Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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At The Picture Show
March 2016

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice

How much more superhero can this be? None. None more superhero.

The long-awaited showdown between Batman and Superman is a dismal trainwreck of half-developed ideas and narrative non-sequiturs

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice
Warner Bros. Pictures
Director: Zack Snyder
Screenplay: Chris Terrio and David S. Goyer, based on DC Comics characters
Starring: Ben Affleck, Henry Cavill, Jesse Eisenberg, Amy Adams, Gal Gadot, Holly Hunter, Scoot McNairy, Laurence Fishburne and Jeremy Irons
Rated PG-13 / 2 hours, 31 minutes
March 25, 2016
(out of four)

This is what we get. This movie - Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice - is what happens when superhero movies are so tired and ubiquitous that no one even knows what to do with them anymore, but they have to keep making them anyway. It stinks of obligation as much as repetition. I'm not convinced anyone involved in its creation knew why they were making it - beyond, of course, the mandate to put Batman and Superman together in one movie and kickstart DC's expanded universe.

Beyond that, it's glaringly devoid of purpose - less a superhero movie than a charmless composite of superhero movies, stripped of any cohesion. There is so much to talk about and yet so little. The grimdark urban landscapes. The morally thorny examination of superheroes' role in, and effect on, the societies they inhabit. The genetically engineered villain. The endless cameos and arbitrary story beats shoehorned in to plant the seeds of franchise expansion.

Half of this is just regurgitated Nolan. The other half feels like the spare parts from every other contemporary blockbuster that patted itself on the back for its post-9/11 awareness, evoking that event's imagery while trying to say something, anything, about the world it left in its wake. Add this movie to the stack along with the likes of Star Trek Into Darkness, War of the Worlds, Godzilla, one Transformers movie or another, World War Z, and both of the last two Bond entries (not to mention various Batman, X-Men, Marvel and even Harry Potter films).

And that's only one of the ways Snyder seems resilient in his effort to make these movies as boilerplate as possible. That's the most perplexing thing - that his impulses here lean toward blockbuster uniformity. Snyder has been gifted the two most iconic comic-book characters in existence, and in both Man of Steel and Batman v Superman, he's chosen to use them in the service of generic big-budget spectacle. Cities collapse, buildings explode. There's a big CGI monster* to kill. Bogus storylines nonsensically thrown together, so confident are the filmmakers that we'll be too distracted by the noise and visual chaos to really notice. By the end, Dawn of Justice, like its 2013 predecessor, is so dispiritingly typical of summer movies that its two titular heroes might as well just be fighting Megatron.

* Yes, I'm aware of the character's history - I was the kid dragging his dad to the comic-book store to order that particular series months in advance - and I'm just as aware of the history between Batman and Superman in the comics. Doesn't change anything about the awfulness of this movie.

The film's story - to the extent that it even has one - is an ugly mess of half-conceived ideas. Batman and Superman themselves are mostly useless except as flimsy ideological avatars. (Bruce Wayne perceives the all-powerful Kryptonian as a threat to the human race and wants to protect against him by any means necessary; Superman (Henry Cavill) takes umbrage with Batman's outlaw methods, his neglect of civil liberties.) In any case, they're certainly not characters. Even as symbols, they fall flat. There's a cursory attempt to explore Superman's status as a deity-like figure, but Snyder has neither the interest nor the patience to see the idea through. Statues are erected in his honor and defaced by those who blame him for the destruction of Metropolis that concluded Man of Steel. He appears from on high, encompassed in shimmering light like a benevolent god, only to be told by various political and corporate figures that he's a menace to society. On that side of the argument is Batman (Ben Affleck), who comes out of retirement primarily because of Superman's presence.

The issue is not a shortage of ideas but a lack of discipline and depth in dramatizing them. The film bounces around between plot points and narrative asides that seem relevant (but aren't) and the introduction of new characters that wind up making absolutely no sense (i.e. Jesse Eisenberg's Lex Luthor). I'm not a plot guy, yet a two-and-a-half hour superhero movie with barely a semblance of a plot seems like a bad idea, and a waste of time, even to me. The film spends its time debating Superman's moral responsibility (with both Bruce and Lex intent on securing Kryptonite as a deterrent), while clumsily working in other narrative detours (i.e. the investigation of the "metahumans," otherworldly figures rumored to exist, among them our first looks at Wonder Woman, The Flash, Cyborg and Aquaman), distracting us with the possibilities of what may come from this burgeoning franchise even as the film we're watching is sinking into a quagmire of confused, self-important bullshit.

I'm not against its tone - or rather, I'm not against its tone in theory. I don't subscribe to the now-trendy wisdom that superhero movies have to be fun and lighthearted (we've got more than enough Marvel as it is), just as I didn't subscribe to the opposite belief a decade ago when gritty darkness was fashionable. If Snyder and writers David Goyer and Chris Terrio want to turn these iconic characters into brooding figures that stand in for competing foreign-policy doctrines, fine. The problem is the weightlessness of their attempts at meaning. The War on Terror parallels are not only a warmed-over version of what the previous Batman trilogy already examined, but end up bearing zero weight on the story itself. The more the film's big picture comes into focus, the clearer it becomes that the attempted political substance is completely irrelevant. It has nothing to do with the way the film actually operates, or what it leads up to in its climactic action setpiece, or what really ends up mattering. It's all an affectation - a cheap way to make the material seem like it justifies the film's serious-minded tone.

Not to belabor the point of comparison, but consider the similar attempts in The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises. In both cases, the sociopolitical commentary was linked inextricably with the way the narratives played out - the decisions the characters made, the ways the conflicts developed, the ways the stories resolved themselves, and the way all of that impacted the world in which the series was set. Everything was carefully put in place and put into action. Dawn of Justice, on the other hand, is pure lip service.

The biggest giveaway is in the very title - the big head-to-head conflict that is ostensibly the entire point of this movie's existence. Batman vs. Superman. And yet the shallowness with which that very battle plays out is not just embarrassing but, again, irrelevant. The way their fight is "resolved," first of all, is possibly the most inexplicable piece of conflict resolution I've ever seen in a motion picture - an attempt at emotional profundity that is laughable on its face. I can barely believe what I saw. But that's not even the key point. What's most egregious is this: The whole film has framed their clash as a passionate ideological battle, and yet when they (inevitably) kiss, make up, and team up, no differences have been resolved. In fact, the differences between them haven't even been addressed. All of a sudden, the entire philosophical crux of the movie is rendered moot. And so I go back to my previous thought: That no one really knows what movie they wanted to make in the first place. This is a scattershot concoction of simplistic motivations and half-cocked ideas. But hey, at least it can be said that Batman and Superman finally got a movie together. So ... congratulations, I guess? But now that that's done, where do we even go from here? I know, I know - the answer to that question is Justice League, so we've all got that to look forward to. But Dawn of Justice is such a convincing, definitive argument against whatever it is DC thinks it's building, I'm sure I'm not alone in wishing they wouldn't even bother. The DC cinematic universe has only just begun, and already it's running on fumes.

Read more by Chris Bellamy

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