Batman v Superman: Dawn of Good DC Movies?

Well, after a couple of interesting teasers and one horrible, HORRIBLE, trailer, the much anticipated/dreaded Batman v Superman has finally been released. Early reviewers, from what I gleaned, absolutely hated this one, and so I wasn’t quite sure what to expect in seeing it on opening day. However, I found, strangely enough, that I liked it! I say “strangely,” because I was underwhelmed by Man of Steel, its predecessor, and was dismayed by that one trailer for BvS that gave away too much about the film, even the fact that our two titular heroes eventually set aside their differences to fight a common foe. I know that last part should be a given, but if you call it BATMAN VERSUS SUPERMAN, that’s still a conclusion that should have probably been left up in the air. Anyway, here’s my review of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice!

First of all, let me get some of my dislikes out of the way. It has become very trendy to be against CGI, and let me assure you that I am not one of those who have any prejudice against its ongoing use in films. However, it’s painful for me to see CGI being used where practical effects could have been employed more credibly. Over all, BvS has excellent production values, but there are moments where you wonder what they were thinking. Case in point, there is a scene where Batman (Ben Affleck) avoids a cop by climbing up a corner of a room, and then performs an almost Spider-Man like escape when he’s noticed and engaged by the cop and his shotgun. Setting aside for the moment that Batman, a sans superpowers hero, does a very good imitation of a superhuman, perhaps too good, the CGI model of the Batman just hanging out near the ceiling in all of his waxy glory just did not look very good. It would have been much better if the director had Affleck hoisted up there for the initial shot, and transitioned to CGI as he made his escape.

Next, I didn’t care much for Ben Affleck as Batman, but he was a lot better than I expected him to be. You will always run a risk in casting a character like Batman with a well-known actor, and while this has almost always been standard operating procedure for Hollywood Batmen, often to great success, in this case it was a slightly mixed bag. While there are plenty of times where Affleck is quite good as Batman/Bruce Wayne, there are also scenes that are so jarring and Affleck-ish that you’re taken out of an otherwise good moment. It would have been better if they had used a lesser known actor, but all in all, he wasn’t horrible. I give him a B- in his portrayal.

Last on the list of flaws is Jesse Eisenberg as Lex Luthor. Never mind the ridiculous business of making this Lex superfluously the son of another Lex Luthor (which doesn’t appear in the film), the new Lex is not the confident and cold-blooded villain that most of us liked from the comics, the early movies, or the Superman animated series. No, Eisenberg’s Lex is a quirky, slightly insane character with a hinted at past of being abused (let’s feel sorry for the bad man). Also, this characterization of Luthor with his ticks and exuberance bares more than a passing similarity to the Riddler than any Luthor that I’m familiar with. As a stand-alone villain, he would’ve been otherwise fine, but Eisenberg was playing the Man of Steel’s arch-nemesis, and his performance was just too different for such an iconic character, even to the point of being distracting.

Now that the warts are all out of the way, let me tell you about what made this movie good. First, Batman v Superman made Man of Steel a better movie. Many people, like this reviewer, were a little disappointed with MoS because we didn’t get to see much of the hero that is Superman. Instead what we got to see was a lot of excessive destruction with little real assessment of the humanity lost. It’s fine to take a good character to a dark place, that’s drama, but as a first act of an ongoing saga, it is odd that MoS starts dark, remains dark, and ends dark. However, when paired with BvS, suddenly we get to see the cost of what happened in MoS. Most of the movie focuses on Bruce Wayne’s conviction that Superman (Henry Cavill) is a threat, a decision he reached after the Zod-Superman fight (from the first film) destroyed a Wayne tower in Metropolis. Though Bruce did everything he could to save his employees, he ultimately watches helplessly as they die with a prayer on their lips. Bruce acknowledges little of the stakes of the last film, his concerns are that Superman contributed to the deaths of his friends and he, by his great powers, represents an existential danger to every man woman and child on the earth… a danger that Batman alone must deal with. Without the events of MoS, BvS wouldn’t have had its central struggle, and without BvS, MoS wouldn’t have had much meaning to its massive display of destruction. So, MoS improves just for having this next chapter.

Next, it didn’t feel to be crowded with characters nor have a cobbled together story, as I feared it would. A big worry was that DC was going to rush to catch up with the Marvel movies by forcing this one to be a de facto Justice League movie, with a ton of DC heroes thrown in. Thankfully, this did not happen. Other than some blessedly short video clips of 3 other heroes, Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) is the only other hero/heroine to appear, and she’s limited to a few scenes where she helps the plot move forward rather than appear as so much window dressing. And although this film borrows some from the comic story lines of The Dark Knight Returns and another that I won’t name for fear of giving away the film’s ending, it remains its own story that flows quite well. You end up caring about these characters beyond their nostalgic appeal, which is a testament to a well written screenplay and the film maker’s skill.

Additionally, the film has a great humanity and moral exploration to it. It deals quite well with theme’s such as whether or not morality is a negotiation or an absolute, what the source of legitimate authority is,  the possibility of  morality apart from God, and of course the long pondered proposition of whether or not the ends justify the means. The thematic discourse in this film adds a level of seriousness to it that sets it apart from your average summer movie or comic book film.

Lastly, in a small but important point, I was pleased to see that BvS was the first Batman movie to give credit to Bill Finger. For those that don’t know, Bill Finger was the co-creator of Batman along with Bob Kane in 1939, * but was never given credit for his efforts in his lifetime. His contributions included the look of the Batman costume that endures until this day * and key contributions to the creation of the Joker and Robin. * Knowing about Bill and the raw deal he got for the important work he did on one of the most iconic characters (an old song in the comics industry), it was pleasant to see him get his due, if only posthumously.

In conclusion, I highly recommend Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. It is a thrilling film that holds one’s attention despite its length, its production values are largely top-notch, its story was well crafted and interesting, it was thought provoking and even emotionally evocative, and its lesser parts aren’t strong enough to overwhelm the excellence of the rest of the film. This is easily one of the best films I’ve seen in months and I think this could show that the DC film franchise to has the potential to be every bit as good as the successful Marvel one. I give it a four out of five.

– Ryan Thorson

 

* http://www.legionsofgotham.org/HISTORYfinger.html

 

 

 

 

 

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Does the Force Awaken or Hit the Snooze Bar?

After over 30 years of waiting, at last there is a sequel to Return of the Jedi. Finally, we have a movie that will drive out the bad taste of all those prequels that we endured, right? Well, not so fast. The following is my brief review of Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

There was a lot riding on this one. Star Wars: The Force Awakens was supposed to be the movie that not only made fists-full of cash (which it is doing quite well), but also served as a springboard for an entire new Star Wars cinematic universe that would include a whole slew of money-making side films complementing  the primary films of Episode VII, Episode VIII, etc.  If such a strategy was successful, it would justify all of the billions of dollars invested by Disney in order to acquire Lucasfilm in the first place. But perhaps more importantly (at least to the movie-going public), SWTFA was going to be a magical film that would thrill millions of fans and bring us all back to a simpler period where we experienced Star Wars for the first time. But let’s be honest, there’s no going home. There are no nostalgia-goggles big enough to recreate the almost perfect circumstance of uniqueness in the cinematic market, the original creative approach to the material, and a Jimmy Carter depression climate (although B.O. is trying) that all add up to equal the same youthful escapism at the theater that we found in watching the original Star Wars. Unrealistic expectations aside, SWTFA is a pretty good film. It’s nice to see the old characters and familiar elements again, the new characters seem O.K. and at least have humanity to them, and the film has pretty good moments of humor. On top of that,  SWTFA has excellent production values, a reluctance to be too political in an overtly and trendy way (I wonder how long that will last?), and quite a few schmaltzy moments that make you remember an earlier age where you lost yourself in a tale of a farm-boy with dreams of adventure.

Now, it’s time for gripes, and I have a few krayt dragon bones to pick with this film in which I will be revealing a few mild, general spoilers. I won’t talk about anything major that will ruin the film for you, but if you want to be completely surprised, you might want to skip to the last paragraph.  I will begin with my biggest issue in that Star Wars: The Force Awakens, in many ways, felt like a reboot/remake of the original Star Wars. That is not to say that there wasn’t any original material in it, there was, but what you had was not just another Star Wars movie, but an almost retelling of that same story of a callow youth from a remote world who goes on a dire mission, and together with new friends, defeats the bad-guys and their planet-destroying thing, all while discovering the power within. Now, some might say that’s just because Star Wars is part of the quest trope, and Joseph Campbell, and blah, blah, blah, and that maybe right, but it was a little disappointing.

Another issue that I had with SWTFA is in its approach to the death of some of its characters. Sometimes a character, played by a distinguished actor, will be introduced only to be abruptly eliminated soon after that introduction, leaving you scratching your head as to why they wasted such talent. I’m reminded of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, where they had to introduce us to new-old-friends for Indy because the original actors had passed on the project or had passed away. In Indy, it didn’t really work, for lack of a good script, but in the case of SWTFA, these new-old-friends were killed off in short order before we had any time to assess if they added to the story or not. Additionally, the film pretends to kill off some of its characters, only to reveal a little later that they hadn’t perished at all. I’m not a fan of “I’m still alive, bro (high-five)!” type storytelling, especially when the death of the characters might have given some graver meaning to the future perils awaiting them. Please understand that I’m not trying to have it both ways (e.g. if you kill them, I’m unhappy, but if you don’t kill them, I’m unhappy). What I believe is that in drama, the death of a character, or the surprise return of a character, should have meaning. Kill them or don’t, but don’t needlessly off them or bring them back in such a way that doesn’t add anything to the story more than offering an easy road to plot complication C.

Furthermore, I got the impression that the script was a bit lazy and predictable. Character development occasionally happened because it was necessary to advance the plot, but didn’t feel very motivated. This is especially true where the force is concerned, with one of the characters discovering their powers because it was required to get them out of a sticky point, but made little sense for it to happen like it did. Additionally, a big deal is made out of the inclusion of a new female enemy, but in the end the character and their gender serve little purpose in the story. That character could have been anyone under that armor; nothing they did was so important that any nameless Stormtrooper couldn’t have done as well. Although the villain looked cool and appeared like she could do some serious damage if given half a chance, ultimately she did almost nothing to justify her existence, nor her unique look. The dramatist A. P. Chekhov observed, “If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired. Otherwise don’t put it there.” * I think this female villain was a needlessly-hung pistol. And lest I forget to mention, in a bit of a disappointment, the emotional climax of the whole movie, that part that everyone’s going to talk about, could have been seen from miles away. And while it may have been fated to happen because of story reasons and actor’s wishes, I really think more of an effort should have been made to make it more of a surprise.

So, that’s my take on what is likely to be the first of many, many films set in the Star Wars universe. Of all the possible measures you can use in determining the value of it, the one real testament of whether a movie of this sort (episodic) is good or not is inherent in the question: “Would you see another one?” As for me, I’m ready for Episode Eight. While in the case of the prequels, I was looking forward to the next one knowing that I was likely to be disappointed, in this case I measuredly foresee good things. My previous gripes notwithstanding, the story of Star Wars: The Force Awakens was pretty good, containing a good amount of warmth, wonder, and excitement. It wasn’t a perfect movie, nor one that sold my childhood back to me in a bottle, but it was well done. Bravo, J. J. Abrams. I rate it a three out of five.

 

-Ryan Thorson

 

 

* https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chekhov%27s_gun

 

SPECTRE Movie Review

SPECTRE copy

Finally, I took the time to see the new James Bond film SPECTRE. I understand that I’m a bit more than a week behind the curve when it comes to this movie review, but in the following, I will give you what few reviews on this film have been able to give… a good review. That’s right; I liked this film. It wasn’t the best Bond, but it was a good Bond. In the following, I will give you my brief impression of SPECTRE, but first let me write the obligatory warning: spoilers!

SPECTRE is being touted as the finale of the previous films done with the most recent incarnation of Bond, Daniel Craig, who is also rumored to be departing the role. Throughout his tenure as 007, Craig’s Bond had been fighting the unseen hand of a criminal organization at the heart of all of his adventures. In this current film, that organization is given a name: SPECTRE. Against the backdrop of a new multinational intelligence gathering program going on-line, as well as the impending obsolescence of the double O program, Bond strives to solve the mystery behind the ring he took from terrorists in Mexico, one bearing the symbol of the octopus. His search leads him into a strained relationship with MI6, and also into a strange alliance with an old enemy. As Bond enters the world of SPECTRE, and that of its leader, Ernst Stavro Blofeld, he discovers that in this game, the stakes he plays for could never be higher.

In the world of Bond, SPECTRE (which stands for the Special Executive for Counter-intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion) holds the chief role as antagonist, but it wasn’t always the case. When Ian Fleming first began his books, the original heavy was a Soviet organization called SMERSH, which is a reduction of the Russian words that mean “death to spies.” Fleming later developed SPECTRE, a sort of third-party, non-nation-state organization whose focus was profit as opposed to the Marxist ideology of the Soviet SMERSH. Once SPECTRE’s introduction was a success, Fleming apparently saw no more use for SMERSH as they were relegated to mere references in later books. When the movies came out, the producers went a step further and completely substituted SMERSH with SPECTRE at every opportunity, robbing SMERSH of a single cinematic outing even though it figures largely in several well-known Bond stories, such as in From Russia With Love. The new Bond series continues this tradition, making the rogue Le Chiffre from Casino Royale, and all the villains that followed employees of SPECTRE. However, different from the books and the original films, this newest film transforms the back story of SPECTRE’s founder, intimately connecting him to Bond’s childhood as well as making the deaths of the women in Bond’s life over the years as some sort of intentional retribution on the part of Blofeld against Bond. While this was slightly interesting, it ended up feeling a bit forced, less like a master plan put in place back in Casino Royale and more like an afterthought to make the film seem grander.

As a story, SPECTRE holds up well, but you can’t escape that feeling of de je vu that hovers over the film. In watching, I couldn’t help but hear the echoes of ThunderballOn Her Majesty’s Secret Service, You Only Live Twice, or even Goldfinger. On prominent display are the Blofeld accoutrements such as his high-collared tunic, volcano (crater) lair, white cat, and facial scar; it’s clear that the producers wanted to pay homage to Bonds previous to the reboot. However, I felt that these homages were welcome friends as opposed to annoying guests. I especially liked the naming of the safe house as “Hildebrand”. For those who are not fans of the Bond books, there are few Bond stories that have not been adapted to film, or at least haven’t lent their name to a Bond film that bears little resemblance to its namesake. One of those stories is that of The Hildebrand Rarity.

SPECTRE has what we’ve come to expect from a Bond film: plenty of intense action, exotic locations, menacing villains, and beautiful women. The film work and editing were very well executed. The opening scene features a sustained steady-cam shot that was quite skillful.  And, of course, the opening credits were very imaginative. And even though there were some moments were you felt like they could have done something more, it was nonetheless satisfying. For those of my audience that are libertarians or conservatives, there were even a few moments of applicability. The surveillance state looms over the plot, with a new spying apparatus created by unprincipled men. There’s even a moment when one of the film’s villains almost mirrors in dialogue President Obama, Hillary, and Rahm Emanuel’s ominous sounding phrase about never failing to take advantage of a crisis. I don’t know if that’s what the film-makers had in mind when they wrote this, and I certainly doubt that they would admit it if it were so, but it certainly works along those lines.

In conclusion, if you like the Bond series, spy thrillers, or merely action movies, SPECTRE is not one to miss on the big screen. I give it three and a half out of five.

 

Ryan Thorson