November 28, 2015

BATMAN v SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE: A Recipe for Disappointment

Starring Ben Affleck, Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Jesse Eisenberg, Diane Lane, Laurence Fishburne, Jeremy Irons, Holly Hunter, Gal Gadot. Directed by Zack Snyder. (2016).

At this point, it's probably a given that Batman v Superman will enjoy a phenomenally lucrative opening weekend when finally released in March 2016. It wouldn't matter if the entire film consisted of an overweight guy in a Batsuit mowing his lawn for two hours. The brand names alone practically guarantees rabid fans worldwide will arrive in droves, having spent the last couple of years working themselves into a frenzy over this long-awaited match-up.

There will probably be a lot of cosplayers at the premier, a ritual I never understood considering they'll be spending two hours in the dark. But hey, I'm of a different generation and it's a different era, when it's now cool to let your geek flag fly. So who am I to judge?

Some of of the less-obsessive-but-still-curious will show up, perhaps wondering how well Ben Affleck fits the cowl only a few years after Christian Bale hung it up. Those people are likely to be the least disappointed in that respect, because what made the Dark Knight Trilogy the definitive superhero franchise had less to with Bale than it did Christopher Nolan.

Then there's Batman's supposed foe, Superman, previously rebooted in the polarizing Man of Steel. Some fans loved it, others (myself included) despised its descent into CGI overkill with a final act which played more like a Transformers sequel, not-to-mention pointlessly rehashing Superman's origins and turning young Clark Kent into a brooding loner. Even those who champion the film have to admit no recent superhero movie has sparked more love-it-or-loathe it debates (though one could make a strong case for The Dark Knight Rises).

For better or worse, Man of Steel has become the springboard for Warner Bros' attempt to emulate Marvel's incredibly lucrative Cinematic Universe. Like Disney's recent acquisition of Marvel, WB has owned DC comics for years, but based on what I've seen of the trailers, Dawn of Justice reeks of an desperate attempt to play catch-up, loading it with enough heroes and villains for a half dozen movies. Not only is Warner Bros burdened with re-introducing yet-another Batman before the corpse of the old one is even cold, they're throwing Wonder Woman, Aqua-Man and Cyborg into the mix, bringing back most of the major characters from Man of Steel (including General Zod, apparently back from the dead) and adding Lex Luthor for the cherry-on-top. The whole thing is already threatening to collapse under the weight of its own ambitions before we've even discussed a story which would make it plausible how these characters would even occupy the same space.

Is there even going to be room for a story that's more than a checklist of DC's greatest hits? Were these other minor heroes in the DC canon written into this film because the story actually needs them, or are they simply gratuitous appearances so mindless masses can clasp their hands and say, "Ooh! There's Wonder Woman!" without ever contemplating why they're being shoe-horned into a film that's supposedly a stand-off between DC's two biggest characters? Wouldn't that be the same blatant product-placement as prominently placing a Pepsi machine in the middle of an action scene?

Yeah, she's hot. But is she relevant?

It makes one wonder why Warner Bros. didn’t simply bite the bullet and call this the Justice League movie they’ve obviously had a hard-on for ever since reading the opening weekend box-office reports of Marvel’s The Avengers.

At least Marvel appeared to have a master plan from the beginning, establishing most of their major characters in at-least one previous film before tossing them together for The Avengers. The considerable amount of audience and critical goodwill generated by the first Iron Man, Captain America and Thor movies practically guaranteed The Avengers would be huge, especially with someone as narratively skilled as Joss Whedon at the helm. The only way to fuck it up would have been to replace Robert Downey Jr. with Adam Sandler and hand the directorial chores to Michael Bay or Zack Snyder. Speaking of which...

There was once a time when I thought Zack Snyder was a promising director, defying all odds by helming a remake of one of horror cinema's most-scared cows, Dawn of the Dead. Not only was it a solid film, it was more of a re-imagining than a true remake, with a lot of surprises and nasty tricks up its sleeve. His follow-up, 300, was also noteworthy for its technical brilliance and surreal imagery. Considering the story's graphic novel origins, Snyder's approach to the material was supremely effective.

Since then, however, he's fallen in love with style over substance, more concerned with bombast and spectacle than telling a truly compelling story. He may have brought Watchmen to life, but that doesn't mean he brought life to Watchmen. Sucker-Punch was nothing more than a misogynist, adolescent male fantasy. As for Man of is a story that didn’t need to be retold, this time mashing-up Snyder's penchant for CGI overkill with Christopher Nolan’s 'dark' take on a superhero legend to superficially create a bloated film that is utterly joyless.

Think of some of the directors involved in the MCU so far...Jon Favreau, Joss Whedon, Shane Black, Joe Johnston, Kenneth Branagh, the Russo Brothers. They have one thing in common...the understanding that all the visual fireworks in the world don’t amount to much if the story and characters take a backseat.

But Zack Snyder has since-become the latest incarnation of Michael Bay....each film bigger, longer and louder than the last. He’s fallen from the higher faith and joined the dark side. Yet Snyder is the one primarily in charge of the entire DC Cinematic Universe (including the upcoming, ominously titled, Justice League, Parts I & II), despite the rickety franchise foundations laid down by Man of Steel. Sure, the film made a ton of money. But pure profit has never been an indication whether or not a movie is any good. Avatar is currently the biggest moneymaker in history, but how often do you run into anyone today who thinks it's a great film?

How Donald Trump pictures himself.

Do I hope Batman v Superman movie is any good? Of course I do. No true film fan goes to a movie rooting for it to suck. But so far, I’ve seen no indication which suggests otherwise. I was burned before by Man of Steel’s promise of an epic and dramatic variation on the Superman legend, only to fall asleep in the theater after it turned out to be nothing but visual chest-thumping. Maybe it’s my age, but I personally like to give a shit about the characters I’ve paid ten bucks to spend two hours with before the mayhem ensures. Regarding Batman v Superman, from the recent trailers that have been pointlessly over-analyzed frame-by-frame, I’ve seen nothing which makes me want to be first in line in March. It looks like another cynical exercise in spectacle, counting on brand name recognition and the gullibility of zealous fans who’ll blindly hand over their hard-earned cash for the promise of mindless action and product placement.

I'm also wary of the fact this is the first live-action film featuring Batman interacting with characters with supernatural abilities. For me, part of the appeal of the Batman films (even the awful ones directed by Joel Schumacher) was the fact that nobody actually had any inherent superpowers. In the end, Batman himself was still a human facing off with other humans. That tenuous tie to reality is what always kept the franchise grounded into something that seemed superficially plausible. That's all gone now. Batman is now hobnobbing with aliens and demigods. While I know this has been part of the comic book franchise for years, part of me is sad that future Batman films are likely to go in that direction too. Considering how effectively Christopher Nolan presented Batman as someone who could conceivably exist in our world (to the point where even the staunchest movie critics took him seriously), Batman v Superman seems like a big step backwards.

I hope I’m wrong, of course. Despite inevitable cynicism that comes with age, as a movie fan, I’m truly rooting for Affleck to totally nail the Batman character in a way no one ever has before (it'll make up for the fact Henry Cavill as Superman is as compelling as cat food). I’d love for Zack Snyder to pull his head out of his ass long enough to remember what makes a classic epic film involves much more than hyperkinetic CGI and countless brand-name characters.

Still, countless fanboys have already decided Batman v Superman will be, by default, the greatest superhero film of all time, and many of them absolutely DO NOT WANT to hear anything to the contrary.

Case in point...not too long ago, I watched the first teaser trailer for Batman v Superman and was decidedly unimpressed. When I expressed my opinion on the Facebook page of a site I sometimes write for, you’d have thought I just pissed on The Pope. Countless people called me a troll or a hater, simply because my opinion differed from their personal anticipation of the film. Others tried in vain to convince me that my assessment of the trailer is simply wrong.

Batman v Superman is literally months from being released. Whether it ends up being the cynical product I’m predicting or the out-of-body experience its fans are expecting, that fact remains none of us know how this movie will turn out. Fanboys reading this can argue, debate and speculate to their hearts’ content, but until they're staring up at that screen with popcorn in-hand, they simply have no idea.

After all, a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, Star Wars Episode I was going to be the greatest film of all time as well. With Star Wars in the title, how could it not be? We worked ourselves into a frenzy of anticipation long before the film came along to utterly deflate our expectations. By the time Episode II came around three years later, most of us were simply hoping it didn't suck.

And that's where I'm at now with Batman v Superman. Yeah, I'll probably catch it in theaters, mostly out of curiosity, not the blind assumption it's going to be stupendous just because they've thrown a few thousand DC superheroes together. At this point, I'm just hoping it doesn't suck as bad as Man of Steel did. Still, I can't help but think there will be more-than-a-few cosplayers shuffling from the theater on opening night, cowls hanging low with a level of disappointment they'll never openly admit to.

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