Batman vs. Superman

[SPOILERS—If you haven’t seen this movie and are bothered by knowing serious plot points in advance of doing so, then you probably shouldn’t read this.]

Before I get to the movie, I should first give a little background on my history with and love (and then hatred) of DC Comics. I’ve been a fan of Superman since I can remember. I grew up seeing re-runs of the George Reeves television series, and I loved the early movies (though they got progressively worse as time went on). I collected comic books as soon as I was old enough to earn my own disposable income. I’d make trips to the drug store every 2 weeks and buy up all my titles and spend the next few hours reading and re-reading them, falling deeper and deeper in love with all my favorite characters and teams. In no particular order, I remember fondly Batman and the Outsiders, Teen Titans, All-Star Squadron, Justice League of America, The Legion of Super Heroes, Superman, Superboy, DC Comics Presents, World’s Finest Comics, Green Lantern, The Flash, and probably a few others I’m not remembering as I write this. Marvel? Feh. Marvel was OK. I liked Fantastic Four and a couple of other titles. But in general, I was not fond of their wussy teens bitten by all manner of insects; and their whiny, angst-ridden “poor us” mutants. I liked my heroes to be fantastic. I wanted to have to suspend a hell of a lot of disbelief when reading about them. People from other planets with all manner of powers—THAT fires up the imagination! Random gene mutation? BORING. Can you tell that Batman was one of my least-favorite characters?

I read comics until DC’s “Crisis On Infinite Earths” series. I collected the entire series. I collected the “Who’s Who?” companion guide. I bought every crossover title I could find, even if I didn’t collect that series. And then they finished it. The tagline for “Crisis” was, “Worlds will live, worlds will die; and the DC Universe will never be the same!” Well, they were right. As far as I was concerned, they had killed everything I loved about the DC Universe, including Supergirl and the Flash. What they did was stupid and unnecessary, and I decided I was done. I stopped collecting and made room for other things in my life. A few years later while on a family trip I was in a New England drug store with a few minutes to kill, so I found the comic book section of their magazine rack. I grabbed the latest issue of “Superman” and took it out to the car. The art had certainly changed, as had the quality of the paper. I saw these as generally good things. Superman was fighting someone (as usual). The fight ended up in space. Where Superman HAD TO HOLD HIS BREATH. What?!? What the hell was this? I almost cried. I threw the comic on the car’s floor in disgust and have not purchased one since then (about 30 years). I was right—they had ruined everything.

Fast forward to the 21st century. A lot has changed in the media of TV and the movies. Marvel has spent the last decade packaging up their most popular characters (and a few more minor ones) for consumption both on the big screen as well as television, masterfully weaving and presenting the backstories for Captain America, Iron Man, Thor, Hulk in the movies; and bringing us ongoing shows like “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.”, “Agent Carter”, “Jessica Jones”, and “Daredevil”. As I write this, there have been two “Avengers” movies and we are anxiously awaiting a third (“Civil War”). Where has DC been during all of this? Mostly silent. They gave us “Man Of Steel” in 2013, which I rather liked. And someone with a lot of love and a lot of respect for pre-Crisis lore has been pouring their heart into “Arrow,” “The Flash,” and “Supergirl” on television. And then, seemingly out of nowhere, they threw “Batman vs. Superman” our way.

I saw “Batman vs. Superman” last night. I will probably see it again, if for no other reason than I saw it with only one of my two sons, and I’m pretty sure the other one wants to see it too. I’ll start by saying that any movie that has me looking at my watch has not sufficiently grabbed my attention. There were several glances in the first 90 minutes. We apparently are in the universe established by the “Man Of Steel” movie. We have no real background on the Batman of this universe beyond the very basics: His parents were killed when he was a kid, he discovered a cave full of bats and made it his lair, and his family mansion is now a ruin. (I can’t remember if that last detail happened in one of the most recent Batman flicks—I was probably asleep. That franchise has been rebooted/revisited so many times I’ve lost track. (Batman was never my favorite, remember?)) I don’t remember the locations of Gotham City and Metropolis ever being specifically mentioned in the comics. It was always an “understood” elephant in the room that they were both analogs for New York City, which made it only slightly awkward when Batman would visit Superman or vice versa. We didn’t know exactly “where” Gotham and Metropolis were, but we knew they weren’t the same. Well, now we know they are “sister” cities, across the harbor from one another. Sure. Whatever.

I’ll start with Superman. I generally enjoy Henry Cavill as Clark Kent/Superman. I think he has “the look,” and while I wish the colors were a tad brighter, I like what they have chosen to do with his costume. He spends the movie struggling with the age-old question: “Can I ever get close to anyone?”, realizing, apparently for the first time, that if you care about someone (or some thing), then people who don’t like you can use that person (or thing) as leverage against you. I was somewhat relieved when it was revealed that it was this moth-eaten plot device that was going to be the real reason for a fight between our two heroes. They spent a solid hour attempting—poorly— to provide adequate background and character development, leading us to believe that they were going to come to blows simply over philosophical differences (a la the aforementioned “Civil War”). But when it came down to it, Superman simply had no choice. I think he did a piss-poor job of trying to explain that to Batman, but if he hadn’t, there wouldn’t have been much of a fight, and that’s why we all bought our tickets, right?

Batman. I said earlier I’ve never been a big fan of Batman. This movie didn’t make me any more of one. First of all, he kills. And shoots guns. When did that start? Is that a thing now? (Remember; I haven’t bought a comic in 30 years!) One of the things to LIKE about Batman, even if you didn’t like much else, was that he chose not to kill. He was all about justice. Catch the bad guys and deliver them to law enforcement and let the system do its job. No guns, unless they shot cables or mist or something else non-lethal. But in this movie there are several scenes in which he indiscriminately mows down bad guy after bad guy with spray from fully-automatic weapons, and when he’s out of bullets or there’s no gun handy, he doesn’t seem to pull any punches. Several others are quite obviously dead in the aftermath of the sheer brutality of his physical attacks. This is not the Batman I used to know. I will, however, give serious props to Ben Affleck as both Batman and Bruce Wayne. Affleck’s one of those actors who for me is only as good as the material he’s performing. I’ve loved him in roles. I’ve hated him in roles. I loved him in this role! He was suave and handsome enough to be believable as the “billionaire playboy” Brice Wayne (though that aspect of the character is not at all played up in this flick) and brooding and angsty enough to pull off the “Dark Knight” shtick that has become popular with the character over the last 40 years.

Wonder Woman? *blink* What? Who invited her? Indeed, the movie asks this very question as the three heroes are set to face Doomsday (Its name is “Doomsday, right? It’s a post-Crisis character, so I’ve never seen it before, but I’ve gathered that’s its name.): Superman: “Is she with you?” Batman: “No, I thought she was with you!” Her presence is obviously a prelude to a sequel which will expand upon her backstory and her last hundred years, explaining what her contributions to World War I were and where she’s been since then. And we see evidence that The Flash, Aquaman (ugh) and Cyborg will be seen in some future movie(s). But she came out of nowhere and just decided to show up for the big fight at the end.

Superman’s (apparent) death. At the end of the film we are led to believe that Superman (and, ipso facto, Clark Kent) is dead. They handled this all wrong. Superman’s wake was closed (and empty) casket, while Clark’s was open-casket; and Smallville is where the body was buried. That makes it very hard to explain his eventual resurrection. Had they done it the other way around, with Superman’s body on display and Clark’s apparently “missing,” it would have been easy. Superman simply bursts forth, apparently finally healed from his wound; and Clark emerges from some as-yet-uncleared rubble that resulted from the big fight with Doomsday, barely alive, but able to come through his ordeal. I have no idea how they’re going to explain Clark coming back they way they’ve done things.

Broadly, I don’t know what Warner Brothers has been thinking for the past 10 years. Marvel has been trouncing them and it’s like they’ve been sitting around a board room table with blindfolds on and fingers in their ears. Now they’re “awake” and playing catch-up and doing so very poorly. Box office receipts notwithstanding, this new Universe could have been…and still could be…so much better! They need to slow down and take their time and explain exactly WHO all these “new” characters are and where they came from and why we should love them. Superman and Batman are easy. Unless you’ve lived in a cave all your life, you at least know who they are. You know Superman can fly and has heat vision and is invulnerable. You know Batman has a cave and a Batmobile and a utility belt. You almost can’t not know these things! Wonder Woman is on the fringe of this level of popularity. Amazon, bracelets, lariat…check. But Cyborg? Flash? Aquaman? Who?? DC has a LOT of work ahead of itself. In many ways, this film is a knock-off of Marvel’s recent work. Superman = Captain America. Batman = Iron Man. Wonder Woman = Thor. Doomsday = Hulk. *yawn* I’ve seen all of this already!

Give me something NEW and reasons to once again love the characters that consumed my imagination for most of my teen years. Please?

My Review of the February 20th, 2016 Performance of “Les Misérables” at the Imperial Theatre, New York City

Alfie Boe as Jean Valjean

Alfie Boe played Jean Valjean in the Les Misérables 25th Anniversary Concert. He was incredible! Last year when it was announced that he would reprise the role on Broadway, I made a promise to myself that I would see him. This past weekend, Amanda and I kept that promise, leaving early Saturday morning for Albany where we caught a train to New York City. We stayed at the Marriott Marquis Hotel right on Times Square, next door to the Imperial Theatre where Les Misérables was playing.

After the opening chain-gang scene, when Javert calls for “prisoner 24601” to be brought before him, the performance had to pause for a few seconds while the crowd applauded Alfie Boe. The man obviously has fans! And well he should, for his performance did not disappoint. He does not merely act the role, he becomes Jean Valjean. His performance was everything I expected. Indeed, after his “Bring Him Home” soliloquy, the partial standing ovation carried on for a solid minute or more, all while he just sat there on the barricade, never breaking character.

While Alfie’s performance was beyond criticism, I cannot say the same for some of the other key characters. I was particularly disappointed with Brennyn Lark’s Eponine. Her solo “On My Own,” well-performed, will bring a tear to my eye. But to do that, I need to believe that the actress is feeling what she’s singing. Lark just doesn’t do that for me. I believe she was also playing Eponine when I last saw Les Mis in August of 2014. The same was true then—I didn’t feel it, because she didn’t make me. Now, Samantha Barks, who played Eponine in both the 25th Anniversary Concert and the motion picture, makes me tear up every time. Maybe there is some benefit brought to the performance by the relative luxury of cinematography, but similar evoking of emotion is to be had when I listen to the complete symphonic recording with no benefit of visual queues. No, I found Lark’s performance mechanically wonderful, but emotionally lacking.

Chris McCarrell’s Marius had me nervous at first. He seemed almost as if he was fresh out of school and that this was his first performance anywhere, let alone Broadway. At least he started out that way. By the end of the show I was convinced of his talent and ability without further question. Wallace Smith as Enjolras was up and down, almost warbling one minute and then bowling us over with the raw power of his voice the next.

Every time I see or listen to Les Misérables it seems like I notice something new. My favorite minor character is Grantaire, the student whose first lines chide, “…is Marius in love at last?” In “Drink With Me” after the barricade has gone up and the weight of what is to come becomes apparent, Grantaire asks, “Can it be you fear to die?” I have always regarded this as merely a rhetorical question, but the way it was portrayed in this performance (by Richard Barth) was as a challenge to all present, i.e., “what the HELL is the point of all of this? Do you think anyone will remember what we do here…or even care?” He dares to ask the question everyone is thinking. The rest of the cast quickly rebukes him and he retreats, slumping and weeping against the wall stage left, with Gavroche offering comfort in the form of hugs. I never caught that before.

It’s hard to come away from any performance of Les Misérables disappointed. Actually, I’m not sure that’s even possible (for me)! I very much enjoyed this performance and recommend to anyone who has yet to experience it that you do so if you find yourself with the means.

Movie Review – Les Miserables (2012)

Earlier this year I saw a preview/trailer for yet another movie version of “Les Miserables.” There have been many movies made based on this story, but this one was going to be different. It was to be based on the Broadway musical! Moreover, the filming technique is something that has never been done before. The actors both acted and sang their musical roles. The full orchestral score was recorded AFTER filming and tailored to the singing of the actors. (It’s usually done the other way around.) The trailer alone gave me the chills and a teary eye!

It opened Christmas day and I vowed to see it. It is a vow I have kept; Amanda and I saw it last night. While excited, I had my doubts about this endeavour. Cameron Mackintosh was essentially trying to bridge the genres of Hollywood and Broadway in a way that had never been tried before. Movies have been made of musicals and musicals have been made of movies, but usually with great liberty and sacrifice of some core material. At nearly 160 minutes, I had hopes that there would be little of either of these. For the most part, I wasn’t disappointed. I have listened to the Complete Symphonic Recording of Les Miserables dozens of times over the years, seen the 25th Anniversary Concert (DVD) and seen the musical on stage. It’s fair to say I know the show well. This proved somewhat frustrating as I did note some omissions–some glaring, some subtle. But my observation in this regard is likely atypical. More casual fans aren’t likely to notice, for example, that Valjean’s lines, “I run a business of repute, I am the mayor of this town” are juxtaposed in the factory scene. (Although, now YOU will!)

The biggest concern I had was about the casting. I saw Russell Crowe cast as Javert and winced, thinking only of Pierce Brosnan in “Mamma Mia.” OK, so the guy’s easy on the eyes and has a British accent; but dear GOD, never let him sing!! Crowe can carry a tune, however. His singing voice is rather pleasant, but lacked the…the…the “dark power” I have always conjured in my mind and come to expect in other performances of Javert. “Stars” did not move me, and it usually does. Hugh Jackman was awesome, but I expected that. The only defect I saw in his performance was his rendition of “Bring Him Home.” I believe it was written to be sung falsetto in parts. Jackman stuck to his natural vocal range and it seemed forced. Eddie Redmayne’s Marius was spot-on. Amanda Seyfried (also from “Mamma Mia”) was amazing as Cosette. She was no slouch in “Mamma Mia,” but she really blew me away. I think perhaps she’s had some coaching. Her range is incredible. Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter as the Thenardiers were brilliant, but I knew they would be. And Anne Hathaway’s Fantine was sublime. Anyone without a tear in their eye after “I Dreamed A Dream” simply doesn’t have a soul.

If none of that convinces you to go see this movie, then go to see and hear Samantha Barks as Eponine. If you saw the 25th Anniversary Concert, then you’ve already seen her. Mackintosh tagged her to reprise the role in this film and her performance was flawless. The victim of unrequited love, she makes you feel it right along with her. You can almost forget you’re watching an actress playing a part–it’s like she’s really living it, and you’re living it right along with her. “Heart-wrenching” is barely adequate.

I could nitpick all day–there were little things that could have, that should have been different. Fantine’s afterlife self should have had long hair, for example. If I recall the stage performance I saw, Valjean’s prisoner brand is on his chest and he rips open his shirt in the courtroom when he confesses that Javert has the wrong man in custody. But none of my nitpickings should dissuade any fan from seeing this film. However, if you’re looking for a Broadway performance on film, you will be disappointed. If you’re looking for a traditional Hollywood Musical, ditto. This is something new–something different. I liked it. I hope you do too!