Thursday, April 14, 2016

Out of the Blue and into the Black

Batman v Superman : Dawn of Justice

Thanks to Al I recently got to see Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. Thanks, Al!

Wow. Complicated movie.

I'll try to be brief, as lots of words have already been expended on this film. It seems that even for a perceived failure, BvS has generated a LOT of discussion, and of course to call an $870M grossing movie a failure is to overlook a lot of first week interest in DC Warner's expanding Justice League franchise. As I say, it's complicated.

The movie itself to me immediately comes across in one word: existential. Even in its dream-fed Bruce Wayne-centric opening the film employs real world referencing, to sometimes uncomfortable levels - a climactic re-enactment from immediate predecessor Man of Steel recalls instead a plane cannoning into a skyscraper. The terrorists are cleaved from real world examples like Boko Haram; no criminal comes unarmed, most carry an automatic weapon, and they don't politely line up to be taken down in turn in hand-to-hnd combat by an outnumbered hero.
 Not even in Christopher Nolan's trilogy was the Dark Knight this dark, this brutal, and at times in this very unheroic superhero world you wonder if there's a point to it all.

The answer is yes, and it's not initially from Batman himself, but it is about him and his alter ego. Ben Affleck's Batman is as far from the Caped Crusader as you could have, and yet the Bruce Wayne-to-Batman story here, reiterated once more, is core to the movie. Wayne narrates the film's opening, and the first line of dialogue is (crucially) his mother's name, the very word that will towards the film's end become the lynchpin of Bruce's understanding of his believed enemy, a man he is unable to categorise as anything but an alien until the realisation that they both had a mother, a family, and are capable of calling this planet their home.

Superman meanwhile struggles under his burden, and his doubt and ability to be led is open to exploitation by madmen and cruel geniuses with father complexes. Were I a Superman fan (as my good friend Al is), this would upset me the most - and yet this is a movie where even in death Superman triumphs. He never loses his imperative, the trailers (which tell many lies about the movie) do not show that he approaches Batman addressing him by his real name, appealing for understanding.

To me, Batman v Superman is about the plotting of Bruce Wayne's recovery from his lowest state as an angry, hard-drinking loner with deadly vigilantism as his escape - a monster glowering under the disapproval of a cynical Alfred, to being the hero he once was, needing the help of others to achieve this. The film's message in one line could be: Superman saves Batman's soul, echoed in Bruce's last lines: "I failed him in life; I won't fail him in death", and crucially his resolve that "Men are still good ... we can do better. We will. We have to."

I didn't enjoy this movie. I saw it under a strict timeframe and was itching to leave the theatre before it ended. It was noisy, depressing in places and often without mercy. And yet, given space and time, and on a second viewing even the theatrical version (I've not yet seen the Ultimate Edition) falls more into place. There's a lot of work in this picture from direction and cinematography (Zack Snyder is  one of the best visual directors working in superhero cinema today) to score and casting. The criticisms of storytelling and pacing are fair, but the film is sumptuous.

Many of the themes from Man of Steel are continued here, and developed. One of the curious dichotomies of the Superman story is his Semitic origins (an intestellar Moses, the creation of two Jewish boys from New York) with a Christian iconography, and even in death and repose Krypton's last son is depicted with the same visual language of Michelangelo's Pieta among crooked crosses of twisted reinforcing steel. This is specifically Superman as God/god, while the earthly Luthor and Wayne are the John Gaults from a director whose next movie outside of Justice League set may well be The Fountainhead.

Ultimately Batman versus Superman has to be seen as a building block in the DC cinematic world. Contrary to expectations, it's not a Superman movie - although Superman will undoubtedly return, and one of the consequences of BvS' reception will surely point to a revision of this version of the Man of Steel. It has to happen. In the mean-time we have another Batman for our age, also reinvented and repurposed, and like it or not, another step in the road to DC's heroic vision.