Sunday, March 27, 2016

Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Hot Garbage

Let the record show that I didn't irrationally hate Man of Steel, that I consistently had a lot of positive things to say about it, despite having serious problems with the last part of the film.

I cannot say the same for Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice. If you're looking for positivity and charity, look elsewhere. Spoilers, snark, and bile ahead.

Way back in 2013, Zack Snyder began a process of responding to questions about the ending of Man of Steel. At that time, he defended the choice as a way of showing how Superman developed a code against killing, and that it's now a part of his arsenal if he gets pushed far enough. These are similar to some of the justifications we've seen for the Phantom Zone criminals' execution at the end of Byrne's run in the comics.

The very first new thing we see Superman do in this film is use lethal force as a first resort. A terrorist has Lois Lane held at gunpoint. Superman shows up, shares a meaningful look with Lois. It's a scene we've seen a billion times in comics and other media. Superman moves at super-speed to take the gun, or uses heat vision to make the criminal drop it, or catches the bullet.

Or, in this case, slams the terrorist through multiple stone walls at super-speed.

How did Lois get in that situation? Her photographer (maybe Jimmy Olsen?) was a CIA plant, and that discovery led a bunch of mercenaries to start killing the terrorists with guns, causing the lead one to flee with Lois in tow. We later learn that the mercenaries were planted there by Lex Luthor to frame Superman for the massacre. Except, you know, one of the few things Superman doesn't do here is kill people with guns. Later, one of the mercenaries has a flamethrower, which seems like a much more effective weapon to use if you're framing Superman for a crime.

Superman later says he "didn't kill those guys," but isn't specific about the normal, unarmored human being that he slammed through several walls. We never saw that guy again; we have no reason not to think Superman didn't kill him. Is it really a frame job if you only kill one dude instead of a dozen?

The movie started with a pretty by-the-numbers flashback to Batman's origin, with a fairly lurid portrayal of the Waynes' death and Bruce falling into the Batcave which appears to be directly under his parents' mausoleum.

Batman in this is the kind of vigilante who scares criminals, cops, and victims alike, in keeping with Batman's famous motto, "victims are a superstitious and cowardly lot." Rather than engaging in the usual dubious Batman tactic of torturing villains for information, this Batman just tortures them for punishment, which leads to their inevitable deaths in prison. This is a new part of Batman's tactic, after being traumatized by what he saw in the battle of Metropolis. A little girl's mom died in his building! Just like Batman's mom died! It's just a shame that nobody in the Wayne Financial building thought to evacuate due to the giant alien device leveling downtown until Bruce Wayne called some random dude and told him to. This is why normal businesses have disaster drills, Bruce.

We get a flashback early on to show that Bruce was in Metropolis during the Zod battle. He saves some people, including that little girl I mentioned, and Scoot McNairy's character, who ends up losing his legs because of debris falling on them. His name was Wally, and I'm legitimately surprised it wasn't Wally West just to spit in the face of a certain section of fandom.

By the way, this scene demonstrates that Bruce Wayne did more to help and protect the people of Metropolis during that battle than Superman did. Sure, Superman fought the bad guy, but he took no particular precautions to protect anyone, even when it would have been easy to do so (like stopping that tanker truck from collapsing a parking garage), until he killed Zod. That is A Problem.

Lois's second scene has her naked in a bathtub while Clark climbs in, fully clothed, with her. The Lois/Clark relationship is done pretty well here, so it's a real shame that there's not more of it in the film. Had to make room for scenes setting up the Justice League movie and Wonder Woman checking her e-mail.

Senate hearings are being held on the danger posed by Superman, and Kentucky Senator Holly Hunter, chair of that subcommittee, takes whatever position on the matter that the plot demands at any given moment. We learn in this process that Lex Luthor has discovered the existence of kryptonite in the wreckage of the Kryptonian ships, and that experimentation on Zod's body showed that it can damage Kryptonian cells. Remember all the people who sneer at movie Lex's obsession with real estate plots? Here he upgrades to customs negotiation! He brokers a deal with another government guy to bring a big chunk of kryptonite into the country, gain unfettered access to the Kryptonian spaceship and Zod's body, and feed the government dude a Jolly Rancher.

Clark develops a mad-on for the Bat Vigilante in Gotham, which makes more sense once we learn that Metropolis and Gotham are right across the bay from one another. This vigilante is violent and answers to no one, and even the police are afraid of him, all of which would sound less like projection if all those things weren't also true about Superman. He wants to write a story on it, but Perry just wants him to write about football. This isn't 1938, you see. In 1938 a journalist could stand for something, but now he just needs to write what sells. I think that statement is meant to be meaningful, but I think I read it way differently than Snyder did.

Clark, of course, pursues the Bat story, mostly by asking Bruce Wayne how he feels about Batman at a party held at LexCorp. Squeaky nerd Lex Luthor proves himself to be a crappy public speaker, to no discernible end. He remarks on the meeting between Clark Kent and Bruce Wayne because I don't know about you, but I know every reporter who's had the sports beat of a major metropolitan newspaper for less than two years. Spoiler alert, later we learn that Lex knows who Superman is. We never learn how he found out (unless it happened when I hit the toilet), but maybe he knows it here. The World's Greatest Detective hasn't sussed it out yet.

Bruce is at the party to steal information from Lex's servers. He's successful, but a mysterious woman (it's Wonder Woman guys) steals his device. Lex has a picture of her that she wants back.

Alfred makes the point earlier that Bruce Wayne is more effective at getting information than Batman, and that proves to be pretty consistently true. Batman blunders his way through things, casually killing folks and causing massive property damage, but it's okay because at least he's not knocking over buildings and none of the people he directly kills are mothers to adorable children.

Clark, meanwhile, sees a news report on TV about a fire in Juarez during a Day of the Dead celebration. You'll recall that he gave the classic justification for becoming a reporter at the end of the last movie, that it would allow him to stay close to breaking news, and he's totally right, happening on breaking news while covering a gala that he's not even supposed to be at anyway because he's supposed to write about football.

Superman rushes off to save a little girl, and a bunch of the bystanders reach for him in a scene tinged with the same very subtle religious overtones that we saw in the last film. We get a nice series of vignettes of Superman saving people, and in at least one instance, floating above people on a roof during a flood while they reach up toward him but not actually doing anything to help. I'm glad we get this, because it does help to temper some of the problems with only presenting Superman in these big destructive battles and then trying to convince the audience that he's a force for good. This is interspersed with a lot of talking heads on news programs debating whether or not Superman is a force for good. One guy says that every religion has a messianic figure, which I'm pretty sure is entirely and obviously wrong. Also Neil deGrasse Tyson shows up. I think this is where Senator Hunter asks "must there be a Superman," which is a friendly reminder that there are way better Superman stories out there.

Not everyone likes Superman. Scoot McNairy's character defaces the weird Burne Hogarth-esque Superman statue that sits at the center of the monument to the battle of Metropolis. Here's a thing: as nice as it was to see Superman saving some folks, it really would have been good to put in some archive footage of Superman helping to clean up and rebuild Metropolis following the battle. As it stands, not only do we not see that, not only do we have an apparently and inexplicably back-to-normal Metropolis 18 months after the event (with still no indication how long there was between the battle and the previous film's epilogue), but we also see that Superman just left the wrecked Worldengine in the middle of the Indian Ocean. A huge alien spaceship that, as we learn, contained radioactive alien materials, so who knows what else it's leaking into that ecosystem? That is ludicrously irresponsible and callous on Superman's part.

Anyway, Batman has a dream where Superman has an army of stormtroopers and rules a desert world with an iron fist. There's an omega symbol on the ground and some very New 52 Parademons, so Darkseid is clearly involved. This extended flash-somewhere scene has Batman just casually gunning people down, so that's cool. If we're gonna fundamentally misunderstand one title character, why not fundamentally misunderstand both? Superman kills Batman for taking a woman from him. "She was my whole world," etc.

The Flash shows up at the end of this, to tell Batman that he was right about "him" all along, implying Superman, and that Lois Lane is the key. It's entirely possible that he's talking about Lex Luthor though. Flash disappears and has no further relevance to the plot, in what is a totally organic five-minute setup for a shared cinematic universe that I have zero interest in seeing at this point.

Batman's stalking some mercenaries as they bring the kryptonite ashore of Lex's ship. He has a sniper rifle—but just kidding it only shoots a tracking device onto the giant semi truck that they're using. Then the World's Greatest Detective who is one with the night openly chases them in the Batmobile, killing tons of thugs with the guns on the car. Batman's vehicles having guns has been a pretty glaring problem since Batman '89, but our director is from Bizarro World, so he's determined to take the worst aspects of past portrayals of these iconic characters and put them front and center.

Batman ultimately shears the top off the semi truck with the Batmobile, which is also where he planted the tracer, so it's just sheer luck that he doesn't obliterate it. Superman stops Batman, because it's really hard to tell the difference between one terrorist shooting indiscriminately through city streets and another. He tells Batman to cut it out, but Batman's like "do you bleed" and did I mention that Batman uses a voice modulator? They made a specific point to showcase it, like the weird bit in Batman Begins where they're playing with the helmets. I suspect it's so we don't have several years of people making fun of Batman's voice like they have with the Bale films, because this franchise's chief concern is that no thirteen-year-old-boy leaves the theater saying something was lame.

Batman's tracking device leads him to discover that the mercenaries who he knows Lex Luthor hired have taken the kryptonite he knows Lex Luthor wanted off of Lex Luthor's ship and to a LexCorp facility. Why he needed either a tracking device or a destructive chase through the city to figure that out is never explained but I guess that's why he's the World's Greatest Detective.

Lex Luthor wants the kryptonite so he can make a weapon to take down Superman. Batman wants the kryptonite so he can make a weapon to take down Superman first, which makes him the good guy. I think, perhaps, someone along the line realized the problem in having both your first-billed protagonist and your main villain be billionaire industrialists who have no problem killing people to further their goals and want to take down Superman with kryptonite because power can't be innocent, so they made sure to have Lex Luthor also create a Kryptonian Frankenstein's monster and unleash it on the city. He's the bad guy because he's willing to destroy buildings to take down Superman, and we all know that buildings are the real victims here.

Meanwhile, Lois is tracking down leads on a mysterious high-tech bullet that she recovered from the mercenary site at the beginning of the film. By "tracking down leads," I mean she mentions once that she had the bullet analyzed and it's cutting-edge tech, and then goes to talk to General Swanwick three times because Harry Lennix presumably had some contractual requirement. Her interactions with the General are good, but this is a far cry from the last film, where we actually see her following the steps back to Martha Kent.

Also, Batman cracks Luthor's data encryption and sees a file where Lex has collected data on metahumans and, helpfully, has assigned them symbols and codenames. We don't see the codenames, but when the filenames are things like Meta_FL and Meta_AQ, it's pretty obvious. He opens the Wonder Woman file, and we get to see that mysterious woman from before going to the ATM and walking around some other fancy place, looking at the surveillance camera each time in case we don't recognize her. Then he sees a picture of her in Wonder Woman garb with some World War I soldiers back in 1918.

Bruce Wayne sends her an e-mail with all this information, and Wonder Woman reads it, interminably one line at a time—which is, I suppose, how I'd expect someone to read an e-mail when they've been around since 1918. I presume there's a deleted scene where she forwards Bruce an inspirational passage from Paul Harvey and gives her bank account information to a friendly Nigerian prince.

Superman agrees to go to a Congressional hearing about the necessity of Superman. Scoot McNairy's there, not at all ominously sitting in a chair that Lex Luthor gave to him. It's unclear how much Superman knows, or should know, what's going to happen next, but we know that the attempted frame-job on Superman with the terrorists was done by putting Lois Lane in danger, since they knew Superman would be there to save her. And here's another place where they know Superman's going to be, and a guy who was recently arrested for defacing the Superman monument. Bruce Wayne learns as the hearing starts that all his checks to Scoot were sent back with ominous messages on them, the last being "YOU LET YOUR FAMILY DIE," which doesn't frankly make a lot of sense. Senator Hunter stumbles over her speech a whole bunch because Lex Luthor left a jar of urine on her podium, in response to a folksy southern saying she dropped earlier. It takes her a really long time to figure out what this jar is, because it's not like urine has a distinctive odor or anything, and she's just stuttering the whole time. It's a scene that could have used some editing, a second take, or a little respect for the audience to figure it out without repeated cuts to the label on the Mason jar.

Scoot explodes, blowing up the entire Capitol building, and Superman just stands in the flames with this expression of being inconvenienced, like the teller at the DMV took a break when he was next in line. This attack was done to discredit Superman, but (and I may be misremembering) I think the news reports almost immediately that Scoot was the suspected culprit. In any case, this Superman who was so willing to give himself up to the authorities in the last movie doesn't bother to stick around and talk to anyone but Ma Kent about his involvement.

Speaking of his conversation with Ma, we see that great Kent parenting in action when she tells him to help people, or not, whatever he wants, because he doesn't owe humanity anything. It's sentiments like this that make Snyder's desire to make a movie of the Fountainhead totally unsurprising. There's no "with great power comes great responsibility" here, just "do what you want, you have no obligation to make the world a better place, especially for these ingrates." Martha, again, has fallen pretty far from Man of Steel, where she told Clark that Jonathan always thought he was meant for greater things.

Cutting ahead a bit, Batman makes some kryptonite gas grenades and a kryptonite spear. Lex Luthor takes Zod's body into the crashed Kryptonian ship and talks to the computer, then cuts his hand and drips some blood on Zod's face, which somehow triggers a regeneration matrix thing, which starts drawing power from all over the city. He kidnaps Lois Lane and pushes her off a building. Superman comes to save her, but really it's a diversion because Lex has kidnapped Martha Kent, tied her up, taken humiliating pictures of her, and will kill her in an hour unless Superman kills Batman, who's been similarly manipulated (though it didn't take much) into trying to kill Superman. It's at this point that it becomes clear that Eisenberg is playing Luthor as a more high-pitched version of Heath Ledger's Joker with all the makeup washed off.

Superman goes to confront Batman, and it actually starts pretty well for him, trying to explain that he doesn't actually want to fight, that they're both being manipulated. Batman runs him through a gauntlet that is weirdly similar to the one that Superman encounters at Lex Luthor's lair in Superman '78. Superman actually gets to Batman, and says "I don't want to fight" while smacking him across the docks. Mixed signals there, chief.

Batman weakens Superman with kryptonite gas, they fight a bunch, lather rinse repeat (seriously, Superman falls for the kryptonite gas thing twice) until Batman's got Superman at his mercy, ready to kill him with his kryptonite-tipped spear. Superman desperately says "you're letting Martha die," which is a weird thing to say no matter what the characters are supposed to know, and of course this triggers Batman into flashing back on guns and pearls. Lois comes in and explains that that's Superman's mother's name, which causes Batman to realize that maybe he shouldn't kill Superman and they should be friends instead.

This scene, in all honesty, could have been good, but it's trying to do two things that don't quite work together. On one hand, it's trying to tie back to Bruce saving the little girl in the beginning, then learning that her mother died because of Superman's fight. The thematic part is that Batman doesn't want anyone to lose their mother, and that fits with these films' increased focus on mothers, which is a refreshing change of pace for both Superman and Batman. But the line that best serves that is Superman saying "you're letting my mother die," not "Martha."

The other thing this is trying to do is let Lois save Superman for once, which again, is a really admirable thing. She comes in with the key piece of information, that Martha is Superman's mother, but it necessitates this weird, contrived situation where Superman says "Martha"—not even "Martha Kent," which is how you'd talk to someone about a third party they didn't know—and Batman gets confused. Incidentally, Lex Luthor figured out who Superman was, and the World's Greatest Detective didn't.

So Batman goes off to save Martha Kent, which he does by beating up the terrorists holding her hostage, and shooting the last guy with a gun in a scene mostly pulled from Dark Knight Returns. That guy has a flamethrower, so Batman shoots the fuel tank, blowing up the whole room, but he manages to save Martha because his cape is indestructible. Martha gets one of the movie's few actually funny lines here.

Superman confronts Lex, who has used Zod's body and the Kryptonian ship to create Doomsday to take down Superman once and for all. Superman flies Doomsday up into space, and the military nukes the two of them. Doomsday falls back to Earth, landing on the uninhabited Stryker's Island, and Superman re-enacts that nuclear strike scene from Dark Knight Returns. Batman and Wonder Woman fight Doomsday until Superman recovers, and Wonder Woman is genuinely great, has a genuinely great music sting, and even gets to use her friggin magic lasso.

Superman comes back, saves Lois who went to get the kryptonite spear, she saves him in turn, and then they have a heart-to-heart before he makes a sacrificial run with the spear at Doomsday. But Doomsday stabs him in the chest, and Superman dies.

Two simultaneous funerals are held, one in Smallville, and one in Metropolis, where they honor the guy who everyone's supposed to think just blew up Congress. I guess Congress isn't any more popular in the DCU than it is here (heyo). Batman says some stuff about gathering metahumans and how he failed Superman in life but won't fail him in death. Lois gets the engagement ring that Clark married to Martha because plot contrivance and throws some dirt on his grave but it starts to levitate and I'm starting to rethink my policy against cursing on this blog.

Also Lex Luthor spouts some crazy nonsense that's probably trying to set up Darkseid or something.

I said coming out of the movie that it felt like it was made out of spite, out of utter contempt for the characters involved and the people who like them. That's not totally surprising; it's partially based on DKR, which has little more than contempt for Superman, and Zack Snyder's become increasingly defensive toward criticism of his handling of Superman in the last movie. This feels like him saying "you didn't like that? Well too bad, he's killing even more, and then he's dead, so no more Superman for you. Also, the villain's a squeaky-voiced nerd like all you nerds who hated the last movie." And hey, Batman kills people too, and uses guns indiscriminately, because why not. It certainly doesn't undermine any attempt at giving these heroes any moral underpinnings.

That lack of any underlying morality to anything that anyone does seems to be the ultimate message of the movie; it's explicitly underscored by Martha Kent, Perry White, and notably, Batman himself. He tells Superman during their fight that his parents probably told him he was here for a reason, but the Waynes were gunned down for no reason at all. And no reason at all seems to be the guiding motivation for most characters' actions throughout.

I've mentioned repeatedly that a problem for this movie is raising the stakes from the previous one, and it doesn't manage to do that. Instead of a veritable army of villainous Kryptonians wreaking havoc with world-destroying devices that level a city, we have a couple of fights confined to areas that, we're told explicitly, are abandoned. I appreciated the attempt there, since one of my complaints with Man of Steel was that Superman never made any effort to move fights away from populated areas (and in the first fight, did the precise opposite), but it makes for a less obviously consequential battle.

The way to compensate for that is to make the consequences more personal, which the movie tries to do, having Superman explicitly sacrifice himself to save Lois, because she's his world. That would have a lot more weight to it if we'd seen more than a handful of scenes between Lois and Clark in this movie, most of which were with him as Superman floating just above her. Like its predecessor, this movie doesn't earn its attempts at emotional payoffs. The closest it comes is with the destruction of Congress, but it doesn't really try to wring any pathos out of that. Superman's just dispirited, disappointed that he was too trusting of people.

And that's a pretty gross place for Superman to end up, a pretty gross message. This is a Superman who fails because he's not suspicious enough, who's told that he doesn't need to help people, who uses lethal force as a first resort. This is hashtag Blue Lives Matter Superman.

I've seen people claiming that this movie does well by Wonder Woman and Lois Lane. It's true that they get the best scenes, but I have a real hard time thinking this movie does Lois justice when she so blithely accepts that Superman will kill people to protect her. And, well, we've all grown to accept sword-wielding Amazon Warrior Wonder Woman since 1987 or so, but that's only half of her character. Based on this movie, though, I'm likely to check out her solo film, so score one for the Warner machine.

So, yeah. I hated this movie. But I think the feeling was mutual.

3 comments:

Man of Sin said...

"Superman later says he "didn't kill those guys," but isn't specific about the normal, unarmored human being that he slammed through several walls. We never saw that guy again; we have no reason not to think Superman didn't kill him. Is it really a frame job if you only kill one dude instead of a dozen?"

Actually there are several reasons:

-Its very likely one arm held him and the other was outstretched breaking the walls. Its happens so fast you can't see it.

-The Senators don't mention the "killing" of the warlord at all and they were all over him when they thought he killed those other people.

-Martha says he is not a killer.

-He saved Lex from Doomsday and he did the same thing the warlord did and more.

Man of Sin said...

Also, another reason is that Superman has a problem with Batman acting as judge, jury, and executioner. Yeah, I think its pretty obvious that we weren't suppose to read it that way.

Tom Foss said...

Thanks for the comment, Man of Sin, because it really helped to crystallize my thoughts on the issue.

Honestly, I thought the same thing that you suggested at first, that Superman must have taken precautions to ensure that the warlord wouldn't end up a bloody smear between the rock and his costume. So I was expecting something to confirm that—a quick shot to the warlord on the ground outside, squirming in pain and moaning, or tied to a flagpole, or even a line from Clark later saying "I dropped him off at the Hague." Half a second would be all that's necessary to confirm that Superman only used excessive force, not lethal force, when neither was necessary.

But we didn't get that shot. And sure, we can guess that the warlord's included when Clark says he "didn't kill those men," and we can accept Martha telling him he's not a killer even though we know for a fact that he is.

The problem is that this distinction isn't just some throwaway. Superman's beef with Batman is that he uses excessive force, operates outside the law, and doesn't care if the criminals he deals with lives or dies. This is not just the driving conflict of the movie, it's the titular conflict. It's already pretty hypocritical for Superman to play high-and-mighty about being cavalier with the lives of criminals when he left a giant alien death machine to leak radioactive materials into the Indian Ocean, but the warlord incident takes that to new heights. Because even if Superman didn't kill the guy, the filmmakers didn't think it was important to make that clear. And that encounter is, up until we see the montage of Superman actually doing some Superman things, the only event we have to contrast with Batman's methods. When Superman is so quick to use excessive force, and the film is so unconcerned with whether or not the targets of that force survive, then it's hard for us to see Superman's issue with Batman as legitimate rather than hair-splitting or hypocrisy.

The filmmakers thought it important to show Batman beating up a tire, to show Wonder Woman painstakingly reading through an e-mail, to set up the Justice League movie with a series of Vines, to linger on a jar of urine long enough that even the least attentive audience members would get the joke, and to show an extended sequence of Superman callously murdering guys with heat vision and Batman casually using guns, but didn't think it important to take the half-second required to clearly justify the distinction that forms the conflict that the movie is based on.

That's a problem, and it's part of a recurring kind of problem throughout both these movies, trying to have emotional impact without doing the legwork to earn it.