Friday, March 25, 2016

Batman V Superman: Clash of titans

Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016) • View trailer 
Three stars. Rated PG-13, and somewhat generously, for brief sensuality and relentless, soul-crushing violence

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 3.25.16

A perceptive philosophical theme serves as this film’s beating heart, a tenet that — quite sadly — reflects these cynical and despondent times: that, just as we worship our heroes, we’re all too eager to tear them down.

Alexander Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg, center) is delighted to discover that the guests at his
high-society event include inquisitive Daily Planet reporter Clark Kent (Henry Cavill, left)
and fellow industrialist Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck). But why are they present?
Because we’re also jealous, and more than a little fearful. Because such individuals are different than you and I.

The “Big Blue” standing as the moral centerpiece of Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice couldn’t be more different than the cheerful, easily admired boy scout played by Christopher Reeve in his quartet of films, several decades and a tidal shift of public sentiment ago. This 21st century Superman exists in a mutinous, resentful America that mirrors our own today, with a populous eager to be suspicious of any “alien” floating amongst us.

The resulting film is grim, its tone unrelentingly melancholy, its subtext downright depressing: We clearly don’t deserve a Superman.

For longtime comic book fans, the irony is palpable. Back in the early 1960s, DC Comics’ stable of heroes — Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman et al — were colorful but simplistic champions who routinely, almost casually, defeated equally flamboyant villains in self-contained storylines that mirrored popular TV dramas that did the same: all problems solved in one quick read (or one quick hour), and then on to the next adventure, perhaps with a quip or two. Nobody ever changed, because nobody had anything approaching an actual personality.

Upstart Marvel Comics upended this one-dimensional formula with its eye-opening roster of angst-laden superheroes. When out of their costumes, Spiderman, Iron Man, the Fantastic Four and their brethren felt like the folks next door, complete with anxieties and ground-level responsibilities. Their clashes with bad guys often occurred over multiple-issue story arcs: the outcomes less definitive, and often tinged with regret.

How interesting, then, that these two companies have switched roles en route to big-screen domination. Even at their most dire, Marvel movies are fun, their cataclysmic events leavened with an engaging layer of droll humor: a wink and nudge established the first time Robert Downey Jr. donned his Iron Man togs.

At the same time, we’ve been pummeled by director Christopher Nolan’s increasingly harsh Batman trilogy — climaxing with 2012’s off-puttingly bleak Dark Knight Rises — and director Zack Snyder’s vision of a naïve and easily manipulated Superman (played here, as before, by Henry Cavill). There’s very little “fun” to be found in any of these films: no escaping a judgmental tone that finds American society severely wanting.

If Marvel movies are (for the most part) a vicarious distraction from our real-world troubles, DC movies relentlessly prey upon our social flaws, holding up a mirror and forcing us to confront our shortcomings.

And yet, I’ve gotta give Snyder credit. My biggest complaint about his handling of 2013’s Man of Steel was the degree to which Superman’s climactic showdown with his evil Kryptonian cousins — led by the horrific General Zod — laid waste to Metropolis, and so casually resulted in thousands of fatalities. This seemed callously inappropriate for a red-caped champion of “truth, justice and the American way.”

Well, either Snyder listened to such criticism, or Man of Steel was merely the opening chapter in a cleverly conceived master plan: Either way, the director gets to eat his cake, and have it too. Chris Terrio and David S. Goyer’s script for this new film confronts that issue head-on, with a prologue that revisits Superman’s final clash with Zod, but from a ground-level vantage point.

This time, we witness the destruction through the eyes of a frantic Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck), as he tries to save employees in one of his corporate buildings directly beneath the skyward clash of titans. These efforts are mostly fruitless, generating a frustrated impotence that will shape Bruce’s emerging view of omnipotent “visitors.”

Eighteen months pass. Metropolis re-builds; life resumes its normal course; intrepid journalist Lois Lane (Amy Adams) once again gets into trouble. Superman arrives in a nick of time, but not quickly enough to prevent the slaughter of innocents: a result for which he is blamed — with no justification — in the court of public opinion.

Ah, but these flames of popular discontent are being fanned by über-wealthy industrialist and scientific genius Alexander Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg), who knows precisely how to stoke paranoia for his own nefarious purposes.

(One cannot help comparing his fear-mongering antics to those of a certain real-world presidential candidate, which makes this film as well timed as The China Syndrome was, back in 1979.)

Luthor snows almost everybody of national-level authority, save one holdout: U.S. Senator June Finch (Holly Hunter), a steely eyed Kentucky Democrat with a homespun drawl and a distinct aversion to a “cure” (a “weapon of deterrence” promised by Luthor) that’s likely worse than the ostensible “disease” (Superman).

Eisenberg’s Luthor — twitchy, visibly unbalanced and yet creepily imposing — has a marvelous confrontation with Hunter’s Finch: a quiet verbal smackdown that remains a highlight in a film too often prone to noisy bombast.

Bruce, meanwhile, is employing his stealthy techniques to investigate not only Superman — seeking any sort of weakness — but Luthor. Then there’s the matter of the stunningly gorgeous woman (Gal Gadot) who, rather oddly, turns up in unexpected places at weirdly coincidental moments.

Sen. Finch’s intransigence notwithstanding, Luthor achieves his primary goals: He gains access to the remnants of Zod’s massive Kryptonian war craft, and Superman is pressured to justify himself before a Congressional hearing. The latter feels like good news to Bruce, which is a bit hypocritical, since his dark-knight alter ego has been terrorizing Gotham City’s underworld.

Such activities, in turn, have angered Superman, whose Kansas-fostered moral code rejects the notion of vigilante activity. With both heroes now wary and suspicious of each other’s motives and behavior, the result is inevitable.

Sadly, it’ll be much, much worse than either anticipates ... thanks to Luthor’s machinations.

Longtime comic book fans will recognize this as one of the medium’s favorite traditions: the mäno ä mäno beat-down that results from an often simple misunderstanding, and then escalates to landscape-flattening chaos. (Because, at their core, these super folks are just people prone to disagreements, donchaknow.)

Unfortunately — as was the case with Man of Steel — Snyder engages rather too gleefully in the resulting orgies of violence. This is an ear-splittingly loud film, and the various clashes are ludicrously over the top, particularly during a third-act endgame that resurrects an infamous comic book Big Bad who made real-world headlines back in 1992.

The resulting earth-shattering (literally) carnage during this bout borders on tastelessly self-indulgent, even by Snyder’s warped standards.

En route, though, we get plenty of characterization from our protagonists, most notably from Cavill, who brings genuine pathos to Superman’s anguished self-doubt. His growing regret, guilt and even shame are persuasively depicted, his stalwart gaze often melting into shattered disappointment: How could rank-and-file Americans be misjudging him so badly?

At the other extreme, Cavill’s contrasting depiction of eager-beaver Clark Kent is droll (although never quite as huggable as Reeve’s Clark was). Clark’s mutually devoted bond with Adams’ spitfire Lois — they’re a definite item now, and she shares his other identity — is sweetly passionate, and we know that they’d do anything for each other.

It takes a bit to adapt to Eisenberg’s reading of Luthor; at first he seems too collegiate and juvenile. But Eisenberg soon makes the role his own, turning this master villain into a chillingly narcissistic sociopath who can be funny and charming, but lacks any empathy and meaningful human contact. He becomes very, very scary.

Affleck’s Bruce Wayne is driven, dedicated and ferociously single-minded: a true avenging dark knight and figure of justice. We don’t for a second doubt his mental and physical capabilities, or the means by which he might maneuver a seemingly one-sided conflict to more equal footing. Affleck handles the role with conviction.

On the other hand, the increasingly awful dreams to which Bruce is subjected — and which we simultaneously experience — are ridiculous and badly overused: a thoroughly gratuitous distraction.

Jeremy Irons is assurance personified as Bruce’s capable butler and best friend, Alfred, (managing the near impossible, by giving the character a presence perhaps even superior to Michael Caine’s depiction in Nolan’s trilogy). Gadot is spot-on as a woman of mystery, her knowing smile and coquettish manner concealing ... well, that would be telling.

The aforementioned genre fans also will love the foreshadowing revealed by Bruce’s research: brief glimpses of other DC universe heroes to be played by Jason Momoa, Ezra Miller and Ray Fisher, and scheduled to be unveiled, in full glory, in November 2017.

Strong, contemplative and timely ideas percolate at the core of this bloated, 151-minute film: most particularly the telling question — “Who watches the watchers?” — that also fueled Snyder’s 2009 adaptation of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen. Too often, though, these issues drown beneath the overwhelming special effects and devastating collateral carnage.

There’s a fine line between trenchant and mean-spirited, and I’m not persuaded that Snyder remains on the proper side.

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