Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice review

Batman v Superman, Warner Bros. attempt to set up an extended DC Comics universe to rival Marvel’s movie empire, suffers from a curious form of blockbuster malady. It tries to give us too much in some areas and not enough in others, expecting that the extravagances and the restraints will balance each other out to create a satisfying flick. But that’s not how movies work, and I feel like there’s enough talented people backing this project to know that. Still, the result is a movie that feels like it will end up pleasing no one.

The this-is-all-too-much side of the equation comes mostly in the form of the story. Penned by David S. Goyer and Chris Terrio, the plot begins intriguingly, with an excellent opening focused on the destruction caused by Superman (Henry Cavill) during the climactic battle in Man of Steel. It turns out that Bruce Wayne aka Batman (Ben Affleck) was in Metropolis when the chaos was raining down on the city, and a building filled with his employees was destroyed. Wayne sees Superman as a powerful and destructive force that answers to no man, and vows to destroy him.

Meanwhile, Superman’s alter-ego, Clark Kent, sees reports of the increasingly brutal vigilante justice being metered out by Batman in neighboring Gotham City. He sees Batman as the true threat to justice. But humanity, reeling from the fact that a god is walking among them, is much more concerned with Superman. A senator (Holly Hunter) has begun holding hearings about Superman in an attempt to hold him accountable for the destruction he has caused. And in the middle of it all is the wily Lex Luthor (played with unambiguous glee by Jesse Eisenberg), who sees the bad blood brewing between the two superpowers and immediately begins concocting a plan to exploit it in the hopes that the two will take each other out for good.

The first hour or so is mostly engaging, with a clear, compelling conflict and character motivations. The film raises some provocative questions about the nature of justice and the relationship between god and man. Even as the film goes on, the plot doesn’t get any more overstuffed than your average comic-based film. But the structure of the story is immensely problematic. It’s hard to remember a big-budget tent pole flick this lazily constructed. Some scenes seem to be dropped haphazardly in random sequence. We jump back and forth between characters, sometimes mid-conversation, which disrupts any sort of flow the movie is trying to maintain. Odd dream sequences frequently take us out of the story, and some character decisions later in the film seem rushed and poorly developed. At 2.5 hours, this bad boy could have used some major cutting.


If Batman v Superman is the future of the comic-based blockbuster, it looks to be a dark, dull and dreary one.

Director Zack Snyder, who also helmed Man of Steel, has never met a metaphor he couldn’t bludgeon to death, and so we get lots more painfully obvious religious symbolism surrounding Superman. We also get tons of ridiculous dialogue from Luthor which sounds like it was written just to make the trailer sound EPIC (bludgeoned even further by Eisenberg, who seems like a really wrong choice for the character). Add in bombastic sound effects and an overbearing Hans Zimmer score (who disappoints after his excellent work on Man of Steel) and you have a senses-draining headache on your hands.

The filmmakers attempt to rein in some of this grandiosity by exercising restraint in key areas. Unfortunately, these areas are important, and so the film’s glimpses of excellence aren’t given the depth or care they deserve. Fans were concerned when Ben Affleck was cast as Bruce Wayne, but I love his portrayal as an older, wearied Bruce pondering his legacy. As a man with little left to lose, it’s easy to understand why he would put himself in so much danger to take down what he sees as a menace, even if said menace is an unstoppable god. He has some nice scenes with his perennial butler Alfred (played here by the always-welcome Jeremy Irons). I wish Bruce, and especially Aflred, had gotten more screen time, because once Wayne dons the bat suit, things go south. This version of Batman is reckless and seemingly has no issue shooting at bad guys and blowing up their cars. For a guy attempting to rein in an all-powerful alien’s destructive habits, he sure doesn’t seem to care much about his own collateral damage. He even gets to help smash some buildings that (for all we know), may still have people inside during the film’s climactic fight (we do get a throwaway line from a newscaster claiming that downtown is “deserted” after working hours, but how could he know that for sure?).

We are also introduced to Diana Prince aka Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), who I suspect will be the favorite character in the film for many. Since we’ve never had an adequate big-screen version of this iconic character, I enjoyed every second of her all-too-brief appearances. She totally kicks ass.

But characters like Wonder Woman reveal the film’s biggest deficiency: it’s that darn subtitle. No one here is masking that the film is one grand set-up for the upcoming Justice League movie. As a result, Batman v Superman is the very definition of a placeholder (albeit a very expensive one). About halfway through, I resigned myself to the fact that the film would be dispensing with character development almost entirely. The vast majority of plot developments and character motivations exist to get a person from one place to another so that they can do a thing that will set off another thing. Stuff happens, things explode and bad guys are defeated. We gain precious few insights into why characters are the way they are, or how the events of this film changed them. They’re all pawns in a very long chess game (returning characters such as Lois Lane and Perry White may as well not be in the film at all).

It’s a darn shame, because this story had great potential. But the sum total is a gorgeous looking, expensive production almost entirely bereft of meaning, one that raises provocative questions it doesn’t feel equipped to explore. Batman v Superman reminds me of those dark days in the mid-00’s when most superhero movies were overly gritty, mostly terrible and no fun at all. Let’s hope the sub-genre’s future isn’t content to turn more cool ideas into dull slogs like this one.

What Han Solo taught me about Easter


One of my favorite scenes in the latest Star Wars film, The Force Awakens, is the one where new characters Finn and Daisy first come across the infamous space rogue Han Solo and his longtime Wookie companion Chewbacca. When asked about the ancient myth of the Jedi and the force that surrounds the universe, Han replies, “It’s true. All of it.”

What gives this line so much meaning is that this wasn’t always Han’s conclusion. In the first Star Wars film, A New Hope, Han is outright dismissive of the Force, telling Luke Skywalker, “Kid, I’ve flown from one side of this galaxy to the other, and I’ve seen a lot of strange stuff, but I’ve never seen anything to make me believe that there’s one all-powerful Force controlling everything. ‘Cause no mystical energy field controls my destiny. It’s all a lot of simple tricks and nonsense.”

We, of course, know Han Solo is wrong, but the pleasure of his journey, so expertly capitalized upon in The Force Awakens, is seeing him accept this realization for himself. There are things he doesn’t understand about the universe, things he can’t even see. And Han, ever the pragmatist, denies they exist because he hasn’t seen the evidence for himself.

But his admission 30 years later changes all of that. He is now telling fellow doubters that the things he once refused to believe in are true. All of them.

I’ve thought quite a bit about Han’s realization during Holy Week. I think we often treat the resurrection of Christ in the same way Han initially treated the force. A man rising from the dead? How can such a thing be true?

imagesWe live in a pragmatic, logical society, and this is in many ways a good thing. We are naturally skeptical until we have reason to believe otherwise. We value science and evidence-based convictions, much as Han did when he told Luke, “Hokey religions and ancient weapons are no match for a good blaster at your side, kid.”

But our faith in science only takes us so far, before it becomes just that, faith. We can become so obsessed with what we can observe, what we in fact can witness with our own eyes, that any other way of experiencing the world is dismissed out of hand. We somehow think that science will solve all of our problems, that it will save us from ourselves, despite the fact that the study of science is done by human hands. We need only to look at the atom bomb and two world wars to convince us that our salvation is not found in science alone.

Two famous skeptics, C.S. Lewis and Lee Strobel, were a lot like young Han. They were so obsessed with evidence that they set out to disprove Christianity and the existence of God entirely. They didn’t do a very good job. Both became staunch Christian apologists, and they did so primarily by examining the evidence they were so hoping would lead to a different conclusion. If all things are created by God, then science, like everything else, points back to the majesty of the creator.

As Strobel has written, “Christianity is a very historical religion. It makes specific claims that are open to testing.” He also said, “I think it’s very healthy to use journalistic and legal techniques to investigate the evidence for and against Christianity and other faith systems.”

Doing so is not only healthy, but essential. One of the things I love about the Gospel accounts of the life of Christ is that they strike me as very journalistic. Four men, approaching the same story from four different angles, astonishingly came to the same conclusions. Luke, a doctor by profession, was particularly interested in providing an orderly and accurate account of what transpired during Jesus’ three years of ministry, along with his eventual death and resurrection.

Luke tells Theophilus, to whom his gospel account is addressed, that he intended “to write an orderly account…that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught” (Luke 1:3-4).

The story of Easter is not some far-away fairy tale, but a story rooted in many of the things our society holds dear. Archaeology, science, history…it all points to the risen Christ.

“Points” is the operative word here. None of these things, on their own or combined, irrefutably prove that Christ was raised from the dead three days after he was crucified and buried. There is, of course, a strong element of faith to, well…faith. Christianity is both intellectual and experiential. Han Solo could have seen evidence of the force and still not believed, because doing so would require a change of perspective in his life. It would require him to reorder his priorities, to abandon some of the things that had previously brought him joy. His life would never be the same.

We can assert the veracity of the story of Christ’s resurrection all day, but if we don’t allow it to penetrate our hearts, to reorder our lives in response, that we haven’t really been listening. Some people may never feel like they will be able to take that step of faith to surrender their lives in this way. But the Easter story reminds us that it is, indeed, just a step. Tomorrow there will be another. And the day after, another. Before we know it, Christ has changed us from the inside out.

As Easter approaches, I think of Han Solo’s confession, informed by both rational study and the realization that there are some things about the universe that will never fit neatly into his compartmentalized mind. “It’s true…all of it.” As I look upon the resurrected Christ, I repeat these words with awe, wonder and the realization that it changes everything.

That Dragon, Cancer and the art of surrender

I can’t get baby Joel to stop crying. He doesn’t want his juice box. He doesn’t want me to hold him. As his wails grow louder and more pained, I seem to be out of options. I resign to telling my son that I can’t make him feel better, words no father ever wants to say.

It seems odd for a video game to give you a goal you can’t achieve, but that’s just one of the things that makes That Dragon, Cancer special. The game is a haunting, painful and yet beautiful interactive poem, created by Ryan and Amy Green, along with developer Josh Larson, to tell the story of their young child’s real-life battle with—and eventual loss to—cancer at the age of five.

“Interactive poem” is a better term for the title than video game. There aren’t any traditional goals, and the ones given to you seem awfully mundane. Feed the ducks at the pond. Examine pictures in a hallway. Push baby Joel on a swing. The game seems more concerned with guiding you through the events being depicted rather than letting you having any say in how these events play out. Which is, of course, the point.

That Dragon, Cancer is a devastating interactive story of a family's real-life encounter with cancer.

That Dragon, Cancer is a devastating interactive story of a family’s real-life encounter with cancer.

Gaming is often goal-oriented, asking us to solve problems and achieve things to make ourselves feel accomplished. We usually expect a reward in return. That Dragon, Cancer is part of a recent trend of “empathy games” that take a different route. More often autobiographical in nature, the goal of empathy games is to put the gamer in someone else’s shoes; perhaps a real person facing real emotions, or at least a reasonable facsimile of one. No bullet sponges or high speed chases here. In the ongoing conversation of games as art, the idea that games can allow us to connect with others in the way a great novel or film can has been a difficult hurdle for the medium to overcome. And yet, I never thought I would emphasize with the identity struggles of a lesbian teenager until I played Gone Home. And The Stanley Parable messed with my conceptions of free will and storytelling as much as One Hundred Years of Solitude.

That Dragon, Cancer is simpler than those games, and yet infinitely richer in its emotional impact. By giving us an impossible task (save Joel from dying) and asking us to control it, the Greens reveal to us the futility of human endeavor, especially when it comes to trying to make sense of unexpected tragedy. One of the game’s more creative examples of this is when the player is tasked with guiding a flying Joel through a minefield of cancer cells. Joel is held up by balloons, and once those balloons pop, he will fall. As the cancer cells continue to multiply and navigating the field becomes harder, I realize that I’m not supposed to win. Eventually, I have to surrender to the makers of the game and fail at this particular task in order to proceed.

Surrender is a big theme in the game, specifically, to God. Not that doing so was easy for the Greens. Throughout the game, the player reads letters the husband and wife wrote to one another. Amy always appears cheerful, resting in the hope that God will hear her prayers and heal Joel.

“I pray I find God’s wisdom in the midst of chaos,” she says. “My doubt is insignificant compared to God’s faithfulness.”

Ryan tries to remain hopeful, but is often jealous of Amy’s cheery outlook on their son’s increasingly grim situation.

“My wife is expecting a surprise party from the Lord…I envy her,” he says.

Ryan and Amy’s prayers seem to have got them through this tough season, but that doesn’t mean they didn’t do their part. They moved with their two other sons to California from Colorado just to try an alternative treatment for Joel. They (and by extension, the player) spent many sleepless nights in the hospital. They tried just about everything they could, but in the scene where the doctors come to announce that there isn’t anything else they can do, the game shifts. We’re no longer battling the cancer; we’re battling the voices of fear, doubt and pain that emerge in Ryan and Amy’s heads. We’re asked to resign ourselves to the fact that prayer is the only thing we have left to do.

The game’s Steam reviews are overwhelmingly positive, but most of the negative reviews complain about its blatant religious overtones. Those opinions are valid, but they miss the point. The Greens’ personal experience is not universally relatable, nor should it be. Their strong Christian faith is no less a part of their story than Joel himself. To diminish its importance in order to appeal to a wider audience would be disingenuous.

But the Greens’ Christian faith isn’t something they just conjured up to make them feel better about their baby’s death. It’s an all-encompassing hope that protrudes into every area of their life. Prayer doesn’t always have to bring tangible results to have value. Faith doesn’t always bring the healing we desire it to. God isn’t a personal genie we conjure up when we need things from him, but God is there in the midst of our pain, and he fights for us and with us.

“Grace is…kind of like help,” Amy narrates as the player fights the fire-breathing dragon of cancer as an avatar of Joel decked in armor. “We know that God fights for Joel, even when he can’t fight for himself.” It is then that grace appears as a majestic golden eagle, lifting up Joel after he is felled by a fireball.images

That faith-filled hope is driven home in the game’s ending, where I am tasked with lighting candles in church to pray for Joel’s healing. Each candle is tied to a specific prayer, and as I attempt to light all the candles at once, a symphony of prayers rise, united in their diversity. Of course, we already know those prayers weren’t answered, at least in the way we would have liked them to be, but for Christians the good news is that even this is not the end of the story. Death never has the final say, and neither does cancer. Without giving anything more away, I even get to see Joel one more time before the credits roll.

Yes, That Dragon, Cancer is an unapologetically Christian examination of death and tragedy. It’s also probably the first Christian video game that can be considered great art. From its beautiful soundtrack to its creative use of shifting perspective and haunting stylized visuals, the game is an artistic masterwork. It’s the closest we’ll get to an interactive The Death of Ivan Ilyich. Perhaps, most importantly, it’s a potent reminder that the world needs good Christian art. Stories like the ones the Greens have shared are valuable stories that need to be told—stories of God’s grace and provision through life’s up and (especially) downs. We don’t want to play or watch a religious tract or a Sunday school sermon. Just give us a story, and tell it well. And while you’re at it, give us a few tissues.

That Dragon, Cancer is on sale on Steam through March 21. You can purchase it here.