When it comes to comic books, I’ve always been a D.C. guy.
Long before Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, I preferred the uncomplicated motivations and battles of Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman. Marvel was considered to be the thinking boy’s comic, but I found their stories (with the exception of maybe some Spider-Man runs) too wordy, the panels too small, the arcs confusing. Maybe I didn’t have enough alienation to identify with the X-Men. Maybe the way Bruce Wayne’s life was forever shattered by gun violence resonated too closely with my own experience.(For more in-depth musings on previous Batman movies, see here, here, and here.)
Movies and television were a different matter. Even as an adolescent I thought the Adam West version of Batman a campy abomination. The Christopher Reeve Superman movies were a tad better, but (honestly) not by much. Only in cartoon form did the Justice League ever more closely approximate the quality of the comics. In the meantime, X-Men movies were doing some good storytelling, Iron Man had Robert Downey, Jr. and Gwyneth Paltrow and The Avengers had Joss Whedon. D.C. had better heroes, darn it, but Marvel had better characters–or at least characters better suited for superficial movies.
Tons of critical ink has been spilled before Dawn of Justice arrives about the difficulties of bringing it to screen and proclaiming skepticism that D.C. can emulate Marvel’s incremental colonization of the movie calendar. If you don’t count a disastrous Green Lantern movie (and, really, who does?) only Batman and Superman have had recent films, and neither of those has done the Marvelesque work of paving the way for this one. The Man of Steel is one movie into a reboot. The Dark Knight Rises put a bow on Christopher Nolan’s trilogy but also, because of the way it ended, really made it somewhat impossible to integrate his trio movies into part of a broader “universe” with any kind of continuity.
All of which is to say that D.C.’s newest tent pole arrives with zero momentum and a lot of skepticism. The last movie I can remember limping into release after this much negative advance buzz was…well…Titanic. Here’s the thing, though. I loved Titanic. And a bunch of you did, too. (Not everyone, to be sure, but it sold a lot of tickets.) Sometimes advance buzz is wrong. Every time I read about how much better Marvel movies are than D.C. movies, rather than make me want to see another Marvel movie, I get hungry for the next D.C. movie. Maybe somebody, sometime, will finally get it right. When he (or she) does, it will be huge, because it is hard to understate my lifelong love of these characters.
Batman v Superman (★★★½) gets a lot of stuff right. So much so that for two hours it flirts with being my favorite comic book movie ever. By the end (yes, Zach, I heard you about the no spoilers request) it descends into standard movie carnage, and the longer it goes on the more I wished it had been satisfied in telling one story rather than three. But even with those complaints, I have to admit I was pleasantly surprised. I liked Dawn of Justice a lot more than I anticipated.
First of all, I liked the visual editing. The prologue sets the style with a judicious use of the hero in action and a tendency to hold on tableau shots rather than insisting on constant movement. That style emulates the sequential paneling of comic books and goes a long way towards keeping the battle scenes relatively brief. Yes, the final battle reverts to mass carnage that is more numbing than thrilling, but the more economical early scenes reminded me of just how bloated Avengers: Age of Ultron was.
More importantly (for me), the characters’ conflicts have emotional weight. Their back stories aren’t just origin stories, though they are that; they are explanations of why Batman and Superman are the people they are. Batman v Superman does a better job of treating past history as the foundation of character and not just the origin of powers. The Senate inquiry into Superman as a threat isn’t just a political allegory–it weighs on Clark Kent. Ben Affleck plays Bruce Wayne less as a playboy beard for the noble bat and more with the smoldering rage that actually makes you believe he could go too far. Gal Gadot’s portrayal of Diana Prince teases at a darker, fiercer Wonder Woman that makes me more interested in a stand-alone movie than I ever was before.
The film even put to rest my biggest fear based on the trailer. Jesse Eisenberg’s Lex Luthor came across in the teasers as bad stand up comic. In the film he does convey a mix of sinister evil to go with the camp. What is missing is Luthor’s intelligence. The sneakers give Lex a Steve Jobs/Mark Zuckerburg entrepreneur feel, which sorta works, but he’s so young–and that in a movie where Bruce Wayne is supposedly on the other side of fighting the Joker and quips about being too old to die young. Still Luthor’s not the problem.
The real problem is the movie tries to do too much. It tries to set up confrontation in the title. And it gives the origins of Luthor as a villain. And it develops the relationships from Man of Steel. And it reboots an emotionally darker Batman. And it hints at the coming of The Justice League. You know what–it almost pulls all those off. But a mid-film dream sequence doesn’t work and the explanation of how Luthor develops a back up plan to attack Superman really should have been a separate movie. Batman v Superman suffers a bit from impatience. It couldn’t decide which iconic story it wanted to tell and ended up trying to tell three of them in one movie.
So there you have it. Any movie this big will generate lots of complaints both for what it is and what it is not. Some of those complaints will be legitimate, but since I’ve been mostly contrarian about the Marvel movies, why stop now? I liked Batman v Superman. If we can have more stories like this–where there is at least some semblance of theme to go with plot and some semblance of character development–maybe there is life left in the comic book movie genre. Just bring the next one in at under two hours, okay?
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