Wednesday, March 30, 2016

To a New World of Gods and Monsters: Betwixt Heaven and Hell with BATMAN V. SUPERMAN


Midway upon the journey of his life, Bruce Wayne finds himself within a forest dark, a liminal state born from his own tortured psyche, a fantastical future inferno of a broken civilization teeming with quasi-Fascist guards and swarming with winged mercenaries. And at the center of it all stands his greatest fear, the Kryptonian god among men driven mad with his own power, the straightforward path long lost.  The matter of how much of this vision exists as a dream and how much as a prophecy from the future (or a Poe-esque dream within a dream) remains of some debate. But the scene itself, bracing and bleak, serves as a microcosm of the film from which it ushers forth. For Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice is no mere fan fic slugfest, but an operatic fever dream. It’s also a fitting expression of where we stand in this era of peak comic book (or maybe peak superhero would be more accurate.) And a perfect sequel to a film that doesn’t exist.

I’ve written before in this electronic hub about the star-crossed career of Zack Snyder. Suffice to say, he remains a fascinating, frustrating figure in the cinematic world. In the pantheon of music video directors gone Hollywood, he’s never had the obsessive focus on detail and procedure that makes David Fincher such a transcendent talent. Fincher’s films are psychological halls of mirrors hidden inside alluring puzzle boxes, Hitchcockian exercises in pop art as Trojan Horse. Snyder’s aspirations have always been more mythological and archetypical, grand and bombastic, sometimes to a fault. The visually stunning world of 300 is a thing of dark beauty, but what he does with that world too often never extends beyond abject male chest-thumping and war porn tendencies. Granted, the same could be said about Frank Miller’s source material. It all becomes serious to the point of self-parody; far more enjoyable was the Snyder-produced prequel 300: Rise of an Empire, which coupled that same visual scheme with a hearty embrace of the pulpy sword and sandal roots from whence it came, ably abetted by a delirious turn by Eva Green as the villainess with golden tongue (“You fight much harder than you fuck” she intones in one memorable scene.) I quite enjoyed his stab at adapting Alan Moore’s Watchmen, even as its stylistic nods to the book’s musings on the power of nostalgia were sometimes undercut by a slavish devotion to replicating beats from the source material. And Sucker Punch remains a wildly misunderstood work, a hallucinatory, pointed critique of the male gaze under the guise of the thrillers that so perpetuate that gaze.

Snyder’s folly in crafting Man of Steel was in confusing the very nature of Superman with his successors in the four-color domain. There’s too much of Spider-Man’s “With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility” injected into the story; that tack resonated so deeply with Peter Parker because he was an ordinary, maladjusted human being endowed with extraordinary abilities (the Marvel template in a nutshell.) Superman’s dilemma has always been more “Heavy is the Head that Wears the Crown,” the crisis of a god descended to Earth to live among us. Even in his more light-hearted, Technicolor adventures, he’s been forced to balance his near-omnipotent nature with his deep connection to we flawed mortals. And where Spider-Man’s public reputation has fluctuated throughout the years, the Big Blue Boy Scout has been the guiding beacon of light for a troubled world. Foregrounding his existential crisis turned Man of Steel into a slog, the sense of wonder so inherent to any portrayal of the character submerged beneath a darkness that was tonally all wrong. The emotionally shattering climax of Richard Donner’s 1978 Superman (in which the only person Superman can’t save from Lex Luthor’s plot is Lois Lane) holds such power only because it’s been preceded by two hours of Clark Kent and his flip side striving to be the unironic voice of hope in an increasingly cynical world. Man of Steel goes all brooding Kal-El from the start, which constantly dampens the aspirational mythology at the heart of the character.

Which is what makes Batman V. Superman the perfect sequel to the mythical Man of Steel that could have been. In an increasingly corporatized filmmaking environment, Snyder is one of the dwindling few directors who has been able to inject some sense of personal vision into the now de rigeur world-building imperative that threatens to drown the pure enjoyment of any individual comic book film (and sometimes any tentpole feature, period.) Juggling the dictates of shepherding a $250 million picture for immediate success, while laying the groundwork for multiple spinoffs and a larger team-up project can be daunting for even the most seasoned professional (see Joss Whedon post-Age of Ultron meat grinder.) Post-Avengers, it became readily apparent that Warner Brothers’ Superman reboot displayed their intentions of kicking off a multi-tiered DC heroes initiative, one which would carry a darker, more world-weary tone than the brighter, snappier Marvel Cinematic Universe. So as a stand-alone film, Batman V. Superman works marvelously as the purest expression of that alternative reality, a rejoinder to the lightness that its predecessor should have possessed. It’s an effect that can be disorienting at times, but it also shouldn’t discount the power of this chapter of the story on its own terms.  

As has been noted by other critics, it’s no coincidence that the rise of the superhero film has occurred in the wake of 9/11, deep in an age in which an act of mass trauma has seemingly evoked a grand desire for Manichean morality plays writ large on the cultural canvas. Those who read this sustained resurgence of super-powered cinema as an inherently infantile turn ignore some of the thornier aspects which have slowly emerged in the genre (Captain America: The Winter Soldier’s rebuke of Big Data and government surveillance, the way in which Christopher Nolan’s Batman universe addresses civil liberties and the anger of the 99%, etc.) And yet, the manner in which the superhero tale has saturated our collective consciousness can’t be discounted. Decades of that influence through the less reputable realm of the comic book (and the occasional successful film adaptation, usually followed by rapidly diminishing returns) now being legitimized as the mass mythology of our times creates a baseline in the psychosphere with often profound implications. As Michael Chabon notes in the A+E documentary Comic Book Superheroes Unmasked, the rich irony of golden age heroes fighting the Axis laid in the inherently Fascist nature of the four-color ubermench: might makes right. It’s easy to sneer at the legacy of the Reagan-era empty action blockbusters, but the modern superhero film isn’t that far away from that genre (which itself was a response to the national trauma of the Vietnam fiasco.)

Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns plunged headlong into those Fascist implications when it bowed in 1986, and even though it’s been a heavy influence on the Batman films ever since, this is the fullest realization of the moral and ethical ambiguity of the character that he explored. When you think about it, the casting of Ben Affleck as the Bat is quite the ballsy move. Amidst Hollywood’s obsession with youth, pursuing a middle-aged, broken Dark Knight is far from the easiest sell. Sure, Tony Stark might be a similar middle-aged playboy with a bum ticker, but Robert Downey’s youthful mien obscures the wear and tear on the character. Affleck’s Bruce Wayne is allowed to be physically and psychologically beaten down by decades of this Sisyphean struggle, a borderline alcoholic obsessed with constant escalation of his war against the darkness that plagues his city (ably abetted by a terrific, wry Jeremy Irons as Alfred). It’s here, again, that BVS serves as fascinating sequel to the non-existent Man of Steel, as Snyder and company place Metropolis directly across the bay from Gotham City, the shining modern spin on New York just a hop, skip, and a jump away from the old New York, the noir New York. Superman wants to believe that he can serve as ultimate protector against villainy of all stripes, but Batman always advocates that mankind’s worst instincts will continue to metastasize forever, a belief strengthened by the darkness with which Gotham seemingly infects Metropolis in this story. And if the evil of man won’t quit, then what to say of the evil of what lies beyond man, what might descend from the outer reaches of the heavens (as Lex Luthor theorizes in connection with the Paradise Lost-inspired painting that hangs in his mansion.)

Ah yes...the young Mr. Luthor, a brilliant revisionist turn by Jesse Eisenberg. For decades now, the DC Universe Luthor has been the most threatening figure imaginable: an often reputable businessman and politician. Transplanting that concept to 2016, what better interpretation is there than the boy genius tech billionaires that drive so much of the economy and zeitgeist (and the actor who famously portrayed one of them.) That messianic, technovangelist drive which powers the Schmidts and Brins and Zuckerbergs of the world is super-charged here in a Luthor set on channeling some greater understanding of what lies beyond, an imperative that eventually transforms him into a mad prophet of impending galactic doom, the man who has seen the face of God in his exploration of General Zod’s Kryptonian ship. His creation of Doomsday from the dead husk of Zod veers him into the realm of Dr. Frankenstein, and there’s more than a bit of Colin Clive’s mania at knowing what it’s like to be God in Luthor’s psychotic passion. Eisenberg is often criticized for playing variations on the same near-autistic character, but he’s easily the standout performance in this epic film, the crazed genius counterpart to Batman’s hyper-clinical obsession and Superman’s idealism. He also commits the timeless, primal sin which bedeviled Frankenstein and so many other characters of myth: he pisses off the gods. Heroes like Batman might hold the upper hand against humanity, but the likes of Superman and Wonder Woman will always have their ability to guard that thin veil between earthly malfeasance and the ill will of that which is greater than mere mortals. Luthor’s transgression of that veil sets in motion an intergalactic power that threatens to rain down from afar. Apocalypse now is his credo. Some have questioned Luthor’s motivation in all this, but in the genre’s pure metaphorical state he allows us a glimpse back at our own tech and business titans, driven on by the fervent belief that greater knowledge and technological progress will always benefit mankind. Until it doesn’t.

So much of all this discussion plays out as a series of archetypical impressions…which is fitting for a film that does the same in its fevered dream logic. The reality of corporate dictates overstuffs BVS with a few plot beats too many, and oftentimes the action seems to be moving at such a breakneck speed that the audience doesn’t get the chance to pause and contemplate what has just happened. But in the grand scheme of yet another version of these characters (okay, maybe not as much with the historically underserved Wonder Woman….but still), it’s all very much in keeping with our collective consciousness. This film plays as the product of that superhero-saturated culture, one in which we know these figures so well that they become subliminal flashes against our mental landscape, in which we need little further introduction to their origins but can dive deep into another version of their existence. If cinema is indeed a collective dream in which we participate, then Batman V. Superman nakedly acknowledges that status. Call it disjointed spectacle if you will, but there’s more going on here than a fractured series of scenes. In the end, we’re all Batman, caught up in that hyper-real vision of what could be, beguiled by the possibilities of everything that we know so well flipped on its head, bewildered by what might come forth from Heaven and Hell (and from which direction) now that gods have visited our world.