It’s not over ’till the Gray Lady sinks

grayposterGray Lady Down, 1978, 111 mins, Cable TV (Great! Movies Action)

Back in the mid-eighties, when I first saw Gray Lady Down on a Saturday night network showing (likely its British TV premiere), I found it quite enthralling. But then again, I’ve always been a sucker for any film concerned in any way with the ocean and its unseen depths. I think we’re all individually predisposed to react to certain films, but I put it down to watching Jaws at the tender age of ten in a scary cinema. After that any ‘perils of the ocean’ movie triggered all sorts of responses in me, like being scared witless by A Night to Remember and its depiction of the Titanic tragedy.

Gray Lady Down has not aged particularly well, to be brutally honest, especially after James Cameron’s The Abyss and Titanic pushed underwater visual effects to new levels. Mind, I dread to think how bad Raise the Titanic‘s miniature shots look like on my up-to-now unwatched Blu-ray copy, but in any case, the underwater/miniature shots of Gray Lady Down typify what studios thought they could get away with in visual effects back then. Or maybe Chuck’s toupee took the majority of the special effects budget.

It’s not that the film is bad, its certainly still watchable, but there’s something very staid about this film, perhaps there’s too much focus on the hardware and not enough on the characters or the pacing. The film proudly credits the navy for its assistance making the film, and one wonders if the producers were so indebted for the Navy boy’s help they thought they’d put a recruitment reel in for good measure. Its kind of funny when the film just literally stops to linger lovingly over the hull of the DSRV being prepped and then later again when it turns up at the disaster site.

Even the gravitas and screen presence of Charlton Heston cannot save the film, which perhaps indicates the problems the film has, because honestly, Chuck’s largely wasted as he has very little to do. The premise is great and could/should make an unbearably tense movie; certainly James Cameron must have thought so, as much of what happens in this film informs similar events in his The Abyss, but this feels more like a 1970s TV-movie of the week than a full-blown motion picture. Its probably telling that the films director, David Greene, worked extensively on television movies and made very few theatrical films at all, and I think it definitely shows in just how much of a TV-movie it looks and feels like: even some of the cuts between scenes seem like pauses for commercial breaks. I also think a part of it might be the ill-fitting Jerry Fielding soundtrack score that feels perfunctory at best, cringeworthy at its worst and does the film no favours at all. I can well imagine how much more tense the film might have been with a Jerry Goldsmith score, for instance.

What Gray Lady Down excels at is its cast; underused it may be but it nonetheless it really is impressive. As noted, Charlton Heston stars, and he is ably supported by Ronny Cox, Stacy Keach, David Carradine and Ned Beatty, and its something of a treat to watch them do their ‘thing’. These days though the film is likely most notable for featuring the film debut of Christopher Reeve, here in a minor role which doesn’t indicate at all the massive starring role he would have later that same year, in Superman: The Movie. Its funny how, watching him as a naval officer and seeing him channelling Clark Kent one moment, Superman the other- its in his demeanour, his jawline and eyes, one can see indications of what he would bring to his performance in that classic superhero movie in scenes in Gray Lady Down, but one would never imagine him making that major transition evidenced in his minor role here: makes one wonder at the sorcery of casting directors.

There are intimations of familiar disaster tropes (the 1970s, after all, was the decade of disaster flicks and Gray Lady Down was at the tail end of that trend) including some we would see later in films like Apollo 13, such as shifting attention to the submariner’s wives back on the mainland. This turns out to be a momentary diversion that fails to go anywhere- indeed, it possibly suggests an entire b-plot was excised from the film completely, because other than one scene I don’t believe the film ever cuts back to the mainland to see the wives again at all. However, it would have been a valid mechanism for the film to use to ramp up the tension- cutting back to nervous, stressed-out wives waiting to hear news of their husbands, something Ron Howard wasn’t afraid of resorting to in his film and yet Greene, despite his TV-movie credentials, seems to have chosen to avoid that. Seems an odd choice when the film flounders in it’s scenes of submariners waiting for rescue.

“Gordon’s Alive!!” Flash Gordon (1980)

flash1You waited long enough. Why Now?  I’ve mentioned this a few times on this blog, but up to now I’d only seen this film in pieces during tv showings, where I’d sit down for maybe twenty minutes and walk away from it a little horrified. Turns out there was a good twenty-thirty minutes I’d never seen at all. As for why now, well, there is a restored edition coming out on 4K UHD this week that has all the films fan excited, and I figured, well, maybe its finally time, so I pulled it up on Sky Cinema.

So whats it about, then?  Seriously? Oh go on then. Ming the Merciless (Max von Sydow), Emperor of the Universe, has turned to Earth as his new plaything, threatening total destruction as he hurls storms and disasters at the planet. Dr. Hans Zarkov (Topol) a discredited ex-Nasa scientist is the only one who deduces the disasters are of extra-terrestrial origin, and intends to use a rocketship in his greenhouse (sigh, stay with me, its that sort of movie) to fly into space and save the Earth. He enlists the assistance of New York Jets Quarterback Flash Gordon (Sam Jones) and ace reporter Dale Arden (Melody Anderson) and they race into space to face the tyranny of the despotic Ming.

Any good? Well, no, and few even of its fans would claim it to be. Its one of those “so bad its good” movies- for my part, I’d rate a film like Lifeforce in that department too, there’s loads of bad films that fans still manage to obsess over. Famously, George Lucas made uber-hit Star Wars only after his overtures to Dino De Laurentis to purchase the rights to Flash Gordon failed, and Dino, later seeing Star Wars make millions, decided he’d get a slice of the action by making Flash Gordon himself. Dino would discover making a modern-day space fantasy rather more difficult than it originally seemed, as would those behind so many jumping on the Star Wars bandwagon post-1977 (Buck Rogers, Battlestar Galactica, The Black Hole, Star Crash etc).

Dino’s project did everything wrong: Dino, possibly suffering from Movie Mogul Madness chose an unknown lead rather than an established actor (I think Kurt Russell was in the running for awhile), Dino obviously thinking he could make an unknown into a Superstar –  likely having an eye towards Christopher Reeve’s success in Superman: The Movie (Dino evidently forgetting that Reeves was at least an actor: Jones can’t act, and Flash comes across as bumbling imbecile, albeit his silly innocence proves endearing to many fans). That’s not the only thing he didn’t heed from Richard Donner’s movie, of course: Flash Gordon is decidedly camp, ironically one of the things that possibly saves it in the end in a “well we know we’re rubbish, buts its only meant to fun!” kind of way, but Donner’s film taught the lesson that you had to take this stuff seriously, which Lucas had also done with Star Wars and Marvel would later heed decades after. At one point Superman: The Movie was indeed as camp as Flash Gordon, something Donner changed when he took that project over from Guy Hamilton, and when Donner was pushed out, its telling that the Superman sequels all degenerated further and further into campness becoming more like Flash Gordon in every unfortunate instalment, so, er, the producers of Superman: The Movie themselves hardly heeded their own lesson, the crazy fools.

Flash Gordon also had the wrong director, and a bad co-star (Melody Anderson is pleasant enough, but hardly set the film world on fire, utterly lacking the spark of Carrie Fisher or Margot Kidder). Flash Gordon is a pretty dire, easily forgettable movie only saved by an utterly superlative Queen soundtrack. We all had that soundtrack back in 1980/1981, even those of us who didn’t like the film or didn’t go to see it.

So worth waiting for? Are you kidding? Well, it is kind of oddly fun, I suppose. I can understand the nostalgia making fans ignore the films many shortcomings (which are too many to mention here, really). Its one of those films that the fans can champion those mistakes and failures, revelling in its badness, so is utterly impregnable from criticism.

Worthless observation? I was surprised how much in the background that Queen soundtrack really is – Howard Blake’s orchestral score doing a lot more heavy lifting than I expected. I really rather thought the film would have the feel of a rock video, sequences cut to the Queen soundtrack entirely, but it doesn’t seem to have been, which makes me suspect that the film-makers didn’t know what they had until the film was released and the audiences reacted to it. The Queen music elevates the film to a Space Rock-Opera, and had it gone ‘all the way’ a little more like The Rocky Horror Show the film might have been a delirious crazy treat and a huge success. Or not. Maybe the world wasn’t quite ready for Flash Gordon: The Musical, even with the Queen music, but I suspect the world might have been a better place with it.

As an additional bonus observation, I point readers towards my review of the interesting documentary Life After Flash for more Flash Gordon, er,  stuff.

Shazam! 4K UHD

shazam1When I saw the first teaser/trailer for Shazam! some time ago, it certainly looked different- it was either going to be a blast or another Distinguished Calamity (see what I did there? I’ll go get my coat…), it was hard to tell which, but it was clear that this was no typical, formulaic superhero movie. Except of course it was, really.

But, I have to say, and much to my surprise, Shazam! is an absolute blast. Its great. It doesn’t really shake up superhero movies in anything like the same way as Deadpool pretended to (that film’s last third really just falling into standard genre tropes) but it’s genuinely great fun. I thoroughly enjoyed it and its easily the best DC film I’ve yet seen. Indeed, it’s so much better than the lackluster and confused Captain Marvel.

Shaking off the darkness of the Dark Knight films or Man of Steel etc, this nonetheless finds what actually turns out to be a very surprising middle ground – sure, its as light as Spider Man: Homecoming or the Ant Man films, but somehow it also manages to have some genuine darkness in the mix. Its a story of two boys (Billy Baxter and Thaddeus Sivana), one of whom is an orphan, while the other might as well be as he is ridiculed and rejected by his father and elder brother. Both boys are summoned by ancient wizard Shazam (Djimon Hounsou) who has spent years searching for someone pure of heart to take his place and protect the world from the Seven Deadly Sins. Thaddeus, tempted by the Deadly Sins, is deemed unworthy, and by the time Billy is tested years later, the Sins are on the loose (freed by a now-adult Thaddeus, played by Mark Strong) and Shazam, nearing death, is so weakened he has no choice but to pass on his powers and hope Billy will measure up. Billy is no boy pure of heart, living a rough life in and out of foster care whilst vainly searching for the mother who he lost (and actually deliberately deserted him, in another dark twist). Will Billy learn to control and use his powers for Good before Thaddeus, equally empowered by the monstrous Deadly Sins, hunts Billy down and claims the power of Shazam in order for the Sins to wreak havoc on the world?

shazam2Well you can guess how it goes, but the beauty of Shazam! is how it gets there. While young Billy is played very well by (Asher Angel) in a sympathetic and warm performance that grounds the character, his Shazam alter-ego, dressed in an oddly charming retro spandex suit complete with a very strange cape, is played brilliantly by Zachary Levi, who I thought was incredibly good in the tv series Chuck. Levi’s performance is like Tom Hanks in Big, here playing a kid in an adult superhero body and getting great comedy out of it, but genuine pathos too. In many ways he is a vulnerable innocent in just the same way as Tom Holland’s Spider-Man in recent Marvel outings, and perhaps to a lesser extent Christopher Reeve’s 1978 Superman. Shazam spends most of his time with his foster home buddy Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer) who, thanks to a fascination with superheroes, acts as Shazam’s advisor. Its two outsider kids against the world, sort of, in a rather intimate and personal superhero film with considerable heart.

Sure its not perfect, but it’s really quite close. It doesn’t degenerate into a huge CGI spectacle, there is a sense of reality to it in spite of its daftness, and all the characters are well-written and defined. There is a warmth and sense of fun to the film which is really refreshing, especially for a DC film. It doesn’t take itself at all too seriously, and yet maintains some real tension and drama. Its a great balancing act.

Better still, in 4K UHD, the film looks and sounds phenomenal. Its surprisingly reference material, with absolutely perfect use of HDR giving a sense of detail and depth that can be astonishing at times. The film mostly takes place near Christmas, with lots of seasonal lights outside and inside of homes that really pop, and a finale that takes place at a Winter Carnival that is just jaw-droppingly gorgeous throughout. This is a great Christmas movie (I didn’t see that coming). The CGI is more restrained than recent superhero ‘epics’ and is really photo-realistic in 4K, really benefiting from the HDR and wider colour gamut.

So yeah, thats me quite shocked, to be honest. I really didn’t think I would enjoy this anywhere near as much as I did. It certainly augurs well for the future direction of DC movies- well, I hope so, anyway. There’s plenty of room, surely, for both light and dark approaches to these costumed capers. After the deplorable Justice League I had absolutely zero interest in watching any further DC films, but this one has me turned around. Maybe I’ll have to get to Aquaman afterall.

Superman: The Movie 4K UHD

supes.pngWhere does one start regards genuine classics such as this? Re-watching this absolute gem again, I can’t say I really learned anything new. Sure, its aged somewhat, especially in regards its visual effects, but really, that is inevitable after so many years -the film enjoying its 40th anniversary this year- and I’d like to think people watching this film for the first time today might look past the sometimes aged visuals.  The sublime beauty and genius of Superman: The Movie is in the casting of its leads, and the script focusing on character rather than spectacle (no matter how spectacular the film is at times, it is never the focus- a lesson modern blockbusters seldom seem to heed). There is a heart and breathless joy to the whole thing, but the truth is there is a fresh pain and sadness to the experience of watching the film now that neither Christopher Reeve nor Margot Kidder are with us today. Indeed, when watching the film’s opening credits, it almost seems that every other name of cast or crew has since died. When did Superman: The Movie get so old, when did it get so full of ghosts? I hear the music, that glorious, breathless, exciting and playful main theme, and it seems utterly at odds with the sober thoughts rushing through me at seeing all those names of people gone. Superman isn’t an old film, it feels so fresh and alive and exciting even today, and yet..

Of course, it is just such a pleasure to see both Reeve and Kidder, and Brando and Ford and admire the skills of Unsworth and Barry and all the rest. The star that shines brightest, of course, is Reeve- well, he simply will always be Clark Kent/Superman- nobody else is ever really going to come close. That scene after Superman has taken Lois for a flight over the city and returns as bumbling Clark to Lois’ apartment, when, as her back is turned, he takes off his glasses and ‘becomes’ Superman simply from adjusting his posture and his facial expression, so tempted is he to reveal his identity… and then he loses his nerve and puts the glasses back on and ‘becomes’ Clark again… it’s just marvelous.

suptmRegards this new 4K UHD edition, boasting Dolby Vision as well as the usual HDR10, I would just say the film looks wonderful albeit with some cautionary notes. The film was always rather soft-focus from its use of diffusion filters to establish its romantic/classic matinee ‘look’ and this is reflected in the softness of the 4K image. Detail is obviously very good and the colours well balanced. While some have commented on the Kryptonian costumes lacking ‘punch’ I felt they were very impressive, and indeed, the scene of Jor-El being berated by the Kryptonian Council looks breathtaking in its tones and colours, something of a revelation to me- its beautifully photographed by Unsworth.

While it’s easy to and likely correct to say the film has never looked better, I would just add a note that this disc doesn’t do some of the effects, particularly the process-work and some of the miniatures, any favours and it can be very distracting.  A very early scene of the Krypton surface miniature is particularly awash with digital noise and buzzing grain. Much of this depends upon calibration I suppose and an individuals set-up so some may not be as distracted as I was, and I’ll have to revisit some of my settings on the strength of some shots here. Its certainly a curio of this current display technology that everyone’s experience from watching any particular disc can vary widely due to screen quality, calibration, the player settings etc. Its really something of a wild and tortuous playing field and the demands of the 4K high resolution, the WCG and HDR can create all sorts of issues. I remember watching this film in pan and scan on a 4.3 CRT television, so you’ll not hear me complaining, but yes, there are all sorts of things going on that can complicate things now.

 

 

Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (1987)

supes4I never intended to ever watch this movie. I bought the Superman Anthology boxset on Blu-ray years ago but of all those eight discs, this one was surely the coaster. Although I’m a huge fan of both Superman: The Movie (if not the best superhero movie ever made, its definitely the most important) and Superman II, watching the third film on a VHS rental many years ago rather bummed me off ever watching the fourth film which was, apparently, even worse than that third effort. But it’s Superman. Its Christopher Reeve.

How bad can it get?

Now, well, there’s the loaded question. Goodness knows I’ve directed some ire at Justice League and BvS etc but goodness me, it’s all a matter of perspective, isn’t it? Because Superman IV: The Quest for Peace is bloody terrible. Really, it’s a horribly broken movie that was likely (or at least I hope)  made with the best of intentions but was handicapped by a hokey script, woefully insufficient budget and terminally uninspired direction. Its shocking that it was even deemed worthy of release, frankly,  and I think cinemagoers should have had the right to claim their money back. This isn’t a movie. Its a pale imposter. Its a few sequences that put together don’t make any sense masquerading as a movie with utterly charmless visual effects that decidedly lack the prefix ‘special’. I’ve not seen anything quite like it before even in Tobe Hooper’s worst movie.

Which is such a terrible shame, when you consider where it all started. In fact, you’d think someone would write a book about it- ”Superman: The Movie to Superman IV – a Cinematic Tragedy.’ How does something like this happen with such a well-loved franchise so hugely popular worldwide with such talent behind it? Where does it go wrong (there’s a clue in the story about Richard Donner and him being dropped from Superman II)?

Superman: The Movie was a huge expensive event movie with a brilliant cast including big stars like Marlon Brando and Gene Hackman- I can remember when it came out in 1978; back when titling something ‘THE MOVIE’ actually meant something. This wasn’t a tv show or a silly comic, this was a serious big movie. And it was brilliant and charming and amazing and thrilling. It had some of the biggest, most brilliant visual effects and the film really lived up to the tagline ‘you’ll believe a man can fly’. It was myth-making on the silver screen. With this, Star Wars, CE3K, Raiders… we had it so good back then.

But here they were a decade later and it’s all gone to hell in a four-colour handbag. Its painful and sad to see Chris Reeve reduced to this, and Margot Kidder and Gene Hackman and all the other stars from that first film slumming in this nightmare production. Sadly, Marvel Studios and even Zack Snyder are lifetimes away, it seems.

The story. Er… is there a story? I don’t think there is. Its just full of ill-judged scenes badly realised. Supes reveals (again) his secret identity to Lois and takes her for a romantic flight (again) although the travelogue scenery suggests he’s whisked her around the nation fast enough to burn her knickers nevermind upset her hairdo, before returning home and causing her to forget his identity with a kiss (again). Later he rescues Lacy (Mariel Hemingway wearing shoulder pads that look like weapons) whilst she’s in space somehow breathing and not freezing/boiling to death.

But there is Christopher Reeve and his simply magnificent Clark Kent. No matter how bad the movie, Clark still shines through and demonstrates the one thing that perhaps no other Superman movie will ever equal- that heartwarming, innocent comedy genius that was Chris Reeves’ Clark Kent, and the gentle chemistry between himself and Margot Kidder. Later films may have had better visual effects (and even actual plots and budgets) but they will never have Reeve and Kidder. So maybe Superman IV is not quite the utter disaster it might have been- oh, ok, of course it is. But it does have Reeve and Kidder. Oh, but they deserved so much better.

So did we, damn it.

The Problem With Superman

Curious having seen Batman Vs Superman: Dawn of Justice, I rewatched Man of Steel.

Confused as BvS may be, I think it’s actually a better film than MoS. Rewatching it again, I have to say MoS is actually worse than I remembered. It’s such a mess of a film, and a lot of what is wrong about it carries over into BvS,  the lessons from it not learned but rather perpetuated with an anti-Superman dominated by over-the-top CGI hysterics.

stm1The problem with Superman is, well, Superman. They don’t know what to do about him, how to handle the character. Which is weird to me, writing this in 2016 because they nailed it, pretty much, in the mid-seventies with Superman: The Movie, way back in 1978. That film seems to be like the elephant in the room: the Kryptonian scenes were cool and majestic, the childhood scenes wonderful Americana, and the Metropolis scenes with our grown-up hero/Clark Kent alter ego just perfect comic-book escapism. With a template like that, it’s hard to imagine going wrong. So why are Snyder and Warner/DC so seemingly hellbent on distancing themselves from the 1978 classic?

Maybe it’s because Warners tried sticking to that Superman: The Movie template with Superman Returns, which got something of a box-office drubbing when it came out; $390 million worldwide on a $270 million budget (makes BvS something of a huge success with its current haul of $810million worldwide). Superman Returns was hardly perfect, the chief problem was it being overblown and badly produced (although how much of that $270 million was spent on earlier aborted Superman films, I wonder?).  I think it was much better than people perhaps appreciated at the time. It did many things right- particularly casting Brandon Routh who looked the part as Superman and was uncannily like Chris Reeve as Clark Kent. Kevin Spacey was a pretty good Lex Luthor too- indeed both actors are better than Henry Cavill or Jesse Eisenberg are in BvS.

The damnedest thing is that what was wrong about Superman Returns is the one thing that they carried over from it to MoS- namely, taking the title character way too seriously. In Superman Returns the character is saddled with unnecessary Messianic, Christ-like allegory and a semi-religious fixation, complicated with a pointless backstory of Lois Lane and a son.  Superman: The Movie had the tagline “You’ll believe a man can fly”. Superman Returns might well have had “You’ll believe a Messianic figure can be dull”. All this anguished soul-searching about Superman’s place in the world and What He Means to us is like a lead weight around Superman Returns and  now MoS and BvS after it.

I really wish they had kept the cast and creative team of Superman Returns for a sequel rather than trying to reboot though. If they had dropped that Christ imagery and just given the character a decent adventure with a bit more action rather than endless dull soul-searching we might have had a cracking movie.

sr

But they went the way of the reboot, and I can only despair at how they must have scrutinised Superman Returns and tried to analyse what was wrong with it. The main star looks great, let’s drop him. All that moody soul-searching that cripples the story, lets have more of that. But let’s go darker (did they get the notes mixed up, went with the ‘To Drop’ list instead?).

To some extent you have to blame Christopher Nolan and his Dark Knight films. Somehow they have been held up so high in critical regard and audience awareness that they are the established measure of how to handle DC characters. Like no-one figured out that Superman and Batman are polar opposites- you can’t approach them the same, the whole point of them is that they are so different. Trying to treat Superman like Batman with his tortured psyche is pointless and ignorant of the real character. Besides, there are quite a few fans of the Batman comics who will rightly contest that Nolan’s Dark Knight films rather missed the ‘real’ Batman anyway.

Hiring Zack Snyder to direct MoS was another bad move. I’ve nothing against Snyder, visually he has a knack for putting comic-book action panels onscreen, but he should be kept clear of producing or script-writing. He seems to think Watchmen is some kind of bible for showing superheroes on film, when Watchmen should really be considered of a genre quite apart from Superhero films. It’s a commentary on the Superhero genre not a blueprint of what it should be. Suggesting that the Superman or Batman comics should be more like Watchmen is utterly missing the point of them.

Snyder seems to think that Dr Manhattan, for instance, is some kind of blueprint of how to portray Superman. Dr Manhattan isn’t that- he’s a commentary by Alan Moore on the idea of a Superman. His powers make him distant and aloof from humanity- he isn’t a hero, he’s a God-like figure increasingly remote from us, less human by the minute. Trying to treat Superman the same way is just crazy- Superman isn’t a God, he’s a hero. He’s an alien, yes, and one with great powers, but essentially he is one of us, actually becoming more human by the minute. Snyder is forcing Superman into some kind of Dr Manhattan figure and it’s totally missing the real point and crippling him and the movies.

mos1For one thing, look at the suit. The MoS/BvS ‘look’ just isn’t, well, really Superman, is it? Just in the same way as the true comic-book character is gone, so is the look. The bright colours of the comic-book, the rich red and blue, is lost, replaced by some muddy, washed-out look. It almost looks like the armour of Tim Burton’s take on Batman and is as much a miss-step as how the character has been portrayed.

It seems to me you can only go so far imagining superheroes in the Real World. Its something the Marvel films seem to have done quite well so far, although with the Avengers films and the upcoming Civil War I have to wonder if they are straying too far into this territory themselves. Comics aren’t Shakespeare, and directors and audiences shouldn’t really expect comic-book movies to be Oscar-bait dramas. They are escapist entertainment, with odd people with impossible powers wearing daft costumes and if Warner/DC go too far they will just ruin what chance they have of the success they clearly crave. Maybe part of the problem is Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns. It was a solid, brilliant examination of the Batman character in a noir-ish Real World approximation of our world. But it wasn’t really Batman.

Superheroes couldn’t function in our Real World. I guess that was one of the lessons of Watchmen. You can’t really have costumed guys running around outside of the law; how long would that be allowed before the Government brought in the military to neuter the heroes? Before they were outlawed? Frank Miller had Superman acting as an American Super Weapon in TDR because that’s the only way the American government would find Superman acceptable. Its the same kind of thinking that runs through the rather dour X-Men films. It might be realistic but how far down the rabbit-hole do you go before you aren’t making the actual comic-book anymore? People read them because they are mostly escapist fun. Entertainment.

Superman: The Movie had a genius conceit, right from the start. Some kid opens up a comic book and the camera falls into a panel and it comes ‘alive’. But all through the movie, we are still in that comic.  And that’s a central point that Snyder and Warner/DC seems to be missing. We don’t go to see Superhero movies to see what they would be like in our world. We go to see Superhero movies to see what it would be like for us to be in their world. It’s a fundamental difference.

Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016)

bvs1.jpg2016. 27: Batman Vs Superman: Dawn of Justice (Cinema)

I have to keep reminding myself; its ‘just’ a superhero movie. The whole genre is daft, isn’t it? You get grown guys dressed up in silly costumes and a genre increasingly taking itself far too seriously and you wind up with films like Man of Steel and BvS. Talented guys like Zack Snyder give too much credit to the passions of geeks and nerds and teenage comics readers and we get misguided films like this that believe that comicstrips can be like Shakespeare or something. Weighed down by self-importance and juvenile politicising and scripts that cover up massive plot-holes with CGI bombast until that very CGI bombast becomes the be-all and end-all of everything.

Sod it. Let’s start again. My favourite superhero film is Superman: The Movie. It’s a classic lesson in how to treat a comicbook with respect without taking itself too seriously. Its a fine line, I admit, but there is a limit to how seriously this stuff should be taken. Guys in tights, you know?

Another thing about Superman: The Movie. It’s kind of aged, because, well, it has– it was made in the ‘seventies. It dates back to photochemical effects and miniatures and is pre-CGI. But it still shines today because Christopher Reeve was genius casting and it’s him who makes you believe a man can fly. You love his Clark Kent, admire his Superman. You don’t have to lay waste to Metropolis and slaughter thousands of innocents to make the film exciting. Superman cares about burglaries and cats in trees and planes falling out of the sky. He’s a good guy. That’s all we need to know.

You see, Superman: The Movie wasn’t made by geeks for geeks. It was made by ordinary grown-ups for family audiences. There was a grounding of reality about everything. My question is, are the geeks ruining films? Have they inherited Hollywood and usurped the old storytellers?

bvs4Because here we have BvS. It says everything about where the genre has gone over the decades. We first had Superman: The Movie, we later had Batman. Now we have Batman vs Superman and its about as intellectually stimulating as the title suggests. I mean, that whole ‘Martha’ thing. How stupid do these film-makers think we are? And the first time Supes meets Batman, Batman is clearly chasing bazooka-wielding bad guys, but Supes gives them a pass in order to bust open the Batmobile and tell Bats off. And what exactly was Lex’s superplan to rule the world with Doomsday? How the hell was he expecting to control Doomsday once it had killed Bats and Supes? And Supes can hear/see Lois in trouble wherever she is, but can’t hear/see a bomb hidden in a wheelchair right in front of him. He can travel faster than a bullet but can’t get that bomb out of the building just as it detonates. Did Snyder learn nothing from reading/making Watchmen?

It’s a big mess of a film. It doesn’t have one protagonist, it has two. Or three. Or four, depending on who we count. It doesn’t have one plot. It has two or three spread across separate timelines, some of which may be dreams or visions or mis-remembered memories or clips from future films. Again, did Snyder learn nothing from reading/making Watchmen?

My first thoughts walking out of BvS? That it wasn’t as bad as the reviews made out. That I sort-of quite enjoyed it (whilst knowing that I really shouldn’t have though).

There doesn’t seem much point reviewing this film. Its already become an ‘event’, perhaps even more so than Disney’s relaunch of Star Wars. Suffering a delayed release and endless marketing and leaks (the trailers simply revealing – and promising- far too much) it seems evident that even during production the film was being retconned into less just a single film but more a launchpad for a whole series of other films, subjecting it to a tension that clearly always threatens to rip it apart and undermine the whole enterprise.

The Corporate stakes are huge: Warners and DC need the film to launch a film franchise to counter Marvel’s huge series of films after the faltering Superman Returns and Man Of Steel reboots and they also need it to work on its own and recoup its huge (anything from $250 to $400 million) production costs. Maybe even impress both the critics and the fanboys while it’s at it too. Well, good luck with that.

A better film had the line, the light that burns twice as bright burns half as long and it’s never truer than regards BvS. It burned so very, very brightly – subjected to largely vicious reviews from the press, fanboys themselves were largely split on the films merits with huge emotional debates becoming angry and personal online (fueled by some predictable Marvel vs DC nonsense too). The box-office has been initially amazing; contrary to those reviews, the film managed a huge opening weekend but was subjected to a corresponding massive drop-off by the second week (some outlets already quoting an 80% drop-off, even the most conservative estimating a fairly damning 70% drop). The film was scarcely in cinemas when release dates for an extended cut were being mentioned for as early as July and attention turning towards that as if the cinema release was already done and over.

As I’m writing this, the film was released little over a week ago, and already it almost feels all over. Everything has been said. Its almost scary. How much has been discussed and dissected on forums and on Youtube and media outlets? Its almost boring already, and the film has only been out just over a week. What on Earth is the Cultural half-life of a Hollywood blockbuster now? Or the timeline of its box-office: days? Weeks? A month? How much money has been spent on making and publicising this film, how much spent on distribution and marketing, how much spent by filmgoers, casual and otherwise (I know of one guy at work who has seen the film three times already), how much has been spent on merchandising and how much spent preparing for its home video release?

I have the feeling that we need a year or two to go by before we can really judge this film and even then we have to have some frame of reference to go by. By which criteria does someone judge it anyway? Do we judge it on its own artistic merits, or on how well it ultimately performs at the box office and more importantly how that impacts the succeeding DC movies? We have Suicide Squad this summer and the Wonder Woman film being shot right now. There are already rumours of reshoots for Suicide Squad, how long before reactions to BvS affect the making of Wonder Woman? Its like BvS isn’t just a film anymore- maybe it was never ‘just’ a film, and thats the root of all its issues.

So anyway, here’s my take, for what it’s worth.

bvs21) Ben Affleck. The best Batman ever? I really think he might be. His haunted Bruce Wayne is borderline psychotic and he absolutely nails the Batman. He looks pretty definitive in my book with a huge physical presence. He just deserved a better film. No, he deserved his own movie.  Which leads me to-

2) There’s much more Dark Knight Returns in BvS than I had expected. I have two differing thoughts on this. On the one hand, had Synder really wanted to just make Dark Knight Returns then maybe he just should have, and dropped all the Man of Steel tie-in stuff altogether (and certainly all that Justice League worldbuilding too). On the other hand, there’s more to the Batman than Frank bloody Miller, and it’s past time film-makers managed to shake the curse/weight/inspiration/shadow of DKR from the character. It shaped/handicapped the Chris Nolan trilogy and clearly inspired so much of BvS but surely its done now. Besides, DKR isn’t even canon. DC has always said it exists in some alternate universe away from the ‘proper’ character.

(There’s even a very fine animated movie of DKR that does the story well so a live-action version is surely already redundant but… I have the horrible feeling that, even with so much of it featuring in BvS, we will one day see a ‘proper’ live-action complete film version of DKR someday in the future. Maybe it’ll be ten, twenty, even thirty years from now, whenever it happens, it’ll happen. They just can’t leave the bloody thing alone).

3) Henry Cavill is awfully bland. I don’t blame Cavill for this, I’ve seen him much better in other stuff- in his defense, its the depiction of Superman in these films that is still pretty bland and boring. He was ill-served by Man of Steel and is just as ill-served here, maybe more so. Zack Snyder seems to have confused Superman with his Watchmen film’s Dr Manhattan. Superman is not Dr Manhattan- someone should tell Snyder that. But BvS continues to ask the same questions as MoS and it’s getting just as mired in them; we don’t trust our leaders, as they evidently prove corruptible and weak, so if there was a Superman, how could we trust him?  It’s pointless really because after two films it still doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. One thing I was curious of- there is plenty of questions in BvS about Superman, but all the public/police/politicians etc seem okay with that Batdude terrorising Gotham. What gives?

3). BvS is a much better film than Man of Steel, and yet Snyder still makes some of the same mistakes. Snyder seems to confuse drama with noise, visual as well as aural. Man of Steel did not need to blight MOS’ Kryptonian prologue with a huge sky battle/CGI shitfest. It did not add any gravitas or drama to it. Neither did it need the Planet-killer sequence or Metropolis laid waste. Battering audiences over the head with cartoon CGI theatrics does not add dramatic involvement or excitement. MoS would have been more interesting had it just comprised of Henry Cavill’s Clark Kent  wandering the planet trying to find his place in the world and hiding his powers while helping save people. It could have left donning the Superman suit until the end, made it the film’s climax. BvS addresses some of the fundamental excess of MOS’ ill-thought Metropolis battle in a novel way by forming its plot around its aftermath and justification, and yet forgets its own lessons by falling back into another CGI shitfest in the battle with Doomsday. Its almost boring. No, it is boring. Context is thrown out of the window with CGI characters and CGI explosions and… yawn.

bvs3 4) About boring- too many heroes equals too much CGI nonsense and it’s just too bloody boring for words. The most dramatic moments in the entire series of Star Wars films are those between Luke and Vader in TESB. Two combatants in a fight that is dramatic and involving and personal and weighted by a sense of reality. You don’t have Luke jumping across huge chasms or Vader firing lightning from his fingers. Just two dudes sword fighting with laser swords (the laser swords is conceit enough, the drama is in the conflict, the opposing characters and their ideologies).

Each successive superhero film seems to be throwing ever-bigger odds against an increasing roster of protagonists and, well, Age of Ultron was boring as shit. That whole finale with hundreds of little Ultrons attacking our band of merry superhumans in slo-mo was utterly boring.  Its the big danger facing superhero films today- they are getting too big, becoming too much like video-games. Future Justice League films seem hellbent on continuing this trend. Each of these films seem to think bigger is better and the idea of Snyder having a roster of several heroes battling some bad guy even bigger than Doomsday fills me with dread, frankly. But I do worry how far this genre can go before making things utterly abstract and the stakes utterly redundant.

5) Oh thats quite a bloody ’nuff about BvS. Two thousand words and I haven’t mentioned Supes meeting the ghost of his dad on a mountain for a chat about causality. Here’s hoping that the Ultimate Cut fixes everything. And maybe that somebody somewhere in Hollywood starts to exercise some kind of restraint with these superhero movies eventually.