Zac Snyder

Justice League

There’s nothing like a good old-fashioned rivalry. As I write this review I’m trying to think of a fitting analogy to describe the comic rivalry that is Marvel vs. DC. The best recent comic book movies have been Marvel editions, from Captain America: Winter Soldier to Logan. However, The Dark Knight still reigns supreme, and Wonder Woman has rejuvenated DC. Regardless of how cool The Avengers are, when it comes to iconic superheroes, Batman and Superman are the standard bearers.

I’m still settling into the idea of Ben Affleck (Live By Night) as Batman/Bruce Wayne, but he at least looks the part, checking all the superficial boxes. I don’t get any real depth of character from him, but where Christian Bale (The Dark Knight Rises) brought an air of refinement to Bruce Wayne, Affleck is more of a rugged Everyman. In Justice League, he is the catalyst for their coalition. Still reeling from the loss of Superman, Bruce is rather downtrodden. Sensing trouble on the horizon, he feels compelled to gather a team who can be ready when impending doom finally darkens their doorstep.

Methodically and effectively, director Zac Snyder (Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, Man of Steel) introduces us to the Justice League. We’re familiar with Bruce and Diana (Gal Gadot, Wonder Woman), and now we meet Cyborg, Aquaman (Jason Momoa, Once Upon a Time in Venice) and The Flash (Ezra Miller, Suicide Squad). Bruce’s sense of foreboding is confirmed with the appearance of “Steppenwolf,” a sinister being also known as the End of Worlds. He seeks to unite three motherboards, which are gleaming mythical cubes of energy/life force found in separate, remote locations. Their unification can bring about the end of the world, and the Justice League must stop Steppenwolf from obtaining all three.

One motherboard is on Themyscira, under Amazon guard on Diana’s home planet. I read that Justice League was re-shot to include more scenes with Wonder Woman, after the success of the solo film earlier this year. That was a shrewd decision, and it was effective from a storytelling perspective. Bruce challenges Diana to embrace her iconic role and to be more proactive than reactive, leveling the same criticism at the character that some feminists aimed at the Wonder Woman film. I’m paraphrasing, but he essentially states that all it took to break down this warrior woman was a little heartbreak. I thought that bit of dialogue was a clever nod to the fan base and legitimate acknowledgment of a perceived flaw in our beloved heroine.

Bruce Wayne has never been so humble and self-deprecating. He comically acknowledges that being rich is his only super power, and the rest of the team often challenges his quiet air of authority. The Flash is funny, his youth refreshing compared to his more jaded, skeptical counterparts. Cyborg has not fully embraced his altered body, still gingerly navigating his newfound abilities. Aquaman is aloof, but devoted. While they don’t always share the same approach, when they are called to action they are in perfect unison, highlighting the shared chemistry attendant of ensemble films.

Justice League was nearly as good as The Avengers, and much better than last year’s Suicide Squad, which felt like a hodgepodge collection of misfits. I appreciate a plot that isn’t needlessly complex, and I wasn’t disappointed here – although the premise is a trite one. As long as it continues to bring out the best in each franchise, the Marvel-DC rivalry is great for moviegoers. Justice League was simple, yet funny and entertaining. I can’t say unequivocally that one character stole the show, which is a testament to the shared star power on screen. There were no weak links, and now I have to think twice about what super squad I’d want to save me.

Grade: A-

Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice

Ever since Ben Affleck (Gone Girl) was announced as the next iteration of the Caped Crusader, movie buffs and fan boys alike have been waiting with baited breath to behold this epic clash of titans in Batman v. Superman. Most fans have maligned Affleck’s selection, but I reserved judgment. Affleck’s career experienced a brief downturn during the J-Lo era, but I thought he rebounded nicely as early as 2006 with Hollywoodland. I like Ben Affleck and if anyone tells you he’s what’s wrong with this film – they are mistaken.

I looked forward to this, cautiously optimistic about what director Zac Snyder (300, Sucker Punch) would do with the franchise after taking the helm over from Christopher and Jon Nolan (The Dark Knight Rises). Batman v. Superman begins with the familiar exposition of the murder of Bruce’s parents, Thomas and Martha Wayne. We then move forward to the recent past, and the inception of Batman and Superman’s mutual disdain. When one of Superman’s epic battles leaves an avalanche of destruction in its wake, including the decimation of one of Wayne Enterprises’ properties, Bruce is furious. Meanwhile, Clark Kent (Henry Cavill, The Man From UNCLE) is none too fond of Batman, bristling at the cavalier vigilante who has won Gotham’s heart by taking the law into his own hands. To be clear, Batman doesn’t trust an alien with god-like abilities; conversely Superman thinks the billionaire is reckless and should be contained.

The stage is set for battle, after a young Lex Luthor (played by a terribly miscast Jesse Eisenberg, Now You See Me) pits the two against one another. Luthor and LexCorp have weaponized kryptonite, in the event that Superman ever needs to be neutralized. After Congress denies his request for government approval, he moves forward with another plan, hoping that the two heroes will take each other out. The plot was a little thin, and I was never emotionally invested in any outcome for either hero. When Batman and Superman finally square off, it is laughably apparent just how overmatched Batman (a mere mortal) is when facing a real superhero with powers beyond a utility belt. Only with the tried and true trick of kryptonite can he keep pace with Superman. Affleck clearly bulked up for the part, which makes sense – but why was he a slow, lumbering oaf with little agility and quickness? It looked as if even the likes of Daredevil could handily dispatch Batman.

I thought the movie was just ok. It wasn’t as horrible as the blogosphere is making it out to be, but it was rather underwhelming, plagued by poor casting and an underdeveloped, nonsensical plot. Eisenberg was miscast as Luthor. Instead of a criminal mastermind, Lex Luthor seemed like a bratty, petulant teen – hardly a worthy foe to a much more mature Batman or Superman. Batman seemed slow, and the fight sequence wasn’t as jaw dropping as I expected. One scene involves Superman 1) retrieving some kryptonite and 2) using it to kill something; how is this even possible?! There were some cool, entertaining moments, but they were few and far between. Moreover, I don’t really like the way Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot, Triple 9) was incorporated. The character wasn’t properly integrated in the storyline. Perhaps she was supposed to be mysterious, but I never felt like I understood her motivations or history.

Lastly, I just can’t get the Nolan’s interpretation of Batman out of my head. It was just a superior trilogy, and I don’t particularly care for what Snyder has done thus far. I’m still curious to see what Ben Affleck can do in the role, whenever he gets a solo Batman film. I thought he looked the part, but I would like to see more in the future. Superman is just a boring character to me, and Henry Cavill didn’t do much to change that opinion. Superman has all the power and none of the personality, easily distracted like a simp when Lois Lane (Amy Adams, American Hustle) is in danger. Corny! The cinematic edge still goes to Marvel, and all this movie did was make me anticipate Captain America: Civil War even more. Grade: C

300: Rise of An Empire

I’ve commented numerous times that Hollywood studios love a sequel, whether it’s warranted or not. For example, bad sequels typically involve a re-tread of the original, a la The Hangover 2. Which leads me to 300: Rise of An Empire. 2006’s 300 was an exhilarating depiction of the Battle of Thermopylae, replete with amazing imagery and strong performances. One would think a sequel would logically pick up where the original left off, but the makers of 300: Rise of An Empire had something different in mind, much to my disappointment.

Writer Zack Snyder (Man of Steel) uses this sequel to tell a parallel storyline overlapping the same time period as the original movie. This seems like a cumbersome storytelling technique, but there was potential for it to be interesting. Snyder reveals Xerxes’ (Rodrigo Santoro, The Last Stand)backstory, providing a glimpse of him before he became the ruthless villain who mercilessly defeated Leonidas. Xerxes’ father Darius was king of Persia, decimating Greek troops through relentless warfare. During one fateful battle, he was killed by the bow of Themistocles (Sullivan Stapleton, Gangster Squad), a fearless Athenian determined to unite all of Greece. Upon witnessing his father’s demise, Xerxes became hell-bent on exacting revenge upon Themistocles and any city-state that threatened Persia.

Enter Artemisia (Eva Green, Casino Royale), a fierce Persian warrior who harbors a venomous hatred for Greece. It was Greeks who raped and pillaged her childhood home, viciously marring her childhood and deeply sowing a seed of revenge that would come to define her. Left for dead, she was taken in by an older Persian warrior who trained her in battle. She displayed a natural ferocity and skill, becoming a formidable fighter. By the time she came of age, Artemisia had earned the favor of ill-fated King Darius. She was placed in command of the Persian army, though she served at Xerxes’ pleasure.

The movie is told largely from Themistocles’ perspective, as he tries to defeat Persia with the help of Queen Gorgo (Lena Headey, The Purge), Leonidas’ widow. She is reluctant to provide Spartan soldiers for battle, though Themistocles must amass a sizeable army to compete with the Persians. Eventually she lends the manpower, and Themistocles leads the charge against Persia, not to avenge Leonidas, but to unite Greece in defeat of a common enemy.

I don’t know how or why Zack Snyder allowed such a decline in quality between the original 300 and this sequel, but most aspects of the movie, which I viewed in 3D, disappointed me. The special effects were visually entertaining, but they became trite and felt gimmicky after a while. For example, it’s fine to use slow-mo effects to add emphasis, but overuse of the technique lessens the impact and the device becomes trite. The adversarial positioning of Themistocles and Artemisia was effective from a character standpoint, and they had excellent chemistry. One particular scene where they engaged in a rough romp was awkwardly entertaining, but ultimately the movie was not satisfying. Don’t waste your time. Grade: C

Man of Steel

As other superhero franchises have recently established themselves as powerhouses (Batman, Iron Man), the venerable Superman franchise seemed like an afterthought.  Brandon Routh is somewhere salty as hell.  You’re probably like, who the hell is that?  Exactly.  Routh wore those famous blue tights only once in 2006’s Superman Returns, and now he’s a distant memory.  It seemed like Superman was lost in the iconic days of Christopher Reeve…until now.

Once Christopher Nolan (The Dark Knight Rises) was attached to the project, I think people were amenable to giving it a chance.  Just conjuring images of The Dark Knight franchise gets me excited, and Nolan brought instant credibility to the film.  The addition of director Zac Snyder (300, Sucker Punch) also ensured a fresh departure from the last Superman attempt.  The movie begins on Krypton, with a frantic Lara and Jor-El (Russell Crowe, Broken City) facing the destruction of their planet.  General Zod (Michael Shannon, Mud) has attempted an unsuccessful coup and been subsequently banished to an intergalactic prison.  Krypton and its inhabitants will become extinct as the planet comes to a tumultuous, destructive end.  Anticipating such an apocalypse, Jor-El and Lara planned to send their newborn Kal-El to another planet where he will thrive and ensure the survival of his race.

As the familiar story goes, Kal is given the name Clark and raised by the Kents – the couple who discovered him (and the vessel that brought him) on their farm.  However, after leaving Krypton the movie shifts to Clark’s adult life, as he grapples with finding his place on Earth, given his otherworldly abilities.  Nolan’s influence was apparent, as he offered a non-linear approach to Clark’s story.  Instead of following his upbringing chronologically, the movie flashes back to key events in Clark’s childhood that shaped his current existence.  We’re introduced to him as an adult, a nomadic laborer of sorts who lives in relative obscurity.  Clark consistently struggled with the two distinct messages given to him by both fathers.  Jor-El believed that he was special and could be a symbol of hope to many people.  Conversely Jonathan Kent (Kevin Costner, The Company Men) cautioned his son that people will fear what they don’t understand, and that mankind would reject him.

When General Zod is released from his interstellar prison, he locates Kal on Earth and pursues him there, spelling dire consequences for humanity.  This new development is what forces Clark into action, causing him to confront his obligation, if he even has one.  I’ve purposefully omitted a lot of plot details, because I don’t want to spoil the movie for you, plus I think they are inconsequential to my discussion of the film.  There was an earnest quality to the film, though not quite as dark as the Batman movies for which Nolan is known.  This subtle restraint in storytelling made the interpretation unique, and I can say that Man of Steel was not like The Dark Knight or any of the Iron Man movies.  Whereas Batman seems affected by external forces, Superman’s struggle is largely an internal one – at least in this first edition of the reboot.  The structure of the movie was flawless, and the viewer feels as if he or she really understands Clark’s conflicting duality – revelation vs. obscurity.  Couple that with a lifelong feeling of being the only one of your kind, and it’s easy to see why Clark felt confused and alone.

In addition to the storyline and character development, I thought the casting was also effective.  Henry Cavill (Immortals) is perfect as the new Superman.  He looks the part and he is believable.  Those are big tights to fill, and I’m sure the role is his for a while to come, especially since Man of Steel 2 has already been announced.  The casting of Amy Adams (Trouble With the Curve) as a more intrepid Lois Lane was also successful.  Russell Crowe is incomparable; you already know this.  What more can I say?  The movie was nearly flawless.  In fact, the only criticism I have is minor and probably misplaced.  I’m no expert, but I had a small quibble with the editing.  I thought a few scene transitions were not seamless – but again, what do I know?  The special effects were incredible, and no self-respecting movie buff would go more than a week or two without seeing this movie.  What are you waiting for? Grade: A