Monday, April 18, 2016

Part 1: Batman v Superman v Zack Snyder

Following up my Star Wars review in January, once again a movie has put a bee in my bonnet, and I'll write about it way after the point. Batman v Superman underwhelmed me, or rather overwhelmed me in the wrong way. Fridge logic was jumping at me way before I had a chance to find a fridge, and that's a problem.

It is weird when people call a film that made over 800 million worldwide a failure, but that 28% Fresh rate on the Tomatometer stings. The yardstick for cinematic universe launchpads, Avengers, outdid it in box office (780 mill to 1519 mill worldwide), and acclaim (28% to 92% Fresh on the Tomatometer - all figures at time of writing), and achieved that with a cast of characters not nearly as well-known and iconic as Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman. In fact, Marvel is eating DC's lunch even without access to many fan favorites like Wolverine, the X-Men, the Fantastic Four and Deadpool (and Spider-man, when Avengers came out), because other studios had those film rights. They beat Superman and Batman with their hands tied behind their backs. Soundly. Bottom line: Batman V Superman is a much weaker launchpad for fifteen years of related tentpoles than Avengers was.

However, before I am dismissed as a hater, and before I take a crap on Superman's lawn, I want to be clear about this:

I was primed to love this film. I wanted to love it. I maximized my chance of loving it: I saw it as early as I could, and avoided reading reviews, so my take would be unsullied by other opinions. I’ve always been a DC guy, and would have loved to be looking forward to all DCEU's phases, from now until the reboot. All my biases worked in this film’s favor. But then, I had to watch the actual movie.

From here, expect Spoilers. A lot of them. So if you plan to see it yet… move along.

Here is The Guardian's very funny "Everything Wrong with Batman v Superman."

There were things I liked about this film, in case three paragraphs ago isn't enough to show I'm not some kneejerk, butthurt nerd, or bandwagon pot-shot-taker.

  • Only Christian Bale is a better film Batman so far than Ben Affleck
  • Only Michael Keaton is a better film Bruce Wayne so far than Ben Affleck. 
  • Other than swinging Superman around like a wrecking ball, this Batman's combat scenes were the best we've seen in film. Batfleck is also closest to the Batman we saw in The Animated Series, the amazing 90s cartoon, which might be the definitive non-comic Batman treatment so far. Christian Bale's Batman was a ridiculously tough act to follow, and Chuckie Sullivan pulled it off. Zack Snyder gets what's cool about Batman... and let's be real: this is a Batman story.
  • Jeremy Irons' Alfred is also great, though he had too little screen time and it'll be hard to supplant Michael Caine as the best Alfred we've seen. 
  • Wonder Woman looks great so far 
  • Her music and her entrance were completely fist-punching-the-air awesome. Best twelve seconds of the film. 
  • If he had been written better, I would have said we have an extremely interesting, and definitely very original Lex Luthor, which is a very good thing in a villain. But I have reservations more to do with his writers and director than the performance itself. 
  • I even think Henry Cavill's Superman is still salvageable, but probably not while Zack Snyder is directing.

On to the problems, the biggest first:

1. Zack Snyder and His Writing Team Does Not Understand How to Make Superman Interesting, Who Likes Superman, What Kind Of Story Superman Stories Are, Why We Like That Kind of Story and just, basically, Superman.

I'm a Superman guy from way back. Watched every episode of Smallville, many with my Dad, who is also a Superman guy. I know Superman's dramatic limitations: he's just too powerful. Rooting for the guy who punches harder than anyone else is like rooting for gravity. The only way to make him interesting again is to put something on the line outside of the realm of raw power.

Really good Superman stories put the idea of Superman, his motivations and principles, into conflict. Christopher Nolan's first two Batman films were great examples of raising the personal stakes beyond mere punch-ups. The choices Batman made in dealing with Joker, Two-Face and Ra's Al Ghul tested the very ideas on which Bruce Wayne based his Batman. Those choices mattered. To make Superman interesting again the meaning of Superman has to be tested in the choices he makes -not just by things people say about him (of which there's a lot here). In two films so far, Superman made a surprisingly small number of choices: most of the time he just kind of watches, broods, and then reacts to events.

Here's an actual choice:

Other than that moment, for two whole films now, here are the times Superman takes initiative: 1. Saving the bus of kids even though his father told him not to show his powers. 2. Wanting to write a story about Batman for the Daily Planet. 3. Finding Batman and telling him to stop Batmanning! I think that's it. The only other choice he makes is "Should I keep being a hero, or not?" ...which is basically masturbation in a film that is a superhero movie. In fact, all that existential fuzz reminds me of a different hero than Superman.

The comic book movie Zack Snyder did before Man Of Steel was Watchmen, which features another all-powerful blue hero, Dr. Manhattan. Dr. Manhattan started out human, and got turned into a matter-manipulating demigod in a lab accident. Once he becomes capable of seeing protons, he slowly disengages from humanity, and eventually leaves Earth because he can't relate to us anymore, and likes atoms better than humans anyway.

"Should I Superman or not?" seems more like Dr. Manhattan than the Superman I know. So does the entire public discussion of/backlash against Superman (which also shows up in The Dark Knight Returns). However, the Superman I know does not lose his connection to humanity: he dives into it. A job, a secret identity, a girlfriend, visits to Smallville for Thanksgiving. His entire motivation to be a hero springs from his effort to connect with humanity, which is why the scenes where Martha Kent says, "You don't owe the world anything" ring wildly false. That's the exact opposite of Superman's entire heroic makeup. The best thing about Superman is how he embraces his adopted planet, and the best scenes in Man of Steel and this film were the ones where we see his connection with humanity: the scenes with his parents. The reaction when Zod threatens his mother in Man of Steel is one of the realest moments in the film. (It happens just before the famous The Smallville Esso/7-11 Product Placement Throwdown [brought to you by IHOP] - great scene!)

There's stuff you can change about a hero, and stuff you can't, or they won't be recognizable anymore. Take away the red underpants. Whatever. Bat-nipples... oookayyy. But Batman doesn't kill, and his parents were murdered. Spider-man's Uncle Ben dies. And Superman is good for the sake of being good because of his upbringing. That's the nature of the character. If you give Daredevil back his sight, or take him out of Hell's Kitchen, he's no longer the Daredevil we know. If Captain America starts cussing like Negan on The Walking Dead, he's not Captain America anymore. If Superman is a petty jerk who can be provoked by a mug of beer, who considers abandoning humanity because they graffiti'd his statue... then Lex Luthor is in the right, Superman is too alien to be trusted with all his power, and Batman should kill him. The innate decency is an inextricable part of Superman. It is the whole reason Batman should withhold his killing blow. Because Zack Snyder goes a different direction, he has to ass-pull the dumbest contrivance in comic movie history to justify why Batman didn't finish things off right there.

Source Dumb. dumb dumb dumb.
Without his moral compass shining bright, the reversal where Batman decides not to kill Superman falls from flat to ridiculous.

Now, who likes Superman? Kids like Superman. If you ask 100 five-year-olds to invent a superhero, 96 of them will invent a hero that is basically Superman and 4 will invent a Power Ranger, or a princess-robot-dinosaur-pony version of them. To grown-ups, Superman is kind of dorky and dramatically inert, because he's too powerful, and inevitability is no fun to watch, but to kids, that's awesome, because kids often feel powerless and wish they could fly, too. It makes absolutely no sense to make a Superman story that kids won't be able to enjoy, because that's his main demographic! A kid gets SO excited watching a Superman story, because the whole story is a build-up to the moment when The Super-Punch flattens that bad guy! Yay super-punch! Kids don't care if inevitability is less dramatic, because Super-Punch, daddy!

The other people who like Superman like him for childlike reasons: because sometimes it's fun to slip back into that innocence where good guys are good guys and bad guys get super-punches. We get tired of pyrrhic, morally ambiguous or bittersweet victories after a while. I didn't buy superhero film tickets to have difficult thoughts: I can get those anywhere! Ghost Pa Kent's story about how saving the farm drowned the Lang's horses violates the basic tenet of the moral universe in which Superman exists, and has always existed: one where good guys can win, because that's why we go see movies, gosh darn it! In a moral universe where every act of heroism might have a horrific consequence (like drowning horses), Superman's only responsible choice is to leave the planet. Goodbye, story. Sometimes I don't want a cynical Watchmen ending, where Dr. Manhattan looks at the Ozymandias and Nite Owl and says "Maybe we made the world a little less shitty at this horrific cost... but maybe not! Maybe this was just a bunch of really awful stuff that happened," and then abandons earth and humans to their own shittiness. Sometimes I want to escape, and see the bad guy get flattened with a super-punch, OK? Sue me. I know that the Christopher Reeve Superman cannot exist in a 2016 film, but there must be a way to make a Superman that is suitable for 2016, but is still recognizably Superman. Marvel has amply demonstrated it's possible to make a superhero film kids and adults can enjoy.

Different heroes are different types of stories. Iron Man is a story of redemption (from a wrecked personal life) through heroism. Captain America is a story about keeping moral clarity in a world full of grey areas. Daredevil explores the gap between law and justice. Batman is everyman reaching full human potential: we love stories like that: that's Rocky, Luke Skywalker, and Katniss Everdeen. It's The Karate Kid and Kung Fu Panda and the Last Girl in every horror movie. But Superman is not the story of surpassing limitations: Superman has no limitations. Superman takes the limitless -- the demigod -- and brings him down to us, and the things that humanize Superman make him interesting. That is the kind of story Superman is, and it's why we like him more than Martian Manhunter. He grew up on a farm in Kansas. He gets reamed out by his editor and given crap assignments at The Daily Planet. "Haha. Even Superman has deadlines and a ball-busting boss," makes us feel better about our crap days. It's no wonder the scenes with Ma and Pa Kent were the best parts of Man of Steel: as I said above, they are his strongest tether to humanity. And nothing is more fun in a Superman story than the contrivances he must go through to maintain his secret identity: dealing with Jimmy Olsen and Lois Lane, hiding his secret identity from them in the 1978 film were some of the best parts of the movie. That punching hard stuff? Superman's got that covered. But when Lois Lane is trying to trick Clark into taking his glasses off... that's where the fun of Superman is, because now the ultimate person-without-any-limitations, has to act within constraints.

Zack Snyder leaves all that potential for fun on the table. He scurries past it with eyes averted like the kid who snuck an extra dessert. Jimmy Olsen dies in the first scene of BvS, and Lois has always known he's Clark Kent. In the film's last scene, Clark Kent is declared dead in the newspaper (in the Superman's death saga, Kent was declared missing, not dead). Without Clark or Jimmy, and with Lois being in on it, Superman's entire fun side is wasted, and all that remains is the overpowered, inevitable super-punching bore.

TL:DR: Zack Snyder doesn't understand anything about Superman or why anybody likes him, and doesn't seem to care, either.

EDIT: Turns out his writer, David Goyer, is equally myopic on Superheroes who aren't anti-heroes. This article corroborates a lot of what I intuited here. Nice!

More in Part 2!

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