Kevin Smith Was Right
No, really. Smith recently commented on Batman v Superman. He had the following to say:
“The movie I felt like didn’t really have a heart. It was certainly f—–’ humorless, there was nothing funny going on in that world whatsoever.”
And you know what? He is right.*
I get what Zack Snyder and Christopher Nolan were trying to do. They were trying to make this major hard edged epic film. They were trying to make something that “transcended” popcorn and super-hero movies. When asked why there was no post credit scene in Man of Steel like Marvel does, Nolan scoffed and stated that real films do not do that. He walked it back a bit, but I suspect he meant it when he said it. And of course, Snyder can be endlessly quoted about the epic tone and nature he is trying to create for the DC Movie universe. That tone is big, full of grim consequence (though it is dishonest to pretend Marvel’s world lacks consequences, as the films are often having results that impact other films as well as their various television shows). This, of course makes it rather hilarious that Warner Brothers defended the critical reaction to the film by claiming it is just fun.
While I tried to remain spoiler free in my review? This is not going to avoid them. At. All. If you want to see the movie (or Man of Steel for that matter) yet, and do not want anything-including the end of the film-ruined? Stop reading.
Man of Steel was pretty problematic in how it set up Superman. First there was the whole troubling Johnathan Kent stuff. Johnathan had some genuinely great moments of fatherly kindness. When Clark asks if he can just keep pretending to be Johnathan and Martha’s son, and Johnathan responds with “You are my son.” That is a perfect moment. Yet, just moments before, Pa Kent suggests that maybe Clark should have let his fellow students die in a bus crash, rather than risk exposure. Rather than be saved by Clark, Johnathan lets himself be engulfed by a tornado. Clark could have saved him and they could have explained it to the towns folk in Smallville as…well, an amazing story of survival.
Clark does not appear in costume to the world until after Zod arrives. You might not think it matters, but trust me, it creates a problem for Batman v Superman. It would have helped the story immensely if Superman had some heroics before Zod arrived. It would build Superman up in the eyes of the public.
In Batman v Superman, we are first introduced to Bruce Wayne during the Superman and Zod fight. And this is, in fact a great scene. Wayne is shown as aggressively, passionately devoted to protecting his employees. He helps a man pinned by a beam, he saves a child from falling debris. This does set up an understandable distrust of Superman and Superman’s power. But when we meet his alter Batman…well, Batman has hit hard times. Batman has become bitter and vicious, now branding criminals with his batarangs. He is mired in bitterness and anger. Batman is kind of at odds with Bruce Wayne. Bruce is a man we see saving people. Batman is a guy brutalizing people and marking them for death.
This is not necessarily an entirely invalid presentation of the character. A lot of critics note how he shows little regard for killing people. And this is true, but the idea that he is to busy trying to fend off a whole lot of guys who are trying to kill him is pretty fair. It is kind of like asking why a soldier shot a bunch of guys shooting at him. Batman actually is mostly a fighter. And the scene where he saves Martha Kent? Awesome. When he tells Martha “I’m a friend of your son’s”? That is something I wanted to see in a movie featuring Batman and Superman.
But I digress, the problem with introducing us to this Batman as the entry into the new DC Cinematic Universe? We get hints of a backstory that implies Batman has been through hell and lost a whole lot. And yet, we are never introduced to the hero that Batman was, which would open doors to juxtapose with the hero he is now. It has no weight to simply hint that he has “gone through hell”. We needed to know Batman for this to resonate.
It is similar with Superman. We get brief shots of him coming in to save people in disasters. But we have not known Superman as Superman long enough for the questions about his “godhood” to come into play. And his alien nature is more heavily focused, how distant he is. Clark seems to have little humanity of his own, with Lois practically his sole tether to humanity. Although Snyder suggested killing Zod was to show why Superman abhors killing, one of our first acts of Superman in the present is to save Lois from a warlord by slamming into him at full speed pushing him through multiple walls, an act that most certainly would have killed the man. This was a terrific opportunity for the filmmakers to be creative in saving Lois from the guy in a non-lethal way, but they opted to have him casually take the guy out. So, killing Zod did not cause Superman to take preserving life all that seriously.But that is not what the scene is for. It is set to show Superman being setup as dangerous.
By giving us very little Superman time as hero? It pulls the rug from the potential emotion and ethical questions being posed. These are big questions, but we do not see enough of Superman as heroic savior to truly sell the hero worship that some people are supposedly rebelling against. We know there is distrust because the film makes a point of telling us there is. Superman does not seem to enjoy helping people in this universe. He seems to almost do it begrudgingly. He always looks so serious in the moments we see him saving anyone. Superman barely cracks a smile. There should be a juxtaposition between Superman and Batman in attitude. Superman should be questioning the methods of Batman. In an early John Byrne comic, there was a story where Batman and Superman first meet. In the comic, Batman forces Superman to help him by suggesting that he planted a bomb on an innocent person in the city. Superman is bothered by this…until he discovers that the innocent person was Batman himself. It was a really good moment in establishing their overall nobility and where they were ultimately on the same side. Superman is the beaming hope, Batman is the hero needed to deal with the darkness in life.
And yet, Man of Steel and Batman v Superman give us a Superman who is every bit as grim as Batman. One of the things that might have helped is if, in Superman and Batman’s first meeting, Superman had been less the authoritarian and more friendly guy trying to reason with Batman. Superman trying to reach out, being rebuffed by Batman would encourage Superman to be frustrated, as he cannot get through to Batman. Batman, of course, so distrustful that he has no time for what he misinterprets as a false piety.
Also, it would have been better, story-wise, for Superman to bristle at the God talk. He should have refuted that point, but whenever anyone calls him a God? He seems totally indifferent.
But there is nothing really separating Superman and Batman besides powers. Both are angry. Both are insolent and self centered. In fact, Batman (the greatest detective) and Clark Kent (the great investigative journalist) both are easily manipulated by Lex Luthor. Both are easily goaded into fighting. Superman at least has a decent reason, Luthor is threatening to kill his mom. Batman is sent off the edge by a package that pokes at his personal pain (the loss of his parents). He does not question it, he just assumes that it is time to take Superman out. Frankly, the inciting incident makes no damn sense. Luther sends in a guy to testify against Superman and the guy is basically a powerful bomb. This would appear like an assassination attempt on Superman, not like Superman acting as terrorist. But in Batman’s mind the right thing to do is not to try and determine who blew up the court room killing a countless number of people…it is, “Superman must be stopped.” This is a messy story point at best. It makes no damn sense for Batman to fall for this at worst.
Luthor is more than a bit of a mess. They were clearly trying to re-invent him as a new character we have never seen before…but it never comes together…he is to much the petty child, bitter and oblivious. They try and give him lines that make him sound like he has motivation, but the truth is? It all feels hollow. One bit of inspiration would have helped the character was to really invest him with a sense of nobility. A belief that he was really doing this to protect people from alien threats. That he distrusts aliens and therefor distrusts Superman. And that is not effectively done here. Eisenberg’s jittery performance leaves him feeling a lot less ominous. And he stoops to kidnapping and willing to kill Martha Kent (in a pretty clear nod to the Killing Joke, but substituting Martha Kent for Barbara Gordon and Lex for the Joker). It just makes Luthor seem cheap. I am not saying Luthor would not kidnap Martha. I am saying a strong Lex Luthor would not allow the kidnapping to be traced to him.
In my second viewing of the film, I found myself frustrated with Perry White. On the one hand, Fishburne has a lot of fun with the role. His reactions when he cannot find Clark Kent is some of the few times you get to laugh. But at the same time, Perry White being absolutely uninterested in hard news seems…wrong.
Honestly, there was no need to have flashbacks to Martha and Thomas Wayne being killed. That was so hammered into us in previous films and television…and nobody has found a way to make it feel like a necessary sequence.
Please understand, I wanted to totally be wrong about this movie. I wanted to believe maybe they cracked the code. And for a few moments at the beginning (aside from the unnecessary showing of the Waynes getting killed)? I thought we were on our way there. People have actually suggested the lack of humor is a good thing. It is taking the themes seriously. Except, humor is not only something we turn to in good times. In fact, we often turn to humor in tragic times.
As I have said, I do not think the film was an absolute disaster. I think the 29% Rotten Tomatoes rating is a bit overdoing it. And I do not have quite the hate for Snyder that some do. The visuals are nice. There are shots that, yes, inspire excitement. Cool shots of Superman and Batman…and Wonder Woman? She is great. She comes out of this unscathed. Part of that is the film barely develops her. But she is cool in the big fight with Doomsday.
Some critics, such as Kyle Smith of the New York Post claims that Batman v Superman is to smart for Marvel fans. Except, I am a Batman fan. I am a Superman fan. I am a Wonder Woman fan. I like these characters. But attempting to suggest that this film is just to heady for folks because it deals with big themes? Well, that ignores that it does not deal with the big themes very well. And Marvel films are constantly addressing the end results of what their heroes do. The attack in New York (from Avengers) was addressed in other Marvel Films and TV shows. The heroes constantly question what they have done. Age of Ultron was all about how far is to far to protect the world. Civil War is all about how people are afraid…the results of heroes running around without supervision. And we have seen Tony and Steve enough that we know those characters. We have gotten to know them. There is emotional punch to seeing them in conflict.
And in the end, that is what Frustrates me here. We have a Superman who does not really consider earth his home until the last moments of the film-right before he dies at Doomsday’s hands. And this Superman? We have barely known him as an audience. And we have known this Batman even less. If WB had been building up to this over the course of several films? Do you realize what a gut punch this movie might have been? We had Man of Steel and he is killed one movie later because Zack Snyder wanted him out of the way to allow Batman to build the Justice League. And it all feels far too calculated, there is no power to the beats of the film. If Ben Affleck’s Batman was one we were connected to prior to this film? It might have been very powerful. The film skates over this by giving fans iconic imagery to fall back on. Those great moments are not great because the film earns them, but rather the film cheats by expecting the audience to fill in the blanks with an excited reaction to “Scenes We Always Wanted to see!”
I wish that Batman v Superman was smarter than the Marvel movies. I wish it was as epic in it’s storytelling as it is in it’s visual representations of famous comic book panels and covers. I wanted the movie to be great. It thrilled me when early reports were that this was an awesome film, not anything like we feared. But when you can say “It is not as terrible as people say, but it was not that great” and it is a defense? Well, that is how folks defend a movie like God’s Not Dead. My first viewing of the film, I told someone that Marvel has nothing to fear at this point. My second viewing did not really change that.
I want WB to start making movies at least as Strong as the Avengers or Captain America: the Winter Soldier. This movie is not it. Maybe the extended cut Blu-ray will change my mind a bit…but I am not holding my breath at this point.
*Since I started writing this? Smith saw the film a second time and basically said he found the film’s heart…it was in the audience. And I am sorry…No. That is a terrible defense. The audience should not have to bring the heart to the film.