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Batman v Superman: Diminishing Returns

Thursday, March 24th, 2016

After two years of post-production, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice finally his theaters today.

As I wrote back in June 26, 2015 of Zack Snyder’s latest film,”in the mid 1940s, Universal was coming off a two decade wave of horror movies, such as Frankenstein and Dracula (both 1931), The Mummy (1932) and The Wolf Man (1941), but at length, audiences were bored with just one monster, and demanded something to amp up the franchise. Thus, Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man (1943) was born, the first of the Universal monster ‘team ups,’ but in short order, the entire franchise collapsed as Universal combined nearly all their famed horror icons in two ‘monster rally’ entries, House of Frankenstein (1944) and House of Dracula (1945), in cheap, hastily staged films that did little more than revive the monsters only to destroy them.

With these final two films in the initial series, it seemed that the franchise was exhausted, and the next Universal horror entry wasn’t a horror entry at all; it was the parody Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948). It wasn’t until Hammer films re-energized these classic characters in such films as The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) and Horror of Dracula (1958) that the franchise once again took on new life.

It seems to me that we’re now at a similar point with the DC Universe; the Superman series seems a bit played out, as the character seems a bit too straight arrow to relate to 21st century audiences; and Christopher Nolan has run the Batman series into the ground, as did Tim Burton and Joel Schumacher before him, so that both characters seem, for the moment, played out for the contemporary viewer.

What to do? Why, just put them both in one film, as a a sort of WWF smackdown, recalling the first Universal team up, Frankenstein Meets (or more accurately, ‘battles’) The Wolf Man. And so now we have Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, directed by Zack ‘300′ Snyder on a $200 million dollar budget, which wrapped filming in December 2014, and is now going through an apparently intensive post-production process, and won’t be released – at latest word – until March 25, 2016. What the final cost will be, who knows? Will it ‘blow up’ like Jurassic World, and make a fortune? DC certainly hopes so.

It seems worth noting to me that Marvel has been much more successful at these ‘ensemble’ films lately, but then they have a much larger cast of characters to work with. And when one character gets tired, they just sideline her or him for a while, and go for an Avengers team-up, and everyone seems happy as the dollars roll in, and then Marvel eventually gets around to rebooting whatever needs to be jump started next, as the cycle continues with Sisyphian relentlessness.

But DC, I think, doesn’t have the same depth in its playing field, and so this team-up has, at least for me, the inescapable whiff of ‘last chance at the genre corral,’ when you take your two most influential characters and put them into a face-off. After this, what can you do; repeat the same thing all over again, perhaps throwing in The Green Lantern for some added traction?

It seems sad to me that this is one of the most hotly anticipated tickets of next year – because the whole thing seems so formulaic and predestined, but there it is. On yes, and Wonder Woman, in the person of Gal Godot, will also swing by to get in on the action, so this in many ways might be closer to the ‘monster rally’ films than the first Universal team-up film.”

All of the above was written long before the film was released; it actually finished principal photography in 2014, and has spent close to two years in post-production, which is never a good sign. Now everyone can see the film for themselves – it is, after all, rated PG-13, with an R rated “director’s cut,” one half hour longer, forthcoming on DVD in the coming months.

That said, it looks like most of what I predicted way back nearly a year ago has come true, and it seems that the film is more of a miss than a hit with fans and critics alike, though the ticket presales have been spectacular. But with audiences able to text “instant reviews” during the film as to whether or not they approve, who knows what will happen? Batman v Superman wound up costing north of $250 million, and will need to clear at least $800,000 to a billion dollars at the box office just to break even. That’s a lot of money.

Yet as Michael Roffman noted in a perceptive review of the film published on the website Consequence of Sound, Batman v Superman represents – perhaps – both the beginning of the end for comic book movies, which may have finally reached an audience saturation point, as well as a failure of the imagination. Notes Roffman, “the adrenaline and the excitement of a superhero film has taken back seat to morbid curiosity and blind acceptance.

To paraphrase the late Hunter S. Thompson, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice offers us an ideal vantage point to look at the near past, where with the right kind of eyes we can almost see the high-water mark — that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back. Some might say that was 2012’s The Avengers; others might argue it was 2014’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Whatever the case, we’re coasting into a no-wake zone right now, and it’s getting harder to keep the signal on and tiring to glue our eyes toward the sky.”

Or as A.O. Scott put it more bluntly in a review in The New York Times, “the point of Batman v Superman isn’t fun, and it isn’t thinking, either. It’s obedience. The theology is invoked not to elicit meditations on mercy, justice or sacrifice, but to buttress a spectacle of power. And in that way the film serves as a metaphor for its own aspirations. The corporations that produce movies like this one, and the ambitious hacks who sign up to make them, have no evident motive beyond their own aggrandizement. Entertainment is less the goal than the byproduct, and as the commercial reach of superpower franchises grows, their creative exhaustion becomes ever more apparent.”

Which seems about right to me – it’s time to move on to something new.

Batman v Superman, or, Twilight of the Franchises

Friday, June 26th, 2015

What do you do when a franchise starts to falter? You double down – watch the trailer here.

In the mid 1940s, Universal was coming off a two decade wave of horror movies, such as Frankenstein and Dracula (both 1931), The Mummy (1932) and The Wolf Man (1941), but at length, audiences were bored with just one monster, and demanded something to amp up the franchise. Thus, Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man (1943) was born, the first of the Universal monster “team ups,” but in short order, the entire franchise collapsed as Universal combined nearly all their famed horror icons in two “monster rally” entries, House of Frankenstein (1944) and House of Dracula (1945), in cheap, hastily staged films that did little more than revive the monsters only to destroy them. With these final two films in the initial series, it seemed that the franchise was exhausted, and the next Universal horror entry wasn’t a horror entry at all; it was the parody Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948). It wasn’t until Hammer films re-energized these classic characters in such films as The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) and Horror of Dracula (1958) that the franchise once again took on new life.

It seems to me that we’re now at a similar point with the DC Universe; the Superman series seems a bit played out, as the character seems a bit too straight arrow to relate to 21st century audiences; and Christopher Nolan has run the Batman series into the ground, as did Tim Burton and Joel Schumacher before him, so that both characters seem, for the moment, played out for the contemporary viewer. What to do? Why, just put them both in one film, as a a sort of WWF smackdown, recalling the first Universal team up, Frankenstein Meets (or more accurately, “battles”) The Wolf Man. And so now we have Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, directed by Zack “300” Snyder on a $200 million dollar budget, which wrapped filming in December 2014, and is now going through an apparently intensive post-production process, and won’t be released – at latest word – until March 25, 2016. What the final cost will be, who knows? Will it “blow up” like Jurassic World, and make a fortune? DC certainly hopes so.

It seems worth noting to me that Marvel has been much more successful at these “ensemble” films lately, but then they have a much larger cast of characters to work with. And when one character gets tired, they just sideline her or him for a while, and go for an Avengers team-up, and everyone seems happy as the dollars roll in, and then Marvel eventually gets around to rebooting whatever needs to be jump started next, as the cycle continues with Sisyphian relentlessness. But DC, I think, doesn’t have the same depth in its playing field, and so this team-up has, at least for me, the inescapable whiff of “last chance at the genre corral,” when you take your two most influential characters and put them into a face-off. After this, what can you do; repeat the same thing all over again, perhaps throwing in The Green Lantern for some added traction?

It seems sad to me that this is one of the most hotly anticipated tickets of next year – because the whole thing seems so formulaic and predestined, but there it is. On yes, and Wonder Woman, in the person of Gal Godot, will also swing by to get in on the action, so this in many ways might be closer to the “monster rally” films than the first Universal team-up film. In an excellent wrap article in Cinema Blend, Eric Eisenberg tracks what we know so far about the film, whose cast includes Ben Affleck, Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Jesse Eisenberg, Diane Lane, Laurence Fishburne, Jeremy Irons, and Holly Hunter. Notes Eisenberg, “the idea of a Batman/Superman movie has been around so long that it was even made into an Easter Egg gag in the Will Smith action movie I Am Legend [2007] – the film jokingly dated for release only after the Earth had been devastated by an apocalyptic plague.”

He continues, “Warner Bros. released an official plot synopsis for Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, and watching the debut trailer one can at least kind of pick up on what this movie is putting down. It seems that the world of the growing DC Cinematic Universe has labeled Superman (Henry Cavill) a controversial figure after the events seen in Man of Steel, and while there are many in the world who see him as a superhero, there are many others who view him as an extreme threat. It would seem that Batman (Ben Affleck) falls into this latter category, and uses his incredible resources to do what he can to try and stop the perceived alien menace.

The first official footage sees him as a superhero, there are many others who view him as a savior. And that plot synopsis does little more than confirm this. How the story will deal with all of the major supporting characters (of which there are many) remains a mystery, though that same synopsis does tease a new threat that comes out of the woodwork, which has led many to speculate about Doomsday’s possible involvement. While provoking Superman into a fight probably seems like a terrible idea to most of us, Batman will have some special toys specifically designed to negate his enemy’s advantages. Specifically, he will wield a Kryptonite-laced spear. How exactly he obtained this substance remains unclear, but he’s Batman. The guy has means of acquiring all kinds of unusual items.”

You can read the whole article here – the trailer is above, behind the image.

Margin Call (2011)

Saturday, November 5th, 2011

A friend of mine who used to be in what is euphemistically called the “financial services” industry wrote me that J.C. Chandor’s low budget indie Margin Call “totally nails it” in its depiction of events leading up the 2008 crash — which is super scary, because the fictional traders presented in this film are the absolute scum of the earth. And these are our financial advisors? God help us all.

Chandor wrote and directed with film, which was shot simply and efficiently, as Benjamin Wallace described in New York Magazine, noting that “for the seventeen-day shoot last June, the cast and crew took over the entire 42nd floor of One Penn Plaza, near Madison Square Garden, which had recently been vacated by a trading firm.” It’s the classic low budget strategy; keep your cast in one location for most of the shoot to keep costs down, have a script that everyone believes in so they’ll do it for a fraction of their usual fees, and film it fast, fast, fast. The results are staggering.

The cast includes Kevin Spacey, Demi Moore, Paul Bettany, Jeremy Irons, Zachary Quinto, Stanley Tucci, Simon Baker, and Penn Badgley; the film was shot for a mere $3.5 million dollars, and has received spectacular reviews.

First-time director J.C. Chandor labored for 15 years — that’s right, 15 years — to get this off the ground; read an amazingly candid interview with him from Movieline here, which is a testament to keeping going when all the odds seem against you. Independent filmmaking is always a struggle, and it seems that Chandor had to work harder than most to get Margin Call made, but the end of result is more than worth it. This is a remarkable film, and a success on every level, from the impeccable and understated ensemble acting to  the cold, sleek photography and the sharp, observant script, in which the whole awful drama plays out with realistic understatement.

Want to know how it all went wrong? See this film.

About the Author

Headshot of Wheeler Winston Dixon Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of thirty books and more than 100 articles on film, and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. All comments by Dixon on this blog are his own opinions.

In The National News

Wheeler Winston Dixon has been quoted by Fast Company, The New Yorker, The New York Times, the BBC, CNN, The Christian Science Monitor, US News and World Report, The Boston Globe, Entertainment Weekly, The Los Angeles Times, NPR, The PBS Newshour, USA Today and other national media outlets on digital cinema, film and related topics - see the UNL newsroom at http://news.unl.edu/news-releases/1/ for more details.

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