Saturday, July 2, 2016

Who knew?! Batman v. Superman: Ultimate Edition turns out to be an improvement

Spoiler warning: Contains spoilers for Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice theatrical and Ultimate Edition versions

I didn't care much for Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice when it hit theaters. I found it messy and disjointed. I really didn't have much of a desire to see it again.

Anecdotally, when I go to see a Marvel film, people stick around for the credits. They know an after-credit sequence is coming or there's something Marvel has thrown in there as an Easter egg. When the credits rolled during my BvS screening in March, people couldn't wait to get out of the theater (myself included).

I thought the character motivations were murky and poorly drawn. I thought Jesse Eisenberg was beyond annoying as Lex Luthor. Batman's visions were weird and out of place. The Martha Moment was contrived and silly, as was the battle between our titular "heroes." Luthor's grand master plan made zero sense. The congressional hearings convened about "Superman's Great Adventure in Africa" didn't make sense. Bruce Wayne/Batman dominated the screen time, shortchanging Superman in his own sequel.

And here's what I wrote in my review of the theatrical version:
Snyder says there's a three-hour cut of the movie that he wanted the studio to release, but the studio balked at the running time. I think a solid 45 minutes of this movie could've been cut; I can't imagine three hours of it, unless that three-hour cut has tons of character moments that are lacking in the theatrical version.
You know what?

It turns out Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice: Ultimate Edition does exactly that. I had a 50% credit from Google Play that expired on July 1, so I bought BvS: DOJ: UE (ick on that title, WB!). I will never go back to the theatrical version, though I should probably watch it one more time to see if it holds up any better now that I've seen the Ultimate Edition, which is a far, far superior version of the film.

As it turns out, the 30 minutes cut from the movie were almost all character moments, many of theme featuring Clark Kent/Superman. Luthor's manipulations make much more sense; while Eisenberg is still grating at times, his Luthor comes off as more of a master manipulator and sinister force, something the theatrical Lex Luthor lacked. Even Bruce Wayne/Batman, who I thought was the best drawn character in the theatrical version, comes off as an improvement. We understand even more that this Batman is broken; the death of Robin years ago embittered him, and he's not in his right mind. Luthor uses this against him, and that Martha Moment is what breaks Batman out of his fevered psychosis; he realizes Luthor has manipulated him, and it changes his entire conception of Superman and his desire to kill him.

It's not just as simple as, "Hey, our moms have the same name--we're best friends now!" I'm not saying the Martha Moment works on every level, but it has a better payoff than the theatrical version because Luthor, Batman, and Superman are better drawn in the UE. The moment has more impact and you understand Batman's quick turn; he misunderstood Superman because he was embittered and manipulated. The Martha Moment snaps him out of it. He's willing to give the Kryptonian a chance.

So when Bruce Wayne says he's failed Superman in life, you understand; it has more impact.

Clark Kent is also more clearly drawn in his version. One of the biggest complaints I had about the movie was the central conflict between the two superheroes. I wrote in my original review that the conflict should have been one of ideology; not one made because Lex Luthor kidnapped Superman's mom. While Martha Kent's abduction is still the regrettable crux of the Superman-Batman fight, it's not the only reason behind it. Clark Kent spends more time as a reporter in the Ultimate Edition as he tries to track down the Batman and investigate his impact on Gotham City and Metropolis.

The Bat-branding, we learn, is another of Luthor's manipulations. An inmate died because Luthor ordered it, making Batman's new, more brutal methodology look even more so. Clark talks to people in the neighborhood frequented by Batman; some of them are scared while others say you have nothing to be worried about it as long as you're not doing something bad. The girlfriend of an inmate who was Bat-branded and killed in prison tells Clark there's no reasoning with Batman; he only understands violence. This goes a long way toward establishing Superman's viewpoint on the conflict, something that was implied but not really touched upon in the theatrical version.

And as for that bizarre Africa situation? This is one of the most important changes in the reworked version of the film. Luthor manipulated the whole plot (we see Lois Lane, yet another character who suffered from a lack of development in the theatrical version, investigate the Africa incident and put the pieces together). His people made it look like Superman killed several people, using a flamethrower to simulate heat vision. The bullet subplot, a weird side story in the theatrical cut, makes more sense now. In the theatrical version, you don't understand why the bullet is important--if Superman killed several people, he sure as hell wasn't using a gun. The UE fixes that; the bullet is important because Lois believes an outside force, possibly one connected to the government, masterminded the Africa situation.

And another subtle plot point--that Superman doubted himself because he didn't see the bomb in the hearings--gets an explanation: the wheelchair was made of material that was lined with lead and thus impervious to Superman's X-ray vision. Superman, who thought he'd been careless, hadn't missed it because he wasn't looking; he missed it because he couldn't have seen it. Lois also figures out that the anti-Superman character played by Scoot McNairy couldn't have planned the bombing by himself. Luthor manipulated the poor man.

Somehow, the three-hour version of a movie I didn't think I'd want to see again turned out to be a far superior version of that movie. If the theatrical version was a five for me, I'd give the Ulimate Edition an eight. It made that much of a difference to me.

Even Superman's death, which I felt was shoehorned into the movie to give it a "big dramatic ending," means so much more. Clark Kent/Superman says the earth is "his world" and will do whatever is necessary to protect it. That motivation felt lacking in the theatrical version, but in the new cut, his words carry so much more weight.

The movie isn't perfect. It's still flawed. If you hated the original because of the tone or because you don't like the direction of the DC Cinematic Universe, then this new cut won't change that. The characters are still dour and the tone remains dark. You won't find many moments of levity among the film's aspirations to pose philosophical questions about the nature of heroism and the impact a godlike being would have upon the world.

There are also things I don't like about the movie. While the "Knightmare" is a cool sequence, it still feels out of place and the Flash's brief cameo comes out of nowhere. Lois Lane's role in the final conflict is pretty damn stupid; she throws the Kryptonite spear away and then has to go retrieve it. She gets trapped underwater and has to be rescued. Surely there was a better way to do this. The Batman-Superman fight still comes down to the fact Lex Luthor kidnapped Superman's mom (in the ultimate cut, however, this feels like a necessary tipping point for Superman as opposed to his entire motivation for the fight).

The Martha Moment, while much more impactful, still has problems. Who calls their mother by their first name? A dialogue tweak would've fixed this ("My mother... he's going to kill my mother... save her... save Martha Kent."). Also, Superman goes into berserker rage mode too early in the Batman-Superman fight. He does try to talk to Batman and explain things at the very beginning, but he gives up on the idea much too quickly. Another line or two of dialogue (along the lines of "Bruce, you have to listen to me. Luthor's pulling the strings. He's got my mother.") would've helped. I understand now that Batman is too far gone to listen to reason--he's made up his mind--but the audience needs to be shown it. We need to see that this is a fight Superman doesn't really want.

While Wonder Woman is fantastic--probably the highlight of the movie and one of the few "fun" things about it--having her sit down to watch YouTube videos of other potential Justice League members was clumsy. Actually, you can pretty much tell when something teasing a Justice League movie has been shoehorned into BvS because it usually doesn't work that great (The "Knightmare" and Flash's portentous appearance, Wondy's fun with YouTube, etc.).

Listen, Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice will never be a fun movie. It'll never be Captain America: Civil War. The conflict between the two heroes, while more impactful in the new cut, will never have the sad gravitas of Tony Stark vs. Steve Rogers because we've spent so much less time with Batman and Superman than we have with Iron Man and Captain America. That said, if the theatrical cut of BvS left you scratching your head, give the Ultimate Edition a look.

You may actually like it.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

10 great moments from Star Wars: The Force Awakens

After years of waiting, a new Star Wars movie arrived in December 2015. I saw it seven times in the theater, and one day Target will actually deliver my preorder of the Blu-ray.

So while I wait for that to arrive (Update: it FINALLY arrived on Friday), giving me the key to untold treasures in the special features, I thought I'd run down my 10 favorite moments from the seventh episode of the Star Wars saga.

10. "This will begin to make things right."

The great Max von Sydow delivers the movie's first line, giving gravitas to an important but brief role in the movie. I would call it a thankless role except for the fact that it's freaking Max von Sydow. He shares a brief exchange with Poe Dameron and comments on General Leia Organa: "General? To me, she's royalty."

And depending on what you believe, the first line of the film has an extra layer of meaning. "This will begin to make things right" certainly refers to his character's desire to bring balance to the Force. However, you can also read it as a promise from J.J. Abrams and company that this new Star Wars movie will "make things right" in terms of the poorly received prequel trilogy.

9. Kylo's rage

When kids throw a tantrum, they usually lie on the floor and kick their legs or hold their breath until they get their way. But that wouldn't be good enough for Kylo "Ben Solo" Ren, son of two of the galaxy's greatest heroes.

When confronted with bad news, the Darth Vader fanboy ignites his lightsaber and goes to town on the nearest wall. This happens twice in the movie, showing the villain's unhinged nature and poor control of his emotions.

8. "This is not how I thought this day was gonna go."

When Han Solo and Chewie find the Millennium Falcon ("Chewie, we're home" gets an honorable mention), they also encounter a pair of stowaways in Rey and Finn. Before long, they also confront another threat: a pair of intergalactic gangs fed up with Solo's swindling ways.

After some destructive beasts called rathtars get loose on their freighter, Han and company climb aboard the Falcon. And when one of the creatures tries to swallow the cockpit whole, Han admits he didn't see any of this coming.

7. Threepio ruins the moment

For a droid trained in etiquette and protocol, C-3PO sure doesn't have any manners, interrupting the touching reunion between Han and Leia. They haven't seen each other in who knows how long (definitely years, unclear how many), but before they can share a moment together, Threepio barges right in and ruins it.

But really, you've gotta love it as a Star Wars fan because it's pure, clueless Threepio, who's more concerned about pointing out his red arm than letting Han and Leia share a bittersweet moment. He finally gets a clue, however, and walks off.

6. "Who talks first? You talk first, I talk first?"

Need a spiritual successor with the swagger of Solo and the piloting skills of a Skywalker? You'll find him in Poe Dameron, an awesome addition to the Star Wars universe. Poe, sent to Jakku to retrieve a map that could lead to the missing Luke Skywalker, gets captured by the First Order.

When Kylo Ren confronts him, Poe doesn't look one bit scared. He's a little unsure about the protocol for questioning, however.

5. Back on the Falcon

One of the quieter moments in the film shows Han Solo in the cockpit of the Millennium Falcon, pausing for just a moment to reclaim his beloved ship.

The melancholy smile on his face tells you he's missed his baby and couldn't be happier to get her back.

4. BB-8's got your back

BB-8 is awesome. That is all.

3. The weapon of a Jedi/the Force awakens

After Kylo Ren defeats Finn in a lightsaber battle (Kylo was totally toying with Finn until the "traitorous" former Stormtrooper managed a lucky shot), the lightsaber of Anakin Skywalker sits tantalizingly in the snow. Kylo, obsessed with Darth Vader iconography, wants it so bad.

But a funny thing happens on the way to galactic domination: the lightsaber flies past his head and ends up in Rey's steady hand. When the music swells here and I realize I'm seeing the rise of a powerful Jedi, I get chills every time.

2. "That's not how the Force works!"

It's safe to say this is the exchange my wife and I have quoted the most. We even bought shirts that say "that's not how the Force works." It's just the perfect setup: Finn says he worked in sanitation at Starkiller Base, leaving Han to wonder how in the world they'll bring down the shield and preserve the Resistance.

Han: "People are counting on us. The galaxy is counting on us."

Finn: "Solo, we'll figure it out. We'll use the Force!"

Han: "That's not how the Force works!"


Han: "Oh, really? You're cold?"

1. Luke!

I stayed away from major spoilers for the movie, but I couldn't help but notice the absence of Luke Skywalker. He wasn't on the poster, he didn't have an action figure, and he was basically nowhere to be seen.

Then the opening crawl cleared things up: "Luke Skywalker has vanished."

I had no idea he'd end up being the film's MacGuffin! Luke is the Holy Grail or the Ark of the Covenant; the sought-after object that propels the plot. When Rey makes her way up "Stairmaster Island" (hat tip to my brother-in-law, Tom), she encounters a solitary figure at the edge of the cliff. Jedi Master Luke Skywalker is back!

Rey reaches out with the lightsaber that once belonged to Luke and his father. What's he feeling at that moment? Sadness? Grief? Loss? Regret? Hope? Love?

I believe it's all of these things.

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Thoughts on Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice

This post contains spoilers for Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice

I saw Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice on opening weekend, but I'm only now writing about it. By now the internet has dissected the movie far more adeptly than I could ever manage, but I still wanted to get my thoughts out there.

I thought it was a mess. From the editing to the dream sequences/visions to the whole reason for the Batman-Superman smackdown, I thought the movie failed on several levels. The high points weren't enough to keep the movie from collapsing under the weight of its dour nature and faux-complicated plot.

I'm a big fan of Man of Steel. I realize that's a dangerous opinion on the internet, but I liked that movie. It told a story--a hero's journey--and it told it well. We saw a Clark Kent/Kal-El/Superman conflicted over his purpose in life. He didn't just show up at the Fortress of Solitude one day, find an outfit, and turn up a decade later as Superman, as Christopher Reeve's iconic version of the character did. They tried to humanize Superman with the pitfalls of a human being. I get why that didn't work for a lot of people, but it worked for me.

The reason it worked for me because I thought we were seeing a Superman in training. I thought we were seeing a guy who couldn't quite bear the weight of being a hero but who would one day stand tall. One day he'd inspire hope among the people of Earth. "You will give the people of Earth an ideal to strive towards. They will race behind you, they will stumble, they will fall. But in time, they will join you in the sun, Kal. In time, you will help them accomplish wonders," his father, Jor-El, tells him.

The hopes and dreams of his Kryptonian father are counterbalanced by the all-too-real concerns of Jonathan and Martha Kent, goodhearted Midwesterners who don't really know what to do with a son who has special gifts. They don't want him to show his powers because people fear what they don't understand. Jor-El speaks from an idealistic place; the Kents speak from a realistic one. When Clark saves a school bus full of kids and his father suggests maybe he shouldn't have, it's a reality check for everyone. He doesn't know what to do with his son, and that suggestion rings false from him. There's no way Jonathan Kent thinks that way, not really, but he wants to protect Clark.

In the end of Man of Steel--about the last five minutes or so--we see a hero who wandered for so many years finally find his place. We saw hints of the wink-wink, nudge-nudge nature of the Clark Kent-wears-glasses-Superman-doesn't charade we're familiar with. You got the idea that Clark Kent was ready to embrace his role as Superman and balance the well-intentioned but divergent philosophies of his two families. Superman represents the Kryptonian in him, that ideal to make the world a better place. Clark Kent represents the everyday Midwesterner who can make a difference without bringing attention to himself.

Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice throws every bit of that character development out the window. We see a Superman who hasn't, in fact, found his way. We meet a character who hasn't developed at all. He's a sulking, conflicted dispenser of vengeance instead of a hopeful beacon of light. Even the fallout from the Battle of Metropolis and the destruction it caused gets only lip service in the movie, replaced by tacked on debates about a mission in Africa and a plot involving a disgruntled man injured in the Superman-General Zod fight who eventually blows himself up and kills several people in the process.

Even the main thrust of the movie, the conflict between Superman and Batman, makes very little sense. Let's pretend for a moment that the writers and producers of the movie remembered the character arc they sketched in Man of Steel. The movie would've presented a Superman who actively cared about humanity and didn't feel so isolated. Maybe he wouldn't be saving kittens from trees, but he'd do random acts of kindness and take joy in it. He'd still realize he couldn't save everyone, but he'd put his best foot forward and prove that the world really does need a Superman.

If we had that Superman in this movie, the showdown between the two heroes would hold up to scrutiny. Let me make this clear: Batman/Bruce Wayne's viewpoint is very well represented. It makes sense as presented in the movie. Bruce Wayne watched people he cared about die; he saw Superman and Zod tear apart Metropolis and neighboring Gotham City. This Batman, older, cynical, jaded, views the newcomer as a threat. His paranoia makes sense. You understand why Batman would consider Superman a threat and try to take him down. No complaints there--Batman's ire against Superman is earned.

This battle should've been a philosophical one: the brighter, inspiring heroics of a Superman who found his way in the world versus the violent, dark methodology of the Caped Crusader. Two opposing worldviews, two opposing forces. Superman a brighter reflection of Batman; Batman a dark harbinger of what Superman's powers could become if warped. The conflict wouldn't need an external agitator in Lex Luthor because it would foster a natural rivalry.

But the movie isn't interested in setting up something that makes sense or with true stakes.

Instead, BvS gives us a Superman and Batman who aren't all that much different. They're basically the same person, one just a little older and angrier. They're both dour, dark, conflicted men with deeply rooted personal issues and warped senses of justice. As such, the conflict between them isn't all that interesting, and the movie contrives a plot from Lex Luthor to make it all happen. The movie would have you believe that Mark Zuckerberg slowly drove Bruce Wayne insane with notes about the dangers of Superman and also fed information to Clark Kent suggesting the Batman was out of control.

Luthor, manipulative? Sure, no problem. If the contrasts between the two heroes had been more pronounced, this could have even been interesting. But that subtle manipulation is undercut by the movie's decision to have Luthor kidnap Lois Lane and Martha Kent. Kill the Bat, or Martha dies, Lex basically says. Thus, Superman doesn't fight Batman because he wants to or because their conflicting worldviews finally come to blows in a satisfying way. They fight because Lex Luthor kidnapped Superman's mom.

I can't state enough how much of a misstep and missed opportunity this was. The movie didn't even need Luthor, not really, but I understand the desire to work him into the plot. I just don't understand his ultimate endgame here or what the hell Jesse Eisenberg was trying to do with the role. Luthor feels superfluous and tacked on. Even his proclamations at the end of the movie that clearly hint at the arrival of Darkseid end up unsatisfying.

And then, hey, let's just throw Doomsday in there and kickstart the Death of Superman storyline.

And then, hey, let's just throw in Wonder Woman (although she was awesome and that music)!

This movie disappointed me more than I could have ever imagined. Zack Snyder and company had all of the ingredients in place for a movie that had a cohesive emotional core. We should've been having a 9/11 panel-type commission on Superman and the Battle of Metropolis instead of some silly debate about a random incident in Africa. We should've had an immovable object versus an irresistible force instead of the "by the way, I know who you are and kidnapped your mom" conflict we're treated to. We should've had a Superman confident in his abilities and role in the world--you know, the Superman hinted at during the conclusion of Man of Steel.

Snyder says there's a three-hour cut of the movie that he wanted the studio to release, but the studio balked at the running time. I think a solid 45 minutes of this movie could've been cut; I can't imagine three hours of it, unless that three-hour cut has tons of character moments that are lacking in the theatrical version.

Oh, and that one trailer with Doomsday totally outlined the plot of the movie. Seriously, WB, that trailer left me with exactly one surprise in the film: Superman's death.

But despite the disappointment I outlined above, there were a few things I liked:

  • Ben Affleck worked great as Batman, and that warehouse fight scene was phenomenal
  • I really enjoyed Wonder Woman
  • Despite everyone's collective hatred of him, I believe Henry Cavill is a good Superman; I feel that in an "I super believe in you Tad Cooper" kind of way
  • We need to see more of Jeremy Irons and his snarky Alfred
  • The "Knightmare" was a sumptuous visual treat
  • I found the use of the Man of Steel theme inspiring at all times