Friday, March 25, 2016

Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice movie review.

It's been no secret that since their rise to power thanks to their ambitiously interconnected universe, studios have attempted to greedily copy Marvel Studios' success. Imitators included Sony, who attempted to expand their newly rebooted Spider-Man franchise by eventually working in the Sinister Six (didn't work out), and now want to create an expanded universe for Ghostbusters (won't work).

The most obvious came from Marvel's longtime rival DC Comics, who made their intentions to build a similar universe very clear. Problem is, DC has always had trouble getting any non-Batman franchise off the ground, leading to outright failures like Green Lantern, and even Man of Steel being a severely polarizing movie. Batman V Superman is intended to be the main foundation for the rest of the franchise to follow, introducing the individual pieces of the Justice League for future entries, and getting two of America's most iconic superheros into an epic match-up. That's just the problem with the film, though, is that too many cooks are crowding into the kitchen, leading said foundation to be incredibly rickety.

After the widespread destruction of Metropolis, Clark Kent's Superman (Henry Cavill) is now one of the most divisive people in the world, with those who look to him as a savior, and those who look at him as a beacon of destruction. One of those include Gotham City billionaire Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck), who sees him as a threat that could destroy the planet at any moment, and begins looking for ways to take him down. At the same time, Lois Lane (Amy Adams) begins looking for ways to clear Superman's name after a recent disaster, maniacal businessman Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg) begins tinkering with the fallen technology from Zod's destroyer ship, and while Superman and Batman build to their epic face-off, a mysterious third superhero (Gal Gadot) steps onto the scene.

That's barely even half of the ground that the film has to cover, and that is actually the film's biggest problem. It feels like a collection of several movies playing at once, serving as not only a direct sequel to Man of Steel, but serving as the groundwork for future spin-offs for characters from the Justice League. It largely makes the decision to forego the ubiquitous origin story angle and show characters like Batman and Wonder Woman in the states we know them best, and while I welcome this change of pace, I can't deny it feels overly hasty. The film is not kind to the uninitiated, as it basically assumes you know everything you need to know about these characters going in, and with the multitude of cameos from future League members that it has to establish, this can be quite jarring and rushed, sinking the general narrative beneath its bloated and muddy content. It spreads all of the pieces far too thin, and because of that, there's occasionally an air of incoherence that is likely to test the viewer's patience.

Still, even when we've spent a considerable amount of time to get to know the characters, even that doesn't guarantee a genuine connection. Despite having both this and the previous movie to his credit, Henry Cavill's Superman still isn't very interesting. Sure, the vulnerability that the character feels in this installment gives it potential for a stronger connection, but the character still feels on the one-note side, and there's only so much that he can carry the movie on his own. His romance with Lois Lane has seen no improvement, and in fact, Amy Adams feels more shoehorned in than she did in Man of Steel, contributing little more than exposition, and used mainly as a tool to make Clark look better, given that she becomes the damsel in distress no less than three times. She's nothing more than a Mary Jane here.

In fact, it's those new characters who wind up being the infinitely more intriguing elements of the film. I've been supportive of Ben Affleck's casting as Batman from the very beginning, and he didn't disappoint once I finally saw him. While most actors are better at playing Bruce or the Bat individually, Affleck makes for a terrific Bruce/Bats combination, believably embodying Bruce's moody and deceptively charismatic facade, and actually lending some intimidation once he dons the cape and cowl. Used far less, but no less excellently cast is Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman, as beyond the spot-on physicality and natural confidence in the role, Gadot brings a lot of wit and charm to the performance, actually serving as a good foil and eventual ally to Bruce in the limited screentime they share, and her grand entrance in full costume had to be the biggest applause point in my screening of the film.

That said, the script gives many of the supporting players less interesting material to work with. While carry-overs from Man of Steel, Laurence Fishburne and Diane Lane turn in decent work, they never feel like they leave any long-lasting impact, with Lane in particular only existing to serve as a plot device. Newcomers such as Jeremy Irons (an excellent choice for Alfred) and Holly Hunter fare no better, struggling to lend some credit to the film, but get tossed to the sidelines far too often.

But nowhere is the characterization more egregiously terrible than in Jesse Eisenberg's Lex Luthor. Playing like a mixture between Eisenberg's Mark Zuckerberg and one of the villains from Joel Schumacher's Batman films, Luthor's twitchy and comically insane egotist hardly ever matches the threat we're meant to experience from him. Fitted with a heavy string of comic relief bits, the character quickly becomes a grating irritation, and even any laughter to be felt is at his expence rather than with it. Sure, the instability means he's certainly never a predictable villain, but it's so overplayed that it never once rings true. But while Eisenberg certainly isn't to blame, his casting is completely misplayed. He feels like he's actually quite embarrassed by what he's being offered to work with, flying off the hinges like he's making his performance up on the fly, and becomes a constant distraction. I get that subtlety was never Lex's strong suit, but when you've got him literally playing Frankenstein in the second half, that's a sign you've gone too far.

Returning in the director's chair is Zack Snyder, and while showing promise with Man of Steel despite David Goyer's awful script giving him no favors, out of Christopher Nolan's supervision, his direction is very shoddy here. The fact that he's not much of an actor's director aside, what was really a mixed bag for me was how the man handles the tone. Granted, some moments of his direction do have some inspired turns, especially when it comes to the infiltration of Batman, occasionally veering the film more towards noir than the typical superhero fare. It's no secret that the best action sequences of the film are those focusing on Batman, including one sequence where he takes down a room of armed mercenaries that admittedly made me excitable. Plus, to the film's credit, when the film does finally get to the "V" of Batman V Superman, the duel is an engaging, blood-pumping showdown that wisely balances between brawn and wits.

But aside from that, the rest of the direction is very muddy. The general tone takes itself very seriously, even during moments where it really shouldn't be, meaning the film becomes a bit of a slog during its first hour and a half. I understand the intention was for the film to be gritty, but gritty doesn't have to equal bland. Even the rest of the action is somewhat disappointing. Snyder is given more freedom to embrace more of his usual stylistic choices, such as his heavy slow-mo, desaturated colors, and fantastical kinetic movement. It leads to action that borders on the absurd, and the editing and sound choices do him no favors as well. The film comes with some sloppy sound mixing, with certain dialogue getting drowned out by the abrasive effects, and the less said about Hans Zimmer's aggressive collection of machinery noises for music, the better.

What's most absurd about the film is the epic finale, that sees Superman and Batman teaming up with Wonder Woman for one final battle. I won't spoil the details if you've been lucky enough to avoid one key trailer that basically explains to you the entire movie, but it basically involves them fighting a generic brute. It's here where the visual aesthetics become a particular irritation, as the whole sequence feels like an unintelligible montage of ugly CGI oranges and greys trading swings with each other, making the whole showdown look cartoonish. In an attempt to backpedal from Man of Steel turning half of Metropolis in a crater with dead bodies burned to ashes, the film decides to have its cake and eat it too, justifying more epic mayhem and property damage by repeatedly informing the audience that the location is uninhabited. I respect the studio for trying to learn from previous mistakes and scale back, but the fact that they feel the need to keep bringing attention to this is downright comical.

Is Batman V Superman the catastrophic disaster that critics have built it up to be? Not really. This is not Fant4stic bad. It does possess some genuinely good, even great elements for it to be worth a watch, but all of these elements get drowned out by the pure, epic confusion and the need to hammer in so much into so little time. It's perhaps unfair to compare DC's moves to that of Marvel, given that the latter was able to get movies for individual cast members before their epic Avengers collaboration, while this one had to work around the limitations it was given, but for a movie that sees the two most iconic superheroes in history facing off with each other and joining forces, you can't help but feel disappointed by the end result.

Maybe the upcoming releases of DC's expanded universe will help the studio bounce back, but this is still very uneven groundwork to build upon.

** / *****

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