Friday, March 25, 2016

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice review

Warning: This review contains spoilers.

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is the child of two parents. On the creative side, there is a tradition of DC's two flagship superheroes who sometimes fight. On the business side, there is the invisible presence of Marvel's cinematic Avengers franchise, which has produced blockbuster after blockbuster, tying several successful sub-series together to build a massive, shared audience of devotees – and revenue. DC's superheroes have had success on the big screen only as individuals, and only occasionally. Unmistakably, Warner Brothers is now trying to build on the success of 2013's Man ofSteel as the anchor of a multi-hero megafranchise like Marvel's cinematic Avengers (and, for that matter, X-Men).

In the world of BVS, Superman's debut took place in a world where an elder Batman has been fighting crime in Gotham City for twenty years now and sociopathic businessman Luthor are already prominent, as had been hinted via allusions back in MOS.

BVS provides two strong impressions: First, it is for most of its ample running length absolutely magnificently scripted, directed, and acted. The photography is gorgeous. Characterization is well-rounded yet recognizable as versions of the archetypes from comicdom. This is a very well made movie. The second impression: This movie contains perhaps the least fun of any superhero movie ever. Astonishingly, it begins and ends with funerals.

To a considerable extent, those two outstanding aspects of the film hold most true for the first hour and a half. Then, as the careful setup turns to climactic action (there is plenty of non-climactic action earlier) the script tosses some red meat for fanboys and fangirls to cheer, and the film turns into a movie. This is perhaps a good thing, because, to fulfill the goal of launching a major cinematic universe, BVS needs to convince moviegoers that it's not going to be a bleak, depressing (albeit well-written) cinematic universe.

No one will leave the theatre complaining that there wasn't enough movie or love for DC source material. BVS covers the themes of three or four landmark DC works. It has about a half-dozen lines from The Dark Knight Returns, which is unquestionably the central source from printed media, but it also features a dream scene right out of Red Son, a massive plot to frame Superman a la Lex Luthor: Man of Steel, and then launches right into the Death of Superman story while introducing the Justice League-to-be very economically. There is even a scene where Lois Lane dives into water to recover some kryptonite just like Miss Tessmacher did in Superman: The Movie. Perry White mentions Superman's origin year of 1938 in some canny dialogue, and there's a kidnapping in Smallville reminiscent of the early Byrne issues of Superman.

Despite the heavy borrowing, the overall plot is original. About half of it had already been communicated in the trailers. The film opens with cinema's nth retelling of the Waynes' murder. At their funeral, young Bruce falls into a cave at Wayne Manor and – this part is just a dream – bats swirl around him, flying him back to the surface. Then we see a second defining trauma in Bruce Wayne's life: His physical presence in Metropolis during the Superman-Zod battle that killed some people Wayne was close to.

We flash forward 18 months: Superman has become the world's greatest hero… but nobody whatsoever seems to be happy about it. Awed, sometimes grateful, but nobody in the movie is happy, so they aren't happy when Superman saves someone's life, either. Batman, meanwhile, has become darker in his operations, branding the criminals – the news calls them his victims – with a hot bat symbol. Superman and Batman intensely dislike one another from afar – Superman loathing the cruelty that Batman shows and Batman loathing the lack of controls in place to stop Superman. This is a sentiment shared exactly by a U.S. Senator and a giggling, rich, brilliant, and mentally ill Lex Luthor. All three – Wayne, Luthor, and Senator Finch – undertake plans to take control back from Superman. As it turns out, Luthor is the master chess player directing the others like pieces on his board. Knowing that he can't hurt Superman directly, Luthor gives Wayne and the world more reasons to fear Superman, using his own gunmen to cause collateral-damage deaths during a Superman mission in Africa. When Superman arrives in Washington to testify before Congress, the film unleashes one of its biggest surprises when a massive explosion caused by Luthor kills the committee and many civilians Superman is unharmed, but the world wonders if he somehow caused it.

Batman is, in the meantime, playing the world's greatest detective, working on a case that leads towards an unknown master criminal who turns out to be Lex Luthor, importing kryptonite via ship from MOS's Indian Ocean battle site back to Gotham/Metropolis. Batman infiltrates Luthor's headquarters, stealing the kryptonite for himself, which was Luthor's plan all along. Bruce Wayne keeps catching sight of a gorgeous, elegant, and mysterious Diana Prince who is also investigating Luthor. While following the breadcrumbs that Luthor intentionally left in order to drive Batman into battle with Superman, Batman also finds Luthor's computer files indicating the existence of four meta-humans – Wonder Woman, Cyborg, Flash, and Aquaman. Batman also sees the Flash in a dream and/or interdimensional interlude reminiscent of the Flash speaking to him early in Crisis on Infinite Earths, in which Flash gives Batman a warning – one that's hard to hear, but apparently useful. Meanwhile, Clark Kent has become Batman's biggest detractor, which leads to Superman zooming down and threatening Batman, telling him to end his bat career now, or else.

Luthor plays his first plan to kill Superman just past the film's midway point. To summon Superman, he throws Lois Lane from the top of the LexCorp building. She's safe, but Luthor shows Superman photos of a bound and tortured Martha Kent. Luthor tells Superman that Martha Kent will die unless Superman kills Batman. With no choice, Superman goes to Gotham to try to talk to Batman, who is ready for him in a battle a la Dark Knight Returns. Sonics and machine guns slightly irritate Superman, but kryptonite powder/gas has its intended effect, allowing Batman to pummel Superman for a while. The gas wears off, giving Superman the upper hand, but Batman fires a second dose at him, beats him for a while, then lifts a kryptonite spear over him. Begging for his life, Superman tells Batman that he has to save Martha. Here the film catches one of the DCU's least-noticed quirks – that Martha Wayne and Martha Kent share a first name. Hearing his late mother's first name, Batman becomes insane with curiosity – why did Superman say "Martha"? Lois Lane arrives in time to tell Batman why, and this intel ends the fight, making the two men allies.

While Batman saves Martha Kent, Superman goes to corral Luthor, who unleashes his Plan B – a creature he created by combining his own DNA with that of General Zod. This is sort of a combination of the origin stories of Kon-El and Bizarro, but the result is unmistakably Doomsday.  This raging, superpowered behemoth begins to pummel Superman in a battle reminiscent of MOS's Superman-Zod battle. Suddenly, Wonder Woman shows up, and the two superpowered heroes swap blows with Doomsday while Batman manuevers around the battle scene, looking to make a blow of his own. Wonder Woman's skill and zeal in fighting Doomsday is one of the lightest moments in the film, but only manages to hold the monster off for a while. Superman retrieves the kryptonite spear that Batman crafted and, after resisting Lois Lane's pleas for him not to do so, flies in to plunge the weapon into Doomsday's heart. At the same time, the monster plunges a massive, bony spear into Superman's chest, killing him. Wonder Woman and Batman stand over the two dead combatants.

Now Superman is dead and the world knows that Clark Kent was his alter ego. Superman has a glorious funeral with, suddenly, America's gratitude. Bruce Wayne tells Diana Prince that they must find the other superheroes and prepare to fight as a team. Luthor, from a prison cell, gloats to Batman that by killing Superman, he has "rung the bell" to summon a new, dark force, which seems to introduce Darkseid as the next Justice League film's villain. Bruce Wayne and Lois Lane mourn at Superman's funeral, but in the film's final moment, we see Superman's coffin and get a sign that there will be a resurrection.

There are virtually no missteps in Batman v Superman. It's wonderfully crafted: Every scene, every shot, every line of dialogue achieves just what the creators intended. It's also relentlessly dark and brooding, with sex trafficking, child molesters, torture, and terrorism just part of the background. This cinematic DCU, even with superheroes, is worse than our own world. Warner Brothers is betting that people will enjoy visiting this dark place one or two times a summer for the next few years. I'm not sure of the audience they are hoping for, but they seem to be intent on an audience closer to that of The Godfather than Superman: The Movie. Serious comic book fans may enjoy seeing their heroes in such realistic fight scenes. Families and couples on dates may find themselves watching Avengers movies at the next movie screen over.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Batman v Superman IV: Who Won More?

Batman and Superman have fought at least thirty-three times. In the last three posts, I gave the blow-by-blow of all of them. Now, to add up the score.

With Superman fully powered, Batman without prep time

Superman wins these battles again and again. Whether he knocks Batman down or just stands there and takes whatever Batman can dish out, Superman, when he's in his right mind, always comes out with a win, no sweat. However, the three times that Superman is under the mind control of a Batman villain, in "Hush" and in Scott Snyder's current run, Batman manages to incapacitate the mind-controlled Superman and bring him back to his normal self.

Superman 7 wins and no losses when he's in his right mind. Batman wakes up a mind-controlled Superman twice, Batman completely defeats a mind-controlled Superman once.

When Batman has superpowers

This is a strange category, because the nature of the superpowers can vary so much. Two of their first battles involved Batman possessing powers, an idea that didn't recur until 1979. 1 tie, 1 Superman 1, Batman assists the JSA in 1 win.

When Superman has no powers

In theory, taking away Superman's powers gives Batman the advantage, because Batman has trained and armed himself for that situation and Superman has not. However, Superman has actually matched Batman at 2 wins apiece in these stories, none of them published since 1968.

With Superman fully powered, Batman with prep time

This describes probably the best-remembered and most interesting of the matchups, but probably few readers are aware that Batman has been using prep time to beat Superman since as far back as 1961! Batman won five of these, but Superman's powers and wits bested Batman's plans in two stories (curiously, both published in 2006) when Superman wins a re-imagined version of Byrne's first meeting by seeing through the bomb-in-the-belt trick, and a fight in the Batcave when Superman is not taken down by the kryptonite ring.

Grand total

Counting all of the disparate scenarios, the win total is:
Superman 12, Batman 11, several ties, team battles, and non-fights.

The key takeaways are: When Batman has no prep time and Superman's in his right mind, the Man of Steel is unbeatable. When Batman has prep time and is in his right mind, the Caped Crusader almost always wins.

There's something trendy about having the two heroes fight. From 1968-1971, the heroes fought 8 times in 3 years, then only fought once in the next 14 years, but once the battles started up, they fought three times in just over a year. Then, hardly any more matchups for over a decade. Now, it appears to be trendy again, with over a third of the fights happening since the year 2000.

Having two of the most beloved superheroes fight is a curious thing. John Byrne and Frank Miller present it as inevitable: Of course these men have different methods; of course they would clash. In other stories, the writer felt compelled to dream up a fantastic explanation for the fight, subscribing to the more usual circumstance that the great heroes are also great friends.

Given that a fight must occur, it is a strange twist on the John Henry story: Can a hard-working man beat an unbeatable force? When Batman uses prep time to beat Superman, it is something hopeful for all of us, that humanity can triumph over every challenge, even their own hero. But in the fights where there is no prep time, writers almost universally agree that Superman must win, and take pains to say, further, that it shouldn't even be close.

The most common result in all of these battles, though, is that when the fight is over, the heroes realize their common cause and become at least allies, if not friends. The only exceptions to these are the Elseworlds where a very different Superman (like The Unholy Three's Zod as Superman) or very different Batman (the Batman who believes that Superboy killed his father) are in the fight.

So, as Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice hits the theatres, what we can be most certain of is that the end of the title is what matters. There'll be a fight, and if the comics are any indication, Batman's prep time will give him the upper hand. But when the battle ends, the two will join forces thereafter for their neverending war.

Batman v Superman III: Post-Infinite Crisis Fights

Batman and Superman have fought at least thirty-three times. In the last post, I tallied the post-Crisis battles. Here, I continue my look at the history of Superman versus Batman fights.

Post-Infinite Crisis fights

25) Lex Luthor: Man of Steel (2005): Lex Luthor gives Bruce Wayne kryptonite, hoping that the leading powers of Gotham can use it more effectively against Superman than he himself can. In a scene told without full context, we see Superman happen upon the kryptonite-armed Batman and brutally defeat him. First, Superman blows the kryptonite out of Batman's hand from long range, and the rest of the fight is one-sided in Superman's favor. Result: Superman wins.

26) Infinite Crisis #3 (2006): The Superman from Earth Two, Kal-L, tries to talk with the paranoid Batman, who can't agree to disagree. Pulling the kryptonite ring on Kal-L, Batman finds that it's the wrong kind of kryptonite and watches as Superman burns it off his hand. Result: Superman beats Batman's best tactic, but has no reason to stay and fight further.

27) Justice (2006): After Captain Marvel rescues Superman from an ambush that nearly killed him, he takes him to the Batcave to recover. Superman immediately notices that nanobots are controlling Batman's mind, making him follow the will of Brainiac and Luthor. As Batman is about to surprise Superman with the kryptonite ring, Superman takes down the mind-controlled Batman with one preemptive punch. Result: Superman wins.

28) Action #836 This Was Your Life (2006): In an alternate version of the meeting from Man of Steel #3, a more strong-willed Superman possessing the mind of Earth Two's Kal-L responds to the hidden bomb threat more effectively, immediately finding it on Batman's person and allowing it to detonate safely in his hands. However, instead of apprehending Batman, he proposes an alliance. Result: Superman gets a tactical win, but the conflict ends in a handshake.

29) Superman vol2 #219 / Action #829 / Adventures of Superman #642 Sacrifice (2006): Usually, mind control stories make the victim a servant of some master. In "Sacrifice" Superman retains control of his actions, but Max Lord psychically controls his senses. Superman, believing that he's battling a superpowered enemy, lays into Batman, immediately incapacitating him with force that would have been lethal if Wonder Woman hadn't arrived in time. Only later does Superman realize that he nearly killed his friend. Result: Superman wins, to his own dismay.

30) Booster Gold vol2 #9 (2008): In an alternate timeline, Max Lord uses his control over Superman to dominate the Earth, defeating most other superheroes. When Booster Gold leads a reconstituted JLI on a raid, they find that Batman has gone undercover, infiltrating Lord's organization, and believes that he would eventually overthrow Lord's regime. The JLI kill Lord, returning Superman to his normal self. Batman's plan, which didn't involve confronting Superman directly, never gets to play out. Result: Interesting manuvering, but no fight.

Post-Flashpoint fights

31) Justice League #2 (2011): In the post-Flashpoint first meeting of Superman and Batman, the Man of Steel encounters the pair of Batman and Green Lantern, who had only just met, and battle breaks out. Superman knocks Green Lantern aside before exhausting every possible attack that Batman can throw his way. After Batman can do no more, Green Lantern and the Flash are getting beaten when Batman talks the foursome into a truce. Result: Superman wins the combat with Batman in the middle of a larger fight. Batman negotiates a truce.

32) Injustice: Gods Among Us (2013-): More of a series of wars than a battle, this comic series is released as a companion to a video game of the same name. Many elements are cobbled together from other stories on this list. "Sacrifice": Superman is deceived into using lethal force against his own loved one. "Armageddon 2001":  The death of Lois Lane drives Superman to become a tyrant. "Unholy Three": Batman gives himself superpowers to fight an evil Superman. Result: Ongoing. In the first physical fight, Superman overpowers Batman and breaks his back. The war, with many fighters on both sides, goes on and on.

33) Batman vol2 #36 (2015): In one of the Caped Crusader's toughest challenges, Batman is attacked by an entire Jokerized Justice League, beginning with Wonder Woman and ending with Superman, and he manages to survive. Wearing an armored battle suit due to his initial clash with Wonder Woman, Batman withstands an assault from Superman that might otherwise have killed him, fighting back with some original weapons: red-sun-knuckled batgloves, plasma shields, and finally some kryptonite gum. Batman's mental narration of the fight analyzes the matchup in contradictory ways, noting that Superman has lines that he would never cross, but if he did cross them, he would be unstoppable. As Batman and Superman fall from the sky into the water, he notes that in a fight between them, neither of them win. Result: Batman incapacitates the Jokerized Superman.

Batman v Superman II: Post-Crisis Fights

Batman and Superman have fought at least thirty-three times. In the last post, I tallied the Silver Age battles. Here, I continue my look at the history of Superman versus Batman fights.

Post-Crisis fights

17) The Dark Knight Returns (1986): In DC's most famous Elseworlds story, Superman and Batman end up on opposite sides of the law, culminating in a battle between super-lawman and bat-vigilante. Facing off in Crime Alley against a Superman who is not at "full strength" after surviving a massive Soviet nuclear blast, Batman utilizes a carefully-prepared sequence of technological weapons and one assist from Green Arrow to defeat the weakened Man of Steel, finishing him off with his fists and asking him to remember "the one man who beat you." Result: Batman wins big.

18) Man of Steel #3 (1986): John Byrne's redefinition of Superman wastes no time in redefining the relationship between DC's two flagship superheroes. Superman goes to Gotham to arrest the vigilante Batman and initially takes Batman by surprise, but soon is surprised himself when Batman escapes, then explains that if Superman touches him, it will set off a bomb, killing an innocent person. After a tense collaboration in which they apprehend the killer Magpie, Batman reveals that the bomb was on his own person, making it a good thing that Superman never tried to grab Batman in the initial surprise attack. Result: Batman looks like the boss, but there is no fight.

19) Superman vol2 Annual #3 Armageddon 2001 (1991): Waverider spectates an alternate timeline in which Intergang accidentally destroys Metropolis with a nuclear explosion. Grieving for Lois, Superman unilaterally disarms all the world's nuclear weapons, but in his rage, he's sloppy and kills some U.S. sailors. He tells the President that if the American military tries to oppose him, he'll fight them and win. The President asks Batman to bring Superman in, but Batman refuses, warning Superman how high the stakes have gotten. When the Justice League tries to arrest Superman, Martian Manhunter dies in the fight. Now Batman feels he has no choice, and confronts Superman in a fight at Crime Alley styled on DKR's. Despite Superman being at full physical strength, his soul is sick and he's guilty for what he's done. Batman wins without all the tricks, using just the kryptonite ring Superman gave him. As Superman dies, Batman is anguished, wondering who the authorities will send after him when his time comes. Result: Batman wins.

20) The Dark Knight Strikes Again (2002): Frank Miller takes his most famous scene and says, "No, no… it goes like this…" This time, instead of just a symbolic assist from Green Arrow, Batman has other heroes doing most of the work, and the fight, like the story, is a worse version of DKR. Result: The Justice League wins; readers lose.

21) Batman #12 Hush (2003): Poison Ivy takes control of Superman and uses him as a weapon to attack Batman. Although Batman didn't expect an attack from Superman on this specific day, it's a situation he has anticipated and prepared for. He retreats underground, arms himself with the kryptonite ring, and contemplates, "If Clark wanted to, he could use his superspeed and squish me into the cement. But… deep down, Clark's essentially a good person… and deep down, I'm not." The two swap blows – with writer Jeph Loeb reusing the hypersonic and electricity tricks from DKR ­– until Superman is wrested from Poison Ivy's control by the sight of Catwoman throwing Lois Lane from a tall building and the need to save the woman he loves. Result: The fight is inconclusive; the situation goes to Batman.

22) Superman: Red Son (2003): An Elseworlds showdown between a Kal-El who happened to land in Soviet Ukraine instead of Kansas and a Soviet Batman whose parents were shot by the Stalinist system. Using an idea from the American Lex Luthor, this Batman crafts a trap for Superman using a weakness to red sun that the Kryptonian didn't even know he had. Batman beats and very briefly imprisons the powerless Superman, who is immediately freed by the sacrifice of his ally, Wonder Woman. Batman commits suicide rather than face punishment. Result: Batman beats Superman, but Wonder Woman turns the tables.

23) JSA: The Unholy Three (2003): In the Elseworlds continuity begin in JSA: The Liberty Files, where the JSA are a collection of U.S. government agents, we eventually find out that the Superman who helped win World War Two in the last tale is not the Kal-El we know and love but Zod, a sociopath Kryptonian disguising his intentions until he finds the time is right to take over the world. His sneak attack kills some of his world's superheroes, but Wesley Dodds escapes to alert Bruce Wayne to get the rest of the team together to stop their world's evil Super-Man. It seems that no one can stop him when "the Bat" swallows an experimental pill designed by Terry Sloane to give a person temporary superpowers. A superpowered Bruce Wayne trades blows with the evil Clark Kent long enough to let the rest of the team take him down. Result: The Justice Society wins.

24) New Frontier (2004): Darwyn Cooke describes, but doesn't show, a version of DKR's Superman-Batman brawl as a result of McCarthyism in 1952. Batman wins, later telling J'onn J'onzz that he did it with a "seventy-thousand dollar sliver of meteor." However, a later chapter of the story indicates that Superman and Batman are close friends and that the fight was staged, to get the government off both of their backs. A later miniseries shows how a real confrontation began before the heroes decided to save themselves some sweat and fake Batman getting away. Result: No fight.