THE INHERENT POWER OF GENRE - PT. 6:
MARVEL v. D.C. (pg. 2)
VIEWS ON FILM BY CEJ -
The GRINDHOUSE: Reviews
Few films are as polarizing as the D.C. comics-to-film adaptations – specifically those involving BATMAN and SUPERMAN. Well, except maybe Clint Eastwood’s AMERICAN SNIPER. And this has always been the case. For unlike the Marvel characters (Captain America, Daredevil, Iron Man, Thor, etc.) – who came along in the 1960s, and the origins and evolution of which the vast movie going public only became aware of via the last fifteen or so years of Marvel films, those two D.C. characters have been around for nearly three quarters of a century; that time not only taking them through, but making them an indelible part of such history defining events as The Great Depression, World War II, The McCarthy era, The Cold War, the Civil Rights Movement, Woodstock Generation, MTV Generation, 9/11, the dawn of social media and beyond.
As such they’ve gone beyond the realm of “characters to be adapted”, and even beyond that of pop-culture icons, to become an imprinted part of each audience member’s individual psyche. Therefore today, certainly more so than in 1978 – when Richard Donner gave us SUPERMAN THE MOVIE, it is pretty much impossible to create a SUPERMAN or BATMAN film which will be universally praised by all as “getting it right”, because what’s “right” or “wrong”, or what is “canon”, as well as that ever sliding scale of what constitutes “heroism”, is today relative to each audience member more than it’s ever been. For that reason, perhaps more than any other, we give kudos to Zack Snyder’s blisteringly entertaining (and rather intelligent) BATMAN V. SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE.
Director Zack Snyder
First off, to those few thousand people who honestly believe mounting a “Protest.org”-like social media campaign to have Snyder removed from the “D.C. Cinematic Universe”’s slate of upcoming films (JUSTICE LEAGUE, WONDER WOMAN, AQUAMAN, et al) will gain traction with Warner Bros., ... well, then me and Lex Luthor (the Gene Hackman version) have some priceless beachfront property we’d like you to take a look at as well. When a film rakes in nearly half a billion dollars in three and half days globally, this is someone a studio will usually want to keep at the helm of the ship. So jettison that fanciful notion (for even the famously told story of the STAR TREK letter writing campaign of the 1960s didn't unfold exactly as legend claims) , and welcome to the harsh realities of life in the modern day world, … which incidentally is exactly what’s so special about this new film – it’s daring insistence on doing just that: to a degree jettisoning fanciful notions, and taking the risk of placing D.C.’s two most iconic characters in the midst of a grittingly real post 9/11 existence.
After the unholy outcry raised by some against Snyder’s first Superman film, 2013’s MAN OF STEEL, it would have been easier (and safer) for Warner / D.C. to “pull back the reigns a bit” on the post 9/11 realism which that motion picture sought to depict. And to those who continue to hurl darts at MAN OF STEEL because of the “collateral damage” and death and destruction caused by the climactic battle as Superman attempts to save earth from General Zod’s invasion (something we’d never see in the Christopher Reeve / Richard Donner version) … that was the point of that film! That is also the point of this new one - to dispense with the fancifully stereotypical “comic-booky” aspect of all previous Superman (and some Batman) depictions in it's presentation that a war to save humanity would leave no innocent victims in its wake; that there would be no collateral damage and repercussions stemming from it. Take note that, after turning New York City, Washington D.C., and the fictional nation of Sokovia into battlefields, this same contemporary real world (as opposed to "reel world") concept of "repercussions and responsibility for wartime collateral damage" is used to jumpstart CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR as well.
But this notion of violence (oh, we’re sorry, “action”) without repercussions was something which the revisionist comic book era of the 1980s – 90s sought to undo. And the notion that every act of war (even a just war) has long-lasting fallout – both personally and sociologically, was the intent of that revisionist movement (see Alan Moore’s THE WATCHMEN). Remaining faithful to this particular precept of modern comic book canon above the formerly more cheery “Bang! Bang! Shoot ‘em up! It’s Clobberin’ Time, but no one REALLY gets hurt, y’know - kind of like in THE A-TEAM” version, is / was the daring aspect of MAN OF STEEL, and especially is the most daring aspect of BATMAN V. SUPERMAN.
“Okay, all pretentiously well and good”, you say, “But the bottom line, ‘Is BATMAN V. SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE’ a good film?”. That depends more on you than anything. And that’s not a cop out. It’s the most accurate explanation. If your conception and expectation of Batman / Bruce Wayne and Superman / Clark Kent is traditional … . If you were raised on, and choose not to divert from, the “Big Blue Boy Scout” notion of the Man of Steel – particularly that depiction portrayed in the old George Reeves TV series, Richard Donner film, and animated adventures like Saturday morning’s THE SUPER FRIENDS … . Or if your vision of BATMAN is heroically unassailable, then you’re very likely to despise this film more than you did MAN OF STEEL.
If however you’re familiar with the dark original Depression era versions of these two icons; and (more importantly) if you’re okay with the post-WATCHMEN era revisionist take on them introduced in the 1980s by writers like Moore and Frank Miller (in graphic novels such as THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS and THE KILLING JOKE) then you’re likely (as we did) to find DAWN OF JUSTICE, while not a perfect film, certainly one of the most intelligent and shrewdly realized socio-political genre exercises since the original PLANET OF THE APES. And as such one of the best comic-book-to-film-adaptations ever – right up there with SUPERMAN THE MOVIE, DICK TRACY, SPIDER-MAN 2 and THE AVENGERS.
THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS (pub. 1996)
And no, we haven’t (to use an 1980s era term) been “hittin’ the pipe!”. But we have been “hittin’ the 1980s”, as in revisiting (as does BATMAN V. SUPERMAN) perhaps the most daringly creative era for the artform known as the comic book since its creation three quarters of a century ago.
Directly picking up where MAN OF STEEL left off (the beginning of the new film essentially overlaps with the climax of the previous one), and kinda / sorta following in the narrative wake of Christopher Nolan’s DARK KNIGHT trilogy conclusion, THE DARK KNIGHT RISES, the new DAWN OF JUSTICE begins on an intriguing note - acknowledging and delving into that complaint many had about the first film’s apparent lack of concern for its climactic Dresden Fire Bombing-like collateral damage caused by the superhuman showdown between our Kryptonian hero and General Zod over, across and through the city of Metropolis.
Owning an office building filled with workers who are killed when the structure (in a harrowing and disturbingly realized analogy to the falling of the World Trade Towers) collapses during the battle, Bruce Wayne – flashing back to the meaningless deaths of his parents years prior, psychologically connects the two incidents, and begins to develop an Ahab-like hatred towards God, expressed - just as it was with the white whale of Melville's MOBY DICK, at the God-like personage of Superman.
Just as to Ahab killing the whale was his way of vengefully spitting in the eye of God / fate, and by extension making the world a more just and fair place in the process, so does Wayne develop a "negative God complex” fixation towards the Man of Steel. When his search for a chink in Superman’s apparently indestructible armor uncovers a plot by scientist / industrialist Lex Luthor to harness the power of a meteorite found at the bottom of the sea – a meteorite which contains Kryptonite, and which Luthor intends to forge into a weapon against Superman, the obsessed Wayne / Batman embarks upon a complex plan to steal the weapon for his own personal (in his mind at least) just and fair agenda.
At this point any semblance to the Adam West BATMAN of the 1960s, and even to Tim Burton and Christopher Nolan’s depiction of the character has been fascinatingly (if disturbingly) jettisoned. In a very real way Batman has slowly but surely become the living embodiment of Harvey Dent’s prophecy in 2008’s THE DARK KNIGHT, that “… you either die a hero, or live long enough to see yourself become the villain”. Over the years, during Batman’s originally just (if dark) quest for justice, he has devolved from a just avenger of the innocent, to urban vigilante above the law, to actual villain, … yet he doesn’t realize it.
When a bulked up Ben Affleck as Bruce Wayne unloads his emotional spleen on Alfred (portrayed in wonderfully understated and genuinely endearing fashion by Jeremy Irons), declaring that “He (Superman) has the power to wipe out the entire human race; and If we believe there’s a 1% chance that he’s our enemy we have to take it as an absolute certainty; and we have to destroy him”, one can’t help but hear the ongoing contemporary debate about radical Islam, terrorism (both foreign and domestic), gun control, and the thin line between national security and modern day McCarthy-like paranoia.
Many had a problem with Henry Cavill’s first outing as Kent / Superman in MAN OF STEEL, but we always found his performance filled with an intriguing combination of strength and integrity, mixed with doubt, insecurity, and even a hint of potential violence. And this of course is what many perceived as sacrilegious to the Superman mythos – the fact that Superman could have, and do internal battle with, an emotional / psychological dark side. Some say this is taking the heroism out of heroes. But we’ve always found it to be the exact opposite. As an example …
A child in the lake is drowning, and a lifeguard dives in to rescue him / her. This is a great act to be sure. But take the same “child drowning” scenario …only without a lifeguard. And the only person on the shore who dives in to save the child is someone with a lifelong crippling fear of the water. The fact that they had this emotional / psychological shortcoming, … but overcame it to commit what could be an act of self-sacrifice in saving the child, … . This is truly heroic! – the conquering of fears, doubts and demons within one’s own heart and mind to do that which is for the greater good. And in BATMAN V. SUPERMAN both iconic characters wrestle (and in the end) overcome their own individual demons, prejudices, doubts, etc. to “save the day”.
As such the (so-called) darker depiction of these characters becomes one of the most genuinely inspirational in the long on-screen history of both, because they’ve entered the new, cynical, paranoid, violent, fearful and distrusting modern era in which we live, … but in the end, after a few ups and downs, and temptations to conform to the modern norm, they both emerge with their three-quarters of a century integrity firmly intact. In the end the world in which Batman and Superman now live has changed greatly from the one we remember from the George Reeves series and Richard Donner and Tim Burton films, but those two characters themselves really have not.
A cynical world is a harsh place for those who cling to conscience. And at times the best of men will ironically turn to darkness before they can once again embrace the light within. For those “Joseph Campbell - Hero With A Thousand Faces” and biblical scholars out there, we can’t help but see the plights of both Batman and Superman here quite analogous to the self-doubt which for a time overtook both the figures of Moses and Christ themselves.
Co-screenwriter David S. Goyer
For this kind of mythic depth we give kudos to BATMAN V. SUPERMAN co-screenwriter David S. Goyer. The man behind the scripts to DARK CITY, all three BLADE films (he also directed the third installment), GHOST RIDER: SPIRIT OF VENGENCE, all three Chris Nolan DARK KNIGHT entries, TV’s CONSTANTINE, along with the upcoming THE SANDMAN (from Neil Gaiman’s graphic novel) and JUSTICE LEAGUE, Goyer, a lifelong comic book aficionado has always insisted upon making the super heroics of iconic characters more plausible by setting them within a realistic world in which the often God-like personalities must learn to effectively interface with everyone else’s daily 9 to 5 drudgery.
Oh, and while we’re on the “multi-layers of subtext which some feel are too pretentious for a comic book movie” thing, let us warn those perhaps not so inclined that, while every superhero film (and especially Superman film) tends to dip it’s toe into (shall we call it) the wading pool of biblical and mythological references, DAWN OF JUSTICE unapologetically dives headlong into the Pacific Ocean version. All SUPERMAN films have made veiled analogies to the aforementioned Christ and Moses stories. But BATMAN V. SUPERMAN certainly contains the most blatant references since Marlon Brando proclaimed he was “Sending the world his only begotten son” in Richard Donner’s 1978 film.
And Joseph Campbell (maybe even Freud) would have a field day taking notes on this film’s plot and character nods to Homer and ancient Greek mythology. Films like TROY, O’ BROTHER WHERE ART THOU? and others have nothing on DAWN OF JUSTICE in that neck ‘o the woods as Superman essentially takes the role of Zeus from the heavens, Batman becomes his antagonistic brother Hades – ruler of the underworld (y’know, the Batcave and all), and everyone’s comic book favorite – that bad-ass monstrous villain known as Doomsday kinda / sorta fills the role of Cronus imprisoned within Tartarus. Keeping in mind that Tartarus was a “Phantom Zone”-like prison where the souls of criminals and outlaws were judged and punished after death (that idea combined with this film’s version of Doomsday’s genetic origin) the analogy becomes fascinatingly obvious.
Also, from a parental standpoint, keep in mind that, despite the plethora of BATMAN V. SUPERMAN toys hitting the shelves of local stores, this film very much pushes the limits of its PG-13 rating. Some of the earlier Batman vigilante sequences (with him actually burn-branding the criminals he captures) are visually disturbing. As are some of Bruce Wayne’s nightmare sequences and the climactic battle with Doomsday. These, and a 2 ½ hour running time (the IMAX version three minutes longer than the standard presentation) may make you want to think twice about bringing very young children. Back to David Goyer …
With Nolan’s debut Batman film, BATMAN BEGINS, the objective of he and Goyer was primarily to make the Bruce Wayne character fascinating and gripping, and able to completely carry his own film, before he donned the cape and cowl. For this reason – the heartrending yarn of an emotionally smashed man searching the world for the meaning of his soul - BATMAN BEGINS remains our favorite of the Nolan trilogy … with all due respects to everyone else's favorite THE DARK KNIGHT.
Goyer does a similar act of narrative and character prestidigitation here. While we’re among the few who actually loved MAN OF STEEL, when we first heard the filmic agenda of DAWN OF JUSTICE – to start bringing together the seven primary JUSTICE LEAGUE characters into their own filmic universe (a’la Marvel’s THE AVENGERS), we felt it was entirely too soon. We thought Superman should have at least one more solo film, as well as Wonder Woman and other JUSTICE LEAGUE-ers. To start to bring them all together in what is essentially only the second film of a rebooted franchise seemed like a desperate attempt to “catch up to” / “cash in on” the now popular Marvel Cinematic Universe concept.
However, not unlike the first AVENGERS film, DAWN OF JUSTICE works when it has absolutely no reason too. As with THE AVENGERS (and comparisons are inevitable) there are by rights entirely too many characters, plots, subplots, motivations, and seeds to be planted for future films to not become convoluted and (ironically) narratively boring by weighting things down to a degree where the audience begins to mentally check out. But just as with THE AVENGERS, Goyer and co-scenarist Chris Terrio (ARGO) somehow manage the impossible juggling act of making it all come together without it seeming top heavy. For this alone BATMAN V. SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE earns our “thumbs up” as one of the best films of the year thus far.
From a technical standpoint D.O.J. is a cinematic tour de force. Operatic in scope and execution (from its costume and production design, through its editing and sound mix) this is why, regardless of how awesome your home HDTV and Surround Sound system is, IMAX was invented. The cinematography of Larry Fong (300, WATCHMEN, NOW YOU SEE ME, TV’s LOST) is a darkly shadowed moving painting which, while we’ve heard nothing officially stating such, (as former illustrators) we can’t help but see parallels to the lush dark oil pastels of Turner and Rembrandt.
(L to R) Cinematographer Larry Fong, Co-composer Hans Zimmer, Co-composer Junkie XL (Tom Holkenborg)
And the film’s music score by the legendary Hans Zimmer (THE LION KING,
RAIN MAN, INCEPTION) and Junkie XL (aka – Tom Holkenborg of MAD MAX:
FURY ROAD and DEADPOOL) is a deft combination of orchestra and
electronics along with tonal and atonal influences. Nicely integrating
thematic material from Zimmer’s previous MAN OF STEEL, and the emotional
vibe of that same composer’s Chris Nolan DARK KNIGHT scores, this
film’s new musical material – including a haunting John Barry-esque
“mystery motif”, and a percussively tribal statement for Wonder Woman,
integrates the musical DNA of the earlier adventures, but nicely refuses
to merely reblock old hat; here using them as a springboard into new thematic
wonders, … not to mention a few action-filled moments of atonal musical
bad-ass-ed-ness the likes of which would make composer John Corigliano
(ALTERED STATES, THE RED VIOLIN) do a straight-up “WTF!” double take.
Not a perfect film however, BATMAN V. SUPERMAN’s rendition of Jesse Eisenberg’s Lex Luthor swings wildly from fascinatingly childlike / super-intelligent sociopathic billionaire inventor (sort of a thematic evil twin to Bruce Wayne) to genuinely irritating-as-all-fu*k spazoid! Obviously there are seeds being planted here to flesh-out / explain in later films Luthor’s own “hatred of fate / God” complex – his mental illness finding release in the MAN WHO WOULD BE KING-like concept of "making Superman bleed", and by extension proving him to be a false god. So we can maybe let that slide until later. But more importantly in the negative department, the film’s narrative grip (just as happened with MAN OF STEEL) noticeably lessens during the all-important Third Act.
To this point the narrative has been an intriguing “variation on a theme” within that (at times hackneyed) comics-to-film genre. But once the final battle begins, things unfortunately begin to feel like action movie de rigueur. Even worse, it begins to feel like “comic book action movie de rigueur”. We’ve had the discussion with many over the years about what may very well be the comic book movie genre's greatest “insurmountable?” obstacle in general – the always expected climactic world-destroying WWF-like superhero “Super Slam” smackdown battle sequence.
Since 1981’s SUPERMAN II this has become the expected (if tiresomely cliched') climax to all such films from THE INCREDIBLE HULK to THE AVENGERS, to AGE OF ULTRON, to ANT-MAN, THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN and more. To its credit however, in its coda DAWN OF JUSTICE saves itself from comic / action movie cliché by remaining surprisingly faithful to one of the most remarked upon SUPERMAN comic book storylines in the character’s entire near 80 year history. It’s another daringly (yet creatively) unexpected move in a movie replete with them.
As with so many of this intriguing film’s other components, whether or not one loves or loathes this denouncement will again depend upon one’s familiarity with (and willing acceptance of) some of those earlier mentioned character and narrative arcs introduced into the comics and graphic novels during the revisionist years of the 1980s / 90s. Hey, like BATMAN V. SUPERMAN or don’t like it. That’s up to you. But try to judge it on its own for what it is, and not for how well or not it snugly fits into one’s nostalgic conception of how magical it felt to see Chris Reeve fly for the first time when you were 12 years old.
We relish that moment too. And for us 1978’s SUPERMAN THE MOVIE will always remain the GONE WITH THE WIND of comic book movies. But, just as how - in the real world - GONE WITH THE WIND has been re-examined, debated, dissected and discussed in light of the modern era, so since 9/11 has the entire world (including the comic book one – long a mirror of society’s hopes, fears and more) dramatically changed. But remember, it’s the world which has changed, and not Superman himself in these films. Make that distinction.
Generally speaking we all allow for reinventions of Shakespeare – Ian McKellen’s / Richard Lochraine’s RICHARD III (1995), Baz Luhrmann’s ROMEO + JULIET (1996), and Julie Taymor’s TITUS (1999) being amongst the most successfully iconoclastic. We’ve enjoyed innumerable versions of SHERLOCK HOLMES over the years (from animated to contemporary and everything in between), and we even encourage revisionist tellings of stories concerning Christ, Moses and Muhammad with THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST, THE PRINCE OF EGYPT, Salmon Rushdie’s THE SATANIC VERSES and more. Yet when it comes to new twists on STAR TREK, James Bond, STAR WARS or BATMAN and SUPERMAN we raise the battlements in defense of “adherence to classic canon”?
1990s Shakespeare reduxes: RICHARD III ('95), ROMEO + JULIET ('96), TITUS ('99)
Dislike the film if you wish, but dislike it for what it is, and not for it failing to be emblematic of a personally beloved nostalgic period in one’s childhood. That isn’t this film’s agenda.
In the time being, for us at least, “Bring on the JUSTICE LEAGUE in 2017”. Oh, and a little more Gal Gadot as WONDER WOMAN won’t draw any complaints either.If these future adaptations can simultaneously remain faithful to (but also cleverly upset the staid apple cart of) the D.C. canon as intriguingly effective as DAWN OF JUSTICE manages to (… and that whole “MetaHuman” research aspect of this film kind of implies it will), then Warner / D.C., and Zack Snyder too! can already add our IMAX 3D ticket admission to what will no doubt be its ever increasing, big-fat-bursting-at-the-seams box office coffers to come.
In case you couldn’t tell by now, we kind of dug the film.