Expert film discussion from completely unqualified people


April 4, 2016

@vitogulla bleeds for Zack Snyder's new film. 
For a different perspective on Dawn of Justice, you can read Rob's review here. And for our podcast on Man of Steel, click here.

By now you should have heard something about the new Zack Snyder film, Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, and likely what you’ve heard, even, for example, at this very site, has been that this film is very bad. And while it certainly has its fair share of faults, I think the reaction is a bit exaggerated to say the least. The truth is that everyone expected this movie to fail. Don’t believe me? See here, here, and here for a taste. Everyone said the trailers looked like shit. Everyone said that Zack Snyder wasn’t a good director. Everyone said it was going to be Spider-Man 3 all over again. And I while I’m not going to say this film is perfect, I certainly think it’s worth watching and see it fit to dismiss some of the criticism I’ve seen out there, then give you an explanation as why I think this film works followed by its weaknesses.

So first and foremost, I have to address some points I’ve heard come up again and again about this film. One of the most frequent complaints I’ve read is that the film is humorless, that a Superman film should be light and fun. I don’t know where this rule comes from or why the fuck anyone should care about it. Is there some law I’m unaware of? Is there some mandate on how a character should or should not be interpreted? This, quite frankly, is one of those complaints that I have very little time for. This is a fanboy imposition, a “that didn’t happen in the book” criticism. Let me be perfectly clear about this: Nobody gives a fuck what happened in the book. This is a film which carries its own version of the character. If your problem is that the character isn’t presented with the qualities you wanted, that’s your problem—not the film’s. The question is whether the actions of the character are true to the character of the film, not one that exists elsewhere. Furthermore, while I will concede this film doesn’t have much of a sense of humor, I don’t see how that’s a positive or a negative. (And to be fair, there are a few jokes, however few, which do lighten the mood, such as, Batman’s “Oh shit” moment with Doomsday or when he tells Martha Kent that he’s with his son.) I didn’t read too many of the reviews of Room which said that movie was humorless. It’s not a criteria in order to judge the quality of this work. This is a dark and brooding movie. There’s not going to be too much humor. Get over it. 

Another criticism is that the film is a mess, that lacks any sense of narrative cohesion. This, I would argue, is a bit of a mixed bag here. First, let’s be clear since many other critics haven’t, this film isn’t that hard to follow. The events of it are pretty straight forward. If you’re paying attention—and you should be—there’s a clear objective for each of plot threads. The A plot is Batman’s attempt to get his hands on kryptonite and kill Superman. The B plot is Superman’s crisis of conscience. The C plot is Lois investigating the cause of the events in Africa. And the D plot is Lex Luthor’s attempts at weaponizing kryptonite and neutralizing the threat of Superman. Now that is quite a bit to follow. I agree. But I actually paid attention when I sat in the theater rather than checking Instagram. Now I will admit, however, that, structurally, this movie does have a problem which I will get into later.

Lastly, I keep hearing that this is just one big Justice League trailer, and while that does lead to some other minor problems, I didn’t quite see it the way I have in some of the Marvel films. This movie doesn’t just go through the motions to assemble a team. It is about something. It says something. Yet I will admit that some of those Justice League allusions do impede the narrative in the few places it crops up, but other than one scene, it’s not really worth bitching about.

And now for the big question, why did I like this movie? After all, I am the guy on this podcast who hates everything—supposedly. But the truth is that I’m just very skeptical and certainly have never been a fan of anything like “conventional wisdom.” So let’s clear the air. First of all, you have to understand: This is a Batman movie. I know we’ve been led to believe that this is a sequel to Man of Steel, but the real protagonist here is Bruce Wayne. The film’s title sequence is another retelling of the murder of Bruce Wayne’s parents and his discovery of the bat cave on his estate, and though we all know it by now, it really wasn’t that tedious. In fact, it was a good setup for the Batman’s big epiphany at the third act twist. That scene is followed by more Bruce Wayne, this time flying into Metropolis during Superman’s fight with Zod. 

This is great for a number of reasons. One, it tells us everything we need to know about Bruce Wayne: He’s rich, crazy, brave, thoughtful, caring, empathetic, and really pissed at Superman for destroying Metropolis. And two, this is something just about every other superhero movie has avoided: consequence. I’ve heard little bitches tell me how horrible it is at the end of Man of Steel that the end fight destroys Metropolis, but should you accuse The Avengers of doing the same thing, they point to the sequence where Captain America saves those people in the train station. (Fuck yourself. That argument makes no sense since the Hulk spends most of his time in that final fight running through buildings. Let’s be honest, Cap isn’t going to save everyone. Those big showdowns where a whole city gets smashed would be kind of a big deal in the real world—and this movie actually deals with that fall out, unlike Age of Ultron which showed one TV screen with an anti-Avengers message and the team had to leave for Hawkeye’s farm because...reasons.) 

Furthermore, what makes this Batman such a good character is the fact that he has flaws. Most superheroes are just super. They often lack blind spots or character defects. But here, Bruce Wayne is a paranoid, angry man, and that sense of rage and pride blinds him to his own faults. For some reason, we celebrate Mary Sues and Gary Stus because they are the perfect creatures we long to be and supposedly serve as a representative of some group to which we belong which must only be seen in a way we deem acceptable, but the far more interesting character is the imperfect one, the Oedipus, the Odysseus, the Lucifer. Those are ones we get invested in. And in this movie, that's exactly the kind of guy Batman is. It isn't until his epiphany before the start of act three that he realizes his mistake. And while some people claim that Batman would kill Superman after the revelation of their mothers' shared name, I think this point is a bit foolish. The film setups up the fact that Batman is upset about the death of his mother. It sets up that he isn't listening to Alfred's sage advice. The film even makes sure, as if we didn't remember, to remind us of that fact through a replay of those earlier scenes. Bemoan the fact that the film thinks we have a poor memory, not the fact that the third act twist is an emotional turn for the character, one where he recognizes the horror of his acts, the fact that he has become the very man he became Batman to stop, the very man who killed his mother and, at the same time, recognizes the humanity (and maybe a bit of his younger, more vulnerable self) in Superman.

Another point worth mentioning is one of the film’s themes. If you’ve seen any of the trailers, you’ve probably heard it by now. During a conversation with Bruce, Alfred says, “That's how it starts. The fever, the rage, the feeling of powerlessness that turns good men cruel.” In Man of Steel, there was very much a message buried beneath the surface, something about a rage boiling up in Clark Kent, which made his first encounter with Zod so satisfying—and the neck-snapping so cathartic. But here, that rage is brought to the surface. It’s a film, at it’s heart, about impotence, about powerlessness. That, again, is a pretty novel theme for a superhero film, but of course, it’s not worth appreciating on the novelty alone. This theme of impotence is tied to all the big characters and informs their actions. Bruce feels powerless to save his parents. Batman feels powerless to stop Superman. Lois Lane feels powerless to help Clark deal with the fall out from saving her. Superman feels powerless to make people like him. Lex feels powerless, trapped in his father’s shadow. And it shows up in the dialogue as well. During his speech at the party, Lex laments that knowledge is not power—much to his chagrin. Or, for example, in an argument with Alfred, Wayne says, “Twenty years in Gotham. How many good guys are left? How many stayed that way? He has the power to wipe out the entire human race. I have to destroy him.” This theme does not stand alone, of course, as it ties into the the story's interest in men living for their fathers. 

Clark, Bruce, and Lex all are men with daddy issues. Clark is still trying to be the man his father wanted him to be. If Man of Steel was about whether he wanted to reveal himself as Superman, whether he would live the dreams of his fathers's, then Batman v. Superman is about dealing with that decision. Jonathan Kent knew what kinds of responsibilities becoming a hero would bring with it for his son, but Clark Kent is a man who is totally unprepared for those consequences, which are made tangible in the form of Wallace Keefe. Is that power really worth the cost? Superman doesn't want all that responsibility: All he really wants is Lois Lane. She is his world but also the person who reminds him that humanity is worth saving, and as long as she's around, he'll keep doing what he's doing. Ironically, that is the threat that Batman recognizes (as does Lex Luthor). One of Batman's dreams is a world without Lois Lane, a post-apocalyptic wasteland, where the army of Superman and the army of Batman fight for control. It's a rather important and telling scene as it serves double-duty, informing us about where Batman's rage will take him (a gun-toting, bullet-spraying terrorist, who breaks his one rule) and Superman's rage will turn him into the malevolent dictator that has been lurking inside, who truly does act "unilaterally" as the powerful god (and therefore not all good) that Lex fears. (Unfortunately, that dream sequence is undercut by the one that follows which spells out this message for those in the audience whose attention span isn't long enough to think.)

Batman lives for his father too. One of the more interesting things about this retelling of Batman's origin is the fact that Thomas Wayne actually fights back. In most cases, Thomas Wayne is a nice guy in the wrong place, someone who's attempt at appeasement just gets him killed. Here, Thomas Wayne is impulsive, a man who wants to be a hero, a man who takes action, and that makes sense considering the man that Bruce Wayne becomes. Bruce has been raised by the matronly Alfred, as much a mother figure to Bruce as Martha is to Clark. Alfred wants grandkids. Alfred recognizes Bruce's lie about a dirty bomb coming on the White Portuguese. But Bruce ignores the old man's wisdom, because he's still trying to save his parents (and probably Robin and Jack and every other person who dies on his watch). Batman is playing father to Gotham, trying to protect everyone, regardless how cruel he has to be. In his most telling line, he says, "My parents taught me a different lesson, dying in the gutter for no reason at all. They taught me the world only makes sense if you force it to." Talk about control issues. 

Then there's Lex Luthor, who, every time he opens his mouth, has a story about his dad. As he tells Senator Finch, his father built Lex Corp, and he inherited the name. He hasn't created much as the heir to such a vast fortune. He wants this opportunity to do something great, something important. Much like Batman, he wants to leave behind a legacy. He's Oppenheimer without regret. He's going to create an atom bomb, regardless of the consequences. And he does it through his own flesh and blood. He alludes to Icarus as he submerges Zod's corpse into the genesis chamber, a statement more about himself than the deceased general. He sees this as a chance at both knowledge and power—what he has always longed for. 

I could go on in such detail about the quality of this film, how many of the decisions serve to contrast one another, how they examine its themes, about the shots and the performances, but I'd hate to make this any more laborious than it needs to be. However, I do want to highlight a few things about the film without qualification just for the sake of brevity. This film is beautifully shot. The performances are all strong—even Jesse Eisenberg's Max Landis impression. The juxtaposition between Superman's more opulent funeral and Clark Kent's very, very plain one is particularly well done. Not to mention, Superman's death was surprisingly moving, as was the reveal of the wedding ring before the funeral, even if it was very bittersweet and over the top. And last but not least the dialogue is very well-crafted. 

However, this movie isn't perfect. It's too long by probably a half hour and drags a bit in the build to Batman and Superman's showdown as well as in its resolution. Wonder Woman literally does not matter in this movie until the very end. (Though I think the way she was handled was the best the film could do considering how much it had to juggle.) Honestly, she serves as slight impediment for Batman, though she does have a clear objective and certainly has me excited for the Wonder Woman standalone film. Lastly, the film has two third acts as I've mentioned before, since Batman and Superman's fight and the team-up against Doomsday is a little too much. But this is very much a movie worth your time and your attention. The themes of rage, fathers/son, and power/powerlessness are carefully weaved together, and if you didn’t like it, I highly recommend you see again with fresh eyes, not with the desire to watch Warner Bros and DC Comics to burn, but with a genuinely open mind and a careful, considerate eye. I know I will.

Vito Gulla is a regular contributor to the Ugly Club Podcast. He holds an MFA from Wilkes University in creative writing and teaches English at Delaware County Community College and Lincoln University. You find his fiction on the web in Pithead ChapelMulberry Fork Review, and The Big Click, and you can follow him on Twitter @vitogulla


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