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Movie Review: Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice

I recently saw the movie Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice (“BvS”) and these are my thoughts about it (this review contains some spoilers).  It should be noted that I am a big fan of comic books and have been so since I was at least five years old.  I am sure that fandom biases my review in some way. This movie is based on the D.C. comic books and characters.

Introduction:

This movie is the second installment in the DC Extended Universe, DC’s serialized motion picture series, which began with the Superman origin film, Man of Steel.

Man of Steel introduced the character of Superman and many of his traditional supporting characters. The film concluded with an epic battle between Superman and his similarly powered fellow Kryptonian General Zod, which destroyed a large portion of the city of Metropolis, killing thousands of people in the process.

BvS is set about a year-and-a-half after the events of Man of Steel, and finds the world trying to come to terms with what it means to have a being like Superman in its midst. I do appreciate the realism of this aspect of the DC films thus far. The naïve and unquestioning acceptance of an incredibly powerful and invulnerable being as being nothing more than a completely selfless hero – as is traditionally the case in Superman stories – is simply incredible. So, I like the idea that the world wrestles with the implication of the arrival of the Superman.

Batman, who is introduced for the first time in the DC Extended Universe by way of this film, has the basics of his origin story told through the opening credits (i.e.: the murder of his parents and falling into a bat cave).  Aside from being referred to as a vigilante in Gotham City, the film offers no explanation as to who Batman is, what his motivations are, how and why he has his fighting skills and technology, or really much of anything else for that matter. Thankfully, Batman is a near universally known character who has appeared in film many times over the course of decades, so the near total lack of description had little effect on the film.  It almost seems like the screenwriters decided to take a short cut on an already long film because, if Batman were a new character, I do not think they could have gotten away with such thin development for him.  I do hope that, at some point, some further development is offered in the Extended Universe as, otherwise, it would leave it fairly incomplete in terms of its internal story and cogency.

Plot Summary:

A building owned by Bruce Wayne (i.e.: Batman’s true identity) is destroyed between the battle between Superman and Zod (referred to above).  Batman recognizes that Superman may be “good” today, but one day that may not be the case and no one has the ability to stop him.  Seeing the sheer power of Superman, and its effect on the world, Batman instantly thinks that Superman is too great of a threat to be allowed to go unopposed and resolves to kill him.

Concurrent with Batman’s agenda, Lex Luthor sees Superman as similarly threatening and, through LexCorp, seeks government permission via government contracts to weaponize recently found kryptonite.  Lex Luthor manipulates the government and public opinion (through shrewd tactics and terrorist attacks) to become suspicious of Superman.  Eventually, for some reason, Luthor captures Superman’s mother Martha and agrees to allow Martha to live if Superman kills Batman.

Based on the above, the battle between the heroes inevitably occurs.  Batman gains the upper hand and intends to kill Superman until Superman cries out that “Martha” will die.  By coincidence, Bruce Wayne’s murdered mother is named “Martha,” and the threat to Superman’s mother (along with the memories of his own mother Martha) gives Batman sufficient pause to stop his assault on Superman and save Martha Kent while Superman can dedicate his time to another threat which has arisen during his battle with Batman.

Lex Luthor, having been given access to Zod’s scout ship by the government, is able to create a Kryptonian monster called Doomsday who wrecks havoc across Metropolis.  As a result, the kryptonite weapons Batman created to defeat Superman now need to be used on the greater threat Doomsday.

Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman (who, as Diana Prince, has been pursing her own designs through the film) team up to defeat Doomsday.  After the ensuing battle, Bruce Wayne intends to contact other people who are cropping up that appear to be metahuman.

My Thoughts:

I went into this movie with cautious optimism and, I think, that turned out to be the right decision.  I really enjoyed this movie, and it was great fun seeing these two titans of comic books finally encounter one another in a blockbuster movie and, perhaps more importantly, see the foundation of a budding movie franchise.

The action sequences are fantastic.  The look of the characters is near perfect (except Luther, see below).  The battle scenes were well choreographed.  The characters were introduced well.  I loved seeing what was basically two famous DC comics story lines come to life (i.e.: Dark Knight Returns and The Death of Superman story lines).  The story had a nice build up and did a good job in presenting why people are leery of Superman, and why Batman finds it necessary to oppose him.  It was a great experience for a comic book fan.

In saying all this, I did say my optimism was cautious.  The makers of this movie, like many others in this genre, felt the need to extend its running time to nearly two-and-a-half hours.  Now, as this was a big epic story, I expected it to be long.  What I did not expect was a really good two hour movie with another twenty to thirty minutes hastily appended to it.

The story should have been about the origin, build up, and resolution of a conflict between Batman and Superman (as the title suggests).  Indeed, it seems that was what the movie was going to be until it appeared that the resolution of the conflict between the heroes would be the death of one of them at the hands of the other.  Not wanting that to happen, the writers threw in Doomsday as a plot device to unite the heroes.

The Doomsday portion seemingly came out of nowhere in the last thirty minutes of the movie, and introduced new elements of the film completely absent from the rest of it.  For example, Luthor’s motivation throughout the film is to gain government contracts and access to Kryptonian technology.  Batman barely registers on his radar.  For no reason necessary to the rest of the story, Luthor suddenly provokes a conflict between Superman and Batman.  It isn’t necessary as the story already built up Batman’s own motivation to engage Superman.  Furthermore, upon gaining access to the scout ship, Luthor suddenly has facility with advanced alien technology and, somehow, has learned how to create a creature, and not just a creature, but one containing his own DNA (why his DNA is needed is never explained).  Capturing Martha Kent to motivate Superman to fight Batman was completely contrived, and highlighting the fact that both of their mothers have the same Christian name was obviously a contrived plot device.  Why in the world would someone use his mother’s first name when talking about her if it were not a lame attempt to call Bruce Wayne’s mother to Batman’s mind?  In addition, it is not entirely clear why this would give Batman pause in his fight with Superman anyway.  Batman has grave concerns over a being with nearly unstoppable power.  Why the commonality of mothers’ names would suddenly distract and/or change Batman’s mind about the potential danger of Superman is never explained and, quite frankly, makes little sense in light of the rest of the film.

Speaking of bad plot devices, Batman uses a kryptonite spear to battle Superman.  Batman, who is extremely diligent and always has a well thought out plan, simply and randomly drops the spear and walks away without any thought of the implication of doing so (which could mean losing his opportunity to kill Superman), which is entirely out-of-character for Batman.  Dropping the spear for no good reason becomes a problem later in the film to merely add to the drama in an unrealistic way and to give Lois Lane a role and purpose in helping to save the day instead being a perpetual damsel in distress.

The concern over Superman’s power makes sense.  What does not make sense is for Luthor to unleash a similarly powerful but totally mindless beast in order to fight Superman.  At least Superman is rational and helps people.  Doomsday is just a destructive monster (who is a far greater threat than Superman), and there was no plan developed by Luthor as to how to stop it despite his concerns about Superman.  In short, Doomsday’s creation makes absolutely no sense both in terms of the story and Luthor’s motivations throughout the film.  Finally, perhaps as a way to make the battle with Doomsday even more epic, after Superman battles Doomsday for about 5 minutes (literally), and tries to fly him into space, the United States government, in that incredibly short period of time, suddenly and out of nowhere decides to fire a nuclear rocket at Doomsday in the atmosphere above Metropolis (oh, and, of course, no fall out from this decision is noticed in the film). What a hasty decision!

I also felt that, perhaps to distract away from the nonsensical Doomsday portion of the film, the score suddenly becomes extremely melodramatic and hokey.  The music during the big battle with the three heroes and Doomsday was loud rock(ish) music that tried to send the viewer the message that this battle was cool, awesome, and, perhaps, totally epic.  It was so obvious and transparent.  Similarly, the swooning and melodramatic music at the climax of the battle just seemed so over the top.  Subtly is, apparently, not a superpower.

Criticisms Made by Others:

Some people have concerns over the characterization of the characters.  Some seem legitimate while others less so.  I like the tentative Superman who is still working out his heroism and role in the world (and, so far, has always ultimately chosen the heroic path).  I am not at all keen on how this movie series has presented the Kents.  Instead of a good wholesome couple who teaches their son selflessness, heroism, and righteousness, they, instead, tend to be rather apathetic about the needs of others, sometimes discourage Superman from being heroic, tell Superman to think of himself over others, and, overall, are not the rather virtuous couple they are traditionally presented as being.  I loved this version of Batman, and Ben Affleck’s performance as Batman is my favorite thus far.  This movie even explains why Batman has a growly voice!  Affleck looks like enough of playboy to be a convincing Bruce Wayne, but he also looks sufficiently grizzled to accurately represent the character.  Perry White was a fun character (and it is now impossible for me to see Laurence Fishburne without thinking of his character on Blackish), however I thought that, in this movie, he was a sort of J. Jonah Jameson light as opposed to a character in his own right.  Lex Luthor was not presented well in light of the comics.  Taken independently of the comics, this Lex Luthor is a really interesting and compelling character.  In light of the comics, however, he is presented as a young, sort of skittish, almost Joker-like character instead of the cold and calculating middle-aged man he is usually presented as being. As in Superman, he has hair throughout the film until the end when he assumes his traditional bald look.

There has also been a lot of negative talk about the tone of the movie being serious or even dour.  I am not sure why this is a negative.  This only seems like a negative because people are comparing it to the wildly popular Marvel Cinematic Universe, which tends to be fairly light-hearted even at its heaviest, instead of looking at the film in its own right.  I found the tone to be perfectly fine and completely appropriate for its subject matter.  The fact that people have a hard time viewing comic book movies as “serious” ought not to be a negative reflection on the movie but, rather, on the viewer who insists on a narrow view of comic book movies.

Another common criticism I have seen of this movie is that it is sequel baiting.  I find this criticism completely out-of-place and, quite honestly, not describing anything I would say is a negative.  The movie, as noted above, gives extremely limited background on Batman.  I imagine this will all be fleshed out in future Batman films and/or future DC Extended Universe films.  There are also cameo appearances of the Flash, Cyborg, and Aquaman.  Wonder Woman, while not a main character, has more than a mere cameo appearance.  She, as Diana Prince, appears here and there throughout the film, and as Wonder Woman in the big fight scene at the end.  Aside from her direct role in the plot, there is precious little revealed about her (or her alter ego) at all.  Again, I assume this will all be fleshed out in her own film.  Finally, although probably only noticeable to a hardcore comics fan like me, there are at least three references to Darkseid in the movie (Batman’s weird dream sequence in the desert, the large omega symbol in the sand, and Luthor’s crazy ramblings at the end of the movie (as an aside, if Luthor’s motive and ability to create Doomsday is later revealed to be the result of Darkseid’s influence, then some of my criticisms of this movie will be somewhat tempered)).  Some say all of this is evidence of poor writing and exposition.  I disagree.  We now live in an age of serialized movie making and world building.  These movies presume sequels and greater exposition in those sequels.  The era of a self-contained superhero movie is nearly gone.  This movie revealed as much as required for the story to be told.  All of the other references here and there will be explained in later movies.  When the future movies are made, and all viewed together as a cohesive story, the gaps described above will presumably be filled, and there will no longer be a lack of information.  If they are not filled, then the criticisms of poor writing and exposition will have a lot more merit.  I simply think the criticisms about sequel baiting seem to simply ignore the new reality that modern superhero movies are serialized and go through progressive world building.

Finally, DC’s approach seems to be the opposite of Marvel.  Marvel presented a series of solo movies first, slowly developing each character and revealing their interrelationships, until it climaxed in the big cross over movie The Avengers, and the franchise has continued since then in a similar pattern.  This way of world building was really satisfying and helped develop really good characters.  DC seems to have the opposite approach with the big cross over movie released very early in the franchise with the hopes that it will be a spring board into other movies (especially solo movies) where the characters can develop.  Although DC’s approach did not have well developed characters in its first crossover movie, their approach may still pay off just as well as Marvel’s has.  I think it is too early, at this point, to determine whether Marvel or DC has the better approach.  I think that question should be revisited in a year or two when DC has had opportunity to release a few more movies.

Conclusion:

I would highly recommend this movie, especially to a fan of comics and superheroes.  I am very excited to see where this franchise goes, and I think this movie is a very good start as long as DC does not blow the opportunities it now has in movies.

Movie Review: Ant-Man

I recently saw the movie Ant-Man and these are my thoughts about it (this review contains some spoilers).  It should be noted that I am a big fan of comic books, and Marvel Comics in particular, and have been so since I was at least five years old.  I am sure that fandom biases my review in some way.

By way of introduction for the uninitiated, Ant-Man is a movie based on Marvel comic books that falls at the end of Phase Two of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.  This movie is the twelfth in the film series, which also includes nearly two-and-a-half seasons of Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (a television series), one season of Agent Carter (also a television series), Daredevil and Jessica Jones (Netflix series), and five Marvel One-Shot films.  Needless to say, this film is deeply entrenched in a clearly established, long running, and sprawling interconnected media universe.

In the comic books, Ant-Man is among the first Marvel characters introduced in the 1960s (an era which included the introduction of most of “classic” Marvel characters everyone knows and loves), but in the movie universe he is somewhat late in the game.  As a result, the movie places Hank Pym, who is the original Ant-Man (played by Michael Douglas), into the Cinematic Universe’s past, and makes him a similarly aged contemporary with Agent Peggy Carter (who appears in the film in a flashback with Pym) and Howard Stark (who also appears in flashback).  As one may expect, the movie surrounds “Pym Particles” (the technology Pym invents to change his size) and the interests S.H.I.E.L.D. has in them.  Of course, things go south which causes Pym to discontinue using and developing his technology, which he then suppresses for fear of the danger that it could wreak.  Fast forward to the present day, and the man who becomes the villain Yellowjacket relentlessly pursues Pym’s shrinking technology seeking to weaponize it, which, once he perfects his own (albeit somewhat flawed) version, he does, and that creates the primary conflict of the film.  Pym, as an older man now, seeks out, and recruits, Scott Lang (played by Paul Rudd), a young guy with a chequered past but good heart who needs to redeem himself, who adopts the Ant-Man mantle to accomplish that.   Over the course of Pym and Lang’s relationship, he encounters Hope Van Dyne (Pym’s daughter) which, of course, goes down a romantic path, and the whereabouts of the Wasp (Pym’s wife and Hope’s mother) is explored.

As I stated above, this movie is the twelfth entry into a huge movie series which has proven itself capable of easily making fun, fast paced, well put together comic book movies, and Ant-Man is a worthy addition to that series.  This movie, obviously, is not a serious drama or artistic cinema.  Instead, it is fun action movie that holds up well with spunky dialogue, well choreographed action scenes, and surprisingly decent acting.

Unfortunately, Marvel has gotten into a routine with its movies where it presents a character’s origin, creates a conflict with a character with very similar powers (albeit with ill intent), and then resolves that conflict after it appears the hero is dead (or nearly dead), all the while meeting a love interest along the way.  Almost all of the Marvel movies play out in this way, and Ant-Man seems the most cookie cutter of them all, which does not bode well for the Phase Three slate of origin films.

Marvel appears to be cognizant of its tendency to be formulaic, so it has made each of its films a different genre into which its formula is placed to make for variety and interest.  So, for Ant-Man, the genre appears to be a funny heist type movie (as opposed to a straight up action movie) along the lines of Oceans Eleven, which, to my mind, works very well.  Other examples being the Captain America movies being political thrillers, the Thor movies being fantasy, the Hulk movie being a “monster movie,” and the upcoming Spider-Man movie being a movie in the style of John Hughes, and so on.  In addition to genre adaptation, Marvel also leverages the natural personality of its actors, which works very well for them as Marvel, so far, has had a real knack for really effective casting.  In this movie, Rudd is very much himself through this movie, and Douglas is too, and that sort of natural approach makes the characters both humorous but also very relatable.

As a comic book fan, this movie was very obviously self-referential to its placement in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.  For example, there is an entire scene of dialogue placed into the movie simply to engender anticipation for the introduction of Spider-Man into this universe (the entire scene was unnecessary for this movie).  The Falcon plays a brief role in the movie in order to solidly put Ant-Man onto the Avengers‘ radar.  I imagine that Marvel chose the Falcon as the Avenger to insert into the film because he is known and integrated, and not “new” to the team (e.g.: Vision and Scarlett Witch), but is not a character so big that he would steal the movie, and, quite honestly, is also played by an actor who is relatively inexpensive.  Ant-Man also explores “another dimension” when he becomes impossibly small, which must be setting the stage for the upcoming Doctor StrangeFinally, this movie has two post-credits scene, one which sets up the Ant-Man sequel and one which sets up the thirteenth movie in the Marvel movie franchise.

Finally, I have to mention the last climatic fight scene between Ant-Man and Yellowjacket.  First of all, it is mercifully short.  It eschews this tendency of late to make the climatic fight scene an endlessly long slug fest which, at some point, becomes boring and, ironically, anti-climactic as one wonders how the combatants could possibly take all that punishment instead of rooting for the good guy.  Instead, this scene in Ant-Man is fun and well choreographed and interesting due to the fact that the characters constantly shrink and enlarge in size throughout the fight, which is a new element to these scenes.  Marvel did a really good job making the scene fun and, in fact, funny.  Two insect-sized guys are duking it out and, from their perspective, it is all very intense and powerful but, with well placed comic timing, the scene would pan out to reveal them fighting on a Thomas-the-Tank-Engine table, and the apparently huge items being tossed and the carnage being wrought is really just some toys harmlessly being flung about.  I will not spoil it here, but the coup de grace on the bad guys – caused in one place by Lang and another by Pym – are pretty hilarious for comic book movie standards.

So, this movie is great for fans and very entertaining for non-fans.  Do not expect great cinema but do expect a well done comic book movie that both honors the formula but also tries to make it interesting in its setting and approach.  If you are invested in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, you will want to see this film; if you are a comic book fan, you will enjoy and appreciate the film; and, if you are a non-comic-book-fan, while you will not find it necessary to specifically seek out and watch the movie, you will nonetheless enjoy it if you watch it when it happens to be on the television in your vicinity.

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