Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice

This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.

This review may contain spoilers.

I went in with low expectations. Thinking outside the plot (or rather the 27 some-odd subplots edited together seemingly at random), it’s obvious what rule #1 was: catch up to Marvel as quickly as possible while distancing the focus of the story as much from the lighthearted romps Marvel movies have been up to this point in order to set the future Justice League apart from the Avengers.

Aside from the arrangement of scenes that managed to confuse even a 36-year reader of comics like me as well as an annoying abundance of slow motion walking, talking to ghosts, visions and dream sequences (a lot of obvious manipulation of both the audience and the main characters going on), I followed the story with a lot of attention. The phrase “hot mess” has been thrown around a lot to describe this movie in total, and I fall rather firmly in that camp. It’s too much for one movie, trying to do in one film what took Marvel how many films to get to the Avengers? Enough to make the point without the need for accuracy. So what we have here is a movie that takes too much effort to weave its interludes and preludes into the story to foreshadow upcoming movies before this one has a chance to tell its own story and stand on its own merits. Age of Ultron suffered from that a little as well with its hints to future franchise projects, I thought, but not nearly as much as this one did. Ben Affleck’s Batman deserved to have a movie of his own to start with, but they couldn’t/wouldn’t let him have that chance first. Heroes need to stand on their own merits with their own stories to show what sort of heroes they are, and I think Affleck’s Batman could have done that. Instead, we have a dozen backdoor introductions and cameos and crash-course appearances that set the stage for however many more of these movies they have given the green light, as if success of THIS story doesn’t even matter. And with a cinematic feature, we don’t have the benefit of a little asterisk at the end of some dialogue with an editor’s note telling us to consult some other story for more information. That would be ridiculous, Deadpool being the only possible exception, and it seeks to further divide the audience.

When the big fight finally did happen, it seemed like there was both desperation and reluctance to make it happen. This is what the people wanted and what the executives wanted, and we know how well those desires mix. The dialogue had to be stunted to make sure there was no real communication between them before things went underway. That little opening exchange just made it feel even more like this fight was unnecessary. It was unnecessary for more reasons than this being two heroes that shouldn’t be fighting. This was your everyday, run-of-the-mill, two-heroes-fight-each-other-before-they-realize-there-is-a-greater-threat-at-work fight, but it felt like the story agonized over the fact that this was the only way it could happen, that this comic book superhero story hated itself for being a comic book superhero story. And when the fight is over, it’s more difficult to accept that things like trust simply fall into place as they do “just because” when many conventions were thrown out to make this movie set itself apart.

And then there was the kitchen sink. Someone wrote this very old joke in with forethought for a movie that took itself so bloody seriously. It’s a timeless joke, a classic just like superhero stories of old, so how could I laugh at this old joke when it happened in the middle of a fight between two heroes that weren’t holding up to their same old principles anymore? Was it supposed to be some sort of deep metaphor for something? Batman hit Superman with everything but the kitchen sink… and then he hit him with a kitchen sink. It’s not funny. It’s funny, but it’s not funny here. It’s funny in a Looney Tunes cartoon. This isn’t a Looney Tunes cartoon. We’re not supposed to be funny here. The filmmakers said so. Then Martha Kent made a joke. Then Doomsday showed up, a character that never needed to be in more than one story in all of history let alone be a flashy plug-in deus ex machina to bring the heroes together as if they’d been old friends for years. Then Batman made a joke. Then I started getting tired because suddenly the movie was tired of trying to prove it wasn’t a superhero movie.

Speaking of that 36-year readership, before I even saw the movie, I felt something from Man of Steel that was familiar. When BvS came along, it finally hit me: the sheer irony of it. There was a tiny voice in the back of my head nagging for a while, telling me, “This isn’t your Justice League.” I told that little voice to keep quiet because that’s not what movies are supposed to do. I’ve never gone into a superhero movie or any other movie adaptation with the expectation that everyone was going to be faithful to the original versions. That’s absurd. What isn’t absurd is expecting a little more coherence than I ended up getting. The tiny voice, however, turned out to be right in a different way.
This isn’t my Justice League at all because it feels like it’s someone else. BvS is much closer in tone and real-world connection to another superhero story that came from… wait for it… Marvel Comics. The Squadron Supreme, parallel Earth Marvel counterparts to the Justice League. The late Mark Gruenwald penned his opus for Marvel in 1985 to portray “the Justice League” facing real world dilemmas and choices that seem even more appropriate today socially than they did 30 years ago. When Batman and Superman went at it, I felt like I was watching Hyperion and Nighthawk.

BvS and Gruenwald’s Squadron dealt with the exact same dilemmas with regard to how much power a superhuman being should exert over the human race, the physical and emotional cost of super powered beings leveling major cities, the potential for a hero to abuse power and cross lines. Gruenwald believed in the idea of modern day superheroes as mythological gods and monsters, and his Squadron Supreme, as stated on the back cover of the trade paperback of his work, was a “deconstructionist parable of the superhero paradigm in a real world setting.” It was a groundbreaking moment in comics, and I felt the same deconstruction of modern mythology in BvS, not just deconstructing the Justice League from their comics origins but deconstructing the entire concept of translating superheroes from print to screen even with regard to Marvel’s films. And of all the characters in the story to teach the class on it, it was none other than Lex Luthor who stepped to the chalkboard to expand the equation of tearing heroes down in the eyes of the frightened and suspicious people of the world. He’d already seen how far they could fall on their own, so why not give them an extra push just to speed things along?

Given the real world today, a lot of it makes sense, but then Superman delivers a crucial line after confronting Lex Luthor before he goes off to face the Batman: “No one stays good in this world.” Cynicism. Infectious cynicism replacing the old saying, “No good deed goes unpunished.” Giving in to ultimatums instead of believing what heroes used to believe: that there is always another way. As much as I enjoy characters like The Punisher and even Deadpool, there is a separation to be made between the logical road down an alternate, grittier path and the original symbols that always held to something higher without exception. Daredevil’s first extended conversation with The Punisher in Daredevil season 2 illustrates rather perfectly in my eyes exactly where Batman v Superman went wrong. There are rules in place, and one of those rules is that certain heroes (Batman, Superman, Spider-Man, etc.) do not kill. Do. Not. Kill. It’s just that simple. There is always another way. I have friends who will disagree and tell me to get with the times, and I won’t. Fictional though they may be, heroes like these inspired me to stand on principle, so forgive me if I am a little bothered when someone else in charge of writing a story decided that those same heroes don’t stand on the same principles anymore.

In 1995, I had my first encounter with someone that hated Superman. Not just the character but the idea that the character created in 1938 still existed in 1995, that Superman’s unwavering form of heroism was outdated. I can understand not being a fan of something, but I still can’t understand the need to transform that into a rebellion against what Superman was created to do: to be a hero, to inspire, and, of course, to give us a flight of escapist fantasy. Somewhere along the way, it seems that more and more people got bored with “truth, justice and the American way” and just wanted to see heroes fail, cross the line, or simply be prone to greater weakness than they used to be, and it wasn’t enough to limit those “taboo” stories of a murderous Superman or a gun-toting Batman to parallel worlds like Injustice: Gods Among Us or “Earth Two.” The absolutes of good and evil got old as that infectious cynicism took hold, so here we are with symbols of absolutes that no longer hold to those absolutes anymore. Superman kills. Batman uses guns. Keep going down that road, and you end up with Spider-Man killing some teenage kid’s uncle or Bruce Banner turning into a purple unicorn when someone makes him laugh. None of it is far-fetched when you decide to erase the symbolism of absolutes in a character, and it’s unfortunate that it seems to be assumed that the majority of the audience would want those absolutes erased in this day and age. We all know who Superman and Batman are. We don’t have to have read a single comic book to know what they stand for. Are they standing for the same thing at all in this movie? It makes me wonder if the next generation is going to want heroes at all given how much they’ve changed simply because someone thought good vs. evil wasn’t good enough anymore. It’s always going to be good enough for me. Always. I don’t need all of this darkness on both sides of the fence.

Perhaps the best thing about BvS was that it made me think this much about comics, movies, heroes, mythology and the real world. But I still look at the movies as Elseworlds/What If stories. They’re parallels to the comics shaped for the cinema, and the biggest hurdle any of them has to jump is how seriously they take themselves. “Why so serious?” asked Heath Ledger when he played Chris Nolan’s incarnation of the Joker. And BvS answered his question with another one of his own lines. "Some people just want to watch the world burn."

I tried to like the movie more than I did. I really did try. It had several moments I enjoyed, but to tell the truth 99% of this review came from just the first 90 minutes of the movie. The hour that followed... I just didn't have anything left to say, good or bad, but it felt in a few places like a trivialization of the source material. Make no mistake: it was a superhero movie. It could have taken a little more pride in itself to act like one with respect to the characters it used and what principles they upheld to make a movie like this possible in the first place.

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