Sunday, March 27, 2016

Fixing Batman v Superman

I've bounced back and forth about whether this should be a review or not.  I mean, it's pretty clear to everyone that this is far from a perfect movie.  There's a lot wrong in how Batman v Superman is written and executed.  As I write this, the film is sitting at 29% on Rotten Tomatoes.  So calling it imperfect is not exactly breaking new ground.  Instead, I intend to list ten things that could have been done to the film to make it good.  Obviously, this will contain a lot of spoilers, so be warned.

1. Bring some action to the front of the film

The strength of the film, and the reason why I'm still looking forward to a Justice League movie, is found in the great action sequences during the last quarter of the film.  The slowest, the titular bout between Batman and Superman, still shines a spotlight on just how awesome Batman is when given the time to plan.  The solo fight scene featuring Batman was called by Screen Junkies the Greatest Screen Batman Fight Ever, and I can't disagree: it has the level of kinetics that one should expect from a Batman fight scene.  And, of course, the final battle with Doomsday brought the Trinity together, showed how the heroes could work together as a team (presaging Justice League), and demonstrated what Wonder Woman can do.  The trio of battles made a great cap to the film, but it just underscores how sorely the first near-two hours was missing some sort of action sequence.

My idea: It's clear that Zack Snyder was aiming for an artistic moment with the slow motion depiction of what I call in my mind The Twelve Labours of Superman (plus or minus several labours).  And I can understand wanting to keep Wonder Woman to a mystery that can be unwrapped in her own film.  But there's no excuse to not let Batman show off what he can do earlier in the movie.  Dialogue is wasted on talking about how brutal Batman is on the criminals of Gotham -- why not actually show it in action instead?  It would also provide a nice pacing counterpoint to the Superman scenes, which could elevate them more than interrupting a slow-paced plot build with slow motion scenes can.

A little less talking and a bit more action would have served as a better intro to Batman.

2. Either recast the role of Lex Luthor or rename the character that Jesse Eisenberg played.

I've publicly stated that Amy Adams is the best Lois Lane ever put on film.  Henry Cavill makes a very good Superman/Clark Kent.  I'm as surprised as anyone to say this, but Ben Affleck could very well turn out to be my favorite Batman/Bruce Wayne, something his Daredevil left me completely unprepared to even contemplate.  And Gal Gadot has me looking forward to the upcoming Wonder Woman.  The real problem in the casting and performance was Jesse Eisenberg as a character somehow named "Lex Luthor".  There are three relatively constant aspects Lex has in the comics: he's brilliant, he's egotistical, and he projects power (because he's actually powerful or seeks power).  Eisenberg's Mark-Zuckerberg-on-amphetamines take on the character is disastrous.  He seems to not so much force his way as get his way handed to him by very confused bystanders.  It's not a good depiction of Lex Luthor, and some of the things he accomplishes, like instantly reprogramming a Kryptonian security system to accept him as master, makes absolutely no sense given what we've seen of the character to that point.

My idea: The easy thing to do would be to recast Luthor as someone better suited for the role.  However, my idea is to keep Eisenberg (though maybe giving him slightly different pointers) and changing who he plays.  It's obvious that Justice League will be featuring the team going against Darkseid.  He's DC's classic Big Bad and the guy Thanos was copied from, and the appearance of parademons in Batman's bizarre dream/vision (more on that later) seals the deal.  So why not turn Eisenberg's character into one G. Gordon Godfrey, who can be revealed in Justice League to of course be Darkseid's PR man from hell, the Glorious Godfrey?  Godfrey's powers of persuasion would help explain some of the stuff "Luthor" seems to get away with effortlessly, and his membership of an advanced race would make the Kryptonian reprogramming much more palatable.

At the very least, Lex should be as old or older than Superman.  Eisenberg looks like a high schooler next to Affleck and Cavill.

3. Ditch the dream sequences and visions.

The movie would save significantly on time if we didn't have to sit through these unnecessary sequences.  No one coming to this movie needs to revisit the Waynes getting killed for the dozenth time on screen, especially since there's an entire television series currently devoted to the direct aftermath of that shooting.  And even hardcore fans had to be confused at least temporarily by the visions of a tyrant Superman backed by parademons and the subsequent appearance of The Flash from the future (especially since we hadn't seen the character before).  That sequence sits like a tumor on the film.

My idea: Open the film with the Battle of Metropolis, and if you must show the pearls spilled once more, insert it just as a dream sequence further in the film.  Cut the Superman Nazi scene altogether and shift the Flash vision to an after-credits scene (more on this later).  Streamline the movie proper!  Oh, and cut the Jonathan Kent scene.  All that does is remind the audience how badly Man of Steel messed up that character.

Seriously, I've read comics for 40 years and I found this confusing and disruptive.

4. Give Wonder Woman a better reason to be there.

The idea that Diana Prince inserted herself into Metropolis society in order to track down a single electronic copy of a photo taken decades before makes me want to channel the esurance lady and scream, "That's not how any of this works!"  Like Lex couldn't have an arbitrary number of other copies, including a physical original.  And what's the big deal about that photo, anyway?

My idea: It would be better if Lex possessed an actual artifact instead of a digital file.  Perhaps she's been missing her tiara all this time.  Or something that belonged to Steve Trevor back in WWI that she needs to get to his descendants or is a personal memento for Diana herself?  Or if it has to be information, how about the encrypted location of Paradise Island?  If the latter, the dialogue needs to include how she's made sure all other copies are wiped out except for the one that's on Lex's secure network.

No matter what, I still can't wait for her movie.

5. Give Superman a better reason to go after Batman.

Don't get me wrong, I actually liked the idea of Superman being put into the impossible situation of having to fight Batman or have a loved one killed.  It's the kind of trap that happens all the time in Superman comics, since his loved ones are one of the few things an enemy can exploit.  But to just have Ma Kent sitting in an unaltered dockside warehouse where she could say her son's name at any time to get his attention is lazy storytelling.  I mean, his opening scene showed him coming to rescue Lois from half a world away and you're telling me that after being told his mother was in peril he didn't try to use his senses to find her?  C'mon!

My idea: Do the same abduction and deal, but have Martha Kent be held in Gotham City's decrepit lead-lined sewer system or in an abandoned warehouse in a section where every building is still slathered in lead-based paint.  Have her being held in a structure that has been enhanced with sound suppression technology.  Have Lex brag about the sensors he built that can detect Kryptonian physiology and set off explosives that will kill Ma if he approaches.  Then have Superman think it through and realize that he needs help finding and rescuing her.  You should have to work to make Superman helpless.  Speaking of which...

Bruce definitely worked to make Superman helpless.

6. Give Superman some respect.  Please.

I was fine with Man of Steel showing a Superman who's not that good with his powers, as it was meant to be an origin story.  However, there's no excuse for doing that in this film, which takes months later.  He uses his senses to know that Lois is in trouble, but not to monitor what's happening at the compound while he flies to the rescue (thus seeing the murder of the terrorists)?  He doesn't move at all to prevent what was clearly going to be a bomb explosion in the Capitol?  He doesn't try to find and rescue his own mother?  Shame on you, Zack Snyder!  Superman should be better at his job than this!

My idea: Showing Superman to be competent wouldn't be difficult, nor would it impact the story much.  Let him see the execution of the terrorists by the mercenaries but bypass chasing them down to save Lois, letting them get away.  And not having him capriciously ram the head terrorist through a wall would also be kinder to Superman's character.  The public can still be fed the "it was really Superman who killed those guys" story either way, especially if Eisenberg is playing Godfrey as I suggest.  Let Superman get distracted saving everyone at the Capitol from a different bomb (or other threat) and be surprised by the backup hidden in the wheelchair that's automatically triggered by his actions.  And fix the rescue of Ma Kent as outlined above.  Nothing needs to change with the overarching plot, but the Superman scenes shouldn't leave Superman looking like a schmuck.  

And for pete's sake, let the man smile once in a while!

7. Nail down how the public feels about him.

The film is exceedingly inconsistent with how public reaction to Superman is portrayed.  In most scenes, he's clearly seen as either a favorite son or a god, both of them featuring positive feelings toward Superman.  When Wallace Keefe climbs and defaces the Superman statue in Metropolis, it's shocking.  Yet when it comes time for Superman to testify in front of Congress, there's a huge mass of anti-Superman protesters.  Where did they come from?  And Senator Finch appears to be all over the place when it comes to how she feels about the Man of Steel, seemingly anti-Superman in the beginning then finding accusations against him incredible later.  There's just too much thrashing of opinion on Superman.

My idea: As for Finch, let her be a fan of Superman, but one who realizes that, for the protection and satisfaction of her constituents, Superman really must prove he's no threat.  Her actions onscreen can continue unchanged with that tweak to her stated opinion. When it comes to the public in general, spend a couple minutes using one of the montages of media coverage to talk about how Superman has divided the nation, with part of the populace embracing him and the other part viewing him with suspicion.  Having the two sides split up into red and blue states would be a nice touch and provide an opportunity for further commentary about the meaning and appropriateness of letting superheroes into the world.  Along those lines...

Seriously, where did all these people come from?  A Trump rally?

8. Do more with the question of "Should there be a Superman?"

It's clear that Snyder wanted this to be a theme of the movie, but it's not addressed well at all.  It gets brought up in dialogue a couple of times, but it really needs more overt attention.  The movie doesn't have to provide a clear answer, though I'm sure DC would like the answer to be an "Obviously, yes."  But it's often not even clear what the real question is.

My idea: Pull the question more fully into the Batman/Superman dynamic.  It's clear in the beginning that Batman thinks that there shouldn't be a Superman: he's too powerful to stop if he decides to be a tyrant, and even when he's not, he gets innocents killed when threats with the power to match him show up.  There's some thought put toward the same question applied to Batman, with Superman concerned with his brutal tactics and the revelation he's been doing this for years without really putting a dent into the crime plaguing Gotham.  Each character even momentarily talks about their own self-doubts, but then quickly move on.  Play that up more, and have them get through their self-doubts in action, with Superman saving someone from a disaster and Batman rescuing someone from a crime, just to reinforce their own self-identity.  Then the final battles can be about them coming to appreciate each other, finally winning the public over fully as well.  This last part needs to be shown on screen: the response to the funeral of Superman covers him, but we should also see an embracing of Batman (and Wonder Woman) as well.

The Battle of Metropolis actually having lasting effects is something to underscore.

9. Move the introduction of the other Justice Leaguers out of the main movie.

In a way, it was nice to see the quick intros of Flash, Aquaman, and Cyborg.  But how it was handled told us very little about the characters themselves, interrupted the flow of the plot, and probably confused a good number of people.

My idea: Leave the files as logos in the film proper, then insert an after-credits scene with Bruce sitting in the Batcave (perhaps joined by Diana) viewing the videos of the other three metas.  Leave the Flash for last.  At the end, have Flash show up from the future with his warning, setting up the Justice League movie directly.

That's an appropriate time to figure out whether Aquaman will have his khaleesi, Mera, in his film.

10.  Clean up some of the other things that will drive fanboys crazy.

I'm not actually talking about the much-discussed "Batman kills" topic.  I don't actually mind that.  With one exception, his kills come from vehicular combat, something we've seen done in both the comics (most notably The Dark Knight Returns, which Snyder borrows from heavily for the film) and the earlier films (in particular, the body count racked up by Tim Burton's Batman is comparable).  The one kill made with a personal firearm mirrors a scene from TDKR (Book Two, page 8).  Personally, I'm tired of all the fanboy frothing over this and the deaths that occurred in Man of Steel when the same folks ignore or excuse all the deaths from the Marvel movies, especially the two Avengers movies.  You can pretend that all the civilians shown hanging out in the buildings being demolished in New York are all getting away safely, and you may decide that killing alien invaders or faceless Hydra soldiers is okay, but you can't deny the fact that countless brainwashed SHIELD agents were killed during their assault on the helicarrier, including the one straight up kicked off the ship into a long dive toward death by Captain America.  Thankfully, it looks like the Civil War movie will finally address this.

No, I'm talking about things like having the photographer killed in the opening Superman sequence be named Jimmy Olsen.  I'm talking about having Perry White come across like a complete douche.  I'm talking about Ma Kent telling Clark that the world doesn't owe him anything (for the second straight movie, if I'm counting correctly).  There's a laundry list of these things.  And they don't actually add to the plot at all.

My idea: Dump it all.  If the photog needs to die, let him be Joe Schmo.  Give Perry White better dialogue.  And for pity's sake, stop having Clark's parents tell him that he shouldn't bother with all these pesky humans.

Really Perry, why be a dick?

I really wanted Batman v Superman to succeed as a film.  One thing I appreciate about the DC movies is that, though they largely fail, most of them attempt to be about something.  The fact that they swing and miss so often gives them a not unfair reputation as being inferior to Marvel's product.  But as a fan of cinema, I appreciate the attempt to elevate the purpose of the films beyond an afternoon trifle.  When Disney/Marvel misses on their films, like they did with Age of Ultron, the result is just a forgettable film.  No one lets the fact that there have been bad Fast and Furious movies deter them from seeing another one because all that's expected is fun.  When Warner Brothers/DC misses, the result is a memorable failure.  Part of me wishes they would play it safe like their competitors do to increase their hit rate, but honestly, I maintain hope that one of these days, they'll capture that magic in a bottle and surpass The Dark Knight in quality and maybe earn the first ever Oscar for a superhero film.