Sunday, March 27, 2016

Batman V Superman: Why the Critics got it Wrong

There were 9 of us. Most adults, with one kid. It was a good mix of non fans, comic book movie fans, comic book fans, Marvel fans and DC fans. After the movie, we had question.

What the fuck were the critics smoking?

BvS is sitting with a 30% critics score on Rotten Tomatoes. That is lower than Daredevil. Lower than Batman Forever. Lower than Spider Man 3 (by half!). Lower than Rise of The Silver Surfer!

That is also, insane.

At it's worst, the movie is divisive. It has some incredible strengths, and major weaknesses. The reviews have been out for a few days, so it's pointless to add to that mix. However, going through them both before and after watching the movie I feel they don't provide an accurate portrayal of what the movie is like. So instead of doing another straightforward review, let me take some specific aspects, address their critiques and devil's advocate the shit out of the movie.

But first, the short review roundup, in case you don't want to scroll through the wall of text below, because oh FUCK I have so much to say.

Mini Review Begins----------------------------

I think the movie is a perfectly enjoyable summer blockbuster that occasionally stumbles only because it tries loftier things than the average summer blockbuster. It asks some hard questions, and tries to make a point beyond "Bad person has upgraded version of my power/suit. Now we must fight!" That makes it interesting. More than that, it imbues the movie with a sense of ambition and scope which many superhero movies lack. It features largely good acting, phenomenal cinematography and action and an interesting plot that doesn't simply reheat the last superhero movie.

The biggest problem, I felt, was that it does not know who to please. For example, the first time Wonder Woman showed up, the people in our group who didn't follow comic books at all (a.k.a. the casuals a.k.a. the demographic DC has to please to have a hope in hell of making the movie successful financially) were confused. Why was this random woman who, so far, seemed to exclusively attend parties wearing clothes that never had enough material to cover the back, suddenly fighting with a sword and a shield? This was not an obscure reference - Wonder Woman is a core part of the final battle, and the casual audience has no clue who she is! Similarly, a lot of Luthor's motivation becomes a lot clearer once you know his character from the comics.

On the other hand, the movie deviates from the generally accepted canon regarding character and motivation waaaaay too much, and we all know how rational comic book fans are about such things. See, in this version, Luthor is a twitchy, neurotic maniac. In this version, Batman's "no-killing" rule is more relaxed than the dress code at a pajama party. In this version, Superman isn't a big blue beacon of hope.

How much you enjoy the movie will depend on your preconceived notions. See, this is a movie that requires SOME knowledge of these characters and their history. Nothing that can't be cleared up after a five-minute conversation with your comic-book loving friend. If, however, you are a stickler for how they are in the comic books, this movie is the equivalent of an abusive spouse who is also great in bed. It will make you incredibly happy, and incredibly sad, until you are a confused, seething mess of drool and rage.

Mini Review Ends----------------------------

Ok, so let's get down to business, dissect the movie and the critique, and see why Batman V Superman is worth your time. Because holy fuck, it's worth your time.

Cast and Acting:
This, very few reviews had problems with. Ben Affleck and Gal Gadot are the highlights, in spite of Gadot's limited screen time, while Jeremy Irons is a brilliant Alfred. More dour and snarky and less fatherly than Caine or Michael Gough. This is an Alfred that has given up on trying to make Bruce realise that dressing up like a bat to punch criminals is crazy, and is now focused on keeping him alive. Amy Adams does not have much to do, but even then, adds humanity to Henry Cavil's Superman. Cavil himself is a blank slate, looks adequately like a brick wall and delivers a steady and unmemorable performance.

The divisive one here is Jesse Eisenberg as Luthor and well....I didn't hate him. I can see how his performance, affected as it is, will rub fans the wrong way, but for non fans who don't have any idea of the suave, cruel Lex Luthor, Eisenberg is fine and even a little magnetic. I've seen him compared to the Joker; however, this Luthor is teetering on an edge of insanity, whereas Joker has already gleefully jumped in. Moreover, I found that the Machiavellian aspects of his character has been left intact. Luthor is, after all, the master of the long game, and here, it's apparent that he has been playing for years.

The Tone:
"Grim". "Joyless". "Humorless". This was my first clue that there might be a teensy bit of bias going on. I don't want to drag this into a Marvel vs. DC morass, because then we'd be here all day, but this idea that it's only the Marvel tone that works for superhero movies is a throwback to the idea that comic books are for kids. That anything to do with comic books have to have a rainbow-sized colour palette and a RDJ-alike making quips a mile a minute. I don't mind Marvel doing Marvel stuff, in fact, I welcome it, but a lot of critics seem to have decided that a dark, grim tone in itself is a negative.

"So if critics hate dark, how come they loved the Nolan movies huh?" Yeah, this is the most common defense being pushed around. Here's the thing - the Nolan movies were brilliant. BvS is decidedly NOT a brilliant movie. It's good, but not great. However, calling a good movie, or even a mediocre movie bad BECAUSE of its tone makes no sense. Worse, it suggests that those who prefer a particular tone are somehow, by virtue of their aesthetic choice, less evolved in their taste. I happen to prefer this tone, as do many others I know. Some of Marvel's movies bore me simply because of their very different tone. Doesn't make them worse movies though.

Oh, and there are laughs to be had here. Almost everything Perry White or Alfred says elicits a chuckle or two. Because they aren't coming at you like machine-gun fire, they land with more impact.

Plot and Storytelling:
The plot has holes. So. Many. Holes. But there are also hints and suggestions regarding plot points, and the viewer is expected to connect the dots, which is something that some critics seem to have a problem with. This is a movie where not everything is spelled out, and requires careful watching for it to make sense. Is that a good thing? Should a summer blockbuster always be a switch-your-brain-off kind of thing? I don't know, and I am not suggesting it shouldn't. It's true that Snyder is not a skilled enough director to juggle the multiple plot points and heavy themes efficiently. But the fact that the movie even tried to do it, even though it failed, makes it more interesting to me.

However, one thing I never had a problem with, and I don't really understand why so many reviewers did, was the storytelling. It's certainly choppy, but I personally enjoyed that. The movie is told through multiple perspectives and some events take place concurrently. There are multiple plot points, but they are not hard to follow, and when they come together, it's satisfying to see the threads meet. Again, there seems to be a "if it's a comic book movie it has to be simple and linear" attitude which is difficult to agree with.

But yeah, the blatant fanservice videos of the other heroes should definitely have been placed at the end, instead of right before the big fight.

Action and Visuals:
Some things are just automatically cool. Watching the DC Trinity work together on the big screen is one of those things. The action is epic, and the ground level shots where Bruce is watching Superman and Zod duke it out really provide a sense of scale of the destruction caused. However, the film takes time to get going, and the action ramps up only in the last hour or so. Batman gets a couple of solo fight scenes that are bone-crunchingly brutal, and the marquee main event is just as I envisioned a Batman vs Superman fight to go down. It even has a decent laugh! Wonder Woman shows up in the coolest manner imaginable. Electric cello blaring, she looks every inch a gladiator forged in battle. Where Superman, in spite of all his power, questions and wavers, she leaps at the enemy - sword, shield and above all, lasso in hand. For all Snyder did wrong, Wonder Woman has been done oh-so-right.

Visually, the film is typical Snyder - beautiful shots that look like comic book panels, with a sense of grandeur in the visuals. The 3D doesn't really help, making the dark visuals even murkier. Once again, 3D mucks up an otherwise beautiful movie.

Which brings us to two major criticisms of the "action" aspects of the movie. Let's deal with them one by one

1) "Batman kills. He mows down henchmen. This violates his no-kill code" - Batman has always killed in the movies. In the Burton movies, he definitely killed henchmen, while in the Nolan movies, he kills two face and flips a truck over. He had NO WAY of knowing that would not kill everyone inside the truck. Canon batman does not kill, but this is not canon. Each director has his own version of the character, aspects of which are canon, and aspects that are not. I have never felt that "no killing" has to be an integral part of every Batman. If you do, that's certainly an opinion, but not one casual fans care much about.

2) "They cause citywide destruction again, after making that such a big deal in the MoS movie" - The first thing Superman does is fly Doomsday into outer space. The only reason the battle comes back to earth is because of the knee-jerk reaction of the powers that be. If anything, this movie proves that Superman has evolved and understands his responsibilities better than those passing judgement on him.

The Final Word

Batman vs Superman does a lot of things right. Problem is, some  things it does will appeal to casual moviegoers and piss off hardcore fans, and some will appeal to hardcore fans and piss off casual moviegoers. On top of that, Zack Snyder's limitations as a filmmaker means the film has glaring weaknesses, while his fanboy love for comic book means it also has a lot of heart and is emotionally powerful. That's why this is such an incredibly divisive movie, and that is why it cannot make anyone completely happy. Given a chance, however, it is a fantastic entertainer, and gets me excited for another comic book universe on the big screen.

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