Review: Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice

Here there be spoilers.

Now that I’ve had a night to think about it, I’m not actually sure if I liked the movie or not. And I don’t think it’s a case of really disliking it and being in denial. I really, honestly don’t know. To be fair, though, after I saw Man of Steel the first time, I was unsure about the movie.

 

Part of this, I think, is the presentation seemed to be very poor. The theater house lights never dimmed entirely. The sound mix seemed off. I think they had the aperture on the projector on incorrectly, which slightly cut off the top and bottom of the screen. (Noticeable in the scenes of news shows, where the bottom of the text was cut off.) And maybe they had the 3D grate down or something, because it seemed dim, especially compared to trailers I’d seen previously.

 

So, fighting against a sub-par movie experience. And I don’t want to hold that against the film itself.

 

Still, this was an acknowledged mess. I came away mostly thinking that they did have a pretty strong idea of what they wanted their characters to present as… but had no real clue how to get those ideas across the best. Many of the scenes felt like they were sketched out without a clear beginning and end, and we’re left with a feeling of a larger whole where we’re only seeing a few random middle bits. It’s not that the character motivations are lacking, just that the elements shown aren’t what drive those points across.

 

In a way, this is confusing, because when you strip it down, the plot of BvS is pretty great: Lex Luthor has a problem with Superman, so he sets up a Xanatos Gambit to put him in conflict with Batman. Eventually, they realize their error and team up.

 

Unfortunately, in order to get this across, you need a strong bifurcated storyline: Superman’s heroics need to progress in contrast with Batman’s investigations. The two should advance in a way that feels like they’re converging on the same point. Then you get the twist: instead of working separately against a common goal, they’re actually at odds against each other. This is how you get the fight that feels both surprising and organic. Also, this should come to head at the end of Act 2. Act 3 is the team-up.

 

The problem arises rather early. The entire Africa plotline feels needlessly busy and extraneous, especially since MoS already presented a very good reason for people to question Superman already. Then as the movie progresses, it seems to be too early when we’re seeing Lex’s gambit in action. Thus it isn’t a surprise about what happens. Thus we get a confusing selection of character actions that are clearly leading somewhere, but the film itself doesn’t seem clear on what that goal actually is.

 

So here’s what I think happened. I think David Goyer wrote a Man of Steel sequel. It was a Superman plot through and through. You can look at the throughline of Supes and Lex and see that it’s pretty clear that exists. In this context, Lex’s plan is entirely put public doubt in Superman, make him the blame of things going wrong (that are Lex’s doing), and then when that doesn’t work, bring out his ace in the hole, Doomsday, to kill Superman.

 

Then WB got nervous and decided to add Batman into the mix. And all hell broke loose. Because by adding Batman, you need to account for his motivations. And while there is a disagreement plot to be had, it wasn’t in the original script. So Goyer (and later Terrio) were doing the best they could with the plot at hand, but it was a confusing, tacked-on selection of motivations and character impetus that ultimately sets the original plot on a wobbly course.

 

In fact, if you look at the film, the interactions between the two characters is pretty sketchy prior to the final fight. They meet at Lex’s party (and in Batman’s dream), but that’s about it. It really feels like two different movies that more or less are happening at the same time. Or, perhaps more appropriately, this is a Superman movie that seems to star Batman for reasons that are not entirely clear from the film itself.

 

It’s entirely possible that the director’s cut, with ample time to explore the motivations and plots, will clear up the confusion. It’s not that they necessarily needed that extra time, but if they didn’t have a clear plan from the get-go, it could help work through all the excess they were dealing with. We’ll have to wait and see. Unfortunately, even if the DC is a vast improvement, it’s not going to help. Most of the audience will see it in the theaters, and their opinions will be pretty firm. I doubt many are going to give it a second chance, especially if it’s longer.

 

With all that, what did I like?

 

Well, I do like the cast. They’re all pretty great, especially given the weirdly limited material they have to work with. Affleck makes a great Batman. Irons a great Alfred (in fact, he had most of the best lines in the film). Eisenberg is weirdly compelling at Lex. Adams as Lois continues to give me heart eyes. And Cavill continues to sell what is a difficult role.

 

And, of course, Gal Gadot is glorious as Wonder Woman. Messy as the film is, it isn’t confused at all when she’s on screen. When she shows up for the final fight, everything just sort of clarifies. Even the entire tone of the music changes, as if to say, “This is what we are here for.” And it is. The criticism of the DC films is that they’re afraid of letting their heroes enjoy themselves. That’s entirely absent with Wonder Woman. She fights and has fun at it. She alone is enough reason to be excited about what the DC films will bring in the future.

 

I doubt I’ll see BvS again theatrically. That’s mostly for financial reasons, though. I really would like to give it a second shot in a presentation that isn’t marred by the theater itself. I wonder if, like Man of Steel, it’s something that I warm up to over time and begin to love. I’d also like to see the director’s cut to see if that smooths out some of the story issues. Maybe if there’s another $10 blu-ray at Best Buy.

 

Still, I honestly don’t know if I like it or not.

 

?/5

DC’s Movie Future

The big news for comic book geeks right now are the DC changes. The company is dissolving Wildstorm and presumably every other imprint besides Vertigo. All non-publishing operations are moving from New York to SoCal. There are a number of questions up in the air, but for the most part, that’s just a bunch of businessy things to think about.

The reasons for these changes make a lot of sense. DC’s had a problem for a while, lagging behind Marvel for a number of years and often playing copycat to try and catch up. The company has had a broader scope of comics printed, under a number of different imprints, but nothing’s seemed to catch on.

Step one, it seems, is to remove a lot of dead weight. I imagine that in the next few months, they’ll announce how they’ll handle the various creator-owned properties, whether it’s by moving them under the Vertigo banner or something else will remain to be seen.

What’s considerably more fascinating, to me, is a quote by DC head honcho Diane Nelson where she says that they aren’t Marvel. Obvious, of course, but upon consideration, it’s a very smart move.

Marvel’s approach to movies is well understood to be building a universe that will culminate, of sorts, with the Joss Whedon Avengers film in a couple years. I imagine that, if it’s a successful experiment, it won’t stop there, but I don’t get the sense that they’ve got a plan that extends much further until they see how it goes. This eggs in a basket strategy is probably driven by necessity. Due to a number of financial issues Marvel had over a decade ago, the company sold off the rights to a number of characters. They can’t do anything, film-wise, with the two biggest characters under the company’s publishing banner: Spider-Man and Wolverine. (Held by Sony and Fox, respectively.)

In fact, given the attempts under Avi Arad to license out the over 6000 characters in the Marvel universe, many of the more well-known characters are effectively gone for good. (It’s entirely possible that the rights could lapse, but I believe that’s only happened with Hulk. All other major properties have some sort of film in production.) This is a big issue because the money is made on the big screen (and subsequent DVD sales) rather than in the monthly issues. Marvel does the latter very well, and the former was elsewhere. (This last point is what makes the Disney purchase seem so odd.)

Enter the Avengers. Take the remaining characters, most of them second-tier, and hand them off to good directors and such to create a movie universe unlike anything that’s been done before. It’s great branding and gets the word out that this is the Next Big Thing. So long as the films are good, then everything will be hunky-dory. Luckily for Marvel, Iron Man was very good, so things are getting rolling. The Avengers seems like a dream come true: a real superhero team-up film on the big screen. Awesome, right? And not a little bit lucky that they still had Cap, Thor, and ol’ Shellhead in-house.

DC doesn’t have that problem. For the most part, any character under the DC banner has the film rights in-house under Warner Bros. While Marvel’s been all over the place, the dream of a JLA movie has been kicking around at least since the late ’90s. Nothing came of any of those, partially because DC never seemed to be able to do anything besides Batman or Superman, and partially because getting a large cast of superheroes together gets unwieldy. Seriously, when you have too many characters, it’s not good cinema. Just one of the many problems that plagued X-Men 3.

So Marvel may have found the magic formula, however: individual films for a series of characters, then bring them together for the team-up. You don’t need to worry about backstory. And DC’s got a couple of Bat-films in the current series, a Green Lantern film out next year. Just need something new for Supes, work out The Flash and Wonder Woman, and you’re there, right? Easy enough to copy Marvel’s playbook… again.

However, Nelson’s quote indicates that (as of right now) they have no plans to do that. For a couple of reasons, this is probably the best decision. First, there’s the creative side. DC doesn’t have the same necessity. The movie studio isn’t force to use the second tier characters because their big guns are right there, and (at least in Batman’s case), extremely profitable and visible. When the third Batman film comes out, it’s going to do just fine. And Christopher Nolan’s also at work on a Superman film, which has a lot of justifiably high expectations.

However, Nolan’s indicated that he doesn’t really want to push Batman into a bigger group. The stories he’s filming work well on a closed level and I’m going to guess that Superman is going to get a similar treatment. Given that those two are likely tied up and unavailable because of that, it would leave any potential JLA movie in one of two problematic situations: either you film it without Superman and Batman, which doesn’t really scream JLA anymore. Ever since Grant Morrison started on the title back in the mid-90s, it’s been a team that’s the biggest heroes in the DCU, as it was when the team started. Ironically, Marvel’s gone with a similar strategy of late, by pulling Spiderman and Wolverine into the Avengers. However, they can’t match the lineup in the films.

To remove Batman & Superman leaves the league feeling a bit… Justice League International in feel, which is dating back 20+ years.  And unlike the Avengers, there’s a very important tone that needs to be set here. I really doubt any casual viewer is going to know that Wolverine and Spiderman are Avengers. In fact, I’d guess that seeing them in the line-up on the screen would be very jarring. But JLA has had a few seasons of cartoons in the past decade that were very well received and built naturally from the Batman and Superman animated series. Casual audiences, even if they weren’t regular viewers, are likely to assume any similar line-up.

The other option would be to make a JLA film without any connection to the series for the single characters. WB did try this, actually, even getting to the point where they had a cast including Common as Green Lantern and they had George Miller signed onto direct. For a number of reasons, that fell through. If nothing else, it would have been confusing to any audiences. Why wasn’t Christian Bale Batman there?

Well, that brings up the business reasons for avoiding a build-up to the JLA. Ultimately, any film is all about the money. The studio wants to get the best return for the smallest outlay. When you’ve got a multi-franchise series, those costs can build up. Marvel is famous for playing hardball with actors to keep those costs down. Terrence Howard was ousted for Don Cheadle apparently over a contract dispute between the two Iron Man films. The vast majority of the other actors have signed onto multiple picture deals at a relatively low cost, in order to make sure the later films in the Avengers franchise won’t see things spike. Samuel L. Jackson signed a nine film deal after Iron Man.

However, in order to do these things, there needs to be a clear plan ahead of time. WB had no such plan for Batman when they brought Christopher Nolan on board to revamp the character. While trying to do the team thing would have caused some creative issues, it would have also meant needing to negotiate with Bale and the other actors involved after they’d already been in one or two very successful films. This raises the costs considerably. Moreso if you consider that they’d likely have to placate Nolan in some way. (Note that WB seems very strongly inclined to placate him. Even his odd, experimental fare like Inception does very well for them.)

The flipside of the business is even more important. While JLA would be a fan dream film (my friends and I had a game of dream casting it over a decade ago), much as the Avengers film is, what’s the payoff overall. Batman by himself can do half a billion in the US. Superman in a good film can probably clear the triple century mark easily. Other DC heroes are likely at a lower tier. Sure, Green Lantern might have about the same public appeal as pre-Robert Downey Jr. Iron Man, but that doesn’t mean he’s guaranteed for $300m US.

DC is already able to look at Marvel for a template on what may happen. As I noted in my last post, the prognosis for the Avengers is… mixed. If it looked like the Marvel properties were building interest, then I think Diane Nelson would be less inclined to defiantly say they aren’t Marvel. But that hasn’t happened with Iron Man, and while we’re a Thor and a Captain America away from getting the Avengers trifecta, what’s the real expectation for those films, regardless of quality? $200m? $250m if they take off? Superheroes aren’t a guaranteed sale anymore. Iron Man was a right-place, right-time, lighting-in-a-bottle moment of everything coming together and hitting perfectly.

Maybe Green Lantern can do that, too. Martin Campbell is a very accomplished director, and has set the tone for the James Bond series twice, now. Ryan Reynolds has a ton of talent and charisma. And even so, that can’t guarantee it’s going to be huge. Big, sure, but not huge.

If the payoff isn’t a guarantee, why would DC even want to try and pull off a JLA film? It’s going to be more difficult, more expensive, and probably more uncertain than Marvel’s current effort. More than that, it’s going to feel like a bit of a copycat. Given that the DC publishing has been playing that game for most of the past decade and losing, why would they want to do the same for the films, when the stakes are so much higher.

No, carving out their own path is much smarter. While at the moment, there doesn’t seem to be anything really innovative at play than a typical franchise, that could change.

Consider the Green Lanterns. They’re already a super team of sorts built into the mythology. More than that, there’s a chance that they could go for something really unique and have a space-faring superhero adventure. Imagine some world building on the level of Avatar as a backdrop of warring Lanterns? Not saying it will happen, but it’s something that Marvel couldn’t easily replicate unless they decide to try and film the Annihilation saga.

And there’s no way they’re going to try and introduce the characters to do that. In that area, at least, DC’s got a head start. Go cosmic. But don’t go superteam. It’s not the smart play.