Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice – In Defense of the Superhero Epic

Batman-V-Superman-Dawn-of-Justice

2009 was an intense year. We saw the inauguration of the first African-American President, the economy was in complete freefall, and our society was facing an existential crisis. The cultural touchstones of that year reflected the nation’s anxieties. In particular, the film adaptation of the graphic novel Watchmen, emphasized these stresses. Its bleak, dark approach, mixed with morally ambiguous characters, created a tone that mirrored American hopelessness. In that respect, director Zack Snyder’s 2009 superhero epic was spot on, but the critics were fairly mixed upon its release.

Now it is 2016, and in some respects, we face the same anxieties and frustrations that we did seven years ago. America has become a place bereft of heroes, and the heroes that remain often disappoint us. What happens when our leaders fail us? What do we do when they don’t live up to our expectations? What if we even question the very validity of their existence?

These are all questions that, for good or ill, get addressed in Snyder’s newest epic, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. I recently saw this film, and intend to see it again, but I must share my thoughts as a bulwark against unnecessary nitpicking and fan disappointment. BvS is not a perfect film, far from it. Its narrative issues and complicated plot often drag the film down. (Film critic Chris Stuckmann addresses many of these problems fairly in his review on YouTube.) But when this film works, it works beautifully. I would argue that this film might be one of the most ambitious, if not the most ambitious, superhero film ever made. And I’ve already mentioned Watchmen.

The overly pessimistic criticism of this film, in my view, stems from its inability to live up to people’s expectations. It also felled victim to the “hype-machine.” Warner Brothers has been teasing audiences with this film for three years, and the trailers did not always represent the film properly. (In one trailer, the studio gave audiences way too much). I will say, though, that Snyder and company can be consoled by the fact that this film may garner more respect in the future, not necessarily for what it could have done better but for what it did right.

So, since most reviews focus on its failings, I’ll offer a more balanced view. First up, the tone. Snyder’s failings as a storyteller are often redeemed by his ability to capture mood, tone, and thematic through lines. He does this perfectly in BvS; the opening scenes that reintroduce Batman and his tragic past are beautifully haunting. Additionally, this new Batman is older, more cynical, and morally ambiguous. This is the kind of Batman that movie goers like me have wanted for a while; a Batman that isn’t sure what the right thing to do is anymore. While the film doesn’t address it as concretely as I would have liked, future films can flesh this out and build on what this film established.

Superman also feels the weight of heroism. One of the film’s themes that I really liked was whether the world really needed a Superman. Does the benefit of his heroism outweigh the costs of life and liberty? This question comes through the character of Senator June Finch (played by Holly Hunter), whose own misgivings about the Red-Caped alien from Krypton get used against her by the menacing and over-the-top Lex Luthor (played by Jesse Eisenberg). Like Batman’s moral ambiguity, the film fails to really play with this theme as much as I would have liked. However, when it does address these anxieties, it is powerful and thoughtful.

Next, let’s talk about casting. The best thing about BvS is Batman/Bruce Wayne, played by the controversial pick Ben Affleck. While many derided his choice for the role in 2013, I was delighted. I thought he was a perfect choice for the caped crusader, and I can confidently say that I was not wrong. Affleck’s pathos and intensity in this film are perfect for Snyder’s tone. He’s also an excellent Bruce Wayne, maybe the best we’ve seen on screen. I also really liked Jeremy Irons as Alfred Pennyworth and hope to see more of him in future films.

Henry Cavill returns as Superman, and is very strong in the role, but he does feel a little underdeveloped. I would have liked to see more of his life at the Daily Planet and his relationship with Lois Lane, but hey, the movie was already two and a half hours long. It may have been difficult to balance everything this film wants to do. (We will come back to that later.)

The most controversial casting choice for me was Jesse Eisenberg as Lex Luthor. I found his appearances in the trailer to be annoying and campy, as if he was in a different movie. But having seen his entire performance in the context of the film, I was pleasantly surprised. His menacing demeanor and almost spastic body language works, for the most part. There are a couple of scenes where it is a bit too much. In particular, there’s a philanthropy dinner scene where Luthor attempts to give a speech, but the character basically rambles and then yells at the audience. While I appreciate the attempt to make him unsettling to the filmgoer, it came off more awkward and unpolished. However, his other scenes, especially a rooftop scene with Lois Lane, are pitch-perfect. He serves as an adequate villain for the film.

However, I can’t finish this review without discussing Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman. She is one of the best parts of the film. She steals every scene she’s in. I think that it is high time that a female superhero is front and center in this type of film, and I look forward to seeing her in future installments of the DC Universe.

As with Zack Snyder’s other films, the cinematography and production design are gorgeous. The film is never boring to look at and there’s a lot to take in. However, there are times when narrative and character are sacrificed for tone and visual appeal. This is oft-repeated criticism of Snyder, whose problems with storytelling do appear in this film. He often has a hard time balancing all of the characters and plot points that permeate the movie. In a nutshell, this might be the film’s biggest problem. Dan Murrell of Screen Junkies was correct when he remarked that the movie was like five separate movies smashed into one and the filmmakers had trouble carrying everything effectively.

All of these criticisms are valid. I think the script really needed one more rewrite or edit before they started shooting. Having said that, the film we did get was good and it didn’t deserve the level of vitriol it received.

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, warts and all, gave movie-goers a powerful introduction to the DC Universe. It could’ve been easy for the studio to make something like Marvel, but they didn’t. They gave audiences something completely different than most superhero films, and for that, I can applaud it. The best thing I can say about this film is its ambition, its willingness to take risks and be bold. Does it always work? No. But when it does, it’s great. This film is certainly better than other big superhero films like Avengers: Age of Ultron, which had all the same problems but not nearly as much hate.

Art is supposed to challenge us. It is supposed to throw things at us and make us deal with them. Within the comic book genre, this film achieves that. The fact that it has divided so many people speaks to its ability to challenge audiences and make us question the very idea of heroism. Whether you loved it or hated it, this film compelled you to speak your mind. That might be its biggest victory.

Overall Grade = B+

My Top Ten Movies of 2015

Blog- Top Ten Movies of the Year

As a fun tradition, I do a top ten of my favorite movies of the year. I posted these on my social media last year, but this year I decided to write about them for my blog.  I look forward to sharing my favorites and creating a spirited discussion in the comments on my choices.

2015 was a phenomenally fun year to go to the movies. While I enjoyed almost every movie that I saw in the theater, here’s the ten I enjoyed the most.

  1. Ant-Man

A real return to form for Marvel after the slightly disappointing Avengers: Age of Ultron, Ant-Man brought the universe back down to size, both literally and figuratively. Paul Rudd is charming as Scott Lang, master thief and lovable protagonist and Evangeline Lilly was also fun to see as Hank Pym’s daughter. However, my favorite part of the film was Michael Douglas as Hank Pym, the original Ant-Man. His performance brought pathos and depth to what could’ve easily been a phone-in performance. His time on screen really elevated the film and made it more than just the beginning of Marvel’s “Phase Three.” The villain, played by House of Cards alum Corey Stoll, was a tad too mustache-twirly for me and it distracted me from the overall flow of the film. Nonetheless, Ant-Man offered a welcome surprise during the late summer lull in movies.

  1. Bridge of Spies

One of Spielberg’s best movies over the last decade, Bridge of Spies was exactly what I wanted from the film. Historically interested, beautifully written, and with acting that was second to none. Tom Hanks was brilliant in his role as insurance lawyer turned hostage negotiator James Donovan, showing once again why he’s one of America’s most-beloved actors. However, far and away the most riveting performance of the film was Mark Rylance, as the Soviet Spy Rudolf Abel. His powerful, wrenching performance beautifully complemented Hank’s casual grace, especially in their scenes together. A quiet, intense film, Bridge of Spies is a work that I want to revisit to catch what I missed the first time.

  1. Spectre

Picking up where Skyfall left off, Spectre is the second Bond film for director Sam Mendes and the fourth for actor Daniel Craig and it is a really good installment for the series. While Skyfall went for intensity and grit, Spectre went for flash and scope. This is the first Bond film where Craig actually looks like he enjoys the role, with more playful lines and a looser performance. The opening action sequence in Mexico City, with a masterful helicopter fight, is easily the best part of the film. That is, until you get to Christoph Waltz, who plays the elusive Oberhauser. His leering, pensive performance made for one of the best Bond villains in the series’ history. It is not as good as Skyfall, but it is pretty damn close, cementing that Craig’s era is the best since Sean Connery.

  1. The Martian

Based on one of my favorite books I read in 2015, The Martian is easily Ridley Scott’s best film in years. It is a testament to what good writing can do for a director like Scott, whose more recent work has been less than inspiring (I should do a separate blog on why Prometheus is my pick for worst movie I’ve seen in the last five years, if ever). Matt Damon is funny and warm as astronaut Mark Whatney, whose months long estrangement on Mars unites the United States and China to bring him back. Drew Goddard, who wrote the screenplay, adapted the novel beautifully, catching its essence and staying true to its vision. Gorgeous cinematography and set design lifted this wonderful ensemble piece from beginning to end. I just hope that Scott’s next Alien film is as good as this was. As long as Damon Lindelof has nothing to do with the screenplay, that just might happen. Ok, rant over. Regardless, The Martian was a triumph.

  1. Creed

While I technically saw this movie this week, it came out in 2015, so I’m including it in this list.

Creed, a loose continuation of the long-celebrated Rocky franchise, was a gritty, poignant return to form for the series. Sylvester Stallone gives his best performance in years and Michael B. Jordan was magnificent as Donny Johnson, aka Adonis Creed. Ryan Coogler (of Fruitville Station acclaim) co-wrote and directed this film, and the realness he brought to Station comes through here. It is easily the best Rocky sequel since Rocky II (where Balboa actually beats Apollo Creed, the father of Adonis) and I hope they make another one.

  1. Love & Mercy

Chronicling the life and legacy of Beach Boy songwriting genius Brian Wilson, Love & Mercy was one of the most emotionally satisfying films I saw this year. Full disclosure: I am a massive Beach Boys fan and Brian Wilson is one of my favorite musicians. This may have jaded my perception of the film, but I don’t care. Paul Dano and John Cusack play Wilson from two crucial eras of his life; the former during the mid 1960s peak and fall of the pop songwriter and the latter during the late 1980s and 90s when he needed to get away from the ominous influence of Dr. Eugene Landy. While Cusack plays the older Wilson is a serviceable manner, Dano is sheer brilliance. Dano wasn’t playing Brian Wilson, he simply was him. The music throughout the film also played to the strengths of the narrative and Paul Giamatti’s performance as Dr. Landy was chillingly accurate. Love & Mercy is one of the best musical biopics I’ve ever seen and I hope Dano receives some awards for his performance.

  1. Kingsman: The Secret Service

Matthew Vaughn, the action visionary behind X-Men: First Class and Kickass, really kicks it into overdrive with Kingsman. This movie is non-stop, badass action fun from the moment go. Colin Firth, in a bit of a casting coup, plays superspy Harry Hart and doesn’t disappoint in that role. Newcomer Taron Egerton plays Firth’s protégé and also dazzles with his charm and action suave. If this isn’t a soft audition for Vaughn to direct a new era of Bond after Craig’s departure, I honestly don’t know what is. Nothing would please me more than Vaughn doing a Bond film with a young, adrenaline-fueled Bond that brings back some of the humor and fun of the older films. Alright, this section isn’t about Bond, but this film reminded me of the best that spy movies can bring to audiences. In that sense, Kingsman reinvigorates the action-spy genre and I loved every minute of it.

  1. Spotlight

With excellent writing and a fantastic ensemble cast, Spotlight was my favorite drama piece in 2015. Inspired by the true story of the Boston Globe’s 2002 expose of child rape and the cover up of priests within the city’s Catholic Church and beyond, the film is more relevant than ever. The entire cast blew me away, especially Mark Ruffalo, who should get an Oscar nod for his performance as eccentric journalist Michael Rezendes. Michael Keaton, fresh off his brilliant performance in last year’s Birdman, does it again, proving that he is truly one of the best actors of his generation. This film is required viewing for anyone in the freethought movement, because it shows the dangers and evils inherent within a religious institution and the methods they use to cover up their crimes.

  1. Star Wars: The Force Awakens

For someone who has been a lifelong Star Wars fan, this had to be included in my list. It is just so wonderful to finally see a Star Wars movie that was actually Star Wars! JJ Abrams and company absolutely nailed it; this film definitely returns the sci-fi series to its former glory. My favorite character in the film was the enigmatic and tortured Kylo Ren, played by Adam Driver, reaffirming with my belief that a Star Wars film is only as good as its villain. Newcomers Daisy Ridley and John Boyega breathe new life into the saga, and will easily carry future installments. The returning cast of Ford, Fisher, and Hamill really gave the film its credibility but didn’t overshadow the new characters. Disney has really figured out how the future of Star Wars should be, and for audiences, it means the sci-fi legacy of Star Wars is in safe hands.

  1. Mad Max: Fury Road

Without question or reservation, this was my favorite film of 2015. I remember leaving the film visually and physically exhausted, not wanting to talk much. I knew that I had seen something very special, a movie so good that it only happens once in a while. Visionary director George Miller, who created the Mad Max universe, did for the 80s franchise what JJ Abrams did for Star Wars, only more so. Fury Road is one of the greatest action films ever made; its cinematography and storytelling will be taught in film school. Practical effects, beautiful camera work, and a loose, compelling narrative does exactly what you want as a viewer. Tom Hardy is excellent as Mad Max, but the runaway role was Charlize Theron as Furiosa. Alongside some of the most badass action I’ve ever seen on screen, this film is a feminist parable and warning about the dangers of environmental disaster and our continued reliance on fossil fuels. It gives the regular action film buff more than just dazzling visuals; it tells a story that is simple, yet poetic. I hope they do a sequel, but if they don’t, it is a fitting tribute to the legacy of George Miller and the insane world that he invented.

 

That’s it! That’s my top ten for 2015. Let me know what you think of my list. Did I leave any off you would have put there? Say so in the comments.