Twenty years ago, in the summer of ’96, teenaged me saw a new movie called Independence Day. It’s been a wedge between me and most of my generation ever since. Most people seem to remember it fondly, for some reason. I just remember how it kept getting my hopes up with genuinely exciting, interesting, original scenes, and then letting me down with the stupidest possible followthrough. The visually incredible destruction of Los Angeles ends by pissing on all physical logic just to spare the hero’s girlfriend, her cute kid, and their cute dog. A chilling scene with an alien working a human corpse like a puppet ends with the president saying “Nuke ‘em!” just to sound macho, even though that doesn’t work and nobody thought it would. Most of all, a movie about a global crisis ends by explicitly stating that the whole world wants the U.S. to tell them what to do, and we’ll triumph because our black guys are tough, our Jewish guys are nerdy, our white guys are firmly in charge, and our women are supportive props.

I bring this up because in twenty years, I haven’t had that exact reaction to a movie, but the other night I went ahead and watched Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice. Once again, I kept seeing scenes and moments that I genuinely, unironically loved, that made me remember why I fell in love with these characters when I was a little boy. And every damn time, those scenes would end with something so facepalmingly stupid it hurt to watch.

The opening is legitimately exciting, showing Bruce Wayne trying to do what he can during the catastrophic destruction of Metropolis. This is a welcome and overdue engagement with what actually happened during the godawful last act of Man of Steel, a movie I’ve reviewed elsewhere previously. Unfortunately, it’s also a scene about Batman doing Superman’s job because Superman won’t. A great scene turns out to be a lousy one after two seconds' consideration. There's no denying the opening sets the tone for the movie, I guess.

For the rest of the movie there are great scenes of Batman fighting bad guys, Superman doing heroic stuff, and the Batmobile looking less like a tank than it has in twenty years. Unfortunately, every one of those scenes is immediately undercut by story logic that insists that the scene you’ve just watched was meaningless, pointless, and achieved nothing. Ben Affleck inhabits the roles of Bruce Wayne and Batman in an original way that still feels rooted in the character, which after so many existing portrayals is a nice surprise. This performance is utterly wasted on a wildly inconsistent characterization that seems to present half a dozen different versions of Batman, depending on which scene you’re watching. At least half of these scenes require Batman to be a complete moron.

To dissect every failure of logic and characterization in this film would require recapping every single scene, and people have already been paid to (rather obviously) write several different versions of every scene in this movie, so I’m not going to redo it for free after their various efforts were haphazardly edited into two and a half hours of… stuff. Instead, let’s just focus on two points: the first half of the title, and the second half.

They say that “Who’d win in a fight, Batman or Superman?” is a question as old as comics fandom, which is a lie. For the first few decades, it wasn’t a question at all. Batman’s very smart and does a lot of push-ups, but Superman can kill him by looking at him or breathing on him. This changed in 1987 with Frank Miller’s landmark story The Dark Knight Returns, which I know the writers of this film have read. (Fun drinking game: do a shot every time a line of dialogue is quoted verbatim from Miller.) Miller knew that Batman winning wasn't possible, so he carefully set up a scenario in which Batman could, in fact, do the impossible. It was a stunning climax to a classic story, as Batman reveals layers of plans that go back years, and confronts Superman when he’s at his weakest, and narrowly achieves a brief victory. And that fight STILL ends with Batman dead.

Since then, it’s sort of become vaguely-understood fanon: Batman could totally beat up Superman. Which means that every time a writer tries to recapture some of that Dark Knight magic by setting up that fight, there’s no tension since we all know Batman will win. But now here’s a movie that tries to hit reset on that trope: that gives us a Batman who’s gray-templed and painfully human, and a Superman who’s even more invincibly alien than usual. Perhaps this time, for the first time since 1987, we’ll get a Batman vs. Superman fight that MEANS something.

Some of the various drafts of this script clearly wanted it to mean something. They spend a lot of time giving Batman about half a dozen different reasons to take down Superman. Then they ignore all of those reasons in favor of a half-assed contrivance that literally consists of the villain saying “Okay, now you two fight or I’ll kill your mom!” And the fight ends, after Batman’s wholly unearned victory, with Superman saying “Oh, beeteedubs, I’m only fighting you ‘cause this guy said he’d kill my mom,” which immediately ends the fight and causes Batman to switch sides, and which Superman had ample opportunities to say at the beginning of the fight, and also various points in the middle.

When two interesting characters fight, it needs to be for some kind of stakes. When two good guys fight, it needs to be for an important reason, some irreconcilable divide that brings them into conflict. It cannot just be them fighting for the sake of having them fight. The fight was one of only two things the title promised, so you’d think they’d have at least managed to get that right, but nope.

This brings me to the second half of the title: Dawn of Justice. This movie is, we are told, setting up the Justice League, which is apparently going to include the Flash, Aquaman, and Cyborg. Cyborg’s never really been a League member in the comics, but the DC superhero A-list is pretty short on black guys, so if they wanted the “I have a black friend” character, it was either him or bringing back Black Vulcan from the Superfriends. (Mostly kidding. They could also have gone with John Stewart as Green Lantern, or any of a number of other better choices.)

This portion of the movie is effective, but meaningless. The first look we get at Aquaman is great, and just right: our species’ first view of him WOULD be terrifying, anomalous footage from a deep-sea probe. The Flash’s cameo is, unfortunately, gibberish. It’s literally babbling that makes no sense. (Yes, Snyder and company, we know you’re setting up a time-travel plotline that you think is going to blow our minds. You are wrong.) Cyborg’s origin, this version of it anyway, is shown onscreen, but he cannot actually be said to be in the movie. This, sadly, brings me to Wonder Woman.

Wonder Woman is the best thing about this movie, and if you took her out entirely, it wouldn’t harm the narrative one bit. In fact, it’d save a good 20-30 minutes of runtime, which can easily be spared. Full disclosure: I took two bathroom breaks during this movie and didn’t miss anything. There are reasons to believe that the movie version of Wonder Woman will be more interesting than the irrelevant stabby lady who cruised through a couple scenes in BvS:DoJ without doing anything important, and then showed up at the end to not affect anything one way or the other. Maybe that optimism is justified, and we’ll get a genuinely interesting and engaging Wonder Woman movie next year. Based on what I saw last night, though, I’m not holding my breath. Batman v. Superman got my hopes up plenty of times, and let them down without exception.

Oscar Project articles

Wings (1927)

It’s hard to remember now just how amazing airplanes were in the 1920s. Barnstormers used to cruise from one small town to another, charging impressive fees just to show off their miraculous flying machines. That sense of wonder deeply informs Wings, in a way that’s hard to understand from here in the miracle-jaded future. The story of two young pilots and their service in WWI is nothing new even for the time, but the flying shots are spectacular, and in 1927 they might as well have been magic.

The Broadway Melody (1929)

I hated this movie. Hated it. Hated it in a way that started to feel weirdly personal after a while. The title song is repeated every five minutes by someone or other, which would be tolerable if it were a good song, but it’s not. There’s not a single likable character in this movie, which is a serious problem since we’re supposed to find them all charming. It’s about various people trying to achieve true love and showbiz stardom, but I didn’t want anything good to happen to any of them.

All Quiet On The Western Front (1930)

This is the earliest Best Picture winner that doesn’t require any apology or explanation before showing it to contemporary friends. It holds up perfectly, a stark and even angry look at the pointless, brutal cost of war. Its characters join the German army as teenagers full of idealism and hope and all that dulce et decorum est crap, and everything goes downhill for them from there.

Cimarron (1931)

This is one of those movies that has to be taken in context. It traces the history of the development of the American West through the life of one man, from the first Oklahoma Land Rush up through the present day. Thus, the first piece of context that must be taken into account is that “the present day” means “the Hoover administration”.

Grand Hotel (1932)

Watching Grand Hotel, the 5th-ever Best Picture winner, it struck me how rapidly I was seeing the art of filmmaking develop. An audacious plotline-juggling comedy, this movie makes remarkable use of the camera in ways that haven’t shown up in previous films, but will continue showing up in subsequent ones. (Except for the fact that Greta Garbo has a proprietary lighting system that exists only for her character, as though she’s in a whole different movie by herself. That one’s all Garbo.)

Cavalcade (1933)

This was based on a play by Noël Coward, and the nicest thing I can say is that maybe it worked better on stage. On film, it’s a godawful tedious slog through two generations of affluent London life, showing the great upheavals of the 1899-1933 period via a bunch of colorless, unlikable characters who mostly die, but not soon enough to suit me.

It Happened One Night (1934)

This movie feels like the beginning of an era. Clark Gable, Claudette Colbert, Frank Capra directing, and a romantic-comedy plotline we’re still using today. These are all elements that became dominant over the coming years, but here they all still had that new-star smell. The storyline’s nothing new, your basic fall-in-love-over-an-involuntary-journey bit, but the journey in this case provides a wonderful look at 1930s Americana, all the little motel cabins and logistical weirdness that made up a pre-freeway road trip.

Mutiny On The Bounty (1935)

A scene I’m 100% sure took place in Irving Thalberg’s office at MGM one day in 1935:

“So, last year Gable took his shirt off in It Happened One Night, and we made… how much money again?”

“All of it, sir. All the money.”

“Oh yeah. That was great. We also won enough Oscars that I had to have my mantelpiece reinforced. Anyway, having said that, what’ve we got this year?”

“We’ve got a picture where Clark Gable is shirtless for literally half the running time.”

“Good start. What’s he wearing the rest of the time?”

The Great Ziegfeld (1936)

Do you like long, slow musical numbers that involve almost nothing but looking at showgirls’ legs? No? Well, tough shit, because you’re in for a LOT of them. Get comfy.

The Life of Emile Zola (1937)

This is what you call surefire Oscar bait: a period biopic that talks about an Important Social Issue. The Life of Emile Zola is a weirdly-paced story with a strange two-part structure. First, we have your conventional biopic. Zola starts out penniless and living in a garret, but perseveres and works hard and finds success with Nana, because it turns out sex sells. He raises a family, yadda yadda yadda, and his career and the film are both slowing down by the halfway mark.

You Can't Take It With You (1938)

Of the various films in the genre of “Frank Capra directs Jimmy Stewart and several other stars in a surprisingly funny drama about socioeconomic injustice”, You Can’t Take It With You may be the least of them. Adapted from a George S. Kaufman play, it feels stagebound and claustrophobic, lacking a strong sense of visual expression. The story is just about a rich guy meeting a houseful of Manic Pixie Dream Anarchists, and some of the jokes don’t really work in the 21st century.

Gone With The Wind (1939)

Gone With The Wind is a serious problem for me.

On the one hand, as a movie, it’s pretty good. The cinematography’s great, the actors are gorgeous, the sense of an epic is powerful and heartfelt, and the score is top-notch.

On the other hand, most of that is also true of Triumph of the Will, and it’s hard to escape the comparison.

Rebecca (1940)

In beginning this review, I had to double-check the date. Rebecca was seriously released in 1940? Weird. It feels later than that, like maybe 1950, give or take a couple years. The product of another ten years of the development of film as a storytelling medium, in other words. That may have been what tipped it over to victory; it’s not just emotionally compelling and visually gorgeous, it has a level of nuance and emotion in the structure of every shot and scene that one just doesn’t see in other films from that year.

How Green Was My Valley (1941)

Let’s just get this out of the way right now: nobody actually thinks this was the best movie made in 1941. Nobody thought it back then either. It is a truth universally acknowledged that Citizen Kane is better than How Green Was My Valley, but that William Randolph Hearst was a vindictive sonofabitch who owned half the newspapers in the country and had Louella Parsons on permanent payroll. It simply wasn’t safe for voting members of the Academy to support Kane, so they went with a safety.

Mrs. Miniver (1942)

This film is part of a brief, awkward period in Oscar history: the two years following Hitler's invasion of Poland and preceding Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor. From 1939-41, there was a very strong "America First" movement in the U.S., which opposed America's entry into the war, often because they were outright Nazi sympathizers. This demographic was not well-represented in the film industry, because many of Hollywood's leading figures, like Lubitsch, Wilder, Dietrich, and others, were German by birth.

Casablanca (1943)

Casablanca. What can I, or anyone, write about this movie that hasn't been written a hundred times? That it's awful darn good? It is. You may have heard this is a very good motion picture. I must inform you that you heard correctly. Glad we had this talk.