I’m in a bit of a unique position as someone who hasn’t read any DC (or Marvel) comics (except Geoff Johns Flash series), so staying “true to the material” has never been important to me. I love comic book movies or superhero movies — whatever you want to call them — and I’m eager to see more.
With Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice, there were problems (Parademons and Flashpoint were unnecessary, and Eisenberg would rather be playing Jim Carry’s Riddler than Lex Luthor), but they didn’t ruin the film. Where the film ultimately fails is in two respects: 1. The Superman established fails to be a hero and 2. Batman’s “Rosebud/Martha” moment doesn’t complete his arc.
Let’s start with the first:
1. Superman Fails as a Character
In regards to the controversy surrounding Man of Steel, I thought it was a unique take on Superman that hadn’t been done before. It wasn’t a particularly good movie: the pacing was atrocious, motivations were’t altogether clear, and the action was dull — there’s only so many times I can watch a guy punch another guy through a building, I mean really, there’s no choreography just a demonstration of power and it’s dull. That said, I thought it was interesting. What Man of Steel was NOT, was a good introduction to a character for a larger extended universe. That Superman worked as a one-shot, not as an introduction to a Superman that will one day lead a team.
That’s the biggest problem with Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice and — forgive the brief and ONLY comparison — but it’s where Captain America: Civil War succeeded, the audience could empathize with both sides: Cap’s and Iron Man’s.
In Batman V. Superman, you can make Batman kill as many criminals as you want, but it doesn’t make the audience like him less. We want to see Batman beat up Superman; hell, I’d be on board with Batman killing Superman.
The Superman “established” in Man of Steel lacks perspective and righteousness. Man of Steel created a Superman deeply enmeshed in that “gray” area. He doesn’t know what he’s doing. And while the destruction he caused in Metropolis has polarized the masses (in the universe and metatextually), it’s never reflected in Superman’s character. We don’t get a sense that he feels guilt over what he did. We never see how or if he tried to rebuild Metropolis. Seeing as he could lift far more quickly than a crane, why wouldn’t he assist in rebuilding? It seems like he writes it off as collateral damage Zod caused and not something he needs to dwell on.
Because of this, his tenacious attempts to draw the Daily Planet’s attention to Gotham, comes across as a whiny guy trying to throw Batman under the bus. He continually brings up Gotham City’s Batman as the real problem, “I f*cked up, but he’s worse!” The silver lining is this results in a great performance from Laurence Fishburne as his Perry White grows noticeably more agitated with Clark Kent’s attempts to bring the story of Gotham to Metropolis.
All this is to say that Superman is — as he has been since Man of Steel — misguided. Just take the first encounter between Superman and Batman. Batman is clearly chasing some smuggler-thugs who are opening fire on him in a freeway. Stray bullets are probably downing civilians and rather than stop the villains, Superman stops Batman.
FYI, you don’t stop Batman by telling him to stop being Batman; you stop Batman by cleaning up crime in Gotham. That sums up Superman in a nutshell and, in my opinion, it’s why his character fails to captivate an audience. Superman is never tackling the cause, just symptoms. He’s a react-er, and that’s why Batman acts as a proper foil, he’s methodical, calculating, and premeditated.
However, there was one moment in BvS where it seemed like Superman was rising to the occasion. He grabs Doomsday and flies into space. This is heroic; this shows resolve. The only thing clear about this maneuver was that he wanted to take Doomsday away from the planet (since the beast can’t fly after all). Superman did not have an end game, he was trying to save people from further devastation. Then, they fire the nukes and Superman sees this and makes a new plan. He holds Doomsday in place so they can both take the hit — this is self-sacrifice; this is all that’s required to be a hero.
What’s interesting is how much this Hollywood blockbuster downplays this very cinematic moment. I mean reading the script must’ve been a very different experience. You have a military base where cautious generals stand around with two keys locked in position. POTUS asks “How many estimated casualties?” and a general says, “Just one.” But a lower ranking officer pipes up, “Superman.” Slow zoom into the speaker phone as the president gives the order. They twist the keys. Cut to Superman punching Doomsday in outer space, sending shockwaves in the higher atmosphere. Establishing shot showing Superman making no headway; they’re evenly matched. He sees the nuke rising, has a slow motion reflection of Pa Kent and races upwards, grabs Doomsday in a headlock, and takes the nuke headon. Batman and Wonder Woman stare at the explosion in the sky, hundreds of citizens follow suit as two corpses fall back to Earth…
Course, it’s revealed that the reason they don’t make that moment more cinematic is so they can do this exact same thing again but with a Kryptonite spear… which feels forced. Wonder Woman and (obviously) Batman are outmatched by Doomsday, so they didn’t need to fill that additional running time. End it with a nuke (have Batman hookshot the last cannister of kryptonite gas to it — then you have a spear of kryptonite for later use in future movies and you don’t need to explain how/why they have Clark Kent’s body in a coffin and some dummy body in the Superman one).
In short, they missed the scene for self-sacrifice.
2. Batman’s Rosebud
When Batman’s parents die, it felt like Citizen Kane. The pearls replaced the snow globe, and “Rosebud” was replaced with “Martha.” I 100% believe this was intentional and it would make sense in regards to the film.
So much of BvS is about how Batman has been Batman for a looong time. He’s jaded and foregone his “I don’t kill” policy. “How many good guys stayed good, Alfred?” — this is just as easily a reference to the Joker being Robin as it is talking to himself. I say this because, in this universe, Batman kills bad guys, so the only reason he wouldn’t have killed Jared Leto’s Joker is if he’s his former Robin — plus, then you have a reason why/how Joker could fist-fight and go toe-to-toe with Batman since he was trained by him, but I digress.
Batman hasn’t lost his sled from when he was a kid, but he’s lost his way; his mantra; his mission. He didn’t kill, but now he does. When Superman says, “Martha”, it should impact him the way the memory of a sled does Kane. He should remember why he put on the suit in the first place and STOP KILLING PEOPLE.
And, in fact, the script enables Batman to showcase this. Batman goes to save Martha. This would be the perfect opportunity for Batman to not kill the villains, i.e. completing his arc and making that Rosebud/Martha come full circle — he regains his vision.
But then he kills about 30% of them.
3. Lex Luthor
Okay, I know I said two points, and I mean that — I’m not just lazily avoiding retroactively correcting my second paragraph (like some screenwriters) — because Lex Luthor is not substantial enough to “ruin” the movie. However, something should be said about a screenplay that makes it Luthor’s masterplan to actually have Batman steal the kryptonite.
There’s a recurring trope in action movies lately where the villain takes every eventuality into consideration and I’ve read some arguments that The Dark Knight started it with Heath Ledger’s Joker. I’m surprised this is a thing.
See, when Lex Luthor says, “Oh yeah, I planned for Batman to take the Kryptonite all along” it feels scripted because it doesn’t make sense why he’d plan that far ahead. Up until that line of dialogue, I just assumed Lex was making the best of a bad situation. He (Lex) wanted to use the Kryptonite and weaponize it himself, but when Batman steals it, he adapts and moves to plan B, try to Frankenstein a monster that will take down Superman. It’s when he realizes that Batman wants to kill Superman, that he adapts his scheme and tells Superman to fight Batman. That way, if Batman succeeds, Superman is dead, and even if Batman loses, then he will have bought enough time to awaken his Doomsday creation — that makes sense! But they try and throw in this I-thought-the-whole-script-through thing in instead and instead of elevating Luthor, it diminishes Batman’s detective work and makes the audience roll their eyes at an obvious script choice.
As to what this means in the larger cinematic world, I want to take a minute to defend The Dark Knight’s Joker. I — like most people (even if it’s subconsciously) — never believed the Joker thought his plan all the way through to getting arrested. He’s “an agent of chaos”. I believe the Joker has implanted dozens of psyche ward rejects with bombs without giving it a second thought. I believe that when he was in jail, he genuinely thought, I can cause more chaos if I use my daily phone call to blow up another shmuck on the street — maybe he thought he’d even use that as leverage to get out one day. Then when he saw one of his projects walk in, he thought, “Oh… I bet I could escape this way.” But that’s the difference. The Joker makes it clear he “just wants to watch the world burn”. He’s not a brilliant planner or schemer, he’s an agent of chaos and he accepts serendipity as the greatest form of chaos.
Again, Joker (like Superman) is a react-er and that makes for an excellent foil to the world’s greatest detective / ninja / eagle scout.
In closing, I think this was a pretty alright movie that whetted my appetite for more (I did only see the Ultimate Edition), but it could’ve been great with some relatively easy fixes. Another “for instance” is, I know for a lot of critics the “She with you / I thought she was with you” joke didn’t land and an easy fix for this would have been to make it more obvious that Batman assumed Wonder Woman was kryptonian. How do you do that? Easy, when he opens the meta-human folder, have a folder with Superman’s logo since Lex allegedly kept tabs on all of them. That would’ve made it clear that Batman assumed Wonder Woman was in league with Superman and maybe all these other guys. I digress.
I’m very excited for Justice League because I believe cutting Superman from the roster (as it appears) is going to benefit the DC extended universe.
Post Script Observations:
- I cannot wait for someone to make Batman beating Superman over the head with a sink into a looped gif.
- Clint Eastwood did the bathtub better: