Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Batman v Superman [Spoiler Free Review]

Some of the thoughts in this review were presented on Twitter right after I got out of the theater (@umbralwalker). They've been collected, updated, and expanded here, including a few observations that I've untangled from the emotional weave of my post-BvS confusion. There is one minor spoiler that I point out ahead of time, everything else is a discussion about the film as a film. For a spoiler-full review and in-depth discussion, keep an eye out for the IndieApocalypse podcast recording this week and likely dropping next week. You can find our pre-release comics-in-media episode here.

Zack Snyder has a strange way of making me feel very little as I come out of his movies. I never take the emotional ride he seems to want to provide. Man of Steel (MOS) was fine, for example. It had seeds of interesting bits wrapped in jerky pacing, emotionless scene transitions, and strange plot choices. It was so “fine” that it was irrelevant to me, actually. This one, though…

To TL;DR, it was better than MOS; which I felt was "fine" so take that as it is. But the story is far more complicated than "did I like it" or "did I feel like it was a hot mess".

Bizarrely complicated.

Gal Gadot was hands-down fantastic, owned every short scene she was in, and was everything I wanted Diana to be on screen. The strongest emotion I have from this film is that I can not wait to see her in her own film. Diana was subtle, smart, intriguing, and every bit the wise, insightful, and physically imposing warrior I wanted her to be. I could not have been happier.

I enjoyed Ben Affleck in the role he was given. He had a presence on screen I didn't expect and I gladly eat crow for anything I said about him as Bruce/Bats. The more I think about it, the more I loved what he (and Jeremy Irons) did and I would love to see him play this Batman/Bruce under another director/writer.

I think Henry Cavill makes a great Big Blue/Clark, even in MOS. We know Amy Adams and Jesse Eisenberg are great actors, so I don’t think my issues were about actors not doing their jobs. Amy had more of a part in this than she did in MOS, which didn’t take much. Jesse played the part he was given well. The issue is more that live action producers have this weird desire to make Lex either a megalomaniacal idiot, or the Joker. Why they avoid the deeply brilliant, subtly controlling, and terrifyingly human versions of him, I’ll never know.

Yet…was BvS a “hot mess" and/or a “waste of time”? Was it "as good as any film Marvel has put out to date"? Well, in my opinion, no to both. It had a couple major problems for me, but they don’t seem to be the same problems others had. Are those problems deal breakers for me? I honestly don't know yet, so I guess “no” is the answer. I did my share of eye rolling, and there were things I suprisingly enjoyed.

Unfortunately, scenes I knew were there for fan-service (i.e.: Easter Eggs) just…missed somehow. In Winter Soldier, when Cap jumps out of the Quinn jet without a parachute, it is a simple and character-developing homage to the opening panels of the Ultimates, while still holding to the movie’s storyline and internal consistency. I loved it. But the scenes in BvS, ones that I should be arguably MORE excited about being a huge DC fan, made me indifferent. I can only assume because 1) my previous statement about Snyder’s directing not taking me on the ride he wants me on, 2) the scenes are taken exactly from the comics so are less homage and more heavy handed, 3) because I saw them coming too far off, and/or they were shockingly out of place for the plot until I thought about them in retrospect.

"Oh, this will be the scene from DKR when ::blah:: happens. Snapshot straight from the comic. Is he going to do 'the line'? There's 'the line'. Moving on.” 
“What the hell is happening right now? Oh, he was trying [comic names redacted] scenes there?! That’s an interesting idea. What was that all about? So weirdly jarring. Was the start of this in slow-mo? I think it was. I guess that's a thing to indicate dream sequences? Doesn't seem to be working. Oh, crap, back to the movie.” 
“I guess ::blah:: from DoS is coming up. Aaaand...there it is.”

Clearly I was so emotionally separated from the film that I was intellectually analyzing what was happening instead of taking this ride. And for me, that’s a problem.

I just now went back to re-read my MOS review and had a revelation about why I'm never on this ride. The problem seems to be that Snyder presents things in an odd order, and in trailer-sized emotional snippets. He puts something on the screen I might be emotionally excited about IF I knew the thing he tells me in the next scene. In other cases, the scenes are so disconnected that they don’t emotionally build on one another in a way that makes me feel more at the end of the film than when I went in.

The opening to BvS is an example (this will be my only Spoilery thing in this review, but it is literally the first couple minutes so please forgive me):

[Start Spoiler]

We see Bruce and Martha gunned down in Crime Alley. This time after coming out of Excalibur instead of an opera or Zorro. Here are the issues, in retrospect:

  1. We’ve seen it a lot and so I’m already waiting for something new to draw me in. The Excalibur choice made me chuckle in a good way.
  2. The scene is fairly long, and is in slow motion on top of that, so I’m now waiting for something new for awhile. Fighting. Thomas gets gunned down. Fighting. Long shot on the pearl necklace. Martha gets gunned down. Bruce screams. Thomas mumbles Martha’s name. Sloooow Mo.
  3. Time skip, still in slow-mo. Bruce is running through a forest. I’m waiting for him to fall down the now proverbial well into the future bat cave. That happens. I’m now really sad I’m not seeing something new. Less sad, more bored.
  4. Scene is still going long. Still waiting for a twist. Getting more bored against my will. 
  5. The bats come flying out and surround Bruce. He stands up. Looks almost exactly like the Nolan scene with Bale.
  6. FINALLY something new. And that new thing? The vortex from the bats circling Bruce lift him off the ground and he floats up. And up. Slowly. For a while. And I’m thinking “WTF is this?” It is so absolutely absurd that I can’t even process what’s happening and I’m losing faith immediately.
  7. THEN, there’s a voiceover of old Bruce saying, “In the dream the bats carry me into the light.”

The intention is for this to be a Twilight Zone ending where you look back on the thing you saw with different eyes. The problem is, in a TZ ending, everything before the reveal made sense the way you thought you saw it, but then the new piece of the puzzle is revealed and you realize you were watching based on your own preconceptions. The flying-Bruce moment wasn’t a curiosity, it made me think the director was nuts and has no idea how physics actually works. Or that this Batman was actually going to fly?! Just odd.

Now, there are two major things, and one minor, that this scene is supposed to set up. The most immediate major thing is that Bruce says something to the effect of “That light was a lie” i.e.: “I’ve spent the last 20 years fighting crime thinking I’m supposed to be doing something good in the world and it was a lie. I’m darker Batman now.” I don’t have an issue with this idea. What happened was me saying, “Oh! Snyder had wanted me to feel like ‘this’ about that scene I just watched,” instead of allowing me to actually feel the thing. It’s called Telling, instead of Showing, and is a Storytelling 101 mistake. MOS is rife with it. 

The minor thing is that scenes that start with very long slo-mo intros will be dream-sequences/not actually happening in real time. It took several of these for me to stop being annoyed by the slo-mo and just be emotionally neutral toward it because I realized it was supposed to be a tool.

The second major setup is more of a spoiler than I think is appropriate so I won’t mention it except in that it’s entirely unnecessary and heavy handed to have it be the opening scene. It could have, and in my opinion should have, been folded into other scenes more subtly. Especially since its reveal later in the film involves a relatively long reviewing of this exact opening scene.

[End Spoiler]

Having said all that, there were definitely things I enjoyed more than I expected, even loved, as far as Snyder’s trailer-length bites of emotions would let me. There were plenty of choices I would have made differently, but those choices were almost all subjective and I think it’s important to separate the subjective (“I hate this interpretation of Luthor") with the objective (“This plot hole could be fixed with x, y, z script changes, or a review of a Storytelling 101 text.”). So, objectively, there were a couple of plot holes, but I have to admit that the Heart of the Trinity (Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman) was in there; barely holding on with fingertips in the case of Batman, and in two cases Superman, but just enough for me to be okay with the film’s internal consistency.

My friend Victor Allen said it best in that Dawn of Justice and Batman v Superman were 2 films grafted together. DOJ wasn’t tacked-on, really, because the DOJ plot hooks were folded in just fine for me and made me relatively excited. The BvS stuff, though, was dragged down by a few specific character choices by the scriptwriter/director, a couple of fight choreography WTFs, and plot decisions that pulled me out of the movie. I think this is why reviewers and some watchers feel the story is a "hot mess". 

So, in the end, I left the theater emotionally confused and emotionally indifferent. As with MOS, it's fine. Less-irrelevant than MOS, thanks to the DOJ parts and the actors doing the best they could. I see what ride Snyder, et al, was trying to take me on, and it wasn't a bad attempt. Yet, I know that in a few weeks what warmth I may have had will be gone because the emotional ride was start-and-stop at best, instead of building to a mind-blowing crescendo that makes me want to take the ride again and again. And that's too bad. Because it's well documented how I'll support the things I love, and I feel so mediocre about this that other things will deserve my passion fairly quickly.

This screenshot from HISHE's spoiler-filled review parallel's my feelings pretty well.

I saw Batman v. Superman last night and I have some thoughts for folks who haven't seen it yet, and then some to share...

Posted by Victor Allen on Monday, March 28, 2016

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