Friday, April 1, 2016

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice: A Comic-Book Comparison Critique

Aw, cheer up, won't you, heroes?
Zach Snyder, the director of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, likes to deconstruct heroes, as exemplified by his film Watchmen. This is fine in a way. However, masterful comic book writers have already deconstructed everything to bits in the medium. Aside from the comic book Watchmen, Alan Moore's deconstruction tour de force that started it all, there is also Mark Waid's Kingdom Come series and Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns*, both obvious heavy influences on Batman v Superman. Each features a dystopic future with broken, disillusioned heroes who must face down grim reality.

As I watched Batman v Superman, two ideas haunted me from reviews I read. 

Firstly, I brooded about the idea that it is a film of trailers slapped together. Each scene is about five minutes and of varying quality. Some, such as a dream Bruce Wayne has, make no sense. For the first three quarters of the story, we see the titular heroes living their own journeys, but these tales don't seem to connect. When they do connect, though, Bruce Wayne (aka Batman) and Clark Kent (aka Superman), the dramatic build up is great. However, the pay-off is out of character. Unlike the more reasonable comic-book incarnations of these fellows, neither party even attempts a discussion to work these things out. Thus, much of their conflict, on a face-to-face level, is rooted in a misunderstanding and a failure to try to communicate with each other.

Look familiar? No misunderstanding here, fellas. In The Dark Knight Returns, Frank Miller pits the two heroes
against one another for a simple reason. The U.S. president asks Clark to bring Bruce in. Bruce says "No".
Artwork for this legendary 1986 comic-book dust-up by Frank Miller and Klaus Janson.

Secondly, as Film Freak Central wrote in its review, BvS is an impressionistic take on both characters. Bruce Wayne is clearly the Dark Knight Returns version in his sunset years. Superman is far younger and is the New 52 version from DC Comics. The fabulous Wonder Woman, in her first cinematic appearance (rejoice, Wonder Woman fans!) is also the New 52 incarnation. She just sort of appears with little or no backstory. Diana Prince (aka Wonder Woman) is great. She is sexy and fearless and strong. But it would have also been great to have more about her, instead of the other two iconic characters with whom most moviegoers will be at least somewhat familiar. All the history in the film was about the boys, and nearly none of the background was about why she made her debut or where she was from (For those keeping note: she wanted to help out the sexist world of Man, and secondly, she came, born and bred as a warriror, from Amazon Island or Themyscira.). 

What struck me as most odd besides these bullseye observations is that there is very little mirth in the film. What little humour there is comes off as something viewers would see on a late-night talk show. Unlike a Marvel Studios film which contains a humorous streak, BvS featured jokes that were out-of-place, ill-timed, and just plain not funny. In one pivotal scene, in fact, where Batman is supposed to be experiencing an epiphany, Ben Affleck's delivery is so off-putting that I laughed.

As well, Henry Cavill's Clark Kent shouldn't even share the same zip code as Christopher Reeve's. Cavill's physique is impressive, but his dour and petulant attitude and sombre Clark are simply no fun.

Perhaps that's Snyder's point. He has made an impressionistic deconstruction of Batman and Superman, while simultaneously portraying Wonder Woman as fairly flawless (save for her thirst for battle, perhaps, which is a useful quality in a cataclysmic confrontation). Batman and Superman are indeed arguably psychotic. In the final act, Batman kills villains without hesitation. The angst-ridden Superman is also graceless, crashing to the ground whenever he lands, and making sonic booms whenever he flies off at great speed. Jesse Eisenberg's Lex Luthor is comical and goes nutty for no apparent reason. Lex also demonstrates one of the movie's many plot holes (such as how he know how to access Kryptonian technology that nobody has ever studied). 

Snyder's Batman v Superman is loud, sprawling, and disjointed. Many reviewers have called it a hot mess, and they have a point. It is the kind of film that you can discuss afterward with a good friend, slowly taking apart individual scenes and rewriting them to make them better. Some parts, though, risk being quite enjoyable, such as Superman being manipulated by machinations beyond his control, with surprisingly tragic consequences; or Batman lurking in the unfocussed, dark background while a cop tries to find him. The latter is a classic Dark Knight motif à la Frank Miller if ever there was one. 

The review from Film Freak Central really stuck with me. It's here. The piece is verbose, and the reviewer backs into the review, taking a full two paragraphs to start his discussion of the film. Still, the reviewer lays out the whole cinematic terrain that has sprung up, post-9/11, causing superhero films to be not only very much like monster films (he equates heroes like the Avengers with giant monsters in that they both wreak destruction), but also how such movies include 9/11-esque imagery of cities being levelled, and apocalyptic storylines getting out of control. It should be noted that FFC also said that "BVS is brutal to nostalgia". This hold true, particularly for viewers who may not have experienced a deconstructed Clark or Bruce in the comic-book medium already. 

Mark Waid and Alex Ross' Kingdom Come
series, which also pitted hero against hero in
a dystopic future. Required reading, kiddies.
Barry Hertz of the Globe and Mail also does an admirable job of analyzing and arguably taking down the film in his review, Batman v Superman: A white-hot mess of a franchise launcher. Hertz emphasises how desperated DC Comics seems to be to imitate the Marvel Studio success in superhero films.

Lastly, Devin Faraci nails it in his article, Superman And The Damage Done: A requiem for an American icon. Faraci compares the current portrayal of Superman to previous and less grim depictions. He emphasizes how the Superman character in the film is a graceless, petulant, careless force of nature to be reckoned with, and not all very heroic.

So, all in all, BvS is a long, grim march, a bloated deconstruction, and an out-of-character exercise, despite the best efforts of a fine cast of actors, a couple of fantastic scenes, stunning special effects, which is nearly redeemed by the long-overdue cinematic debut of Diana Prince, the amazing portrayal of Wonder Woman by the astonishing Gal Gadot.

It strikes me that one should also blog about the deconstruction of superheroes in comic books, as there are other deconstructions out there (such as Alan Moore's Marvelman). That post will have to wait until a later date, true believers.

*=There is actually aThe Dark Knight Returns III: The Master Race, which I am currently reading.

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