Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice (Why I Like It Now)
- By TefoWritesStuff
- On 13/11/2017
- 0 comments
It's taken me five viewings in total to come to enjoy this film, having hated it for the first couple of viewings and felt ambivalent about it for the other couple, as a result of which I feel I must elaborate on my gradual change of heart about it.
I must begin, however, by saying that this will not be a defence of the film against the overwhelmingly negative mainstream critical appraisal it's received, which has actually already been carried out by a cabal of passionate fellow DCEU fans. This will also not involve any extraneous comparison to or juxtaposition with the Marvel Cinematic Universe and it's relative critical and commercial success, for while it may belong to the exact same genre of film, it tends to different needs for the filmgoer. Lastly, this will not involve any justification for any of the litany of egregious flaws of this film.
Among the reasons why this movie has been so disliked, and even hated, since its release more than a year ago are its complex narrative structure, its eschewing of source material norms and atmosphere, and its inferiority as spectacle to Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy. I disliked it for the same reasons, which I will try to expand upon.
Firstly, the narrative structure. The average film employs a three-act structure because it works wonderfully well if you want to tell a story. There's nothing more to it, it just works. However, BvS employs what I've only been able to imagine is a complicated five-act structure wherein the first three acts are bifurcated and the final two acts are convergent. The final two acts each have a climax, and on top of all of that there are a myriad of cameos, as well as, a prologue and an epilogue. That's a lot to take in even with a three hour-long movie. The prologue serves to introduce Batman to the storyline and essentially kickstart the DC Extended Universe by showing the events at the climax of Man of Steel from Bruce Wayne's perspective. The first act fast forwards to the "present day", eighteen months subsequent to the end of Man of Steel, to show us Bruce Wayne and Clark Kent in a world where Superman has become a controversial figure and how each of them is responding to that fact. It also introduces Lex Luthor, the primary antagonist, who I will elaborate upon to greater effect later on. The second act brings the official introduction of Batman and Superman to each other which, while short-lived, sets the tone for much of the rest of the film's after threats are exchanged between the two and Batman asks Superman if he bleeds. The third act has Superman entering a self-imposed exile after a bomb goes off at a congressional hearing into his actions and Batman stealing kryptonite from Lexcorp and training vociferously in preparation for his inevitable conflict with Superman. Throughout all three acts, we're primarily following both Superman and Batman separately, even when they interact, and therefore must think of the parts of the narrative where we follow Superman as Acts 1A, 2A and 3A and the parts where we follow Batman as Acts 1B, 2B and 3B, for arguments sake. The fourth act, wherein Lex kidnaps Lois Lane and Martha Kent to bring Superman out of hiding in order to pit him against Batman is the first time the narrative converges and we are faced with singular activity on screen with no parallel stories or anything of the sort. Batman choosing to spare Superman's life is the first climax of the movie and the end of the fourth act, and the battle with Doomsday is act five. Act five goes on for a while and ends with the death of Superman, which is the second and ultimate climax of the film. The epilogue is Superman's funeral and allusion to the formation of the Justice League. This is difficult enough to follow and I haven't even spoken about the plot at any length, only the structure. I can't even begin to truly contend with how frustrating that is.
Secondly, the eschewing of source material norms and atmosphere. This one applies more specifically to the Clark Kent/Superman character arc and began in earnest at the end of Man of Steel when he snapped General Zod's neck. This decision effectively altered the Superman mythology permanently by casting a cloud of uncertainty on the moral convictions of the man of steel, turning him to a hero that would kill if deemed necessary from one who wouldn't kill under any circumstances whatsoever. Now this isn't a bad thing in and of itself because transformation, no matter how extreme, can be a good thing for the life of a story. The issue in subverting knowledge, understanding and expectation so ruthlessly is that 1) you run the risk of alienating a sizable portion, if not the entirety, of the traditional Superman/DC Comics fan base that you could take for granted as being the guaranteed cultural connoisseurs of this film who possess the power to determine what it's legacy ultimately becomes and 2) you've created a whole new paradigm for people to relate to Superman's quasi-messianic mythology through while still needing them to hold the new incarnation of the character as dearly and as closely as they held the original incarnation.
Consequently, the atmosphere of the film undergoes a "darkening", for want of a better term — the institution of a sense of real-world cynicism into the story of an otherwise fantastical character of other-worldly proportions, attitudes and capacity. The issue with this is that darkness and cynicism are often confused for maturation and realism in the comic book genre, which often only ends up as overwhelming hopelessness in the face of terrifying odds. Hope is a cornerstone of Superman. Cynicism isn't. While people may quote cynics and ironists, they only miss optimists who, by will and belief, grant humanity the inertia to mobilise towards a better future. This is a significant banana peel for this film.
Third and last is the inferiority of Man of Steel and Dawn of Justice as spectacle to Nolan's Batman trilogy. Now this is a difficult one to explain because while both the Nolan trilogy and the DCEU are epics, the Nolan trilogy is a Gotham epic and the DCEU films are a cosmic epic - each of which poses a unique set of challenges for the filmmakers at the helm of the projects respectively. I'm going to try and explain in the most basic terms what it is I mean regardless.
As an epic story about Gotham City, the Nolan trilogy always creates and sustains awareness about the stakes of whatever events are taking place using various means such as establishing shots of the city to establish a sense of set and setting, large amounts of extras, intermediary scenes and montages showcasing a myriad little things being done that serve as expositional aides for the grander schemes of the plot, and so on. Every explosion, death, action sequence, mass panic and conversation adds in some way to the tension without compromising the entertainment value or sense of perspective about the events taking place.
This isn't something you can consider to be true of Man of Steel or Dawn of Justice because of the extraordinary levels of destruction that take place in Metropolis in Superman's battles with Zod and Doomsday respectively, the lack of casualties spoken of, the absence of awareness about the scale and size of the city, the lack of a large number of extras to show just how many people are affected by these events. Also, after being near totally destroyed in the first film, Metropolis is rebuilt and repopulated in only eighteen months with no weight given to the excruciating transformation the city itself has probably had to go through save for the erection of a statue of Superman himself, which feels deeply unrealistic. It is slight narrative oversight of this kind that makes it difficult to reconcile the spectacular fantasy of this story with the supposedly mature, gritty realism it's meant to now embody.
Now that you know what I think is wrong and what can come to prove challenging about this movie, which I realise probably sounded quite damning, I can now tell you the reasons why I've come to like this movie.
Firstly, the reimagining of Lex Luthor, as portrayed here by Jesse Eisenberg. Though deeply flawed and being on the receiving end of justifiable criticism about the portrayal coming off as an ill-conceived pastiche of Heath Ledger's portrayal of The Joker in The Dark Knight, this is the character that most accurately embodies the challenges faced by superheroes invented in early 20th century America for an audience that had vastly different concerns. Luthor being a young, narcissistic, deeply philosophical, seemingly amoral, diatribe-prone, libertarian Silicon Valley type with insurmountable personal wealth and ambition is not only timely, but fits right in with the contemporary harsh realism that the creators of this franchise are going for. It's also the most apt imagining of Luthor since the original, and firmly encapsulates the concerns of his time and its definition of evil. There is a great deal of room for improvement, I believe, but this slow start hasn't proven a false start, in my opinion.
Secondly, the characterisation of Bruce Wayne/Batman, as portrayed by Ben Affleck, in his later life when faced with a whole new set of challenges and new extremes to go to in terms of how to respond to those challenges. Based on The Dark Knight Returns graphic novel by Frank Miller, this Batman is capable of acknowledging the brutal and meaningless murdering of his parents as the source of trauma that has thrust him driven him into a lifelong relative psychosis and a crimefighting career that has seldom proven fruitful in any substantive way. More weary and less trusting, the events that take place in Man of Steel, seen through his eyes in the prologue to Dawn of Justice, force him to rethink his place and that of the entire human race in a world where proverbial gods literally walk amongst men. Affleck's performance, while good, could still improve as he still isn't exhibiting the performative dexterity required of someone having to portray both Bruce Wayne and Batman (something Henry Cahill isn't proving too hot at doing either).
Thirdly, Perry White as portrayed by Laurence Fishermen is perhaps the most perfectly adapted character, considering that he's a newspaper editor in a world where nobody reads newspapers.
Lastly, and most importantly for me, is the philosophical & ideological propositions & conversation about humanity at large that is the overarching theme. It reminds me, in its own way, of the works of great European and American modernist writers such as Proust and Joyce. This isn't simply a question of good and evil. This is about power, weakness, immigration, justice, tribalism, survival, duty and all the other grand ideas and concepts within which our lives are ensnared and through which we perceive the nature and value of our very existence. Although it isn't carried out as crisply as it could have been, I cannot escape the feeling that we, the audience, were being set up for a series of films from here on out that will make us think about the big questions, perhaps proffer some possible answers and, eventually, some satisfactory, albeit questionable, conclusions.
Depending on the quality of the movies to follow BvS and whether or not they do manage to live up to what's been proposed by it, I believe that we could see it undergo a critical rehabilitation in the not-too-distant future as a visionary, even if sometimes scattershot, artistic masterclass.
That is all.