“Why you in my movie now, bro?” “I just am, bro. Deal with it.”
Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice
Starring: Henry Cavill, Ben Affleck, Amy Adams, Jesse Eisenberg
Directed by Zack Snyder
2013’s Man of Steel establishes a Superman who is profoundly uncertain of himself and his place on this alien planet. Is he a savior? Is he a threat? His parents don’t know what to tell him (raising a normal kid is hard enough—imagine if your child is bulletproof and can fly). The defining battle arrives and though he does come out on top there’s no questioning that Superman makes a handful of serious mistakes. This set the stage for a potentially excellent sequel where the Last Son of Krypton could work through his identity issues that are now also issues for the world at large.
Batman v Superman tries to get to the heart of all this, but as the title implies Superman (Henry Cavill) is now sharing the marquee with another financially solvent comic book hero. Shoehorning the Dark Knight into Man of Steel 2 is a cheap move that cripples our favorite Kryptonian’s character development, but this Batman (Ben Affleck) proves an interesting personality contrast in the sense that he is not lacking in confidence. Fearless, undaunted, occasionally brash, Gotham’s rogue has an answer for everything. Unfortunately, he’s also totally fried from twenty years on the prowl and not in good headspace to be entering a “Superman: friend or foe?” debate with the exile himself.
Ben Affleck, by the way, succeeds as Batman because it is easy to believe Ben Affleck would go fucking crazy if he had to be Batman for any amount of time in real life. He’s barely handling the terrible reviews this film is getting, can you imagine if he had to hide the Batmobile every night?
There’s enough to work with when Batman and Superman are investigating one other, the former running back to Alfred (Jeremy Irons) each act break, the latter to Lois Lane (Amy Adams). Alas, once Batman was throw into the fray the filmmakers thought, “Why not everybody else?” So we also have Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg), Lex’s cronies, the U.S. Senator trying to stop Lex (Holly Hunter), the U.S. Senator who isn’t trying to stop Lex, Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), Wonder Woman’s computer, a little bit of the Flash (Ezra Miller), a little Aquaman (Jason Momoa), a dash of Cyborg (Ray Fisher), one or two characters who died in Man of Steel, and another major villain who probably should have held out for his own years-long franchise.
And yet, as overstuffed as this caped opera gets piling all these people atop one another, Batman v Superman keeps pace and manages to engross. Not everything onscreen is agreeable but nothing catapults you from the universe (not even the Neil deGrasse Tyson cameo). There’s intrigue, suspense, a few iconic visuals, and even a couple great jokes.
Going back to the self-assurance motif, Wonder Woman steals every scene she’s in because she knows exactly who she is, why she’s there, and where and how to draw the line (the thunderous musical sting she’s granted by the score doesn’t hurt either). Gadot’s buoyancy cuts through the visual pallor and makes you hope for Wonder Woman v Anybody. Actually, maybe start with Wonder Woman v Perry White. I want to see Laurence Fishburne—who plays White, boss of Lois Lane—take his delightful grump to the main event.
Similar sentiments can be extended to Eisenberg’s Lex Luthor, a mincing prick you love to hate who appears closer to victory than a great deal of his cinematic predecessors. Killer wardrobe, too.
Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice gets just as grim and heavy as any other Zack Snyder film but the entire premise is grim and heavy: two of our favorite superheroes hatin’ on each other like a couple of goddamn haters. In order to make it anywhere near plausible you have to saddle these guys with handicaps of disquiet, fear, exhaustion, and recurring nightmares. If this isn’t your flavor of choice, don’t worry—depending on the way you count, BvS is the seventh Superman movie and the tenth Batman movie and there’s no way Hollywood won’t make that many more for each dude because they’re some of the most profitable folklore America has to its name.
And if all those stink, there’s always Wonder Woman.
FINAL SCORE: Three grumpy Larry Fishburnes (out of four).
“Pa never used language like that back on the farm…”
Man of Steel
Starring: Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Michael Shannon, Russell Crowe
Directed by Zack Snyder
On paper Man of Steel has lots working against it. Director Zack Snyder, if we’re being polite, has had something of an uneven career (if the gloves are off, the guy’s pushed us through one too many ham-fisted slogs and some of us want our Maalox tab comped). Producer Christopher Nolan gave us unexpected pause last year with his messy Batman conclusion Dark Knight Rises. Russell Crowe can be a walking punchline. Amy Adams has red hair. The icing on the cake? Our titular character, perhaps the most resoundingly American icon of the last century, is played by a Brit. Maybe none of this is as heretical as flames on Optimus Prime, but eyebrows have been raised.
The skeptics should let go, however, because Man of Steel delivers as a taught, exciting, and stylish retelling of Superman’s familiar origin. We all know the drill: the alien planet of Krypton is doomed, so a scientist named Jor-El (Crowe) rockets his only son across the galaxy to Earth’s pedestrian confines. Unfortunately, a pocket of Kryptonian crooks bypass their home world’s fate and discover Baby Kal, the last hope for rebooting Krypton’s people, chillin’ in our galaxy. Lead by testy General Zod (Michael Shannon), these nogoodniks arrive on Earth around the time Kal-El / Clark (Henry Cavill) is discovering his true heritage and they decide to make themselves at home regardless of how many lives or continents it inconveniences.
Other reviews are dogging Cavill for his allegedly wooden portrayal of Kal-El. I saw an actor expressing rather well the complicated emotions that probably come with being a lifelong outcast who has secret messianic powers and is suddenly thrust into his Jesus Christ moment approximately five minutes after meeting his biological father’s intergalactic ectoplasm. Cavill is as noble and as strong as he can be in the face of what could be his most abysmal failure. You see fear, you see frustration—this Supes is doing his best. He’s only been on the job for a day. Did you master the deep fryer your first shift at Taco Pete’s? Surely the fate of the world did not rest in your ability to properly brown tostada shells.
Man of Steel plays with the established Superman mythos a tad, yielding some refreshing results. To wit: Lois Lane (Adams) figures out Clark Kent isn’t just another Kansas hick before he throws on the blue and red togs, leading to a pretty great section mid-movie where she hunts him down and he sets up some key flashbacks. Also, Clark literally has the DNA of every future Kryptonian sewn into his rippling body, so General Zod can’t just rocket the guy into the furthest reaches of space if he’s really intent on turning our planet into Krypton 2. There’s no tweak here that’s outright disrespectful to the source material, unless you’re seriously married to Superman’s red y-fronts or that obnoxious geek Jimmy Olsen.
Effects-wise, Man of Steel could have been less video gamey, but it nails all the iconic moments (Superman’s first flight, our introduction to Krypton, Lois Lane’s one instance of true peril, etc). Call me crazy but it also feels like Michael Shannon is underplaying Zod at some points, as if he’s unsure of the character’s convictions. Luckily, Mike ramps it up at the end, touching off one of the film’s rawer emotional notes that works wonderfully amidst all the visual action movie candy. It looks great, there are beats of earned humanity, every major character gets in at least one good punchline—what more could you want from a Superman movie?
If you say Krypto the Super Dog, guess what? The Kents have a pooch and while they never say his name the mutt does manage to escape a major calamity with almost too much ease. Don’t be surprised if he turns up in the inevitable sequel.
FINAL SCORE: Four Kryptonian super children (out of four).