It Comes At Night Is Bad and Wants to Make You Feel Bad

2017-6-6-96f3bb04-8696-428a-abd9-fa529b7081c1.jpg

Trey Edward Schults’s It Comes at Night is a bleak post-apocalyptic drama. It’s a minimalist “cabin in the woods” psychological horror. It relies on isolation and lighting to create dread and suspicion. It’s also not very good simply by virtue of not doing anything really engaging with the premise or setting.

The story begins at an indeterminate point after society has been devastated by an unknown disease. Paul (Joel Edgerton) lives with his wife, Sarah (Carmen Ejogo), and their teenage son, Travis (Kelvin Harrison, Jr.), in a home in the woods. Sarah’s father has become infected. He is barely breathing, and his skin is covered in boils. Paul and Travis take him out and say their goodbyes before euthanizing him with a bullet to the head. The corpse is dumped into a pit and set on fire.

It’s an isolated, self-sufficient existence. They boil their own water. They have gas masks and firearms for when they go outside—never alone and never at night except in case of an emergency—and a red door to which only Paul has the key to unlock from the outside is the only entrance and exit. This routine is explained to newcomers Will (Christopher Abbott) and his wife, Kim (Riley Keough), a younger couple who arrive with their young son, Andrew, after Will breaks into Paul’s home looking for water, and an arrangement is made between the two families to live and work together.

Everyone is content for a while, but of course, given what kind of movie this is, tragedy looms on the horizon. It’s like with George Romero’s zombie movies or The Walking Dead, where humans are besieged, oftentimes in a confined space, and struggle to survive against a world being overrun with zombies and against one another. Although the apocalyptic threat in It Comes at Night exists in the form of a disease about which little is known, these works are similar in showing small pockets of beleaguered humanity holed up in what they perceive to be a sanctuary. Typical of these stories, the survivors’ harmonious existence does not last. The question is how the end will come about, and honestly that’s the biggest problem here, because the answer is not interesting.

The breakdown of relations, without revealing too much, can be summed up as the result of fear and desperation turning men cruel. Paul is smart, strategic, and stern; he has an authoritative voice in the way he initially interrogates Will or gives Travis orders. Will concedes and speaks in a pleading way when threatened, perhaps out of genuine fear, or perhaps it’s a method of manipulation to get the other party’s guard down. Even as the families grow closer, Paul does not trust Will fully. When they finally share a drink together, Will says something that contradicts a significant detail in the story he told Paul earlier on. Both men want to protect their loved ones, and an incident involving the red door in the third act sets events into motion toward a violent confrontation.

Before getting to that, it needs to be said that the story is effective at humanizing the characters; it’s quite sympathetic to them for the most part despite some distrust. Both families work, dine, and play board games together. In one scene, Travis and Kim are able to have a lighthearted conversation about dessert in the dining room. These are all nice moments of normalcy in the apocalypse that makes what comes later more tragic. The narrative doesn’t really play with shifting allegiances even though the potential is there. For example, Will bonds with Travis when showing him how to chop wood and seems at times less distant than Paul may be. Travis appears somewhat attracted to Kim, and I was expecting something more to come of that and maybe play into the breakdown of relations in the house. Perhaps it would have been predictable, but it would have added a complication. With or without, though, the climax isn’t particularly engaging. The underlying tension and rise in paranoia that culminates in violence would have felt familiar to anyone who has seen a zombie movie or The Thing.

Throughout the film, Travis has dreams that are affected by the events he witnesses or experiences that shake his routine (e.g., his grandfather’s death, attraction to Kim) through the lens of the disease-ridden world. Almost all of his dreams end with him seeing someone with blackened eyes and black liquid oozing from eyes, nose, or mouth. The narrative looks at a loss of innocence and the modern anxiety of having been born in the worst of times, and it’s an interesting thematic angle to explore through Travis. He likely remembers the pre-plague society, but now there’s no chance for him to attend college, start his family, or basically live a normal adult life. He is growing up in a ruined world without hope. The downside, however, is that all of these things are bundled up a story that I simply didn’t find engaging overall and a myriad of dream sequences, which are too normal to be interesting dreams, and there are so many that I stopped worrying because I could tell with certainty that when something scary happened, Travis would wake up from his nightmare. These sequences show show the psychological toll the apocalyptic landscape is taking on him, but they become repetitive and counterproductive.

It Comes at Night is effective in its use of light and shadows, and the story creates a connection between this and Travis’s state of mind with mixed results. Nighttime scenes where characters wander through pitch black hallways with only a lamp or flashlight tap into the fear of darkness, which envelopes the screen and creates a claustrophobic atmosphere. Had this been a real survival horror movie with an unambiguous external threat, it would have been so effective, but while the movie spends a lot of time hinting at a danger, there is no literal “it” that comes for the characters at night, and the atmosphere feels ultimately wasted on false starts and dream sequences.

Unfortunately, It Comes at Night feels too much like an indie amateur dabbling with ambiguity and nihilism to tell a “men are the real monsters” story. The problem isn’t that it’s not scary enough or that it’s too bleak. It’s more that it’s an unrelentingly bleak movie that doesn’t really say anything new, with too many frustrating fake-out dream sequences that stopped being scary or disturbing by the second or third one. The same day I saw this movie, I watched parts of a documentary called Hell on Earth: The Fall of Syria and the Rise of ISIS. I could have gotten the same message from that documentary, but at least that’s more informative on current affairs. Nothing comes at night, and this movie feels like it is running on empty.

2/5

Advertisements

The Nice Guys is a fun, thoughtful noir comedy with a subversive vein

Rating: 4.25/5

Shane Black’s latest film, The Nice Guys, is set in Los Angeles in 1977. Smog hangs over the city like the rain in Blade Runner, and an actress has died under mysterious circumstances, while bumbling private eye Holland March (Ryan Gosling) is asked by a relative who claims to have seen her alive to locate her, leading him to a girl named Amelia. Jack Healy (Russell Crowe), a cynical enforcer for hire, has been asked by Amelia to keep March from following her; the girl fears for her life and has come under the impression that March is among those who seek to hurt her. Comical violence and animosity result from this misunderstanding, but when Amelia’s real pursuers threaten both men, they must cooperate to find Amelia and solve a series of murders centered around an adult film.

Ryan Gosling is first seen waking up in a bathtub wearing a suit, fumbling about as his daughter leaves a sassy voicemail. He has the words “you will never be happy” written on his hand. There is quite a bit of sadness, a product of his inadequacies, his wife’s death, and his profiteering from other people’s personal tragedies. His daughter Holly (Angourie Rice) thinks he is a bad person and calls him out for drinking instead of doing his job. She doesn’t hate him, though, and even wants to help; at times, she seems more competent than he is. Although the character is a sad, heavy-drinking private investigator in a neo-noir film, Shane Black’s direction has Gosling go against conventions. He is talkative and unexpectedly hilarious, the opposite of the last few quiet, broody, violent characters he has played (Drive, Only God Forgives). An early attempt to break into a bar to steal information lands him in a hospital, and his habit of drunkenly falling over is mined for recurring gags. Often inebriated or exasperated, he plays the character as a detective in a slapstick comedy, upending conventions of a hard-boiled, grimly serious, competent private eye oftentimes seen in a film noir.

It’s not a buddy cop movie without a mismatched partner, and Crowe fills in those shoes perfectly. He’s rough and short-tempered, and whereas Gosling can talk or stumble his way into clues, Healy provides the muscle and the follow-through. They trade jabs but also have heartfelt conversations, though some of the best moments has Gosling act disinterested or fall asleep to Crowe’s anecdotes. Healy is divorced (the circumstances are shown in a brief, hilarious flashback), and contrary to the rough private eye stereotype, he is neither a licensed private eye nor does he drink. He displays his cynicism more openly than Holland, but despite all appearances, he wants to be a good person. In a sincere, sober scene, he speaks with Holly and reflects on the violence he has committed.

the-nice-guys.jpg

The treatment of violence is complicated, with both humor and solemnity. Numerous henchmen and civilians die, and a few deaths do occur hilariously akin to Looney Tunes cartons, but the film does not shy away from the bloody consequences either. One villain’s demise begins funnily, but as the scene becomes drawn out and his pain protracted until his death, it becomes unsettling, tying in to the scene where Healy is seen contemplating on violence. The first on-screen death begins with a humorous setup as a boy steals his father’s porn magazine and ends with a car crashing through his house and him seeing the same woman he had been ogling in a photo earlier thrown from her car, bloody and in a state of undress. He will probably need therapy down the line, but as he recovers from the shock, his first act is to cover her up. I’m not sure if it’s intended as commentary on gratuitous violence and nudity in films, but arguably this scene takes the opposite approach to a lot of older films where sex, nudity, and violence are combined in a way meant to be titillating and instead treats it with sobriety.

The Nice Guys goes against expectations quite a few times. Most of Gosling’s heroic acts do not go according to plan. An expected shootout plays out differently as our heroes come in to see a massacre already in progress. The third act confrontation has a lot of humor and energy, including a surreal vision of a man in a Nixon mask and Gosling taking cover behind a car on a rotating stand. There are shootouts and fistfights while everyone is chasing after a roll of film on foot. It’s well-staged, clear, and without spatial confusion. Unlike the trend in many action movies today, camera is steady. It’s rough and comical, and I’m not sure I’d call it stylized. These things make for a charming and exciting climax.

The film is also subversive in its depiction of the powerful. A scene makes fun of an environmentalist group’s “die-in” protest, and it does look absurd, but a major plot point is in fact that corruption exists involving the automobile industry and the government. Despite seeing that the environment is degrading, protecting the interests of the establishment is deemed more important. When a powerful character gives a monologue near the film’s conclusion conflating the automobile industry in Detroit with the fate of the nation, stating that Detroit will not be stopped, her speech is not inspirational, but rather sinister and villainous. Her motives have nothing to do with the city and its inhabitants; it is solely about protecting the interests of the automotive industry and the rich. If she were around today, she’d be spouting lines about Detroit’s comeback while ignoring the black community that has been in the city for decades, those who have had their water shut off, and the plight of the public schools. In hindsight, it’s also ironic, and a joking comment from Holland that the American car industry would decline due to foreign competition is likewise laced with irony and bitterness. She might not have been wholly wrong about the industry’s importance, but her way of thinking prevents innovation and diversification, and instead it creates dependency. The Midwest would stumble with the industry’s decline, just as petro-states stumble when oil prices fall. Harm does not come from those who want to expose wrongdoing, but from inflexibility and insistence that the establishment and its status quo must be protected.

Although The Nice Guys is a comedic detective film, its mood is dark, capturing the pessimism of the late 1970s, with its sense of societal, environmental, and moral breakdown. Early on, Holland sits in his car and watches a fistfight break out at a gas station. Healy follows a high-schooler to where she is meeting with a man (“three times her age,” he narrates) who sells her pot and is interested in her sexually; after she leaves, he beats him up and warns him to stay from young girls. The news is filled with stories like killer bees in Brazil, smog advisories, or the Big Three car companies coming under investigation over emissions and catalytic converters.

We are told from the beginning that there is no longer innocence in youth. Holly ends up involved in her father’s investigations despite his attempts to send her back home, leading to her exposure to the seedy underside of Los Angeles, with its mobsters, pornographers, and hitmen. It’s uncomfortable, but it would be hypocritical to criticize the film for depicting the loss of innocence at such a young age, when this is very much a major point. The reality is, the United States, now and in the era the film is set, is a widely unequal society under the heavy influence of social and economic conservatism. Child care is not affordable, and neither is upper education. Economic disparity causes children to grow up in dangerous neighborhoods with high crime rates, and the police gun down citizens (particularly poor minorities) upon the slightest provocation, while poor, single mothers can be arrested for leaving their kids alone to go to an interview. It’s a mix of economic injustice brought on by rampant deregulation, weakening unions and employees’ rights, and a punitive sense of morality that equates everything outside of suburban middle-class norms as signs of moral failings. Lack of urgent action on environmental degradation endangers future generations everywhere. The government meanwhile wages wars on flimsy pretexts, causing children abroad to grow up in literal war zones, and children at home to have absent parents.

Shane Black shows in his film that the generation that purports to protect the youth is itself morally compromised, particularly those who hold power. While Holland and Jack are flawed, they are among the most righteous. Holly herself is also highly competent and intelligent with a strong moral compass. It’s not a revelatory message, but with so much systemic corruption and a less than happy setting, Black allows humor and some degree of hopefulness to shine through. The youth can still be counted on, and good people still exist. Holland March and Jack Healy are two broken men who cope in their own ways. They want to be decent men in indecent times, and they are more heroic than the superheroes who seem to constantly go to war against one another of late.

Captain America: Civil War made me hate shaky cam and “both sides are right” arguments

Spoiler warnings

3/5

Captain America: Civil War is the third entry in the Captain America trilogy that also effectively functions as a third Avengers movie that brings in almost every major player. What’s interesting is that the movie ends like the second part of a trilogy, e.g. The Empire Strikes Back or The Dark Knight, where the resolution does not lead to a clear cut win for the heroes. Joe and Anthony Russo likely had that in mind. This is their second Captain America movie, following Winter Soldier, both with more immediate impact on the status quo than other standalone entries in the franchise. They are also set to direct the two-parter Avengers: Infinity War, so they almost have their own trilogy within the franchise.

Speaking of The Empire Strikes Back, there is a pretty clear reference and some corny jokes about it being really old and characters wondering how Spider-Man (high school student Peter Parker) would have seen it. In the context of the story (Peter mentions it to develop strategies), it makes sense to bring it up, but the joke feels lazy and going for an easy punchline that doesn’t really work. The Empire Strikes Back is a Star Wars movie, not some obscure indie flick, and it’s arguably still the best of that franchise to date. It sits comfortably with geeky and mainstream crossover appeal, and you don’t have to be a middle-aged man to even be familiar with it.

Like that joke, the writing takes some easy routes. To clarify, Civil War is a competent film, and the writing is certainly better than the mess that was Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, the other movie this year that pits hero against hero by way of manipulation by a third party. The problem is that it carries itself as an important movie about how both sides of an argument have merits, yet it is hard (for me anyway) to side with the pro-establishment Tony Stark, and there are too many coincidences that make the personal conflict that overshadow the film’s ideological setup.

The setup

There is quite a bit in common with Batman v Superman. The opening* shows a killing that takes place in the past. A confrontation in present-day Africa involving a group of mercenaries leads to civilian casualties. An official hearing in response to that incident is bombed in what is ostensibly a terrorist attack, but it’s really an effort by a villain to frame an individual and turn the heroes against each other.

The execution between films differs, however. The pacing here makes the 2 and half hours go by quickly for the most part, and the tone and atmosphere feel a lot less oppressive. Dawn of Justice shows Superman blamed or framed twice with barely any evidence. The accidental civilian deaths here occur when the Avengers are directly engaged and Wanda Maximoff/Scarlet Witch (Elisabeth Olsen) tries to contain and divert a suicide bombing with telekinesis. Coincidentally, both movies feature suicide bombings, but in different contexts. (Superhero movies are getting grim.) The hearing that is bombed in Civil War is for the signing of the Sokovia Accords (named after the country devastated in Avengers: Age of Ultron), backed by the United Nations, designed to bring the Avengers under UN jurisdiction and force non-signatories to retire.

A rift emerges between Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans) and Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.). Steve is against the treaty, fearing that the Avengers could be exploited by politicians and rendered ineffectual, while Tony believes they should be subject to oversight. Helmut Zemo (Daniel Brühl) frames Bucky Barnes/Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan) for the bombing. Likely he is not aware of the philosophical differences within the Avengers, but he is aware of Steve’s friendship with Bucky from stolen files and succeeds in exacerbating the situation. Unconvinced by the official story, and angered at Stark’s treatment of Wanda (to be discussed later), Steve goes rogue to protect his friend and uncover the truth. This leads to a split between him and Tony and eventually to a schism within the Avengers.

There are a lot of stories going on at once, and the film introduces not only T’Challa/Black Panther but also Spiderman. Both are there for Marvel to tease their next entries, but even though he’s a fun character to have around, Spiderman feels frustratingly shoehorned in. Black Panther has a more convincing reason to be there, and he sides with Stark in order to hunt down Barnes, believing him responsible for his father’s death in Vienna. T’Challa is portrayed not only as a formidable fighter, but charismatic and honorable, willing to put aside a personal vendetta for the sake of justice. He is one of the few men who goes through a change in the story, and he comes out looking the best.

The problem of “hearing both sides”

How does the capitalist who in Iron Man 2 boasts that he “privatized world peace,” operates on his own most of the time, and co-leads what is essentially a PMC that surpasses most armies agrees to be regulated by the United Nations? Let’s rewind a bit. The government agency SHIELD, co-founded by Peggy Carter, Steve’s wartime love interest, and Howard Stark, Tony’s father, brought the heroes together and through a joint effort repelled an alien invasion in 2012’s Avengers. With SHIELD mired in its own crisis after the events of Winter Soldier, the Avengers are operating on their own in Age of Ultron, and Tony creates the AI Ultron in an attempt to build a global, automated peacekeeping force, only for the AI to become genocidal toward humanity. By Civil War, his relationship with Pepper Potts is strained (they’re on a “break”), and he is shamed by the mother of a young man who was volunteering abroad and killed during the events of Age of Ultron. Add these things to the mission gone wrong in the beginning, and guilt plays a big part.

Conversely, the Captain America trilogy explores the titular hero’s origins as a propaganda tool serving in what was arguably America’s last morally unambiguous war in The First Avenger to his growing disillusionment with the institutions that he is a part of. In Winter Soldier, Steve learns that SHIELD has been corrupted from within decades by their evil counterpart, Hydra, an organization working with Nazi Germany that he fought against in World War II. In the same movie, Steve learns that SHIELD’s Project Insight, a massive surveillance/pre-emptive strike program, which he objects to on principle, is actually driven by Hydra. Age of Ultron shows tensions between him and Tony, over the latter’s secrecy and ideas that resemble Project Insight’s problematic aspects. By Civil War, he is more distrustful of institutions and worries about secret agendas. Inspired by a speech** given at the funeral of Peggy Carter by her niece, Sharon, Steve refuses to sign. This is understandable on principle, but it’s a double standard that seems to mirror notions of American exceptionalism, with an implicit argument that rules should not apply to certain individuals. Though the Avengers are mainly peacekeepers, stepping in only to confront extraordinary threats, it’s a principle that invites chaos on the global stage.

Both characters have the appropriate motives to take their respective stance when it comes to the accords. The problem with the narrative and the “sides” it tries to create is that Bucky barely ties into the philosophical disagreement. (This is the part where things get spoiler-y while I make everyone mad by talking about how the story doesn’t work for me 100%.) The disagreement over how to handle him escalates into a “civil war” because Rogers interferes with the police, and then later on, after further machinations by the real villain, Rogers and his associates end up clashing with Stark’s faction when the former sets out to pursue the real villain.

Meanwhile, Stark makes himself harder to sympathize when he keeps Wanda under house arrest then argues that she likes it there. She doesn’t. He blames Rogers and his crew for removing her from that environment, when she chose to leave when Clint/Hawkeye came for her. After his friend, Rhodes, is injured, Stark also straight up shoots Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) at point blank range, non-lethally but still in anger, as Sam is apologizing. He shows a rather dark side in both these cases. It’s one thing to be shaken up by the attack on New York and his guilt, but he acts as he does in Age of Ultron, when trying to build an autonomous drone army. It’s always been about control. He acts independently in trying to assert dominance, but once he realizes it’s not possible to be at the top, he becomes an enforcer. I’ve honestly disliked him for the past two movies. The charisma and snark wear thin, and it’s hard to believe in the validity of “both sides have merits” when the representative of one side is such an unrelenting jackass. (It is disappointing to note that all the progress he made in Iron Man 3, in which he destroys his autonomous suits and decides to make Pepper a priority in his life, has been undone in the past two movies. In a way, this is a bigger problem with the serialization in the franchise when the status quo seemingly has to be reset to tell the next story.)

An enjoyable mixed bag, also please steady the camera

The emotional impact of the film feels similarly muddled as the political/philosophical aspects. As I mentioned in my last post about Batman v Superman, when Frank Miller has Batman and Superman turn against each other in The Dark Knight Returns, it is predicated on breaking up a partnership and friendship that has lasted for decades.*** The Russo brothers try to do this here, as Rogers is torn between his friendship to Barnes and Stark. At the same time, Wanda and Vision are forced to fight against one another, despite starting to develop feelings for each other. There is supposed to be more impact to witnessing characters who have known each other for a while turn against one another, or when a burgeoning relationship is torn asunder, unlike Snyder’s idea of having the two heroes straight up dislike each other from the start.

The execution is better here, but I didn’t find it entirely effective. Peggy’s death had a greater effect on me than the break between the male leads. While they only shared significant screen time together in one film, they genuinely cared for each other. Hearing about her death and attending her funeral is when we see Steve at his most vulnerable and human. While Rogers and Stark work effectively as a team in both Avengers movies, there is some difficulty in getting emotionally invested in them. They bicker a lot, I always feel that they liked each other more professionally than personally. They don’t have that same personal touch seen with Steve and Peggy or with Bucky. Maybe that’s why when Steve defends Barnes, saying “he’s my friend,” Stark’s “so was I” didn’t really resonate.

Civil War is a technically competent movie, and there are some really good action scenes, but then some where they felt like the choreography was wasted. In both the confrontation between the Avengers and the mercenaries, and later on, when Helmut infiltrates the facility where Barnes is held by posing as a psychiatrist to activate his Winter Soldier brainwashing and orchestrate a breakout, I felt nauseous from how much shaky cam was employed like it’s a Jason Bourne movie on steroids (OK, so it kind of is, but it’s not necessary to amplify the shakiness). Winter Soldier was similar, but I didn’t remember it being as excessive. In both cases, it feels like they have a lot of close-ups and shaky cam, but not really a lot of personal aesthetic. It almost makes me miss Zack Snyder’s weird, filtered style. One thing both sequences did well was make me genuinely fear for Scarlett Johansson when she’s trapped in a vehicle with a grenade and being choked.

By the major confrontation at the airport, it didn’t bother me as much. Maybe the camera was steadier by that point too, but the open space might have helped. The airport was evacuated, so the setting was a bit bare, but objects left on the tarmac and structures were used with some levels of creativity. I almost want to call it minimalist destruction, where structures, crates, vehicles, and parts of an airliner are thrown about or collapsed, without the excesses of the usual climactic fight; Spiderman and Scott Lang/Ant-Man are the highlights of this set piece. The former exploits his environment to swing and tackle, or provides support from a distance, and the latter uses his size-changing abilities to combine confusion and brute force on his opponents. It helps that both are guerrilla fighters in their own ways and add comedic elements (a mix of sarcasm and/or exasperation, and trying to impress their idols: Peter with Tony, and Scott with Steve). Paul Rudd works really well here, appearing earnest and trying his best as Scott.

Two of the best action scenes make good use of small spaces and Barnes and Rogers coordinating their action against a foe with a tactical advantage. The first takes place as they meet for the first time since Winter Soldier and feel ill-at-ease, but before long have to fend off a heavily armed SWAT team using hand-to-hand combat, fighting in Bucky’s small apartment and the staircase. The scene is tight and claustrophobic, and the walls and stairs become weapons for the heroes in addition to their fists and whatever equipment they can get from the other side. Rogers still makes time to catch anyone who might take a fatal plunge. It’s an expansion of Winter Soldier’s elevator scene and feels almost like something out of the first Raid movie, but less lethal. The second sequence takes place near the end. Stark, realizing Helmut’s deception, joins Rogers and Barnes, only to be set off and turns against his allies by the revelation that Barnes was involved in his family tragedy (and that Rogers knew but didn’t tell him). Two men, even with their genetic and cybernetic enhancements, would have a hard time against the Iron Man armor, but that’s where the near-indestructible shield comes in handy, thrown back and forth between the wartime comrades, used as both defense and bludgeon, as they exchange blows with Stark in his heavy armor across the cramped hallways of a Siberian underground bunker.

The set pieces support a potentially unwieldy story, and there are some pretty amusing similarities between the setup to pit Iron Man against Captain America and Superman against Batman. Unlike the other superhero slugfest earlier this year, though, the Russo brothers’ movie is aided by its lighter pacing and tone. Although Snyder delivers the darker, grittier film, his vision feels slower, tedious, and actually less believable. Civil War has a complicated web of storylines, but it feels more grounded and less convoluted, although the story still requires everyone to behave exactly as intended by the villain. The third act twist involving Barnes too conveniently connects the major characters, it’s refreshing for the final battle to be so small and personal.

I do have issues with the way the personal and political conflicts interact. That Helmut actually escalates matters by dividing with the characters’ loyalties diminishes the political/ideological sides of the conflict. It’s similar to the Hydra reveal in Winter Soldier, which presents mass surveillance and pre-emptive strikes as problematic but exonerates the good guys in the end, because literal Nazis were behind it. For a similar weakness, The Dark Knight Rises has a takeover of Gotham by a militia with a seemingly political goal, only to reveal that it’s rooted in a personal vendetta. This isn’t to say that personal conflicts can’t be tied in with the political, but it is possible to undermine and muddle a point by overriding the ideological with the personal, as The Dark Knight Rises and Civil War do.

This in turn produces something problematic in Civil War, which like Batman v Superman uses plenty of vernacular and imagery to draw analogies to foreign policies and the history of negative consequences arising out of American intervention. For all intents and purposes, yes, all three sides (Steve, Tony, even Helmut) have merits in their arguments. However, since Helmut is a villain who kills civilians, and he was part of a “death squad,” his desire to see an “empire” fall (explicitly comparing the Avengers to imperialism) becomes invalidated. This is unfortunate given that the fictitious nation of Sokovia occupies a region that both in the movie and in actual history has been harmed by foreign imperialism and intervention. By the end, the Avengers are still around to be the world police, but now they are divided into two factions, neither of which behaved particularly well in this story. For all the grim nihilism of Batman v Superman, maybe Zack Snyder does (even if inadvertently, by way of channeling Frank Miller) make a good argument for superheroes as quasi-fascists who seek to make the world make sense by forcing it to.

Additional notes

*The targets of the Winter Soldier’s assassination in the prologue are Tony Stark’s parents. Like I said, there are some hilariously structural similarities to Batman v Superman, which starts with a prologue showing Bruce’s parents’ murder over opening credits.

**I thought it was a nice touch for the movie to offer a variation of the “no, you move” speech attributed in the comics to Captain America. Sharon is speaking of her aunt’s experiences as a leader of SHIELD, a spy, and a woman, in an era when she was questioned and doubted by society. Here, we see Steve as a more fallible, uncertain figure, his faith shaken, and the speech leaves a strong impression on him.

***Coincidentally, Miller’s story has Superman acting under President Reagan’s orders to take down Batman, ending an unofficial policy of turning a blind eye to his actions, after he embarrasses the U.S. government by restoring order in Gotham. It’s interesting that Stark becomes a government enforcer who answers to the UN through the U.S. Department of State (not sure how that works) in Civil War, though when need be, he is willing to bend the rules.

  • The ending is the same as The Dark Knight, right? Steve Rogers goes on the run from the authorities with his faction, vowing to be a hero from the shadows. Tony Stark is like Jim Gordon here. There is even a monologue, except Steve delivers it.
  • I’m turning into that guy who keeps bringing up Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies, aren’t I? ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Zack Snyder’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is a unique, messy, but poor imitation of Frank Miller and Christopher Nolan

Rating: 2.5/5

In Histories, Herodotus wrote that the Persians would debate over major decisions twice: once sober, and once inebriated. Considered an important work of Western literature and in the field of history, it contains one of the first accounts of the war between the Persian Empire and the Greek city-states, during which the Battle of Thermopylae was fought. That battle saw a highly embellished, fantastical depiction in Frank Miller’s comic book 300, which Zack Snyder adapted into film. All that to say, just as the Persians whom the Greeks fought against in Histories and 300, I saw Snyder’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice twice: once sober, and once inebriated. My feelings remain mixed.

That intro is something Jesse Eisenberg’s Lex Luthor would probably say if he were writing about the movie he was in, with his love of references and tying antiquity to the present. Since I brought him up, I’ll start by discussing him and his (and by extension, the movie’s) needlessly convoluted plot that would have only worked had everyone acted in the dumbest way possible. It’s been out a month, but spoiler warning and all that.

Lex Luthor and the confused, convoluted story

Eisenberg plays Luthor like an exaggerated Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network, except he doesn’t really talk business at all. You can say the same for Bruce Wayne, but his stories are more about him as Batman and less about him as entrepreneur. On the other hand, Lex Luthor the businessman and Lex Luthor the villain are one and the same. It becomes a characterization problem, because in the movie he’s this weirdo runs a company without a discernible goal, and people just sort of go along with him.

bvs-lex.png

Anyway, sometimes his shtick works, and other times, you wonder why any of this is happening. He has a couple of good moments. First, putting a piece of Jolly Rancher in a senator’s mouth, while trying to negotiate access to the Kryptonian ship that Superman brought down in Man of Steel, got a chuckle out of me. Later, he gives a speech about philanthropy, where he starts by talking about the Greek roots of the word that turns into something about Prometheus and ends with him saying something about power and shouting “that is paradoxical!” It was awkward but enjoyable, especially after a drink.

Most of the time, however, his lines are rapid-fire non sequiturs, exposition, or juvenile philosophizing. You know he’s a young, hip entrepreneur because in one of his first scenes, he’s playing basketball in his corporate headquarters, and he talks like he’s taken too much Adderall. His references are haphazard; they don’t really show that he is smart, only that he knows to throw some quotes around (this article discusses this a bit more), and that he has some cursory understanding of philosophical ideas. They make about as much sense contextually as his master plan does in the context of the narrative, which is to say, not really.

There is some characterization, once near the beginning as he tells government officials about his father’s youth in East Germany, participating in parades to celebrate the socialist government. Another is his monologue to Superman, about God and power, during which he reveals that his father was abusive. I feel like these moments were aiming to replicate the Joker’s stories in The Dark Knight. The problem is that the delivery comes off almost as a self-parody, and the dialogue is unfocused. Moments that could leave a strong impression are smothered. He doesn’t really display a good, discernible motive, and his plan is nonsensical. This hurts the story as he is behind the conflicts that drive the film forward.

His plot against Superman involves taking advantage of divided public opinion and forcing him into a confrontation with Batman in a needlessly complicated way. 18 months after the events of Man of Steel, Superman is rescuing Lois Lane from militants in Africa, because her photographer Jimmy Olsen (unnamed but credited) is the worst CIA agent ever who gets his cover blown and shot in the face immediately, while Lex has private military contractors work with the same militants and kill them when Superman shows up. War crimes are committed, and Superman is held responsible, even though he didn’t kill anyone there (well, maybe the rebel leader whom he slammed through multiple walls). Lois learns the PMCs were working for Luthor while looking into the shell casings found at the scene. However, due to “classified” information regarding their weapons, the mercenaries’ presence is not discussed altogether. Blackwater didn’t avoid investigation so easily.

Meanwhile, a large chunk of Kryptonite is recovered from the terraforming machine destroyed in the previous film. Testing small samples on Zod’s body has shown that radiation from the substance harms Kryptonian cells, so Lex tries to have it imported, but it’s denied by a senator. He has his mercenaries smuggle it into the country anyway, and convinces a man who has ties to Bruce Wayne with anti-Superman sentiments to carry out a suicide bombing at a congressional hearing that Superman attends. The senator who sought to impede Lex is killed in the process.

The one time there could have been a moment for discourse where Superman gets to present his case in front of authorities, the forum is blown sky high, and it has to be a terrorist act too. Real edgy, Snyder. (Not really.) Public opinion turns further against Superman after the bombing. Bruce becomes more determined to kill him and steals Kryptonite from Lex. The filmmakers seem to believe people are easily manipulated and deceived, and while history shows they can be, it makes no sense in this context that even though another party is explicitly named, Superman’s reputation suffers.

Lex knows that Clark Kent is Superman, and when he gloats to Superman in one scene, it’s implied that he also knows Bruce Wayne is Batman. He knows about the existence of other individuals with powers and has video and photographic evidence. He manages to take control of a Kryptonian ship, even though when Lois entered the same ship in Man of Steel, the ship’s security drone attacked her. (He uses Zod’s fingerprints to get in, but that doesn’t explain how he avoids its security and takes control. If that’s all it takes, it’s a really bad security flaw). There’s no real explanation for any of this. Lex has to be smart, and everyone has to be manipulated, as necessitated to move the plot forward.

On top of all that, he has his mercenaries abduct and threaten Martha Kent to get Superman to confront Batman. He also has a contingency plan that involves using Kryptonian technology to create the monster Doomsday using his blood and Zod’s body, despite having no way of controlling it. Superman, in a rare case of actually saving a major character who isn’t Lois, stops Doomsday from pummeling its creator to death. Why did Lex think this would be a good idea? The ship’s AI definitely told him it wasn’t. Without this addition, Wonder Woman wouldn’t have joined the action, but like a lot of things related to the plot, this feels forced and nonsensical.

Nolan versus Snyder: Influence of Frank Miller and use of “realism”

For having a rather silly plot, Dawn of Justice attempts to follow in the footsteps of Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns and Christopher Nolan’s Batman films by aiming for darkness and realism. There are references to the “real world” littered throughout the film. Major characters and media personalities (Neil deGrasse Tyson, Anderson Cooper, Nancy Grace—and more!—all make appearances as themselves) reference unilateral foreign intervention, xenophobia, police brutality, loss of civil liberties, corporate power, and occasionally philosophical questions on power and god. Snyder wants his film to appear real and serious, but the final product feels like it’s trying too hard without saying anything. There has been some backlash against Nolan but—I admit before saying this that The Dark Knight is my favorite Batman movie so far, so I have my biases—Snyder’s mistakes only highlight Nolan’s merits.

BVS signal 2.JPG

Similar to Miller’s story, Dawn of Justice has Ben Affleck playing a rougher, older Bruce Wayne, with a more jaded outlook, and his sidekick, Robin, has been killed by the Joker some time ago. Dawn of Justice is about how these heroes are really weary, Superman because he feels he has the weight of the world on his shoulders, and Batman because he’s been a vigilante for 20 years, and he has seen good people in Gotham fall to corruption or perish. The film’s tone reflects this, and it’s gloomy throughout, though there is more—and better placed—humor than in Man of Steel, for what that’s worth.

There are lines and scenes that directly reference The Dark Knight Returns, sometimes in different contexts and with different participants. The main thing is that Batman puts on power armor to take on Superman, with some assistance from weaponized Kryptonite. Some other examples:

  • Thomas and Martha Wayne’s death, with the gun at point-blank range, and her pearl necklace around the back of the gun.
  • In a televised debate in The Dark Knight Returns, Lana Lang hits back at an accusation that Batman is psychotic, with the retort that the vigilante’s motive is “too big for your little mind.” Lex Luthor responds to Lois Lane’s accusation that he is “psychotic” by stating that it’s a word “for any thought too big for little minds.”
  • There is a hostage situation where Batman takes on a heavily group (the “Mutants” in the comics, Luthor’s henchmen led by a Russian mercenary in the movie), and his exchange with the last hostage taker are almost identical in both.
  • Batman delivers a brief monologue while beating a weakened Superman, saying he learned from his parents’ death that “the world only makes sense when you force it to.”
  • Superman takes a nuclear blast and appears skeletal—and the effect is actually effectively creepy in the film—until he regenerates. In the comics, it’s a Soviet nuclear warhead as American and Soviet leadership escalate the Cold War; in the movie, the U.S. president orders it when Superman takes his fight with Doomsday into space.

I bring up these examples not to be a crank who wants to yell about how there is no originality in films anymore. Mad Max: Fury Road was one of my favorite movies in 2015, and I also liked Star Wars: The Force Awakens a lot (but even there I found the fan servicing to be a bit much, offset because I liked the movie). Rather, the issue is that Snyder seems almost too beholden specifically to The Dark Knight Returns as source material. In this case, the fan service feels aggressively in-your-face, becoming forced and distracting.

In The Dark Knight Returns, talking heads provide narration and provide commentary, and they also serve as the target of criticism for the author. Some of the moments are obviously exaggerated, but I’ve seen four panelists on CNN literally shout at each other simultaneously, so maybe he isn’t too far off. Nolan’s Dark Knight shows on more than one occasion that the news spread hysteria by broadcasting messages from the Joker, without resorting to the gimmick of using real media personalities.

I think Snyder wanted do something similar by portraying the way the media shape the narrative, engage in sensationalism, and might have propagated falsehoods about Superman. Perry White tells Clark to run fluff pieces and at one point suggests an article about the world falling out of love with Superman. At one point, Superman is seen rescuing people across the world while looking glum, intercut with scenes of media personalities discussing his actions on television, while a slow, dirge-like variation of the Superman theme established in Man of Steel plays in a strange, uninspiring montage. Later on, after the suicide bombing, Snyder might have intended to implicate the media in propagating anti-Superman sentiments, but all I saw was a distracting cameo from CNN’s Nancy Grace. The movie slows down for a montage of questions and talking points that feel like a bad introductory philosophy class paper with a barely coherent thesis, but later on glosses over a moment that could answer why people are so mad at Superman when someone else blew himself up. It tries to take place in the real world with all these fantastical characters, but the blurring of lines doesn’t quite work. The end result feels awkward.

bvs-superman.png

In contrast to Snyder, the realism in Nolan’s trilogy and some of the outlandish elements complement each other. Batman Begins and The Dark Knight incorporate the crime drama trappings from Batman: Year One and The Long Halloween, exploring Bruce’s start as Batman, his unofficial partnership with Jim Gordon on the police force, the struggle against organized crime and corrupt police officers, the rise and fall of Harvey Dent, and the escalating threats posed by increasingly dangerous villains. (The Long Halloween and The Dark Knight also feature “I believe in Harvey Dent” as a recurring phrase, a meeting between Gordon, Dent, and Batman on a rooftop to discuss strategy, and a warehouse full of mob money set ablaze, though with responsible different parties.)

The first and last of these films, Batman Begins and The Dark Knight Rises, feel more comic book-like than The Dark Knight, the middle chapter, due to the presence of villains from a shadowy organization with plans to destroy the city with weapons of mass destruction. In a post-9/11 world, though, the threat is palpable. Begins also has the Scarecrow with his fear gas weapons, as an antagonist, in addition to a Year One-influenced set piece that involves using bats to escape from a SWAT team. Rises has Bane, who is more or less a pretty ridiculous strongman, though Tom Hardy sells the menace and physicality. The third film also shares with The Dark Knight Returns the premise of Bruce Wayne coming out of retirement as Batman to take on heavily-armed gangs led by a physically dominating leader, with a storyline inspired also by the Knightfall arc, which Bane is most known for.

Owing to Heath Ledger’s intense performance as the Joker and a number of major deaths, The Dark Knight is arguably the darkest of the trilogy, and the most realistic, as the Joker’s crimes are rarely the world-ending types seen in many action movies. Nonetheless, the social ramifications turn the struggle between both men into a battle for the city and its future, in which no one may come out the winner. The unpredictable, brutal version of the antagonist, with a philosophy that anyone can be pushed toward villainy, is inspired by The Killing Joke, but this version eschews his origins (among other things that would push the movie toward a likely R-rating), and Heath Ledger really makes the character his own. Though the conflict plays out across Gotham City and even Hong Kong, the general feel is street-level and personal. Similar to Empire Strikes Back, the film combines some impressive set pieces with heightened personal stakes.

Nolan’s movies have big action movie set pieces and chase scenes, but he is concerned with telling grounded, film noir-inspired crime stories. The films have the ability to make this one-man army in a bat outfit and his adversaries seem plausible, and to make outlandish scenarios feel grounded. They aren’t just about adding “realism” and “darkness” to the character, and he understands that the goal shouldn’t be to force the real world into the story with pundit cameos and “key words” that people hear on the news. The Dark Knight Rises almost falls into this trap, with Bane’s populist rhetoric mirroring that of the Occupy Movement, but the execution is less cringe-worthy. The terrorism and surveillance angles brought up in the films may feel heavy-handed to some, but they add a level of verisimilitude to the story.

Nolan worked with David Goyer on the stories for his films, and he drew from a lot of visual and narrative sources for scenes and characters, but what I appreciated was that they felt fresh. References don’t feel as forced as the way Snyder wants us to notice them. On other hand, although Dawn of Justice is meant to be a new story that builds on the Superman reboot to lay the foundations of a DC comic book movie franchise, it feels too attached to Miller’s works. I’m not convinced that Snyder and his team weren’t shouting “DO IT FOR FRANK!” constantly during the creative process for Dawn of Justice.

A grandiose but messy narrative (sort of) about meaning in post-9/11 U.S.

As mentioned previously, Luthor’s elaborate scheme drives and hurts the story, but even outside of that, the movie is still kind of a mess, with a disorganized narrative around the remaining characters, a desire to be taken seriously, and some arguably redeeming moments.

The movie begins and ends with funerals, and the mood is rather somber from beginning to end. The opening, narrated by Affleck, shows Bruce Wayne’s parents’ murder and funeral, his fall into a cavern, and the bats that would inspire his vigilante persona. This is revealed as a dream sequence that ends with the bats lifting him out of the cave. I’m not too crazy about seeing Bruce’s traumatic childhood (now with extra slow motion!) once again, barely a decade after Batman Begins, and Thomas Wayne escalating the situation by throwing a punch at the mugger is dumb, but it was at least well shot, and Man of Steel could have benefited from this approach instead of a long prologue with information that is repeated later anyway.

Likewise, though, Batman v Superman could have easily started with the black text on a white background that reads, “Metropolis. Mankind is introduced to the Superman,” jumped into the previous movie’s final battle seen from Bruce’s perspective on the ground, and shown the credits over that. I get why Snyder bookends the movie with funerals, one showing a hero’s “birth” and one hinting at another hero’s rebirth (plus planting the seeds of the Justice League), but skipping the first dream sequence would have been an interesting way to drop the audience right into the action. The opening foreshadows a lot of the problems the film will have: unwieldy, unnecessary expository moments; needless violence; dream sequence that stands in for characterization; style over coherence.

bvs-bruce-diana.png

One of the better non-action bits takes place at the gala, where Lex delivers his strange speech, and Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman are all present in their civilian identities: Bruce, Clark, and Diana Prince. Bruce despises Superman and Clark’s paper’s pro-Superman slant, and Clark despises Batman’s methods, leading to the two men to trade barbs. Bruce and Diana both seek information. He is following the tracks of Anatoli Knyazev, an arms dealer and mercenary employed by Luthor; she is after information Luthor possesses that could compromise her identity. He gets what he wants, but she steals it from him, and they meet later when she needs him to decrypt the data. Bruce Wayne as a detective/spy is more interesting than just him beating up criminals, and Gal Gadot as Diana Prince seems to be having a good time in the role. I wish she would have had more screen time with Affleck, carrying out corporate espionage escapades. We sadly don’t get more scenes like that.

After a relatively strong, propulsive opening (though your mileage may vary, depending on how you feel about heavy 9/11 imagery), the movie gets lost with jumping around characters with poor transitions, at least one teaser that could have been earlier on or used as a Marvel-style in-credit/post-credit scene, and several dream sequences. Cutting between the various characters isn’t a problem, but the narrative is unfocused and haphazard, and I don’t particularly care for any of the characters. Henry Cavill comes off pretty dull, and Affleck is dour, but he has some decent banter with Alfred (Jeremy Irons).

There is a lot of exposition and weird pacing, as the movie struggles to juggle its plotlines and characters. Right as Clark flies off to face Batman, there is a jump to Diana in a hotel room, having received an email from Bruce containing the files he stole, including a photo of her from World War I and footage of the other “metahumans” (whom Bruce later wants to seek out as allies). I don’t know how well it would have worked as a teaser shown during the credits, but it does feel oddly placed, like maybe it should have come sooner. Having it occur when it does interrupts the flow. Later on, there is a scene when Batman confronts Luthor in a jail cell near the end that really could have been an mid-credit or post-credit teaser.

Adding to the ungainly narrative are a few confusing dream sequences. In one, Jonathan Kent appears to Superman, talking about saving his family’s farm, but causing their neighbors’ horses to drown. (I don’t know.) At the very least the post-apocalyptic Mad Max-like dystopian dream-or-vision where Batman leads a resistance against Superman and his armies of winged alien creatures and paramilitary followers is kind of fun. We know Bruce fears Superman’s potential to become an all-powerful evil figure, so the dream doesn’t really add anything, but it also hints at Darkseid (the villain’s signature Omega symbol makes an appearance), whom Bruce has no knowledge of. Upon waking up, someone is shouting at him, and he wakes up again, so it’s a dream-within-a-dream. It has some cool imagery, but leaves you with more questions than answers, which I feel sums up the movie.

Despite the title of Batman v Superman, I didn’t find their confrontation to be the best action scene. It was pretty brutal, but it was repetitive and backed by an overbearing score. There is little investment in the characters, and it’s less tragic, unlike The Dark Knight Returns, where they had been longtime friends. We know that they have to team up eventually, so the fight is supposed to last until the misunderstanding is cleared up. The confrontation between the two heroes end just as Bruce is about to deliver the fatal blow with a Kryptonite-tipped spear he fashioned for this confrontation. Clark utters “save Martha” and throws Bruce off, as that is also his late mother’s name, giving Lois time to come in and explain the situation. When Bruce says, “Martha won’t die tonight” and goes on to save Clark’s adoptive mother from Luthor’s mercenaries, it could be seen as a moment of catharsis, of exorcizing his guilt over not being able to protect his parents. Bruce’s line could have worked, but the lead-up to it isn’t really executed well. The movie lacks a real sense of humanity to make it poignant, and having that moment alone shatter all of his prejudices is a strange choice. It’s such a strange moment that I almost feel like I’m describing the encounter between Milhouse and his Shelbyville counterpart.

1012694.jpg

Batman’s standalone action scenes are more or less the best ones in the movie, though he kills henchmen like in Tim Burton’s Batman movies (even Miller’s version in The Dark Knight Returns didn’t), and I liked the new designs on the vehicles. I have a soft spot for chase scenes, and seeing a more streamlined but heavily armored Batmobile drag a car full of henchmen, ram into vehicles, and blast through obstacles is pretty fun. The plane looks cool too, but it’s mostly used to shoot at armored vehicles and Doomsday. The warehouse fight is probably one of the best choreographed fights that involves the character. It’s clear, and he’s more mobile than in previous Batman films. He makes good use of his gadgets, environment, and fighting prowess, and it’s a brutal, entertaining sequence.

bvs-ww.png

The Doomsday fight is a bit disappointing, however. In my 2015 films post, I mentioned that when I watched Avengers: Age of Ultron the second time, I became somewhat bored with the Iron Man/Hulk fight as well as the final battle. Watching two huge CGI things smash into each other or the protagonists fend off waves of CGI-looking drones loses some excitement after a while. The final fight here features the DC trinity facing off against a giant CGI monstrosity, and while there are some exciting images, it feels a bit monotonous. Superman and Wonder Woman carry the bulk of the hard hitting, while Batman dodges and provides some ranged support. “I’ve killed things from other worlds” is a pretty good line for Gadot, who seems to be the only one not downtrodden by the third act, and while the fight lacks variety, her character has some great moments combining her sword, shield, bracelets, and lasso in combat.

Doomsday’s presence should alert to anyone with a cursory knowledge of comic book history that Superman has a high chance of dying, and indeed they kill each other in battle. With help from Lois, Superman gets the Krytponite-tipped spear that Bruce had planned to use against him and stabs Doomsday, and in his weakened state, he is fatally stabbed in return. Both combatants perish, and a funeral is held for the fallen hero with a bit of a reversal to the ending of The Dark Knight Returns. Miller’s story has Bruce use drugs to fake his death in his confrontation with Superman, and when Clark attends Bruce’s funeral, he becomes aware of a faint heartbeat, leading to an ending where Bruce is revealed to have moved underground to train his successors. Here, Bruce attends Superman’s funeral, goes off to form the Justice League against an unknown, incoming threat, and the last shot hints at Superman’s resurrection.

There is something to be said about Snyder’s ambitions with the story, written by Goyer and Chris Terrio (who worked with Affleck on Argo and was brought on for rewrites). Snyder has a distinctive visual style, and he shows aptitude at recreating or reimagining comic book scenes. There are plenty of moments that feel lifted from The Dark Knight Returns, and they are recreated faithfully, even if they feel like distracting fan service at the same time. The final battle is not something I’d write home about, but there are some good shots, like a heat vision duel, Wonder Woman’s weapons, and the finale with all three working together and the camera pans from one combatant to the other.

At the very least, though, Snyder’s muted aesthetic where everything looks filmed through a filter feels different. The film’s score is at times overbearing, at times gives the film an operatic quality. A Wagnerian operatic approach is appropriate for a film about larger-than-life characters, some naturally godlike, others men who style themselves after gods, clash or work with one another. While it has taken maybe Marvel a dozen movies before they get into the consequences of the Avengers’ actions, it only takes Snyder two. This is not to say this movie is better, only that his interests when it comes to the genre are different, which is refreshing on paper, but as stated already, not great in execution.

There is commentary on power and policies: Batman as a one-man army with tactics that go beyond what the police can do, Superman’s potential to turn into an evil overlord, corporations flaunting the law and employing mercenaries, the ability of the masses to do harm with their fears and prejudices especially when manipulated. Snyder seems to be using these characters to represent post-9/11 United States—and this would be an America that has seen both 9/11 and then a similar and more destructive event in the battle of Metropolis.

In the movie, Bruce Wayne invokes the “one percent doctrine” (associated with former Republican Vice-President Dick Cheney). He straight up kills a bunch of henchmen, and he brands criminals who commit heinous crimes that other criminals find appalling, essentially painting a target on them to be attacked after they arrive in prison. The other multi-billionaire who shares his dislike for Superman, Lex Luthor, babbles on and possesses negative charisma, yet somehow still gets others to go along with his plans. Both men are paranoid, xenophobic, obsessive, and rich, and they have extensive resources with which to surveil others; Luthor, however, is far more of a villainous agitator. If Bruce Wayne starts out in the movie as the Punisher in a bat costume and with neoconservative worldviews, then Lex is perhaps a Trumpian figure, a logical extreme of Bruce’s worst traits, one who enjoys stirring things up, who has even more extreme rhetoric and the means to achieve those goals.

Clark Kent is a reporter seeking to expose Batman at home, much to the chagrin of his employer at the Daily Planet, and as Superman, he carries out essentially unilateral interventions around the world (referred to as such in the movie). He mostly performs rescues, but he is blamed for deaths that occur in his vicinity. As a journalist, he is criticized for pursuing stories that go beyond sensationalist clickbait, and as a hero or “soldier” (indeed he is honored as one after his death), he takes the blame for everything that goes wrong. It’s a strange mix of talking points, combining reverence for and defense of the troops out on foreign interventions (usually associated with conservatism) and concerns for civil liberties squashed in the name of fighting crime and terrorism at home (usually associated with liberalism/progressivism). Does he represent a true patriot, a newly arrived immigrant who believes in all the basic values his adoptive homeland? But then is he really a good representative of us, seeing how he violates other nations’ sovereignty to rescue his girlfriend and has acted seemingly without concern for property or collateral damage? To his credit, at least he tried to take Doomsday into space during their fight to mitigate damage. Yet for someone whose symbol stands for hope on his home planet, he’s not very good at inspiring hope, or even appearing hopeful, as he spends a lot of the movie sort of scowling.

Does Batman v Superman espouse a political philosophy? There are plenty of references to the U.S. after 9/11, and beyond, with rhetoric mirroring whenever violence, terrorism, and immigration are discussed. Characters represent different aspects of society, and there is plenty of pontification on morality, god, and power. But it also feels very muddled and uncertain when Batman battles Superman. Political discourse appears more polarized, and with the current primary season, there are visible schisms developing in both the major parties, but what is the movie suggesting when it comes to the U.S. is turning against itself?

Following that train of thought, by the end, Luthor is in prison, knowing a greater threat is out there, aware of Earth and the death of Superman, but seemingly not caring that his actions have caused the death of someone who has the power to stand up against this threat. The Trumpian figure is defeated, at least for now, but the Pandora’s Box has been opened. Bruce is no longer a brutal fascist-lite neocon—maybe he’s still brutal, but he didn’t brand Luthor—and inspired by Superman’s sacrifice, seems to renounce his more cynical views, saying that “men are still good.” Superman accepts that Earth is his home (once again) and selflessly sacrifices himself in battle. But what does it mean now that he is dead? I don’t know if there is much of a point beyond Bruce Wayne overcoming his prejudices, to seemingly embrace taking on a more heroic role, rather than limiting himself to brutalizing street-level criminals.

Kotaku released an interesting defense of Batman v Superman (they also have a piece trashing it), on the grounds that it is tonally, visually, and thematically refreshing for deviating from the standard superhero movie formula and skimping on jokes, calling into question the notion of superheroes and what they represent. I agree to an extent, and in theory. As I stated in talking about Man of Steel, I kind of respect the idea of treating the idea of having all-powerful beings present on Earth seriously, but it feels wrong-headed.

Zack Snyder is a modern-day Ed Wood given a budget, with an interest in god-like figures punching things while talking about power and morality. Though the movie has good moments, mostly with Batman and Wonder Woman, the story is not very good. The “Martha” moment is better on paper but feels unearned, as does Bruce Wayne becoming inspired to be heroic again. I understand wanting to add gravitas, and that’s why some of the action doesn’t feel as enjoyable as they do in the Marvel movies, but it’s not really adding anything to the table by being grimly serious and inventing sayings that don’t exist so your characters’ words feel like they have weight. Snyder seems to want his films to be like Watchmen (which he also adapted to film in 2009), but I don’t know that he actually critiques the genre well or has anything of substance to present. Say what you will, but at least when Batman uses high-tech surveillance to find the Joker and then has it destroyed in The Dark Knight, it’s a statement on power and potential to abuse, and that extraordinary measures should only be provisional measures. The same sentiment comes up again in The Dark Knight Rises, when Bruce rebuffs Alfred for suggesting sharing his resources and technology with the police, and eventually allows someone else to take up his mantle. Meanwhile, Batman v Superman has a Neil deGrasse Tyson cameo.

Miscellaneous

  • Why did no one question how the suicide bomber got the materials to make a bomb that powerful? He was obviously destitute!
  • Miller’s story is set during the Reagan administration. Sadly, there is no voice cameo by President Obama, which should have been this movie’s only real-life cameo, when the president orders a nuclear launch. Patrick Wilson provides the voice of the president.
  • Headcanon: I didn’t think that Bruce Wayne had really good characterization in the movie, so my fanfic-y idea is that BvS Batman is an alternate post-Nolan Dark Knight Gotham PD has reinstalled the bat signal after he does something to redeem himself in their eyes; they know that they can’t do without him anyway. He gets a sidekick in Robin who is killed by the Joker, and having lost both Rachel Dawes and Robin, plus witnessing the battle of Metropolis, he is pushed over the edge and goes full Punisher. (Alfred’s age is inconsistent, but whatever.) There, instant better characterization. Hire me, please!

10 Cloverfield Lane (2016)

10-Cloverfield-Lane-living-room.jpg

Despite sort of sharing a title with the found footage monster movie Cloverfield (2008), the newly released 10 Cloverfield Lane does not continue the story. Director Dan Trachtenberg’s feature debut has been described as a “blood relative” and “spiritual successor” and carries on with a new story. It appears more of a spin-off than a sequel, and perhaps this J.J. Abrams-produced franchise will become something of an anthology.

That is not a bad thing. I remember little of the original and don’t mind a different direction. What 10 Cloverfield Lane has in common with its predecessor is a focus on a small group of civilians during a cataclysmic event. The difference is that it is much more character-focused. The majority of the action takes place in a well-furnished underground bunker, centering on two men and one woman brought there against her will, with a dynamic and setting that reminds me of last year’s Ex Machina.

Mary Elizabeth Winstead is Michelle, a young woman who finds herself in the bunker after a car accident. She figures out rather early on that her “accident” might have been caused by the man who brought her to the shelter, and gradually, with each successive attempt, comes up with a solid escape plan.

Winstead delivers a multifaceted performance, showing vulnerability and fear but also intelligence and resourceful from the start. She begins the film running away from a fiancé after a fight. The man who brought her to the bunker actively lies and gaslights her about the events that led her to the bunker. She reveals that she had an abusive father growing up, and she tends to avoid confrontation. Michelle finds herself in increasingly worse situations; her strength and instinct allow her to make it through and strike back at her latest abuser. Not that I’d want an Alien reboot, but if there had to be one, I’d want her as Ripley. I just love Mary Elizabeth Winstead so much, you guys.

John Goodman is Howard, a survivalist and conspiracy theorist. He claims to have found Michelle and brought her back to the bunker, thus saving her life, but he does not make it easy to trust him. Goodman easily switches between friendly and intimidating patriarch. Though his first appearance is threatening, he is at other times charismatic, jovial, weird but still approachable. On the other hand, He is unstable, has outbursts, and demonstrates a creepy attachment to younger women due to his separation from his wife who took his daughter with her.

John Gallagher Jr. is Emmett. Having worked on the bunker during construction, he knows of its existence and voluntarily enters the shelter to take refuge from the events befalling the outside world. Howard does not welcome his arrival. Gallagher’s character is easygoing and sympathetic. He’s not as developed as the other two, but he is a decent guy with insecurities who tries to lighten the mood, sometimes/often to Howard’s displeasure.

Although there is plenty of uneasiness and tension, there is some comedic relief as the characters become accustomed to living together. The occasional rumbling reminds them and the audience that the outside world is falling apart, but overall life in the shelter is “normal.” In this respect there is similarity to Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, with the survivors settled into the mall as the world falls apart outside, and it’s a reprieve from the stressful first act. The period of normalcy lasts even as Michelle and Emmett uncover another layer to Howard’s deception and secretly plot an escape, until the “family” eventually falls apart violently.

10-Cloverfield-Lane-dining-room.jpg

During downtime, we get gags that involve VHS tapes of ‘80s movies (real and fake), moments of self-awareness such as the characters poking fun at the impossibility of a zombie apocalypse, and a game of Taboo that shows Howard’s social awkwardness and creepy attitude toward women. The same game also leads to a frightening moment when it appears that he is suspicious of Michelle and Emmett’s activities, until the pressure is released via a punch line in a moment of relief for everyone. The film at times feels disjointed in its transitions between scenes and moods, but it holds together rather well overall. Once the story explodes into violence in the third act, the film never lets up in its intensity and even takes a turn for the weird. Some people found the twist contentious, but I was more afraid of a sudden, “ambiguous” ending. The shift was handled well and helped complete Michelle’s trajectory.

The effectiveness of 10 Cloverfield Lane lies in the dynamic between the three leads and the setting. The film starts out with a sense of dread. Tension never fully goes away and threatens to erupt into violence. The film is creative in its minimalistic, claustrophobic, isolated setting, which appears lived-in and well thought out. The intercutting of mundane conversation, humor, and tension reminds me a lot of recent films by Adam Wingard and Quentin Tarantino. A recurring sentiment I’ve seen in reviews is “Hitchcock meets Twilight Zone,” which is accurate and complimentary. I read that and was sold, and the film did not disappoint. It’s a smart, intense thriller about escaping and fighting back against abuse, propelled by strong performances.

3.8/5

Some discussions on themes and ending

I waited at least a week to post this because I figure it had been long enough. The spoiler-averse might want to skip the next few paragraphs.

10-Cloverfield-Lane-basement.jpg

The ending is a bit contentious among reviewers and audiences. There appears to have been an alien invasion, and a second climax sees Michelle’s confrontation with an UFO on patrol drawn to the activity at the bunker. There is criticism that the third act twist came out of left field, and that the original ending where Michelle simply drives away and finds a major city in ruins is better. I know a lot of this is subjective, but I don’t see how that would have been a better ending.

The invasion didn’t come out of nowhere. Michelle hears in the beginning a radio broadcast reporting widespread blackouts. Emmett mentions that he witnessed the beginning of the attack with supernatural, inhuman qualities. Howard theorized that the attacks came from “Russians” or “Martians,” and while he was paranoid and disturbed, it’s not implausible he picked up something to give him cause to believe that, given his line of work that involved satellites.

I kind of hate a lot of “ambiguous ending” approach in indie films. Michelle finding the ruins of a scorched Earth was one ending I predicted. I was afraid that one preview had shown one of the last scenes of the movie (involving a ball of light appearing behind a house), and that there would be a sudden cut to black. (Look, I’m still not over that awful ending the X-Files revival/season 10 had.) Ambiguity can provoke discussion, or it’s lazy and leaves the viewer unsatisfied. I don’t demand all endings to be crowd-pleasing, but I don’t know what a downer or cliffhanger ending would have accomplished. Having Michelle find a giant crater or a city in ruins or whatever the original plan was wouldn’t have felt new or interesting. It’s kind of a cop out, or even needless nihilism masking as depth.

The ending also works with Michelle’s character arc. Due to her bad childhood, she avoids confrontation and runs away in bad situations. As mentioned, she has had a bad history with men, from an abusive father, to a fiancé from whom she is running away, to Howard who is an unstable liar that intends on keeping her in the bunker as a surrogate daughter. Emmett is the first decent man she has encountered in the story, and he ends up dead trying to protect her, pushing her toward confrontation with Howard.

By the film’s conclusion, through her skills and resourcefulness, and some strategic retreating along the way, she has successfully struck back at Howard and brought down a patrol ship. When she is faced with the choice of going to Baton Rouge where there is shelter, or joining the resistance in Houston, she decides on the latter. The narrative isn’t just about escaping a bunker; it’s about rediscovering strength after suffering at the hands of abusers. What happens next is left open-ended, and not every question is answered, but as it stands, Michelle’s arc is complete, and there is enough sense of closure.

 

Survival Period Piece Weekend: The Witch/The Revenant

Robert Eggers’s The Witch is a supernatural horror movie set in 1600s New England. Alejandro González Iñárritu’s The Revenant is a survival and revenge drama set in the 1820s. The former’s budget is a modest $1 million. The latter stars Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hardy, and has a $135 million budget. I managed to catch a couple of weekends back, and despite their differences, they went pretty well together, both as grueling survival films with a strong emphasis on authenticity.

The Revenant has some compelling, captivating images. There is a huge battle sequence near the beginning that captures chaos and terror perfectly. The camera tracks individual characters as they run, take cover, and fight across the terrain. It’s brutal and dizzying, but it doesn’t cause motion sickness, something a lot of action movies forget to do nowadays.

The story is based loosely on the real-life journey of Hugh Glass (DiCaprio) who is left for dead by John Fitzgerald (Hardy) on a fur trapping expedition. The promotion and marketing had a lot of “Experience misery!” which didn’t sound that appealing. (I admit that could be a double standard, since I watch horror movies.)

With all that in mind, I was more invested than I expected to be in a pretty standard revenge story. Yet, I also wished that DiCaprio’s character had been made more interesting. I was interested in the narrative, in what he did, but not who he was. It’s well-acted, and good for DiCaprio on his Academy Award win, though his performance here felt more one-note than some of his past roles.

The Revenant looks at the plight of Native Americans, and those who attacked in the beginning were given a more complex treatment once their motives were revealed. The film emphasizes on the brutality and violence of the frontier. Topics like power, war, and white supremacy are explored. At the same time, the film is hurt by its heavy-handedness. Was the graphic rape scene of a Native woman really necessary, for example? Power. Masculinity. Racism. Sex. Violence. Dominance. It’s all related. I get it.  Yet the extended scenes of suffering felt gratuitous, not poignant. Everyone is flawed and violent. I get it. That is not complexity or nuance; everyone is just a miserable asshole.

The Revenant juxtaposes the beauty and brutality of nature, the horrors of war and genocide, flashbacks and visions. The biggest problem with the movie is its pacing. It probably could stand to be 30 to 40 minutes shorter and cut down on some of the wandering and crawling. The film is captivating and brutal, but its story, about survival, revenge and the cycle of violence, would be rather ordinary without the history behind it.

There was a lot of buzz around the cast and crew members’ experiences on The Revenant. Conditions were rough; some crew members quit. The movie’s budget went higher than expected. DiCaprio was reported to have slept in an animal carcass and eaten raw meat.

A similar impulse for authenticity could be found in The Witch by writer-director Robert Eggers. “There are directors who talk the Kubrickian hyper-detail talk and those who walk the Kubrickian hyper-detail walk,” Matt Patches wrote for Grantland. Eggers spent five years on researching and writing the script. He used primary source documents to ensure accuracy in speech, costumes, sets, architecture, and even farming techniques seen on film.

If you’re not like me, and that doesn’t sound appealing, that’s okay. Watching The Witch is not like reading someone’s college thesis. The Kubrick comparison is apt not only due to the attention to detail; the film shares DNA with The Shining in showing deteriorating familial relations in a remote location. There is a sense of despair and danger, as the family is cut off from civilization and surrounded. There is an unseen supernatural threat, weather, and failing crops. Here, similar to The Revenant, nature proves to be a brutal force of its own that the protagonists must survive against.

The film centers on the struggle of a family sent into exile from the community of colonial-era Puritans. Anya Taylor-Joy, the female lead, portrays a young woman coming of age who experiences the shock of being forced out of her home due to her father’s actions. It makes sense for her to be the POV character; she is the most mature and aware, yet still growing, unlike her parents who seem more set in their ways. She struggles with daily rituals, impure thoughts, and familial pecking order. She is saddled with guilt from the start (exile by association), compounded by losing her younger sibling while playing near the woods, and becomes the accused in her own family. Her coming of age is anxiety-ridden. Her portrayal is sympathetic and spellbinding.

As with The Shining, the emphasis is on buildups and creating unease. The score is eerie and dissonant. It wails as the family is exiled to live in the wild and reappears throughout. The film establishes early on that the witch is real, with an uncomfortable and harrowing scene of a human sacrifice. The family dynamics are tense as they struggle to survive and preserve the only faith and structure that they knew to live by. No one in the family is villainous, but there is a sense of despair, as persistent as the haunting score. One has to wonder if the witch caused their decline, or merely accelerated it.

The middle feels a bit drawn out and loses some sense of urgency. The dialogue was at first jarring, a bit difficult to get used to. It’s not a perfect movie, but there is enough to keep me interested. The director shows promise, and I look forward to his next project, which is reportedly a remake of the German silent horror film Nosferatu.

The Revenant: 3/5

The Witch: 3.25/5

Man of Steel (2013)

I watched like the majority of Man of Steel on TV like a few weeks back and it gave me a headache. When I saw it in theaters for the first time, I found it to be a decent movie, where my only complaints at the time were how loud it was and feeling some motion sickness (I wasn’t even seeing it in 3D) during a scene where Superman takes on the Kryptonian terraformer’s (Kryptoformer?) automated defenses. The flaws became more apparent with some distance to think and talk it over, and another viewing.

At the risk of sounding deliberately contrarian, I’d still defend the movie on some grounds. It was the best Superman has looked on film, and the first time he took flight was a wondrous moment. The action scenes are mostly pretty good, and the film does not hesitate to emphasize that the Kryptonians are godlike on Earth. Their speeds are unmatched by any human, and each hit they deliver sends shockwaves through the air. The fights are super destructive, and a common complaint deals with Superman’s seeming disregard for collateral damage, or doing little to avoid wanton destruction, which is a justifiable criticism. These scenes do give us some memorable images, though, such as Superman and Zod flying at each other along the side of a skyscraper, or their fight taking them into space and taking down a satellite, and they come crashing down to Earth as debris burns up around them. Superman killing Zod is controversial, but my biggest complaint is that they drag on, and there are moments when the pounding score and disorienting camerawork gave me a headache.

I kind of admired the scope of the story across time and space. I’d even say I was fine with the seemingly Dune-influenced space opera opening that introduces Zod and his attempted coup. On the other hand, you had SERIOUS DRAMATIC MUSIC over scenes with obvious phallic imagery. The opening went on for too long, with a lot of information repeated later on anyway.

Clark Kent spends a lot of the first half of the movie wandering about, intercut with flashbacks. We get a lot of “character” scenes set in the present or flashbacks where Kevin Costner delivers a life lesson, but it feels like nothing happens. Clark’s rescue of workers trapped on a burning oil rig was a good moment, for example, but then there are tons of meandering ones. It’s a poorly paced film with awkward Christ imagery and dialogue, copy-pasted onto the Batman Begins template.

I respect that Zack Snyder wants to treat the arrival of a superpowered being from space and an invasion by his pursuers seriously. The dramatic score by Hans Zimmer is fitting for a science-fiction action epic, but there is a quiet, touching Superman theme that fits the film’s slower, contemplative moments, for when Clark reflects on his origins and future. The music for the most part helps the atmosphere. The film still manages to treat destruction too lightly, and that is a problem. It’s not the tone, which is plenty humorless, but the way entire city blocks are leveled, complete with 9/11-like imagery, with little regard. Everything appears forgotten by the end. The movie ends with bad jokes like when a female military officer says she finds Superman “kind of hot,” and Lois tells Clark, “Welcome to the Planet.” Superman says that the “S” emblem stands for hope, but the movie doesn’t really have a hopeful tone. (It’s the same problem as Star Trek into Darkness, also from that year, and I still maintain 2012 – 2013 was Peak Grimness in film.)

I respect that Zack Snyder wants to treat the arrival of a superpowered being from space and an invasion by his pursuers seriously. The dramatic score by Hans Zimmer is fitting for a science-fiction action epic, but there is a quiet, touching Superman theme that fits the film’s slower, contemplative moments, for when Clark reflects on his origins and future. The music for the most part helps the atmosphere.

The film still manages to treat destruction too lightly, and that is a problem. It’s not the tone, which is plenty humorless (in contrast to Marvel’s excessive jokes), but the way entire city blocks are leveled, complete with 9/11-like imagery, with little regard. Everything appears forgotten by the end. The movie ends with bad jokes like when a female military officer says she finds Superman “kind of hot,” and Lois tells Clark, “Welcome to the Planet.” Superman says that the “S” emblem stands for hope, but the movie doesn’t really have a hopeful tone. (It’s the same problem as Star Trek into Darkness, also from that year, and I still maintain 2012 – 2013 was Peak Grimness in film.)

Plus, like I said, the movie gave me a headache.

Damn it, Zack Snyder.

2.5/5