Monday, April 18, 2016

Batman v Superman: Happy Funtime

So recently I saw this movie from a director who many believe has made more bad films than good ones. It's a visually-rich, strangely-paced film that was almost universally panned by critics; one especially famous one called it "a stunningly interesting visual achievement, but a failure as a story." I'm talking, of course, about Blade Runner.

Today, of course, Blade Runner is widely regarded as a classic, and as director Ridley's Scott's best film. But back in 1982 most critics (including Roger Ebert, whose review I quoted above) said the same kinds of things they're now saying about Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. I finally got to see BvS this weekend, and I have to say it was much better than I expected considering the shellacking it's received from critics both professional and amateur.

Am I saying that Batman v Superman: Could This Title Be More Cumbersome? is as good as Blade Runner? No. I'm saying that although it's not a perfect film, I still enjoyed it.

Are there any perfect movies? Name one if you can, and I guarantee I can point out one giant story-derailing plot hole in it, or a bunch of little plot holes and imperfections that will completely take you out of the movie every time you see it from now on. Movies and TV shows are designed to entertain us during their running time. But somewhere along the way the Internet decided that in order for something to be good, you have to be able to watch it again and again and again and again and again and again and again into infinity without noticing any imperfection. Otherwise, that movie or TV episode sucks.

Of course, the most fanatical proponents of the Infinite Rewatchability Standard have their own personal lists of things they believe should be excluded from it, things that they love even though they're flawed. But that is not the point. The point is that the Internet often arbitrarily decides that things are bad, even if they share many common characteristics with other things that the Internet loves.

For example, early on in BvS there's a scene where an African terrorist warlord is holding a gun to Lois Lane's head, using her as a human shield to get Superman to back down. I was instantly reminded of a similar scene in the first Iron Man movie, when a bunch of Afghan terrorists hold guns on women and children to get Iron Man to back down. You remember what happens: Tony Stark uses the technology in his suit to target the terrorists and shoot them all at once, and not with tranquilizer darts, either. The outcome in BvS is similar; Kal-El uses his super speed to knock the warlord through several walls. We don't see the guy after that, but it's pretty safe to assume he's dead. I've seen lots of complaints about this, and oddly enough they all come from people who think the DC films should be more like Marvel's.

Do I thrill to the sight of superheroes killing bad guys? No. I'm just pointing out that the people who make the loudest noise about Superman or Batman killing villains have absolutely no problem with Iron Man or Captain America doing the same thing. They're just grasping for reasons to validate the decision they made to hate the movie way back when it was first announced.

So, what did I like about Batman v Superman: How Many Focus Groups Did It Take To Come Up With This Title? Well, as a Superman fan I really liked how the movie treated him. Look, the first Christopher Reeve film is one of my favorite movies ever, but it's almost 40 years old. This Superman can't go to the Fortress of Solitude and have the giant floating head of Jor-El tell him what to do whenever he has a problem. The people of Earth don't instantly accept him. And a lot of the time his efforts to save people spawn unintended consequences, some of which are engineered by Lex Luthor in a deliberate effort to discredit him. In light of all that, is it reasonable to expect him to be the smiling Superman that Christopher Reeve portrayed? Of course not.

In the final act of the film, Lex Luthor did something that he's done many times in the comics but never in the movies: give Superman in a genuine moral dilemma--does he kill Batman or allow his mother to die? When he leaves Lois to confront Batman, he seems resigned to killing Batman. But he doesn't. Even when Batman reveals he can hurt him with his Kryptonite gas, Superman continues to try and get him to stop, rather than just heat-visioning his face off. And in death, this Superman does something that we never really saw in the Donner/Reeve films: inspire people. He inspires Bruce Wayne to be a better man. He inspires Wonder Woman to come out of retirement. And he inspires the people of Earth to come together. The scene of the multiethnic crowd holding a candlelight vigil at his monument was maybe the most inspiring Superman-related scene we've ever seen in live action. All of these are good things. I've seen people complain that DC did the Death of Superman too soon, but in this universe Superman needed to die heroically for the world to embrace him.

Of course, there's stuff I didn't enjoy so much, like Jesse Eisenberg's over-the-top performance. And the killing. Let's talk about that again. Near the end of the movie when Batman is firing the Batplane's machine guns at Luthor's henchmen on his way to rescue Martha Kent, I realized that this is the world we live in now. Batman has been killing his enemies on the movie screen since 1989, and the world is an even grimmer place today. A majority of Americans favor the torture of captured terrorists, even though the facts are that torture is not a good way to extract reliable intelligence. Politicians running for office get big cheers from their supporters when they promise to massacre the families of suspected terrorists. Back in the early 1950s when the Comics Code Authority forbade comic book heroes from killing their enemies, these kinds of things would have provoked outrage. But to modern audiences, someone who identifies as a "good guy" taking the Judge Dredd approach to crimefighting seems justified, if not praiseworthy. I don't like that at all, but it's not an issue that's restricted to this movie; it's part of the cultural soup we're all cooking in.

Another thing that a lot of people didn't like/were confused by were the strange dream sequences that were never explained, and mostly seemed to be shoehorned in there to set up the upcoming Justice League movies. I don't mind a movie having weird stuff that's not explained, and since I read the spoilers ahead of time I mostly understood what I was seeing. Still, it wouldn't surprise me at all if the writers threw those scenes in there just because they seemed cool, without any firm idea how they would fit in with the Justice League films. You know, kind of like what the Battlestar Galactica writers did with the Opera House visions. If that's the case, I foresee many Internet tantrums in the future.

Overall, Batman v Superman: I Can't Believe They Actually Went With That Title was a solid, interesting movie that tried to explore the implications of someone like Superman in our world. I wouldn't call it fun, and I'm not sure if I'll buy the Blu-Ray when it comes out (if I do, it definitely won't be the R-rated extended cut) but it didn't provoke the vitriol in me that it did in so many amateur critics.

I guess I'm getting soft in my middle age.

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