Mediocre but not bad
published: (updated: )
by Harshvardhan J. Pandit
Note: This post is meant to be read by people who have seen the movie - as such it is filled with spoilers. So if you haven't seen the film, and are looking for a reason to go see it - do, or don't. It won't make much difference. It's not Epic, it's not a must-watch. It's a film that hopefully will get better sequels.
A friend commented on our whatsapp group, asking if any of us had seen the ratings for Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice on Rotten Tomatoes, and when I did check it - 33% (it has come down to 29% since then) - certified rotten - a bad movie no one should see. The audience rating was a healthy 72% - a sign that most cinegoers had enjoyed the film.
I was shocked, surprised, even dejected by this turn of events. Seeing Batman and Superman fight has always been something that is guarenteed to be entertaining, regardless of who actually wins. The movie is directed by Zack Snyder (300, Watchmen, Man of Steel), a person who has made good comic book adaptations, whose directorial style is quite entertaining for me to watch, and where the fight scenes are always more stylized action.
I argued against going to watch something that has essentially been ridiculed by the critics, been thrown around in insulting memes, and especially after seeing this video of Ben Affleck just looking sad - it's haunting. But I did end up going to see the movie, and I did end up enjoying it, even though it wasn't much good - but I thought it wasn't that bad.
This movie makes more sense only if you've followed the DC universe - Batman, Superman, Justice League - enough to understand the various plot lines and references littered throughout the movie. Without it, everything would feel incomplete and unexplained. A lot of apparent backstory and explanations are drawn from the comic story lines, and they just show up in the movie without a bare thread of notice and disappear just as much quickly.
This movie is based on, and draws heavily from The Dark Knight Returns series by Frank Miller (one of the best Batman series) set in the distant future where an aging Batman can no longer fight as he used to, and the US Goverment has subverted Superman by making him nothing more than a soldier who follows orders. The movie shows the beginning of this - as questions are raised against the very nature of Superman's authority, and steps are being taken to undermine it.
Why Batman is so angry and willing to take down Superman is a question that is really deep rooted in their history. Batman has lost Robin - a son-like figure who was killed by The Joker in cold blod (see the Robin-suit in the glass case with Joker's taunt?) - and is filled with anger, guilt, and the feeling of powerlessness.
Batman has always been someone who does not believe in inherent goodness - and so he doesn't really trust that every one will stay good (remember Harvey Dent turning into Two-Face?) Batman is the sort of person who keeps contingencies against his own team mates - just in case they go evil - and he is forced to act against them (see the Justice League: Doom storyline).
In the movie, a vision of a dystopian future is shown, where Superman builds an army under his command, is ruthless enough to kill people, and things are so bad that Batman has to resort to firing guns and killing people just to survive. The end of that dream-like sequence is Batman's death - by Superman. A very confusing vision of The Flash (that's the guy talking to Bruce in that electric time-portal thingy) is shown talking about this dystopian future (he is time-travelling) and how Batman was always right about Superman - that there need to be contingencies - and that Lois Lane is the key.
This is from the Injustice: Gods Among Us storyline - where Joker blows up a bomb - killing Lois Lane, and turning Superman into a dictator who has no qualms about asserting his authority over everyone - including the Justice League. Things are so bad - that the only way to make things right is to go back in time and stop the bomb from ever exploding. Lois Lane has always made Superman's mind crumble like a house of cards.
This is the point where it gets really deep into the psyche of the two characters. Superman has essentially grown up to fear his own power, to try and do the right thing. He has always been the outsider, and goes to great lengths to fit in amongst the humans. That's why we see him land outside the court and walk up the stairs and in there - he could have floated (or fly) in instead. That's why we see him standing in the middle of all those people after the firefight. He doesn't really have a strong mind for a hero - he's more of a boy scout. That's why Lex Luthor is able to control him so easily.
Batman on the other hand, has grown with dark memories - anger over the killing of his parents - a resolve to fight crime with crime. His thinking is captured quite well in the line - "… if there's even a 1% chance that he is our enemy, we have to take it as an absolute certainty" - which means that he wants to be 'prepared'. This is the same doctrine that is used / followed by the intelligence community - if there's even a 1% chance that someone is a terrorist, we need to prepare believing they are.
Thinking and action is not the same thing. While Batman is still busy preparing things - Superman gets in the way (this is where Superman just stands in the way of the Batmobile and wrecks it). Did Superman know that Batman was going after the Kryptonite? No, he is naive. He believes Batman is a good person, but he is too forceful (the branding incident) and thats why Superman does a show of power as a deterrent. This pushes Batman over the edge - he's essentially helpless sitting in a crashed car, humiliated and utterly powerless.
"Do you bleed? You will!" - that's what Batman says as Superman flies away - does he want to kill Superman? Not really. Just weaken him, show him that he's vulnerable too. Batman knows how Superman can be easily manipulated, how he does not really have the mind to take the sacrifies that come with being a hero, and how disastrous it would be if Superman snapped away even a little to do evil. Contingency - that's what Batman always does. That's why he has the utility belt. That's why he's Batman!
So how they actually end up fighting? Because Lex Luthor, of course. He just hates Superman - because he has power far above than what he can ever achieve. So he manipulates him into fighting Batman by first kidnapping Lois Lane, and then his mother. And Superman, confused and scared, flies up to Batman not really sure what he is going to do. Then they fight, because Batman doesn't really like to talk things out.
At the point where Batman has the kryptonite spear by Superman's throat, he hesitates - is he going to kill this god-like being and break his one rule? Should he? Really? And in the middle of all this, Superman moans out his mother's name - which happens to be their mother's name - cheesy, but that's how these storylines are to some extent. Saying "…save Martha" is sure to fire up the Batman's psyche, since his parent's deaths haunt him for eternity (that's what the dream sequences are there to tell, where Bruce's father says essentially the same thing with his dying breath). Batman realizes that Superman is just another person, wanting to protect his loved ones - and backs off. Saving Superman's mother is his own way of making it up to him, and also a way to get past the whole guilt trip he had (courtesy Lex Luthor) about him being powerless when his parent's died.
Then Doomsday happens - the origins are not accurate, but they're passable in the story line. Doomsday is a character who imbibes every pain, every death he is ever dealt and adapts to it - that is why he develops the sword-like appendage on his right arm after Wonder Woman cuts it off. To cut things short - Superman dies, they bury him, Batman wants Wonder Woman to team up, and voila - Justice League - with a missing Superman. The end scene supposedly fixes that by showing some apparent sign of Superman's revival.
One has to understand the characters on screen even before they see the movie - Superman grew up as Clark Kent, not Superman, and he still thinks as Clark Kent - a human with powers. Batman, on the other hand, grew up as Batman, not Bruce Wayne. His every thought, every action is for that one purpose he has dedicated his life to. For Superman, it's an obligation to use his powers for good. For Batman, it's a compulsion, that's his chosen way of life - the only option he thinks he has.
I'm not even going to comment on how little we saw of Wonder Woman, or how Jesse Eisenberg as Lex Luthor was silly and didn't do the character any justice. The direction was good - it was dark, gritty, adult without any candy-coated popcorn to please people - but the plot had holes huge enough to sink ships in. It was not coherent, it put too much emphasis on being a continuation of the comics and animated series - something most people would not be comfortably aware of.
As a film, it was okay. Not enough to warrant the bashing of having 29% in ratings - but that's my opinion as someone who is a geek enough to know all the backstories and references. I could pick out frames and references to Frank Miller's excellent artwork on The Dark Knight Returns throughout the movie. I could pick out the brilliant scores by Hans Zimmer from The Dark Knight trilogy and Man of Steel and the loved new soundtrack as well. The editing was crisp, the directing and cinematogry quite fine. What really let down the movie was the plot - a little more of the Marvel touch - where things are made clear enough to get new audiences in - would have made this the movie what it was supposed to be.
You're better off watching the animated movie Batman: The Dark Knight Returns - Part 1 & 2 which is pretty much the same story line, but is simply brilliant in plot and characters.