Lukewarm Takes # 1 Batman Vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice
I haven’t re-read my 2009 memoir The Big Rewind in a good five or six years partially because even my narcissism knows some limits. But I also refrain from revisiting it because the good-hearted fool in that book has no idea what the future held in store for him. In some ways, this is good. I never could have envisioned how much joy and meaning and true happiness being a father would bring, nor that I’d become a contented Southerner deeply enmeshed in the tightly knit upper-middle-class suburban Atlanta Jewish community.
And the painfully insecure author of The Big Rewind who relegated Insane Clown Posse to a glib, throwaway joke never could have foreseen the lengths to which he would some day resort to commune with his Juggalo family every Gathering season. He didn’t know that the love of his life loomed in his near future, nor that many of his most spiritual moments would occur at Phish concerts.
And the cinephile who rhapsodized at length about the sacred nature of moviegoing, and first found transcendence and meaning at the Davis Theater and proudly followed in the footsteps of Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel sure as shit didn’t realize that his days as a film critic were numbered.
If I were to re-read The Big Rewind I suspect I would be mortified by embarrassingly sincere odes to film criticism as my destiny and true calling, as a sacred rite I was ordained by the Gods of cinema to perform and not, I dunno, a pretty enjoyable way to make a living and hold off the unimaginable terror of real work, like, well, I don’t know. I’ve never done real work. I’ve always just written about movies.
I kid! I kid! I kid because being a film critic is so enjoyable that it doesn’t feel like real work, and for me it more or less stopped being real work sometime around April 29th, 2015. That was the day I was laid off from my job as a staff writer for the film site the Dissolve and eighteen years of steady employment as a film critic came to an abrupt end.
Bobcat Goldthwait has a joke that in a fortunate coincidence, he stopped being interested in acting in movies around the same time the movie industry stopped being interested in employing him to act in movies. On a similar note, after getting fired from a job that was all new movies, all the time, in a stressful and intense and increasingly joyless fashion, I was more ready than ready to take a little break from the profession and come back refreshed.
Well, that little break turned into a not so little break and somewhere along the line being a film critic gradually, but unmistakably, changed from my holy creative destiny to being something that I used to do, and wouldn’t mind doing again, but felt fairly ambivalently about. To be fair, I did not make much of an attempt to stay in the game, and the longer I was out, the less urgency I felt to return.
I once knew a man whose career revolved around film but who stopped going to movies when he found out his wife was cheating on him with a famous filmmaker. With the judgmental arrogance of youth I sneered at him for being a lightweight whose enthusiasm for film couldn’t surmount a silly little obstacle like romantic trauma. I now understand that man and no longer judge him because when I endured the professional equivalent of a brutal divorce the last thing I wanted to do was be reminded of my former co-workers or the nature of the job I’d just been fired from.
I didn’t just stop reviewing movies during a temporary break from film criticism I suspect may stretch out into eternity. I stopped going to see movies altogether. Sitting in the movie theater in the dark with popcorn and soda and an indefatigable sense of optimism, something that has historically given me an almost unseemly amount of pleasure and satisfaction, became something I didn’t do anymore. I never thought it would happen to me, but I am became a civilian, one of those strange creatures who only see movies they think will be “good” and to have “fun” and “take their mind off their problems.”
Me, Nathan Rabin!
But something infinitely more important than my firing occurred to forever change my moviegoing habits, and also life: I became a dad. That became my destiny. That’s what I was put on earth to do. And being a full-time dad involved watching little man and not watching motion pictures. And when I did watch movies, I folded that into dad duty. One of my favorite movie watching experiences of the past few years involved watching the Breakin’ and Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo on Blu-Ray while my son rocked out in his Exersaucer, grooving to the bright lights, loud colors, fun sounds and silly, cartoonish characters of the breaksploitation camp classics. Honestly, I think breakdancing movies were secretly made specifically for small babies.
The joy and obligation and joyful obligation of being a dad usurped whatever responsibilities I felt to cinema. To be honest, I didn’t make much of an attempt to stay in the game. I sent some emails. Then I sent some follow-up emails and when that didn’t lead to work as a film critic, I figured, you know, “Whatevs.” The film criticism industry and I were locked in a lazy half-lurching dance of apathy and inertia wherein my half-assed desire to review movies again was met by a combination of ambivalence and indifference.
I haveno idea of my actual standing in the film critic community. If I know anything, it is that I am, in nearly every conceivable way, completely oblivious. So here’s a little playlet I wrote to illustrate where I feel I stand within my former peers.
Nathan stands outside a giant, metaphorical movie theater whose marquee reads FILM CRITICISM. A burly figure with a clipboard known as FILM CRITICISM WORLD BOUNCER stands between Nathan and the movie theater.
Nathan: Hey, just wanted to let you, and everyone inside, know that I’m totally available to review movies again!
FILM CRITICISM WORLD BOUNCER GUY: Nah, it looks like we’re good on people to review movies for the next (looks at clipboard) five years at least.
Nathan: Are you sure I can’t get back in there? I was a film critic for 18 years and then I got fired, but really, I should be back to reviewing movies again by now.
FILM CRITICISM WORLD BOUNCER: Are you on the press list? Can I see your assignment?
Nathan: “Assignment” is such a tricky word.
FILM CRITICISM WORLD BOUNCER: I’ll take that as a no.
Nathan: But I was a film critic for a LONG TIME. 18 years! Nearly two decades? Doesn’t that account for something? Maybe you’re even familiar with some of my work. Manic Pixie Dream Girl? The A.V Club? The Dissolve? My World Of Flops? Well, maybe forget that last one. People seemed to like those. I even reviewed movies on TV! Movie Club With John Ridley! AMC, baby! Back before that meant something. The host won an Oscar, the other dude who was just like mebut wasn’t a shambling pile of self-destruction won a MacArthur Genius grant. Doesn’t that kind of resume merit entry?
FILM CRITICISM BOUNCER GUY: Yeah, yeah, yeah. We’ve all not read your books. Your mother was a homeless Juggalo crackhead. All very sad yet surprisingly non-commercial.
Nathan: Roger Ebert was a fan! A big fan! Blurbed my book! Said nice things about me! I auditioned to be on his show! Followed me on Twitter!
FILM CRITICISM BOUNCER GUY: Sure, he did, bub. That’s great for you and your clearly fragile ego but I can’t let you in there unless there’s someone inside with an assignment for you. Is there someone like that inside?
Nathan: Uh, did I mention Roger Ebert liked my stuff? And I’ve been to Sundance, like, a bunch of times! I’ve even been to a film festival in Brazil! I was a guest of the minister of culture! All of these things are true, and none of them seem to matter!
Dejected, Nathan wanders away
Habits form quickly and the habit of seeing everything, more or less, or at least roughly keeping up with everything was replaced by a lazily stubborn refusal to see anything no matter how seemingly irresistible.I could not bring myself to stop watching or writing about movies altogether. That would not be like death, that would be death. But I developed a stubborn mental block against new movies in their entirety. And that was silly, but I did what I needed to do to protect myself emotionally, not necessarily what was good for my career.
After getting out of film criticism I picked up on a hot tip from a friend who said there was money in the mommy-blogging racket, if I could swing it. I’m always eager to wanted to branch out and write about more than just pop culture. At first writing about how my sweet little Dexy is the sunshine of my life was creatively fulfilling and paid decently
Then shit got real. I mean shit got really, really real. Trying to get ahead in the cutthroat, take-no-prisoners world of mommy blogging is like trying to win a prison fight that begins with a muscle-bound Neo-Nazi taking a screwdriver and jabbing it straight into your eyeball, so blood is squirting everywhere and you’re blinded but he just keeps stabbing you over and over and over and over and over again in a maniacal fury. Actually, it’s worse than that. I’ve experienced both, and it’s close, but I think mommy blogging is actually worse than being in that kind of a prison fight, and I have a glass eye and primarily plastic torso as perpetual reminders that I just BARELY survived that shower fight ambush in San Quentin all those years ago.
But this is not about brutal prison stabbings. At least not exclusively. No, Lukewarm Takes is about my desire to wade back into a world of new (or newish) films that I abandoned when I was pushed out of film criticism. I know how my brain works so I think the best way to get back into the habit of seeing new and recent movies is to make it a journey into the recent past and to bring you along. That’s kind of how my brain functions.
Oh sure, at various points I put back out my film critic shingle and the industry was all, “Nah, we’re good on movie reviewers. Check back in a couple of years. Who knows? Maybe something’ll have changed.” Yet as a longtime film critic, I cannot entirely rid myself of the delusion that people want my opinion on big movies so now, several years after the point in which it would be profitable or timely to chime in on these blockbusters, I’ve decided to deliver the definitive judgment on every giant-ass new movie of the last two years or so.
We begin, somewhat arbitrarily, with Batman Vs. Superman. I’m choosing it partially because it it is so huge that it threatens to block out the sun and end life on earth as we know it, but also because my angelic two year old son Declan is obsessed with Batman and Superman. I’ll hum the fanfare and carry him around the apartment with his arms and legs outstretched in the classic Man of Steel pose.
“I’m Superman!” Declan will announce joyfully.
“Sorry, sweetie, but Superman isn’t an adorable boy, or the nice flying good guy of your young imagination. He’s a brooding, joyless man-God from outer space as well as a glowering Christ figure whose existence raises troubling and provocative questions about the nature of power and its corrupting influences.” I’ll gently correct him, as I slide him a few beginner philosophy books to help him better understand the issues at play in Superman’s life.
That’s certainly the Superman/Clark Kent of Man Of Steel and it’s also the Superman of Batman Vs. Superman: Dawn Of Justice, whose awful, leaden subtitle I only now realized is an allusion to the movie being a proper follow-up to Man Of Steel, a reboot for Batman in the DCU following the end of the Christopher Nolan trilogy and a movie that sets up a Justice League team-up movie due out later this year, also from director Zack Snyder and screenwriter Chris Terrio.
Batman Vs. Superman got overwhelmingly negative, vitriolic reviews and performed solidly, if not spectacularly at the box-office so out of this non-success will emerge literally hundreds of millions of dollars, if not billions of dollars of sequels and spin-offs. In that respect the movie was too big to fail. The movie wasn’t a success because people liked it, or it added anything new to Superman and Batman mythology. No, the movie was a commercial success simply because it was about Batman and Superman, and it’s almost a goddamned challenge for anything related to either of those to lose money in today’s superhero economy, no matter how bad.
In its bid to differentiate itself from the five million other Superman projects, Man Of Steel really played up the whole alien/science fiction element of the mythology. This is particularly true of the “Unrated” version of the movie which contains a shockingly graphic ten minute sex scene between Superman and Lois Lane where she says things like, “I can’t get enough of your space alien cock, you magnificent, Kryptonian fuck beast” and “I can’t believe how many Earth orgasms this outer-space deep dicking is giving me!!! Excelsior!”
In hindsight, it’s easy to see why they cut that scene out.
Batman Vs. Superman doubles down on the whole “Superman is a space alien from outer space” angle but it’s equally obsessed, if not more obsessed with Superman as a God who walks among us and possesses ultimate power yet still inexplicably clings to a job at the failing Daily Planet, which I hear its a complete disaster pumping out nothing but fake news.
Batman Vs. Superman opens with a pair of preludes. First we’re treated yet again to li’l Bruce Wayne’s origin story of watching his parents get murdered and bats flying around and blah blah blah who cares. Theoretically, this opening should play to Zack Snyder’s strengths as a visual stylist. He’s doing what he supposedly does best: telling a story through striking images and editing, with little concern for dialogue and plotting.
Batman Vs. Superman was one of the first big new movies I’ve seen in the past two years and my visceral first response to it was, “This again? Seriously? We need to fucking see why Bruce Wayne became Batman again? Are they gonna cover this in the fucking Lego Batman movie too? what the fuck?”
When I was a film critic, I never had to ask why with a movie like Batman Vs. Superman exists because the answer is always so screamingly obvious: money. Movies like this get made because movies like this make insane amounts of money even when society rejects them the way it did Batman Vs. Superman. As a civilian I found myself newly sensitive to the grindingly, punishingly mercenary and redundant nature of Batman Vs. Superman.
When you’re a film critic, you have to just kind of accept that a lot of what you’re watching is disposable, cynically commercial garbage because you’d otherwise go crazier than Jared Leto preparing to play the Joker. But it’s been so long since I’ve regularly subjected myself to pretty much everything that’s released theatrically that I’m now vaguely insulted and offended by things I once just kind of accepted, like, for example, Batman Vs. Superman.
After an opening that convinces us that there is no need for another Batman story, ever, we’re treated to one of the worst Batman stories, ever. A now full-grown Bruce Wayne, (played by Ben Affleck in salt-and-pepper,emotionally-scarred man-of-a-certain-age mode) is watching the devastation of the climax of Man Of Steel, when Henry Cavill’s Superman battled, and eventually killed Michael Shannon’s General Zod, but not until he’d wracked up all manner of collateral damage.
This pisses Bruce Wayne off big time. He does not like the idea of an all-powerful man-God flying around with unknowable motives who could destroy Gotham and Metropolis on a whim if he’s having a bad day. So Bruce Wayne decides to be the change he wants in the world and seeks out a weapon that will allow him to destroy Superman should the occasion arrive that he’s called upon to do so.
Age and experience have driven old Bruce Wayne just a little bit batty, if you’ll pardon the pun. How crazy and totally extreme is the Batman of Batman Vs. Superman: Batman Is Totally Extreme Now? He’s so totally extreme and out of his gourd with revenge that he brands his enemies with a brand and shit! You sure didn’t see Adam West branding people on the 1960s Batman TV show, except for in those weird BDSM outtakes Bob Crane had in his private library.
Batman Vs. Superman depicts a world-weary Batman driven to heinous extremes by the demands of his curious trade and the ugliness of the world but there’s a profound disconnect between the responsible executive who cares deeply about his employees and the crazed sadist out torturing criminals. It doesn’t help that in combat-armor mode he looks like robo-Batman, or that if Affleck made Batman’s voice any deeper or raspier, they’d need to bring in Tom Waits to dub in his voice.
Affleck’s casting was the source of perversely intense online debate and controversy but complaining about an actor, especially a perfectly acceptable, multiple-Academy-Award winning veteran like Affleck in a Zack Snyder movie is like complaining about the DJ at a wedding where you married a serial killer. There’s not much, if anything, that Affleck can do with such a fuzzily conceived character, but the blame here belongs squarely on Snyder’s shoulders.
As with his other dispiriting crowd-depressors, Snyder doesn’t want to entertain us so much as he wants to punish us for our sins. Superman and Batman are unfortunate enough to be the instruments he chooses. The movie wants to be as exquisitely world-weary as Bruce Wayne but instead it just feels exhausted, like it lost its will to go on before the very first frame.
Ah but Batman and Superman are not the only superheroes in, um, Batman Vs. Superman: Dawn Of Justice. Gal Gadot’s performance as Wonder Woman was hailed as one of the film’s bright spots but to me her relationship with Bruce Wayne just felt like a pale rehash of the much sexier and more explosive bond between Catwoman and Batman in Batman Returns.
Gadot is perfectly fine but her biggest moment in the film doubles as one of the film’s universally mocked nadirs. I’m speaking, of course, of the pulse-pounding setpiece when Wonder Woman/Diana Prince sits down at a computer and, after pressing some buttons, sees brief clips of some “Meta-humans”, or “superheroes” as we know them, that we will be getting to know a whole lot better in the Justice League movie coming out this year: Aquaman, Cyborg and the Flash.
The idea is to tease audiences by giving them a glimpse just long enough to establish each character’s awesomeness. Instead, these sequences feel like micro-trailers to movies that accomplish the formidable, if not impossible feat, of looking even worse than Batman Vs. Superman. If you’re excited about a Cyborg movie based on the 37 seconds of nonsense here then I’d like to meet you and encourage you to seek treatment, as you’ve obviously been smoking crack and it’s impairing your judgment.
This shameless exercise in glib, empty instant-mythologizing would be a storytelling nadir in most movies but it eclipsed by the infamous moment here when The Batman is about to kill Superman with a Kryptonite spear or some such horse shit and Superman is all “Save Martha” because Superman’s adopted mom’s name is Martha. The Batman is all, “Shut up. My mom’s name is Martha!” and Superman is all, “Me too! That means we’re besties forever! Let’s go make friendship bracelets and also defeat Lex Luthor!”
Here’s how shameless and desperate Batman Vs. Superman is. It thinks it can get away with introducing a flurry of important and expensive characters into its universe by having a character push some buttons to prompt clips that might as well have the words “Preview of Coming Attraction” in big letters in the left-hand corner. It furthermore imagines that it can resolve the disparate worldview and clashing personalities of Batman and Superman, American archetypes for the ages, through the stupid, insulting coincidence of them both having moms named Martha.
It’s easy to sneer at such ridiculous plot points but despite the widespread derision and mockery that greeted those scenes, and pretty much everything else in the film, the filmmakers really did get away with it. Oh sure, they made a movie so thoroughly awful it has defenders instead of fans, but it made nearly a billion dollars in worldwide box-office all the same. Despite the arctic reception the film received, the DC cinematic universe shows no sign of slowing down. They’re even going ahead with a Batman standalone film after Affleck dropped out as director, but not star.
The only spark of life in this leaden, dreary mess comes from Jesse Eisenberg’s wonderfully hammy portrayal of Lex Luthor as an Adderall-addled motormouthed hipster geek. Imagine Alfred Molina’s character in Boogie Nights as a deranged super-villain and you have a sense of the goofball majesty of Eisenberg’s performance in Batman Vs. Superman. Where the rest of the film is solemn and often silent, Eisenberg vibrates with nervous, coked-up energy. In a Christopher Nolan Batman movie, a performance like this would be an irritating distraction. In Batman Vs. Superman, it’s an exceedingly welcome distraction.
I must say that I vastly prefer Declan’s conception of Batman and Superman as good guys who go around helping people to Zack Snyder’s tediously grim revisionist take. As the last decade and a half of superhero movies have illustrated, there’s seemingly infinite space for darkness in films like these. But there should be some room for light as well. That is a lesson Zack Snyder’s incoherent superhero monoliths obviously still very much need to learn.
Lukewarm O’ Meter: Ice Cold
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