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Movie Review - Batman v. Superman

26 Mar 2016
BvS
Ben Affleck, at 6 foot 4, makes Batman three inches taller than Superman.
As a young boy I was drawn to the Superman character because of the message of hope, goodness and heroism, though I was too young to understand that Superman's acts were not truly heroic because he rarely risked anything to save lives; he was just doin' what comes naturally. At one point in this movie Batman, whose age is set at between 45 and 50 by the dates on his parents' tombstones, flaunts his human superiority at his younger (by a decade) Kryptonian opponent: "You're not brave," he intones. "Only men can be brave." That tone of determined arrogance perfectly represents the attitude of Bruce Wayne, who is angered beyond measure by the destruction of Wayne Tower and hundreds of his employees during the events of Man of Steel, in which Superman and his Kryptonian enemy, General Zod, lay waste to most of Smallville and a great deal of Metropolis. In the end this movie is truly about Bruce Wayne. Batty Ben Affleck gets billed higher than super Henry Cavill, and his performance merits it. But there are a lot of details to this movie, most of them good.

First, my ten-mile-high assessment: this movie is better than the early reviews and better than I ever hoped. If BvS had some of the lighthearted dialog and banter of The Avengers it might have ranked up there as one of the very best superhero movies of all time, but in that regard it falls short, and deliberately so: DC is going for a darker vibe to set itself apart from Marvel. BvS, in fact, pulls on ideas and themes going back to some of the early representations of all the characters – Bruce Wayne, Alfred Pennyworth (I like Jeremy Irons sooooo much better than Michael Caine), Martha and Clark Kent, Lois Lane, Wonder Woman and most of all, Lex Luthor. No one has ever done Lex right until Jesse Eisenberg was cast in the role; due to Eisenberg's slight stature the casting is not perfect, but it's way better than good enough.

BvS keeps its dark tone while undoing some of the damage of Man of Steel, which broke some of the oldest Superman conventions, such as reverence for life and refusal to take it (Superman's creators, 19-year-olds Siegel and Schuster, were Jewish liberals opposed to the death penalty, an attitude which permeates their comic). BvS not only bests MoS, it also beats The Dark Knight Rises hands down, but keeps it in the same universe. It briefly recreates Batman's origin scenes from Batman Begins, but strengthens the story rather than contradict it. We get to see Bruce meditating his situation in the burnt out husk of stately Wayne Manor, destroyed at the end of Batman Begins, shown to represent the emotional stagnation in Bruce Wayne's life as he approaches middle age. Growth is replaced by resignation. At one point Bruce's butler/partner Alfred points out that Bruce is proposing criminal acts, at which point Bruce says "we are criminals." And they have been for 20 years, he points out. Instead of getting Robin the Boy Wonder we get Alfred the Aging Butler, playing the tech guru role better suited for a youngster like the non-existent Dick Grayson. Even so Irons' understated performance suits.

BvS is, at least for Bruce, a story of redemption. He can redeem himself by stopping the greatest menace to humanity, the alien originally known as Kal-El who almost destroys Metropolis in much the same way that the Avengers lay waste to Manhattan in Marvel Comics' movie universe. By taking on the most unwinnable fight one can imagine, Bruce can somehow make up for the impotence he felt as he watched Wayne Tower come crashing down a la 9-11. Alfred insists Bruce's crusade against Superman is futile, but Bruce has plans, and eventually we see him thinking along the same lines as Luthor even though they plan and act separately: He raids and steals Luthor's secret stash of Krytonite, knowing he would need it for the coming battle.

In fact, this movie presents an interesting juxtaposition: Luthor and Wayne are both billionaire geniuses with a flair for action. Clark Kent is everyman, and in spite of his physical power he has everyman's mental powers, which are only slightly better than average. Wayne has data and technical resources that Kent, in spite of his powers, cannot match with heightened senses. In many ways Superman is outmatched, and if it were not for the power of motherhood, Batman might well have killed him. Bruce Wayne is a better match for Lex Luthor than is Clark Kent.

How can god-like Superman be outmatched? It hearkens back to a comic I read as a child, when Superman has to fight a big, tough guy after losing his super strength. Superman shows his heroic nature by fighting as if he still has the power, but the crook just laughs: the punches are powder puffs. When you can destroy a 6 foot 8 behemoth with the flick of a finger, do you learn to fight with finesse? Do you learn to to punch hard? Of course not, because as it is you have to work hard not to turn the bad guy into mush. So when Clark and Bruce go toe to toe, Clark's the guy who grew up afraid to fight back and Bruce is the guy who fights out of existential angst. As Batman begins assaulting Superman with Kryptonite gas grenades, we realize he isn't kidding. And when he raises the Kryptonite-headed spear to end the fight once and for all, we wonder how the screenwriters will manage to end the scene without Superman's death. The screenwriters get themselves out through a plot contrivance that I won't give away, save to say that Bruce and Clark suddenly bond through the connection of love for their mothers, both of whom are named (correctly and consistently) Martha.

Why Fight?
One of my earliest reasons for skepticism about this movie is over motivation. What could possibly motivate Batman to take on such an impossible task as the denouement of an alien being whose speed, strength and physical resilience make him untouchable? And why would Superman even bother to fight?

Keep in mind, this question has been asked and answered in the past. In 1989 and 1990 Frank Miller penned two Dark Knight graphic novels that depicted an aging, brooding Bruce Wayne/Batman. In many ways Miller redefined the Bat-genre and served as the inspiration for Christopher Nolan's three Bat-movies. In the series Batman is no longer accepted by the police and goes toe to toe with them on numerous occasions. The confrontations are increasingly deadly; and his emotional state is questioned by his acceptance of a new Robin, a 13-year-old female tech wiz who recruits herself. Eventually Batman goes so dark that the president recruits Superman to stop him.

Miller gives us a Superman versus Batman fight that makes sense: only Superman can stop Batman. Batman takes the fight to heart and attacks first, with a Kryptonite-tipped nuclear missile, followed by a machine gun attack with Kryptonite bullets. Superman wavers at first, but eventually he prevails, as Batman is only human and he is not. In the closing scene of the comic Clark Kent attends Bruce Wayne's funeral – but hears, however faint, a heartbeat. No comic story is ever truly over! Marvel and DC comics are filled with dramatic deaths and even more dramatic reanimations, reincarnations and resurrections.

BvS had to work hard to create a scenario that made sense for Batman to attack Superman, but they actually managed to achieve it. This was the problem that made me most skeptical about the film's premise, and made me vow for quite a long time to boycott it. The screenwriters' success, through means that are traditional for thrillers everywhere, gave me a much deeper appreciation for the film. Major spoiler alert! Lex Luthor manipulates Batman into attacking Superman. Early on Luthor realizes Superman is the greatest threat to his megalomaniacal plans, so even while he works to corner the market on Kryptonite he is maneuvering Bruce into an anxious mental state, by creating messages and situations that play upon Bruce's feelings of guilt and helplessness. Bruce never sees it coming. And when Superman confronts Luthor himself, he is surprised to discover that Lex is ready for him. He's kidnapped Superman's mother! So Superman has to kill Batman, or his mother will be killed. What a choice! Perfect for comic books, TV spy shows and more than a few thrillers. It works.

More major spoilers coming! The apocalyptic fight scene in this movie is not between the title characters, but between Bruce, Clark and Diana Prince (Wonder Woman) on one hand and Doomsday on the other. Doomsday is an artificial behemoth created by Lex Luthor from the body of General Zod, with some of his own genetic material tossed in for yucks and narcissism. You may recall that in the comic, Doomsday kills Superman. This occurred a couple of decades ago, when DC devised the death to spur sales for a lagging group of Superman titles; it worked. For more than a year after the death DC teased us with a group of titles that suggested Superman would indeed rise from the dead, but they teased with five different potential Supermen, daring us to guess which one would turn out to be the real deal. Don't be surprised if the next Justice or Superman movie includes an extended scenario with that general plot line, ending with the real Superman emerging just in time to save the day. Don't count on being convinced with the explanation for his resurrection.

In the movie Doomsday and Superman also fight to the death. Both die, for real, although even for-real deaths are suspect in comic books and their movies. At Clark's funeral Bruce tells Diana that they must create a group of people with similar talents and proclivities, and that his research has already revealed some candidates (who will become The Flash and Aquaman). This is the dawn of the Justice League of America, a comic book that never interested me any more than did the Avengers – until the movie came out. Now they've got my attention. Meanwhile I'd like to comment on the major characters and how their roles were handled.

Bruce Wayne/Batman
Bruce's angst drives this movie; it is what makes him susceptible to Lex Luthor's manipulations. Ben Affleck was an unconvincing Daredevil, but as an aging Bruce Wayne with issues he works well, much better than Christian Bale would have (and I loved Bale in BM1 and BM2). One bare-chested scene in particular makes it clear that Affleck has done his duty in preparing physically for the role, at least as much as Cavill. I expect Bruce/Batman to be the leader in the first Justice League movie, with Diana/WWoman as a close confidante. She's Bruce's kinda gal! She's played by a gal, Gal Gadot, who sports, against type, an Eastern European accent.

Clark Kent/Superman
MoS went out of its way to emphasize Superman's alien nature, which is one of the things that made that movie makes so hard to stomach. Traditionally Superman grew up as an uber-representative of Truth, Justice and the American Way. The original story of Superman is the story of a grown Superboy, who grew up on a farm and began flying and saving lives by the age of nine. Clark's best friend is the nascent genius Lex Luthor, until one day in their high school years Luthor has a fire in his private laboratory and Superboy saves his life, but not before the fire destroy's Lex's hair and Lex blames his savior. This is the origin of Luthor's hatred for Superman. The MoS depiction of Clark Kent as a wanderer alienated from his farm boy origins never made sense, because in the original comic depiction Clark grows up with his full abilities, knowing full well who he is and what he could and should do. The question of where he comes from, as for many late-generation descendants of immigrants, rarely arises or matters.

Lois Lane
Amy Adams is without a doubt the best Lois Lane so far. She's not stand-out fabulous, but better than all the others. She is attractive enough to be interesting without being too attractive to be believable. Even when she stays pushy she stays interesting. Lois is classically three or four years older than Clark, but in this movie the difference is noticeable only for aficionados. Since Lois and Clark are living together we will be very disappointed if she isn't with child in the next movie.

Diana Prince / Wonder Woman
Wonder Woman has gotten short shrift due to her poor treatment in Lynda Carter's 1970s TV show, but if handled with respect, deserves more attention. Coming from a 1940s era comic with heavy BDSM overtones (which is the specific reason the Comics Code Authority was created), Wonder Woman is the protector/csar of a tribe of only women, "Amazons". These Amazons are the source of the term Amazon for large, athletic women, and Diana Prince is their leader. She appears mysteriously, without explanation, at numerous points in the film and eventually pulls Bruce's and Clark's fat out of the fire, but never offers much for our evaluation; most of it comes from Bruce, who figures her out from his own research - including her appearance in a combat photo a century old. We'll learn a lot more about her in upcoming movies, starting with a Wonder Woman solo foray. Only complaint: Gal Gadot does not look like an athletic warrior type. Where is Rhonda Rousey when you need her?

Doomsday
Sigh. This is tough to talk about because Doomsday is the AI/human construct specifically created by Lex Luthor to end the "problem" of Superman without regard to the creation of a Doomsday problem. He kills Superman, without question, but only while Superman kills Doomsday once and for all. Comic logic leads us to expect Superman's resurrection but not Doomsday's. In the end Batman's leadership presence gives us reason to have hope. Now what?


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