Tuesday, April 05, 2016

Movie Review - Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice

There has been a TON of hype leading up to the release of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. Starting with trickling rumors years ago and cascading into a marketing behemoth, the movie finally released to an amazing opening weekend money grab coupled with a bunch of lackluster reviews. My suspicion was that after months (years) of anticipation, people went in with expectations that were just too high. Accordingly, I lowered my expectations slightly and went in ready for some fun-filled popcorn entertainment.
(NOTE: While I will try to stay away from major/specific plot points, this review will definitely teeter on the edge of having SPOILERS)

The story of this movie is very ambitious. It serves not only as a sequel/follow-up to Man of Steel but it also re-launches a Batman movie franchise and introduces Wonder Woman and other members of the Justice League. Even with a run time of more than 2 1/2 hours, that's a lot of story to pack into a single movie. As you might expect, there are some elements that felt well fleshed out while others felt a bit rough and disjointed.

The film begins by showing the final major battle from Superman's last film, Man of Steel in which he and General Zod fly around Metropolis leveling buildings and creating huge disasters. Bruce Wayne is on the ground struggling to reach his own Metropolis high rise in an effort to save his employees and the countless civilians on the ground.

The opening sequence is frantic and tragic and frames the animosity that Wayne/Batman has towards Superman. This anger drives Wayne/Batman to be more focused but also more ruthless and violent. Alfred tries a couple of times to point out to Bruce that he may be going a little too far.

Back in Gotham, we see Batman taking down criminals with violent resolve that attracts the attention of Clark Kent at the Daily Planet who pitches a story idea for someone to investigate and try to stop the violent actions of the Bat vigilante. Thus right from the beginning, we see our two heroes with their emotions on edge.

Next we're introduced to Lex Luthor...or rather "Alexander Luthor"...who is definitely more than a little unhinged. I have generally enjoyed Jesse Eisenberg as an actor and I had fun with his character in this movie, but I felt like he was maybe just a little "too" over the top crazy for what I expected from Lex Luthor. I'm not an in-depth follower of comics, but I always felt like Luthor, while ruthless and cruel, was one of the more "calm" villains in that he worked to intelligently devise a plan and would try to meticulously bring it into reality through a creepy serene dedication. I pictured him getting frazzled and frantic when angry but not necessarily having the sort of psychotic nervous tics and mannerisms that Eisenberg portrayed as though he were channeling Heath Ledger's Joker from a few years ago.

As a general villain character, he was fun...as Lex Luthor, I had a hard time. Worse still, I was a little unclear as to the overall goal of Luthor's plotting. When we first see him, he is trying to convince politicians to let him build an anti-Superman weapon merely as a deterrent to try and keep Superman in check. This concept initially fits well with the "I'm Lex and want to kill Superman" plot. But as he later manipulates Superman and Batman into fighting one another (it didn't take much pushing) while also developing another weapon that he can't really control, it's not really clear what he's thinking. I suppose this relates to the way Eisenberg portrays the character...he is clearly not "right in the head" and hasn't fully thought through all aspects of his plan.

While Bruce tries to investigate an "arms dealer", Superman continues flying around the world saving innocents and the lovely Lois Lane (who now knows his identity). As more and more of his rescues continue to have collateral damage, Clark chats with Lois and his mom to try and figure out what he should do. He is definitely very torn between how to continue helping serve the world without being branded or condemned a troublemaker or more of a threat than a help.

I was reminded of a scene from the 1980 Superman II film where Christopher Reeve's Superman plead with General Zod in the middle of Metropolis that he stops what's happening in order to save the people. While it is clear from his high level actions that this 2016 Superman wants to save people, it isn't clear that he's planning his rescues in the best way to avoid additional injuries, damages, etc. We see him brooding and thoughtful about the accusations towards him. We hear him talking with Lois and his mom about maybe hanging up the cape and letting the world burn (he doesn't say this in so many words). But we don't see him pausing/thinking as he flies into the battles. He just rushes into the middle of the emergency apparently with no concern as to any ripple effects...which is exactly what the world is condemning him for. For a smart and thoughtful character, it seems odd that he doesn't see that a little more care on his part could've slowed some of the angst towards him.

The movie spends a considerable amount of time percolating the pressure cooker of emotions in Clark Kent, Bruce Wayne and the citizens of the world. Throughout all of this cooking time, we have a few fun action sequences where we see Batman chasing down bad guys and Superman rescuing people from disasters. But to a large extent, we have a lot of setup and exposition. A friend of mine said he thought the movie was a lot different than he expected from the trailers. He wanted more fights and battles. I personally thought the action balance was pretty good although I found Batman a little hypocritical as he created plenty of collateral damage while chasing baddies through the city. I acknowledge that they managed to have their chase/action sequence in an apparently abandoned part of town but he still destroyed plenty of (decrepit) buildings and definitely outright killed some of Lex's henchmen (there is no way they survived some of those explosions). This could partly be to setup just how far our Dark Knight has fallen due to the events in Metropolis.

When we finally do get to the climactic titular battle between Batman and Superman we do have an enjoyable spectacle. Batman has gone to serious effort to setup the perfect trap for the Man of Steel and lures him slowly in...which seemed really strange but I suppose was a tactical step to try and get Superman's guard down. Even though the fight was an exciting, adrenaline filled slam-fest, the nature of the fight was confusing for a couple of reasons. Superman was manipulated into this battle by Lex due to threats to (spoiler) Clark's mother...and yet Superman had just materialized practically out of nowhere to save Lois Lane...why couldn't he similarly track and save his mom just as quickly. Superman basically indicates he'll go to Batman and try to reason with him rather than fight with him. While he tries initially to get a few words in, he doesn't persist in trying to talk anything out. Realistically if he could have just gotten Batman into a choke hold, he could've whispered all sorts of things into Batman's ear and solved the whole misunderstanding quickly...well, maybe not "quickly" but he could've done it. And yet, the fight goes on...eventually being resolved by Superman speaking a single word...a name. Again, felt a bit contrived to me. Oh well.

Now that we've had that wonderful battle, we come to the unbalanced confusion of Luthor's overall plan. Apparently the fight between Batman and Superman was merely a decoy plot so Lex could bake up an even bigger threat. While this made fun drama and storytelling, it was confusing to me to try and figure out what he hoped to accomplish with this. Especially if Batman or Superman had managed to kill one another.

Lex in the end would've been left with a killing machine that he couldn't control or destroy himself. What's his goal? Just overall chaos and destruction? Again, this doesn't fit with my view of Lex Luthor who would have wanted to create the ultimate threat...but one that he could control so he could use it as leverage for gaining ultimate power. Oh well.

Once Lex unveils his ultimate weapon, we have more exciting battle sequences including one that brought plenty of excitement from the Interwebs when the trailer first landed...we get to see a live action Wonder Woman in all her Amazon warrior glory. She really put both Batman and Superman to shame during the final fight. Yes Batman got a few decent hits in. And yes Superman pounded the villain across the city and up into the sky. But Wonder Woman really pounded, sliced, wrangled and ruined the villainous Doomsday across the wastes of Gotham....and for large sections of the battle she was fighting alone. Regardless of what critics may say about this movie, at the very least it was a huge marketing push for the Wonder Woman film due out next year.

Lest you think I'm being overly critical of the movie or that I hated it, let me just say that I DID really enjoy this movie. I felt like Ben Affleck did a great job as Wayne/Batman. I loved Jeremy Irons as Alfred. I loved the character of Holly Hunter as the Senator struggling with what to do politically about Superman. While I am conflicted about him as "Lex", I enjoyed the villain stereotype of Jesse Eisenberg. Superman and Lois were good, if a little stifled due to the way they were written. And even though she didn't get much screen time, I really enjoyed Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman and I'm excited for her movie.

From a story perspective, I liked the elements but felt like there was just too much information/story trying to be squeezed into what was already a long movie. It was very dense but still had points that were a little rough. I liked Bruce's dream/nightmare sequences where we get not only glimpses into his origin story but also into his psychology and his concerns about the future trajectory of the world. I really liked the story hints and suggestions from his futuristic dream in the ~post-apocalyptic world where Superman ruled. While he may be able to stop that specific Superman-ruled world from happening, the dream suggested potential villains and storylines that may show up in the future Justice League films which could be a lot of fun.

Is this Batman/Superman movie everything I hoped it would be? Probably not. Is this a fun and entertaining movie? Definitely. Is it perfect...is it awful? No and no. With the epic title and premise suggested by this film it was setting the bar very high and as a result I think the movie fell short of a lot of expectations. In fact, I fear that the expectations for this concept were so high that it would have been nearly impossible for any writer/director/actor/etc to come up with a movie that would meet those expectations. While 'Batman v Superman' may not have achieved the super high bar it set for itself, it did present us with a fun film setting up what will hopefully be a great series of DC comics superhero movies. If anything, hopefully the writers/directors learned from the shortcomings and critiques they've received and will provide us with more tightly sequenced movies in the future. I for one am still excited to see where these franchises go.

3.5 out of 5 stars

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