Friday, March 25, 2016

BLACK AND BLUE: a review of "Batman v. Superman: Dawn Of Justice"

Based upon characters and situations from DC Comics
Screenplay Written by Chris Terrio and David S. Goyer
Directed by Zack Snyder
** (two stars)

I have to say that I am feeling more than sorry for Ben Affleck who has taken more than his deserved share of lumps over some areas of his filmography, most notably his eternally maligned previous entry within the comic book film genre with Writer/Director Mark Steven Johnson's "Daredevil (2003)--a film I actually liked quite a bit.

While he has more than re-invented and resurrected his career as a filmmaker of impressive skill and grit with "The Town" (2010), the Oscar Best Picture winning "Argo" (2012) and what I feel is his strongest directorial effort, "Gone Baby Gone" (2007), it amazes me that there is still a public contingent of viewers wishing and hoping for him to fail and crash land horrifically in a career ending ball of flames. I don't get it. I don't understand it. But it is there.

After having returned home from a screening of Director Zack Snyder's "Batman v. Superman: Dawn Of Justice," in which Ben Affleck dons the cape and cowl of Batman for the first time, those sentiments are all over the internet as mean spirited memes, viral videos and articles depicting "Sad Affleck" reacting to the glut of middling to harshly negative reviews the film has been receiving over the last few days. Overall, it just feels like a pathetic attempt to see who is able to humiliate the man the most and with the actual reviews, some of them feel to carry the tone of writers who are writing for other writers and not truly writing an honest review for readers. Well, now having seen the film for myself, I can quickly send these words of solace to Mr. Ben Affleck should this posting ever reach its way to him: You did good. But the film's not your fault.

Zack Snyder's "Batman v. Superman: Dawn Of Justice," the direct sequel to Snyder's ambitious and deeply problematic "Man Of Steel" (2012) and true opening shot at building a DC Comics film universe, is as ambitious and as deeply problematic as its predecessor. Aside from being saddled with an awfully awkward title, Snyder has delivered yet another often visually dazzling, intermittently involving yet wholly bombastic effort that just left me well as bludgeoned. Yes, I do appreciate the sheer ambition Snyder has obviously placed within the film and he indeed is a filmmaker unafraid to take some real risks with these iconic characters. But even so, was all of the cataclysm worth the trouble, especially when it is so self-consciously dark, humorless, and so shamelessly disingenuous to its own themes and concepts?

"Batman v. Superman: Dawn Of Justice" opens with yet another cinematic re-telling of Batman's origins from young Bruce Wayne's first hand witnessing of his parents' murder at the hands of a gun totting criminal after a night at the theater. From these most familiar moments, we plunge into a clever re-staging of the protracted ultra violent climax from "Man Of Steel" where Superman (again played by Henry Cavill) engaged in a life and death battle with General Zod (Michael Shannon), while skyscraper buildings and innocent civilians all fell to their deaths (clearly a ham fisted, overly obvious, emotionally hollow and just this close to tasteless echo of 9/11).Yet, this time, we view the action from the eyes of Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck), whose employees were maimed and killed during the destruction, thus fueling his bottomless rage, a fury which has grown more paramount over his two decades serving as the increasingly ruthless Gotham City vigilante we all know as Batman, a figure who has now taken to brutally branding his victims, including one sex trafficker. Viewing Superman as completely responsible for the Metropolis carnage, Wayne vows revenge.

18 months after the events of "Man Of Steel," Kal-El, yet known to world alternately as either Clark Kent or Superman, has only grown into becoming a more controversial figure as he continues to attempt to adjust and assimilate in a world that feels it has just as much to fear as to worship from his presence, abilities and powers. His romance with Daily Planet ace reporter Lois Lane (Amy Adams) escalates, and he also further seeks counsel from his adoptive Mother Martha (Diane Lane) as well as the spirit of his adoptive Father Jonathan (Kevin Costner), and has now found himself consumed with exposing Batman as an unregulated thug who causes more damage than good.

Enter Alexander "Lex" Luthor (a manic Jesse Eisenberg), hereditary CEO of LexCorp, himself consumed with destroying Superman via a hunk of Kryptonite unearthed from the bottom of the Indian Ocean merged with the DNA of the deceased General Zod and equipment from Zod's downed spacecraft into an ultimate biological weapon. Yet, to fully enact his nefarious plan, he must first play the role of puppet master...pitting Batman and Superman against each other in a fight to the death.

And then, there is the arrival of the elegant and mysterious Diana Prince (Gal Gadot)...

When the cacophony was all said and done and I was exiting the theater, I felt that my reaction to Zack Snyder's "Batman v. Superman: Dawn Of Justice" was essentially identical to my reaction with "Man Of Steel." What I liked, I enjoyed and what I didn't like I really did not like. For all intents and purposes, the film works pretty well in specific visual and tonal areas as well as in narrative fits and starts.

First of all, Snyder does remain a striking visual stylist, emerging with many startling, haunting dream-like images to do leave an unsettling impression and work well in creating the dark universe he wishes develop and deliver. Since he continues to present the character of Superman as precisely what he is, a literal alien, moments where he is seen hovering in the sky, his face obscured by the light of the sun and shadows falling over his iconic costume, the qualities of whether he is savior or a malevolent force are poetically brought into question and effectively so. Unfortunately, this time around, it felt as if Snyder and his writers really were a bit unsure as to how to develop the character of Superman, how to really make him progress. But granted, Superman has never really been that interesting of a character. He is indeed a bit one note and is more defined by the characters that surround him. With that, Henry Cavill again does an effective job with making the character his own by not necessarily portraying Superman or even Clark Kent but the Kryptonian Kal-El, the ultimate outsider, unsure of his place in the world as well as his destiny.

More conceptually, I think the film succeeds best in illustrating the world of Batman, a real surprise as this film is arriving just a mere four years after Writer/Director Christopher Nolan completed his sensational and truly game changing "Dark Knight Trilogy" (2005/2008/2012), a series I adored so much that I truly had no interest in viewing another re-telling and especially so soon. But even so, I felt this was the most effective thread of the film as we are given a vision of an older, angrier, embittered Batman consumed by loss, recrimination, grief and guilt, not only over the deaths of his parents but apparently the death of his sidekick Robin at the hands of the Joker (as visualized by an encased and graffiti littered costume that hangs in the Batcave). With solely Alfred (nicely played by Jeremy Irons) as his confidant as well as tech and weapons expert, Bruce Wayne utilizes the guise of Batman to further unleash his inner demons upon the world around him and now to a degree that has become unrepentant in its violence.

Visually, I really liked some early sequences in the film where Snyder depicts Batman in action, with its grim shadows and dark corners, somehow taking a few steps a bit further from Nolan and even Tim Burton's incarnations. Snyder also handles a couple of Bruce Wayne's nightmares with appropriate menace and torment, although Wayne's post-apocalyptic horrorshow sequence over-stretches. And to a certain extent, Snyder's exploration of Batman from psychologically damaged hero to anti-hero and the elements of morality he now confronts with his dogged pursuit of Superman gave the film a much needed element of gravitas,  however fleeting it actually was.

Here is where I feel that Ben Affleck deserves his praise. Again, I really had no interest in seeing a new incarnation of Batman so soon after Nolan's films in which Christian Bale gave me the finest interpretation of the character that I've seen. But like Cavill achieved in relation to cinema's finest Superman with the late Christopher Reeve, Affleck somehow devised a way to make Batman his own through a bitter command and buffed up physicality. I have no complaints with Affleck's interpretation and performance and it was good enough where I would at least consider seeing him perform the role again in a future film.

Regardless of what I liked about the film, "Batman v. Superman: Dawn Of Justice" is cloaked in serious problems that refuse to allow Snyder's vision to really take flight. Granted, Snyder really does whip himself up into a frenzy with this film as he is not only essentially trying to lead us up to a gladiator battle but also set up the DC superhero collective of the Justice League Of America, featuring characters that could potentially make up the proposed next 10 films! Aside from the overkill of that prospect, there is already considerable overkill within this one movie which truly feels as if Zack Snyder is trying to single handedly create what several filmmakers from Jon Favreau, Kenneth Branagh, Joss Whedon, Peyton Reed, Joe and Anthony Russo among others have created with the Marvel Comics film universe over the previous eight years. In doing so, the storytelling within "Batman v. Superman: Dawn Of Justice" is often sloppy, occasionally excessive and filled with dialogue and motivation that are arbitrary at best and downright stupid at worst.

For instance, in a film that runs 2 1/2 hours, Snyder really needed some assistance in the editing department in a variety of areas. Yet, when he utilizes his film to not only introduce us to Wonder Woman (more on her in a little bit) but also The Flash, Aquaman, and Cyborg, what could have been a nice goosebump Easter Egg just becomes one of the film's several protracted sequences that really achieves nothing but to extend the running time.

One of the film's greatest offenses is Lois Lane herself. Again, this is of no fault to Amy Adams who does what she can with this completely regressive role that perpetually rivets her into an existence as a forever damsel in distress and only based upon one stupid decision after another. It truly makes you question how she could possibly be the Daily Planet's ace reporter when she's so busy stumbling herself into being tossed from rooftops, nearly drowning and so on.

Even worse is Wonder Woman. While her arrival in full gave me my one goosebump moment in the entire film, once she began speaking, all of the air was let out of the balloon. While she is seen here and there within the film, it did indeed dawn upon me that Gal Gadot really did not have much dialogue at all and when she was required to deliver a few more substantive lines during the film's conclusion, it struck me that Godot is simply not very good. While she was just fine in fighting alongside Batman and Superman in the film's climax, overall Gal Godot was like Greg Brady in the classic "Johnny Bravo" episode of "The Brady Bunch" as I have a feeling that she was hired because she fit the costume.

Beyond the two women in the film, there is also the issue of Jesse Eisenberg as Lex Luthor, who was uncommonly irritating and not at all villainous enough. It was as if Snyder's direction to Eisenberg was to essentially take his performance as Mark Zuckerberg in David Fincher's "The Social Network" (2010) and just dial it up to 25! Sorry, but that is just not good enough for me.

Then, there is the fight itself, the raison d'etre of the film and it's all in the title and frankly, it's flat out boring. Now I did express earlier that I appreciated Snyder's sense of ambition and his willingness to take some serious risks with the characters of the DC universe. That said, it doesn't necessarily mean that I liked the risks that he chose to take. With "Man Of Steel" and its interminable climax which ran for a full and numbing 45 minutes, the endless stream of violence and carnage concluded with Superman committing an act that fully goes against the aesthetic of the character. With the new film, Snyder not only kills off Robin and Daily Planet photographer Jimmy Olsen, he also essentially makes Batman exist as another man of extreme violence, making the movie a tremendously joyless affair. Honestly, even as intense as "The Dark Knight" (2008) was, it was completely involving, complex and exhilarating as Christopher Nolan is a first rate storyteller, something Zack Snyder just does not happen to be.

With Snyder's "Batman v. Superman: Dawn Of Justice," it is operatic without any real soul, callously brutal to the point of being sadistic and so emotionally simplistic and inane that it basically exists as the consummate right wing fantasy film; two men who feel that the most extreme forms of violence will solve absolutely, positively any problem...and they both really love they mamas! Spare me and no amount of Christian allegory and symbolism can justify the excessive ultra violence on display. At times, it was like sitting through Clint Eastwood's dumb, offensive and jingoistic "American Sniper" (2014) all over again.

"Batman v. Superman: Dawn Of Justice" is all so disingenuous as it tries to answer for the criticisms against "Man Of Steel" while it ultimate doubles down upon those very criticisms, Yes, I did think the opening sequences depicting the "Man Of Steel" climax from Bruce Wayne's perspective and his reactions to all of the destruction was a slyly effective way to justify the violence of that film, while also creating the new film's theme of the consequences that exist behind the actions of both Batman and Superman no matter the purity of their intent. Yet, when it is time for the two men to battle, it just boils down to a facile misunderstanding that could have been worked through in mere moments but then, we wouldn't have that comic book Ali/Frazier fight to watch, now would we?

And even when that portion of the movie is all over, it's not all over as Snyder makes the exact same mistake he made with "Man Of Steel" by hurling us through another extended, overlong, CGI maelstrom which really served no purpose but for Snyder to take another truly bold yet completely unnecessary risk, which even then led itself to what felt like 10 different endings, all designed to set up the next batch of DC films. It was akin to being beaten into submission where all I could say to myself was, "Well...that was loud."

Look, "Batman v. Superman: Dawn Of Justice" is not the disaster some are making it out to be. It did have its moments and good points and believe me, for all of Zack Snyder's faults, he is at least capable of not producing something that is as cinema killing as anything helmed by the likes of Michael Bay. But, the relentless and purposeless darkness was indeed tiring and ultimately, the film made me arrive at two important realizations: The excellence of Zack Snyder's adaptation of "Watchmen" (2009) was a fluke and the Marvel Comics films confidently have the edge.

And again, to Ben Affleck, it's not your fault.

While our MPAA film rating system is more than problematic, for parents it does work as a perfect guide for what you are willing to take your children to see. This film is rated PG 13 and for me, I felt that it really danced to the edge of the rating, so much so that Zack Snyder has already announced plans to release an extended R rated version for home video.

I deeply urge those of you who happen to be parents of small children aged 8 and younger (and with that, I am being more than generous) to not take your little ones to this film which is excessively violent, intense and grim. Think of it this way: this is not a comic book movie that happens to be violent.

This is a violent movie that happens to have comic book characters. You have been advised....  

Tuesday, March 1, 2016


I think that I needed to take a break.

After writing a series of year end reviews plus the four part Savage Scorecard series and then, my combined lack of enthusiasm for and anger with the Oscars concerning the whitewashed nominations, I found myself feeling not terribly interested in seeing any movies at all. The latest films from both The Coen Brothers and Michael Moore each arrived in my city and I saw neither of them. Additionally, I found myself particularly uninterested in screening "Deadpool," despite the great word of mouth that I have been receiving from friends as well as the massive box office earnings it has already gathered.

This is not to suggest that my life long passion had finally dissipated. On the contrary, absolutely not and never will this particular flame extinguish itself. No, it was nothing to that effect. I really believe that it was indeed nothing more than what I said at the outset of this month's intro: I just needed to step away for a spell, therefore, rebuilding my anticipation to return to the movies, which I fully plan on doing this month. Perhaps I will see "Deadpool," regardless of my skepticism but I will definitely be seeing the following feature:
"Batman V. Superman: Dawn Of Justice" from Director Zack Snyder as the follow up feature to his own "Man Of Steel" (2013) and the second building block in the newly emerging DC Comics film universe, is the one that I am simultaneously curious and extremely skeptical about. "Man Of Steel" definitely was a film that had much that I admired yet when it went off of the rails, it did so tremendously and to an ugly degree of bombastic mega-excess. I fear that the bombastic tone will only resurface but I'll only know for certain once I see the finished film at the end of this month.

Beyond that film, I am honestly not certain but I do have some ideas percolating.

So, with that, I shall return in earnest. Wish me luck please and as always, I'll see you when the house lights go down!!