To say that Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice was a divisive film would be to do a disservice to the word itself. Batman v Superman didn’t just divide people, it put them at odds with one another in a manner similar to the titular gladiator bout between its two protagonists.
On the one side were the fervent haters: fans who preferred Marvel’s lighter tone, those who took issue with the depictions of the characters, folks who weren’t onboard with Snyder’s grim-dark sketching of the characters, and those who just didn’t have a clue what was going on.
In the other corner stood the outright defenders: fans of the DC source material (The Dark Knight Returns and The Death of Superman), those who had enjoyed Snyder’s previous effort (Man of Steel), people who had a deep investment in these characters, and folks who were open to seeing them portrayed in a different light then they may have traditionally been.
Now, full disclosure, this writer is firmly in the second camp. As someone who has seen Man of Steel and Batman v Superman multiple times, I feel that both films hold merit in their own way, and that Batman v Superman in particular was unfairly maligned upon its release.
I’m not going to try and tell you what you think. If you dislike or hate this film, presumably you know why and can tell me about it in great detail (see: the internet). Likewise if you enjoyed the film, you can likely explain why. What I’m trying to ascertain here is why Batman v Superman had the sort of visceral reaction that it did.
Let’s Get Ready to Hate!
The first thing I noticed when talk was coming out about Batman v Superman prior to its release was how ready people seemed to be to hate it before they had even seen it. Jokes, memes and articles were showing up by the dozen as one person after another indulged themselves in its inevitable downfall.
The situation was eerily reminiscent of two releases I could recall from the past. One was The Village, an M. Night Shyamalan film that had been trashed after its final package had opted more for a form of social commentary than the horror/creature feature it had been sold as.
After Unbreakable and Signs failed to deliver on what certain fans were hoping for from Shyamalan, even as he stuck religiously to the twist ending structure by which he had made his name, the critical eye seemed to be aimed upon him with The Village. Both fans and critics alike unleashed their ill will upon him in equal measure, and the film was subsequently panned.
The other film that came to mind was The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, the first, and best, of Peter Jackson’s second Tolkien trilogy. Press had been mainly positive upon the initial announcement that Jackson would be returning from his Lord of the Rings success to adapt the previous book, The Hobbit. However, as further information was released to the public, popular opinion began to reverse.
For one thing, people took issue with the new frame rate that the film was shot with, 48 fps as opposed to the industry standard of 24 fps. Now, to be fair, this writer stands firmly with anyone who may have been turned off by that, as it essentially takes a $200 million dollar movie and makes it look like Masterpiece Theater on PBS.
The film was also the unfortunate receiver of negative press amid the announcement that The Hobbit would be expanded and changed to include other subsequent material from Tolkien’s mythology. The announcement that the book, which was shorter than any of the three Lord of the Rings novels, would be expanded to accommodate 2 (and later 3) feature films was not taken very well.
Due to these perceived failings, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey was piled on upon its initial release, scoring a measly 64% on Rotten Tomatoes, despite being the most focused and concise of the three Hobbit films.
Now how does all of this relate to Batman v Superman? Well, one of the main theories for the wild divide in fans on this particular film is that a lot of people went in ready to hate it. Another is that critics were sick of Zack Snyder’s humorless, grim-dark comic book adaptations, and were ready to take him to task for it.
Whether you subscribe to one of these theories or you simply think the film is hot garbage, is totally your prerogative. I’m not here to tell you why you dislike a movie but why I, and many others, like it, which is the next category we’ll get into.
A Mixture of Faithful Adaptations and New Ideas
As mentioned above, Batman v Superman takes its primary inspiration from two of the most beloved stories in each of the titular characters comic book canons. The Dark Knight Returns is one of the all time great Batman stories, as it focuses on an older, meaner and more relentless Batman coming out of retirement to set things right at all costs. It is home to the battle between Batman and Superman, and gives the movie Batman’s robotic suit, his use of sound waves to battle the son of Krypton, and the brutal, calculating nature with which Batman dispatches Superman. It also offers the great sequence where Superman flies a nuclear bomb to outer space, only to be decimated by it. Pretty great stuff, through and through.
Meanwhile, going off of the man of tomorrow, we have some inspiration taken from The Death of Superman. This was a watershed moment in comic book history, as it was the first of the big publicity stunt superhero deaths (unless you count that whole Jason Todd debacle). Superman’s death was a huge pop culture moment, and is still widely remembered and fondly recalled today. This series introduced the character of Doomsday, who Superman fought to his last breath, leading to both of their deaths at the end of the final issue. Anyone who has seen the film will see the obvious parallel here to the finale of BvS, when Superman sacrifices himself to save the planet from Doomsday.
Now with these influences out of the way, let’s take a look at how Zack Snyder, David Goyer and Chris Terrio expanded upon these ideas to make them their own. Going off the above example, one of the key ways is to show how the world mourns Superman following his demise. His small scale funeral in Kansas is juxtaposed with an honorable soldier’s burial in Washington, though that casket is empty. A memorial is also erected at the place of his death, and the spot where an honorary statue had been prior to the final battle. Simple and somber, it reminds humans: “If you seek his monument, look around you.”
It’s a very fitting tribute to the character, and what he means to the world. This also serves as the perfect motivation for Batman to go seek out the members of what will one day become the Justice League. Since Batman has been on a very dark, and truly suicidal mission, throughout the film, it’s a great way to send him off on a more hopeful note.
Here Come the Criticisms
Of course, if we’re going to chat about the Dark Knight Returns influence, we can’t do so without addressing the elephant in the room, and that’s the Martha scene. Now I’m not so unabashed and biased that I can’t point out a couple of bad scenes in this film. The silliest moment in the film is undoubtedly when Flash inexplicably appears through a tear in time to yell some goofy nonsense at Batman, and that’s truly a scene that should have been cut from the film. Another bad moment comes during the closing moments of the picture, when Lex Luthor warns about a cosmic bell that has already been rung before devolving into a fit of just saying “Ding-ding-ding-ding-ding!” over and over again.
Yes, there are moments in this film that do not work but the Martha scene is not one of them. The common interpretation that people have of this scene (which features Batman on the cusp of killing Superman, before relenting at the name “Martha” from Superman’s lips) is: “Oh wow, our moms have the same name! Let’s be best friends, sorry I tried to kill you!” Meanwhile, what really occurs is that hearing that name brings out the humanity in Batman, and reminds him that Superman is not some evil demigod who must be destroyed at all costs but a man, with a mother and father, like anyone else. It humanizes the Man of Steel in Batman’s eyes, and shows him how close he has come to damning the world in his search for meaning in his life, and perhaps an honorable death.
Moving off of this point, another common criticism of the film is its depiction of Batman as a killer. Again, what people miss here is that we’re supposed to see Batman as something of a villainous presence in this film. He’s at his wits end and doesn’t care if he has to crack a few eggs to accomplish what he sees as the greater good. In one key scene he asks Alfred: “How many good guys were there in Gotham when we started? How many are left?” We also see the spray painted costume of Jason Todd in the Batcave, suggesting that the death of his protege may have been the beginning of this more brutal and cutthroat Batman. Fans who have read The Dark Knight Returns will recall how close Batman came to murder in that book. This is a natural extension of pushing that iteration of the caped crusader just a little bit further.
It’s also worth considering that Batman is ultimately changed by the end of the film, and resumes operating at a more standard level. Even after everything Lex Luthor has done at the end of the film, Batman stops short of giving him the death sentence he gives another deplorable criminal in his introduction. He has come to realize that he can’t continue operating this way without damning himself and the world. He has to go about things in a different manner.
Now, since Lex has been addressed, we might as well take this bull by the horns and run with it. Lex, depicted here as a mentally unstable lunatic with a penchant for sadistic Machiavellian planning was a turn-off for a lot of people, and it isn’t hard to see why. He’s almost the complete opposite of the more standard Lex Luthor, as a suave businessman with criminal leanings, as perfected by the highly under-rated turn by Michael Rosenbaum on Smallville. On the other hand, though, haven’t we seen that iteration of Lex Luthor done to death by now? Though I think it’s perfectly understandable that Jesse Eisenberg’s manic take on the character might have been a bit much for some fans, I was actually impressed with how well such a different take on the character could be executed. It truly opens up a bevy of possible ideas for how other well-established characters in this universe could be altered to still be fresh and exciting.
In the End…
One year later, Batman v Superman‘s legacy remains as divisive as it ever was, perhaps even more so with the passage of time. And like creationists debating atheists, it’s unlikely that either side will ever convince the opposition to come around to their point of view. But hell, a guy has to try.
It’s worth noting that the Director’s Cut goes a long way toward explaining several key plot holes that haven’t been addressed here for that very reason. With that said, if you hated the film at 2.5 hours, it’s a bit of an ask to urge you to sit down for 3 more.
So with that in mind, I hope this little piece of writing has at least offered readers another perspective on the film, even if it hasn’t altered their opinion on in any way, shape or form.
May Wonder Woman bring us all together in June.
Sam Mendes Creates a Rare Cinematic Experience with ‘1917’
War movies have been a constant trend in cinema since the beginning of film. From black and white propaganda pieces during World War I and II to grand, ultra-realistic, modern dramas like Saving Private Ryan, war films have intrigued filmmakers and audiences alike for over 100 years. There’s a long list of films that have succeeded in recreating the horrors of fighting on the frontlines while telling a captivating story of heroism. Telling an emotionally gripping tale combined with some visually stunning filmmaking, 1917 can now be added to that list, and is nothing short of an incredible achievement.
Directed and co-written by Sam Mendes, and starring Dean-Charles Chapman and George MacKay, 1917 tells the story of two British soldiers during World War I that are given orders to personally deliver a message to a battalion off in the far distance. The message: to call off an attack that will result in the death of thousands, including one of the soldier’s brothers, should they fail to make it in time. Early on the two soldiers walk swiftly through crowded trenches; one of them, dragging behind yells, “Shouldn’t we think about this?” The other doesn’t reply. There’s no time to think about it. He carries on forward without looking back. The two had just been given orders, and time is now their worst enemy.
It’s this sense of urgency and persistence that drives 1917. Every minute is critical, and every moment feels dire. The two soldiers constantly push forward despite the overwhelming odds, as the life of thousands are in the lone hands of these two young men. The threat of failure is real, and 1917 never allows the audience to forget that.
Chapman and MacKay give wonderfully human performances as the main protagonists, Lance Corporal Blake and Lance Corporal Schofield. The audience gets to know the two men through little bits of conversation amid all the tension of getting closer to enemy lines. Their deepest and darkest secrets are never revealed, yet their actions provide reasons to care about them. The two men have their differences, but it’s clear that they want to help each other see the mission to its end. Their loyalty to one another and to the mission relentlessly drives them forward, and ultimately makes it easy for the audience to hope these characters succeed.
What really sets 1917 apart from other war epics is the masterful directing by Sam Mendes. The film creates the illusion throughout that the audience is watching a single continuous shot. From the first shot until the last, the focus never strays from its protagonists, allowing the audience to experience every step as it’s taken. Aside from the characters moving into a dark trench or behind a tall structure, it can be really tough to tell just how long each take is; where the director says “action” and “cut” is blurred to a point of fascination here, and though audiences have seen prolonged shots of war in past films, this is on another level. Combined with some brilliant pacing and jaw-dropping action sequences, 1917 never loses grip of its audience, as everything is seen without pause.
It’s also worth noting that every shot is elevated by a phenomenal score by Thomas Newman (who has worked with Mendes before on Skyfall). It seems that the goal here was not only to increase the intensity and drama of each scene, but also to allow the audience to feel exactly what the characters are feeling at all times. Whether the soldiers are walking through crowded trenches, cautiously cornering buildings, or taking a brief moment to catch their breath, every bit of what they’re feeling and just how their fast their hearts are pumping is translated. The music always feels natural, even in its most dramatic moments, and it deserves high praise for complimenting Mendes’ story so well.
1917 is one of the most unique movie-going experiences in recent memory. It takes the war movie genre and does something no one has ever seen before, which is extremely difficult with so many memorable war films in cinematic history. With 1917 Sam Mendes has created an unforgettable experience that needs to be seen on the biggest screen, and it deserves to be ranked among the greatest war films of all time.
With ‘Road to Perdition,’ Sam Mendes showed another side of Tom Hanks
In his long, distinguished career, one thing Tom Hanks hasn’t done a lot of on screen is dispassionately shoot people. Sure, in Bonfire of the Vanities he hit a kid with his car, and in Cloud Atlas he threw someone off the roof of the building. And yes, he played a soldier in both Saving Private Ryan and the Vietnam part of Forrest Gump, and there was a third-act gunfight in his 1989 cop/dog comedy Turner & Hooch. But the one and only time Hanks has played a full-on murderer was in Road to Perdition, director Sam Mendes’ 2002 meditation on fathers, sons, crime, and the legacies of violence.
Naturally, Hanks being Hanks, Mendes’ film positions his Michael Sullivan not as an irredeemable monster, but rather a humanized character who may not be beyond redemption (the film’s poster tagline was “Pray for Michael Sullivan.”)
Set in the 1930s and adapted from a first-rate screenplay by David Self, Road to Perdition tells the story of Sullivan, a mob enforcer in Rock Island, Ill., who works for local crime boss Rooney (Paul Newman), the man who raised him. Frequently dispatched to bump off Rooney’s rivals, Michael is committed to not allow his young son, Michael Jr. (future Arrowverse actor Tyler Hoechlin), to go down the same path in life he did.
When the young Michael witnesses his father committing a murder, it leads to a chain of tragic events that has the two Michaels on the road to Chicago to make a deal with Al Capone’s crew (in the person of his henchman, played in one scene by Stanley Tucci), and eventually on the run from a rival hitman (Jude Law.) Meanwhile, Rooney’s jealous son, Connor (a pre-Bond Daniel Craig), schemes against him.
Road to Perdition attaches a violent crime plot to considerations of sin and specific references to Catholicism, which is something that directors from Martin Scorsese to Abel Ferrera have done for decades. But Mendes’ film finds a new way to tell that particular story by focusing it on the gangster’s young son.
Road to Perdition, which came out in the summer of 2003, was Mendes’ second film, and his first after 1999’s Best Picture-winning American Beauty. It’s the better film, thanks to a strong script and the work of a great cast, but more than that, it’s absolutely visually stunning in a counter-intuitive 1:33 to 1 aspect ratio. The film’s final sequences, of both the rain-drenched gunfight and the denouement on the beach, are among the most beautiful cinema of the 2000s.
The film won the Best Cinematography Oscar for Conrad L. Hall, the third of his career, although sadly Hall passed away before the Oscar was awarded; it was accepted on his behalf by his son, Conrad W. Hall. Hall’s Oscar was the only one the film won after it was nominated for six, although not including Best Picture or Best Actor.
Road to Perdition came at the front end of Hanks’ nearly 20-year Oscar nomination drought, between Cast Away and this year’s Won’t You Be My Neighbor. But Road to Perdition is an underrated Hanks performance. Even beyond all the murder, it’s very understated, and much more strong/silent than is typical of Hanks’ work. He also wears a hat most of the time, which Hanks doesn’t often do.
Paul Newman was nominated for Best Supporting Actor for what would be his final on-screen role, although his voice continued to be used in Pixar’s Cars movies, even after his death. As for Daniel Craig as Connor, he’s playing a character who in today’s parlance would be called a “failson,” and it’s a role that he undoubtedly has been too big a star for just a few years later.
Sam Mendes has had something of an uneven career. His first film, American Beauty, won Best Picture, but its reputation has somewhat suffered over time for reasons fair and unfair. He’s directed great James Bond movies (Skyfall), and not-so-great ones (Spectre.) He’s made small films that were decent (Away We Go) and big ones that were disastrous (Revolutionary Road). But while he’s getting some of his best attention for 1917, which has emerged as an Oscar frontrunner, Road to Perdition stands as his most complete and satisfying work.
‘Color Out of Space’ is Pure Cosmic Horror
Festival de Nouveau Cinema 2019
Color Out of Space stands out as one the best direct adaptations of Lovecraft’s work.
Even before a meteor streaks out of the sky, Richard Stanley’s Color Out of Space firmly establishes an atmosphere of alien, otherworldly dread. Opening on a fog-shrouded forest dripping with foreboding atmosphere, Stanley evokes the spirit of the controversial author in a way few filmmakers have, and the use of direct quotes from the short story further cements this as a love-letter to Lovecraft and his work. But Color isn’t just a slavish ode to the influential writer and his cosmic horror creations; the South African director also injects just enough of himself into the film to create something that builds upon the core of Lovecraft’s story, maintaining that kernel of pulp horror while introducing elements that feel wholly personal to the filmmaker. For this and many other reasons, Color Out of Space stands out as one the best direct adaptations of Lovecraft’s work, and one of the most engrossing genre movies this year.
The film by and large maintains the narrative core of the original, recombining elements to suit the change in medium, but staying quite faithful otherwise. Nic Cage stars as Nathan Gardner, who has moved his wife and two children to a secluded country home to get away from urban life. The Gardner family’s pastoral bliss is interrupted by a meteor that strikes their farm in the dead of night, and both their home and their very bodies begin to change soon after.
Unsurprisingly for a film with the hands of Lovecraft, Stanley, and Cage on the wheel, Color is often quite a strange experience, rife with disparate influences and odd touches. Nathan’s daughter, Lavinia, is a practicing witch, which is a story element that could only have come from Stanley, a magician himself. The Gardner family are also trying their hand at Alpaca farming — a bewildering plot element that feels like it could have been one of Cage’s notoriously eccentric fancies, right down to the brief lesson in Alpaca milking. Of course, Lovecraft’s passion for unknowable cosmic terrors is draped over all of this. There’s a wonderful atmosphere of dread and the unknown, about as pure an expression of Lovecraft as one could hope for in a contemporary setting. You’d think it would all make for a disjointed mishmash, but it all gels quite nicely, with the quirky family coming off as endearing more often than not.
Color Out of Space is one of the most engrossing genre movies this year.
There are a few distracting, odd moments, like Lavinia’s turn to self-scarring in a desperate ritual to avert disaster. It largely isn’t commented on, and her sudden appearance with arcane runes carved into her flesh doesn’t end up feeling like the important story or character beat it probably should have. Likewise, Cage’s performance is on the eccentric side, with odd mannerisms and a truly strange accent taking over as the Gardner patriarch begins to go off the deep end. But then, that’s half the fun when it’s Cage we’re talking about.
Like so much of Lovecraft’s work, Color Out of Space deals with the intrusion of the unknowable and alien into the mundane waking world. While other works have had this manifest in the form of eldritch space gods or croaking fish-people, Color instead uses an alien environment as the intruder. While Stanley clearly isn’t working with a massive budget, this idea is still used to create some stunning environments as the Gardner farm’s transformation progresses, with the climax offering some of the most engaging visuals in recent memory. There’s also some truly unsettling body horror, more gruesome and explicit than anything from the story, but an organic fit for the material. Color Out of Space is Stanley’s first feature-length fiction film in around fifteen years, and by all indications, he hasn’t lost his edge. For both fans of Lovecraft and the director’s own works, there’s much to see and love here. The visuals are breathtaking, the atmosphere sumptuous, and it’s Lovecraft to the core with just enough original madness thrown in.
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on October 14, 2019, as part of our coverage of the Festival du Nouveau Cinema.
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