Review: Dune (2021)

Denis Villeneuve’s Dune is incredible. The cast, the scope and ambition, the cinematography, the special effects and costume design and sets, the sound design, the score, the faithfulness to the book with a few small tweaks to update it and make it feel fresh…all elements excelled.

The visual aesthetics and moody musical themes were special highlights to me, really driving home the differences in the different factions and worlds. I felt the baroque, ostentatious, pseudo-fascist styles of the great houses pulled more than a little (in a good way) from other big-budget sci-fi films of the past twenty years like The Chronicles of Riddick, the Lynchian Dune, The Fifth Element, the Star Wars prequels’ Coruscant scenes, and maybe even Jupiter Ascending. All that said, it has its own unique visual flare; for instance, the arriving and departing spaceships had a surreal alienness to them, seemingly unknowable, like something out of a first contact film like Arrival rather than a space opera. The rumbling sounds and brooding music highlighted everything pitch perfectly.

And the film is damn-near-perfectly cast, with a lot of incredible star talent. Timothee Chalamet is a striking Paul Atreides, coming across as angsty and thoughtful and sensitive and a little disconnected from the human condition already. His best pouty moments of youthful petulance make me yearn for some way to see him play the role of Anakin Skywalker someday–he’d knock it out of the park. Rebecca Ferguson brings a lot more emotion and sympathy to Jessica than any other adaptation, while remaining capable and confident; her nature as a Bene Gesserit yet also a loving and devoted mother and wife is wrung for every ounce of tortured conflict here. Oscar Isaac, Jason Momoa, and Josh Brolin essentially define the roles of Duke Leto Atreides, Duncan Idaho, and Gurney Halleck, respectively, for me now. Even lesser roles that could have been forgotten, like Stephen McKinley Henderson as Thufir or Chang Chen as Dr. Yueh, provided more humanity than I would have expected. On the other end of the spectrum, Dave Bautista portrays Rabban as an almost evil mirror version of his Marvel performances as Drax (to great effect, given the brutish stupidity of the character), Stellan Skarsgard is unrecognizable and terrifying as Baron Harkonnen, and Charlotte Rampling is sinisterly conniving and mysterious as the Reverend Mother. It’s such a large cast, of course, and I could continue to go on and on, but that’s enough. We don’t see enough of the Fremen yet for me to say much about those performances–so far Zendaya seems great as Chani, while Javier Bardem seems a little off and more than a little goofy as Stilgar, but time will tell with the sequel.

This is the best big-budget sci-fi film I’ve seen in a long time. It’s the best Dune adaptation I think anyone could hope for. It’s good, and it should definitely be seen in theaters. (I watched it in 2D IMAX at my favored cinema, the Indiana State Museum.) I recognize, though, that it may not be for everyone.

I am not a huge Dune fan. I’ve only read the first book–though I believe I’ve read it at least a couple times–and grew up with the David Lynch movie and watched the Sci Fi Channel miniseries in high school or college. I’m not disinterested, but I’ve never read further in the series. I have great fondness for the narrow exposure to this space opera that I do have. So I’m not perhaps a Dune faithful and could not nitpick every small detail, but I followed along expecting plot points, I was pleasantly surprised by recasting Liet-Kynes as a woman (whereas I recalled the male character in the book and its previous adaptations), and I even predicted where the first half of a two-part film adaptation would have to end. I think a bigger fan will love this movie too and will probably get even more out of it. I wonder if someone not so fond of or familiar with the source material might find the whole affair a bit ponderous, self-absorbed, and confusing, though. Then again, maybe they’ll get it, too.

If you like sci-fi, space operas, big-idea films, epic fantasy, or Dune itself, you should treat yourself–if you haven’t already–and go watch this soon.

Update on my time with Book of Travels

It’s been just about two weeks since the game launched, and I’ve been playing Book of Travels for barely over a week. I’ve tried to log in on the weekday evenings that I’ve had a little extra free time, but play has mostly been limited to the weekend. I’m continuing to have a great time with the game, although I acknowledge that I’m still not all that far along. I wanted to post this update because my few big problems with the game’s bugs are largely resolved after the implementation of the first patch. This Saturday has seen my first extended amount of time in the game since the patch, and a lot of troubling issues are gone. Transportation by vehicle seems to be entirely fixed, no longer causing random location warping or getting a player character stuck (though the transition time with vehicle transport is still rather long–a minor complaint at best). [Update: a few hours of playtime after I wrote this, I did have an incident in which my character got stuck next to a dock after arrival, so this is not fully fixed.] I’ve been consistently able to locate my character in servers within my set geographic region over the past week. Sometimes actions can be a bit delayed and moving away from an action can cause the player character to sort of slide in place over the ground for a couple seconds, but overall I can do what I intend to do and without resistance. I haven’t had to log out or exit the game at all to fix any issues. I have had no game-crashing problems. At this point, the only disruptive bugs I’ve noticed at all are of two sorts. First, sometimes characters will have the text “[CUSTOM POEM]” instead of their intended dialogue. Second, with longer play sessions, sometimes status effects don’t dissipate or activate like they should. In other words, the game is already rather stable, and if that was a reservation about playing, I would say that you can set those worries aside and give the game a try now.

That said, I want to also update a little bit about what I’ve been up to in the game. Most of this has been helping locals with small tasks, delivering the occasional message/package, fishing and foraging, and trading. I have a larger goal of trading up to eventually getting a Master Iron Cog, since it’s a high-value item and in demand on the docks of Myr. I keep getting sidetracked by useful, novel, and/or quirky skills offered by certain vendors, so my hoard of goods is at times greatly reduced by a splurge on some skill or another. I’ve also barely dipped my toe into the combat mechanics. After my Mosswalker character, Eno, got a little too close to scary-looking supernatural creatures and was once chased across the countryside by some bandits, he finally purchased a blade. But he had no proficiency in it, wasn’t prone to combat, and felt a little awkward carrying it, so he stored it in his pack. On one of his trips through Myr, he remembered a warden who offered some combat training. And so this warden taught him armor and weapon proficiencies, then suggested they have a duel. Anxious, Eno accepted. They paced out and drew swords, and while the match was close, the warden bested him. Eno felt that he’d had a narrow defeat, despite it being his first attempt, and so challenged the warden again. The warden again drew his blade, but this time, Eno more carefully timed his strikes and actually won the duel! Now he feels emboldened to wear his half-sword at his waist, but outside of occasionally taking up non-lethal sparring matches in the form of duels, it’s unlikely that he’s actually going to engage in combat anytime soon. His laid-back attitude, spiritual nature, and mechanical interests mean that he’s not looking for action, adventure, and excitement, and he’ll still be inclined to avoid a fight.

Combat is very interesting, and I am contemplating a combat-focused alt. When you want to fight someone, you select a battle stance, and you’ll engage with your opponent as you both pace out and size each other up. Factors like speed inform your initiative, and whoever’s initiative bar is depleted first takes the lead. You select an attack button to fight, but there’s a lot of strategy and luck in the actual fighting. The longer you wait before attempting a strike, the higher the probability that your attack will actually land. Striking quicker means a lower probability of success, but if you land your hit, you disrupt your opponent’s increasing probability of scoring a successful hit in turn. Additionally, a hit decreases your opponent’s ward by the amount of your force of attack. Whoever depletes ward to zero first wins. You can flee combat in a blind panic, without control, and with a resultant morale loss, but you avoid a risk to your life. It’s an interesting system that gives weight to combat, allows for a sense of samurai-dueling artistry, and balances the high stakes with a fast-paced resolution. Hopefully I’ve explained all that right, but there’s more to it, with more skills like magic knots that can be employed. And of course, my two duels were in a safe environment, did not require fleeing, used just the single attack option, and did not cause a loss of life petals. Life petals are a whole other thing and, if I understand correctly, a character can permanently die if their life petals are fully depleted. Life petals are also difficult to restore. I’ve made sure Eno hasn’t been in a situation so risky that he’s lost any yet, so that’s another system that I don’t fully understand yet.

I think it’s safe to say that there’s a lot to this game that I don’t understand yet, because there’s already a lot to uncover with time and patience. And of course, some systems are not even fully implemented yet. I’m really eager to see more content in future updates. I’m excited for later updates that should add more creatures and characters, allow access to new regions, and build out existing experiences (like giving stakes to playing the card/dice game Passage). Figuring out what happened with Kasa, and getting to the inevitable reopening of that great trading city, will be cool. But there’s plenty to do now, as the game exists. I could see someone getting bored at this stage because the game is structured around giving yourself things to do, setting your own goals and direction, rather than being guided by more and more quests. I, however, remain satisfied as my notebook continues to grow with notes about hints, rumors, and goals.

Early access, early thoughts: Book of Travels

I suddenly started seeing coverage for Book of Travels this past Thursday. That happened to be the day after the game launched for early access, after an apparently delayed development process. I knew none of this context. I hadn’t even heard of Swedish indie developer Might and Delight before this. I just knew, upon seeing screenshots of the game and reading descriptions of its focus, that this seemed very much so a game for people like me. I just started playing yesterday and have fallen thoroughly in love with this charming title.

Might and Delight is marketing Book of Travels as a Tiny Multiplayer Online RPG, or a TMORPG (in contrast to MMORPGs, of course). Individual servers are capped at seven players. While you could easily join some friends in a shared server and chat over Discord, socialization within the game is rather light and whimsical. There is no chat text bar. There is only a selection of simple emotes to communicate basic ideas and emotions, just enough to potentially nudge other players to work together. Groups are organically assembled just by being around others for a little bit, but they’re also easy to leave. Most of your time, you will probably be alone, wandering the idyllic fields and forests of this fantasy world.

There are other big differences. The game’s core priorities and mechanics are quite different from most MMORPGs. The very start feels different, as you pick broad, archetypal Forms rather than specific classes, and you pick a variety of background elements like a basic origin story, a starting “wind” that you were born under that relates to things you are inclined toward rather like a meteorological astrology alternative, and some basic descriptors for your external appearance. A great deal can be augmented with free text fields, empowering organic roleplaying rather than mechanics-focused results. Those free text fields are even used for age and gender. While you can type in a nickname, your first and last name are supposed to be important to your character and determined through in-game dice roles to ensure that everyone has an immersive identity; your starting equipment, just some basic clothing, food, and/or tools, is also rolled. A focus on roleplaying and immersion are therefore baked in from the start. The game should feel different from any other MMORPG, with beautiful storybook imagery presented from a side-view perspective, with obstructing trees or rocks popping into or out of view as you advance toward the foreground or retreat into the background; movement and interaction are both guided by a point-and-click system that feels far more like what I’d expect in a classic/retro adventure game or isometric RPG. Where stats matter most, perhaps, is when completing endeavors, which require the application of a skill at a certain level to do something like completing a mystic ritual at a shrine or fixing a machine. Stats are augmented not just by the player character’s individual ability but also by equipment and the presence of other player characters working in a group to complete an endeavor, so even then there is more than one way to complete these optional events. There are tasks given to you, but there is no automated journal, and there are no quest markers; you need to make your own notes in your own real-world notebook and consult the in-game maps to determine what you’re needing to accomplish and where. Magic is also a little different, with instant-effect magical abilities achieved through the tying of knots imbued with reagents and longer-term status effects achieved through the brewing of special teas.

I understand that roleplaying is always available in any MMORPG. Collecting herbs and fishing are common tasks. But they’re additional features. Roleplaying and immersion are not the focus. I remember the old description of two open-world game types: theme parks versus sandboxes. Theme parks are oriented around keeping the player constantly entertained with structured diversions. Sandboxes don’t have structure, they just provide an open setting for players to interact with and hopefully make their own fun in. Most MMORPGs are theme parks, whereas Book of Travels is decidedly a sandbox with a focus on player-inflected, dynamic storytelling (though there are plenty of interesting characters and events, and there is plenty of interesting lore, within this sandbox).

There is no main quest to set off on. To the extent that there’s a larger narrative, I’ve barely touched on it (if at all) so far in my travels. I follow hints, tips, and rumors disclosed by non-player characters I encounter. I set off for interesting destinations on my map or explore interesting features within the region I find myself in. I have mostly just wandered the roads, and sometimes off-road, interacting with the denizens of the land, discovering new things, running a few errands for people I encounter, and collecting herbs and flowers and other botanical odds and ends. I could tell you that those plant samples are going to be used as reagents for magical knots and teas, but I honestly just like collecting them as I explore. My character’s Form is that of “The Mosswalker,” whose cryptic description states, “Deep cleft bright in small delight.” The associated artwork shows a figure, sunhat tipped low, reclined against a grassy slope, smoking a pipe with a tea set prepared nearby, shoes kicked off and a couple bundles of items dropped to the ground. I’ve used that as inspiration for a languid, easy-going fellow who simply enjoys seeing the world, rather in line with the brief introductory scene describing the character as wandering off from a caravan to explore a given path. I walk almost always, almost everywhere (and the stamina system encourages walking). I spend long stretches of time in the game picking plants or fishing or simply observing. I’ve only played for eight hours so far, but it’s significant that I have not fought man or beast throughout that time and do not even own a weapon. You can certainly play a character in pursuit of danger and adventure, and I might at some point start such a character, but I love that there’s a multiplayer RPG that prioritizes roleplaying, immersion, and adventure over combat and leveling. For that matter, I’m not even impeded in advancement, to the extent that I need/want to advance my characters’ skill repertoire, since you get Knowledge Points (basically experience points) simply by interacting with things and people in the world and learning more.

There are two really fun social interactions I’ve had in the game so far that I’d like to share, as well. First, I happened across another Traveler who was fishing off a pier near a teahouse. I used emotes to indicate a friendly greeting and a thumbs up, and the other player reciprocated. I joined them at the pier and started fishing too. We stood side by side, simply fishing, for maybe a half an hour. About halfway through, I chose an emote indicating two people and gave a thumbs up, and they emoted a smile in return. When the other player finally went off to pursue some adventure, they waved goodbye, and I did the same with a heart icon, which they reciprocated as well. I’ll never know who that person was, and I very likely will never encounter their character again, but it was a surprisingly peaceful, authentic, and human interaction between two people, two total strangers, just sharing some time together.

The other unique incident was when I was wandering through a familiar orchard at night; I came across a person who needed greater mystical help than I could provide, but there was another Traveler nearby. I initiated the endeavor, and without any further prompting, the other Traveler joined in, and we succeeded. We exchanged thumbs-up and parted ways. Just simple little encounters that still felt really special and powerful in the moment.

There are some bad things. So far, it’s nothing to do with the gameplay or the world as designed. There are just a lot of bugs. I’ve had a lot of issues with using the train or the ferry to travel places; the game has trapped me in areas after disembarking, or it has warped me back and forth between my departure and arrival points. These issues were always fixed by logging out or exiting the game and signing into a server again. I made sure to report the issue, of course, since it’s an early access game and the point is to further develop and improve the game until its full, official release. There has also been a problem where my character simply does not exist on many servers; this has been a widespread enough issue that it seems to have been prioritized, and there was an update on one of the game’s Discord channels today that this should have been resolved through a server reset. There have been a few other, less disruptive issues, as well. Given how much fun I’ve had, they’re all worth putting up with. But you might want to keep that in mind if you’re considering whether to hop into Early Access or wait.

Other than some issues that I am confident will be ironed out in the coming days and weeks, I love virtually everything about this game. We’ll see how long I stay with it, but I could see myself continuing to play for longer than I have any traditional MMORPG. It’s fresh and exciting and original and really feels like I’m discovering a genuine new land with its own distinct cultures, an experience I haven’t felt with a game since perhaps Morrowind. And the developers are promising considerable new content, with many more lands opening up, as the game continues in its Chapter Zero segment of Early Access. I’m excited to see where its roads take me.

Summary of Arena Series

For convenience, I’ve linked to all my Arena posts here. Within each of the three categories, posts are ordered most recent to oldest. Note that simple announcement posts (about scheduling and such) are not included. At this point, I don’t anticipate continuing a playthrough further, so this is sadly an incomplete attempt to beat the game, but I think the journey was still memorable.

Primary Posts

Arena, Part XIII: Lost in the Labyrinth (in which Aizen solves yet another riddle and wanders through a maze without ever quite being totally lost)

Arena, Part XII: Beginning the Labyrinth (in which Aizen enters a wizard’s maze and reads vague clues)

Arena, Part XI: How I Did It (in which I explain how, exactly, Aizen finally completed the Fortress of Ice)

Arena, Part ???: I DID It (in which Aizen exults over completing the Fortress of Ice, in a rare, though not quite serious, in-character post)

Arena, Part X: Thawing The Fortress of Ice (in which Aizen learns that the Fortress of Ice is a hell on Tamriel)

Arena, Part IX: Welcome to the Frightfully Frozen Fortress (in which Aizen begins to explore the Fortress of Ice to find the location of Labyrinthian)

Arena, Part VIII: Defanging the Lair (in which Aizen recovers the first piece of the Staff of Chaos from Fang Lair and is told to find Labyrinthian in Skyrim)

Arena, Part 7.5 (in which I discuss miscellaneous events in the town of Rihad and in Stonekeep)

Arena, Part VII: Stonekeep Is Ghoulish This Time of Year (in which Aizen explores Stonekeep dungeon to learn the location of Fang Lair)

Arena, Part VI: Something Like Flow (in which Aizen does a lot of quests, robs the Mages Guild again, and heads to Hammerfell to try to find Fang Lair)

Arena, Part V: Sweet Revenge (in which Aizen teaches a mugger a lesson and then robs the Mages Guild)

Arena, Part IV: Setbacks (in which Aizen explores around Corkarth Run)

Arena, Part 3.5 (in which I learn how to speed up the game’s frame rate and resultantly have a better experience)

Arena, Part III: Late-Night Mugging! (in which Aizen meets a sexy blacksmith, gets attacked in the night, and learns a little more about Corkarth Run)

Arena, Part II: Believe Me, Wood Rot Is Everywhere (in which Aizen escapes prison and arrives in Corkarth Run)

Arena, Part I: Exiting Your Cell, Killing Goblins, and Other Such Things (in which Aizen starts his quest and attempts to escape the Imperial dungeons)

Don’t Put Me in the Arena Without Telling Me How to Fight! (in which I briefly play Arena but do horribly, and then review the manual)

Miscellaneous

Exoticism in Arena (in which I try to discuss race and cultural appropriation in the game)

Side Quest: Arena, Part II (in which I learn about Arena designer Ted Peterson)

Side Quest: Arena (in which I learn about Arena Chief Designer V.J. Lakshman)

Arena’s Funky Music (in which I discuss and sample Arena‘s MIDI music)

Fan Fiction

A Job For The New Moon (in which two dudes rob the Mages Guild)

Review: Sweet Tooth

I watched Sweet Tooth and loved it. This probably comes as no surprise, after my “Two Apocalypses” post–Sweet Tooth is a post-apocalyptic story with a lot of heart and warmth. (And, just as with the adaptation of Jupiter’s Legacy from Mark Millar’s work, the tone of the series appears to be more positive than that of the originating comic by Jeff Lemire, so that’s yet another comic series I probably won’t pick up despite loving the show.)

For those who don’t know, Sweet Tooth is set in a world that has fallen apart after the rise of two simultaneous (and potentially related) events: a highly infectious and lethal illness and the birth of human-animal hybrid babies. Both lack a clear cause or explanation. Years have passed since society came crumbling down, and the show follows a young deer-hybrid boy, Gus (Christian Convery), who lives alone in a national park with his father (Will Forte). Gus breaks one of his father’s rules: don’t leave the fence. This sets in motion a chain of events that results in his father’s death and sends Gus on a journey across states to attempt to locate his mother, escorted by his reluctant guardian, bounty hunter Tommy Jepperd (Nonso Anozie). As the show progresses, the scope broadens to include the stories of a retired and traumatized doctor, Aditya Singh (Adeel Akhtar), who tends to his wife, Rani (Aliza Vellani), a somewhat miraculous non-infectious survivor living with a chronic version of the Sick; Aimee (Dania Ramirez), a former therapist who sets up a preserve for hunted hybrid children with her young adopted pig-hybrid daughter Wendy (Naledi Murray); Bear (Stefania LaVie Owen), the teenage leader of an adolescent army of guerilla warriors fighting to free captured hybrids under assumed animal identities who spend their downtime in a sort of Neverland; and the sinister pro-human, anti-hybrid, dictatorial leader of the Last Men, General Abbot (Neil Sandilands), whose objectives and military forces gradually coalesce the various subplots together. All this is tied loosely together with a voice-over narrative provided by James Brolin, probably the only thing I didn’t like about the show, as he drawls out various clichés and uninteresting observations that appear intended to sound profound.

While all the acting is great, the charisma and chemistry of the eventual trio of protagonists–Gus, Jepperd, and Bear–really kept me invested. The casting director, Carmen Cuba, found a remarkable talent in Christian Convery, who manages to convey so much emotional complexity in his role as Gus, and on top of that casually manifests such deer-like body language (further aided with some amazingly expressive prosthetic deer ears). How much of that presentation is due to Convery’s natural abilities versus the directorial input of series directors Jim Mickle, Toa Fracer, and Robyn Grace? Impossible for me to know, but I was genuinely impressed by the talent here, especially the younger actors, given how hit-and-miss child actors can be (and to be fair, child actors haven’t had access to the same range of experiences to draw on yet, which makes Convery’s performance that much more impressive).

The series’ eight episodes provide plenty of drama, unfolding mystery, and action to keep just about any viewer engaged. Given the coming-of-age narrative for younger children, it’s clear that the show is aimed at a family audience, but it certainly has a lot of darker, more mature themes, and it certainly provides plenty to hook an adult viewer. In fitting with the family audience demographic, while violence and death are present in the show, it typically avoids very graphic depictions of violence, relying more on suggestion.

The ending is very much so a cliffhanger, with equal parts heartache and hope. I’ll be devastated if we don’t get a season two!

Final thoughts: Bobby, the little groundhog-hybrid portrayed with an absolutely charming puppet, is a true standout once he makes an appearance.

Review: Jupiter’s Legacy

Very much so connected with last week’s post, I typically find myself turned off by Mark Millar’s original comics, but the screen adaptations turn out enjoyable enough. Kick-Ass, for instance, remains brutal and violent in film but has more heart than the savage world portrayed in the original narrative. I found that I rather enjoyed the new television adaptation of Jupiter’s Legacy on Netflix, and while I have never read Millar’s original comic version, a casual review of plot summaries suggests that this would be yet another instance of favoring the adaptation over the original. I’ll set that aside, though.

What I really liked about Jupiter’s Legacy (the show) is that it provided a unique, consolidated history of superheroes in its own universe that all centered around family and legacy. Its tackling of two mysteries in two distinct time periods, one focusing on the origin of the superpowers for the founding members of the Union of Justice and the other on the contemporary mystery of how a notorious and now-quite-lethal supervillain has apparently been duplicated, provides for ongoing suspense even as it slowly fleshes out its lengthy history between 1929 and the present. Both of these narratives ultimately come together to highlight the tensions between the old ways of the classic heroes with their idealistic code and the demand for change by newer heroes in reaction to a more murderous direction taken by their supervillain foes.

That broad focus on fictional superhero history and philosophy used to fuel a fundamentally ethical conundrum about the use of lethal force is given considerably more human grounding by focusing on the families of the original team members. The children of the Utopian and Lady Liberty chafe under the code and their lives in the shadows of superhero legends; one is the catalyst of the entire debate about the code, while the other has alienated herself from her superpowered family and friends, instead choosing a life of high fashion and debauchery. Meanwhile, children of other founding members have their own legacies to cope with and decisions to make in the wake of recent events. There are a lot of moving parts, but this focus on familial relationships gives us a framework for personal investment.

I’m interested in a second season because I want to see where the big mystery in the contemporary timeline, with its season-ending twist reveal, leads, but also because I want to see what the original heroes were like as they operated throughout the mid-twentieth century. It would be interesting to see how they navigated around political entanglement during the wars and other crises of the times, how this setting deals with costumed superheroes during the Cold War, how other superpowered individuals emerged, and how people began to turn to supervillainy.

There are a few things, however, that do bother me about the show so far. First, while the cast is somewhat diverse, the primary protagonists are overwhelmingly white, issues of race have been handled unevenly in the 1930s setting so far, and a disproportionate number of people of color have been killed. Second, while a rather minor point, the greatly extended lifespans of the original Union go unremarked-upon, which isn’t a gamebreaker in and of itself, but it does make it difficult to understand why they waited so long in life to have children; they all seemed to have decided to have kids in their eighties or nineties, for some reason, and that’s more bizarre to me than simply having unnaturally lengthened lives. Third and finally, the Union is clearly analogous to the Justice League, despite key differences, and this invites comparison to DC’s Kingdom Come, which just reminds me what a tremendously better story that was. I’d rather see a Kingdom Come adaptation!

That said, I like Jupiter’s Legacy, and I’d happily take more of it. Even with what must now be dozens of superhero shows out there to stream, this offers something fresh.

Batman v. Superman

[This is an old post I had on a previous, now-defunct blog, and it has only been lightly edited in posting here. As such, it’ll read a little strange for a movie that was released five years ago.]

Critical reaction to Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice has been very poor indeed. And a few of my friends, whose opinions I respect, also strongly disliked this film. But a slightly greater number of friends, whose opinions I also respect, left theaters with at least a somewhat positive opinion. I was confused; I wasn’t sure if it was even worth seeing, but I nonetheless felt compelled to watch a film that could produce such divisive opinions.

I walked into the theater expecting to hate BvS. But by the time I left, I was a lot closer to loving it. The execution was not perfect—this was not a masterpiece film. Nonetheless, despite a bit of a bizarre start and some third act problems, I truly enjoyed the film I was shown. Furthermore, I cannot remember the last time I was as critically engaged by a blockbuster action movie. The movie made me think throughout the experience and well after it ended. And I am hungry for more of this unique vision of the DC universe—I look forward to both an extended director’s cut (which will hopefully fill in a few elements that were somewhat lacking in the theatrical release) and to future films in the franchise. [Well look at that, Past Me. I got both of these things. The Ultimate Edition, for what it’s worth, is a better movie.]

I’d like to try to dig into this film and explain my reactions toward it, especially given how polarizing the film has been and how my own opinion fits into what appears to be a minority viewpoint. I’ll begin this engagement with a spoiler-packed [(though not so much now, five years later)] plot summary and then jump to what I liked, what I didn’t like, and what I was unsure of in BvS. I wouldn’t normally spend much time on a plot summary, but I think it’s useful to have a short narrative here to track the core beats of the film.

Plot summary

First, while I expect a fair number of readers will already be familiar with the basic comics characters, I think it might be beneficial to some if I explain that Batman’s alter ego is Bruce Wayne, Superman’s alter ego is Clark Kent, and Wonder Woman’s alter ego is Diana Prince; Lex Luthor is one of Superman’s most iconic villains, and Lois Lane is Superman’s most famous love interest. Now that that’s out of the way… [I can’t imagine doing something like this now, but I was aimed at a different audience then, and I’m keeping this paragraph here because it’s sort of charming to me in retrospect.]

Maybe the simplest plot summary would be as follows: Batman and Superman must overcome fear, doubt, and selfish self-interest to work together in stopping Lex Luthor from causing mass destruction; also, Wonder Woman shows up. Note that this is a fairly simple story at its core, yet that simple story telegraphs almost nothing that actually happens in the film. Note also that it would be very difficult to directly tie Wonder Woman into that central story. This highlights a few of the major problems with the film: it is over-packed, it is too long with too many extraneous threads for the story it is trying to tell, and because it tackles too much it fails to fully establish even important characters and plot points. But that’s me speaking with the benefit of distance and an attempt at objectivity. Those failings are present, but I was too busy having fun to worry about most of this at the time. Again, the execution was not perfect, but I really loved watching a superhero movie that took risks and experimented heavily with content and storytelling and the interplay of narrative and visuals.

I think that the barrage of details thrown at the unwary viewer probably sunk public opinion for the film. So, below you’ll find my own attempt to summarize (and just as importantly interpret) the key events of the film. [Note that this would be for the theatrical version; I’m not going to try to extend this any further with any reference to Ultimate Edition additions.]

The movie opens with yet another flashback to the murder of the Waynes. It then jumps forward to the destruction of Metropolis from the end of Man of Steel, this time from the perspective of the innocents harmed by the attacks—in particular, Bruce Wayne and his “family” of corporate employees. There is another time jump by eighteen months, and we find Batman and Superman in some unique situations.

First, Superman jumps into a firefight in Africa to save Lois Lane, barely arriving in time. He is blamed for several deaths, which occurred moments before his arrival. The US Senate has convened a committee to investigate Superman’s role in the attacks and his potential threat level. While he was obviously not the killer, testimony from survivors in the surrounding village appears to suggest that Superman triggered the violence and deaths by his arrival.

Despite wavering public opinion regarding Superman, Clark Kent has really come into his own since the events of Man of Steel. He appears to have embraced his role as hero, selflessly helping others whenever he becomes aware (his major limitation is his awareness–he is not omniscient and cannot be omnipresent, and he tends to overlook the motivations of others). He also seems to hold himself responsible for the destruction caused in his fight with Zod, feeling both alienated from humanity and simultaneously accountable to it. Since his encounter with Zod, he seems less willing to kill (although he still rushes to violent action when his loved ones are threatened) and deeply concerned with the plight of the disadvantaged.

Meanwhile, Batman, who has been in the vigilante business for twenty years, has become increasingly disenchanted and cruel. He now literally brands criminals, and his fighting style is brutal and unconcerned with sparing life. Superman becomes troubled by the Bat of Gotham’s new bad behavior (news reports begin circulating after the second branding), especially since it seems mostly directed at the poor who live and work near the ports and working-class neighborhoods of Gotham.

Batman, Superman, and Lois Lane all become concerned with eccentric tech genius and LexCorp heir Lex Luthor. Luthor is attempting to weaponize Kryptonite to use against Superman, whom he fears as a potential source of devastation for the human race, and whom he hates as a false source of hope in a cruel universe. In his weaponization efforts, Luthor has employed a sophisticated smuggling ring based out of Gotham to bring radioactive Kryptonite into the country after his efforts to sway the opinion of the Superman Senate committee fail. Batman becomes involved over the course of his investigation of the Gotham smuggling operation. Lois follows a series of leads to learn that Lex in fact set up the mercenary firefight overseas to attempt to turn public opinion against Superman—apparently in the hopes that this would give him access to the crashed Kryptonian ship from the previous film (which it does), unfettered testing of Zod’s corpse (which it does), and government support of his Kryptonite weapons program (which it does not). Superman’s involvement is largely due to his interactions with Bruce Wayne (in his role as Clark Kent the reporter) and with his girlfriend Lois.

Bruce Wayne, who fears Superman about as much as Lex Luthor does, becomes involved with Diana Prince, who is also attempting to learn more about one of Luthor’s operations, and ultimately attempts to steal Kryptonite from a newly arrived convoy. Unfortunately, he is intercepted by Superman, who has come to tell Batman that he will not tolerate Batman’s form of justice anymore.

Batman backs down, but also becomes enraged by Superman’s interference. After a former Wayne employee, permanently injured in the Zod fight and mentally deranged in the following months, detonates an explosive in the capitol that kills several senators and hearing attendees but leaves Superman unharmed, Batman finally decides to take Superman down. He succeeds in stealing the Kryptonite from LexCorp and reactivates his Bat Signal in defiance of Superman. Lex, who has been waiting for just this moment, kidnaps Martha Kent and Lois Lane. After he gets Superman’s attention by almost killing Lois, he informs Superman that the superhero has one hour to bring Lex Batman’s head—or else Luthor’s goons will kill Martha in an undisclosed hideout. Superman goes after the Bat Signal, and Lois does everything she can to follow close behind, concerned for what is to come.

Superman initially intends to talk Batman into helping, but Batman is dead set on fighting, using a processed Kryptonite gas to disable and a Kryptonite spear to kill. In the fight, Superman is actually nearly killed by Batman, and as Batman prepares to kill him, Superman desperately pleads with Batman to stop the mercenaries who are going to kill “Martha.” Batman is enraged and confused—Martha was his own mother’s name—and this coincidence stalls him long enough for Lois to explain to Batman that Martha is Superman’s mother’s name. Batman, who has viewed Superman as a god or a demon or an alien or a monster throughout the film, finally sees Superman as human; he can finally empathize with this other man. Batman promises to free Martha, who is being held by the smuggler Lex used earlier on. Batman tracks down the smuggler and brutally takes down the mercenaries, freeing Martha.

Superman does not join Batman because he must go to check on the Kryptonian ship, which has been reactivated by Lex. He arrives after Luthor’s time limit is up (and just about the same time that Batman has rescued Martha), so Luthor allows his abominable Frankenstein’s monster, Doomsday, a fusion of Zod’s corrupted body and Lex’s own genetic material, to attack. Superman knocks Doomsday into space, where they are both nuked by the panicked and desperate American military. Doomsday crashes to earth, stronger. Batman, realizing that he needs the Kryptonian spear to take down a Kryptonian monster, agitates Doomsday into chasing him from Metropolis across the bay to Gotham, hoping to lure the monster into the vacated port area and to the spear. Superman is restored in orbit by our yellow sun and returns as Wonder Woman (Diana Prince, remember?) arrives to join the fight.

The three fight valiantly but are unable to defeat Doomsday. After an explosion, Superman realizes Lois is in danger again and races to save her, recovering the Kryptonite spear. Though the spear weakens him, he races back to the battle site and drives it through Doomsday, but Doomsday impales Superman on one of its own bodily spikes. Superman pulls himself further into the spike to drive the spear deeper into Doomsday, killing them both.

Batman has finally been convinced by the goodness that Superman embodied. At Clark Kent’s private funeral (while a separate, public, military funeral is held for Superman), Bruce Wayne convinces Diana Prince to help him recruit other metahumans to fight against future threats. Batman has a final confrontation with Luthor in prison, but instead of branding the supervillain he sears his brand into the wall. This suggests that Batman is healing from his psychic injuries thanks to Superman’s influence. And the film closes with some levitating soil on Superman’s coffin, suggesting that Superman is healing from his physical injuries and will return from his apparent death.

What I liked

  • Batman. We don’t need an origin story for this Batman. He has been a crime fighter for twenty years. He has experienced continued loss. He is hardened and violent and cruel. He seems a man who maybe once had optimism that he could make a difference, that he could make a better Gotham. Now he is haunted by what he sees, rightly or wrongly, as his failures: the death of his parents while he stood by, the apparent death of one (if not the only) Robin at the hands of the Joker, the apparent past betrayal by Catwoman, the apparent past corruption of Harvey Dent, the destruction of so many members of the Wayne corporate family and of so much of Metropolis, and the mental degradation and suicide bombing of a former employee. A lot of those moments are inferred, of course, through snippets of dialogue—he is no longer taken in by women who seem doe-eyed and innocent and so is not fooled by Diana Prince, he continues to display Robin’s defaced armor, he mentions to Alfred that they have seen so many good people die or be turned. I think one of my favorite motivators for this Batman is the role of control. Superman is an excuse, an easy target to fear; the reaction is vitriolic and xenophobic. But deep down, Batman cannot tolerate a loss of control–the same vulnerability that drives Luthor to destroy Superman. Batman lost control the instant his parents died, and he has been trying to force the world to make sense ever after by exerting his control on Gotham. That is why he is Batman; that is why he raced to Metropolis during the Zod fight to attempt to save his employees; that is why he feels so powerless and yet defiant in the face of Superman. And Ben Affleck does a phenomenal job as this aging, tortured Batman; plus, the chemistry between Affleck’s Batman and Jeremy Irons’ Alfred is phenomenal. I’ve heard a lot of complaints about Batman’s killing and use of guns in this film, but almost every gun he uses appears to be in a nonlethal role, and while he is cruel and completely fine with killing, his combat style is still largely about crippling. The number of confirmed kills is surprisingly low compared to the outcry. This is a broken Batman who requires the influence of Superman to be restored, and his willingness to kill  is a marker of that.
  • Superman. I think that this film does a lot to improve my opinion of Man of Steel retroactively. Many have complained that Superman has undergone moral growth without any evidence of that process, but I would disagree. This movie still sees him growing. He is torn between selfishness and selflessness, and those dueling impulses are often combined in his relationship with Lois Lane. He would give anything to protect her, and often at a cost. And the more I think about it, he seems to only kill if nothing else will work. He did not kill Batman even though that would have been an easy solution to his problem. He killed Zod because Zod refused to stand down and was a superhuman threat. He killed Doomsday because it was basically an ever-growing zombie monster that could not be controlled. That doesn’t excuse the loss of innocents in these epic fights, but more weight is given to those losses—and those losses provide a good deal of the motivation for Batman. Henry Cavill isn’t my favorite version of Superman, but he works for this more haunted, vulnerable, and angrier version of the character.
  • The internal debate about morality, ethics, and justice. It’s even in the title. Not only does the subtitle Dawn of Justice set up the origin of the Justice League, it also discloses a key theme in the film. We live in an unjust, cruel world. What decisions must we make to bring about justice? What sacrifices must we undergo? Could most of us even make the sacrifices that these superheroes do (of reputation, of life, of freedom from destructive obsession)? And when our attempts to bring about justice still cause suffering in some form, can we still be said to be acting in a just way (a theme really driven home by a hallucinatory discussion between Clark Kent and the dead Pa Kent)? People mocked the “v.” instead of “vs.” but I would say that it underscores that theme of justice. Batman and Superman spend very little of the film battling each other, but their ideas of what justice is make up the crux of the film’s tension. They are in a way proposing different legal and ethical theories, and their own arguments are sometimes supported and sometimes opposed by arguments brought forward by their family and friends, by their enemies, by the government, and by the citizenry of America and the world.
  • Senator Finch. She is probably the best female character in the film. She at first seems antagonistic toward Superman, but she ultimately is shown to be an honest politician who simply wants Superman to be accountable. Rather than “unilaterally” acting against potential threats, she wants him to engage in a dialogue with the American people and their chosen representatives. Her sudden death in this film was unnecessary and shut down that dialogue way too early.
  • The religious allegories. The Trinity (Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman) appears in this film, and Snyder does not shy away from drawing comparisons to gods and to the Christian Holy Trinity. Superman’s death and certain eventual resurrection offers a pretty obvious analogy. Batman’s early rise toward heaven on the wings of bats in a dream sequence is over the top. Lex Luthor constantly talks gods and demons and ultimately embodies the figure of an Antichrist. The splash page image of Batman and Wonder Woman sullenly mourning the fallen Superman screams Renaissance religious iconography.
  • The surrealist imagery and how it influences the plot and future installments. The “dream” sequences were disorienting and so interwoven with the “reality” of the film that I think they open an avenue to deconstruction of “superhero films” as the source of any sort of “realism.” They also highlighted many of the themes and allegories discussed above. And I think that they suggest that the forces of Darkseid (who does not appear in this film) are acting on those who may be psychically sensitive. I think they slowly corrupt Luthor, and drive him toward greater knowledge about the larger universe. I think they also serve as a warning to Batman. It may not be an element from the comics, but it’s a unique touch. Also, presumably the dream sequence involving the Flash really did involve time travel. Lois Lane is the key? It seems that she grounds Superman. But is he warning not to trust Superman, or not to trust Lex, or not to trust another character who has not appeared yet?
  • Wonder Woman. She’s powerful, she’s beautiful, she’s competent. Even when fighting Doomsday to a standstill, she seems to enjoy the combat without being sadistic. I greatly enjoyed Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman, though her scenes as Diana Prince largely lacked substance. I would have preferred more time to develop her character. I guess that’s something to look forward to about the upcoming Wonder Woman solo film. [Yes. It was worth the wait.]
  • Lex Luthor. I thought I would hate this Lex, based on the trailers. But then I gradually came to accept Jesse Eisenberg’s take on the character. This Lex is a genius, but he is also afraid. He was abused by his father and seems to feel inferior to the deceased elder Luthor, and he also seems to fear both a universe without a god and a universe in which an all-powerful god would allow such things to happen. He fears Superman and what such a being could do to humanity. He fears his own impotence. He is introverted and unstable, and his condition deteriorates over the film—probably both from the stress of inserting himself into the role of a “villain” and due to further psychic influence from Darkseid’s forces.
  • The indebtedness to past comics. The film obviously draws from The Dark Knight Returns and Death of Superman. But the corrupting psychic influence of an unseen force that brings out villains and draws heroes together reminds me of the Justice League origin story in The New Frontier, and the edgier and conflicted version of Superman appears to owe a debt to Superman: Earth One. I’ve really enjoyed a lot of the direct-to-video DC movies over the years—especially the Elseworlds stories in which anything can happen outside of mainstream DC continuity. BvS draws from these stories but also feels willing to let anything happen. I would not be surprised if the DC Cinematic Universe is less direct in how it pulls from comics stories as compared to the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
  • The humor. There wasn’t a lot, and it was often dry or subtle, but I laughed when it came up. Lex doing a Professor Xavier impersonation in an electric wheelchair was my favorite comedic moment.

What I didn’t like

  • The treatment of (most) women and (some) minorities. Lois Lane and Martha Kent spend an inordinate amount of time being rescued. [The Ultimate Edition must have given Lois more time, because I didn’t feel like this was as apparent an issue after my most recent watch, but it’s still definitely an issue.] Wonder Woman is background and not even suited up until the end. Senator Finch is unceremoniously killed. The scene where Superman saves a girl from a burning building and is worshiped by Hispanics celebrating the Day of the Dead is symbolically interesting but smacks of uncomfortable racial politics.
  • The first flashback. We don’t need to see Bruce Wayne’s parents die yet again. The more I think about it, the more I feel like that’s not even that vital to an interpretation of Batman. Unless a different background is proposed, the origin story is so oversaturated in our culture that Snyder should have trusted the audience enough to leave it out. Plus, we’re beaten over the head with imagery of Martha Wayne dying and of Martha Wayne’s tomb so that there is no way that the significance of Superman’s “Martha” moment could be lost on us. [The moment would have worked with less setup–or maybe Batman’s change of attitude should have been triggered by something else entirely. A lot of people seemed to find this key moment to be rather forced and laughable.]
  • The coincidental nature of the third act. In writing the plot summary, it didn’t seem that bad, but Lex took a lot for granted. He expected Batman to go rogue and insist on killing Superman. He expected Superman to show up just in time to save a falling Lois, even though this film repeatedly emphasizes that Superman is not as all-powerful or all-knowing as some interpretations of the character. Maybe Lex bought into his god speeches a bit too much.

What I was indifferent toward 

  • The Elseworlds nature of the DC Cinematic Universe. I think a lot of people did not like the movie because it did not embrace the commonly recognized versions of Batman and Superman. I agree that these are not those characters. But I’m willing to let Snyder and company play with the DC universe some more. We have plenty of other versions of the characters in the comics, in television, and in previous movies. We don’t need to simply repeat the incarnations of the characters that have come before. But I understand why people have reacted so strongly against these versions of the characters.
  • The hastily portrayed founding Justice League members. It makes the world seem small that the only other apparent metahumans are all being tracked by Lex, and these six (Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Flash, Cyborg, and Aquaman) happen to be the future Justice League. It would be fun if this universe eventually grows to have a wild collection of other heroes. There are plenty to draw on. And did the Green Lantern movie do so terribly that GL just won’t appear in this DC Cinematic Universe? [Now I know that Green Lanterns have a part in the DCEU, and Justice League set up some potential other superheroes to appear down the line.]
  • Jimmy Olsen. So he’s not mentioned by name, he’s killed early on, and his death seems to have little impact on Lois and no impact on Superman. Why include him at all? [The Ultimate Edition addresses this a little better. It’s still weird to kill Jimmy Olsen so soon after introducing him, but it doesn’t feel quite so random.]
  • Big monster ravages the city. Seen that before. After such a long, overall thoughtful film, the third act felt rushed, and Doomsday feels almost tossed in to establish a big final battle.
  • The indebtedness to Frank Miller. Snyder obviously loves Frank Miller. I do not normally love Snyder or Miller. They are both fairly self-important and fixated on dark, moody, ultraviolent settings. At the same time, Miller is remembered for his impact on characters like Batman and Daredevil for a good reason (even though his more recent contributions are cartoonishly absurd and almost caricatures of his earlier work).
  • The empty cities. The port of Gotham is completely abandoned? Downtown Metropolis is nearly empty after work hours? That felt a little bit implausible, and more like Snyder flippantly responding to criticisms of the apparent death toll from the final battle of Man of Steel.

I hardly think that my opinion is conclusive. But, for what it’s worth, I found a lot more to like than hate in Batman v. Superman.

Eliminating Illithids

Just finished the Captured by Mind Flayers quest in Baldur’s Gate II. That was hell. So many tries to get through that. The room right before you get to the area that leads to the Master Brain was the worst. Just a lot of Illithids. A lot. The worst. I had to step away from the game a little bit, but I found if I’m persistent, and take a week or so off if I get too frustrated, I’m eventually able to get through anywhere in these games. After that fight, the penultimate fight against a small room of mind flayers and the final Master Brain fight were far easier in comparison.

BG II is really fun when it’s focused on plot, characters, NPC dialogue interactions, puzzles, and so on. But the combat can range from a laughable breeze to INCREDIBLY FRUSTRATING AND HARD, and it’s hard to predict what each encounter might yield.

Oh well. Old games were like that. Anyway, just wanted to share. I’m glad to put that hellhole behind me.