Happy Batman day, folks!
I’ve decided to celebrate this, the 77th anniversary of my favourite hero’s first appearance in print, by giving you two movie reviews for the price of one! And after this, I promise I’ll calm down with the Batman posts.
As it happens, both of the Batman movies I saw most recently draw inspiration from the same comic, Frank Miller’s “The Dark Knight Returns,” which…I have not read. But I think it’s fairly obvious which one is more faithful to it.
The Dark Knight Returns, Parts 1 and 2
This two-part animated movie starts out with Bruce Wayne in his 50s, having been retired from crimefighting for several years. When a violent gang called the Mutants threatens to take over Gotham, he decides it’s time to put on the cowl again. He even picks up a new Robin and puts the Batmobile back into action. But while his return ends up inspiring the people of Gotham to fight back against crime (again), it also inspires a few old enemies to get back into it.
There are many things I like about this movie, a few things I don’t like, and some things that are just plain odd. (Like, what’s the deal with Batman dressing up like an old lady at the beginning of Part 2? Not to mention the entire existence of “Bruno”…I mean, just…what was that?) I enjoyed the first part quite a bit more than the second part, but I won’t deny that the latter did have a pretty epic finale. The soundtrack is amazing, Peter Weller does a great job voicing Batman, and the fight scenes are on par with the very best live-action superhero movies I’ve seen. The movie also does a pretty good job of making an older Batman seem convincing (he’s a lot less agile than he used to be, he has to rely on his tech a little more, etc.) while still allowing him to be his usual intimidating, unstoppable self. No small feat. Oh, and I rather like the girl Robin.
One thing I didn’t like was that the plot requires pretty much everyone not wearing a costume to do very, very stupid things. The mayor allows himself to be alone in a cell with a huge, crazy gang leader who has already threatened to kill him. A psychiatrist and an entire talk show studio decide it’s a good idea to invite the Joker to appear on live television (because when has that ever gone wrong before?). Then there’s the whole subplot of the U.S. government using Superman as a weapon in a Cold War-like conflict…realistic on the government’s part, perhaps, but somewhat dumb and out-of-character for Supes.
Like many a superhero tale, this movie spends quite a bit of time discussing whether Gotham’s better off with or without its costumed vigilante. Is he the only one who can stop the colourful psychos that constantly terrorise the streets, or is he the only reason the colourful psychos exist in the first place? Although there’s some ambiguity around the issue, in the end, the movie seems to decide that the world needs Batman–someone not under the authority of the law or the government, but who still refuses to cross certain lines–in order to keep people safe. Of course, if the authorities in charge of upholding the law didn’t act brain-dead most of the time, one wonders if that point would still hold water. But to Batman’s credit, he doesn’t see himself as Gotham’s only hope–he works to teach other people to fight crime the non-lethal way, and to carry on the Bat-legacy after he’s gone.
Anyway, that fight with the Mutant leader at the end of Part 1? That was awesome. Also, Batman totally beats Superman in a fight in this movie. A good fight, not the kind that will be described in my next review. Sorry, but that’s not a spoiler. That’s how every fight between those two is destined to end.
Speaking of Batman fighting Superman…
Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice
It’s probably only fair to say that I did not set myself up to like this movie. I didn’t see it in theatres, because I was still bitter about having wasted money on Man of Steel. Instead, I read every review I could find online, including the spoiler-y ones, rented it when it came out on DVD, and watched it on my laptop at midnight, alcohol in hand, right after marathoning the Dark Knight trilogy. If I’d watched it under better circumstances, maybe I would have liked it a little better…but I kinda doubt it.
The plot is so convoluted it almost defies description. In a nutshell, Batman wants to murder Superman for causing tons of civilian deaths in Man of Steel and for being too powerful in general. Lex Luthor wants to murder him for more or less the same reasons, plus something about daddy issues. So he decides the best way to do this is to pit the two superheroes against each other, via an overly complicated plan that takes more than an hour to come to fruition.
What can I say about this movie that hasn’t already been said by every critic ever? No, Luthor’s motives did not make any sense. Yes, the “Martha” scene (WHY DID YOU SAY THAT NAME?!) was unintentionally hilarious. No, none of this was Ben Affleck’s fault. I could talk about how spectacularly everyone at the Daily Planet sucks at their job, or how Jesse Eisenberg’s performance destroys everything I ever loved about Lex Luthor as a villain, or how utterly confusing and pointless Batman’s visions/dreams/whatever are. But I think my main problems with this movie can be boiled down to two.
First of all…*deep, cleansing breath*…BATMAN DOES NOT KILL PEOPLE! Yes, I know previous live-action takes on him have bumped up against the line a few times, but this movie has him intentionally mow down an army of low-level criminals in one of his first action scenes, stab dudes in the chest, and turn to murder as his first solution in dealing with Superman (instead of, I dunno, talking to him, or even doing detective work to find out what his intentions are towards humanity). This take on Batman would kind of make sense if it was the third or fourth movie in the franchise, if his reputation as a principled hero had already been established, and if he was given a compelling motive for temporarily abandoning his principles. (In fact, BvS does attempt to explain it a little by establishing, in one easy-to-miss shot, that this story takes place after the death of Jason Todd. Not that any casual fans will get that.) But this is Batman’s first appearance in the Snyder-verse. Anyone who somehow came into this movie without any prior knowledge of Batman would get their first impression of him as a callous killer. And that makes me very sad inside.
The worst thing about BvS, though, is that it takes itself so darn seriously. There’s hardly a moment of (intentional) humour in the entire three-hour runtime, while there are plenty of speeches about God and man, the Problem of Evil, what it means to be a hero, etc. I thought Man of Steel went a little bit overboard with the Superman-is-Jesus symbolism, but this movie takes it waaaayyy further. Which is vaguely offensive, considering this Superman’s main personality traits are sulking, self-doubt, and monumental stupidity. Not exactly the things Jesus is known for. But all of the grand philosophical talk amounts to nothing anyway. For one thing, I was unable to understand or care about any of the people doing the talking, and for another, the movie tends to answer complex questions like, “What does a being with god-like power truly owe to mankind?” with, “Time to punch a cave troll!” A lot of dialogue is there to make the characters sound “deep,” but it doesn’t really mean anything or have anything to do with the plot.
One day, I have hope that the DC cinematic universe will finally get its act together and make a good movie. It’s possible. Ben Affleck does a fine job as Batman in this movie, on the rare occasions when his script makes sense, and Wonder Woman is pretty cool during her five minutes of screen time. And a lot of it looks really nice. Money and special effects technology is clearly not the issue when it comes to DC. They just need to start spending a little more of that money on screenwriters and directors who actually know how to tell a story. And won’t make Batman kill people.
In the meantime, I prefer to celebrate Batman Day by watching something with “Dark Knight” in its title.