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53. Man of Steel/Batman vs. Superman – w/ Speakin’ Geek (#–)

Hosted by Andrew Quinn and Darren Mooney, The 250 is a (mostly) weekly trip through some of the best (and worst) movies ever made, as voted for by Internet Movie Database Users. New episodes are released Saturday at 6pm GMT. However, this week, we’re going a little off-format.

This week, a special crossover episode with Speakin’ Geek, an Irish pop culture podcast wherein Graham takes a look at whatever is happening in the world of geekdom.

With Justice League being released this week, Graham invited us to discuss the two previous films in Zack Snyder’s trilogy, Man of Steel and Batman vs. Superman. Even though the films were not on the list, we thought it would be an interesting discussion. We are glad to share it with you as a bonus off-format episode.

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“My World Doesn’t Exist Anymore.” Man of Steel, Batman vs. Superman, and the Rejection of Nostalgia

Man of Steel and Batman vs. Superman are deeply flawed films. However, they are also breathtakingly ambitious films.

There are very few big budget blockbuster films that look and feel like Man of Steel and Batman vs. Superman. Actor Henry Cavill has diplomatically described Batman vs. Superman as a “niche” film in order to account for the openly hostile fan and critic reaction to the movie. There is a sense that Cavill was trying to offer an apology without an apology, to appease certain vocal segments of fan culture without throwing his work under the bus. However, there is some truth in his words.

It is tempting to wonder how much of the vocal and aggressive online response to Man of Steel and Batman vs. Superman comes down to the fact that these movies challenge popular perceptions of these iconic characters. Comic book writer Mark Waid was very vocal in his dislike of Man of Steel, not on the basis of the direction or the choreography or the framing or the craft, but because the film misunderstood “the essential part of Superman.” These complaints were echoed across the the blogosphere.

An unchallenged and unspoken assumption crept into discussions and debates around Man of Steel and Batman vs. Superman. The primary argument seemed to be that this wasn’t really Superman and this wasn’t really Batman, because these characters were so impossible to reconcile with the popular image of these characters. Many criticisms of Man of Steel and Batman vs. Superman measured them against other iterations of the characters, real and imagined. Man of Steel wasn’t colourful enough. Superman doesn’t kill. Lex Luthor is not Mark Zuckerberg.

The idea was that Man of Steel and Batman vs. Superman violated some unspoken compact with the audience, that it offered a version of these characters and their world that didn’t line up with audience expectations. Indeed, this is perhaps most notable in the inevitable comparisons between Zack Snyder’s work and the output of Marvel Studios. Marvel Studios had spent the better part of a decade building a reputation as a studio that was faithful and respectful of its source material, to the point of slavishness. Marvel Studios offered uncomplicated, straightforward adaptations.

However, there is a sense that Man of Steel and Batman vs. Superman were rather consciously rejecting the culture of nostalgia that has become so dominant and overwhelming in contemporary blockbuster cinema, that the films represented a conscious effort to challenge audience expectations and to push provocative and ambitious interpretations of these characters and their mythos. Indeed, it is hard not to see the audience’s vicious and aggressive response to Man of Steel and Batman vs. Superman as a response to that.

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The Death of the Auteur Blockbuster, 2000-2016

Suicide Squad premiered last week, to incredibly negative reviews and an incredibly impressive box office.

There are a lot of discussions to be had about that, but the most interesting narrative is the story that has developed behind the scenes. If rumours are to be believed, it seems that there is a very intriguing book to be written about the production of Suicide Squad, although the less said about Jared Leto’s bodily fluids the better. Writer and director David Ayer was reportedly given six weeks to write a script featuring almost a dozen major characters, only for the final cut to be given to a company that had cut the film’s viral trailers.

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It is not particularly proud moment for film-making, particularly given the emphasis that Warner Brothers had put on their blockbuster slate as “film-maker driven.” Indeed, the laundry list of rumoured deleted scenes has become a convenient stick with which the movie might be beaten. How in the name of goodness could Suicide Squad be so messed up as to portray the fundamentally abusive relationship between the Joker and Harley Quinn as loving and affectionate? The answer is that the original cut of the movie was candid about the abuse, but it was cut out.

Although Warner Brothers’ DC movie slate has become an easy target for pundits looking to score cheap shots and drive page-views, the problem is more fundamental than that. In hindsight, with the summer of 2016 coming to the close, it feels like the end of the era. The curtain is drawing down on the short-lived “blockbuster auteur” era of big budget franchise film-making.

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Non-Review Review: Batman vs. Superman – Dawn of Justice

Batman vs. Superman is a curiosity, a fascinating mess of a film that doesn’t really work but which constantly teases its audience with the idea that it might work in a variety of intriguing way.

Batman vs. Superman is certainly ambitious. Although the story about a persecuted alien immigrant obviously comes with no small amount of political subtext that feels applicable at a time of resurgent nationalist sentiment, the most remarkable thing about Batman vs. Superman is the way that the script is very consciously and awkwardly attempting to get at bigger underlying themes. Whereas Christopher Nolan tailored his impressive Batman trilogy for the realities of twenty-first century America, Batman vs. Superman is attempting something greater.

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Of course, what it is actually attempting is hugely contradictory. It occasionally seems like director Zack Snyder is working at cross purposes with writers Chris Terrio and David S. Goyer. Appropriately enough for a director who recently announced plans to adapt The Fountainhead, Snyder is trying to construct a Randian power fantasy about the moral authority that rests with exceptional people like Superman. In contrast, Terrio and Goyer want to construct a fable about Superman as an embodiment of hope for a sinful Earth.

While Snyder seems at times to wrestle against the script, Terrio and Goyer face their own issues. While Batman vs. Superman is thematically ambitious and philosophically rich, it is also positively abstract in its plotting. Events occur for no reason beyond plot necessity, while character motivation is delivered through dreams and metaphor. Contrivances and illogicalities abound, to the point where any number of plot developments might have easily been avoided if characters simply talked to one another about what exactly they thought was going on in a given moment.

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There are no shortage of issues with Batman vs. Superman, issues so fundamental that it is hard to imagine how an extended cut will do anything but deepen them. There are points at which the movie’s attempts to fashion a pop mythology are so dense as to suggest a required reading list, saturating with knowing references to everything from Lolita to A Streetcar Named Desire to Final Crisis. There is an argument to be made that Batman vs. Superman is not only illogical, but unapologetically (and perhaps unforgivably) pretentious.

And, yet, acknowledging all of these flaws, there is something strangely compelling about the muddled spectacle of it all. There is a sense that Snyder and Terrio and Goyer are really trying to do something in a manner that is bold and ambitious. (Just not necessarily the same things.) As crazy as it sounds – and it sounds crazy – Batman vs. Superman is the result of the same style of Warner Brothers movie-making that led to the infinitely superior Mad Max: Fury Road and The Dark Knight. There is a willingness to let artists take massive risks with significant budgets.

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Warner Brothers has a track record of supporting and encouraging these gambles. Sometimes these gambles pay off. No other major studio would have signed off on Mad Max: Fury Road, to pick an example. Christopher Nolan produced a trilogy of engaged and exciting blockbusters built around a character most had written off in live action. Sometimes this big budget auteur model doesn’t pay off. Say what you might about Cloud Atlas and Man of Steel, but they are indisputably unique and distinct visions of their creative architects.

In its abstraction, its tone and its aesthetic, Batman vs. Superman has the look and feel of a two-hundred-and-fifty million dollar indie feature. It might lack the polish and finesse (and, to be frank, cohesion and internal logic) of other major superhero films. However, it has a weirdly compelling spark and ambition that is lacking from the more standardised model of Marvel Studios blockbuster. The result is deeply unsatisfying, yet strangely compelling.

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The Batman/Superman Dilemma

It began simply enough. “You like Batman better than Superman,” my girlfriend asserted over dinner a few weeks ago. I couldn’t dipute the claim, but mounted a fairly swift defense of the character as “misunderstood”. That prompted an incredulous response which suggested that I “like Batman better because he’s darker”. That’s an interesting assertion. I don’t believe it’s true – certainly not in my case at any rate. I think the public’s perception of Batman as a more enduring, more fascinating and all round ‘cooler’ pop culture icon that the Man of Steel stems from a whole host of factors, that can’t be succinctly summed up with an observation that one is dark and gritty and the other is light and fluffy. So, why are we fonder of the Caped Crusader that the big blue boy scout?

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Notice how Superman is trying to look half as badass as Batman...

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