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Tag Archives: Batman
Justice League Tries to Thread the Needle Between The Avengers and Batman v. Superman and Turns Out Generic
It’s impossible to process Justice League without considering Batman v. Superman, the film’s literal predecessor, and The Avengers, its spiritual one. The DCEU’s latest team-up movie is so much in conversation with these two prior films, so much reacting and responding to them, that it almost doesn’t make sense without them.
Someday, in the not too distant future, we’re going to get a raw, documentary-style Batman film, about a regular guy who just so happens to dress up like a bat and get into ugly fist fights with criminals. And when that happens, we’ll turn around and laugh at how cheesy and unrealistic the Christopher Nolan films seem by comparison. Today’s cultural sensation is tomorrow’s hokey relic. So it goes.
But until that happens, it behooves us to look at Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman film, which scans as corny and even rudimentary relative to Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy, with some perspective. After the semi-grounded approach to the character in recent years, it seems odd in hindsight that Burton’s take on the character was praised for its serious approach to the source material. But contemporary critics were comparing it to William Dozier’s Batman ‘66, the overtly comedic, Adam West incarnation of The Caped Crusader. So, as I discussed with Robbie Dorman on the Serial Fanaticist Podcast, while much of Burton’s tack in the 1989 Batman feels broader and even goofier than the Batman of today, his version fits into a wide spectrum of portrayals of the character, on the page and on the screen, that’s taken shape over the last eighty years.
Suicide Squad director David Ayer and the brain trust behind D.C. Comics’ nascent cinematic universe achieved something I didn’t think was possible — they managed to produce a 1990s blockbuster in 2016. With the emergence of late sequels like Jurassic World and Independence Day: Resurgence, perhaps this shouldn’t have surprised me. But the refurbished, Day-Glo atmosphere of the third entry in the perpetually stumbling DCEU still managed to catch me off guard. I’d anticipated a copycat of Guardians of the Galaxy and its quippy “bad guys gone good” spirit, but I didn’t imagine that M.O. would be filtered through a lens borrowed from twenty years ago.
Nevertheless, all the elements of a Clinton-era blockbuster are firmly present and accounted for: Will Smith gives a standard Will Smith Performance™, one that could have easily been transplanted from Men in Black or, heaven help us, Wild Wild West. There are dry cool action movie lines aplenty. And there’s a cartoony, almost surreal vibe to the entire film, that makes Suicide Squad seem divorced from the attempts at realism embraced in Batman Begins and closer to the cornucopia of neon camp in Batman Forever.
CAUTION: This review contains major spoilers for Batman: The Killing Joke
The traditional superhero story is a simple one. The bad guy threatens to do some bit of evil; the good guy comes in to stop it, and the day is saved. Lather, rinse, repeat. The costumes change, and so do the capers, but for a while, that was the dependable, well-worn blueprint for the battles between capes and criminals.
And then, somewhere along the line, that started to change. Writers like Alan Moore began to deconstruct those old stories. They started to look at the ways that these battles might not be so weightless, how those heroes and villains might still leave their marks on one another. These artists examined how the good guys could not fight evil day after day, week after week, year after year, and yet come out of those battles unsullied, unblemished, and unscathed.
Batman, after all, fights monsters. How long can you run headlong into battle with monsters before you start to become more monstrous yourself? It’s not every comic book adaptation that drops references to Nietzsche, even when it’s one of his most famous quotes, but it’s appropriate for Batman: The Killing Joke, an animated film adaptation of the Alan Moore classic. Because more than The Joker, more than Batman, more than Jim or Barbara Gordon, it’s a story about what happens to those who fight monsters. It’s a story about the abyss.
There are some good ideas and good intentions behind Batman v. Superman. If you want to make a superhero film, there are worse comic books to crib from than Watchmen, The Dark Knight Returns, and the Doomsday arc. If you’re trying to create a film that owns its four-color roots while also aiming to make some kind of grand statement, there are worse ideas than trying to examine the social and political repercussions of god-like aliens coming to Earth. If you want to add your own bit of shading to a set of time-honored icons, there are worse ways to do it than showing each of them struggling with the legacies of their parents.
But trying to do this all at once requires a deft hand. Trying to do it all with the added requirements of the expected big-budget action sequences, the need to launch a new cinematic universe, and an effort to correct for the perceived missteps of a prior film, would take a miracle-worker. If the balance of all of these disparate elements isn’t just right, instead of the intended depth and complexity, you get a well-meaning, but ultimately incoherent muddle. That’s what the cumbersomely titled Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice amounts to — a boldly ambitious, hopelessly flawed, overextended mess of a film.
It’s difficult to build tension and create real stakes in a prequel, and that problem is magnified the closer a film or television show gets to the familiar part of the timeline. If the audience already knows who lives and who dies, and who has to reach a certain point of the story unscathed for that matter, it can mute some of the excitement and intrigue of a particular plotline.
On the other hand, it can also heighten the tension in an episode by spotlighting the mystery between the known beginning and the known ending. As Better Call Saul shows Nacho planning a hit on Tuco, we know that Tuco lives; we know that Mike lives, and thanks to the opening scene in “Gloves Off”, we know that the crafty Mr. Ehrmantraut ends up bruised and battered, presumably in the attempt. All of this raises the question of how we get from Point A to Point B.
Does the hit go wrong? Does Mike beg off from Nacho and catch a beating for his troubles? In true Breaking Bad fashion does some unexpected intervening factor come into play and throw the whole situation out of whack? We don’t know, but we want to know, and that’s just part of the masterful job that BCS does in using its prequel status as a boon and not an obstacle when it comes to holding the audience’s attention.