Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Review: "Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice"

Ironically, the best thing about "Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice" is the part that first drew fanboys' wrath.

Ben Affleck is brooding and magnetic in the nth iteration of Batman, playing a Bruce Wayne who's grayer and grimmer than we've seen before. His dark knight has been at it for decades, is worn around the edges, harbors grave doubts about whether his vigilantism has had any lasting positive effect on Gotham City. But he keeps plying away at it because he simply doesn't know any other life.

And Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman is a hoot, showing up late in the going to bring a welcome muscular female presence to the superhero game.

What's wrong is... well, just about everything else.

This is a hot, hot mess of a movie. It's overstuffed with CGI light shows, incomprehensible hand-to-hand fight scenes, extraneous characters and a giggling head villain who seems like the filmmakers are trying to channel a diluted version of the Joker.

The entire premise, captured in the title, is that the DC Comics universe's two greatest heroes are on a fatal collision course, when of course we know they're just going to wind up joining forces in the end.

(No spoilers here; the trailer shows as much.)

This is basically an "Avengers" origin story, as we lay the foundation for the formation of the Justice League. Aquaman, the Flash and Cyborg are all briefly glimpsed as part of the hidden community of "meta humans." You may recall the boys tussled quite a bit in the first "Avengers" flick before laying aside their beefs; this one just draws that portion out a little further.

I'm not going to get bogged down in an argument about which comics pantheon of heroes is better, Marvel or DC. (It's Marvel.) But the Marvel folks carefully planned out their cinematic adaptation, taking years and multiple solo movies with individual heroes to lay the groundwork.

Director Zach Snyder, who also helmed 2013's "Man of Steel" reboot of Superman starring Henry Cavill, feels like a lone wolf freelancing as he goes. Somewhere in the past there was a pitch meeting in which the studio was sold on the idea of Batman and Superman fighting. Then screenwriters Chris Terrio and David S. Goyer were told, "Go find a way to make it happen."

And what does happen isn't terribly convincing. The idea is that thousands of people died in the epic throwdown between Superman and General Zod, so Bruce Wayne comes to view him as a threat that must be eliminated. He's constantly tinkering down in his Batcave, tiredly jousting with loyal butler/major domo Alfred (Jeremy Irons, utterly wasted), coming up with new contingencies.

Meanwhile, Lex Luthor has been reimagined as a sniggering Zuckerberg-style boy billionaire, gleefully mucking around with other people's lives. He's played by Zuckerberg's cinematic alter-ego, Jesse Eisenberg, doing that pinched-voice, hyper-fast talking, neurotic thing he does. He's tracked down some kryptonite, and not only is he determined to use it to kill Superman, he's manipulating Bats into doing it for him.

Superman, who was kind of a drab bore in his own movie, fares even worse when he's splitting the screen time. He comes across as a detached demigod, willing to serve as mankind's savior but not terribly thrilled about it. Cavill is often asked to just stand there and react as other more interesting characters tell him what he should be thinking or doing.

Amy Adams, as reporter/love interest Lois Lane, is summoned back to damsel herself into some distress whenever things slow down too much.

I admit, after decades of Superman lore the one thing I still don't get is the Clark Kent alter ego. He really doesn't seem to serve any useful purpose. As Kevin Smith noted in "Clerks" so many years ago, Superman is who he really is, and Clark is the disguise. Every minute he spends in the newsroom of the Daily Planet, bickering about stories with editor Perry White (a dyspeptic Laurence Fishburne), you want to shout at him, "YOU COULD BE OUT SAVING LIVES RIGHT NOW!!!"

(Plus, the whole "now you see him without glasses, now you don't see him with glasses" thing is just aggravating as hell. Every movie asks you to suspend disbelief, but that's demanding we levitate it into the stratosphere.)

What a colossal disappointment. What a squandering of time and talent. What a way to launch a multiverse with a total faceplant.

Except Batman. Be yourself, but if you can be Batman, always be Batman. Especially if you're as good at it as Affleck.

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