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Monday, March 28, 2016

In Theaters: BATMAN V SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE (2016)


BATMAN V SUPERMAN: 
DAWN OF JUSTICE
(US - 2016)

Directed by Zack Snyder. Written by Chris Terrio and David S. Goyer. Cast: Ben Affleck, Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Jesse Eisenberg, Diane Lane, Laurence Fishburne, Jeremy Irons, Holly Hunter, Gal Gadot, Scoot McNairy, Tao Okamoto, Callan Mulvey, Harry Lennix, Christina Wren, Kevin Costner, Michael Shannon, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Lauren Cohan, Ralph Lister, Kevin Momoa, Ezra Miller, Ray Fisher, Michael Cassidy, voice of Patrick Wilson. (PG-13, 151 mins)

There's no getting around the fact that the awkwardly-titled BATMAN V SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE is a disjointed, bloated mess that still feels incomplete even at two and a half hours (a three-hour, R-rated version will be released on Blu-ray in July, though I can't imagine that being much help). The reviews have been devastating and the toxic response from critics would lead some to believe that the film is some kind of cinematic Ebola. I'm not especially keen to engage in a round of "reviewing the reviewers," and some of the vicious reviews make their points in a professional, even-handed manner but it's obvious that a lot of the critics had their reviews pretty much written before they even saw the film. As if workshopping jokes for a Comedy Central roast of director Zack Snyder, many no doubt jotted down their snarky comments and nit-picky complaints and pithy zingers and constructed their reviews around them to fit the narrative that was constructed the moment the project was announced.


This is a recurring issue with the films of the much-maligned Snyder, a guy nobody had a problem with when his surprisingly solid 2004 remake of DAWN OF THE DEAD got good reviews and 2007's influential--for better or worse--300 became a surprise blockbuster. Then around the time he directed 2009's WATCHMEN, critics and internet fanboys decided it was time for him to pay because that was a treasured property that frankly, nobody could've done in a way that would've satisfied its most obsessive fans. 2011's SUCKER PUNCH, one of the strangest and most original major-studio, big-budget movies of the last decade, got eviscerated and Superman fans took it as a personal attack that he was chosen to helm 2013's MAN OF STEEL. The response to BVS is indicative of a recurring problem in today's film criticism: the pile-on. A Hitfix article listing 20 "baffling questions" that BVS "refused to answer" gets several of the details completely wrong. Did the author of that article watch the movie or were they watching how the Rotten Tomatoes percentage was dropping? Does the author know that an unanswered question isn't necessarily a "plot hole"? Is BVS a good movie?  Eh, it has its moments, but it's OK at best. There's plenty of legitimate beefs with a lot of what's here. But is it as offensively godawful as you've been led to believe? Not even close. Nevertheless, the pile-on is the most intense since Ridley Scott's THE COUNSELOR, a film so unjustifiably lambasted ("Meet the worst movie ever made," crowed one particularly smug review) that its reputation improved and a cult following had formed before it even left theaters. So here's BVS, and like the villagers storming Castle Frankenstein, here's critics, fanboys, and message board mouth-breathers victoriously celebrating an imagined defeat--this had a $166 million opening, so it's not as if a movie like this depends on good reviews--with the tone being set by the "Sad Ben Affleck" viral sensation over the weekend.


Essentially a feature-length prologue to Warner Bros' DC Extended Universe franchise, BVS also functions as a reboot of the Christopher Nolan DARK KNIGHT trilogy and as a sequel to MAN OF STEEL (Nolan gets an exec producer credit here). It bites off more than it can chew taking on too many responsibilities, and it shows in the choppiness (Jena Malone was completely cut from this version of the film) and the frequently confusing developments. Opening with yet another replay of young Bruce Wayne witnessing the murder of his parents (Jeffrey Dean Morgan and Lauren Cohan), the action cuts to MAN OF STEEL's climactic battle between Superman (Henry Cavill) and Zod (Michael Shannon) and the destruction of Metropolis (played by Detroit, MI) witnessed on the street by Bruce Wayne (Affleck), who sees a Wayne Enterprise building collapse in yet more of the standard-issue 9/11 imagery. Blaming Superman for the mayhem, Wayne vows to bring down the Man of Steel with help from his faithful butler Alfred (Jeremy Irons). There's a lot of plot, usually involving a globe-trotting Lois Lane (Amy Adams) constantly getting into trouble and Superman bailing her out, and the evil plot of Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg, more on that shortly) to, well, get some Kryptonite from the bottom of the Indian Ocean and do something to revive Zod and take on Superman. It's never really clear why Luthor hates Superman, but he actually gets the edge on the Man of Steel when he kidnaps and threatens to kill Martha Kent (Diane Lane) if he doesn't kill Batman, which leads to the brief title showdown, followed by about 17 endings.


There's also Gal Gadot as Diana Prince, and it's hardly a spoiler at this point to mention she's Wonder Woman. First seen looking sleek and mysterious and crossing paths with Wayne at a Luthor fundraiser, Diana doesn't figure much into the story until Bruce figures out her long-buried secret and she ends up helping Batman and Superman take on a late-arriving, Luthor-generated villain in the climax. Gadot's first appearance as Wonder Woman doesn't take place until after the two-hour mark, but it's a highlight of the movie and she gets what's by far the biggest response from the audience, but the way she's shoehorned in is clunky. Speaking of clunky, Gadot is also integral to one of the film's clumsiest scenes, where she opens an e-mail with video files of future JUSTICE LEAGUE franchise players Aquaman (Kevin Momoa), The Flash (Ezra Miller), and Cyborg (Ray Fisher) in a five-minute sequence that stops the movie cold and cumbersomely plays like Gal Gadot watching movie trailers on her laptop. Cavill looks the part and doesn't really do anything wrong as Superman, Adams is too smart an actress to play someone so perpetually helpless, and Affleck is an ineffectual Bruce Wayne/Batman, speaking in a dour monotone and mumbling a good chunk of the time. He's trying to go for that Christian Bale intensity but he honestly just looks bored. Others appear throughout: Irons as the most cynical and tech-savvy incarnation of Alfred yet to be seen (he functions more like Morgan Freeman's Lucius Fox from the Nolan trilogy), Laurence Fishburne as a blustering Perry White, and Holly Hunter as the head of a Senate panel investigating Superman (another underdeveloped subplot that doesn't make much sense) as well as standing in the way of Luthor's master plan, but they don't really get to make an impression. Oh, and for some reason, Jimmy Olsen (Michael Cassidy) is now a covert CIA agent posing as a Daily Planet photographer. He's killed off early when he's made by terrorists, the first tip-off probably being that he was still using a camera with film in the year 2016.


For all its flaws--the messy structure, the inconsistent performances, the frequently ugly and smudgy look of the whole thing (closeups look really bad)--BVS is never dull and there are some spectacular action sequences and somewhat better CGI than the destruction porn that dominated the botched second half of MAN OF STEEL. The film's biggest obstacle, and one thing about which critics have been completely right, is the truly mind-bogglingly awful performance by Eisenberg, who plays Lex Luthor as an obnoxious, insufferable trust-fund brat. Eisenberg's whole approach to Luthor seems to have been to study Heath Ledger's Joker and filter it through his Mark Zuckerberg repertoire. He flails his arms, twitches, smirks, preens, poses, and breaks up and punctuates his sentences with "hmm"s like Deltoid in A CLOCKWORK ORANGE. It's a grating, appalling, Razzie-ready spaz attack of a performance, one of the most off-putting and abrasively unpleasant in recent memory. Eisenberg is never convincing and never threatening, never coming off like a feared megalomaniacal villain but rather, an attention-seeking, spoiled little shit in dire need of a time-out.


BATMAN V SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE, has been universally panned but everybody's still going to see it. The sizable crowd with whom I saw it didn't seem to hate it. They loved Wonder Woman. They laughed at the very few intentionally funny lines. There's the oft-mentioned disconnect between critics and audiences, and while it's got a surplus of flaws and dubious decision-making, it never succeeded in pissing me off at any point, and I can't say the same about MAN OF STEEL and its second-half implosion. Let's face it, whether it was the casting of Affleck or the decision to bring back Snyder or the various ways it deviates from the comic books (I've never been into comic books, so these filmmakers can do whatever they want with the material, I don't care), the trolls and the haters were never going to give this a chance. Going back to Tim Burton's BATMAN in 1989, has there ever been an initially positive response to any announcement of who's playing Batman? Do comic book fans ever not have a hissy fit and react to these kinds of things in a way that makes THE SIMPSONS' Comic Book Guy the most accurate. Representation. Ever?  Critics don't need to sink to that level. The trolls and the haters will always be there because what else do they have? But they shouldn't be the ones making a living as objective reviewers resorting to clickbait tactics in a dying field whose continued relevance is constantly being questioned. Maybe it's lowered expectations, but this movie isn't that fucking bad, and if film criticism is going to continue to be a thing, everyone--from career reviewers to hobbyist bloggers--needs to step up their game. Leave the irrational pile-on to the IMDb message board denizens. 



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