Tuesday, April 19, 2016

New Release! Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice

Director: Zack Snyder

I tried. I really did. But Dawn of Justice lived down to my carefully-tempered expectations.

Even upon its announcement nearly a year ago, I was skeptical. I did not especially enjoy Superman: Man of Steel from 2013. I found it overly grim, with an overthought plot and a lack of compelling characters. When I heard that writer and director Zack Snyder had been pegged to do Dawn of Justice, I was not terribly enthused. When I also heard that this was to be the first in a new extended movie universe based on DC, then it clearly became that long-standing comic book company's attempt to catch up with Marvel and its outrageously successful Cinematic Universe. As an opening salvo in any sort of competition with Marvel, Dawn of Justice falls bafflingly short.

The most basic elements of the story aren't terrible. During the events of Man of Steel, when Superman's clash with General Zod kills thousands upon thousands of people, Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) begins to feel that humans are helpless in the presence of such immensely powerful beings. Behind the scenes, a young Lex Luthor begins to manipulate this fear into a battle between his arch-nemesis Superman and Wayne's crime-fighting alter-ego, Batman. While not exactly the most original idea, this story is something to work with and has potential for some engaging narrative and clever ideas.

The problem is that the unfolding of the plot is a mess. The story jumps around from place to place so rapidly that it is difficult to get your bearings. With few smooth transitions, we go from Bruce Wayne brooding about his murdered parents to Clark Kent's romance with Lois Lane to Lex Luthor's thin plot to have Superman killed to Lex Luthor's confusing plot to incorporate Kryptonian technology. Shoehorned into this are an odd, flash-forward nightmare vision that is as coherent as a bad acid trip and irrelevant sneak-peeks at other DC superheroes to come in future movies. When the movie's not trying to cram in little previews and allusions for their next several movies, it's trying to cover up the cracks by giving us lots of glossy action. While there are a few modestly interesting sequences, they are brief and rare. Many of the most interesting visuals and ideas are taken from the source comic books, mostly Frank Miller's iconic 1980s mini-series The Dark Knight Returns.

The title fight isn't nearly as exciting as you might hope.
There are a few half-decent moments, but far too much Bats
simply throwing Supes through walls, and vice versa.
The lack of narrative cohesion isn't helped by the fact that characters are simply thrown at you, with little or no explanation as to their backgrounds or motivations, perhaps assuming that most or all viewers simply knew who they were. The movie could probably have gotten away with this if there had only been one or two iconic characters, each with appearances in earlier films that telling their stories. Here it doesn't work, though, thanks to the multiple reboots within the last decade. This Batman is not the Nolan Dark Knight Batman, and he's never been seen in anything prior to this movie. The same with Lex Luthor. Yes, most of us know Lex Luthor, but this is a re-imagined version whose character and motivations are never explained. Wayne, Luthor, and virtually every supporting character such as Alfred are given little to no time to become of much interest to us viewers.

Many people have bashed Ben Affleck, and he's probably deserved it for some things. However, his acting in this movie is not the problem. In fact, nearly all of the actors are fine. The exception is Jesse Eisenberg's take on Lex Luthor, which I found to be annoyingly twitchy, making the iconic and villainous genius seem more like an insane schizoid than the powerfully intelligent, dominant, and sometimes gleefully evil force that have made up some of the best iterations of the character. I will say that Gal Gadot plays a solid Wonder Woman, but she is the only worthy revelation in the film.

Perhaps the greatest offense here isn't the movie itself, but rather the bucketloads of cash that it raked in during its opening weekend. Despite open skepticism from reliable critics and an avalanche of negative reviews, fans turned out in droves. I can't act overly incensed, as I threw my $11.50 into the DC and Warner Brothers coffers. Still, I fear that these companies will misread the huge opening weekend as validation of their current template. The Marvel Cinematic Universe may have its weaknesses and impending pitfalls, but even its weakest movie (The Incredible Hulk, in my opinion) is better than Dawn of Justice. Not exactly the best way to kick off a massive film franchise, to be sure.