Tuesday, April 26, 2016

GAME OF THRONES 6.01 - "THE RED WOMAN"


The Big Question going into “The Red Woman” is technically still unanswered at its end: will Jon Snow return to life?  But if there was any doubt before, it has to be a given now.  Subverting heroic narratives is great at all, but the series has proven enough times over its willingness to kill off likeable heroes, such that it doesn’t really need to reestablish that cred.  And all the hullabaloo about protecting Jon’s body (which why would that be a thing important enough to die for at this point? The damage is done, and everyone at the Wall, regardless of allegiance, agrees bodies need to be burnt) naming the premiere after the Red Woman with ties to a god that can bring the dead back to life, reminding us that she saw him fighting at Winterfell…this amounts to a rather elaborate troll if the entire point is just to get our hopes up only to dash them, again.  We already had all year to work ourselves into a tizzy over this, it would’ve been nearly as devastating and far more narratively efficient to just open with Jon’s body being burned or whatever.

"I loved Jon as a friend.  But I will die for him as a plot point."
“I loved Jon as a friend. But I will die for him as a plot point.”

So, we’re getting Jon back, which is not a prospect that would have particularly excited me in the first 3 seasons.  But now, Castle Black is my pushing out King’s Landing as the setting I most want to visit each episode.  The capital was for most of the series the place with the most different people and agendas running up against each other, but now it seems to have been whittled down to the Lannisters vs the High Sparrow, with the Tyrells as collateral damage.  But in the North, even if Jon were to stay dead (which he won’t), we have the army of the dead moving from north of the Wall, the somehow even more villainous Boltons to the south, the Wildlings, what’s left of the Watch, and now Davos and the Red Woman running around.

That woman, it turns out, is apparently extremely old and only uses illusions to look like all the sex in the world.  Which was somehow unexpected but not really surprising, if that makes sense.  I mean, it’s a little creepy, but so what?  We already knew she was magic, and it’s not like a woman lying about her age is some novel fantasy game-changer.  So she doesn’t look as good without her make-up and hair did?  None of us do.  Melisandre’s character is starting to feel like the experiment where Ali Reed tried (and failed) to pair a photo of a model with a dating profile repugnant enough that men would not message it.  Like Game Of Thrones just wants to see how far they can push my predilection for pretty redheads.  She’s a literal witch you say?  Even hotter.  Dabbles in child murder?  Well, we don’t need to share all our hobbies.  Likes to put leeches on guys’ junk?  A little kink can be a good thing.  Moderate chance of Room 237-ing?  I feel like you’re just not getting it, show.

What is seen cannot be unseen.
 In the meantime, it’s up to Edd and Davos to carry the torch.  Luckily, Thorne does not seem to be in a big hurry to root out Jon’s loyalists from their chamber. I’m sure if he had seen what Davos has, he’d prioritize getting rid of them and the witch, but instead he focuses on giving speeches to justify his treason. I had a grudging respect for Thorne going, even after he killed our hero, but then he claims to have never disobeyed an order, and….look, I’m a lawyer by trade, so I appreciate a good loophole, if it’s legit. But I have to think that there’s at least an implicit instruction in most militarized institutions not to murder your brothers-in-arms. The Watch should maybe write that one down, just to be safe.

"Don't stab the boss" is probably in most employee handbooks, if you actually look for it
“Don’t stab the boss” probably appears in most employee handbooks, if you really look
 Moving southward, Ramsay’s mourning of his girlfriend is almost sweet, but stops a bit short of actual sentiment when he has her body fed to the hounds.  I’ve complained before about Ramsay getting more screentime than the character warrants, so I’ll skip right on to the fun developments, with Brienne riding to the rescue, adding to the length and breadth of her body count (and Bolton corpses to the Starks, Arryns, Cleganes and Baratheons she has put in the ground).  Even Theon and Pod get their kill on, and if it does not exactly rid the North of evil, it’s a good start for the year.  I don’t want to get my hopes up, but with Brienne and Sansa are probably going to head to Castle Black for shelter, and with Bran hopefully heading back South, we could actually get a Stark reunion 6 years in the making, before they march on Winterfell to oust the Boltons.

Shh...just let me have this one...
Shh…just let me have this one…
Further south, in King’s Landing, Cersei takes the news of Myrcella’s death about as well as she could.  Which is almost a shame, because as good as Lena Headey is playing her grief, what I really want to see is her unleash the beast on some religious nuts.  Hopefully next week will be a big episode for undead vengeance in the north and south.  The Lannisters don’t have a ton of time to dither with the Sparrows, either.  The Dorne storyline took a lot of flack last year, though if you ask me it had nothing more objectionable than one subpar fight scene to drag it down, but I have to admit being puzzled by this structuring.  The Snakes’ plan was launched last year with the killing of Myrcella, and while the argument could be made that the emotional blow for Jaime made it more significant than the princes being offed, I still feel like the full coup d’etat is stronger as a season-ending cliffhanger than part of a premier.  And of course, the timing conspired to make the sudden and tragic death of princes feel especially tasteless.

prince
Rest In Purple, you glorious freakazoid

To the east, Tyrion and Varys just sort of muse idly about the politics of the city that we and they know doesn’t really matter in the scheme of things, which would be interminable if the actors weren’t so engaging.  Then there’s a “dramatic” reveal that Dany’s ships have been burned, and it’s impossible not to sigh a little when Tyrion notes they won’t be sailing for Westeros anytime soon.  Welcome to Mereen, half man, where the primary exports are gold masks and slaves spinning wheels.  May as well get used to it.

Putting Dany back with the Dothraki had more promise, as it not only returns one of the more interesting cultures to the fore after years of absence, but strips her of all the dragons and armies and moony-eyed bodyguards that have insulated her from the sense that her troubles are at all significant for the last several years.  Well, most of it, as she is still able solve her immediate problem by defiantly listing her name and titles.  And look, I’m not going to be the guy saying that a major character should be raped for the story to work, but I would like it if she were to develop a new move for dealing with trouble. “Dragons!” can still be fun, but the “I am Danaerys Stormborn…” speech has lost some luster over the years.

khal
“I’d be gettin’ all kinds of exploitative here, but problematics are
 forbidden in the shadow of the Great Comment Section.”

In any case, she escapes the worst of enslavement by invoking Khal Drogo’s ghost, but that only makes her off limits because she is supposed to be locked away in the Dothraki version of a monastery.  She’s not enthused by that prospect, but it bides her time, and that’s really all she needs for her dragons and soldiers to catch up and free her. Her narrative Teflon remains mostly intact, and I don’t doubt that she will come out of this relatively unscathed and with a fresh khalasar to boot, but for now I’m relatively content just to see her in new environs, dealing with people with less interest in flattering her.

All in all, a solid start to the year.  My excitement for this premiere had been tinged with worry about the show going into uncharted territory, having surpassed the books in some storylines (but not others, I understand, so let’s keep the comments free of book-talk for the time being).  Not because I am a book purist or anything; I only read the first volume within the last month and I was mostly struck by how closely the first season followed it.  I know GRR Martin has given the showrunners the broad strokes of the rest of the story, and given how thoroughly the world of the show has been established, that is probably enough.  Still, not having actual books does remove a safety net of sorts, as until now, they have provided a full, existing blueprint. TV is traditionally a seat-of-the-pants sort of storytelling, with the myriad of network and productions issues, actor availability, and serialized nature of the storytelling requiring adjustments small and huge to be made the fly.  TV production tends to be at a more breakneck pace compared to novels or film, and the ratings model encourages it to be more reactive to audience responses, which can be a good thing but encourages unevenness. In a traditional show every episode is a first draft, but adapting books can make for something of a smoother ride just for having that roadmap in place from the start.  But so far without that map, things feel much the same.  The Essos material seems, as ever, on the verge of becoming great.  The delays in resolving Jon’s fate and the Lannister’s counterstrike feel less than completely necessary but are packed with enough great performances for me not to mind.  The Dorne subplot is finally out of the gate, and the developments around Sansa are aces.  A fairly typical mixed bag of a premiere, which is in a way more reassuring than if it had roared out of the gate with dragons roasting zombies and Ramsay being drowned in a pit of horse manure.  That would be awesome, but would also suggest a lack of confidence or patience.

Now bring back Jon Snow already.  I’m tired of being patient.

theon

I’ve decided this year to try to keep books on some of the multitudinous developments in Westeros:

Subplot Report Card:

The North: A

Castle Black: A- (dinged for stringing along a foregone conclusion, but raised by Davos being a delightful sassypants)

King’s Landing: B+ (table setting, but Headey and Coster-Waldeau together don’t need all that much to work from)

Dorne: B (giant Areo going down to a single jab from a toothpick costs them the +)

Mereen: B

Braavos: B-

Dany: C+ (I was also taken briefly out of the show by the structure of the jokey exchange with the
Khal mimicking Monty Python’s “Spanish Inquisition”)

Season Morgulis: Doran Martell, Trystane Martell, Areo Hotah

MIA: Bran, Hodor, Osha, Rickon, Littlefinger, Olenna, Bronn, Grey Worm, Missandei, FrankenMountain, Tommen, Loras, Sam, Gilly, Tormund, Yara/Balon Greyjoy, High Sparrow, Gendry, Blackfish

Death Watch: Varys – I think he’s served his purpose putting the Imp and Mother of Dragons together, and his general likeability and the strain it would add to Tyrion’s lot paints a narrative target on his back

Saturday, April 23, 2016

DC's SUBPAR HEROES: BEGINNING AT THE END

bvs

A few days ago, I blathered on about how Zach Snyder’s Objectivist leanings make him singularly unsuited to tell the story of the Justice League (TL;DR version: the idea of uber-powerful individuals working together to pursue altruistic ends is not a good match with a philosophy that disdains altruism and collectivism as a matter of principle). But the DC cinematic universe has started out on very wobbly ground for another reason: desperation to catch up to the uber-successful Marvel machine, which had a 10-film head start when Man Of Steel premiered.  This has led them to put the cart before the narrative horse in several respects, with the result that their Justice League is unlikely to become the phenomenon that The Avengers was.  It will still turn a profit, I’m sure, but it will need to be shattering records to make a comparable return on its sure-to-be-astronomical budget, and the reaction to BvS all but suggests that their Cyborg spin-off is not going to get the kind of boost by association that something like Ant-Man enjoyed.

Warner Brothers wants their own Avengers, but they don’t have time to futz around laying the groundwork for their big team-up.  One can almost feel bad (as one can for a multibillion dollar entertainment conglomerate) for WB in the way that they found themselves victims of both their own and the competition’s success.  Iron Man was a surprise hit in 2008, and as Marvel spent the next 4 years churning out solo films for Thor, the Incredible Hulk, and Captain America, they probably looked on with curiosity but no great urgency.  The films all turned respectable profits on modest budgets, and they were clearly building up to something bigger, but WB had its own superhero juggernaut in Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight series.  Those films were not only cash cows, but brought both critical acclaim and actual respectability (meaning award buzz and raves that didn’t qualify their praise with backhanded comments about “popcorn entertainment” or “summer blockbuster” what-have-you’s) to the superhero genre.  They were also, with their dark and relentlessly grounded vision, singularly unsuited to crossovers with the more colorful characters of the DC universe – Nolan’s world could barely make room for a Robin that wasn’t even Robin, much less Mr. Freeze, much less Green Lantern.  So even if they did look with a slightly jealous eye on what Marvel was accomplishing with its B-list heroes, it wasn’t about to muddy the waters for its golden goose to try to chase that, not while there was still juice to milked from the cash cow.

This sentence brought to you by my B.A. in Mixed Metaphors.  Thanks, Jesuits!
This sentence brought to you by my B.A. in Mixed Metaphors. Thanks, Jesuits!
Marvel, for its part, didn’t have the quite the same option when it came to sticking to big bets on its biggest properties, in part because they didn’t have the rights to their biggest names – Spiderman was with Sony, the X-men and Fantastic Four with Fox.  DC also had the bigger guns generally.  Superman is and always will be the most recognizable superhero, but if he has any competition for that spot it’s from Batman.  I’d say you round out the top 5 with Spiderman/Wonder Woman/the Incredible Hulk, who are on roughly equal levels of notoriety, or were in 2008. This would seem to favor DC’s bullpen in a box office battle royal – not only do they have the biggest stars, and more of them, but all 3 of their heavy hitters are core members of the Justice League.  Conversely, the Avengers similarly operate as the premiere superteam within the Marvel Universe and closest JL equivalent, but they aren’t led by the faces with the most real-world notoriety.

Marvel has now released 12 films in a row that at the least turned a profit and were rated fresh on Rottentomatoes. Some were bonafide megahits, and along the way have not just validated Marvel’s 2nd tier of heroes (Captain America, Iron Man, Thor), but raised the boats of the entire brand such that C-listers like Black Widow, Ant-Man, and even freaking Groot have become something close to household names.  That is a mind-boggling run of success.  So naturally DC looks at its comparable stable of heroes, stocked with some even heavier hitters, and says there is no reason we can’t do the same thing, but better.  And so the Justice League gets fast-tracked.

But Justice League is going to have problems living up to the standards set by The Avengers. Because the DCCU has started out in a rush to get to it, it is going to struggle to feel as momentous. I don’t want to make it out like Marvel made its creative decisions because they are noble geniuses, whereas DC is staffed by money-grubbing ignoramuses…Ignorameses? Ignorami?

This sentence brought to you by my B.A. in Mixed Metaphors.  Thanks, Jesuits!
Stupid heads.
Rather, I review that background to show that both companies were to a degree just playing the hand they were dealt.  But the results were that Marvel was compelled to play small ball, to build their lesser-known figures from the ground up, on meager budgets that forced them to rely on relatively basic storytelling fundamentals, faith in their characters, and across-the-board impeccable casting, to win audiences over.  And it worked.  Iron Man blew up and became an instant icon.  Then the Incredible Hulk stumbled without failing outright, but the character’s preexisting pop culture status meant that wasn’t a dealbreaker.  Then audiences accepted Thor.  Then Captain America.  Then Iron Man 2 was a commercial success but not quite as beloved, which may have been a blessing in disguise – the take was enough to keep Avengers plans on track, but the cooler response discouraged making it into the Iron Man Cinematic Universe, with everyone playing second fiddle to the one clear star (something that is always going to be a threat with DC and Batman, no matter who is in charge).

DC, on the other hand, having just woken up to find the tortoise already in the winner’s circle, is forced to play the hare.  And while they began with a couple aces in the hole, they haven’t been able to build on those stronger blocks in the same way.  I partly blame Zach Snyder’s inability to differentiate between strong and heroic for that, but it’s also in large part because they had to start at a sprint.  The Avengers was the 6th MCU film, and the first time the major heroes crossed paths in a significant way.  DC gathered its major trio together in its 2nd film, which was also the first appearance of  this Batman and Wonder Woman, whose intervention in final battle belies that she was essentially a cameo role*.

"I'll stick with no motivation rather than risk getting stuck with any of that nonsense they gave Eisenberg, thanks."
“I’ll stick with no motivation rather than risk getting stuck with 
any of that nonsense they gave Eisenberg, thanks.”
Batman v Superman’s script could’ve used about a dozen polishes, but I’m sure part of the reason it didn’t get them was because it was being rushed into theaters before the release of Captain America: Civil War.  With the two big superhero franchises releasing simultaneous movies premised on their most prominent heroes beating each other up, the different approaches yield very different results.  It really shouldn’t be a question that Captain America vs Iron Man would be the undercard to Batman vs Superman, even after 8 years of Marvel dominance.  They’re still Batman and Superman, after all.  And yet, for all their pop cultural clout and Snyder’s portentous, “adult” stylings, that movie’s confrontation carries less weight than that promised by the Civil War trailers (which I’m assuming from the early reviews and steady creative team is, if not revolutionary, at least not a total dumpster fire).  CW is the 13th MCU entry, and the 7th to feature RDJ’s Iron Man, the 6th for Chris Evans’ Captain America, and 3rd to feature both heavily interacting with each other.  They have a relationship, built over time, that the movie is focused on tearing apart.  By contrast, BvS is only the 2nd film in the DCCU, and the first for Batman (and Wonder Woman). These characters are still relative strangers to us, and actual strangers to each other.

And so their conflict rings entirely false, based completely on misconceptions and outright extortion.  It could be avoided entirely if they just spoke to each other for more than 10 seconds instead of punching first.  Of course, there is an extensive tradition of comic book writers using such misunderstandings to contrive ways to show heroes fight each other, before teaming up to take on some greater threat.  Even The Avengers actually contains just as much superhero-on-superhero violence as BvS in terms of blows or screentime, but it doesn’t position that as its entire reason for being**.  Despite all the sturm and drang around the “greatest gladiator match in the history of the world”, their big punch up has about as much riding on it in story terms as when Iron Man and Thor tussle in the forest toward the beginning of Avengers.  But as we go into Civil War, the heroes have actual relationships that are being frayed by a conflict that by all accounts is not a misunderstanding, but a fundamental disagreement of philosophies.  The Marvel movies have always been sort of proudly frivolous relative to the dour self-seriousness of Nolan/Snyder versions of DC heroes, but the slow build of the world over so many years and sequels lends this conflict motivation, drama, and weight that BvS has to insist upon.

sup
This review is for a different movie, but applies just as well
The hero vs hero conflict is the most obvious example of the DCCU getting ahead of itself, but it is by no means limited to only that.  Snyder (or whatever committee at WB makes the big picture decisions shaping the greater universe) seems to be primarily interested in latter day versions of these heroes, versions that traded heavily on a shared history and deconstructing earlier incarnations.  The problem is that in terms of the movie universe, Snyder has never constructed anything to deconstruct.  So we have a pair of Superman movies that are so eager to question and undermine Superman’s role as an idealistic paragon and quasi-deity that it never actually establishes him as being anything of the sort.  We have a Justice League movie and this quasi-JL prequel that are supposed to prop up solo spin-offs, instead of establishing the heroes as individuals and making their coming together an actual event in itself.  We have the Death Of Superman storyline shoved in at a time when he has no relationship to any of the other key players in the universe.  We have an adaptation of The Dark Knight Returns that is somehow a Superman sequel, and our introduction to a new Batman.

Now, I think TDKR is fairly overrated to begin with, but it’s strengths are largely in the Batman/Superman conflict, which would fine fodder for an adaptation.  However, that conflict derives its potency from the characters having a shared history.  It only really makes sense or matters coming after there has been a Justice League; as an origin for the Justice League it lacks internal logic and carries no weight.  And of course its iteration of Batman as an irascibly violent old coot is a popular one, but is just strange to have the retired, over-the-hill version be our first encounter with him.  That grizzled take only really works in the aftermath of a more classical, colorful version of the character. It’s an endpoint, not a jumping off point for the character to start palling around with Aquaman and the Flash.  I don’t think even Frank Miller would ever suggest that TDKR would be best experienced as your very first Batman comic.

Pictured: just some guy hitting a guy, apparently
Pictured: just some guy hitting a guy, apparently
Another matter is that it appears that Justice League is jumping straight to DC’s uber-villain, Darkseid, for its antagonist.  We’ll see how that pans out, but if they do go there it is just another example of a lack of patience putting the universe in a place that is difficult to build out from.  Comparatively, Marvel has been teasing their version(/rip-off), Thanos, for multiple “phases”, with no plan to deploy him directly until 2018.  This approach shows patience, if not always a deft touch with the character***.  If you blow your biggest villain wad on the first JL outing, where do you go from there? When you’ve essentially already done the Death of Superman and TDKR?

I understand DC’s desperation to catch up the MCU’s sprawling success and profitability, I really do.  But in trying to jump straight to Marvel’s current level of success, they are ignoring that they got there by building from the ground up.  Trying to build from the top down, but with no foundations laid, is a dicey proposition at best.  And it’s how messes like Batman v Superman get made.

I'm sorry, I just find this picture really funny
Sorry, I just find this picture really funny

*Imagine for a second that you weren’t familiar with Wonder Woman and saw this film – how freaking weird would it be that this person with so little screentime and no vested interest in the fight plays such a major role in the final battle?  Demonstrating powers and weapons the movie provides no context for?  I’m generally against the proposition that every movie has to stand completely on its own, and assuming some familiarity with the universe is one thing, but you do have to establish that universe.  Like, if you decide to sit down with the third Hunger Games or fifth X-Men movie and complain that you don’t understand what’s going on, that’s kind of your fault for jumping in midstream.  But this is different, because it’s not as though watching Man Of Steel would shed any light on the matter.  BVS needs you to be familiar with other iterations of the character in order to understand its brand new take, like, at all.  Which is emblematic of the way that the DCCU wants to use general pop culture awareness as its excuse to skip set up, rather than establishing its characters/conflicts in coherent internal context.

** Just look at the titles – one names itself after the team that the heroes form after clashing, while the other highlights that clash, and merely teases the formation of a team.  Except there isn’t even a “dawn” in the movie.  It ends with the death of Superman, and no Justice League.  Batman tells a noncommittal Wonder Woman that they should probably gather more superheroes together, but there are no affirmative steps taken toward that.  Iron Man’s post-credits teaser actually made more progress, because at least he seemed like Nick Fury had a plan with a name for it and shit.  Alternately, look at the featured lines from the trailers of BvS and Civil War  – Batman asking Superman “do you bleed?”, which is a legitimate question for him as he knows so little about the guy, vs “he’s my friend/so was I”, which is actual interpersonal conflict.

***Thanos has, as a veiny purple lump with a reluctance to rise from his presumably-padded throne, sometimes appeared less an omnipotent galactic overlord than a hemorrhoid that somehow has hemorrhoids.

Monday, April 18, 2016

DC'S SUBPAR HEROES: ZACHMAN V SUPERMAN

angry supe

Batman v Superman: Dawn Of Justice is a profoundly bad movie.  Wrongheaded on just, so many levels.  The entire decision to go super grim n’ gritty with the Justice League is a bad one to start, but it’s also done badly.  Being dark does not mean that things have to be as humorless as this film*.  The script is an embarrassing mess of pointless subplots, paper-thin motivations, needlessly convoluted structural devices, air-dropped set up for future movies, deeply unlikable characters and (I can’t believe I’m not making this up) jars of human urine.  Scenes are jumbled together without any sense of flow or pace.  Jesse Eisenberg’s Lex Luthor is a completely nonthreatening weirdo whose machinations stand up to no degree of scrutiny whatsoever but are complex and counterintuitive enough to require quite a bit.  Its attempts to respond to complaints about the stunning callousness of Man Of Steel’s setpieces feel sullen and half-hearted, and transform the heroes’ supposedly vibrant megalopoli into a series of abandoned warehouses.  It has, had, and will always have an egregiously stupid title.

But all those problems are with this movie specifically, and potentially fixable going forward.  Spend a modicum of time working on a script with a basic story structure, punch up the dialogue and include the occasional joke.  Introduce a new villain.  Make the heroes aware of and concerned for the danger their battles pose to civilians, rather than just having a TV assure us this fight is occurring on a deserted backlot.  Set the climactic throwdown somewhere other than a crater that looks like a smoldering cigar butt (between the ashy setting and the utterly uninspired design of Doomsday, it seems like BvS has simply exhausted all its visual imagination by the finale).  A little fuss, but not much muss.  But the DCU is still pretty screwed up, even if Justice League: Dusk Of Equity is a more fundamentally competent movie than Dawn Of Justice.  There are two big reasons for that, the two entities that DC/Warner Brothers have allowed to dictate the shape and direction of their cinematic universe: Zack Snyder and Marvel Studios.

 sny

Starting with Snyder, he is on one hand the perfect person to bring superhero action to the big screen.  He has a distinct and impressive visual style, and is extremely adept at directing sleek, muscular action sequences – something that superhero films have frequently struggled to deliver, even as they dominated the action genre for the last decade.  Superman’s first flight in Man Of Steel, the warehouse fight in Batman v Superman, these are some of the best realizations of the characters in action ever put to film.  The problems arise when it comes to stringing these fight scenes and bits of iconography into a complete story.  That’s when the considerable strengths of Snyder the stylist are overwhelmed by the deficiencies of Snyder the storyteller.

Perhaps deficiency is too unkind, because I think more than anything the issue is that Snyder is just the worst possible fit for the Justice League.  This snapped into place recently when the director revealed that his passion project is a feature adaptation of Ayn Rand’s Objectivist manifesto The Fountainhead.  Suddenly, many of the stranger aspects of Man Of Steel and Batman v Superman made sense.  Not the jar of pee, that’s still bizarre and gross, but the tonal elements that give so many fans of the print and animated versions of these characters fits make more sense coming from a Rand devotee.  I’m not interested in debating the merits of her secular cult (though my phrasing is probably a giveaway of my feeling on that score), but you can see the militant atheism of that belief system expressing itself through the movie’s antipathetic depiction of Superman as an obtuse deity that needs to be drug down to earth.  And its fetishization of selfishness and scorn for principles of charity and community mean that even the attempts to humanize the indestructible hero take the form of having him act surly and resentful that the useless plebs would have the gall to question their obvious superior.  Objectivist Superman doesn’t even lift a finger to clean up the giant spaceships and superweapons that his battle with other aliens left lying around populated areas for two years**.

"Ew, there is commoner on my cape."
“Ew, there is commoner on my cape.”
But I’m not saying that BvS is a bad movie because I disagree with the its politics, in part because I think it has far less to say politically than all the real and fictional politicians clogging up the screen would suggest. Objectivism could have the real world pegged exactly right from top to bottom, and it would still make a bad fit for the Justice League.  What I am saying is that when you take someone whose personal philosophy disdains the very ideas of heroism or teamwork, and ask them to make a superhero team-up movie, it should maybe not be surprising when the result is a discordant, joyless slog.  One with multiple scenes of Superman’s parents sagely advising him not to bother helping people.  One where Batman and Superman fight without any real difference in objectives, but because they both seem to take for granted that it would be inappropriate to engage your enemy in discussion before they've been pummeled into submission.  One where Wonder Woman literally drops out of the sky to engage in the climactic melee without ever exchanging a single word with Superman***.  Batman v Superman’s climax is a grim funereal march to a sacrifice that could have been avoided with even the smallest bit of communication.  Contrast this with The Avengers – whatever that movie lacks in dramatic lighting, there is a palpable joy its action climax, which is bursting with communication and interplay between the heroes as they unite to kick alien ass.

I’ll contrast two very particular moments from these climactic battles that I think aptly demonstrate the divide between the Marvel and DC cinematic universes.  First is that sacrifice by Superman, which is great in theory.  It riffs on Arthur’s death in Excalibur, one of my favorite dramatic/action beats in all of film, and allows for Superman to demonstrate that heroism isn’t about superpowers, but commitment and sacrifice.  Which is all great, except that the only reason Superman would have to deliver the killing blow is that he not even acknowledging his ostensible allies.  The Kryptonite spear is harmless to Wonder Woman and Batman, who has nothing to contribute to this fight after firing a single gas pellet.  So naturally, it’s Superman who grabs literally the only thing in the world that can hurt him and makes a suicide run at the radioactive murderbeast.  It’s the emotional crux of the film, and it’s only made possible by the utter dearth of cooperation and communication between the heroes.
bvs

On the other hand, there is a moment in The Avengers’ finale where we follow Iron Man flitting around various parts of the battle.  In the middle of it, he stops next to where Captain America is battling some aliens for a second, and fires his hand blasters directly into Cap’s shield, which he uses to reflect the beam into the oncoming enemies.  Then Iron Man flies off to check on Hawkeye or whatever.  It is a brief, entirely uncommented upon moment, and it doesn’t even make any sense when you think about it.  It accomplishes nothing that just blasting the aliens directly wouldn’t, so why risk shooting his friend (and at best, making him pause in the middle of a frantic melee) in process?  The answer is no reason, except it’s a cool moment of the heroes bouncing off each other, a beat that wouldn’t be possible in either of their solo adventures.


Both movies have these moments of abject stupidity in their action finales, but the ends to which they are used speaks volumes.  The death of Superman hinges on the DC heroes failing to make any effort to communicate or “team up” in their big team-up moment, and thus the giant, operatic emotional climax of movie and the foundation for the entire DCU going forward is laid on a foundation of dumbness.  Whereas the Avengers moment is fleeting, inconsequential, and is in service of highlighting the heroes operating in effortless (to the point of nonsensical) sync. It’s playing into and off the inherent strength of the premise.

It also makes the films seem, for all their insistence on their own profundity, dumber than they think they are.  Whereas the Marvel films play it dumb, but their construction belies a sneaky intelligence at work.  I’m not sure that this actually mean they are any smarter than the DC films on some sort of objective scale, but as with people, I’d much rather hang out with a movie that is smarter than it lets on than someone who may actually have an above-average IQ but is convinced they’re some sort of uber-genius.  The former allows for even a movie like Age Of Ultron (which is something of a mess in its own right) to sneak up on you with something as unexpectedly poignant and insightful as the Vision and Ultron’s final exchange, while the latter leads to big, sweeping moments that fall flat.

BvS’s misstep is especially frustrating because it is so unnecessary.  Let the heroes plan the attack a little, have Wonder Woman holding Doomsday in place with her lasso, Superman drawing away his energy blasts, and Batman charging in with the spear.  Then he gets swatted aside, and Superman is forced to grab it himself and do the deed.  This not only introduces something of a narrative thread to the sequence that feels like three heroes having three separate fights with the same opponent, but makes Superman seem less dumb, and also gives Batman added drive on a couple fronts going into Justice League.  At the Supneral, he says “I failed him in life, I won’t fail him in death.”  A nice sentiment, but one that rings hollow when he’s speaking of a man he spent 18 months plotting to kill and a few minutes working with (well, not even really with.  Parallel to, at least).  But if Superman sacrificed himself to save Batman, who tried so hard to kill him not an hour before?  That is the kind of selfless heroism that could shame/inspire the jaded vigilante to venerate his memory.  It would also mean that Superman died to save a familiar face, rather than the couple blocks of abandoned warehouses the movie assures us is all these people are fighting over.  And Batman feeling like it was his own failure in the face of a superhuman threat that caused Supes’ death is a great motivator to gather up other powered individuals to fill the boots of the hero he didn’t appreciate while he was alive.

aqua

But Monday morning script doctoring aside, the foundation for the DC-CU has larger defects than Batman’s motivation being weaker than it needs to, or even Zach Snyder’s antisocial tendencies, which could be mitigated by subsequent filmmakers.  Those filmmakers will still be saddled with broad conceptual issues hobbling this entire universe from its inception, because it was designed to first and foremost play catch up with the sprawling universe Marvel had already spent 5 years building up.  But that will be the focus of a separate post.

*even the movie’s lone laugh line, where Batman and Superman ask each other if Wonder Woman is with him, is just weird in context – She’s with you, Bruce.  Do you not remember when the movie stopped dead so you could add her to your Contacts List?

**Ironically, Snyder’s lack of belief in the basic concept of superheroes would seem to make him a great fit for another seminal comics adaptation, Watchmen.  Unfortunately, that material only served to put the storyteller and stylist in Snyder at reverse odds; if any superhero story ever called for a stripped down, deglamorized visual aesthetic, it was Alan Moore’s brutal and skeptical deconstruction of cape n’ tights tropes.  Instead Snyder delivered one of the glossiest looking movies ever made, undermining every attempt by the tremendous cast to expose the hidden ugliness and frailty beneath the character archetypes.  Watchmen looks like a masterpiece, and is very faithful to source material that is a masterpiece.  But it’s ultimately the difference, rather than sum, of those parts.

***I am shocked to find that as of this writing, it appears no one on the internet has inserted a cry of “LEEEEEROY JENKINS!!!” over a clip of her big entrance.  You think you know a place…