Friday, June 2, 2017

Batman v. Superman / Captain America: Civil War

It's been a few years since these films came out, so hopefully that's enough time for DC or Marvel leaning emotions to have died down to have an honest discussion of these films.

Or not.

No matter, I'm a person (I know, quite difficult to believe), and I have an opinion. But first, some background.

I love comics. Always have. My "golden age" was the 70's, when it wasn't unusual to see Superman and Spiderman teaming up in a "super comic". Okay, that was a bit unusual, but it was a very cool time. Superman was always my favourite; the idea that a man of unlimited power could maintain his moral compass despite the world was always very comforting to me. I don't think I'm alone in this, though many would consider this attitude naive (particularly the folks who cherish Batman above all else).

And I loved all the comics, particularly the sci-fi leaning ones. Typical kid, right?

In my opinion there are three films that are responsible for the quality of superhero films we see today:

1. Superman (1978)

Christopher Reeve's earnest Clark/Superman was a revelation. He should have won a damned Oscar for this movie, particularly in the scene when he's about to reveal himself to Lois Lane in her apartment. Goose. Bumps. And one of John Williams' best scores.

2. Batman (1989)

A modern, darker, take on Batman. Notable for Tim Burton's typically stylish set pieces, this movie helped elevate the superhero movie to highish art. Danny Elfman's soundtrack for this movie was as iconic as Williams' score for Superman, and is often used for movie trailers today.

3. Iron Man (2008)

We go a long time (nearly 20 years) before getting to this film. Sure there were other superhero movies in the meantime (X-Men, Spiderman etc), and while they were good they weren't particularly memorable. Iron Man changed that. Jon Favreau's no-nonsense direction elevated superhero movies to the real world, and launched Marvel's more successful stream of films. Perfect casting, tight direction, flawless (and believable) effects work, this movie became the template for superhero movies to come.

***

One thing virtually every superhero franchise suffers from is "bad guy overload". First movie, okay. One bad guy, lots of emotional tension, good guy wins. Barely. By the 2nd or 3rd films, most of them start to get bogged down in antagonists, and the films suffer for it. How can you create dramatic tension when there are five bad guys to beat down? You can't.

This is where we get to the two films that are our subject today.

Captain America: Civil War

The Russo brothers do a capable job with direction; the movie is reasonably tight, and it has some decent dramatic moments. This film tries very hard to be politically relevant, and mostly succeeds. Where it falls down is in finding it's tone.

The battle scene at the airport was a major set-piece for the film, and the very title demanded this scene be present. Unfortunately, tonally this fight scene does not fit in the movie. It's a big, funny, fun, action scene. One of the best, to be honest. But it doesn't fit the damned movie.

The movie's story has a very strong sense of political intrigue and dread, and having that big, funny scene right in the middle did the movie a disservice. Perhaps Marvel would have been better off calling this something else and saving "Civil War" for something down the road.

Lots of people loved this movie, and consider it head & shoulders above Batman v. Superman. I'm not one of them. I think this movie suffered from a traditional Hollywood problem: Too many fingers in the pie. Confusing, unsatisfying, disjointed, this movie had a lot of problems. The characters were almost cliches of themselves. Instead of subtlety we get speeches. Instead of that sense of dread that's required for any dramatic tension, we get...boredom. Yay, they broke into the secret soviet bunker that contained all the bad guys that were going to destroy the world...oh wait, they're dead already, so no worries. But geez, one of the good guys killed another good guys parents when he was a mind-controlled pawn, so let's have a fight.

Didn't buy it. It was not convincing, and it robbed the film of any hope of a dramatic ending. (This was the same plot device that helped ruin Star Trek: Nemesis. They make a big point out of "if we can only get out of the nebula, half of Starfleet is there waiting for us." That sets the audiences expectation up for something. What they got was the Enterprise and two or three Romulan ships dancing around the bad guy. It was a let down of epic proportions, especially when Deep Space 9 was making massive, epic space battles...on TV.)

Batman v. Superman

Zack Snyder is a capable director. Visually, he's brilliant, and we see this a lot in Hollywood. Going beyond the visual to tell a captivating story, that's tougher, and I must admit that Zack is getting better at it.

Man of Steel was a damn good film. The acting was strong, and it was played very realistically, considering the subject matter. Batman v. Superman was almost more of a Batman movie with a cameo by Superman, but I can see why they needed to do that; we had Superman's introduction, and we needed to be introduced to Ben Affleck's Batman to establish his motivations.

Tonally, the film is at least consistent. A sense of doom pervades the film and doesn't let up. Every single scene builds towards the tragic finale. One fortunate aspect of this film is it's not overloaded with characters, particularly bad guys. Yes there are two "big baddies", Luthor and his creation, but they make sense and they're tied together.

And the performances? Spectacular. Jesse Eisenberg, who I could not have cared less for before this movie, turns in the darkest, most sinister, believable, psychopathic Lex Luthor that the screen has seen. He is genuinely creepy, and wholly believable. "Lex Luthor as Tech Titan" made for a pithy catchphrase, but Jesse's performance elevated it. Much to my surprise!

Affleck I must say is my new favourite Batman. Love him or hate him, his performance as Bruce Wayne was believable and tragic in ways Christian Bales' take never was (and he was damned good).

Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman was another revelation. Certainly she has the physical side of things down pat; the wonder was her nuanced performance as Diana. Smart, funny, powerful, she promises to make the standalone Wonder Woman movie something special.

Was the movie perfect? Nope. Pacing was scattershot, it needed to be quite a bit tighter. Visually it was a bit dark; it looks like Zack took the "darker turn for our heroes" idea a little too literally. Suitable for a Batman movie, perhaps, but not one that features the trifecta of Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman.

Having said that, overall I personally found BvS much more entertaining than CA:CW. Much of that can certainly be traced to my childhood affection for Superman, but you know what? I loved Iron Man growing up too. Civil War was a mess. BvS was also a mess, but less so, and you actually felt that sense of dread that CW was missing.

Anyway, my two thoughts on a couple of movies that nobody watches anymore. So there.

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