness with perfect skill. They did what they tried to do.

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  5. I'm also surprised that you liked it. I really thought MoS was quite bad and thus that BvS, as basically MoS2, wasn't very good either. I don't have time to expand on my thoughts now; maybe later. At least Batman and Wonder Woman seem interesting. Hopefully getting movies with Snyder far away will lift the DCU a bit.

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  6. I personally really liked the movie as well; dark and broody doesn't really bother me as much as other people, apparently.

    One of the things I noticed in the movie were, of all things, the allusions to "Excalibur" sprinkled throughout. Obviously the title appeared on the marquee during the Wayne murders, but I didn't give it a second thought until the Doomsday fight.

    In the climactic battle in "Excalibur," Arthur fights Mordred who, like Doomsday, is described as the product of unnatural, vulgar acts. In Mordred's case he was born of incest between Arthur and Morgana, which went against the laws of man. Meanwhile Doomsday is born of science - an "unnatural" birth and the product of mixing Kryptonian and human DNA, and one that was mentioned as being prohibited by the elders of Krypton.

    Lois retrieving the kryptonite spear after they thought it had been lost and giving it to Superman was a scene reminiscent of Guenevere returning Excalibur to Arthur before the fight with Mordred. They share a similar tender moment, with both men knowing that this would be the last time they would be with their beloved before dying in battle.

    The most obvious parallel, and the one that flipped the switch for me, was when Superman stabbed Doomsday with the spear and was similarly impaled by Doomsday. Just as Arthur pulled himself closer to Mordred to kill him with Excalibur - the enchanted weapon that was the only thing that could pierce his armor - so too does Superman pull himself closer to Doomsday to kill him with his "enchanted" weapon.

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    1. Other parallels: I think Excalibur early on had the Lady of the Lake bringing the sword out of the water to give to Merlin, and in BvS we had kryptonite found under water and eventually brought to Luthor. That kryptonite would eventually be forged into a spear that Batman (armored up like knight) plunged into the ground (Sword in the Stone). Arthur misused Excalibur to defeat Lancelot, and angrily tossed the sword away. Batman similarly tosses his kryptonite spear away after almost killing Superman.

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  7. machinegungeek,

    I definitely feel that the creators made a major strategic error in the direction they chose for the film, but given that direction, I think they carried it out very well. I also heard more cheering during my screening than I have heard for the vast majority of movies I've ever seen, but that is particular to one crowd in one screening.

    I watched MOS again in the last day, and have to note a jarring difference between the tone of MOS's final scene, showing Lois and Clark struggling to hide their smiles with optimism for what is to come, personally, and otherwise, and the bleak pessimism of BVS. The viewer of MOS expects a great future to come, and it never materializes in BVS.

    But, again, the creators made no missteps in pursuing the course that they chose. I can't fault the actors, the dialogue, the cinematography, etc. in the slightest.

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  8. Sean, magnificent comment! I noticed Excalibur on the marquee, but didn't notice the parallels, which are obviously intentional, now that you point them out, a sword being otherwise a pretty unlikely weapon.

    I also thought that the double impalement was enormously more plausible than the Death of Superman's double-death-by-punch outcome, which was always a head-scratcher for me. Superman seemed to anticipate the outcome, so why didn't he duck? Then again, after the deaths in BVS, I wondered why Superman didn't just approach Doomsday from the back.

    Great analysis. Thanks so much!

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  9. Just saw it and cumming in as sumone who hated MoS, I was prepared to be let down by this... but I rly liked it thru and thru.
    The emotional beats were well hit and stayed true to the characters. Take the opening for example. I had originally thought it to be a simple way to clean the slate and introduce us to our new Batman even though we all know his origin. Instead it plays a key role in turning the tide of the fight. And how beautiful was it that as Batman is about to stab Superman in the heart with a kryptonite spear, it's Superman who stabs Batman's heart by uttering a familiar name. At the heart of the matter, it's a tale of two fucked in the head ophans who have to deal with their grief in different ways.
    I loved the visual of Bruce comforting that little gurl among the rubble, it felt cheesy in the trailer but came off as emotionally real in the actual film and tells you all you need to know about Bruce. Likewise the part in the trailer where Ma Kent tells him he doesn't owe humanity a damn thing cums off as dickish. But in the film, it works becuz you realize his sacrifice isn't really for Earth, it's for the two women in his life that he loves moar than life itself. And having failed his father once to protect his own self, he wasn't going to make that mistake again.
    There were a couple of interesting choices, like having Bruce be an actual lush and womanizer as opposed to just faking it for posterity.
    Like MoS before it, this movie plays VERY VERY fast and loose with the secret identities but overall it works for me. I had wondered where they were going with the Lois Clark relationship in MoS without the comedic safety of will she see past the glasses to fall back to. But here it rly works, they have a clearly healthy nurturing relationship. The scene where he steps in the tub fully clothed absolutely killed it for me. Superman isn't dark and brooding, this is a guy who celebrates and enjoys life. The woman he loves is laying there naked and beautiful in front of him. Hell yea hes going to get in that fucking tub with her and have sex. It's all a part of celebrating life.
    Speaking of Lois, while they had to play the usual beats of him saving her several times. I like how it was played that anytime she was facing death she essentially never really worried. She has complete faith in Clark. Shades of Lois in the hands of the giant robot in All-Star Superman.
    I know Lex is a heartless bastard but it seemed weird to me that he would so casually kill Mercy. Why introduce a named character, build her up, then kill her off before she has time to shine. Same with the death of Doctor Hamilton in MoS, it annoyed me then and annoyed me nao.
    As ironic as it sounds, I was actually very happy that Batman was given so little to do during the Doomsday fight. One of the most annoying things about the Avengers movies is seeing Hawkeye and Black Widow take out an army of Ultrons as easy as Thor or Iron Man. If normals can do everything that supers can, then the powers lose all meaning and sense of scope. Here Batman knows he's outmatched and wisely stays outside the fight. This makes Superman's sacrifice relevant as it's clear only he can do what's necessary.
    Lastly the funeral scene worked for me as well. Normally I find them to be trite especially superhero funerals. Here the emotional beat feels earned from his relationship with Lois and Ma Kent. Likewise Batman absolutely would terrorize the shit out of Lex in prison for killing his bff. This isn't the moar emotionally grounded Morrison Batman, this is the God-Damn Batman of Frank Miller. A clearly messed up in the head guy blowing people away and terrorizing the people he has reason to hate. Though I was surprised he didn't brand Lex. It came off as him addmitting defeat to Lex's prophecy of the bell alrdy having been rung.
    But yes overall I loved it. The emotional beats worked. The characters were true to their nature. And the stakes, particularly during the BvS fight felt emotionally real.

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  10. Excellent review, been a long time reader of this blog and this was very refreshing to read.

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  11. One question - What was the World's greatest detective doing for past 18 months? I thought this movie lacked heart and the characterization of Batman was really really off. Also Luthor. As a long time comicbookfan, it feels weird that you don't find any fault with their characterizations.

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  12. Mayank, that's a fair complaint. Certainly, the characterizations of Batman and Luthor were different than many we've seen, but we've seen quite a few. The 1989 Batman, for example, was "nuts" – quite different from the 2005- Bale Batman, who wasn't "nuts" at all, but needed a pep talk from Alfred in all three of those films. Neither of those characteristics seem like "my" Batman, but I enjoyed the films a lot and allow for creative differences of that magnitude. The BVS Batman reminded me of the 1939 gun-toting Batman from the pre-Robin first year in Detective Comics, and that's a version I heartily enjoy, as different as it is from, say, the Morrison Batman.

    I could say much the same of Luthor – Gene Hackman's version, the Bronze Age super-scientist, and the post-Byrne businessman Luthor are also all over the map, but I can enjoy them all. I think some of the dialogue/delivery for Luthor was a bit on the edge of my preferences, a bit too giggly, but his plans, very cold-blooded and adapted from Lex Luthor: Man of Steel, were compelling anchors of the plot.

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    1. Great explanation. I agree with you on most of these points. Though,I enjoyed Snyder's Lex , I felt that his motivations were all over the place and were not chalked out that much.

      The one thing which nagged me most was that this Batman's anger against Superman were a bit Luthoresque and for an angry paranoid person, he didn't investigate the alien as much as Mad Lex did or Damsel Lois did in MoS.

      Also, I keep thinking about how great it would have been that we were shown the destruction of Metropolis from Luthor's perspective as it would have felt more personal as it was his city and showed reason for his anger and hatred for Superman like it was shown in Azzraello's Luthor.

      For some parts in the movie, I felt as if they have juxtaposed Luther's motivations on Bruce.

      Hoping that these things are more elaborated on in the Director's cut.

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  13. Speaking of Wonder Woman, Morrison's Wonder Woman Earth One was released today.

    We'll be expecting your review shortly Rikdad.

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  14. sakei, I pre-ordered the digital version of WW Earth One, and it is – unfortunately and unexpectedly – set to be released some days from now. So, not wanting to pay for the work twice by picking up a print version, I'll be waiting to read and review it.

    I've hardly mentioned Wonder Woman in this blog ever. That's a lack that I regret. I enjoyed Azzarello's Wonder Woman a lot, but fell behind on it and still have yet to catch up. I think most viewers of BVS probably found Wonder Woman to be an unmitigated bright spot in the film, a bit like Anne Hathaway's Catwoman in The Dark Knight Rises.

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