Monday, March 28, 2016

BvS: Dawn of Justice - the comic book movie we deserve

In my previous post, I talked about how great it is to be a comic book fan right now. Part of the reasons was that comic book characters and stories have gone mainstream in media. That means we don't have to read 4 color, paper copy anymore (that is just frosting!). Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice is one example of how mainstream comic characters have become. And it is a testimony to what culture has done to comics.

For those uninterested in my long analysis of the movie, allow me to summarize my feelings about it.
Dislikes -
1. It is too dark. I am not talking about tone. I am talking about cinematography. 
2. I don't care how much Zack Snyder defends the "manslaughter over murder" deaths in the movie, I didn't care for it
3. This is not like a Marvel movie.
4. This is not a DC movie.
5. Not another Batman origin. PLEASE!!!!!!!!!!!
6. Perry White.

Likes -
1. This movie did not hold my hand as a comic book fan. This was not a, "Hey, lets make sure the audience knows every little thing that led up to this story arc" kind of movie.
2. This was an epic crossover comic story arc.
3. This movie speaks to some very clear cultural shifts.
4. Wonder Woman.
5. This was a serious treatment of Frank Miller's Batman.
6. This movie reflects what comic book readers have allowed to happen.

Okay, here is the in-depth review:
Dislikes -
1. It is too dark.
The entire movie was cloaked in shadows and clouds. The tones were all muted and drab. The few times (very few) when Superman's blue and red were allowed out to play, it was brief and undeniably "stained" by the dark tones.

First, the quality issue bugs me. This may seem like a nit-picky thing (I do pick many a nit during my moving going experiences), but not all theaters are created equal. We have all seen poorly shot home videos where you can barely see the faces or the action. When a movie is so dark that details are absent, especially when my home television can render them so much better, the movie going experience suffers as a whole. I would rather see movies on my television than pay for a muddy movie. I am lucky that it costs me less than $10 to see a movie. If I had to pay the crazy prices some people have to pay in order to watch a film where a lot of dark shapes moved across a less dark background, I would be contacting the company for a refund.

Second, the tones should not have to tell the story. Yeah, Batman is the Dark Knight. Yeah, this movie is dark in theme. But try to find a blue sky or a color that doesn't register heavy on the saturation levels. I am not saying we should step back into the Schumacher/Clooney days of day-glow colors or the campiness of the 60's. Batman should be brooding and have some element of sinister to him. His rogue's gallery is full of homicidal maniacs and gang types who care little for the violence they spread. But his character should not so heavily influence the story telling that they can't pay for lighting. Nor should the overall story require the viewer to sit through a swampy morass of shadows.

2. Killer heroes.
I get that this is based on Frank Miller's iconic Dark Knight Returns where Batman is shown wearing the weight of the life he has led. I don't, however, understand the carnage implied by the violence of the Bat. And whether or not Superman has a "no killing policy" in the comic books, each death would weigh upon him. There is only one scene where the death of people around him seems to dent his emotions of steel.

We are living in a violent period. We all know that people die every day. Some die because of the life choices they make. Some die because another person made a life choice. Still others die because we live in a reality where human bodies succumb to the frailties inherent with our flesh and blood. But we want our heroes to rise above that. We want our heroes to save people, not be the instruments of their death. We want to see that good can overcome the harsh reality we live out daily. Call it escapism. Call it fantasy. It is what we want as human beings. We find a book or a movie that offers us just a little bit of relief from what is rolling over us. (I have more to say later.)

This movie offers us a Batman who has broken one of his primary character traits: no killing. This year we have had Deadpool and a really good version of Punisher. Both of those characters are brutal. Batman started in comics without regard for life or death. But he became known for his position against killing. It was woven into the character as a way to separate him from the criminal element he routinely encountered.

Superman, on the other hand, has been identified as the "Boy Scout". He has stood for the high road for decades. Clark Kent was taught that his powers could easily go to far. And he is careful about remembering that his actions have enormous consequence. The deaths for which Superman is credited in this movie do not seem to weigh on him. He doesn't take responsibility for his action. Instead, he escapes responsibility. He mulls, broods, and goes walk about. When he and Lois have their heart to heart on the balcony, it would have been reasonable to assume that he was launching himself into space to never return (see Superman Returns...)

Batman and Superman are both heroes grounded in a life ethic. This movie takes them into a place that it truly should not have gone.

3. This is not a Marvel movie.
I think this is a fair criticism. Movie goers who have dipped into the comic book stream are well accustomed to the Mighty Marvel way of doing flicks. They have done cinema longer and better. There is humor to lighten the down time or to bolster us for the hard times. There is a message of hope throughout. 

4. This is not a DC movie. I mentioned in my previous post that DC is best known for larger than life characters. This movie did everything it could to drag Superman and Batman down to the worst levels of human examples.

5. Not another Batman origin. PLEASE!!!!!!!!!!!
Everyone has to tell the story. In every Batman movie there has to be some reference to THE event that shapes Bruce Wayne into becoming the Batman. And every director/writer has to tell it their own way. We get it. A horrible act of violence changed the course of the child Bruce Wayne so that he has to become a force for good in Gotham. We do not need you (the next person to tell the story) to show us the event again. Even in the comics, the scene of young Bruce kneeling by the bodies of his parents serves as icon enough to remind everyone on Earth about what happened to him.

And if you are going to show the origin story, remember that the origin story also shapes Batman as being against killing.

6. Perry White.
Really!?!? You take Laurence Fishburne, a fabulous dramatic actor, and boil him down to a headline spouting, budget expenditure crushing, life sucking presence? The old guy that was in the Wayne building at the beginning of the movie had more screen presence than Perry White. 

Likes - I really did like this movie. The dislikes that I hold with regard to it do not overshadow the fact that I thought it was better than the last two Superman movies.

1. This movie did not hold my hand as a comic book fan.
This was not a, "Hey, lets make sure the audience knows every little thing that led up to this story arc" kind of movie. There are many fans of fiction who complain that authors have to lead you into the setting, the characters, the events. If you have ever picked up a comic book then you know that, unless you have read them regularly and religiously, you are not going to have the writer tell you the whole story of what is going on in that issue. That comic will tell you what is happening only in the context of those events. I have picked up hundreds (maybe thousands) of comic books over the years. I did not ever once pick one up and think, "I sure hope they tell me exactly how this character got in this situation."

I sat down in the theater and within just a few moments, the writer/director allowed me to make the connections I wanted to make. Hey, Bruce Wayne was in Gotham the day that Superman fought Zod. Hey, it is possible that Ben Affleck's Bruce/Batman is closely related to Christian Bale's Bruce/Batman. Hey, this is a different take on Lex Luthor than we have seen before. I felt like I was sitting down with a comic book that I haven't followed regularly, but had seen some previous issues.

Did I have questions? Sure. Did I have gripes? Yep. But it was a comic book experience. And as a fan of the medium, I appreciated it.

2. This was an epic crossover comic story arc.
Not all comic books can tell a story in one issue. The crossover story arc became a "thing" in the '80's; my era of comic reading. I have read a few over my years. And this movie came across like a crossover story arc. It was telling two (or more) stories. There was the Superman story that was left over from Man of Steel. There was the Batman story that is the Frank Miller-esque story. There was the Lois Lane story that was dealing with the intrigue. There was also the Batman detective story of trying to track down the "White Portuguese". And Lex Luthor had his own story.

Some people felt that this made the movie disjointed. There were too many story threads so the overall story was weak. Which is valid if you are watching a movie. But if you are watching a comic book, you begin to see that this is not a single issue. Nor is it a single story arc within one book. This is different books telling their own story but with facets that overlap.
  
3. This movie speaks to some very clear cultural shifts.
If you can go to a movie for the sheer pleasure of watching a movie, I am truly happy for you. As some of my current church members have reminded me over and over, I can't just watch a movie. There are only two movies that I watch for the sheer pleasure of watching them: One Crazy Summer and The Princess Bride (also anything by Mel Brooks, but that is mostly because he taps into the 12 year old boy in me).

Watching Batman v. Superman, I realize that this movie nailed a couple of cultural shifts we are experiencing in our American life at this time. Police violence and disestablishment of religious ideologies. I don't know if these were intentional or even subconscious themes, but as a movie goer and as a cultural observer and a news surveyor, I see both of these sticking out like banners waving in the dark skies of Gotham and Metropolis.

Regarding the first: what are the closest things we have to superheroes who protect us? Police officers. And in the last few years, violence by police officers has moved into the front of everyone's reaction toward law enforcement. Think about the protests against officers and how the theme of "excessive force" has dominated the news. I am not making a judgment call on this. I am just pointing out that if there is an allegory to be seen here, we cannot miss the connection between heroes using extreme violence and the media/cultural attention given to police officers using force.

Regarding the second: Lex Luthor stands in for the voice saying, "God should die." Whether it is extremism being denounced or establishment religion being criticized, there is a cultural shift that seems to be pointing to a corner of the shared life and telling religion, "Go over there and sit, out of the way." The identifying of Superman as God/god and Luthor's supremacy of knowledge over him hits right in the domain of the science religion movement that is gaining a growing voice. Again, I am not making a judgment call on this, just observing.

4. Wonder Woman.
I am totally pumped to see the Wonder Woman movie next year. Gal Gadot did a fantastic job of taking a character whose last screen presence involved Lynda Carter in the '70's and bringing her into a new generation. She also hints at the possibility of taking a character who has been shortchanged for decades and making her a strong character equal in strength to Superman and wisdom to Batman.

Only thing I didn't care for was her theme music.

5. This was a serious treatment of Frank Miller's Batman.
Disclaimer and shame: I have never read Miller's Batman. But from what I know about it, Affleck and Snyder brought that characterization to the screen in a reasonable way. They didn't shy away from the less tasteful qualities of the character. They didn't hide that it was not the Batman we all know and love. It is a grittier examination of him and that came across clearly. We may not like it but it was a fair treatment of the source material.

6. This movie reflects what comic book readers have allowed to happen.
I think this may be a dislike but I put it here because it is honestly something I believe to be true about the movie. Comic books are not like they used to be. My grandparents' generation discovered comic book heroes that are nothing like what my kids' generation discovers. They don't always have happy, the good guy always wins endings. The bad guys have gotten worse. The good guys aren't always good. And the only way to account for that shift is because comic book readers bought the books that went that direction. Movies tap into the demographics. Deadpool brought in buckets of money, yet I was embarrassed at the number of parents who brought children under 10 into the that movie.  I walked out of Batman v. Superman thinking, that was not a fun movie. But I was also still processing the Brussels attack. I would read afterwards of the bombing of an amusement park in Pakistan directly targeting Christians celebrating Easter where children were the intended collateral damage. And as I watched the movie, September 11, 2001 was constantly in the front of my consciousness.

I was reading comics when the anti-hero movement began. It wasn't long after that I took a break from reading them. The anti-hero movement in comics was the development of characters like the Punisher, Miller's Batman, Wolverine/Lobo. These were heroes who muddied the lines between heroic and psychotic. One of my favorite characters, Moon Knight, eventually went and had a full psychotic break in the comics. It got harder to tell the difference between the good guys and the bad guys. And maybe, as we watch the news, comic books fans recognize that we don't live in the 4-color kind of comic world. We can't have the happy endings.

We deserved this movie. It wasn't fun. It wasn't easy to watch. It didn't allow us to escape. It put our reality in front of us and told our favorite heroes, "Hey, why don't you deal with OUR world for a change."