Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (film, 2016)

Discussing superhero films is always a tricky issue. What should be silly adventure flicks for children have regressed into all out online wars over people’s biases toward a certain company. Some of these voices in the ongoing war are by teenagers and children, but frighteningly more by adults. 

While this rivalry has been around between DC and Marvel for decades, it was never a shouting fest on the verge of becoming a brawl. It was a way for nerds to have a good conversation and poke fun at one another.

It’s kind of like how I idealize sports fandom to be. Everyone can root for who they want and still egg on rivals in a non-threatening and entertaining way. And as a fan of sports, for the most part it is. But as any sport avoiding nerd will tell you, sports can get ugly. Violent even.

I remember a time in my early 20s watching the NCAA Football championship (then known as the BCS championship) and getting so upset at Ohio State getting completely eviscerated by Florida that I threw a dinner plate against the wall causing it to shatter (after all, this was supposed to be Heisman winner Troy Smith’s victory dance). My girlfriend was with me at the time, and this obviously disturbed the hell out of her. We ended up fighting, and it’s not something I’m proud of.

Sports can do that. Emotions are so invested in our heroes that we can’t stand to see them fail. It doesn’t help that we have no control over the situation. We’re in the hands of physical gods, and we’re just an audience to their cosmic battles. This may sound like a pretty metaphor, but it’s true. And just as we want our sports stars to carry us to the gates of Valhalla, nerds have found solace in seeing their company’s heroes win the pointless war of who is better.

This isn’t an isolated incident. Since biblical times, such as the story of David and Goliath, social groups have called upon a single hero and or team to represent them in battle. The fact that this is so ingrained in our psyche is at least comforting when trying to understand the motives of these supernerds. But let’s face it, historical or not, it’s still a shitty thing to get caught up in.

This may seem like a long introduction, but consider it my mea culpa when I say Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is a completely incomprehensible at time. It’s honestly at Dune levels of bad, which has left me pondering whether this might be some type of cubist masterpieces jammed together with a hollow but slick in the Alex Ross way of being poignant.

While the film eschews traditional cinematic values, there’s much to cherish in it’s bold attempt to establish a universe through the inexplicable scene when The Flash enters Wayne’s dream. There is hope and perhaps a lesson we can learn from this take from this, and that is there is no such thing as a bad film.

To be honest, this is a click-bait article I wrote just to see if it would get me views. It hasn’t. Which you can deduce, implies has been edited and revised. I said nasty words about this film when really I was trying to imitate Devin Faraci on steroids. But none of us has the right to stoop that low. I don’t want to do that again.

It all boils down to fundamentals of screenwriting. Namely, create fully fleshed out characters, and develop a plot that allows these characters to be fully fleshed out. Yes, there’s more rules on writing, but this is really all I’m concerned wit. Yes, it has huge plot holes, superfluous introductions to future films, and a completely baffling performance by Jesse Eisenberg as Lex Luthor (kudos to him, however, for realizing this was going to be bad and doing something interesting with it), but these aren’t the real reason it sucks. No, the truth is, Batman v Superman just completely drops the ball when it comes to construction and execution. There will no doubt be those that disagree. They’ll say this film did well at the box office (though it didn’t). And look, it has a 7.3 rating on IMDB! Look, I don’t care. I can only explain what I saw, and what I saw wasn’t a whole lot.

It may seem pointless then to create a list of suggestions, but I think it’s a great way to start a conversation about what we should expect out of superhero films and how they can be better. At the very least, it allows us to understand just what happened. With that said, I’ve come up with a seven step solution that easily could transform this turd into at the very least a digestible burger from McDonald’s.

Let’s get started:

1. Simplify and condense the plot into something coherent.

There’s no reason we should be confused by character’s motivations and plot beats. But there you have it, nothing in this film makes sense. For example, there’s no reason for Lex Luthor to behave the way he does. Watching this film, I had no idea why Luthor was trying to frame Superman with the shootings in Arica (I think that’s what he was trying to do, I honestly didn’t even realize this until I read other reviews after seeing it). Why does Superman have to be framed? He clearly leveled a whole city in Man of Steel. Shouldn’t this devastating action have been used as by the government to charge him with a crime?

Further acerbating the problem is that film does nothing with this development. It honestly wouldn’t even affect the plot if it were cut. And that is a huge problem. Worse, this isn’t the only development that has absolutely no bearing on what follows. By cutting this particular narrative, the filmmakers could easily cut twenty minutes that was time on a pointless side plot.

And while we’re at it, cut out all the Detective Lois Lane’s side plot about the bullet. The bullet has no effect on the film. It’s a complete misuse of her character. Lois, and for that matter Amy Adams, deserve better than that. Why is Lois off to DC when this supposed Pulitzer Prize Winner should be in Metropolis serving as a surrogate for the audience? She could actually be reporting on the Batman and Superman fight, struggling to maintain her duty as a reporter but clearly struggling with her concern for her lover. By doing this, we could get rid of the woefully archaic damsel distress.

Unfortunately, this film boasts two damsels in distress, and with a later suggestion, I am confident we can eliminate both. I know I know, it’s the feminist in me coming out. But really, aside from it’s problems, it’s just lazy and unimaginative.

2. Quit trying to have it both ways with Superman.

The seeds of this problem first reared its ugly head with MoS, which awkwardly had Superman kiss Lois Lane as citizens lay trapped under buildings caused by his Dragonball Z-ish fight (while MoS doesn’t show people trapped under building, BvS clearly does). The same happens with this film. The filmmakers clearly want Superman to be the bad guy. Which, okay, it betrays the essence of the character, but at least it’s trying something new. The problem is in the execution. Snyder wants us to buy into the complete nonsensical romance between Superman and Lois. There’s a scene where he hops into the bathtub with her and it’s so tone deaf that he emotion of it doesn’t land. I don’t like this asshole Superman, which means I’m not involved with him when he’s a nice guy. Simply put, I don’t think we should be rooting for him. It’s apparent that Snyder is trying to show this, but he keeps going back and forth on this issue.

We see a Watchmen style montage of Superman rescuing people around the world but it’s strangely narrated by members of the media discussing whether he’s a good guy or not. I think I get what Snyder is going for, but the whole sequence gave me cognitive dissonance, and not the kind that leads to learning. This becomes even more problematic with the film’s ending. Superman becomes desperate to save his mom (which by the way is completely stupid) and goes to Batman for help. But get this, after he asks politely if Batman will help and Batman ignores him, Superman just punches him. What the hell? Dude, if you would just explain the situation, this petty fight could have been avoided. Again, here Superman is seen as helpless, then a jerk, and then given a redemption arc that never really explains what he’s being redeemed for. I’ve heard fans say that in defense he is sacrificing himself because he’s become selfless, which I assume was what Snyder intended, but that is not in this film.

The most satisfying way to handle this would have been to allow Superman to grow as a character by showing his arc in the film, rather than take an unearned shortcut that ends up killing the narrative. Start the film off with Superman as a smug jerk who by the film’s conclusion learns to accept his responsibility of being a gifted individual. You know, kind of like Spider-Man’s origins in the comic.

The real downer about developing Superman from a villain to a hero is that this should have been dealt with in the first film. Instead, we got Kevin Costner telling Superman to be selfish and seemingly taking the bullshit to heart.

3. Change Superman’s motivation for fighting Batman.

Snyder absolutely nails Batman’s motivation in wanting to see Superman die. He does a masterstroke (don’t get too excited now) by opening the film with the destruction of Metropolis cause by the fight between Superman and Zod. While Snyder returns with more 9/11 imagery, this time around the imagery is rather poignant and earned. The film opens with Bruce Wayne rushing to the scene of destruction and saving a little girl from being crushed by the debris. It’s a great moment and does a fantastic job of immediately establishing Affleck’s character and motivation. I just wish Snyder could have done this with Superman as well.

Clark Kent the reporter constantly questions the nature of Batman’s vigilantism, comparing his actions to fascism. This annoys his boss and in an unintentionally hilarious moments, Kent skips out on writing sports column in pursuit of his fascination with Batman. Just a side note, but having Clark Kent work as a reporter is completely ruined in this film. It just adds nothing. But back to my point, this plot development goes nowhere. And it’s rendered unnecessary because Superman ends up battling the caped crusader because Luthor has kidnapped his mom. Not only has Superman’s fascination with the ethical behavior of Batman been a dead end, he’s turned into a wimp.

Why not eliminate the damsel in distress and simply make the fight about egos and idealism? Batman is certainly right about Superman, but Superman also has a compelling reason to be suspect of Batman. Superman could convince Batman that he’s going too far into fascist territory–like, you know, gunning down bad guys or branding them with a bat symbol. More so, Superman could realize he’s irresponsible and finally accept his duty as a superhero.

Boom, we restored the Superman that everyone loves and we eviscerated the Frank Miller Batman in one fell swoop.

4. Give Lex Luthor and actual arc in the film.

Like, for instance, give us a reason why he hates Batman and Superman so much. Get rid of the philosophizing about the nature of god and all that, and just give him a reason.

For example, what if Luthor wanted to create a crime network, or gain control of Metropolis, or just become rich by doing illegal stuff (kinda of like Luthor in the other film). The only way for him to achieve his goal is by getting the heroes out of the way of his plan. To accomplish this, he helps fuel Superman’s concerns about Batman, and does the same with Batman. But if you’re going to do this, make it better than threats written in red ink on uncashed checks.

5. Rewrite the entire first half of the film.

Keep the opening with Bruce Wayne darting into the 9/11 chaos, but immediately scrap the rest of the first half of the script when these characters start talking. There’s so much confusing and perfunctory dialogue that we don’t even get to see any action. This film is so dark that we don’t even see the supposed heroes save anyone for an hour. More importantly, this convoluted plot building wastes what could have been time spent on developing characters. Pro-tip: Create clear characterization, even at the expense of the plot. Just watch a Marvel film and you’ll see this done to great effect. In addition to all its mistakes, there’s one more basic but fatal error. The first half of the film is an absolute chore to sit through. It’s just a string of two minute scenes that keep cutting away at tangents. Worse, it doesn’t feel like a Snyder film. Say what you will about him, his pre-DC films at least had a discernible rhythm to them. Here, just as what happened with the fragmented origin scenes of Superman in MoS, it feels like the film was destroyed by the editing. I honestly cannot believe it was written this way in the script.

As bad as a write as Goyer can be (I honestly don’t know much how much of Goyer’s co-writer Chris Terrio was involved), I’ve never felt like he had these issues. Yes, Blade and Blade II have stupid twists, but the films at least feel coherent and fluid. Ditto with Batman Begins.

You know what could have really made the first half-better? Show Batman watching Superman be an asshole. Then show Superman see Batman be a fascist. Have them confront on the issues like they first do in the film during the chase scene, but this time they have more stakes involved. And more importantly, show these heroes in action. I’m cool with Snyder doing what Snyder got to do, so throw up some slow-motion montages. Give me some ramp-upped fights. Just show us these heroes. To be fair, Snyder does focus more on Batman and can’t I complain about his character too much (although there’s an argument to be made that this film should focus more on Superman and keep Batman on the fringe, kind of like an inverse of the The Dark Knight Returns). His interactions with Alfred are spot on and we even get to see Bruce Wayne flirting with a woman and actually enjoying it. It’s really Superman who gets shafted. What if instead of chasing magic bullets, we got to see Lois and Clark interact with each other? Maybe let us in on a more tender side of Superman as compared to this dark and twisted version. That could have really earned the audience’s empathy, and created some complexity to Superman’s identity. 

6. For the love of God, get rid of the twist that causes Batman to have a change of heart.

Martha? Really, the heroes’ moms have the same name? Come on. Besides the simplicity of the twist (yes, I know they did have the same name in the comics, but this is just a dumb coincidence) it ruins what should be a change of heart by both Superman and Batman. The way it’s written, Superman’s character is in no way changed by this remarkable coincidence. If anything, it saves him from getting beat up. Remember when I said Snyder wants Superman to be the bad guy? Well, make him the freaking bad guy who becomes good. Because drama.

To be fair, the film does attempt this by having Superman sacrifice himself in order to defeat Doomsday, but this moment is never earned. Why? Because Superman never learns a damn thing.

These characters should have ended the fight by seeing the consequences of their actions. The film laughably goes out its way to say that the superheroes are fighting in remote locations, no doubt in response to MoS having Superman level a damn city. But believe it or not, I actually wish this film showed them fighting in a populated area. Imagine a fight where Superman is about to use his laser beams to slice off Batman’s head, only for an innocent bystander to get in the way. Imagine the tension of that moment. We could really see Superman start to realize the danger of his actions.

And what about Batman? Imagine if he had to see the death of a character he killed. I’m not saying this is the only way of getting this character to have an epiphany, but they’re just ways that make this battle, what the film’s named after, truly resonate.

I have a snaky feeling we’ll see this actually done well in the upcoming Captain America: Civil War.

7. Don’t kill Superman.

We’ve only had him in two movies, neither of which depicted Superman as a real hero. Save this for a future film. The point of this film should have been to transform Superman from an asshole to a hero who believes in truth, justice, and the American way. It also would have justified Supe’s behavior in the equally misguided MoS.

***

So there you have it. To the Batfans out there, please don’t take this as me shitting on the film. There really are parts I enjoyed, such as Wonder Woman’s intro, Affleck’s turn as Batman, and most of the final fight. The real tragedy is that there was so much potential for this film to be amazing, and with so much talent behind it. I respect WB for letting their filmmakers play in an open sandbox. But when they’re lacking basic narrative structure, they only ruin the rest of the playground for everyone.

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About Michael Medlen

My name is Michael and during my free time I avoid having a day job. Strangely enough, this gives me the freedom to run this blog. I write just about anything that can be considered art. I also occasionally post articles that may or may not be relevant to the theme of this site. You’ve been warned.
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2 Responses to Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (film, 2016)

  1. Pingback: A Diamond in a Haystack – Flawed Masterpieces

  2. Pingback: Do We Really Want to See an R-Rated Cut of Batman v Superman? – Flawed Masterpieces

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