Saturday 9 April 2016

The Relatables: Dawn of Justice vs The Force Awakens

It’s been well over a year since I posted the last post of this segment. For those of you who aren’t familiar with the concept it was created out of my disdain and disappointment for both Ridley Scott’s ‘Exodus’ and Neil Blomkamp’s ‘Chappie’. I had been heavily anticipating both films and was ultimately let down by them so I tried to pinpoint exactly where they went wrong based on another film of a slightly similar nature by contrasting, comparing and analysing them both in tandem and trying to work out what one movie could have learned from the other.

As I said before I haven’t revisited the series in a while because there haven’t actually been that many films that would fit into this kind of analysis. There have still been disappointing movies, but few of them have had any attributes that can be contrasted with other, more successful films in their field. I was considering making one that compared ‘Terminator 5’ and J.J Abrams’ ‘Star Trek’ but frankly I didn’t want to have to think about that 2015 monstrosity any more than I had to.

‘Batman v Superman’ on the other hand is still a film that fascinates me. I didn’t like it at all but I can’t stop thinking about precisely why it turned out the way it did, and for such a heavily anticipated film that had spent so many years in development. It almost reminded me of another film that had been massively (that’s still too small a word) anticipated, ‘The Force Awakens’. Consider the similarities, both were speculated on and discussed from the moment the idea was pitched to the moment the film first appeared on a cinema screen. Both had to reunite fans that had been divided by previous movies (the prequels and ‘Man of Steel’) and establish a whole new franchise for a new generation. But when it comes to the critical consensus one is rated at 93% on Rotten Tomatoes while the other sits at 29%. So what happened, and what could one learn from the other?

Even before the actual release of each film there’s a comparison to make; the marketing. When you look at each trailer for ‘The Force Awakens’ it’s one of the best examples of how to sell a movie without giving the plot away. Each trailer worked to established the movie’s tone, character, style while it fuelled speculation and still kept the plot intact.

As for ‘Batman v Superman’ well that first teaser trailer had the unfortunate fate of being leaked and subsequently released the same week as Han Solo first uttered “Chewie, we’re home” and was heavily criticised for its sombre and seemingly joyless tone. Anyone who was nervous that ‘Man of Steel’s’ bleakness would carry over to this was proven right. Then the SDCC trailer redeemed all of that, it was epic, stylish, full of jaw dropping moments and actually got us excited (rightfully so) for Ben Affleck’s Batman. But then we got another trailer and wow, did that one burst the bubble. Never mind that it was essentially the film’s entire plot in just over two minutes but looking at how uncoordinated, inconsistent, awkwardly paced and poorly composited as well as the fact that it served to undermine the movie’s entire premise and title (the last shot depicts Batman and Superman working together, as in not fighting, and then the title comes up as ‘Batman v Superman’, who thought that was a good idea). The third trailer was a significant improvement but the damage had already been done.

But what about the actual movies? When you look at ‘The Force Awakens’ again you realise more and more how solidly constructed it is as a singular film, one that set out to reinvigorate the franchise and create a platform from which to build upon. It knew what it wanted to be, a grand space opera that harkened back to George Lucas’ 1977 film that first captured our imaginations. ‘Batman v Superman’ on the other hand was unsure of whether to be a Justice League prequel or a film about the ideological conflict between Batman and Superman. It decided to be both and ultimately became neither. In many ways, the simplicity of ‘The Force Awakens’ is where it stands strongest. There are too many unnecessary scenes and plot holes within ‘Dawn of Justice’ for me to list here, and so many scenes that serve no purpose other than setting up future movies.

As well as that ‘The Force Awakens’ stuck true to its source material while introducing new elements. It understood the tone of the ‘Star Wars’ universe, the characters that inhabited it and stayed within the realm of its own possibilities. ‘Batman v Superman’ on the other hand strayed somewhere between pandering to its fans and completely misunderstanding the characters. It pandered by inserting needless references to Aquaman, the Flash, Cyborg, Darkseid, Doomsday and all before shoehorning in the famous Death of Superman storyline. As for all of the visual call backs to ‘The Dark Knight Returns’ maybe Snyder should have paid more attention to the panel in which Batman breaks a gun in half and declares that “this is the weapon of the enemy, we do not need it, we will not use it” or when he states that a “a gun is a coward’s weapon, a liar’s weapon”. These new additions that are made to the story are inherently against the core philosophies of each character.

Ultimately one can also look to the way in which J.J Abrams and Zack Snyder work as directors. People defend Snyder by stating that he is more of a visual storyteller, but observe the introduction to Rey’s character, executed almost entirely without dialogue. That is visual storytelling and it’s not there to look cool or move the plot forward, it’s simply a short amount of time devoted to building and introducing a character, creating an environment and immersing us within the films atmosphere. Snyder only uses shots because they are cool, let’s face it the only reason we saw another version of Bruce Wayne’s parents being shot is because Snyder liked the idea of pearls falling in slow motion.

In fact that acts as a good link to another vital aspect. When Abrams shot ‘The Force Awakens’ he knew that this movie had to be as accessible as possible so he sought not to drown it in his own directorial trademarks, they were peppered throughout (there were a few lens flares of course) to give the impression that he had brought his own unique style, but not too many that the film no longer feels rooted in the franchise. On the flip side, this is quite possibly the most Snydery film ever, with so many redundant slow motion shots and CGI enhanced set pieces to the point at which it became laughable. I actually started laughing out loud whenever it reverted to slow motion.

But going back to that point of alienating your audience. ‘The Force Awakens’ did a great job at being accessible to all audiences. I honestly know a number of people whose only experience with ‘Star Wars’ comes from ‘The Force Awakens’ and they enjoyed it very much (I admit I don’t have any way to prove it so you’ll just have to take my word for it) but a for people I don’t know then how about BBC film critic Mark Kermode who admitted prior to his review that he had never been part of the ‘Star Wars’ fandom but found himself completely engrossed by ‘The Force Awakens’ only to find ‘Batman v Superman’ incomprehensible.

I’d say ‘The Force Awakens’ was able to reach a much wider audience as well. Now, to a certain generation Han Solo will always be the wise mentor just as Obi-Wan was for another. ‘The Force Awakens’ was fun enough be enjoyed as simple entertainment, an achievement in filmmaking or a brilliant continuation of the saga. As I’ve said before ‘Dawn of Justice’ as too melancholic and miserable to be entertaining, too poorly constructed to be a filmmaking achievement and too inaccurate to be enjoyed as an adaptation.

I really want to stress the idea of fun though. I’m not saying that you can’t have dark and complex blockbusters (‘The Dark Knight’ for example, or ‘Empire Strikes Back’) but they succeed by firstly establishing a tone that is consistently dark, as opposed to Snyder who seems to mistake it for murkiness, and they are tightly constructed films. A sprawling mess like ‘Dawn of Justice’ is not tightly constructed and is also not much fun, so as a result it’s much easier to see its shortcomings. Is ‘The Force Awakens’ a perfect movie? No, but I became so engrossed and involved within the film and has such a good time watching it that its shortcomings ultimately don’t bother me that much, because of how fun it was.

Another thing that ‘The Force Awakens’ did well was the way it restrained itself. Think about what you had in ‘Batman v Superman’, two of Superman’s most iconic villains in one movie as well as a giant sign to indicate where the third one was, we also had Wonder Woman for no reason, as well as cameos from the Flash, Cyborg and Aquaman as well as dozens of obscure characters like Jimmy Olson, Mercy Graves and Vicky Vale not to mention cramming in storylines from ‘The Dark Knight Returns’, ‘Injustice’, ‘Justice League 52’, ‘Batman: Hush’, and ‘The Death of Superman’. It comes across as less of a cohesive film and more an attempt by DC to throw as much as they possibly can at the wall to draw audiences and use their reaction to see what sticks. It’s ironic because I criticised the movie for being too focussed on where it’s going rather than what it’s doing, but at the same time DC seem to have no idea where exactly they want to go. ‘Star Wars’ on the other hand seems to have a good idea of what lies ahead and this shows by how they didn’t throw everything at ‘The Force Awakens’ like how they held off on Luke Skywalker right to the very end.

As well as that I would say there’s a difference between leaving an open ended story from which to expand upon and just not bothering to finish storylines because it’s easier to end them in a sequel. Can you guess which film did which? People have called the ending of ‘The Force Awakens’ a cliff-hanger but I think that implies that there’s some kind of immediate danger. Instead we’re not worried about Rey at this moment, we are intrigued to see where her journey will take her, and in fact the same could be said for every character. I mean who doesn’t want to know what happened to Kanjiclub right (obscure references).

I know I’ve praised the hell out of ‘The Force Awakens’ but as I’ve said before don’t think it’s a perfect film, there are issues. But the rest of it is so brilliant, and entertaining and true to what ‘Star Wars’ should be that I always end up loving it. My reaction to ‘Batman v Superman’ is in fact the exact opposite. I know I’ve talked a lot of shit about it and I don’t think it’s a terrible film, there is some good stuff. But the rest of it is so poorly made, miserable and inaccurate that I’ll always end up disliking it.

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