Problems with Batman v. Superman and how to Fix Them
Batman v. Superman was not a good movie. I know some people who love it. I understand why they might, as visually it is a breathtaking film. Zack Snyder is a master of what we see in a film. The cinematography in the first 2/3rds of the movie is both gritty and beautiful. Snyder has a way of vacillating from close ups to wide shots, skipping anything between, to create an operating grandeur of scale and importance that makes each shot feel like a comic panel that leaps from DC and right onto the screen.
The problem, though, is what those panels are filled up with. Snyder and writer David Goyer have a fixation of pulling our heroes into a world they don’t quite fit in. At times it feels too realistic and at other times strangely corny, dodging between painfully dower and Batman ’66. It’s hard to explain to people who love his movies and harder to relay. Mainly, it’s the writing and staging. When Christopher Nolan throws in something ridiculous or even cheesy, it somehow is weighted with the gravitas of master craftsman applying their skills from top to bottom. When Batman v. Superman asks us for the same constructs, I laughed or fell asleep. Buried within the weird edits, confusing characterization, and almost erotic fixation of violence there is a masterpiece. I want to dig it out. How can we do this? Problem: Editing/Pacing There is some strange editing in this movie. The two biggest moments that come to mind are the Robin suit and the Batman vision. Batman gets an invitation to a party, realizes he can go as Bruce Wayne, then walks downstairs to stare at his costumes, then walks upstairs to get in his car and drive to the party. Either I missed something, or this is strangely out of place. This should’ve come earlier or later. It was just… there. This happens a lot. Batman wakes up from a disturbing vision of a dystopian future, sees Flash time traveling and then… wakes up again? I can’t even begin to explain this scene. It was so close to a fun, smart moment but then… He’s still asleep?
This also shows up when Wonder Woman gets her e-mail/AIM message/whatever it was about the other superhero running around. It is just tossed in to give us a look at Aquaman, Cyborg, and Flash. These are cool, fun scenes. They also feel entirely out of place and disrupt the flow of the movie.
Oh, and let’s not forget the random hallucination (dream?) on a mountain that feels comically out of place in a movie where Batman imagines himself shooting people. That moment was strange in both editing and pacing. It was the equivalent of Thor’s dream sequence for Batman v. Superman. It ground the movie to a half and brought nothing to the table.
Pacing is all over. The first half of the movie is a depressing, slogging wash. The last third of the movie is a crazy action movie. It’s hard to explain pacing without seeing movies that re paced perfectly. Watch Mad Max: Fury Road, 2001: A Space Odyssey, or the Dark Knight for examples of a variety of pacing that all work brilliantly.
Solution: Editing/Pacing This is easy. Get a new editor. Let some scenes breath and tighten others up. If the first half of the movie wasn’t so brutally sad and the ending so hopeless, maybe we could build slowly to a crescendo for the operatic feel of the film. Instead we are pummeled by sadness, even in heroic moments, and then are pummeled by explosions.
And, seriously, cut out that second confusing wake up. I still have no idea what that was. How can the Flash time travel into a dream? Or was Batman dreaming about someone he’d never met who was telling him to protect a woman he didn’t know?
Problem: Characterization Goyer and Snyder don’t seem to grasp characterization here. I didn’t like Man of Steel, but it did a much better job of building up Superman, Lois, and Zod (never mind Jonathan Kent… ugh). Motivations existed. Characters felt similar to the ones we remembered, although reimagined through a distorted lens. There was some direct characterization, where Superman’s parents would bombard their adoptive son and us with long dialogs about responsibility and heroics. But there was some subtle implicit character building. Through their actions, we came to understand why Superman was forced to kill Zod. I hated this choice, but in world it fit.
In Batman v. Superman, we get none of this. Superman ends Man of Steel on a hopeful note. Here, he is a depressed and hopeless mess, going off on random tangents about Batman and then retiring only to return several minutes later. Batman made weird, unnatural decisions and went from great detective to lunatic. It was… uncomfortable. And the women in this movie? Whereas Lois was a strong, intelligent woman in Man of Steel, here she’s a plot contrivance. “Superman needs to do something, put Lois in harm’s way. Superman needs to fight Batman. Shove his mother into a kidnapping.” Even Wonder Woman only exists to be the object of Batman’s desire instead of a wholly fleshed out thing.
This movie has no character arcs and the ones we know from the previous film are gone. Superman was hopeful, now he’s depressed again and doesn’t seem to care about humanity. Martha is rambling the same nonsense Jonathan Kent did with no new urgency. Lois is a plot point. Batman barely has a resolved story that changes him from a murderous man willing to kill foreigners to a murderous man willing to look for other super powered people.
Solution: Characterization Give your main characters basic character traits that are familiar to the viewer from other films, comics, or cartoons. Batman is violent but won’t kill. Superman wants to save the world. Lois might end up in a bad situation, but she’s an extremely deductive reporter. These are heroic archetypes so we can stick to the simple, just make sure the act in character. Batman shouldn’t want to murder people, he should want to bring them to justice. Superman shouldn’t want to quit at the drop of the hat, he should want to be the best of humanity.
Problem: The Villains This movie does a strange thing with plot structure that it does not deserve. Every one of our male leads is a villain. Superman is a bad guy to some. Batman is a bad guy to some. Lex is a bad guy to everyone. Doomsday is an evil force of nature. In a blockbuster comic book movie, we need clear cut evil characters with obvious motives. Let’s focus on Lex and Doomsday.
What in the hell is Lex’s motivation in this movie? Do you know? I sort of do because he gave a speech about it. The problem, though, is that this speech was covered over by other character’s talking. In what movie on this plant would the important bad guy’s speech be covered over by other characters doing things? It’s maddening. His motivation was that he hated that other people had more power than him? Or he wanted the power? Or he was just evil? How did he learn Superman was Clark Kent? Did he know that earlier in the movie? These are questions that shouldn’t have to be asked.
In the original Christopher Reeves Superman movies, Lex has so real motivations. He’s an evil lunatic who wants to get land to make money. The first two movies are basically a giant land scheme and a grab for power. This makes sense. Lex’s diluted motivations make none.
So, then Lex decides to make a… something using his DNA and Kryptonian DNA that (thanks, plot point) the ship combines into Doomsday. An easier and less nonsensical pathway could’ve just been Lex accidentally unleashes a prisoner, and it’s Doomsday. Luckily he acts as a force of nature and needs no motivation. It’s a simple way out of a badly written corner.
Solution: The Villains Lex needs a clear motivation. Maybe he is honestly afraid of Superman. Maybe he wants the power for himself. Maybe Lex was the one who lost people in the Metropolis attack, but because he’s an evil person, he wants to kill Superman. We should immediately know the motivation of Lex and it should be spelled out, not necessarily handed to us, but we should know it. Lex sort of explains these things, kind of, but says seemingly random one liners and never once exhibits the cold, calculating genius of Lex in the comics. This is the early, cartoonish criminal Lex combined with the Joker.
Problem: Violence There is a problem a lot of people seem to ignore in this movie and, disturbingly, some people love. Batman and Superman are obviously killing a lot of people. I’ve read many, many comic books staring both. I have thousands upon thousands of comics in my collection. The underlying theme from the 1940’s until now has always been that these two men absolutely do not kill anyone, unless it’s an absolute last resort. In this movie both Batman and Superman seem to not care about anyone’s life at all. It’s disturbing to the point of confusion. Are these even the characters I know?
This causes the story to completely fall apart. Batman killed some guys who worked for Lex Luthor. At no point do we know any of them (other than the head) are actually evil. These guys could’ve just been security guys legally working for Lex Luthor. But this is a Batman that drags their bodies in a car behind his to slam them into another car. Superman shows up, ignoring the carnage around him, to tell Batman he’s too violent. This same Superman who killed Zod and them kills a terrorist. Then, after Superman kills that terrorist, he says he never killed any terrorists. Was the guy he smashed through several walls fine? Later, Batman shoots guys with guns on the Batmobile and blows someone up who is 3 feet from the woman he swore he’d protect.
The entire thing is a mess, and the worst part of it all is it makes the motivations completely ruined. Heck, how is the Joker still around if Batman will just shoot you? If both Batman and Superman will kill people, why are they even fighting? Superman thinks Batman is too violent, but Superman is a killer. Batman thinks Superman is too willing to destroy property, but he goes around blowing people up, killing them by throwing their cars at other cars, and luring giant monsters back into cities.
After killing Zod, Superman absolutely refuses to kill anyone. That’s how we start our story. He knows he can bring people to justice without it. Maybe he even avoids violence because of the destruction of metropolis. Batman is a violent vigilante, but he won’t kill anyone. He will cripple someone. He will put someone into intensive care. None of these people die, however. That doesn’t mean he can’t be frowned for murder or looked down upon for his ever increasing level of brutality. Make Batman a moody, secretive, violent nut and Superman a man atoning for his misdeeds. Just don’t have them running around killing whoever they want. That’s the Punisher.
Problem: Hopelessness This is the biggest issue for me and many of the bad reviews for this movie. The entire movie is utterly devoid of the fun and hopeful feeling that a Superman movie should have. It is also entirely devoid of the strange bitter sweet feeling of the best Batman movies. Superman doesn’t wink. He smiled only once. Batman doesn’t feel his quest is justified or ever see a positive result of his world. Gotham makes good people bad and bad people worse. Metropolis is a sad, faceless city where even moments of joy are restrained. Superman saving people on a roof? No, better make it look like Superman is crushed by the weight of the world. Superman saves a girl? No, better slow it down until it makes you feel bad about yourself.
As much as I didn’t like Man of Steel, the ending had a clear message: hope. Even the Dark Knight, a deeply disturbing and self-serious film, has a brilliantly bitter sweet ending. Sure, Batman must become a villain to be a hero. But the Joker didn’t win. People are inherently good in Nolan’s films. Commissioner Gordon can have his family. Only Batman must suffer, not his city.
Snyder and Goyer seem to have the very idea of Superman, desperately wanting him to be sad and somehow the evil other come to destroy us. The opening of this movie bombards us with Bruce’s parents shot and killed, this time in the face, and doesn’t let up until Superman is dead and buried, along with his hopeful view of things.
Solution: Hopelessness Have Superman smile. Superman is inherently a happy person. He has a loving family and believes he can do good. Batman shouldn’t be happy, but he can smile or at least feel something other than rage and depression. I can’t imagine Snyder’s Batman ever raised a child or convinced Alfred to stay with him. I can’t understand what Lois sees is this Clark Kent other than, “He’s hot.” Though this seems to fall in line with this movie’s views on women as plot points.
The key point of most superhero stories is the hope that we can overcome something - be it violence or evil aliens or Nazis – and the spectacle of overcoming that thing. Comic books are hopeful at their heart. When World War 2 happened, superheroes were punching Hitler in the face. Comic books are both escapism and a bizarre fantasy that we can punish evil and save the meek. This becomes intertwined with the stories of Batman and Superman. Yes, they fail sometimes, but their successes always outweigh failures. We don’t need Superman: Deadly Legacy in a movie (a comic book about the dangers of landmines). We need to see DC’s trinity overcoming adversity and rising above the rest of us. Even in Batman’s grittiest moments, such as The Dark Knight Returns, we still find glimmers of hope. Goyer and Snyder seem to ether forget or ignore this, allowing none of our heroes even a sliver of joy or greatness. It’s kind of sad, actually. Problem: Comic Books DC’s heroes are comic book characters. Superman and Batman have nearly 100 years of history each. Wonder Woman isn’t far behind. However, the films seems to fetishize just a handful of stories… The Dark Knight Returns, the Killing Joke… and then comes bits of New 52 and some classic stories, with a few shots from some other DC movies. It’s not that these are bad stories. They are all brilliant stories. The problem is that, out of context, you have a few cool imagines.
Goyer and Snyder ignore the reason for Batman and Superman fighting, but plaster our senses with their fight. We see the iconic images from the 4-color pages, but we lack context. Goyer and Snyder attempt to create their own context but as mentioned earlier, they fail. It’s almost as if someone cut up classic stories and pasted their favorite art against a backdrop without context. Is it cool? Yes. Is it coherent? No.
Solution: Comic Books Maybe it’s time for DC to either directly adapt some of their greatest stories (as they attempted with Watchmen, to mixed success) or to throw out the comics altogether and build a movie universe. The problem with adapting The Dark Knight Returns into a film is that these are heroes at the end of their stories. Why not take one of the many versions of the Superman and Batman first meeting and build it into a movie, almost directly from the comics?
Or throw out the Marvel movie universe idea of shared films and crossovers, and do something… daring. Start letting directors adapt their favorite comics directly, without worrying about crossing everything over. But make sure they adapt the comics we all love. How amazing would a Long Halloween starring Ben Affleck be? Or maybe have a sequel to Man of Steel based on For the Man Who Has Everything? Take the written and illustrated world of the comics and bring that to life, instead of picking and choosing while leaving out the key elements that make us love those same comics.
DC and Warner Brothers are already pushing forward with the Snyderverse in the form of the first Justice League movie. Both Aquaman and Wonder Woman are placed in this universe, with the people making Wonder Woman referring to it as “dark”. Let’s hope someone reads my suggestions and takes them to heart because, as it stands, DC has alienated this longtime fan and is twisting in the breeze when it comes to critics (Batman v. Superman is at a 29% on Rotten Tomatoes as of today). If as many people hated this movie as are admitting to, then can they expect us all to pile in to see another washed out, bleak superhero movie next year? And the year after? And so on, for the next decade? Sooner or later, we will either get changes or see DC crash and burn.
I don’t want to see this. I only want fantastic films based on those things I love. They can be simple or daring; strange or standard; complex or popcorn flicks… Just make sure they are much, much more competent at telling their story than Batman v. Superman was. Please.