A Review of Snowden

Edward Snowden’s story is basically the story of my generation. After 9/11, we were all scared and wanted to do anything we could to protect ourselves and the U.S. No one ever stopped to think about what we were doing to further that goal. When Bush said that Iraq had WMDs and was harboring terrorists, we all smiled and nodded and let him do whatever he wanted. Those who questioned him were traitors who just wanted to invite another 9/11.

But time still went on and the more the Bush administration did, the more people started taking a long hard look at what we were doing. The U.S. was going into nations for no reason, no plans to ensure that the area stayed safe, and ended up destroying what little infrastructure existed. A few short years after the Iraq invasion, the region was a perfect breeding grounds for groups like ISIS. And in an effort to “protect our freedoms,” we discovered that the government was frequently treating those freedoms as an inconvenience in its quest for some undefined “safety.” And then, as the government realized groups like al Qaeda were essentially destroyed and that no one group or nation posed a significant threat to our borders, it began to use this data in ways that were legally and morally reprehensible.

There are those people who still say that Snowden is a traitor who endangered American lives. Those people are wrong. Snowden disclosed important information about how U.S. citizens were being treated as the enemy by its own government. It jump started an important discussion about our nation’s future and how we the people exist as the bosses of the government, not the servants. Some people don’t want to participate in this discussion. (These are the same people who want to vote for a racist Oompa Loompa with the IQ of mustard in November.) But that doesn’t mean that we can avoid it.

That’s why it’s important that Snowden exists. It’s also why I was excited when I heard that Oliver Stone was directing it. Stone’s career has been built on films that create a desperation in its audience to speak truth to power. It’s been frustrating when he puts that passion into the wrong direction. JFK is genius in its construction but is about as insightful into history as Monty Python and the Holy Grail. But Stone wouldn’t have to invent facts for Snowden. The conspiracy already exists. All he has to do is create that feeling of passion and anger in his audiences. He succeeds.

The film starts with the moment we’re all familiar with. Snowden (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) meets with columnist Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto) to disclose the data he has smuggled from his job. We then go back to Snowden’s beginnings and how he became public enemy number one. Along the way, we also witness Snowden’s growing paranoia that is eventually proven correct.

The obvious choice would have been for Stone to focus on the deep conspiracies surrounding Snowden and how he came to fight against him. It’s like what he did with Jim Garrison in JFK. Stone was so eager to discuss the supposed”conspiracy” around Kennedy’s assassination that Garrison’s family and his effect on them was almost irrelevant to the plot. Which scene do you remember more – the scene in which Garrison’s wife yells at him for missing the family’s Easter Sunday lunch, or Garrison’s courtroom plea for truth?

What’s interesting is that Stone takes a more conservative approach at the start of Snowden. He’s mainly focused on the love story between Snowden and Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley). When they meet, they have opposite worldviews. Snowden was a special forces trainee at Fort Meade before an injury forced him to leave the Army. He still sees enemies of the U.S. all around the world and wants to serve his country. Lindsay is a more bohemian woman who signs petitions protesting the war in Iraq and scoffs at Edward’s statements on the “liberal media bias.”

Mills has been a figure that is often overlooked in Snowden’s story. When the story first broke, she was depicted in a sexist manner as an example of “what Snowden gave up.” We were reduced to ogling at Mills without wondering how this was all affecting her. But Snowden gives her a greater voice. There are some arguments that seem cliched (like one in which Mills accuses Snowden of preferring work to her), but it’s far better than the coverage Mills was given by the news media.

The focus on Mills makes for an odd first act and some of the dialogue is clunky, but it did help me see the human side of Snowden. It was easy to forget that this man is a human being. Mills also acts as the sort of passive figure in finding out about the surveillance. She reacts with shock when Snowden places a band-aid over her webcam. (He claims it’s to protect her from Russian hackers.) And when Edward starts talking to her about the data the NSA is capturing, her response is “I have nothing to hide.”

Only in retrospect that we realize Stone is preparing to respond to the passiveness that have greeted Snowden in the past. He’s preparing us to be shocked by just how far the CIA and the NSA were going with their programs to “keep us safe.” One of the most effective scenes in the film has Snowden explain how the NSA casts its net by looking at people’s cell phone contacts. We see the wide net the NSA is casting and see how that technology can be abused. One scene has an agent remotely turning on a webcam – ostensibly to spy on a banker’s family, but more likely so he can watch a Muslim woman remove her burka – and pants. Once the film shifts to the NSA spying techniques, it finds a jolt of energy that doesn’t let up until the credits role.

Snowden’s symbols are not subtle, but when has Oliver Stone ever depended on subtlety to convey his point? What matters is if Stone creates the emotional feeling he’s looking to convey. Snowden accomplishes this in spades. The scenes of Snowden smuggling the data out of the headquarters is nail-bitingly tense. The scenes of him and Lindsey are touching. The moment where Snowden argues with his boss over Skype (in which his boss is projected onto a huge display that makes him look like Big Brother) is good for boiling the blood.

Overall, Snowden is such a great package that accomplishes what it set out to do that I can’t stay mad at its flaws.  It’s a great example of how, to paraphrase Woodrow Wilson, history can be written with lightning. It’s also great at showing another side of Snowden. He’s removed from being a symbol and finally becomes a human being.

There are some who will like Snowden. Some will hate it and wonder why Stone is so obvious with his message. I found Snowden to be the most effective film Oliver Stone has made in more than a decade. It doesn’t beat audiences over the head with its message, but allows them to enter Snowden’s world on their terms and understand why he did what he did. That’s all any movie can hope to accomplish.

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A Review of Suicide Squad

I originally made plans to skip Suicide Squad after seeing the press about it. Additionally, director David Ayer directed one of the few films I’ve ever been morally disgusted enough with to shut off. (End of Watch – specifically, I turned it off at that scene in which a cop fights a suspect on a dare and his partner is egging him on while recording it for some community college class.)

But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that Suicide Squad needs to be discussed regardless of its quality. First, it is the perfect film that illustrates the state of the film industry. Marvel has been successful in creating a “universe” that requires people to buy tickets to twenty films in order to understand what’s happening. Filmmakers are not doing this because of some huge artistic ambition. It’s because of the potential for higher grosses.

I don’t fault studios for coming up with new plans to fit a changing market. That’s what running a business entails. But it also means that big tent pole films are slowly morphing into a product that is turning people off. Batman V Superman crashed and burned earlier this year after people realized that it was not so much a film as a trade show to introduce the new fall superhero design. I have not seen Batman V Superman, but the marketing campaign was a mess. Instead of focusing on two of the most famous pop culture characters, the studio dictated that every single character be introduced at the same time. And, rather than letting the audience discover these characters on our own, the ad campaign gave every new character their own trailer. It was impossible to understand how so many elements would come together.

Suicide Squad works much the same way. Even after having watch the complete cut, I still am challenged to explain who the characters are, how they relate to each other, or what they accomplish in the film. Suicide Squad doesn’t work as a dramatic work. It works to introduce characters that we’ll see later and to generate excitement about future films. It’s an extended trailer. Maybe, somehow, this will pay off in the long run as Warner Bros puts out more DC Comics movies. But it doesn’t pay off in the short term.

The plot is simultaneously simple and incomprehensible. Viola Davis is Amanda Waller, a high-ranking intelligence officer who wants to put together a team made up of “famous” comic book villains to go on deadly missions. This includes Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) a former psychiatrist from Arkham who fell in love with The Joker (Jared Leto), Deadshot (Will Smith) who is trying to balance his life as the world’s greatest assassin with being a dad to his eleven year old daughter, Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) who has a skin disease, Enchantress (Cara Delevingne), an ancient witch who inhabits the body of an archeologist, and someone named Captain Boomerang who I am still not entirely convinced is an actual character from DC Comics. The team is promised time off their prison sentences in exchange for helping Weller on missions. But Enchantress uses her freedom to resurrect her brother to do…something…that will somehow cause the end of the world. The rest of the squad has to stop her before it’s too late. Oh, and The Joker is in it and trying to help Harley break free of the Squad.

I will focus on the two elements that I thought worked for the film. The first is Robbie. Harley Quinn has been a fan favorite for almost 25 years. There was a bizarre quality about her in every adaptation – she somehow brings the closest thing to humanity The Joker has while somehow showing why so many people are attracted to the dark side of Gotham. The Joker is as physically and emotionally abusive towards her as anyone would expect, but Harley seems to think that it’s her who ends up with power through their relationship.

Margot Robbie captures all these aspect of the character in her performance. Besides the “Mistah J” and “Puddin” lines, Robbie’s Quinn is simultaneously strong and tortured. She uses her sex appeal to drive her captors crazy but is unwilling to face what The Joker is doing to her. That character should have carried the film on her own.
I also liked Will Smith’s Deadshot. Smith has been a very talented performer for many years and hasn’t lost his edge. He’s simultaneous funny while also being very human. Smith has a talent for taking weak material and bringing out the most he can from it. That’s the case in Suicide Squad – the hitman with the heart of gold has been outdated for decades. Smith makes it seem fresh and finds the emotional core that audiences need in the film.

But that’s really all the positive I can say about Suicide Squad. The rest is a disjointed mess, filled with too many characters and so many leaps in logic that it became impossible to follow.

For example, as I stated in the plot summary, Enchantress becomes the main villain after being recruited for the team. You would think this means that everyone involved sees the immediate flaws in the plan and squashes the idea of setting a bunch of dangerous criminals loose. But no, it’s full steam ahead the entire time. The film also takes care to reveal that Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman) is the Enchantress’ lover. And then, the film reveals it again as though that was a big dramatic twist in the second act. Characters are pointlessly introduced multiple times. And the big finale fight is an incomprehensible hodge-podge of CGI. I’d rather watch a cartoon if I’m going to end up watching two digital characters fighting.

And Jared Leto’s Joker is terrible. He’s barely in the film, and what few scenes he gets are of Leto trying his best to impersonate Heath Ledger’s performance. There’s no sense of a character being created. You wouldn’t know who the Joker is unless you were already familiar with the character walking into the movie.

That sums up the movie’s flaws in a nutshell. It exists as a checklist so producers can say, “we introduced this character now so we can bring them back later.” I’m sure there are plans for The Joker later, but nothing is realized here. And I’m not going to excuse this by saying that he “may be better utilized” in a later film. This film doesn’t work because everyone involved was too eager to get to the next step.

Suicide Squad is an important film that should be examined for what it reveals about Hollywood’s business side. But such an academic exercise is not going to be fun for the average audience. It’s not going to be fun for those critics either, who are going to walk away very depressed. This should not be the future of Hollywood, where films are made on an assembly line or as a stop-gap. There have been some great films made in the past based on comic book properties. But as they’ve become more popular, they’ve become diluted in their impact. Suicide Squad demonstrates not a need for a competitor to the Marvel Universe but a moratorium on superheroes until we can all agree that a character named “Captain Boomerang” does not need to be seen outside of a children’s TV show.

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A Review of The Killing Joke

Before I begin my review proper, I would like to thank the people at movietickets.com for double booking my reserved seat. As more theaters change their layouts and require you to book your specific seat before showtime, it’s good to know that the ticket I paid for does not necessarily guarantee I’ll have the seat I chose. This is especially a good idea when the theater is nearly sold out. I’m also pleased that you took no effort to correct your mistake and tried to say it was the theater’s responsibility, even though I didn’t purchase the tickets from them. You obviously run a company with no logistics experience and no idea how to keep you information up to date. So huzzah for you, movietickets.com! Three cheers for a job poorly done and I will enthusiastically recommend no one ever uses your service.

Now then, onto The Killing Joke.

Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke is one of the most famous Batman graphic novels of all time. This is because it’s the only story that cares to actually explain what The Joker is. Not “who” he is, mind you. Even though the story has been accepted as The Joker’s officially origin, it’s not been relevant to the main point. The Joker is the man Batman could easily be with just a few tweaks. This was the attempt of The Joker to prove to himself that he’s not crazy. Anyone could turn into him. He regrets his actions, but in the final pages, The Joker realizes that he has no choice but to abandon reality and treat life like a giant joke.

But to turn it into a movie, The Killing Joke would need a lot of changing. For one, it’s a shockingly short comic. For another, much like Moore’s Watchmen, the story only fits the medium it was designed for. It contains a large amount of in-jokes, especially as we transition from the past to the present in a single panel. It’s obvious in the comic that The Joker’s origin story is the product of his insane mind. He’s creating a story that reflects what he’s afraid – namely, being seen as a hack criminal who isn’t funny and is scared of Batman. Films have never been allowed to be ambiguous.

The film adaptation should be praised for moving away from that template. The Killing Joke never feels bounded to the original work and expands on the world. It even addresses one of the biggest criticisms of the original work – the treatment of Barbara Gordon. She is not only a victim of the Joker, but someone very capable of doing whatever she wants to.

But it also feels disjointed and never feels satisfied with the changes it makes.

The film opens with a long prologue that highlights Barbara Gordon as Batgirl. She’s frustrated by a mobster named Paris Franz (yes, really. She even asks if it’s a joke) who taunts her and the fact that Batman will not let her take the lead in capturing Paris.

The prologue is a clever deconstruction of how comics usually treat female superheroes. Paris treats Batgirl as nothing but a sex object and, as Batgirl threatens to beat him up, states that “it must be that time of the month” in true Trumpian fashion. She also has to reconcile her own feelings for Batman, whom she tries to convince as an equal but is sexually attracted to him because he is everything she isn’t. Some fans will treat the sex scene as controversial, but it doesn’t bother me. The comics have always viewed dressing up as Batman and defeating garish villains as Bruce Wayne’s only sexual outlet. He cannot have a normal relationship with anyone who is not like him. Barbara realizes this and, in an effort to defeat him at his own game, gives Batman what he’s always wanted. And she’s never treated as a damsel in distress. She’s always the one in control.

This is good material about a character that often gets overlooked. But how did the filmmakers seamlessly transition this prologue into the main feature? How did they tie in her role as Batgirl into her gruesome fate at the hands of the Joker and her transformation into Oracle?

They didn’t.

After the prologue, we immediately transition to The Killing Joke’s story and the film forgets what happened in the first 20 minutes. Batman has the same reaction to Barbara that he did in the comic when he went to visit her. It no longer makes sense given their updated back story. We do get an extra epilogue that helps complete Barbara’s story and her transition to The Oracle, which is helpful, but she’s virtually ignored during the main story.

Again, this main feature is exactly what happens in the original comic. Barbara Gordon appears in maybe two scenes and never puts on the cape. Yet the film version had decided it wanted to explore different aspects of the story and the characters. The Killing Joke adaptation should have either been brave enough to keep down this path or not bothered at all if it was going to pretend like the prologue didn’t happen.

However, the treatment of The Joker is as good as you would expect from an adaptation of The Killing Joke. Mark Hamill, as the featurette that played before the main attraction stated, has defined the Joker for almost 25 years. This is the one story he said he wanted to do. It gives him a chance to explore the character and his fears. When The Joker realizes he hasn’t made Commissioner Gordon insane, his reaction is new for Hamill. There is no look of sadness like there is in the comic. Just frustration from the Joker. He can barely scream, “Why aren’t you laughing?!” Also, Hamill adopts a different voice for the flashback scenes. The Joker is still there, but buried deep beneath an unfunny man trying to deliver the punchline. It helps emphasize Batman’s case that The Joker is unique in his madness and that the seeds were planted long ago.

So, we still get the same dynamic between Batman and The Joker that has attracted audiences for more than 75 years. When the film is adapting The Killing Joke, it’s great. And I admire the filmmaker’s bravery in exploring Batgirl. Yet I still feel underwhelmed by the finished product. While the original comic felt revolutionary, the film adaptation feels worn out. After numerous movies and a celebrated cartoon, The Killing Joke film doesn’t feel like it’s breaking new ground. You should see it if you’re a Batman fan, but don’t expect to be blown away.

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A Review of Independence Day: Resurgence

Imagine, if you will, being a nerdy guy in high school. It’s prom season. You see the prom queen being crowned and dream what it would be like to one day be with a person like that.

Then, twenty years later out of the blue, she calls you and wants to meet and finally talk to you. You’ve changed greatly, but that phone call takes you back in time. You imagine the thrills you’ll feel as you finally meet her and get to relate to her more on her level.

But then you meet and realize that the years have not been kind. She doesn’t look the same as she did twenty years ago. Neither do you, but the blow feels more crushing after the beautiful idea you had built in your head. What’s worse is that her mind hasn’t expanded at all. She’s still stuck with the obsessions as she was in the past that just seem trivial and silly now. She can’t even explain why anyone should care about what she thinks.

You leave the meeting disappointed, almost crush. This was the most beautiful woman you could think of, an important part of your adolescence. But revisiting her just leaves you feeling cold, like somehow you have failed at your life.

That story sums up my feelings as I watched Independence Day: Resurgence.

The original Independence Day was my favorite film when I was eight. Watching these characters try to save the world was thrilling. I, like many children, didn’t care about the plot holes you could fit one of those city-sized UFOs through or the cheesy dialogue. It would always take me on a thrilling ride.

I watched again recently and was surprised that it held up fairly well. No, I’m no longer going to list it among my favorite films. The dialogue (particularly Bill Pullman’s big speech) is hammy nonsense and the third act is preposterous.

But at the same time the film accomplished what it set out to do. It works for two reasons. First, the actors are completely believable. They aren’t going to win any Oscars for their performances, but Pullman, Will Smith, and Jeff Goldblum all have convincing performances with what they were given. Pullman turned that aforementioned hammy speech into an inspiring statement. Smith found a chance to have fun with his role. And everyone actually acted like the world was about to end.

That was the other element that still makes Independence Day work. I emotionally believed the world was under a threat from an alien force and there was a chance humanity could lose. The people on the planet acted to the spaceships with awe and watching giant cities laid to waste (with good old practical effects!) drew me in.

So now that we’ve established what worked in the first Independence Day, let’s see what the sequel does to ruin it.

The film takes place twenty years after the events of the first one. Humanity has used the technology they recovered from the downed alien spacecraft to boost Earth’s technology. They’ve built a base on the moon to help defend Earth in case the aliens come back. The cities have been rebuilt with this new technology.

Right away, I felt disconnected from the film. It makes sense that the sequel acknowledges that a world in which aliens tried to destroy the planet would be remarkably different from ours. But Independence Day worked because it seemed to much like our own world. It made the emotional stakes high as we watched the Empire State Building blow up and people run for their lives through familiar streets.

Now, the world is entirely unrecognizable. As I watched a UFO threaten the moon base, I realized I was watching a cartoon. This emotional disconnect between the two films was something I never recovered from.

But just because Resurgence doesn’t have the same emotional impact as the first film doesn’t mean that it can’t create a new one on its own. But the film fails at that completely. None of the returning characters are treated very well by the script. President Whitmore (Pullman again) becomes a psychotic husk who is barely able to talk. Dr. Okun (Brent Spiner), who was clearly killed by the events of the first film, somehow gets his death retconned as a coma and awakens unhinged. He has a gay partner now, but the relationship is so unexplored that it may as well not even exist. The Levinsons (Goldblum and Judd Hirsch) are barely even together in the film, and neither of them have much to do.

Resurgence wants to focus on the “next generation” instead. Steve Hiller’s stepson Dylan (Jessie T Usher) is all grown up, as is the President’s daughter Patricia (Maika Monroe). Both want to be pilots and are training with All-American Jake Morrison (Liam Hemsworth). Absolutely none of them have any charm or likability. It’s the standard “I hope I can live up to my father” story arc that’s been done to death, combined with Jake’s “I’m the cocky rouge with a heart of gold” character arc. Charlotte Gainsbourg also shows up to be the “new love interest.” Nothing that happens to these characters is engaging. There are scenes that reminded me of Starship Troopers as Jake calls home. But at least Troopers treated these clichés with a knowing wink. Resurgence treats them as new and thinks I would be engaged by these worn out tropes. I’m not.

Even the aliens are screwed in the film. There was some mystery about them in the first one. We were told exactly what we needed to know about how they were “like locusts.” Now? They’re a hive mind with a “queen” that humanity is trying to kill. They’re also trying to drain the Earth’s core to “kill” the planet and…get the iron from the core? I think? Or destroy the atmosphere out of spite? It also means that we get no real scenes of mass destruction or humanity in chaos. The ship lands over the Atlantic Ocean and (accidentally?) destroys a city with its gravitational pull. Doesn’t this already mean that the Earth is pretty much doomed anyway? Why would some arbitrary timeline about the aliens drilling through to the core help? And why do I need to see yet another giant queen in some pitiful attempt to raise the stakes for the film?

This film is a disaster. Practically nothing about it works. It takes everything that worked about the original and turns it into an outlandish cartoon. I wouldn’t have even minded that if the film tried to engage me on its own terms. But no. I never once felt like the planet was in any danger or that the characters were under any threat. Resurgence ends by teasing a sequel in which humans will “take the fight” to the aliens’ home planet. After what we had just witnessed, this sounded less like a teaser and more like some sort of punishment for bad behavior.

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A Review of X-Men: Apocalypse

I’ve said that I like the X-Men franchise in my previous reviews. They haven’t all been good – some have been really bad – but when the films work they’re really exciting. There are so many interesting characters in the source material that it should be an attractive prospect for any actor and writer. They can find at least one character that matches their sensibilities and provides them an outlet for their worldview.

It’s why I’m sad to say that X-Men: Apocalypse manages to highlight the absolute worst of comic book writing. And it fails because it’s obvious that no one in the cast was excited about the material and didn’t try to do anything fun. Most were phoning it in so badly that they were practically using a rotary.

What happened? After rebooting the series in The Days of Future Past, I was eager to see where the franchise would go. I was worried a reboot would mean character development might get tossed out the window, but the film franchise had always aimed higher than the comics and didn’t ignore character development. That wasn’t the case with Apocalypse.

It starts out so well. Apocalypse (Oscar Isaacs – yes, really) may be the first mutant in existence. He has the power to transfer his consciousness into other mutants – and gain their abilities in the process. He has four main followers and will frequently wreak havoc on the world when he feels it needs to be renewed.  This power allows him to live as a god in ancient civilizations – until he’s sealed in a pyramid in Egypt.

These are exciting scenes that set up some good ideas. “OK,” I thought. “It’s an examination of religious extremism and cults. That’s really strong and could lead to some great moments.” The existence of Apocalypse in this universe proves several religions wrong and provides the filmmakers to dig deep into ancient mythology for inspiration.

But that sort of examination never happens. Instead we get the same thing we always get. Magneto (Michael Fassbender) is trying desperately to live a good life in secret but is tempted back into evil. Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) is running his school with Beast (Nicholas Hoult). Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) is doing what she can to blend in. Jean Grey (Sansa Stark -yes, I know her name is Sophie Turner, but until Game of Thrones is cancelled she’s Sansa Stark), a student of Xavier, meets a new student at the school named Cyclops (Tye Sheridan) who seems to have something wrong with his eyes. It’s pretty standard and their fate in either fighting of joining Apocalypse is not surprising.

The fact that Apocalypse is not as deep as its predecessors does not necessarily make it a failure. Deadpool and Guardians of the Galaxy were not “deep” either, but still met their ambitions and were a lot of fun. Apocalypse is not fun. It takes about an hour or so for the plot to take off. Before then, we’re being introduced to characters we’ve seen before and who are acting completely differently than the films would indicate. I know that the cast is younger and meant to play the characters still trying to understand their powers, but I can’t see the confident Jean Grey in Sophie Turner’s interpretation. It is interesting for about an hour seeing the X-Men in their younger days, but after an hour I wanted them to move on. The filmmakers had forgotten that these characters have already been explored and im not going to clap at seeing Nightcrawler and Angel when I already saw them in an X-Men film years ago. And that Quicksilver scene, in which he has to rescue practically everyone from an explosion, is pretty much what we saw in the previous film. It’s well done, but it doesn’t feel fresh.

Then they try to change the focus to their fight with Apocalypse, who goes to Egypt to destroy the world…for the sake of it, really. There’s a lot of CGI destruction effects, but I never felt like the world was in danger or wondered why I should care if Apocalypse succeeds. The fact that Isaacs doesn’t have fun makes the conflict even less worthwhile.

But of the main cast, Jennifer Lawrence gives the worst performance. She comes off as completely bored with her character. She’s rarely shown with the makeup, even though Mystique is supposed to be about embracing her true nature. We only see her imitate someone once and every line reading demonstrates no internal conflict that was what made her great in Days of Future Past. Her performance exemplifies everything wrong with Apocalypse. Everyone’s bored with the material and ignores what made their characters work.

I was wondering when audiences would grow tired of comic book movies. X-Men: Apocalypse shows a bigger danger – that the artists behind them are growing sick of the genre. Apocalypse does nothing new  and none of the actors even try to explore their characters. It leads up to something that’s not an outright disaster but is completely bland. Apocalypse keeps the franchise at a standstill and acts as though things the franchise did 13 years ago are somehow new. The series is on autopilot and needs a very quick change if it hopes to stay relevant or even watchable.

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A Review of The Lobster

I left The Lobster in deep thought, trying to figure out what I had just seen. Was this meant to be a parody response to all the young adult dystopian novels that have become all the rage? Is it an admission that rebelling is pointless? Is it really a love story? And above all, is it good or bad?

The Lobster was advertised as a straight forward romantic comedy that just happens to take place in a dystopian future where singles are doomed to be morphed into animals. That does not nearly begin to accurately describe it. Director Yorgas Lanthimos was not interested in creating a romantic comedy.

What interested him was destroying the trope that “love conquers all.” Think about how much emphasis was put on Peeta and Katniss’s relationship in The Hunger Games to the point that it overwhelmed the plot. Think about how Winston and Julia in 1984 viewed their sexual activity as the ultimate rebellion against Ingsoc. The doomed lovers in The Lobster don’t view their actions in the same way, which makes for a more interesting think piece.

Yes, the film does begin with the idea the ad campaign emphasized. David (Colin Farrell) the only character in The Lobster to be given a name, checks into a hotel where he is required to find a life partner in 45 days. If he fails, he is turned into the animal of his choice. (The film implies that all animals on the planet are singles who were unlucky in love – I’ll get to that in a moment.) He meets some of the other hotel denizens, including the Lisping Man (John C Reilly), the Limping Man (Ben Whitshaw), and the Heartless Woman (Angeliki Papoulia), who David tries to form a relation with to spare being turned into a lobster. But, after that sours, David goes to live with the Loners, a group of people that live in the woods and forbid sexual and romantic relations with anyone. While with The Loners, David meets the Short-Sighted Woman (Rachel Weisz) and finally finds his match. They must keep their relationship a secret from the Loner Leader (Lea Soydeux).

I might be wrong about some of these details because the film doesn’t explain a whole lot about the world at large. But that’s actually one of its strengths. The Lobster resolves one of the biggest problems with dystopian works; if society has worked this way for some time, why would anyone living in this future need the exactly rules explained to them? The people in The Lobster don’t bother to explain the laws of the society or even where or when the film takes place – or why relationships are mandatory.

I know there are some audiences that are going to be frustrated with the lack of explanations about how this society was formed. I found it to raise a lot of profound questions about the world. For example, the Short-Sighted Woman states that rabbit is her favorite food. But if the animals are just transformed people, then isn’t this the equivalent of cannibalism? When humans are transformed into animals, do they retain their memories? Do they remain self aware?

The film never says, but it’s not important to the narrative that is being created. These questions are meant for the audience so that we feel the horror the characters do not feel. They are so used to what is happening that they lack the capacity to question it. Even the Loner “rebels” aren’t really fighting against the system. They’re creating an inverse of The Hotel for the point of rebelling, kind of like that 20 year old who refuses to get a job and spends his days on Snapchat complaining about how people never really speak to each other. And the way they treat their members is no better than the methods The Hotel uses to bring people together, making it impossible for one side to appear correct.

David is a very reluctant protagonist. Think about The Hunger Games and how the entire society was built to be rebelled against by the downtrodden. No character in The Lobster rebels against “the system” out of some deep political ideal. It’s due to their personal circumstances. David was perfectly willing to participate in the system and only rebels after his attempts to lie his way into a relationship goes wrong.

The fact that its approach to dystopia is so unconventional makes the film frustrating at times. There’s no major antagonist and the unanswered questions distracted me. And the ending is the exact opposite of most work, in which rebellion may be pointless and conformity may be the ultimate key to happiness, no matter how painful it is to conform. But then, the more I thought about it, the more I realized The Lobster was ahead of me. It insists on teasing audience with this world and hoping they’ll think about what it all means and how, in an age of Tinder, we’re treating relationships like a commodity. And there’s no real major antagonists because David, as we’ve established, is never fighting for change. Maybe that ending is just David realizing that doing something for another person is rebellion enough. I keep saying “maybe,” because I still haven’t made up my mind. I’ll probably need to see The Lobster again, which is something I rarely say these days.

The Lobster requires a lot of patience going into it, but it’s an incredibly rewarding experience. Perhaps the best thing is that there are no real answers to the questions I posed in the first paragraph. The best experience you can have with the film has a far greater impact than reading about the film. It’s subtle, hilarious, and insightful. It’s the most effective dystopian movie since Never Let Me Go.

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A Review of The Nice Guys

Films like The Nice Guys are nearly impossible to review. They do the jobs of critics, pointing out every single flaw and encouraging the audience to pay close attention. This means that The Nice Guys could, in the wrong hands, but a pretentious slog that misses the target. The usual approach to this sort of spoof is, “look, I’m not a bad artist! I’m fully aware my film isn’t working, but I’m the one pointing it out. That makes me smart and introspective, right?”

No, it just means you were lazy. Luckily, Shane Black is not someone who falls for that trap. As the guy that directed Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang and wrote Lethal Weapon, Black knows that the best way to critique a genre is to surpass it.

The nice Guys works as a noir first and a spoof second. The Nice Guys is exciting and funny all at once. It simultaneously deconstructs its genre and celebrates it. Shane Black doesn’t get nearly enough credit for creating smart films that celebrate the genres he loves. Hopefully The Nice Guys will draw more people to Black’s work.

Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling seem like bizarre choices to take on these roles, but that’s part of the point. Crowe is a veteran of the noir genre, but his character in The Nice Guys is completely removed from characters like Bud White. Crowe’s Jackson Healy is an out of shape muscle for hire who pretends like he’s a good man. He’s not above murdering people and lying about it, but he still doesn’t seem to paricularly like his existence. Imagine if Bud White had tried to wrestle against his brutal nature for 30 years and then realized that there’s no point in fighting it anymore. If he’s going to be muscle for hire, he may as well have fun with it for as long as he can.

Gosling’s Holland March, in contrast, is a good private eye who acts like a bad one to throw his enemies off. He is a neglectful father who doesn’t seem to realize how inept he is at everything.  He’s also the character that destroys the touch as nails gumshoe archetype. All of his accidents are not caused by any outside forces. He simply tries too hard to be good and comes right back around to inept.

March also gets the best scenes in the film. While Mike Hammer would punch through a window to break into a building, March’s attempts to do so result in March passing out from all the blood after he cuts his wrist on the glass. He also proclaims himself to be literally invincible as he falls from great heights without a scratch. 

But I think the best character was March’s daughter Holly. She’s a thirteen year old who demonstrates that she is more capable of navigating a coke-fueled hedonist party more than her drunken father. She is someone who is profoundly disappointed in her dad and wants to be his better. Why did this surprise me? Mostly because I did not know the character existed going into the film, but also because the newcomer Angourie Rice manages to find the right balance between stuck up teenager and broken person. Check out the scene of her reading on vacant lot where her family home once stood – and how she’s trying so hard not to collapse as she explains to Healy what happened to her house. 

Tonally, the film closely resembles Inherent Vice. The mystery itself takes a back seat to exploring the characters and the Los Angeles of the late 1970s. Every citizen exists in a permanent state of parody as they wear leisure suits, attend bizarre parties, and take copious amounts of illicit substances. There’s very little explanation about the madness we’re seeing – it’s normal for everyone in town. Yes, the tongue is firmly in the cheek as March and Healy interrupt a students protest against pollution. (“We can talk to you – we’re dead,” a gas mask wearing student informs the two when they try to ask the crowd questions) but the film does exude a love for the time frame even as it acknowledges how bad the late 1970s were for a lot of people. It simultaneously allows Black to use noir tropes that wouldn’t make sense today (how many mysteries of the past could be resolved with a simple phone call now?) while still making them exciting. 

The third act of the film, in which we try to figure out “the big mystery,” is quite convoluted. It has something to do with finding a pornographic film that contains a critique against the Detroit automakers for causing massive pollution – how showing a pornographic film in the middle of a car convention would bring down the auto industry, I have no idea. Yet it “feels” appropriate for film’s tone, where a scum industry can somehow proclaim superiority to an important piece of Americana. And it’s not about the solution. It’s about the chase.

I liked what Shane Black did with The Nice Guys. It’s so enjoyable that I can’t get upset about its (relatively minor) flaws. The film’s ending hints at a sequel, and this was the first time in a very long time and I was genuinely excited about the prospect. The Nice Guys finds the line between clever and pretentious and never threatens to cross it.  It hits the right beats for film snobs and for the summer audiences. 

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A Review of Green Room

Most of the hype around Green Room was centered on the stunt casting of the respected Patrick Stewart as a Neo-Nazi meth producer. It’s the sort of hype that gets people in the door, but is a false flag about what the film is really about.

This is probably the best chamber thriller since Straw Dogs. Like Sam Peckinpah’s controversial masterpiece, Green Room is about people who want to ignore the modern world but realize that they’re rebelling against is what’s keeping them from the darkest sides of humanity. And director Jeremy Saulnier has Peckinpah’s eye for violence. Green Room is uncompromising in its handling of the material, but any attempts to tell the story another way would have ruined the themes.

The set up, like all great thrillers, could be written on a cocktail napkin. Punk band The Ain’t Rights are surviving their “tour” by playing at tiny restaurants and siphoning gas so they can drive to their next gig. They’re booked to play at a club in a backwoods area, where they witness a murder in the green room. What follows are attempts for the club owner Darcy Banker (Stewart) to silence them while they fight for survival against Banker’s group of white supremacists.

It’s difficult to explain why the film works as well as it does. In the hands of another director, Green Room could have been very easily told and probably still hit a bunch of emotional beats. But Green Room feels like a documentary, which makes the horror more difficult to endure.

I mention the fact that the villains of this piece are Neo-Nazis, but it’s almost irrelevant to the plot. The fact is barely mentioned outside of a brief statement by Banker, some graffiti on the walls, and the fact that The Ain’t Rights are almost booed off the stage after playing a cover of “Nazi Punks Fuck Off.” It would have been very easy to turn this into an indictment of right-wing extremism, especially in our current climate.

But Saulnier wants Green Room to be remembered for a long time. Tying it to anything in the present would destroy the film. And the thrills are timeless. Part of the point is that all the characters, including the people trying to kill The Ain’t Rights, are in over their heads. The villains are not sadistic. To them, it’s all an unfortunate side effect of business. As for the The Ain’t Rights, they try their best to survive while “selling out” their punk ethos.

Green Room does not feature any A-list stars, which would have distracted from the visceral reality that the film presents. Pausing to watch, say, Channing Tatum in a punk band would have been far too recognizable. I never believed that I was watching anything other than what the film presented.

I’ve mentioned Straw Dogs in this critique already, but I do think that’s the only film Green Room could be compared to. The film is hideously violent, with scenes of dog attacks, graphic knife wounds, and one memorable moment in which a man is cut open with a box cutter. Straw Dogs was about a man who wanted to escape from the college protests and turmoil in America, only to find himself caught in the middle of it. It’s the same situation The Ain’t Rights find themselves in. They’re petty thieves who find themselves begging for the police when the witness a crime and then find themselves fighting against the sort of counterculture they wanted to be a part of.

The main plot is quite complex. The murder is not a random killing, but part of some sort of rebellion in the Neo-Nazi clan. I cannot describe it accurately or claim it is easy to follow the plot. Normally this would kill a film, but the plot doesn’t really matter in Green Room. It feels more like a real hostage situation. You hear things whispered, but that’s far from the biggest thing you’re focused on. Green Room provides such a fantastic emotional experience that I didn’t realize its narrative difficulties.

While most releases are becoming more conservative to attract the widest audience possible, Green Room holds nothing back. It is the sort of meditation on violence and survival that Sam Peckinpah would approve. Even if some people are turned off by the content, it’s refreshing to see a director refuse to make compromises. Green Room does exactly what Saulnier wants it to do.

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A Review of Everybody Wants Some!!

A friend of mine saw Richard Linklater’s nostalgia infused Everybody Wants Some!! He described it as “just two hours of dudes hanging out.”

This is probably one of the best micro reviews of a film I’ve seen. It perfectly summarizes Everybody Wants Some!!, it tells you what you need to know about the film, and it’s a good indicator of whether or not you like it.

And, like all of Linklater’s films, it’s a very simple statement that has great implications. Linklater’s best work, like Slacker, Dazed and Confused, SubUrbia, and even Boyhood can all be summarized easily and in a way that does not sound engaging. But Linklater’s strength is that he is able to use that simple idea to capture something about life.

And Linklater understands what nostalgia means. It’s about remembering the excitement of something that used to seem new and fresh. It’s not about remembering what was popular. It’s about recalling how those items played into your life.

Everybody Wants Some!!, billed as a spiritual sequel to Dazed and Confused,  showcases each of Linklater’s strengths. The story of a freshman pitcher going to college and meeting his teammates for the first time can be told any number of ways. And yet all we see Jake (Blake Jenner) use the time to go to parties, smoke pot, try to pick up girls, and get into bizarre competitions with his new teammates.

But it’s so addicting to watch. I left the theater with a complete sense of who these people were and what was driving. I didn’t like all of them, but I felt like I understood what was causing them so much pressure and hoped that their lives would improve. Everybody Wants Some!! really did fell like coming across an old photograph of a group of friends.

The film is billed a sort of sequel to Dazed and Confused for several reasons. First, because it’s taking place at around the same time (1980 as opposed to 1976) and because it takes place at the start of next stage in life (the start of college as opposed to the last year of high school). But it also captures those same feelings of nostalgia that Dazed and Confused did. The point isn’t to remind the audience of something that existed. It’s to remind people of something they’ve all been through.

I’ll give you an example. One scene has Jake observing the stacks of videotapes with Willouhby’s (Wyatt Russell) recorded Twilight Zone episodes. They have a discussion about “Eye of the Beholder” before smoking marijuana with the rest of the team and listen to a record while having a conversation that leads to the line “I’m too philosophical for this shit!”

While other nostalgia pieces would focus on the existence of video tapes and the need to record in the days before Netflix, Linklater focuses on the conversation. The Twilight Zone was a unifier for two people who did not know each other. The conversation they had is what’s important. I know I have had conversations over popular cartoons from the ’90s that proved a bonding experience. Linklater realizes this in each of his works, letting the culture fade into the background and the people take the lead.

More than that, Everybody Wants Some!! paints a great picture of the characters as they go to parties where they drink, dress like characters from Alice in Wonderland to play the Dating Game, get kicked out of discos over limes placed in screwdrivers, and mock each other for perceived sleights while trying to build a camaraderie with each other. It’s impossible to describe everything that happens, because it doesn’t seem to flow in any logical way. But neither did Boyhood. It’s better at capturing the randomness of life.

There is one strange element in Everybody – or rather, one element that I felt was missing. Dazed and Confused was an ensemble cast that truly took advantage of all the characters. This film really only focuses on Jake, while teasing us with an ensemble. Beverly (Zoey Deutch, who looks exactly like her mother), the drama student Jake tries to woo, is the most well-defined female character in the film. But her existence and meaning still seems to be defined by Jake’s infatuation with her.  The female characters are really placed at a disadvantage in this film.

I understand that this film is meant to be about the male college experience, which would of course feature lustful conversations. But Dazed and Confused was equally fascinated with the entire experience, while Everybody seems limited. The female characters in Dazed were not necessarily deep or were even good role models, but they were honest. I missed that perspective in Everybody!!

But I cannot complain about something the film doesn’t do but should look instead at what it does do. And as an examination of the first days of college, Everybody Wants Some!! still feels emotionally real.

Richard Linklater knows what nostalgia means to people. It’s not about a specific song or a favorite game. It’s about the people you knew at that moment that have changed. This is something things like Buzzfeed don’t get. Everybody Wants Some!! is not a film about 1980 or college. It’s about remembering the people you hung out with and knowing that moment cannot be recaptured. Watching this film really is like going back to your first day of college.

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A Review of Richard Donner’s Superman

I was excited to see Batman v Superman: Useless Subtitle until I saw the trailers. I realized there was something seriously going wrong as I saw how many characters the film was going to have. It was obvious the creators were throwing everything possible at the wall to see what sticks. I complained that The Dark Knight Rises was piling on moments from the comics without really thinking about its central theme, but that looked downright restrained and well-planned compared to a film that features characters from pretty much every major DC property in the hopes of trying to “build a universe.” What’s the point of going to see something if I know it won’t make a lick of sense until the other films come out? I already had that experience trying to slog through ABC’s Agents of SHIELD and I am not going through it again.

But the worst part for me came when I saw how Jesse Eisenberg transformed Lex Luthor into a drag queen. Now, Eisenberg has proven himself to be a talented actor and I was actually pleased about the casting when it was first announced. But everything about his mannerisms was off in the clips I saw. I can only blame the filmmaker’s desire to camp up the character because that worked for The Joker.

That’s not the purpose of Luthor. Luthor is a man who could rule the world if Superman didn’t stop him. He’s a megalomaniac who feels that Superman is destroying his birthright. But it never drives him crazy. In fact, there are times when Luthor’s discussions about how Superman is holding back humanity by making them dependent on a god makes perfect sense. Those create the best moments in the comics, as they become less about punching and more about a battle of the minds. Go check out Red Son and see how the relationship between Luthor and Superman should be. They’re two sides of the same coin, with both convinced they are acting in humanity’s best interests.

I realized there was no place for that relationship in Batman vs Superman as I saw Eisenberg giggling about Clark Kent’s “good grip” in the trailer. It was a terrible joke coming from a character who would never speak to anyone like that.

I could be wrong about the final product. I haven’t seen it. But the advertising demonstrated a disrespect for the audience and the characters and didn’t encourage me to check it out. It was about shoehorning as much as possible in to set up other works and sell toys to kids. It had the hallmark of a bad 90s blockbuster and, after ready the pounding the film has received at the hands of critics, I think I can safely say my gut feeling was right.

So, instead of paying full price for a film that is likely to make me upset, I wanted to try something different. I wondered if it would be possible to ever capture Superman on film. It seemed like a Herculean order, especially as the character has no conflict and isn’t even really human. When you’re capable of doing pretty much anything, it’s hard to get anyone to relate to you.

But everyone seems to love the Richard Donner’s original Superman. 

So I rewatched it, trying to figure it out. I didn’t like it the first time I saw it. I didn’t think it had aged well, except for the flying effects.

But as I was watching Superman again, I realized I was wrong. There is a lot to admire about this film. First, at a time when comic books were still being treated (and written) as dopey pop art for children, Superman takes its source material seriously. Everyone knows Superman’s origins. and probably already knows the logical inconsistencies with Kal-El’s journey to Earth. For example, why doesn’t father Jor-El (Marlon Brando here, consistently mispronouncing the word “Krypton”) build a shuttle large enough to accommodate all three members of his family? How does he know about Earth science and Earth culture enough to program talks that will play in Kal’s capsule, especially when he reveals that he’s been dead for “thousands of years” later in the film? Why does he even care, as Krypton is a much more advanced planet? This would be the same as a human asking a goldfish about the secrets of the universe.

The film never bothers to address these questions, but the film still treats the journey as an important event. It’s shot on an epic scale, and I pity the fact I have not seen those scenes of Kal-El flying through space on the big screen. It looks stunning and is treated with a respect I wasn’t prepared for.

Christopher Reeve also makes an incredible Superman and Clark Kent. As Superman, he does all the prerequisite things, joking with crooks he knows he is more powerful than (like the cat burglar climbing up the side of the building) and doing his best to shrug off the great challenges he faces. It may seem extraordinary to humans, but what else can he do but shrug off the compliments he receives?

But as Clark Kent, I finally believed people would never see him as Superman. Reeves plays Kent as a hunched over, stuttering fool who doesn’t even talk in the same voice. Kent is a hopeless nerd, who thinks talking like an extra in a 1950s sitcom will make him pass as human. I didn’t even believe Kent was Suoerman until after he took off the glasses. It’s one of the oldest jokes to point out that everyone in Metropolis must be pathetically stupid to buy Kent’s disguise. The film is respectful enough to make it believable.

Even the supporting cast does well. Margot Kidder is perfect as the head strong Lois Lane, eager to act tough in a world surrounded by her male colleagues. She treats Clark like a pet but Superman like a God. Even that odd romantic poem, which Lois thinks about during her flight with Superman, somehow works in context and doesn’t destroy Lois’ character. Glenn Ford is a perfectly grounded Pa Kent, who teaches a teenaged Clark that it’s not important to always be the center of attention. Even Brando as Jor-El is…well, Brando’s been a lot worse. He treats Jor-El as the great sage he needs to be and his coming off as alien and distant makes sense for once.

So far, so good. I was pleased with the casting, the aesthetic, the effects – this sounds like a great Superman adaptation, doesn’t it?

But then we see a character that nearly destroys the movie – Lex Luthor. Gene Hackman plays Luthor as a man who is evil for the sake of being evil. His master plan is to destroy the West Coast so that land he owns greatly increases in value. How he would avoid prison after stealing a nuclear weapon and blowing up the San Andreas fault by way of make believe science is not something he stops to think about. He openly declares himself to be the greatest criminal mastermind of all time and is basically fighting Superman…because Superman’s there.

This is the complete opposite of who Luthor needs to be. Luthor is not fighting Superman for the sake of fighting him or for some get rich scheme. He’s fighting Superman because Luthor feels that Superman is preventing mankind from reaching its full potential. Even worse, Superman is preventing Luthor from becoming the Ubermensch. He cannot stand living in Superman’s shadow and has convinced himself that destroying Superman is more than about his ego. None of that is present in the film. This Luthor is two steps below a Roger Moore era Bond villain.

Alright. This film was made at a time when comics were still written with the broadest strokes possible. The heroes were always good, the bad guys were in love with their own evil schemes, and there was no attempt to make the conflicts even remotely believable. It could just be that the film is dated, which doesn’t make it bad.

But then the second thing comes that ruins the film – the cop out ending in which Superman resurrects Lois from the dead. (Screw spoiler warnings – the movie is almost 40 years old.) It not only contradicts what makes Superman stories compelling but destroys the message of the film.

In the best Superman stories, one of two things happen. Either Superman realizes that, no matter how powerful he is, he’s not a god. Inevitably, he’s not going to be able to save someone crying for his help. Worse, the people around him are going to die and there will be nothing he can do to stop it. Heck, Superman himself is probably going to die someday, and what will humanity do then?

Or, Superman is going to realize that the symbol he’s created is not something he can maintain. Either he’s going to have to do something that breaks his moral code or he’s going to have to let people who don’t have the same rules as him do unspeakable things.

That ending, in which Superman flies so fast he reverses the Earth’s rotation and turns back time, destroys any hope of the film series addressing either of those issues. Who cares if someone close to him dies? Superman can turn back the clock and fix it. And Superman now has no limits. He can do anything and save everyone calling for him. It not only removed that tension, but it contradicts Jor-El’s message to his son. Obviously Superman is interfering with human history. What’s meant to be a triumphant moment is the death knell of the film’s themes.

So, the filmmakers spent the entire time making me happy that they respect this important figure of Americana, only to reveal in the last ten minutes that it was all a con. I could not wrap my hand around the filmmakers making such a wrong choice to end their film.

But even with these flaws, Superman was a huge box office success. Inevitably, sequels followed. Superman II was ruined by executive meddling, but saved in 2006 when we finally got to see Richard Donner’s directors cut. It’s one of the few sequels that bests the original by introducing some of the conflict that was lacking from this outing. But that franchise eventually crashed and burned with Quest for Peace. Then Superman stagnated in development hell, during which time two of the most infamous unproduced Hollywood blockbusters ever were considered for production before saner heads prevailed.

Superman Returns was basically shrugged off the screen and Marvel started making money to the point where their box office grosses are more accurately compared to GDPs than audience attendance. This unquestionably lead to the current approach, which I suspect will implode again. Maybe it means Superman, a character that has inspired generations of readers, cannot be put to celluloid. Or maybe it means no one has taken a step back and tried to figure out what about the character is special.

One thing I haven’t done is seen the original Man of Steel, which Batman vs Superman is essentially a sequel to. As the first attempt to separate the cinematic Superman from Donner film, that would be an interesting item to evaluate. More interesting, I’m sure, than seeing a CGI Doomsday.

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