Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice Review

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It’s finally here. After years of waiting we’re finally getting a team up movie featuring the most iconic superheroes on the planet. So far the reviews have been pretty brutal. Is the movie any good?

Spoiler alert: I love this movie.

0:00 – My thoughts before watching the movie

16:00 – Non-spoiler Review

26:00 – Spoiler-filled Review

Listen to Episode #36 below – iTunesStitchermp3

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The Next Cinematic Universe: The Justice League

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This week Warner Bros. announced to its shareholders the impending reality of the Justice League film series which will immediately follow Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice. I don’t write normally about news items but this is a major step forward for the under-served DC  superhero universe. We’ve been waiting years for a Justice League movie and now there is not one but two on the way.

All of this has been made possible by Marvel’s unqualified box office success. It’s no accident that Warner Bros. decided to announce this not via press release or at Comic Con but to its shareholders. Fans may feel slighted but it’s the shareholders who will fronting the costs for this huge multi-billion dollar endeavour. By proving that such a massive interconnected superhero universe can lead to great financial returns, Iron Man and his friends have opened the door to a new world for Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, Cyborg, Aquaman, Shazam, Deadshot, Green Lantern, and the Flash. Thank you Kevin Feige and RDJ.

While there is already a growing chorus of voices claiming that DC is simply cashing in on the trend that Marvel started, the truth is that there is plenty of room for new (and better) takes on the superhero genre. Although Marvel has been careful to take their time getting their universe started and has developed an enormous worldwide fan base, it perhaps tempting to overlook the growing number of flaws in their execution.

Consider The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man 2, and Thor, all middling entries that kept the franchise going without making much of an impression. While all of their latest films have been crowd-pleasing, there seems to be a growing problem with the connective tissues tying these wildly different films together. The worst example  is their curious dependency on the infinity stones, a seemingly unrelated collection of MacGuffins that theoretically have some kind of payoff in Avengers 3.

Marvel is leading by example but they are also falling into classic comic book pitfalls like endlessly bringing people back from the dead (Agent Coulson, Loki, Nick Fury) and relying on cliffhanger-style teaser endings instead of a proper narrative conclusion (just go watch the last secene in Thor: The Dark World and Captain America: The Winter Soldier). Stringing people along like this will eventually backfire on people who want to a complete and satisfying movie experience.

But my real point is not that I don’t like Marvel. I actually really like what they’ve done, popularizing characters I’ve never cared about before and investing me in their stories. But Iron Man and Cap are no Batman and Superman. The fact is, I grew up with the World’s Finest. They are the world’s most popular, enduring, and beloved superheroes. And no matter how Feige tries, the World’s Second Best Team of Superheroes can never be first best.

And whether or not you agree with this statement, the bigger picture is that more superhero movies from different studios raises the probabilities that we will get more good films. A Marvel monopoly is not beneficial for moviegoers at large. The post-Avengers Marvel films have been critically and commerical successful, but it doesn’t take Howard the Duck to remind us that fans and critics alike will be vicious at the first sign of franchise fatigue. It’s hard to get to the top, but it’s even harder to stay there.

Being the first cinematic universe is nice, but as Marvel plows ahead into the unknown there are bound to be even more bumps ahead. The rampant speculation about Robert Downey Jr. and Chris Evan’s expiring contracts give us just one glimpse of the serious limitations involved in these lengthy endeavors.

But this is perhaps where Warner Bros. has an advantage. They have seen Marvel drag their feet with repetitive and less-than-enthusiastic origin stories. They have seen how Marvel’s top stars demand more and more money. They have seen how intense studio oversight drives away directors like Edgar Wright and Jon Favreau. And most of all, they have seen how audiences respond to a semi-cohesive interconnected film universe.

Warner Bros. has the chance to do it better, do it different, and do it in such a way that proves that the Justice League really is the best superhero team in the world. They don’t need to copy Marvel’s offbeat humor, strange mix of fantasy and technology, or their one-note villains. If Warner Bros. are lucky, they might even just pull it off.

So here is the grand lineup scheduled for the next six years:

  • Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016)
  • Suicide Squad (2016)
  • Wonder Woman (2017)
  • Justice League Part One (2017)
  • The Flash (2018)
  • Aquaman (2018)
  • Shazam (2019)
  • Justice League Part Two (2019)
  • Cyborg (2020)
  • Green Lantern (2020)

People can claim all they want that Warner Bros. is rushing it, but some things don’t need a hundred years to brew. We are not starting from scratch with these characters. These are established, well-loved, well-versed heroes with decades of material to draw from. They also have a successful movie studio with tons of cash and talent that it can use to attract great writers, stars, and directors. Movies take a while to make, but they don’t take forever.

And despite Marvel’s unique pioneering spirit, they have yet to deliver n their first dozen movies to give us two crucial things: a superhero team up movie and a proper female superhero movie. Batman V Superman is the first superhero film to examine the relationship between two top tier heroes. If it does a good job handling that dynamic between these two very different but equally ubiquitous vigilantes, it will be a defining moment for a genre that is perhaps nearing its creative peak. The Avengers was a hallmark and truly remarkable achievement but was also hindered by its comic book roots and odd mix of second tier heroes.

The Justice League is comprised of at least three undeniable quantifiable heroes: Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman. Each one has been featured in multiple movies and tv shows and are known widely across pop culture and the world. It’s totally possible that Snyder’s team could botch the whole thing up, but there is enough financial incentive for the production team to get it right, if not near perfect.

Do I have concerns?

Sure I do. I am concerned that Zack Snyder is the man carrying the primary directorial duties over the success or failure of this new universe. While his visual acumen is absolutely awe-inspiring and his action scenes are more impressive than almost any other living director, he needs major help with making his characters feel fully formed and three-dimensional emotional beings. His characters feel like representative ideas, not people. I like some of those ideas, but I think more audiences will respond to characters who are heartfelt and relatable in a way that most Snyder characters are not.

I get weary of reading complaints that Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice is a dumb title. We all know it’s a dumb title, but what concerns me is whether or not it’s a dumb movie. And I have faith that Warner Brothers and their team can pull it off. They don’t just have a star in Ben Affleck but an accomplished director in his own right. They don’t just have heroes, they have the Joker, Lex Luthor, Brainiac, and Darkseid. So far I just don’t see Marvel’s many forgettable antagonists able to fill those shoes.

When I think about the future of the Justice League universe, I don’t expect perfect movies, just good ones. If they can shoot for something spectacular, something bigger than a motley collection of second tier heroes, and if they can transcend the lazy narrative shortcuts that define so many comic book movies, we really could be on the edge of something wonderful.

No matter what these films are going to be divisive. They will receive a heavy dose of criticism for coming in second. Critics and fans will not hold back any of their strong opinions. People will nitpick, probably myself included.

But ultimately I think we’re in for a great ride. These are characters from which all other superheroes in part are derived. It’s not unreasonable to expect that Warner Bros. will in fact produce 10 good-to-excellent superhero movies by 2020, do so profitably, tell some amazing stories along the way, and introduce a new generation to some of the world’s most beloved characters. Let’s wait and see.

Evaluating the Summer Blockbuster: Man of Steel

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Read the introduction to this series here.

Man of Steel (2013)

Summary:

1) Krypton
2) Smallville
3) Metropolis
4) How and when should we use the power we’ve been given?

1) Killer Opening

Man of Steel kicks off with an extended sequence on Krypton much longer than most summer movie openings. It’s pretty memorable and makes up for the fact that there’s not much action in the first half of the movie. Though not particularly connected to the main theme of the movie, the events on Krypton sets the pieces in motion for the later conflicts.

2) Two Major Set Pieces

Unless you count the oil rig scene or the ancient scoutship, there is really only one big set piece in the middle the film: the Battle of Smallville. Like the opening on Krypton, it is a rather extended sequence. If I would argue that it is perhaps the standout action piece of the whole film, capturing the raw power of Superman and his kin in a truly cinematic spectacle.

3) A Killer Climax

The climax arrives with yet another extended set piece, this time split across three distinct phases: the World Engine, the Kryptonians in Metropolis, and finally the last stand of General Zod. All three have a definite goal which Superman is able to accomplish sequentially. If anything the final battle with Zod feels slightly unnecessary.

4) A Concise Statement of Theme

What does it mean to belong and how far should you go to defend the people to whom you belong?

Conclusion

Man of Steel opts for a huge opening, a huge middle set piece, and a huge climax. For the most part this works well. However where the formula falls short is Superman’s characterization. He is after all a man juggling three different identities: Kal-El, Clark Kent, and Superman. Compounded by the fact that his main character moments were split between Lois, Martha Kent, Jor-El, Zod, and Jonathan Kent, it’s too much material with too little focus. The story is technically sufficient but clearly one that left many people wanting.

The Story Punch

Clark’s struggle in this film is his isolation. It is about how he is separated from other people due to his strange powers. He hides his true nature, traveling the world in search of his origins until eventually he finds out about his people. When Zod and the Kryptonians arrive, Clark feels more alone than ever torn between saving his adopted home and destroying the last of his race.

The story punch, the defining moment of the story, comes in a flashback surprisingly. After discovering that his parents found him in a crashed alien pod, Clark asks his father worriedly, “Can’t I just keep pretending that I’m your son?” Jonathan replies without hesitation, “You are my son.” It is this foundation of love and acceptance from his adopted father, this moment of radical uncertainty confronted with paternal comfort and warmth, that ultimately enables Superman to become Superman.

What Makes A Great Hero? – Flawed Saviors

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A few weeks ago we took a look at what makes a great villain. That seemed to be a fruitful discussion and since I’m still slightly traumatized from my bad movie series, why not look a what makes a great hero?

While it’s usually the villain that steals the limelight, great stories require a great hero. Not necessarily an unbeatable incredible awesome hero, but some kind of relatable figure with generous amounts of goodwill and personality. Unlike the villain, the hero is person in the story that the audience is supposed to sympathize and agree with. The hero is our window to the world of the story. You are supposed to like them. On some level, you actually wouldn’t mind being them.

However nobody likes always successful, always happy, always perfect people. They are annoying. They bug us with their immaculately cleaned toilets and wrinkle-free clothing. And we know that deep down nobody can be thatperfect. They might hide their flaws with precise, but we know they’re there somewhere.

Thus when it comes to a hero of a story, we want someone flawed. Deeply flawed. We want them to have struggles (because we have struggles and so they should too). Ultimately we want them to succeed but we think it should be a constant challenge. Life is full of constant challenges so naturally we expect the same for a hero. And oddly enough, through seeing them overcome constant challenges we grow to like them even more.

A good hero must have a personal obstacle, some overarching problem that humanizes them and creates sympathy for the character inside the audience. There are really only three main sources of the hero’s obstacle that I can think of:

  • a personal vice
  • alienation
  • unwillingness to be a hero
  •  
    Vice is a moral problem. Alienation is a circumstantial problem. Unwillingness is an internal problem. Usually a hero majors in one of these obstacles. Effectively these different problems humanize the hero and lets us in to their personal journey via the universal experiences of trial and temptation.

    From these three kinds of obstacles emerge three hero archetypes:

  • The Cocky Hero has some kind of vice that prevents them from being wholly ethical or socially acceptable.
  • The Solitary Hero is alienated from those around them for reasons beyond their control
  • The Unwilling Hero does not want to be a hero and is defined by their personal struggle to take up a hero’s mantle.
  •  
    A good hero should fall into one of these categories and really own it. I suppose you could have a cocky solitary unwilling hero, but I doubt they would still qualify as a hero and end up being more an anti-hero. A hero might have multiple issues yet should always focus on one tangible problem at a time. After all, in our own lives we find it hard to tackle more than one major problem at a time.

    Let’s look at some examples.

    The Cocky Hero

    The Cocky Hero carries around an easily detectable flaw. Like in real life, most of the time this flaw cannot be completely erased but only minimized and ultimately compensated for by other virtues. Even though they have good intentions, they are often willing to do ignoble things along the way. The audience may root for them to succeed yet at the same time consider themselves morally above them. A major challenge for the Cocky Hero is too overcome their personal flaws in order to complete their sacred heroic task.

    James Bond

    Obstacle: detachment

    007 is the classic Cocky Hero. He’s arrogant, unconcerned with what his superiors’ think of him, and good at his job. He is Britain’s best spy and he always finishes his mission. But he has a vice: he’s emotionally detached. Bond uses women like toys and although its presented as hyper-masculine spy mojo, few people would really want to live a life of empty one night stands and total interpersonal detachment. Despite his prowess with a gun, Bond is made partially inhuman by his inability to connect deeply with or commit to women.

    James T. Kirk

    Obstacle: risk-taking

    In 2009 J.J. Abrams introduced us to a total revamp of the iconic Captain Kirk. Like Bond, he sleeps around with women but his deeper character flaw is risk-taking. Kirk trusts his gut over sound logic, doesn’t care about Starfleet regulation, and leaps headfirst into situations that put himself and his crew in grave danger. Although we admire his confidence and resourcefulness, his unnecessary brashness proves him to be seriously flawed human being along with the rest of us.

    Korra

    Obstacle: impatience

    The Legend of Korra is an amazing television show anchored by its chipper teenage Avatar-in-training. She is strong-willed and eager to use her powers on behalf of others. It is clear that Korra is both courageous and compassionate. Yet she is held back by a singular character flaw: impatience. Korra tends to rush into battle before she’s fully ready or even knows what she’s getting into. Instead of remaining diligent and devoted to learning air-bending, she takes on life-threatening challenges before she is ready.

    Tony Stark

    Obstacle: self-reliance

    Tony Stark is highly intelligent, charismatic, and surprisingly ethical in his use of his Iron Man suit. Frequently he is willing to lay his life down for others, the mark of a true hero. However in public he makes clear that of unique intelligence and prides himself above all. Underneath all that hubris, his real issue is self-reliance. Tony believes only he can handle the world’s threats and takes offense at anyone who tries to help him. In other words, he doesn’t play well with others.

    This brand of hero must work on overcoming their vice. If they refuse to change, they become a sort of self-parody eventually. Bond must get out of his hotel bed and get back to work. Kirk must take more measured risks. Korra must learn to have more patience. Tony must compromise and work alongside others.

    Since the Cocky Hero tends to be the most immoral or unsympathetic of the archetypes, it helps if they are really good at other things like saving innocent civilians or water-bending or hand-to-hand combat. Even if we don’t admire their personality at least we can admire their skill and the dedication required to learn that skill. If the hero has to be a jerk, at least let them do important heroic things (I’m looking at you, Green Lantern).

    The Solitary Hero

    The Solitary Hero’s obstacle does not come from a personal vice like the Cocky Hero but rather from an external reality that divides them from the people they love. This alienating force is something the Solitary Hero must live with against their will with little hope of having it removed. They may never get to live a normal life so they must make the best of what they have.

    When this hero archetype is called to action, they usually arrive with a strong level of intensity that others heroes tend to lack. Because they are already isolated from those closest to them, they have less to lose. Often their heroic acts grant them the solace and purpose they were looking for all along.

    Logan

    Obstacle: attachment

    The Wolverine is a tragic figure, able to completely heal from any wound yet unable to form lasting attachments with those around him. His long lifespan not only causes him to outlive everyone he love/s but also forces him to carry around the memories of violence and war from his past. It is no accident that Logan is often found in the wilderness apart from the rest of the X-Men and that he is such a volatile force to reckon with.

    The Hulk

    Obstacle: self-control

    Bruce Banner’s isolation does not stem from attachment but from self-control. Unable to control his transformations and the brutal rage of his alter ego, he must separate himself from others for their own safety. Even after learning to master his emotions, Banner can never really be sure if he can fully tame the mighty Hulk inside of him. When the beast explodes, Banner is helpless to protect people from himself.

    Batman

    Obstacle: identity

    After surviving a traumatic childhood, adult Bruce Wayne rejects his billionaire identity and dons the Batsuit. Effectively Bruce dies and Batman is born. Batman is the real Bruce while Bruce becomes his true mask. This personality split makes it impossible for Bruce to live a normal life or maintain authentic relationships. Fighting crime ultimately consumes Bruce’s entire identity.

    Superman

    Obstacle: belonging

    The last known survivor of his planet, Kal-El is a man apart. Despite being near indestructible and having the power of flight, Superman can never fully belong with the humans he protects. He is alien. He is an orphan. These truths separate him from the rest of us and make his full integration into society nearly impossible.

    Since they are effectively on their own, Solitary Heroes are usually quite capable of handling things by themselves. Logan has adamantium claws. Hulk is an unstoppable juggernaut. Batman is a stealthy ninja. Superman can bend steel. Although they are clothed with immense power, these heroes still lack one of the most basic of human needs: deep loving connections to other people.

    Balancing their need for social connection against their need to use their unique station in life for the greater good, Solitary Heroes are them most tragic of the bunch. Their happiness will always be limited by a constant external reminder that they are, to some degree, all alone.

    The Unwilling Hero

    Unwilling Heroes are distinguished by the fact that they don’t want to be heroes or at the very least are not ready to do what it takes to become one. Their reluctance keeps them from fulfilling the heroic task required of them. Since we as the audience have all sorts of things we don’t want to do, we can easily relate to a hero who suffers from the same dilemma.

    Ideally the Unwilling Hero should still have some admirable qualities about them. They may not want to be a hero, but they should be worthy in other ways. If they are both unwilling and unlikeable, that’s a problem. They just need some time but the seeds of heroism should already have started to sprout and manifest themselves in smaller ways.

    Neo

    Obstacle: confidence

    Despite gaining the faith and trust of Morpheus, Neo doesn’t feel like a hero. He doesn’t see any evidence that he is the One that was prophesied. The Oracle doesn’t give him much reassurance either. He has no confidence in himself yet through his devotion to Morpheus and timely courage, he finally proves himself the hero he never thought he was.

    Frodo Baggins

    Obstacle: physical strength

    As the only volunteer to carry the One Ring into Mordor, Frodo becomes the de facto guardian of Middle Earth. However he is hobbit, small in size and inexperienced in combat. He is physically too weak to even make the arduous journey. But as the Fellowship crumbles, his moral resolve allows him to push through his physical limitations toward his destination.

    Katniss Everdeen

    Obstacle: power

    Katniss is at the mercy of a corrupt regime, forced to fight for her life. She has no control over her situation and yet refuses to kill other tributes except in the case of self-defense. She is powerless to change her situation. By choosing to maintain an ethical stand in spite of her lethal environment, Katniss manages to emerge the deadly Hunger Games as a national hero and a symbol of a mounting resistance.

    Luke Skywalker

    Obstacle: training

    Luke is not interested in joining Obi-Wan and taking up his father’s lightsaber. After his family’s murder, he finally does decide to join him but he is over eager to enter the fight. Obi-Wan reminds Luke that he is no Jedi. Impatient to complete his training, Luke is not prepared to fully learn the ways of the Force and thus stands no chance against Darth Vader. It takes him two whole movies before he is finally ready to be the hero that he needs to be.

    Just because Unwilling Heroes are unwilling does not mean that they can put off their responsibility forever. Even if the situation is beyond their control they do not stand around and do nothing. Perhaps they try to find another way to solve their problem, like Luke becoming a pilot instead of a Jedi or Neo entering the Matrix for a quick rescue. Despite their aversion to being heroes eventually their circumstances, experience, and inner qualities collude to transform them into great heroes.

    Flawed Saviors

    Heroes of all kinds must be relatable and giving them an obvious flaw is the fastest and best way to do that. However they also have to be likable. If a hero has too many flaws, they become unpleasant. If a hero’s flaws are too cliche, they become bland. Ultimately a good hero needs to have a consistent personality that is also balanced by their unique flaws and limitations as well as personal growth.

    We should like heroes and admire them on one level, but yet also be aware of their flaws. We should see them as equal to us in human failing and weakness. In some cases, we might even see ourselves as morally superior. Hey if I treat people better than Bond or Batman, that makes me feel pretty good, right?

    But lest we forget, a hero must not exist as a theoretical possibility or live in the realm of good intentions. They must vanquish evil and save other humans. At the very least they must actively care about others and work toward their wellbeing.

    A hero absolutely cannot be idle, even if they are wrongheaded and misguided at times. What they do defines them. Not a cape or a reputation or an idea, but their actual behavior. Their actual deeds. We will forgive a multitude of crimes and misdemeanors for a hero who is simply willing to act.

    In part two, we’ll look at the other half of a great hero: great character motivation.

    The Man of Steel is about Jesus (also Pancakes!)

    An Enduring Symbol

    “A lot of people say that the Superman symbol is the second most recognized symbol in the world other than the cross. A lot of people recognize the Spider-Man symbol, but it doesn’t have the same kind of weight that the Superman symbol does.” – David Goyer, screenwriter for Man of Steel

    Superman is a symbol. As the world’s first superhero he is the most recognizable, the most enduring, and maybe even the strongest. And now 75 years after his creation he returns yet again in the $225 million Man of Steel to dazzle the world with supersonic flight, super-strength, and red hot laser beams shooting from his eyes.

    Although the critics have savaged the new film, audience goers seem to disagree. It’s a big hit, filled with what is best described as cinema’s finest superhero battles that happen to make the urban destruction of The Avengers look like target practice.

    Superman is back, but what does it mean for you and me?

    Decades after his debut, what does he symbolize exactly?

    He may not be real, but he gives us an ideal to strive towards. Through the wisdom of Jor-El and Jonathan Kent, we understand that Superman’s moral strength is as necessary as his physical strength.

    The “S” stands for hope, we are told. Superman means something good. He embodies our collective and individual power to do good in this world, our chance to repel evil wherever it may rear its ugly head.

    However as a film Man of Steel is not telling the whole truth. Superman represents more.

    As part of their marketing efforts, Warner Brothers hired a theologian to write Man of Steel sermon outlines for pastors to preach to their congregations. One is titled “Jesus, The Original Superhero.”

    It all makes sense now. Young Clark asking why God made him this way. The priest encouraging Kal-El to have faith. An innocent Superman willingly accepting his chains. This Man of Steel symbolizes the hope in a Messiah.

    I would believe that, but the iconic Superman symbol means so much more.

    Reportedly Man of Steel set the record for most product tie ins of any film ever made, beating out the previous champion The Lorax (who inexplicably peddled SUVs by the way). To the tune of $170 million dollars from it’s “partners”, Man of Steel was almost profitable before it even sold a single ticket. Peppered throughout the movie like gaudy billboards are gratuitous product placement for companies like Sears, 7-11, and International House of Pancakes.

    Superman means hope, Jesus, and also pancakes.

    Outside of the movie, dozens more brands will feature Krypton’s last son ranging from Nokia phones and the National Guard to Twizzlers and Carl’s Jr.’s Super Bacon Cheeseburger. This will all make sense in the movie when Superman explains to a wary military that he is very much an American.

    When you can literally buy the right to have Clark Kent wear your brand of glasses, what does he symbolize anymore? Hope is the not the word that immediately comes to mind.

    The real question is how far can you stretch a symbol to mean whatever you want?

    Is it really possible for Superman to represent the collective power for doing good in the world, Jesus, and Pizza Hut’s Man of Steel box deal all at the same time?

    As a summer popcorn film, Man of Steel works great. I recommend it wholeheartedly in my glowing review.

    But as for an enduring symbol of hope?

    Man of Steel reads more as symbol of American capitalism, a commodity easily sold to the highest bidder. A corporate branding tool, not a sermon illustration. I could go on to compare the symbol of the world’s greatest superhero to the symbol of the Christian cross, but I just got a strange craving for some pancakes.