Saturday, March 26, 2016

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice

So, this is what we’re doing now. We are bringing our superheroes to Earth, both literally and metaphorically, and turning them into unhappy humans who interrogate the meaning of their own power and develop strong opinions on how it should be used. We are screwing around with imagery that evokes 9/11 to suggest the damage that unchecked superhero powers can create. We are having beloved characters fight with each other for the thinnest of reasons. We are blowing shit up. Zack Snyder’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice aspires to nothing less than to be the termination point for an one era of superhero films and, I guess, the departure point for another. Dawn of Justice begins with the end of Snyder’s Man of Steel, the battle between Superman (Henry Cavill) and General Zod (Michael Shannon) that tears apart Metropolis. Snyder includes shots of citizens fleeing billowing dust clouds on city streets that serve as a perverse kind of escapism, as if it would take aliens and nothing else to bring down buildings in a major American city. One of the casualties of the mayhem is a building belonging to Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) which is in the process of being evacuated when it collapses. Eighteen months later and Wayne still broods on the loss of his employees, though it’s hard to tell because in Dawn of Justice Affleck’s Batman is little more than a scowl and some high-end gadgets.

In the new DC Comics Universe, which Dawn of Justice is mean to kick off, “Justice” is a funny word. Neither Batman nor Superman seem interested in participating in a system of due process and accountability for those they apprehend. Instead both want to do exactly as they like and each finds the other’s methods over the top. Wayne is offended when Superman’s rescue of Lois Lane (Amy Adams, whom I feel I should remind you has five Oscar nominations) leads to the loss of innocent lives. This incident is told secondhand to the committee of a Senator (Holly Hunter) who is worried about Superman going bad, and the narrative distance means it’s hard to gauge just how out of control the situation became. Meanwhile Superman - in his Clark Kent guise, and here Kent is just a device to move the plot along - doesn’t like how rough Batman plays when bringing down low level hoods in Gotham. Bruce Wayne and Alfred (Jeremy Irons) are actually in pursuit of information held by Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg, who takes the camp out of this character for once) which might prove inimical to Superman’s interests. Snyder spends a great deal of time on Wayne’s search, a choice which pushes the film’s running time out to 2 and a half hours but also leads to Wayne crossing paths with Diana Price (Gal Gadot, warming up for next year’s Wonder Woman film). Wayne spends so much time sitting in front of screens that at one point he has a dream-within-a-dream, a scene which introduces another familiar DC character and also fails to suggest that anyone involved with Dawn of Justice possesses DePalma-like levels of psychological complexity.

Dawn of Justice could be as serious-minded as it liked and I would even forgive the violence if only Snyder had injected even a fraction of the joy that earlier Batman and Superman films possessed. That sentiment no doubt sounds like the carping of a man who’s angry that new toys don’t look like the ones he grew up with, but consider: we’re supposedly living in a time where films are being made and studios run by people who grew up as “geeks” or “nerds” and yet I don’t remember the last time I saw a superhero use his powers without considering the moral responsibility. (Maybe Ant-Man, but the pendulum began to swing somewhere around the first Sam Raimi Spider-Man film.) Where is the joy of flight, or even the novelty of a utility belt? I couldn’t help but think about the children who were in the theatre where I was watching Dawn of Justice. I’m talking about the actual children, not the overgrown ones. They’ll never thrill to Christopher Reeve’s Superman saving lives at the Eiffel Tower or be confused by the emotional dynamics between Michael Keaton’s Batman and Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman. Instead they, and the rest of us, are treated to Martha Kent (Diane Lane) being terrorized by armed goons and Lex Luthor playing Doctor Frankenstein in the remains of a Kryptonian spaceship. The child sitting with his father next to me loved seeing Superman fly but grew oddly quiet during the civics lesson.

The extended climax of Dawn of Justice occurs in a series of empty buildings that Zack Snyder finds various to shoot blowing up or crumbling into rubble. It’s practically promised at the end that these sequences will motivate the action in some future DC film and that more heroes will be required to fight off new evil. Those films will no doubt have their audience, but they had also better matter much more than this one did. I didn’t care that Bruce Wayne wanted to kill Superman because this Wayne is barely a person. Christian Bale’s Wayne wasn’t the most fun guy, but you at least believed he watched a basketball game now and then. Dawn of Justice is the “high” point of the movement to replace the wonder in superhero films with sheer spectacle and debates about the uses of power. The idea that the people in films should be frightened of the heroes protecting them - a theme that has crossed a number of franchises - has never been less appealing or provocative than it is here, and with any luck we’re moving away from its repeated use in blockbusters. Oh, wait a second, 2016 still has films called Civil War and Suicide Squad yet to come. I’ll probably see them both, and so will you.

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