(This is a spoiler-free review.)
Well this is awkward.
Earlier this week, I tweeted some not-so-nice things about Batman v Superman director Zack Snyder. For instance:
The Z-man had disappointed me too many times. Sure, 300 was a lot of fun, and its visuals were innovative at the time, sort of like a comic book come to life. Then came Watchmen, which was remarkably faithful to the look of its source material…. but not its feel.
I was very excited for Man of Steel. I pre-purchased expensive Imax tickets and got suitably caffeinated for the experience. But the best description I could muster for that misstep was, “soulless.” Snyder, it seems, does not know how to access the human heart.
I Googled a phrase yesterday: “Who is the worse director, Zack Snyder or Michael Bay?” It seems there is already something of a healthy debate around that topic. Most agree that Bay is irredeemable, but that Snyder still has artistic ambitions. Both, however, are believed to be obsessed with spectacle over storytelling.
I now think, though, that the comparison is unfair. Bay is a hack. Snyder at least tries to be more.
Based on the trailers for Batman v Superman (hereafter called BvS), I expected a complete atrocity. After the reviews started coming in, my smug surety knew no limit. I reveled in this lovely little clip:
The DC Universe in general –with its ridiculous New 52 continuity, which essentially reduces most of their assets to grim, dispossessed, emo young adults– suffers from a surfeit of so-called “grimdark”, wherein all heroes must be scowling and tortured. Early reports were that Snyder was following suit. If that were indeed the case, I knew I was in for an uncomfortable experience.
I also despised the trailers for this movie. They reeked of over-seriousness and the brittle sense that Snyder had simply missed the point. See, there are three ways to think about the clash between Batman and Superman –a fight that has actually taken place a few times in the comics, most famously in Frank Miller‘s masterpiece, The Dark Knight Returns.
First, and most basic, it’s a tension between angst (Batman) and hope (Superman). Batman is endlessly pessimistic about the human condition, spending his crime-fighting literally in the dark muck of urban strife. Superman is powered by the light of the sun, is bright and shiny, a beacon of goodness who, despite his godlike powers, defers to the imperfect laws of fragile men. This is an endlessly fascinating dialectic that, in my opinion, should be the focus of any treatise on a battle between these two sides.
Second, BvS can be seen as a confrontation between man and god. This one is pretty obvious, and speaks to the non-comic book reader’s first reaction to the premise: “Well duh, Superman just has to squint at him, and Batman is dead.”
Last, any depiction of Batman vs Superman can be seen as just a fight between two big, tough, powerful guys. Frankly, based on interviews, I feel that Snyder lands somewhere between the latter two depictions, though his script superficially purports to embrace the first scenario.
So this is not a great movie. The simple failure to double down on “angst vs hope” is a profound thematic failure.
But here’s the thing…. I enjoyed it. I genuinely had a good time watching this film that all the critics despise and that I bashed before having seen it. I’m kind of ashamed of this reaction, and I’m struggling to put into words exactly why I enjoyed it.
Let me begin by summarizing what most critics, both professional and amateur, seem to agree upon: that the first two hours of this very long epic are quite boring, with the big battle scene at the end somewhat redeeming. The thing is, I’m not a big fan of action. I like story, particularly narrative that sings with grand themes well developed. As a result, I was quite content that the majority the movie was action-free. In fact, at the 90 minute mark, I looked at my watch and congratulated myself on being contentedly entertained to that point.
As well, as noted, I came in with exceptionally low expectations. In fact, the first ten minutes were so tightly packed with innovative visuals that I was ready to forgive the rest of the movie, if indeed it ended up being total crap. There are visuals in BvS that I’ve never seen or even imagined before. One particular set piece, a fight involving Batman and an array of bad guys, is jaw-droppingly well choreographed. Snyder, it turns out, is not a hack. He has the visual sensibility of an artist. What he lacks is clean storytelling ability.
In the words of Alex Abad-Santos, “You cannot convince me that Batman v Superman is anything more than a stupidly beautiful, hollow movie.” I wish I’d thought of those words. It’s a perfect description. It’s easy to be swept up by Snyder’s elegant framing, perspectives and palette. But the man does not know how to explore the breadth of human emotion beyond angsty grimness.
To those who hate this movie, I completely understand. This is not the sort of experience that most people pay good money to have at the theatre. To those who love this movie, you’re a bunch of uncritical fanboys with no sense of evolved aesthetic. But for those of us who simply enjoyed this movie while understanding that it’s not, on its face, traditionally good, allow me to list three of the possible reasons:
(1) If you know DC comics well, as I think I do, the fan service is deep. From messages carried to Bruce Wayne from the future Flash, to the arrival of para-demons and the omega seal of Darkseid, and the brief view of Jason Todd’s Robin suit: for those of us who recognize those moments, the story is more layered.
(2) Ben Affleck is possibly the most interesting Batman ever put on film. He’s older and well past his younger days of struggling with moral choices. This Batman is full-out vigilante, even willing to kill and to use guns. He’s also a tad more analytical and detective-like than any of the previous incarnations. Simply put, Batfleck is a bad-ass.
(3) This is not supposed to be a fun movie. It’s supposed to be how the world would actually be if super-powered beings walked among us. So it’s not fair to expect the happy heroism of The Avengers. Once you accept this, it’s easier to accept its flaws.
Okay, so here’s the verdict… most people will hate this movie, and rightly so. But if you watch a lot of comic book movies, know DC comics fairly well, and are looking for something a little bit different, I think you’ll actually enjoy this beautiful, hot mess.
UPDATE (Spoilers a-hoy!)
Someone asked me to list all the things about this movie that I didn’t like. They’re just too many to mention. But here is a brief spoiler-rich list. Do not read on if you haven’t seen the film and still intend to do so….
(1) Jesse Eisenberg’s Lex Luthor is simply unbearable. You hate him, not because he is evil, but because he is annoying and his screen presence detracts from your ability to enjoy the movie.
(2) Henry Cavill’s Superman is, in a word, uncharismatic. We’re all supposed to worship this man, want to meet him, aspire to his example. There’s a famous clip about how Henry Cavill, wearing a superman t-shirt, went unrecognized in Times Square:
I bet everyone did recognize him, but no one cared. He’s just not interesting.
(3) Wonder Woman (yes that’s her, despite the guy behind me not being convinced) insists that Lex Luthor “stole” a photo from her. How does one steal a digital photo?
(4) Super-detective Bruce Wayne spends days, blood and millions to discover that the “White Portuguese” is not a person but a boat. What, he doesn’t have Google?
(5) Instead of beating Batman into submission before asking for his help, why can’t Superman quickly say, “Hey, Luthor is evil and has kidnapped my Mom. You like Moms, right?”
(6) Why does Lex Luthor need an “import licence” for a meteor? Just build a lab on foreign soil and conduct your research there. Or smuggle the damn thing in (as he ends up doing anyway).
(7) Why did Metropolis build a monument to Superman? You only just learned of him last year.
(8) Gal Godot is great to look at. Personally, I don’t know why Hollywood keeps casting skinny-armed models as unbeatable warriors, but whatever. When she opens her mouth, though…. yeeesh. Get that woman some acting lessons, stat!
(9) Speaking of Wonder Woman, how does she get off that plane just before the big battle with Doomsday? Is the plane still on the tarmac? If not, did she depressurize the fuselage and kill everyone onboard?
(10) Snyder over-explains everything : the photo of Wonder Woman is shown twice, with Bruce Wayne’s expository email telling everyone in childlike prose why we should care, and Martha is the name of the mother of both Clark Kent and Bruce Wayne… and we’re given a flashback in case you forgot, etc. Snyder explains everything except for those things that he actually should explain. The casual fan has no idea that Batman is actually seeing a vision of Darkseid’s minions, or that Flash has time-travel, multiverse-spanning abilities, and is contacting Batman from a parallel future, or that the Joker once killed a Robin named Jason Todd. These are the enriching plot points that might actually win over a few of the uninitiated, if they had some simple, cursory explanation!
(12) And Doomsday…. why? Why? If your movie is all about how the “real world” would react to genuinely super powered individuals, why introduce the CGI troll from Lord of the Rings? Not good.
But I like to end things on a positive note. Did I geek out during the movie? Sure. When Wonder Woman showed up, and her theme music played, I was a happy little nerd.