Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Batman v Superman: A Cross-Examination

Full Spoilers for Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice

So...I enjoyed Batman v Superman. A lot of the gripes about the movie are understandable (i.e., they most definitely are not made up), but the interesting thing is that they are coming from two distinct camps: reviews by comic book geeks complaining mostly that the film has taken liberties with the characters and plots it is based on, and your more traditional movie critic review which criticizes the film’s plot, acting, directing, etc. There are a lot of people who express both points of view, but I separate them now in order to demonstrate that this movie is really getting it from all sides. After seeing the film, I’m a little perplexed by some of the big criticisms I’ve been reading (although I’m generally more sympathetic to those from the “movie critic” side, as you’ll see below), so I’ve picked four of the most common complaints I’ve heard and I’m going to attempt to answer them to some extent below.

Criticism 1: The Plot Makes No Sense

I suppose this goes hand-in-hand with “the plot is dumb,” but I’m not willing to die fighting on that hill, because the plot is dumb, and I guess I don’t mind. The more salient question is: is the plot really less sensical than your run-of-the-mill superhero movie? Really, is it more dumb than the most popular, most acclaimed superhero movies of all time?

I’ve heard “Lex Luthor’s plan makes no sense” a lot. But did the Joker’s plan make sense in The Dark Knight? (I won’t even discuss Bane’s plan in TDKR) I’m not blind to degrees, and I will admit that Lex’s plan is at least one degree more absurd than the Joker’s, but my point is to ask if we should consider a plot that doesn't stand up to close scrutiny the downfall of a film, especially the a superhero movie? (Yeah, I said it!) The Joker in The Dark Knight is an antagonistic force, a reaping of sorts for Batman, and the embodiment of a worldview. Lex Luthor is the same in Batman v Superman: he is a response to Superman’s choices in Man of Steel. He is important for the challenges he presents to Superman, not for the specifics of the process he goes through to present those challenges. I understand for some people it's the case that if the logic is not airtight, then they can’t enjoy the movie, but I would say that perhaps those people should be asking themselves if they are applying a different measure to the plot of BvS than they have applied to the acclaimed superhero films of the past.

How far do we want to take these plot breakdowns? In one of the more extensive breakdowns/bitchfests I’ve read about this movie, a writer for Gizmodo made fun of the plot surrounding the Batmobile chase scene, and in the process ended up basically making fun of movies for existing:

"This whole scene exists solely so the movie can have the government ask if maybe Superman should be regulated, which exists solely so the government can get in involved with Lex Luthor’s attempt to build an anti-Superman weapon, which itself exists solely so the government can say 'Hey, stop making that anti-Superman weapon,' which exists solely so Lex can illegally important a big hunk of kryptonite, which exists so Batman can try to steal it in a giant action set piece..."

…which all exists solely so that they could make a Batman v Superman movie! Oh my God! Yes, sorry to disappoint you, but they decided to make a Batman v Superman movie and then they reverse engineered it from there -- a muse did not descend from on high and suddenly inspire them to write it. Oh, and those comics you love so much? They decided in advance that -- despite only having writers lined up for the next couple of years -- they are going to release them every month from now until kingdom come (wink wink). So if you notice that the plots possess certain qualities that make it feel like someone made them up...well, it’s because someone did.

Take, for example, Marvel’s The Avengers. The purpose of this movie (much like the comics it is based on) is to entertain, to pander a bit to nerds and geeks by showing iconic Marvel characters joining together. Never mind that it’s against a character-less CGI army of aliens, never mind that the certain plot beats make no sense (So Loki chooses to poke Tony Stark right in the arc reactor causing his mind control to fail?), never mind that it’s clearly engineered to have a laugh line or applause line every ten minutes minimum. Never mind because it’s an enjoyable film, and if you leave the theater nitpicking plot logic then you are missing the point.

If there’s one thing that sets BvS apart from the critically acclaimed Batman movies I mentioned above, it’s that Batman Begins and The Dark Knight -- and to a lesser extent The Dark Knight Rises -- explore some really profound ideas. And BvS, while it floats some interesting ideas during its running time, never really develops them to any significant extent. But did The Avengers even really try to explore any interesting themes? I suppose there's the question of how do you work with others, but I find myself unsatisfied by the film’s lone answer to that question, namely that people will join together in the face of a threat to all life on Earth (kinda trite if you ask me). For all the mockery that the “Martha” exchange in the BvS fight has received, at least it provides a moment of empathy between Batman and Superman. We get an emotional connection between our two protagonists, not just a “Oh shit this a huge threat we’d better help each other” team-up moment (although we also get that).

However, I will extend an olive branch to the other side and admit this is hilarious:

"Clark Kent gets a funeral in Smallville, while Superman gets a giant military funeral in DC, despite the fact that he failed to keep the Capitol building from blowing up and the government decided to nuke him."

So yes it's true that some parts of the movie display laughable logic, and while it may surpass Nolan's Batman films on the absurdity scale, I think it's in good company there with most of the recent (and most celebrated) Marvel Studios films (you don't have to look far for a video or blog post eviscerating the plot logic of any one of those movies).

Finally, let me address everyone who is saying that The Dark Knight Returns has a better Batman vs. Superman fight, or that Doomsday was cooler in the comics: stfu.

Criticism 2: It’s Boring/Lacks Action Sequences

I put these criticisms together for a couple of reasons. One, I suspect that a lot of people who feel the movie is boring would’ve liked more action sequences. And two, because I did not think the movie was boring, and in fact I find most action sequences tremendously boring.

So my fellow moviegoers talked a lot in my showing, I guess because they were bored. It’s true that the movie was a bit talkier than something like the Avengers, but still I can’t relate. To the extent that I had trouble following it, it was because the other people just wouldn’t shut the fuck up while I was trying to listen to the dialogue.

Besides, plentiful action sequences in a superhero film often add up to a bad movie; better they're fewer and more meaningful. Otherwise, the movie descends into a meaningless CGI orgy. It's for this reason that the big fight at the end of Avengers: Age of Ultron sucked, and the end of Captain America: Winter Soldier sucked except for the fight with Bucky, which was emotional and placed some doubt in the mind as to the exact outcome. Similarly, the end of Man of Steel sucked until Superman killed Zod, because that was unexpected.

Also, to the criticism that the three heroes of BvS didn’t “work together” well in the final action scene: is it not the corniest thing in the world to see heroes put their powers together to defeat the villain? Does every film need to have a childish Voltron/Captain Planet moment where the heroes combine their powers to become unbeatable? Well then where are all the people praising how the Fantastic Four defeated Julian McMahon’s Dr. Doom in the reviled 2005 movie (you have to specify which reviled Fantastic Four movie you're talking about nowadays)? “Oh man Human Torch went supernova like they told him not to do earlier and made Dr. Doom really hot and then Invisible Woman put him in a force field and then Mr. Fantastic used his stretched out form to aim water at him and freeze him it was soooo dope.” No. Fuck that. Wonder Woman used a lasso to restrain Doomsday while Superman stabbed the motherfucker. That’s what you get -- that’s teamwork enough.

Criticism 3: The “Batman Kills People” Issue

It’s always interesting to me that people celebrate Batman beating people the shit out of people almost to the point of fetishization, but somehow it ruins everything for them when he kills someone. It’s a bit like talking to someone who enjoys watching a porn star take a finger in the butt, but is outraged to see a porn movie featuring an anal sex scene.

I, for one, am relieved that I didn’t have to sit through a bunch of stupid contrived nonsense where Batman uses borderline magical gadgets or some such thing in order to prevent the death of a bunch of fictional henchmen. Is this what people really enjoy about Batman? The campy ways he comes up with to avoid killing people? No doubt that Snyder is very selectively applying the “What if this were real?” lens in these films, but this is one place where I find it a relief. Someone who were waging a war on crime would not be taking the time to do mental gymnastics to figure out how to keep each criminal he encountered from dying. The Daredevil Netflix show walks up to that line on a lot, and DD's fighting street-level crime exclusively. But when you have a Batman who has been fighting crime in a tank-car and a stealth fighter for twenty years -- well, someone’s gonna die.

A lot of people (i.e., da geeks) would probably respond to that by questioning my Batman bonafides. And frankly, I don’t give a fuck. But I do feel like it’s important to note that this a large part of the reason this version of Batman exists at all is to provide a foil to Superman (whose father passed down to him in Man of Steel the creed of the House of El: the belief in the potential of every person to be a force for good). Accordingly, his methods and the extremes to which he will go are one of the main ways in which the two are contrasted. I guess I’ll be revealing my relative lack of comic book lore mastery when I say that I don’t really know a better way to contrast them. From what I read in this article on Vulture, it seems like they were basically the same character (except one dressed as a bat and had no superpowers) until certain writers decided to explore the idea that Batman might have a different philosophy on how best to combat crime. So Batman began to be depicted as the one who was more willing to break the law, and the one who desired that criminals fear him more than anything else. This, as far as I can tell, is perfectly compatible with the version of Batman depicted in BvS: he is more willing to cross lines in the fight against crime.

Some people who have seen the film are suggesting that Batman has been murdering criminals for the entirety of his twenty-year career. As far as I could tell, the film was suggesting Batman went through some profound changes and crossed that line at some point after he had begun his anti-crime crusade. For one, he gives a speech to Alfred about how he has lost faith in people after fighting crime for so long. Second, it is made clear by the shot of the old Robin costume that Robin is gone, probably killed by the Joker. And finally, Alfred also suggests that Bruce Wayne is struggling to control his rage toward Superman as a way of explaining his branding and other violent actions. I think it's very reasonable to assume that this version of Batman was much more hopeful and less violent earlier in his career.

In my opinion, the movie does a pretty good job of having its cake and eating it, too. It positions Batman as an effective antagonist to Superman, but it's also able to make their conflicts feel more meaningful because really they are dual protagonists. Most superhero movies have clearly delineated good guys and bad guys, and as a result the process of watching the movie becomes a process of waiting to see how the good guy will win. For the audience, it doesn’t really matter what the character goes through or how difficult it is to win, unless the idea of hearing one or two lines in the next film about how the good guy “doesn’t trust people anymore” or “had a bad experience” in the last film before he/she goes onto defeat the new villain strikes you as revolutionary storytelling. (To use the Nolan Batman films as an example again: one of the greatest successes of TDK is that it has such a compelling conflict that it makes you wonder if Batman will have to break his “one rule” in order to defeat Joker and Harvey Two-Face, and in fact he does end up killing the latter.) More often than not, clearly delineated good guy/bad guy groups drain all suspense from action sequences, making them feel like filmmaking by rote (as I said above). But in BvS, the time we spend getting to know both characters and the fact that we are well-aware of the clash of philosophies taking place gives the physical fight weight. And for those who are complaining that the reasons that were concocted by the film's creative team in order to get Batman and Superman to fight are silly, well, just imagine how contrived it would have been if they had matching philosophies vis a vis crime fighting from frame one.

Criticism 4: Superman Is Short-Changed/Has No Character Arc

The fact is that Superman is limited in his screen time because there is a lot of other stuff happening in this movie. I was able to accept that. If you were not, you didn't like this movie.

It’s also a fact that he is dealing with a lot of the same issues that he was confronted with in Man of Steel, which can make it feel like he’s going nowhere. But the issue he’s dealing with is a huge one, and it’s one that I think has probably been dealt with better in these two films than in any superhero film in recent memory. As someone somewhere in the many places on the internet where I’ve read about this movie said (sorry for not properly crediting you, mystery internet person), this version of Superman does the right thing. The complaint that he does not is invalid. In the one instance when he fell into a gray area (i.e., the Metropolis fight at the end of MoS), the writers did their best to address it head-on and have him deal with the consequences. So the core struggle of this Superman is not "Do I do the right thing?" but rather: how do you reconcile knowing you are doing your best to help with the condemnation of others? And how do you deal with the accompanying feelings of isolation? The complexity of any possible answers to these questions is compounded by the fact that a) Superman is an alien and can expect that he will never fully be accepted b) Superman is a figure of global importance, so everyone has an opinion, and c) a lot of the criticisms are legitimate (e.g., Superman said repeatedly in MoS that he would not be a tool of the government, but as Senator Finch points out in BvS, it is justifiably unnerving to the people of Earth to see him operating unilaterally). If Henry Cavill as Superman seems dour, it is because these questions hang over his every choice. Under this type of scrutiny, who wouldn’t wonder if it were even worth trying, if they were doing more harm than good? I suppose the answer is Superman wouldn’t wonder, but frankly I think that after this film I am on board with a version of the character that does worry about these things. Could they have devoted more screen time to Superman? Absolutely, because these are questions well worth exploring (hence why they have been touched on in two films in a row). But to say there is nothing going on with Superman in this film is just wrong.

The climactic moment in the development of this theme comes toward the end of the film, when Superman is about to sacrifice himself to finish off Doomsday. After struggling for two films with the question of acceptance over his head, Superman has a moment of clarity; a moment of acceptance. Knowing he is likely to die in the conflict with Doomsday, he turns to Lois Lane to tell her he loves her. And then he says, “You are my world.” For me, this line (mocked by many of the critics I’ve read) had a clear purpose: Superman was telling Lois that he wasn't holding out hope any longer for everyone in the world to accept him; that he knew was always going to be a figure of controversy, that he knew he was always going to be judged. Saying to Lois that she was his world was his way of saying that all of the acceptance, all of the refuge, all of the love he had longed for he had found in her. In Man of Steel, Superman had embraces Earth as his home. In Batman v Superman, he accepts that not everyone on his home planet is going to love him, and he dies having acknowledged that one person did, and it was enough. Now I understand that this may not resonate with every viewer on an emotional level the way it did with me, but I think intellectually it’s quite an interesting and mature take on the theme of isolation. So again, there are definitely things going on with Superman in this movie -- it was not written by idiots.

That being said, probably the most glaring mistake in the film (and the one that does make you wonder if it was written by idiots for a second) is one that involves Superman, and it is one that has been pointed out by many people before me. In the scene where Superman goes to Capitol Hill, we are led to believe that he will stand before the Senate committee and explain himself and his actions. As someone who has been critical of Man of Steel, I was excited to hear Superman’s point of view. While Man of Steel had plenty of opportunities to do so, it never really succinctly stated Superman’s mission on Earth or his point of view on humanity (I always assumed the filmmakers decided not to try since they probably could not have measured up to the elegance with which Marlon Brando as Jor-El explained Superman's purpose in Superman: The Movie). Surely, I thought, we are going to get an impassioned speech from Superman, and I’m sure many of you were thinking the same thing. Of course, we now know that we were being set up for a swerve -- the speech never occurs because the committee hearing is blown up by Wallace Whateverthefuck. And it’s a shame, because the swerve could’ve been equally effective -- more effective, even -- if it had occurred after a speech in which Superman explained his vision for what he and the people of Earth could accomplish.

In Conclusion...

A lot of people have been surprised by the divisiveness of this film. In one notable instance, Ethan Anderton of Slashfilm took to the blog to lament the backlash against critics of the movie. It’s worth a read, but you should know in advance that it is written in a tone that suggests the audience for the piece is morons. Everyone has a point of view, and I don’t hold that against a critic. But when you act like we all think that “great movies” means the same thing, you’re talking nonsense. As Anderton says, one’s take on a film is subjective. It’s an opinion. So this was not an attempt to persuade anyone they should see Batman v Superman as I do -- if you didn’t enjoy the film, you’re not wrong obviously. But it seems to me that this film was even more highly anticipated than I thought, and the disappointment some people feel is being channeled into making arguments that are basically saying the film shouldn’t exist. So I've offered people a different point of view on the film, one that may speak a bit of their language of “movie critic” (or, more accurately, “wannabe movie critic”). Perhaps it will convince the comic book fans that Snyder and Co. don’t so badly misunderstand or hate these characters. Perhaps it will say to the film’s detractors that while it's not a great movie, it's a good one, and can we please just enjoy it now? As Anderton and other critics know, you can tear apart any film if you like. Who knows? Maybe in forty years all of the movies we watch now will be considered shit.

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