Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Alien v Predator

Whoever wins, we lose.
As much I want to put all the blame for Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice’s many and complete narrative failures on Zack Snyder's shoulders, it would be unfair to do so. The ungainly title as much as anything else indicates that DC comics is trying to do with one film what Marvel did with five and bring its major stable of characters together. Batman v Superman is having to do a bunch of that heavy lifting and suffers for it—it is the Thor of the DC Cinematic Universe. Yet the fact remains: DC chose to have their billion dollar babies midwifed by the guy who brought “This. Is. SPARTA!” to the culture at large. They hired Zack Snyder to make their movie, and a Zack Snyder movie is what they got: a shallow film that thinks it's deep.

The setup is actually credible: Bruce Wayne, having witnessed firsthand the death and destruction wrought by Superman and General Zod at the end of the previous movie, views this all-powerful being as a threat to humanity. Clark Kent, meanwhile, views the vigilantism of Batman in neighboring Gotham City as a lawless criminal. These are actually good reasons for these two characters to hate each other, at least on paper, and the seed for this antagonism rests in the best scene in the movie, an on-the-ground view of the destruction of Metropolis from Bruce Wayne’s eyes. It seems crass in its appropriation of 9/11 imagery, but it’s effective; it is awesome in the literal sense of creating awe.

The fundamental problem is that the movie is having to build on a weak foundation, that is, off the ending of Man of Steel. Superman actually is responsible for Zod’s arrival on Earth in that movie, and he showed no concern for the collateral damage being inflicted. The problem is compounded by Henry Cavill’s sullen performance, all scowls and grimaces. If Superman is to stand for truth, justice, and the American way and serve as a foil for Ben Affleck’s murderously deranged Batman, he can’t be wondering whether the people he’s protecting are even worth saving.



But then, Cavill is, like Affleck, only doing what the script calls on him to do. Rather than stick to the stark Pessimism v Optimism scenario as given, it’s hopelessly muddied by an existential crisis. The government, public intellectuals, and hordes of protesters seem to agree with Bruce Wayne that Superman is no good; by contrast Ma and Pa Kent’s parental advice essentially boils down to ‘you don’t owe humanity anything, and if you’ll help them they’ll still die anyway.’ Meanwhile Batman, who the Joker previously spent a whole movie goading into taking a life, blows away bad guys with abandon when he’s not branding them to be murdered later in prison. The conflict is thus something closer to Nihilism v Objectivism (which makes the announcement of a Zack Snyder adaption of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead the most perfectly awful news).

What this amounts to is, essentially, a remake of Snyder’s Watchmen. There too Snyder had a bloodthirsty vigilante, an aloof god-figure facing scrutiny from a skeptical populace, a female fighter who had long been out of the game, a literal doomsday clock, and a billionaire villain who engineers a monster that causes the people to rally together in the end. The problem with that film was that Alan Moore’s extreme skepticism of superheroes and their fascist myopia was undermined by Snyder’s camera’s love of fascist violence and power fantasies. Here we have the opposite issue: the movie wants us to be thrilled by its Übermenschen, but has inadvertently made them largely repellant figures. Snyder makes Moore’s point, but by accident.


"Comradeship" by Josef Thorak
Yet Batman v Superman is a considerably worse movie than Watchmen. The latter’s literal but not spiritual fidelity to its source material at least insured a baseline coherence in the story being told. BvS is instead stuffed with incident, most of it coming from Jesse Eisenberg’s twitchy Lex Luthor, and little of it cohering as a matter of cause-and-effect. The ideological conflict is declaimed through endless speechifying rather than interpersonal relationships and action, which renders the story largely inert, especially in its first half. People talk endlessly about Superman and what he means, but Superman himself has little to say in his own defense and does very little except save random people and Lois Lane. Batman and Lex Luthor do more to advance the story in this, a Superman sequel.

(Here Be Spoilers.)

The Batman-Superman throwdown, and then the Doomsday fight, are the point where the movie gives up on its Big Questions in order to just insist that superheroes are awesome. (To be fair, Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman is definitely the most awesome thing here.) The first fight is premised on a ridiculous hostage situation and evaporates with the absurd coincidence of the two characters’ mothers sharing the same name, while the second exists entirely by plot magic. The question of Superman’s place in the world is dropped once he conveniently, and needlessly, sacrifices himself—after having been literally nuked, in space, at the orders of the American president (voiced by none other than Watchmen alum Patrick Wilson). For his part, Batman seems to grow by refusing to bat-brand Luther in prison, though casual murder of low-level criminals is still an open question. A charitable reading of all this would say that our two leads have now grown into the role of heroes; we’re in a bad way if it takes all this to convince our protectors that humanity is worth saving and not brutalizing.

And then, for this movie has more endings than Return of the King, we see Batman and Wonder Woman talking about bringing all the other ‘metahumans’ together (while the film all but tells us that Superman will be back from the dead to join them). This is an obvious glance toward the upcoming slate of DC superhero films, but after the prior two hours’ sub-Watchman pontifications on gods and monsters, it recalls nothing so much as another Alan Moore story, one that Snyder hasn’t yet defiled.

Though not for lack of trying, I'm sure.
I speak of the conclusion to Moore’s Miracleman run, in which the titular character and his super-powered brethren step into the open and assume the status of gods, exercising benevolent but total control over humankind and its affairs. This describes Justice League the film brand perhaps more than it does the Justice League itself. Batman v Superman is far from the first modern superhero franchise film, but its insecapability and titanic box office ascendance, in tandem with its combination of the genre’s worst impulses—inhuman scale, unrecognizable characters, relentless grimness, empty pretensions, and constant deferral of payoff for another, later, installment— it is something like their apotheosis. Accordingly, I’ll let Miracleman speak the final word on behalf of the theaters' current reigning deity:

Sometimes I…wonder why anyone would not wish to be perfect in a perfect world.
Sometimes I wonder why that bothers me. And sometimes…
…Sometimes I just wonder.

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