Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is a Statue of Jesus Made Out of Trash

Batman V. Superman: Dawn Of Justice

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is a mess of a movie. After a surprisingly coherent (and effective) opening sequence, the movie devolves into a series of seemingly unrelated scenes featuring hundreds of different characters saying something or other about “the nature of heroes”, or “power”, or “justice”… One scene doesn’t lead into the next. Things just happen without much regard to plot, or character, or theme. Whatever bits of characterization we get are hugely simplistic. Plot points are ridiculous, and the movie’s grandiose statements even more so. No matter how you look at it, this movie doesn’t hold together, and yet… it’s also kind of good?

The first good thing I have to say about Batman v Superman is that it’s surprisingly entertaining, which is more than can be said for its predecessor. I, like many others, regarded Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel as a complete disaster. Fans in particular had a problem with the movie’s uncharacteristically violent third act, I found the movie to be an unbearable slog from its very beginning. Snyder comes back to direct Batman v Superman and opens the movie by addressing the most problematic elements of his previous film.

We pick up with Man of Steel‘s last battle between Superman (Clark Kent) and General Zod (Michael Shannon), only we see the action unfold from a different perspective. We’re on the street level, and we see Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) be unable to deal with the massive destruction brought upon by the Kryptonians. The allusions to 9/11 are apparent. The sequence ends with Wayne standing on the rubble of a fallen building, covered in ashes, and looking up at the aliens that destroyed the city of Metropolis.

This is probably the best sequence of the movie, aided by particularly good sound design, and the relatively playful idea of reframing the end of Man of Steel. This change of perspective is quite interesting, and a more interesting way of connecting movies that are meant to exist in the same universe than most of what the almighty Marvel has done so far. Just this sequence is enough for the audience to get a sense of what Bruce Wayne’s motivations will be for the rest of the movie. Say what you will about what comes after, but this sequence is a pretty effective piece of visual storytelling.

Wayne’s perspective is important for this movie, because despite sharing the movie’s title, Batman is clearly the protagonist of Dawn of Justice. This, if you subscribe to the theory that the character who changes through an emotional arc is the protagonist. The audience I saw the movie with didn’t have a problem with this at all. It was apparent they were on Batman’s side from the beginning. So much so that they erupted in applause when the promised battle happened and Batman somehow managed to knock Superman to the ground.

It was truly bizarre to hear the audience clap at a moment were the most heroic of heroes is defeated, especially since it’s clear the movie doesn’t play this as a moment of triumph for Batman. Maybe they came in expecting an explicit gladiatorial battle and this was the closest the movie was going to deliver on that promise? Hearing people clap for Superman’s defeat on Good Friday was like hearing people cheer for Jesus’s death. Because Batman v Superman is a story of conversion, and Superman is clearly meant to be Jesus.

Man of Steel was already full of Christian allegory, but failed horribly at positioning Superman as a Christ figure. Batman v Superman seems to exist to right that movie’s wrongs in more ways than just addressing its problematic ending. It makes sense to make Batman the protagonist. Like Jesus Christ Superstar and many other retellings of Christ’s story, Batman v Superman finds more drama in the people around Jesus than in the messiah himself. The closest Biblical analogy to Batman’s arc in this movie is the story of Paul, the skeptic who converts after witnessing God’s glory. The main difference is that this movie’s Paul not only gets to interact with the messiah, but beats the shit out of him, too.

One of the most fascinating aspects of Batman v Superman is the way in which this arc is presented. The movie is overstuffed with scenes of people (particularly Jesse Eisenberg as the villainous Lex Luthor) running their mouths and pontificating about God, and the devil, and heroes, and power… but none of that stays with us, and very little of it makes any sense. None of that talk makes any impression, and yet the arc works. The movie operates beyond its laughable plot and ridiculous script. It operates on an almost metaphysical level, on the level of iconography.

I could’ve picked up the meaning of most emotional beats if the movie had been silent. And I could’ve understood the character arcs, too. This might have nothing to do with Snyder or the talent of any other person involved in the making of this movie, but Batman and Superman are icons of American pop culture, and they come with meaning. In a few months, Marvel will pit Captain America and Iron Man against each other; two characters that most Americans have only been familiar with for the past five or so years. Batman and Superman mean something to the culture. Any American alive would recognize them and could tell you what they’re about. The images in Batman v Superman are loaded. Their metaphors are obvious and overstuffed, they are religious paintings, they are Baroque art.

For most of its running time, the movie juxtaposes inconsequential scenes with such Baroque images. And for the most part, it works. At least until the true action starts. For a man who’s made his name with action movies, Snyder is incredibly incompetent at crafting an action sequence. They are all terrible. With the exception of the pretty exciting introduction of Wonder Woman, the movie’s last fight, which involves one of the most poorly realized and least imaginative CGI villains of the past ten years, is a complete dud.

For all intents and purposes, Snyder was the wrong man to bring these characters to the screen. Why would an objectivist want to tell a story about Christian conversion? And yet, the history of the characters is strong enough that it pulls through all of his questionable decisions (much like Alan Moore’s themes can still be glimpsed through all of the terrible decisions Snyder made while adapting Watchmen).

People have issues with Snyder’s interpretation of the characters, which I don’t really care about that much. Sure, Batman isn’t supposed to carry a gun and kill people, but isn’t it interesting and perversely enjoyable to see a lunatic like Snyder wrestle with the nature of these characters?  At first glance, it seems as if director Zack Snyder has followed up his dour and self-serious take on the origins of Superman by doubling down on the dour, but Batman v Superman finds new life in the excess of its operatic conflict.

There are many bad things about this movie. The depiction of the masses and minorities is problematic, Scoot McNairy plays a cringe-worthy character, there are a laughable amount of inconsequential dream sequences, the way in which Batman and Superman decide to stop fighting is beyond silly, and there is a plot point that involves a jar of piss! I know exactly how to shave about forty minutes of the movie’s running time, and yet I don’t want to. It is all bad, and yet, it works.

Snyder’s devotion to “cool” results in a grotesque yet compelling marriage between Baroque and trash. This is most evident in Hans Zimmer and Junkie XL’s hyper-dramatic score, particularly when electric guitars come in during the final battle. This is a massive opera, a collage of a thousand ideas. There is so much going on, and yet barely anything happens. I forgot most of the movie as soon as I left the theater, and yet, I can still tell you what it was about.

I can’t promise that you’ll like Batman v Superman, but I am fascinated by it. I have never seen a movie be this incompetent and effective at the same time.

Grade: 6 out of 10 

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Hit Me With Your Best Shot: Atonement (2007)

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“Atonement is on Netflix” seems to be the main reason why our dear host Nathaniel Rogers chose Joe Wright’s literary adaptation as this week’s Hit Me with Your Best Shot movie. Not that I’m complaining. However, if I were to complain, it would be because it’s so damn hard to pick one single image from this ridiculously good-looking movie.

Actually, it would’ve been easy. The minute Nathaniel announced Atonement a specific image from the movie immediately came to my mind. A couple days ago, however, an early entry by Chris Feil picked the exact image I wanted to pick. You should go read Chris’s piece both because it’s pretty great and because his reasons for picking that image are basically the reason I would’ve picked it, too. In case you don’t want to read his piece for some bizarre reason, here’s the shot in question:

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In any case, there are certain things I would add to the Atonement conversation. First of all, I must say upfront that I’m a huge fan of director Joe Wright. Now, Wright is not the kind of “cool” director that’s usually revered on the internet. His movies are based on prestigious literary materials, and their beautiful production values make them look like middlebrow imitators of the Merchan-Ivory period dramas of the eighties and nineties. That, however, is a misreading of the man’s style. Wright is deeply interested in beautiful images, yes, but he is also interested in creating meaning through them.

He isn’t always subtle. Actually, he is rarely subtle. But subtlety ceases to matter when you are enveloped in a cinematic world as rich and kinetic as his. What I love most about Joe Wright is his passion for cinematic tricks. Long takes, reflections, intercutting different perspectives, lighting tricks, and smash cuts are all utilized to beautiful effect in Atonement. Detractors will say that Wright makes his movies look like a Chanel No. 5 ad, I will say that he is a man who is deeply in love with the tools of cinema, and he will use them, dammit, to underline every emotional point that needs underlining! (he is probably the clearest, but not quite as frenetic, descendant of Baz Luhrmann).

But back to the movie, and its pretty images. Once I decided not to pick the same shot as Chris, I decided I would pick something from Atonement‘s first half -which is my favorite part of the movie. Ok, short tangent: the biggest problem I have with Joe Wright -a director I deeply admire- is that he can often lose drive in the second half of his movies. The first half of Atonement unfolds like a tightly constructed play, and its devastating ending casts a new light on the whole movie, but the time between those two -while full of interesting and evocative images- isn’t quite as interesting. The same thing happened in Wright’s Anna Karenina, a fabulous movie that doesn’t really know how to drive the home stretch toward Tolstoy’s ending.

The first half of Atonement is full of symbolic imagery. Again, not always subtle, but beautiful nonetheless. There are lots of images of people jumping in and out of the water, people looking at themselves in the mirror, and occasional direct looks at the camera. This whole section of the movie is meant to set up the lovers (played by James McAvoy and Keira Knightley) and the confused young girl (Saoirse Ronan) who will become their downfall. Ronan’s Briony is a fascinatingly irritating character. The whole movie revolves around whether the audience is able to sympathize with her, and Ronan plays into vulnerability and darkness beautifully. This was, in case you didn’t know, her breakthrough performance, which culminated with her first Oscar nomination.

So, before I explain why I chose this image, let me shout-out cinematographer Seamus McGarvey, who does an obviously great job. The stark shadows of this image are actually not characteristic of the bright and soft light he uses for most of the movie -which is giving the vibe of a somewhat idyllic memory- but it’s because this part constitutes the turning point in the movie. This is the moment where Briony learns about her sister’s affair with a childhood friend and all of their lives are changed forever.

A beam of light fractures Briony’s face in an incredibly suggestive image. Is the light-beam crossing Briony’s face a metaphor for the way in which what she is seeing is fracturing her worldview forever? Is the light-beam a suggestion that Briony is torn inside between what she should do with the information she is learning? Is this light beam a premonition that owning up to what she is seeing in this moment will be the only way Briony will find light in her ominous future? And is the way in which the light outlins Briony’s face making it hard to tell is she’s standing in profile or three quarters toward the camera a symbol for the way personal perspective and interpretation of images that are not quite what they appear play into the movie’s theme? Ok, I’ll let you look at the image now…

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‘Zootopia’ and Disney Progressivism Then and Now

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Before we get into this review, let me do a brief recount of Disney’s history with social progress. We have this picture of Walt Disney, and the Disney corporation as a whole, as very conservative-valued (let’s be clear: I’m talking about Conservatism as a broad political and social philosophy, and not in its America a.k.a. “Republican” version). And with good reason. Movies like Mary Poppins and Cinderella have deeply conservative undertones. For most of its history, the company has tried to play it safe, and has done everything it can to maximize profits by not offending sensibilities. But Disney’s history as a conservative conglomerate may have as much to do with the politics of the man himself as it does with the history of what has happened when Disney has tried to be Progressive.

In 1946, Disney released Song of the South, feature-length movie adaptation of the Uncle Remus stories. The film, which depicts the relationship between a young white boy and an old storytelling ex-slave (Uncle Remus) in the Reconstruction South was meant as a fable about story-telling and acceptance, but while it was a box office success, it was also quite controversial. The NAACP pronounced itself against the film, calling it racist; and though it played U.S. theaters as recently as 1986, the backlash against the film is so big it has never been released in home video, and it’s practically impossible to find a copy these days without ordering from white supremacist website.

Now, I’m not here to discuss the racism in Song of the South (if you want to read a great article about that topic, I recommend this piece by Odie Henderson), but to observe how the backlash to Disney’s early (and misguided) attempts at a Progressive message might have soured him on the idea of making race and other Social Problems a factor in his movies. This adherence to Old-Fashioned values is perhaps part of why Disney’s studio nose-dived in popularity in the seventies and eighties (that, and the death of Walt himself, which undoubtedly played a major factor).

Curiously enough, Disney regained its footing in the nineties, by embracing an old musical aesthetic and marrying to more modern concerns. The studio had its first attempt at a feminist heroine in Beauty and the Beast, and started setting its movies in different cultures. Disney’s big attempt at Progressivism in the nineties came with Pocahontasa beautiful-looking movie, that misguidedly attempts to turn the arrival of Europeans to the Americans into a love story, casually (but perhaps not intentionally) neglecting the tragic nature of the effects this encounter had on Native American history.

Similarly, the last movie I would describe as a transparent attempt at delving into the Progressive well by Disney would be The Princess and the Froganother beautiful-looking whose problematic elements made headlines even before it was released. People protested when they found out Disney’s first-ever African American Princess was actually going to be a maid, and so Tiana was changed into a working class waitress with a dream of opening a restaurant of her own. Even in its finished version, The Princess and the Frog elicited complaints that the titular Princess wasn’t really a princess, and that she spent most of the movie’s running-time as a frog. Both problems of depiction when you are talking about the first and basically only black protagonist in a Disney Animation’s history.

This is all to say that Disney just can’t get it right. And even though they have themselves to blame, I also wouldn’t begrudge them if they didn’t want to attempt any other Progressive idea in the future. After all, it only seems to bring them trouble.

Now, let us talk about Zootopia. Because for all intents and purposes, this is Disney’s most effective and transparent (in a way) attempt at tackling the issue of Race Relations in America. And even then, the message has problems of its own.

The issue of transparency is interesting, because not only did Disney decide to take humans out of the equation altogether and make this a race parable told through funny talking animals, but because the lack of human characters afforded them the luxury to not have to advertise the fact that this was a movie about race. Disney’s sneaky strategy of not revealing their movie’s themes has payed off recently. Don’t you remember how the marketing materials for Frozen -Disney’s biggest hit ever- didn’t let anyone know this was a movie about sisterhood until they actually saw the film?

Anyway, Zootopia takes place in a fantasy world populated by talking animals. Our protagonist is a bunny by the name of Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin). Ever since she was a child, Judy wanted to be a police officer in the big city of Zootopia, and thanks to the “Mammals Inclusion Program” (this world’s version of Affirmative Action), she gets to be the first ever bunny cop in the force. But Judy is undermined by her colleagues for being a girl and a rabbit. The plot kicks into gear when Judy decides to prove her worth, and takes on a case that ends up unraveling a major conspiracy that involves fourteen missing animals.

The interesting thing about the conspiracy is that all the missing animals are predators. You see, in the world of Zootopia, there is a clear distinction between Predators and Prey, and this is where the race allegory comes into play. Predators represent only 10% of this world’s population, and Prey have a long list of preconceptions about what kind of people Predators are. After all, there used to be a time -millennia ago- when Predators would hunt and eat Prey. As a young bunny, Judy had a violent encounter with a bully Fox. “It’s the kind of behavior you’d expect from a Fox” say her Parents. “He only happened to be a Fox” says Judy. Midway through her adventure, Judy teams up with sly trickster Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman), who also happens to be a Fox.  Because this is a kids’ movie I don’t need to tell you that Judy and Nick learn to accept and respect each other by the end of the movie. And thus, we practically come full circle from the days of Song of the South, when Br’er Rabbit and Br’er Fox were enemies to a movie were rabbit and fox live together in harmony.

But let’s look deeper into Zootopia’s allegory. There’s a lot to unpack here. The first thing that jumped at me is the movie’s decision to make Predators the minority species and Prey the hegemony (relatively speaking). If you wanted to create a reflection of America’s own history with race relations, I think it would be more appropriate for the Prey to be the historically minoritized group, and Predators into the oppressors who must struggle with their ancestor’s behavior and history.

The way in which Zootopia uses Predators to represent the minoritized group is interesting in that the Prey citizens of Zootopia have a deep fear of the Predators “going savage”, by which they mean them reverting to their ancestral stage, back when they would’ve violently hunted 90% of the population. This idea taps quite effectively into white America’s fears of what would happen when minorities are empowered, but it also uses the very loaded term “savage”, and doesn’t come unscathed. The sometimes brash, but always insightful film critic Devin Faraci wrote about this particular problem in his review of Zootopia, and explains why the idea of making Predators the metaphorical equivalent for black people is fundamentally flawed. Here’s a particularly good quote:

“At one point Judy Hopps talks about how predators are biologically given to violent behavior, and it’s really offensive to her predator friends but get this – she’s right. In the context of the allegorical world being built she is 100% correct. In the past predators did kill other animals as part of their biological imperative. They do come from a heritage of violence and savagery. Despite the film’s attempt to make the appeal to biology look wrong, its allegorical base affirms the most racist assumptions about black people – they come from savagery.”

This contradiction in Zootopia‘s analogy stuck in the back of my mind for most of the movie. Although I have to say that the movie very deliberately introduces a third-act reveal that makes clear what the filmmakers were going for with the whole “going savage” bit, and how it plays into their message about tolerance and acceptance. Without going into spoilers and such, let’s just say that they make it clear that the citizen of Zootopia’s worry that Predators will “go savage” is misguided. That being said, and going back to Faraci’s point, there is a historical reason within the movie why one could consider that Predators devolving into their primal nature could be a legitimate problem.

That’s why I think the movie might have worked better if the roles were flipped. When we compare the movie to our own world -and please don’t be all “why do you have to bring real-life politics and history into a movie about talking animals”, because the movie very clearly wants to engage in such a conversation through its themes- we see that the history of white people in America (as slave-owners, and accomplices of a racist society) fits better with the Predators’ history. On the other hand, the filmmakers have a clear interest in representing white people’s fears and perceptions of blacks and other minorities as “dangerous”, and I don’t know how that would work if the metaphor was flipped. But now we’re getting into speculation of what the movie should and should’ve done and we’ve stopped talking about the movie itself.

And there’s a reason for that. The weird thing about Zootopia is that its central racial metaphor, despite its fundamental problems, is the movie’s biggest strength and most commendable aspect. A late second act development, for example, depicts a moment of mass hysteria and exploitation of racial (or inter-species) tension by the media. The animals of Zootopia give over to a kind of mob-mentality that until Donal Trump’s recent rise to political success could have only been expected from the citizens of Springfield. There is a certain boldness in what this movie for kids released by Disney wants to tackle that is nothing but commendable.

The sad part of this situation is that outside of the metaphor, Zootopia is merely an ok movie. It’s got a solid mystery at its center, and a bunch of funny jokes, but that’s it. A couple years ago, Tangled and Frozen promised a new Golden Age for Disney Animation, but the studio -as it usually does when it finds success- seems to have settled into a predictable formula. It took them a long time, but Disney has settled into the business of Computer-Generated Animation, and has found refuge by focusing on plot and ideas and neglecting visuals.

This might seem contradictory coming from a person who is constantly demanding that movies actually be about something, but cinema -and animation more than any other medium- is built around the grammar of images. The cliché about animation is that it allows you to do anything, and the people over at Disney -who has historically led the charge in technology and innovation as far as animation style is concerned- seem to have lost interest in telling stories through images.

There isn’t a single visual moment or sequence in Zootopia that sticks with me as a feat of animation. If your knee-jerk reaction is to disagree with me, I urge you to think back and tell me what are the most memorable moments from Disney’s recent animated movies. For me, it’s the lanterns rising from the sea in Tangled, and Hiro trying to sneak Baymax around his house in Big Hero 6. These moments carry their power not in words, but in images. So does the moment when Maleficent turns into a dragon in Sleeping Beauty, when Belle and Beast share their first dance in Beauty and the Beast, and when Simba grows up walking on a log alongside Timon and Pumba in The Lion King. These are all movies that find power in their craft. They use animation not as an excuse, but as a means to tell their story.

Grade: 6 out of 10

Hit Me With Your Best Shot: Ghostbusters (1984)

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It’s a moment of both joy and lamentation, as Hit Me with Your Best Shotthe fabulous series conducted by the great Nathaniel Rogers- starts its sixth, and final, season. Lamentation because I’ll miss participating -and checking out other participant’s picks. Joy because, like I just said, participating is fun. 

Now, on to talk about the actual movie. This season opens with Ghostbusters, a movie -I must admit- I had never seen before last night. You will have to forgive me if you are one of those people who swear by the movie, but I was quite underwhelmed by it. I wouldn’t call it bad or anything, just merely ok. And maybe it’s one of those things where you had to encounter the movie as a child to love it, or maybe it’s the fact that people built it up for me too much, but the reality of the situation is that Ghostbusters = an ok movie.

But Best Shot has always been about appreciating cinema, even if what you’re seeing isn’t as engaging as you would hope, and especially when what you’re seeing doesn’t strike you as particularly great cinematography. The way this series works, of course, is you pick what you think is the best shot of a particular movie. How do you pick the best shot of a movie whose photography isn’t particularly interesting to you? Those are the challenges that make this so much fun.

That being said, I wouldn’t say that I found the photography in Ghostbusters to be bad. I mean, it’s no Tree of Lifebut it doesn’t need to be. What impressed me the most about director Ivan Reitman and cinematographer László Kovács’s work were what I’m calling their “frontal” compositions (sorry for my lack of cinematic vocabulary). What I mean by that is all the many shots in Ghosbusters that are shot with a wide lense, and position the action right in front of the camera, as if we’re looking straight ahead into a painting, or a window. You know, the kind of shot that is all over Wes Anderson’s movies.

To put this into context, here are a couple examples from the movie:

It’s no secret that I’m a huge Wes Anderson fan, but I response to his aesthetic for a reason. These “frontal” wide shots are not only elegant, but they can be very effective, especially in comedy. First of all, because they set up a spacious world (thanks to the deep focus of the lense) that the director can build upon by adding, subtracting, or moving elements within the frame. Second, because it’s fun to see things pop in and out of frames, especially when the frames are static. It’s almost like seeing a painting being disturbed, or a magic trick where something unexpected enters the equation of the expected. It’s also undoubtedly reminiscent of newspaper comic strips.

All of this brings me to my favorite moment in the movie. One that, is shot this way, and one that uses elements going out of the frame in a very smart way, but is not a comedic moment. I’m talking about the moment when Sigourney Weaver is attacked and possessed in her apartment. More specifically, about the moment when demons pull her -sitting on a chair- toward their brightly-lit portal. Sigourney -and the couch- fly by right in front of us on screen, and then, they disappear. One minute you see her, and the next you don’t. The language of cinema can be simple like that.

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I know. This would’ve worked better as a GIF, but I couldn’t find one. And I’m not technically savvy enough to make one myself.