The reviews have all been written on Batman Vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice, so it’s almost pointless to go over the film itself. That said, however, the film is a phenomenon. It is a landmark in the making of film. I don’t mean any of that in a good way.
The reason it is such a moment in film history is because Batman Vs Superman is a colossal statement on what happens when a studio doesn’t have a cohesive plan and hands total creative control to someone who doesn’t understand the subject matter or possibly know what he is doing. Also, a word to the wise: spoilers ahead.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe was built piecemeal. First a movie about this character, then a movie about that character, then another movie where they come together. The individual pieces were made with ultimate goal in mind of unifying into a whole, but Marvel understood that people needed to see that parts before seeing the full assembly.
Warner Bros. wanted the same thing, but did not have the same start time as as Marvel did. This in and of itself speaks to the studio’s lack of planning, which is strange. For reference, The Arrow, a TV series on the CW, started in 2012 with the character of Oliver Queen transforming from playboy to vigilante. In 2016, he’s only just beginning to transform from vigilante to the superhero known as Green Arrow. That takes planning and guts.
Warner seems to have been aware that Marvel was building a cohesive cinematic universe, but felt like they needed to be strong where Marvel wasn’t looking. Thus, while Marvel has Agents of Shield, DC has The Arrow, The Flash, Supergirl and Legends of Tomorrow. They also have the web series Vixen. All respectable and well-received. Somewhere along the way, though, that stopped being enough. Somewhere along the way, Warner decided to have its own cinematic universe. Unfortunately, it had left that field to Marvel and needed to play catch-up.
A film like Batman Vs Superman was not necessarily a bad idea. It could have worked. The fact that the film has an 81% drop in attendance from the opening week, however, is telling that it didn’t. Even more telling is the fact that people are scrambling to insist that future entries into the pantheon will not be like Batman Vs Superman. The screenwriter for the upcoming Justice League film has stated that the story will be lighter than in BvS. Meanwhile, the upcoming Suicide Squad film is undergoing extensive re-shoots to inject more humor into the film.
Suicide Squad is an excellent example on how Warner didn’t think things through. Anyone viewing the trailers for the film would think that it’s an action/comedy hybrid. Since Deadpool came out, one might assume the film would be a step or two away from that. According, however, to Birth Movies Death, the site that broke the story, this is not true:
A couple of weeks ago I spoke with an excellent source who told me something surprising: the trailer for Suicide Squad … did not represent the film as it then existed. “Every joke in the movie is in that trailer,” this source told me … I have since spoken to more sources and I understand that the reshoots are happening right now, as recently as this week, and that they’re big – tens of millions of dollars big. And they’re adding more humor and lightness into the film.
Let’s think about this for a minute. Why would Warner create a humor-less film, then promote that film with comedic trailers? Why would they then spend tens of millions of dollars on reshoots to match the film to the trailer? The answer is that Warner Bros. didn’t think things through.
Their behavior is strongly reminiscent of 20th Century Fox’s reaction to the dismal views of The Fantastic Four. Without getting too deep into it, the studio thought fans would flock to the film regardless of content, only to be shocked that everyone hated what they saw. Now they have a deal where the rights of the film are being shared with Marvel because they know the fans will never forgive them. Warner, having realized what the reaction to Batman Vs Superman would be, is scrambling to undo their initial concept before the whole cinematic universe idea is sunk.
I’m not saying that a dark superhero universe could not have worked. Christopher Nolan proved it could with his Batman series. I also see how Warner Bros. would decide to go dark as an offset of Marvel’s approach. Marvel made their superheros humorous, bright and almost archetypes rather than actual beings. This makes sense; superheros are modern renditions of ancient mythology. They aren’t meant to hew too close to reality.
With Marvel’s success, Warner Bros. needed to differentiate their product and it made sense to go ultra-realistic. The problem is that Superman by his nature as a character cannot be used for this purpose. The whole point of Superman is that he is an archetype for goodness. When things are at their worst, he reminds us to be at our best. An ultra-realistic rendition of Superman is possible, of course, but not without a great deal of thought and care. None of this is apparent in Batman Vs Superman. They picked the wrong story for the wrong character and hoped that a short-lived and meaningless battle towards the end would be enough to pick up the rest. It wasn’t.
This brings me to the second part of the equation: Zach Snyder.
I’d like to open up this section with the following quote from Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight:
Bruce Wayne: Targeting me won’t get their money back. I knew the mob wouldn’t go down without a fight, but this is different. They crossed the line.
Alfred Pennyworth: You crossed the line first, sir. You squeezed them, you hammered them to the point of desperation. And in their desperation, they turned to a man they didn’t fully understand.
Bruce Wayne: Criminals aren’t complicated, Alfred. Just have to figure out what he’s after.
Alfred Pennyworth: With respect Master Wayne, perhaps this is a man that *you* don’t fully understand, either. A long time ago, I was in Burma. My friends and I were working for the local government. They were trying to buy the loyalty of tribal leaders by bribing them with precious stones. But their caravans were being raided in a forest north of Rangoon by a bandit. So, we went looking for the stones. But in six months, we never met anybody who traded with him. One day, I saw a child playing with a ruby the size of a tangerine. The bandit had been throwing them away.
Bruce Wayne: So why steal them?
Alfred Pennyworth: Well, because he thought it was good sport. Because some men aren’t looking for anything logical, like money. They can’t be bought, bullied, reasoned, or negotiated with. Some men just want to watch the world burn.
Warner Bros. was desperate to catch up with Marvel and introduce their own cinematic universe. Because of this, they turned to someone they didn’t fully understand and what they didn’t fully understand was that Zach Snyder is someone who is cynical, unable to create long-form visual stories and doesn’t understand superheros or Superman at all.
While this may sound over the top, it’s hard to come to any other conclusion. Batman Vs Superman is not a well-thought film, relying on exposition and ham-fisted imagery to get information across, while spending the rest of its time flitting from one tangentially-related scene to another. Snyder got his start in music videos and commercials and it shows. Rather than create one cohesive whole for the film, he creates a variety of open-ended vignettes, all loosely related, but still more like small dramatic skits than interlocking parts of a larger film.
Snyder seems to do away with storytelling entirely at various points in the film. There’s a moment in the film where Lois Lane makes the unusually dumb decision to dump a dangerous weapon into a pit filled with water. Somehow, as Doomsday is trashing everything, she develops the insight to dive in and get it, only to be trapped when a slab falls over the opening to the pit. Superman saves her, gives her a kiss, then dives in and grabs the weapon, all without being told why she was there at all. There’s no set up. There’s no shot or statement to indicate that he would know to dive in for anything.
A similar issue happens with Doomsday. Lex Luthor creates Doomsday as a last-ditch weapon against Superman. Superman, in an initial battle with Doomsday, flies with him into space where the President of the United States orders them to be hit with a nuclear missile. Doomsday lands, whereupon a general announces that nothing will destroy Doomsday because anything they do to him will make him stronger. Stop there for a second. The attempt to destroy Doomsday happened exactly once. Once. From that one, single, isolated attempt, however, everyone comes to the conclusion that nothing will stop Doomsday.
How does that happen? It happens because someone realized the film was running long and corners got cut. Either that, or Snyder just didn’t care to get into the details of it. Either way, this is not the act of a competent storyteller. This is the act of someone who knows how to make pretty pictures, but doesn’t know why they need to be strung together a certain way.
This point is reinforced by the fact that the film seems to end at least three times. One notable time is where Lex Luthor is jail, only to be visited by Batman. This scene serves no purpose. Batman threatens Luthor then disappears while Luthor is yelling “He is coming”. The “He” in this case is likely Darkseid, but what does that matter? Marvel has been pumping up the Infinity War since Captain America: The First Avenger came out. They showed how to do it without interfering with the story. Luthor’s outburst was unnecessary and could have been handled in a more elegant way, but Snyder wasn’t the one to do it.
Anyone familiar with Batman: The Dark Knight Returns will instantly recognize lines in the film as well as the nuclear missile scene and the various tactics Batman employs to take down Superman. That’s great. It’s also unnecessary. I get that Frank Miller’s battle between the two is thought of as the ultimate answer as to who would win, but there’s a point where that’s just not enough.
Snyder clearly enjoys Frank Miller’s rendition of the two superheroes, but he doesn’t get that this isn’t the only way to portray them. He also doesn’t get that fan service works best when everything else has substance. Even if that were not true, Snyder spends so much time making both characters miserable that there’s no build-up to the fight itself. It just sort of happens. The entire fight, in fact, was just meaningless fan service.
While many will argue about whether or not various actors were right for the characters they portrayed, I would argue that no one would fit the roles. Superman, as portrayed in Batman Vs Superman, seems on the verge of a nervous breakdown. He actually disappears for part of the film because people are constantly dying around him. Snyder’s treatment of Superman is so mean-spirited and ruthless that an article appeared over at Birth Movies Death accusing him of wanting to destroy the character outright as a cultural icon.
Batman is more ruthless and seemingly on the verge of his own psychological break. Since the events of Man of Steel, he’s started torturing criminals and shows no problem killing people. This is a key point because virtually all other depictions of Batman in film and comics show him as having a code against killing.
Much has been made of Jesse Eisenberg as Lex Luthor, but this isn’t really the Lex Luthor that existed in the comics. Early comic depictions of Lex were as a ruthless scientist. Later he appeared as a ruthless businessman. One can’t fault Eisenberg for this depiction of Lex Luthor, largely because he probably had no control over the script. This Luthor is a mentally unstable abused man-child. Think Mark Zuckerberg without the coolness of Facebook covering for him.
Gale Gadot has been hailed as the highlight of the film, but quite frankly, until the big fight, she’s just window dressing. Even then I would argue her value is really just as an advertisement for the upcoming Wonder Woman film. I can see no real story-based need to have her in the film at all. This brings up another point with Snyder’s handling of the film. This wasn’t a movie so much as an over 2 hour ad for upcoming films. I can almost forgive that if Snyder hadn’t found a way to screw even that one up.
About halfway through the film Lex Luthor gives a very quick statement to his “metahuman hypothesis”. This moves very fast and it’s easy to see how it would get lost in the mix. We don’t pick up this thread again until Bruce Wayne emails Diana Prince (Wonder Woman) videos showing Cyborg, The Flash and Aquaman. Lex, it seems, has known about superbeings all along and has been tracking them. This is how he knows that Clark Kent is Superman and Bruce Wayne is Batman. One would think he could use this information to get out of prison, but I guess no one wants to listen to him.
Clearly, this is all hype for upcoming films. In fact, the most exciting part of the movie for me was seeing those videos. I felt like I was watching great forces coming together into something bigger. For a film that’s over two hours, though, that 30 seconds just is not enough.
These scenes, combined with Lex’s yelling at the end of the film only prove that the film itself was unimportant. Batman Vs Superman was, in fact a hype film for Warner’s upcoming slate of superhero films. If that is what Warner and Snyder wanted, however, why make it such a minor part of the film? The answer is that Warner gave Snyder such a wide berth, he was able to create a mess that only paid lip service to the future films without actually getting people excited for them.
Look, it’s possible to enjoy Batman Vs Superman as a popcorn film. There’s no justification, however for calling this a good film. It is too inconsistent in multiple ways to be considered good. With this film Snyder ran into the same issue that Michael Bay ran into with Transformers 2. He was given too much power and he had too little ability or discipline or respect for the material to do anything but run the project into a wall.
Every generation should have a Superman. Every generation should have a Batman. Every generation should enjoy all that DC has created for our culture over the course of decades. Warner Bros. really stumbled on this one. They didn’t think things through and hired a man who seemed engineered to bring the whole thing down. There’s still time, but it’s a question of whether or not there is still the audience’s faith.