Batman vs. Superman is a curiosity, a fascinating mess of a film that doesn’t really work but which constantly teases its audience with the idea that it might work in a variety of intriguing way.
Batman vs. Superman is certainly ambitious. Although the story about a persecuted alien immigrant obviously comes with no small amount of political subtext that feels applicable at a time of resurgent nationalist sentiment, the most remarkable thing about Batman vs. Superman is the way that the script is very consciously and awkwardly attempting to get at bigger underlying themes. Whereas Christopher Nolan tailored his impressive Batman trilogy for the realities of twenty-first century America, Batman vs. Superman is attempting something greater.
Of course, what it is actually attempting is hugely contradictory. It occasionally seems like director Zack Snyder is working at cross purposes with writers Chris Terrio and David S. Goyer. Appropriately enough for a director who recently announced plans to adapt The Fountainhead, Snyder is trying to construct a Randian power fantasy about the moral authority that rests with exceptional people like Superman. In contrast, Terrio and Goyer want to construct a fable about Superman as an embodiment of hope for a sinful Earth.
While Snyder seems at times to wrestle against the script, Terrio and Goyer face their own issues. While Batman vs. Superman is thematically ambitious and philosophically rich, it is also positively abstract in its plotting. Events occur for no reason beyond plot necessity, while character motivation is delivered through dreams and metaphor. Contrivances and illogicalities abound, to the point where any number of plot developments might have easily been avoided if characters simply talked to one another about what exactly they thought was going on in a given moment.
There are no shortage of issues with Batman vs. Superman, issues so fundamental that it is hard to imagine how an extended cut will do anything but deepen them. There are points at which the movie’s attempts to fashion a pop mythology are so dense as to suggest a required reading list, saturating with knowing references to everything from Lolita to A Streetcar Named Desire to Final Crisis. There is an argument to be made that Batman vs. Superman is not only illogical, but unapologetically (and perhaps unforgivably) pretentious.
And, yet, acknowledging all of these flaws, there is something strangely compelling about the muddled spectacle of it all. There is a sense that Snyder and Terrio and Goyer are really trying to do something in a manner that is bold and ambitious. (Just not necessarily the same things.) As crazy as it sounds – and it sounds crazy – Batman vs. Superman is the result of the same style of Warner Brothers movie-making that led to the infinitely superior Mad Max: Fury Road and The Dark Knight. There is a willingness to let artists take massive risks with significant budgets.
Warner Brothers has a track record of supporting and encouraging these gambles. Sometimes these gambles pay off. No other major studio would have signed off on Mad Max: Fury Road, to pick an example. Christopher Nolan produced a trilogy of engaged and exciting blockbusters built around a character most had written off in live action. Sometimes this big budget auteur model doesn’t pay off. Say what you might about Cloud Atlas and Man of Steel, but they are indisputably unique and distinct visions of their creative architects.
In its abstraction, its tone and its aesthetic, Batman vs. Superman has the look and feel of a two-hundred-and-fifty million dollar indie feature. It might lack the polish and finesse (and, to be frank, cohesion and internal logic) of other major superhero films. However, it has a weirdly compelling spark and ambition that is lacking from the more standardised model of Marvel Studios blockbuster. The result is deeply unsatisfying, yet strangely compelling.
Zack Snyder was, and remains, a strange choice to direct a Superman film. Snyder is a controversial figure, for multiple reasons. One of those reasons is the fact that his filmography is comprised primarily of adaptations and reimaginings of other people’s work. From that perspective, his remake of George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead remains divisive and controversial This is to say nothing of his attempts to bring Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen to the screen, particularly given his argument that he nobly “saved” the world from a Terry Gilliam adaptation.
It would be easy to use this as a criticism of Snyder, to suggest that the director lacks originality or vision. Indeed, the fact that Sucker Punch remains his highest profile original work would arguably support such a position, standing as on of the most maligned genre films of the last half decade. This is not entirely fair. Snyder has a very definite aesthetic, and a very definite cinematic perspective. An easy response here would be to point out (correctly) that slowing down and then speeding up action footage is not the richest cinematic aesthetic.
However, Snyder’s visual style is more distinctive than his critics would suggest; it amounts to more than the cliché of desaturated golden hues and slow motion coupled with fetishisation of the human body. Snyder’s visual style is largely driven by a combination of wide shots and close-ups. As a director, he tends to avoid more conventional middle-distance shots that serve to anchor conversation or dialogue-driven scenes in other films. As a visual aesthetic, it means that every shot in a Snyder film feels like an event. Which, paradoxically, means that none of them really do.
Snyder borrows other techniques from the comics, including a fondness for hard cuts between various scenes reflecting strong panel transitions. It is, after all, quite difficult to “fade” or “wipe” between scenes in a comic book, although visible juxtapositions can work well. Snyder tends to favour strong cuts, which can be disorientating during sequences where the film is trying to convey a lot of information quickly. Such transitions would almost work better with a comics-style “meanwhile…” or “ten minutes later…” caption over them to help smooth the transition.
As Todd Van Der Werff has pointed out, Snyder’s fondness for wide shots and close-ups mirrors the visual style of a comic book. However, it mirrors a very specific style of comic book. It is the style that writer and artist Frank Miller brought to superhero comic books, with a claustrophobic focus on the faces of various characters seguing to epic set pieces. It is a technique that Miller appropriated from Will Eisner’s work on The Spirit, and which helped to make his Daredevil run so distinctive. It is also a feature of The Dark Knight Returns.
Batman vs. Superman looks a lot like a Frank Miller comic, even beyond the explicit homages to The Dark Knight Returns. Snyder tends to cut close for conversations and wider for dynamic set pieces, replicating the experiences of Miller’s tightly-cropped panels of heads and faces giving way to larger panels of action and adventure. This is obvious at several points in Batman vs. Superman, particularly in scenes focusing on two characters giving way to action; Batman and Superman at the docks, Lex and Lois on the roof, Lex and Superman in the Kryptonian ship.
Given how much Snyder’s visual aesthetic owes to Frank Miller, it is no surprise that the director is heavily influenced by the most provocative of mainstream superhero comics creators. Snyder’s breakthrough was an adaptation of Frank Miller’s 300. Dialogue and imagery from The Dark Knight Returns is cribbed wholesale for Batman vs. Superman, from Alfred quipping about the dangers Bruce Wayne depleting the family wine cellar to the costume in which Batman decides to take on Superman at the climax.
(Batman vs. Superman is saturated with nods and references to Miller’s iconic Batman story. These references are both overt and subtle. The overt references include the use of a nuclear weapon against Superman which is shown to wound the character in a manner that explicitly recalls the classic comic book. More subtle references come through in the decision to have the movie’s mostly off-screen President of the United States sound more than slightly like Ronald Reagan. More tenuously, there is the emphasis on Martha Wayne.)
However, Snyder’s debt to Miller runs a lot deeper than a few dialogue or panel references. Snyder has inherited a lot of Miller’s stylistic sensibilities, from his perverse sense of irony to his iconoclastic tendencies. Like Miller, Snyder is a character with a rather dark sense of humour who applies that in his approach to telling stories with these icons. This is most notable in his decision to turn iconic Superman character Jimmy Olsen into a government spy and having him executed by putting a bullet through his head after about a minute of screentime very early in the film.
Snyder reflected of the decision, “We just did it as this little aside because we had been tracking where we thought the movies were gonna go, and we don’t have room for Jimmy Olsen in our big pantheon of characters, but we can have fun with him, right?” The fact that this is Snyder’s idea of “fun” says a lot about his stylistic sensibilities. The main rationale for including Jimmy in such a way is for the irony and subversion factor, killing off a character who embodies all the innocence and idealism of Silver Age comics.
The most charitable readings of Snyder suggest that there is a lot of irony to his work. These arguments position Sucker Punch as a subversive deconstruction of tropes that its detractors suggest are being played straight, even going so far at to argue that Sucker Punch is the forebearer of many contemporary feminist blockbusters like Fury Road. As with everything about Snyder, it is possible to argue the point both ways. Poe’s Law may well be in effect; hardened critics might argue that Snyder’s style is so hollow that anything can be projected on to it.
Nevertheless, there is a sense that Snyder’s approach to Superman is decidedly ironic and deconstructionist. Man of Steel is essentially a story about how horrifying the idea of Superman must really be, demonstrating the awe and terror of a god-like being who can tear through the urban landscape like it is rendered of nothing more than CGI pixels. In Man of Steel, Superman is a creature of terror who brings nothing but death and destruction in his wake. Man of Steel is an extended riff on Larry Niven’s infamous “man of steel, woman of kleenex”, with the entire world as Lois Lane.
Snyder’s estotic idea of “fun” bleeds through into Man of Steel. One of the least-discussed aspects of Man of Steel is in the way that Snyder effectively restages the climax of Richard Donner and Richard Lester’s Superman II, with Superman and General Zod tearing through downtown Metropolis. What had been camp comedy under Richard Lester is reimagined as existential terror. There is a knowing irony in this, particularly given how fans complained that Bryan Singer’s tribute to the Donner-era Superman films in Superman Returns was impotent and underpowered.
Man of Steel seems to ask what would happen if something like Superman emerged. What would his existence mean? What would superheroism look like? Snyder eschewed the clean action of conventional superhero films for something a lot broader in scale, reducing Metropolis to a world of cardboard through which Zod and Superman might throw one another with little regard for the people caught in their crossover. Superman and Zod operated on an operatic and mythic scale; the human inhabitants of Metropolis were as ants to them.
This is not to suggest that the final fight sequence of Man of Steel was perfectly executed, even on that level. Snyder’s work on Man of Steel was obviously heavily influenced by executive producer Christopher Nolan, but Nolan worked a lot harder to make Gotham City a fully-realised urban environment in The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises, populated by mobsters and politicians and police and money launderers and families and people. In contrast, Snyder’s Metropolis seemed hollow, populated only by the staff of the Daily Planet. But we’ll return to this idea.
(There is also a sense that Batman vs. Superman has been somewhat tempered about criticisms of the carnage unleashed at the climax of Man of Steel, much like The Avengers: Age of Ultron made a point to have its heroes actively save people as a response to criticisms to their indifference in The Avengers. While Superman and Zod tore through a crowded Metropolis, Batman vs. Superman takes care to point out that civilian casualties in downtown Metropolis, “Stryker’s Island” and the Gotham Docks will be minimal despite the scale of the action.)
Deconstruction is a perfectly valid away to approach superheroes. Within the context of superhero cinema, it is somewhat novel. In terms of comics, the approach can trace its roots back to Alan Moore’s work on Miracle Man and Watchmen; although perhaps the more modern workings of the theme owe a debt to writers Warren Ellis and Mark Miller on The Authority. There is something very clever in the idea of the superhero as terrifyingly powerful entity operating a level beyond mankind. There is something iconoclastic about reimaging a hero as pure as Superman on that level.
While there is certainly some validity to Zack Snyder’s approach, it seems fair to ask whether this style is particularly suited to a cinematic take on Superman, especially at this moment in time. After all, it is one thing to attempt a wry ironic subversive take on Superman as a blockbuster tentpole. It is another thing to attempt a wry ironic subversive take on Superman as a blockbuster tentpole when the last successful “straight” Superman film was made in 1980; if not 1978. In order to deconstruct something, it has to be constructed first.
Nevertheless, Snyder commits wholeheartedly to his terrifying awe-inspiring vision of Superman-as-Ubermensch. The character’s cape billows in the wind as the sun provides a halo effect. He is presented as messianic figure. Monuments are built in his honour. The ground seems to crack beneath him as he lands. When he gently swings open a door at the Capitol Building, an intense close-up suggests the care he must take not to tear the world apart as he walks through it. His eyes seem to glow a permanent red, as if warning the world below to be wary.
Snyder is interested in Superman as a god, as a mythological figure. This is nothing new. Superman’s origin is basically that of Moses. Bryan Singer escalated it further to add some Christ imagery. Snyder retains elements of that. Bruce Wayne has a nightmare in which he imagines himself as Christ at Golgotha, two more minor figures framed by his side like the two thieves. The climax of the film hinges on spear as the ultimate weapon. One shot evokes The Creation of Adam, Superman reaching down as if to touch the world beneath him.
This is where Snyder seems to find himself on rather shaky ground. Quite frankly, Snyder is so interested in Superman that Clark Kent barely seems to exist. This was an issue in Man of Steel, which meant that Snyder had a lot of difficulty providing texture and context to the world through which Superman moved. Whereas Nolan’s Gotham felt like a real place inhabited by real people, Snyder’s Metropolis was just fodder for Superman and Zod. Lois Lane and Perry White seemed to exist because they had to, rather than because Snyder had anything to do with them.
That problem is only increased in Batman vs. Superman. Time and time again, the film suggests that Clark Kent is a weakness to Superman. On a subtle level, the film suggests that Clark Kent is nothing but a paper-thin disguise that fools nobody. While the climax of the film suggests that both Lex Luthor and Perry White know that Clark Kent is Superman, the revelation is consciously underplayed. It is taken for granted. Of course Luthor and White know Clark Kent is Superman! the film seems to suggest. Superman’s imitation of mankind fools nobody.
Again, there is a sense that Snyder’s deconstructionist tendencies are at play here. DC comics editor Archie Goodwin famously argued that superhero comics are an inverted pyramid built upon a secret identity that is nothing more than a pair of glasses. (Dennis O’Neil offered the helpful corollary, “We don’t ask why the Batmobile doesn’t get caught in traffic.”) Snyder suggests that Clark Kent is a disguise so paper thin that he does not even need to explain how Lex Luthor saw through it. Of course, it seems reasonable to argue if such cynicism lends itself to a Superman film.
More than that, Batman vs. Superman repeatedly suggests that Clark Kent is nothing but a liability and a weakness to Superman, even more than Kryptonite. When Lex Luthor wants to manoeuvre Superman, he does it through the people connected to Clark Kent. Lois Lane is essential to a frame-up of Superman early in the film. Later, Lex gets Clark’s attention by dropping Lois off a roof. When the time comes to force Superman to fight Batman, Lex does it by kidnapping Martha Kent. The finalé suggests that Clark Kent is much lesser than Superman.
This is also reflected in how Snyder treats his supporting players. Jimmy Olsen is shot through the head in a “fun” gag. The climax of Batman vs. Superman reduces Lois to a literal spear-carrier for Superman at one point. Indeed, it is very difficult to explain the romance between Clark and Lois in terms of just Man of Steel and Batman vs. Superman. There is a brief sequence when Clark offers to cook dinner for Lois, but Snyder is simply not interested in any of that stuff. Love is for mortals, it seems. Superman is beyond such things.
What makes Snyder a reasonable fit for something like The Fountainhead makes him an awkward fit for Superman. The ending of Batman vs. Superman suggests that Snyder honestly believes that Kal-El of Krypton should be Superman all the time. When Lex Luthor attempts to mix god and man at the climax of the movie, he creates an “abomination.” There is nothing human or grounded in Snyder’s version of Superman, nothing but raw divine power and authority, an Old Testament God full of wrath and earth-shattering strength. Beware the Superman!
Again, there is a sense that this is an ill-fit for a major motion picture about Superman, a character renowned for his unironic attachment to virtues like “Truth, Justice and the American Way.” There is precious little joy to be found in Man of Steel or Superman vs. Batman, none of the goofy excitement of flying that defined the Richard Donner movies and so many comics. Richard Donner promised that you would believe a man could fly, but Zack Snyder warns that you may not want to be there when he lands.
(It also seems reasonable to question whether Snyder’s desaturated colour scheme is particularly suited to a character like Superman. Superman is a character known for dressing in primary colours like red, yellow and blue. With the digital colour correction, Snyder makes his costume appear almost purple; a secondary colour traditionally associated with supervillains. It is a colour scheme arguably more suited to Batman, although it seems worth noting that even Christopher Nolan’s more grounded trilogy offered a more diverse colour palette.)
However awkward a fit Snyder might be with the character, there is a sense that the director is not entirely at one with the script written by Chris Terrio and David S. Goyer. Terrio and Goyer are also engaged with the idea of Superman as a divine figure, but in a much more benign manner than Snyder. It is interesting to contrast Superman as he is written in contrast to how he is shot. Snyder shoots Superman as all bombast and power, but Terrio and Goyer write Superman as more restrained and compassionate.
This is obvious during the big fight scene. “If I wanted it, you’d be dead already,” Superman warns Batman. It is a simple statement of fact, a reflection that Superman’s refusal to act represents a conscious exercise of authority that is as important as anything he might actively decide to do. However, Snyder films the sequence so as to emphasise Superman’s power. He is shot hovering ominously in the sky and then advancing menacingly. The dialogue suggests that Batman should trust the alien, while the framing presents him as something of which the Caped Crusader must be wary.
At the heart of Terrio and Goyer’s script is the idea of Superman as a caring divine authority. The script seems to earnestly suggest that Superman is an ideal worth fighting for, that he has intrinsic value. “This isn’t 1938 any more,” Perry White advises Clark Kent, a knowing reference that many have interpreted as a cynical dismissal of Superman’s idealism in the face of an increasingly cynical world. After all, the script suggests that Lex Luthor is able to bomb the Capitol Building because Superman isn’t cynical and paranoid enough. Superman is too trusting.
Reflecting on how he didn’t see the bomb before it exploded, Superman confesses, “I’m afraid I didn’t see it because I wasn’t looking.” This plays into the idea that Superman is outdated and out touch, ill-equipped for the suicide bombers and ideological warfare that populate the twenty-first century. Coupled with Snyder’s grim colour scheme and ominous framing, it seems like the Man of Tomorrow might not have a place in the modern world. However, the actual plotting of the film suggests that this is not Terrio and Goyer’s argument at all.
On a basic plotting level, Batman vs. Superman is the story about how Superman saves Batman. Not necessarily in a literal manner, but in a redemptive moral sense. Superman is an ideal, Batman is a man; Batman vs. Superman is structured as a redemptive parable about how faith and hope can pull a broken man back from the abyss. The movie’s opening sequence replies the familiar origin of Batman, but one that places increased emphasis on falling. Snyder’s editting plays the death of the Wayne family against the image of Bruce falling into the now iconic cave.
In a way, this is a logical progression. Denny O’Neil scripted a defining origin of Batman titled The Man Who Falls, which went on to be a major influence on Christopher Nolan and David S. Goyer’s Batman Begins. There, Thomas Wayne asked his son, “Why do we fall?” The answer, “So we can learn to pick ourselves up.” Building on the comic book portrayal of Batman, Nolan emphasised Bruce Wayne as a man who falls – but who always picks himself back up. This is literalised in the pit imagery of The Dark Knight Rises, a monstrous hole that threatens to consume Bruce.
The opening monologue of Batman vs. Superman plays on this idea. Bruce’s literal fall is tied back to the death of his parents. “But things fall apart, things on Earth, and what falls… is fallen,” Bruce reflects in the opening monologue. That is the key to the portrayal of Batman in Batman vs. Superman. The script portrays a version of Batman who does not just fall. He is fallen. The Bruce Wayne presented in Batman vs. Superman is a broken man, cracked under the weight of his failures.
Batman vs. Superman repeatedly suggests that Batman has endured tragedy after tragedy. A familiar costume hangs in the batcave, a grotesque and taunting message scrawled on it, a sign of loss. Alfred suggests that Bruce Wayne has been doing this for “twenty years” and Gotham is still a hell hole populated by human traffickers and underground fight rings. Clark Kent describes the “bat-vigilante” as “a one-man reign of terror”, but also one that systematically targets lower-income regions of the city.
Batman vs. Superman presents Batman as a character who has faced decades of defeat and humiliation. In many ways, this is just as much a deconstruction of the character as Snyder’s approach to Superman, but it works a lot better. Most obviously, the last successful Batman solo movie was released in 2012 – or 2008, if you want to be really contrarian. Batman is so ubiquitous that the trailer for The Lego Batman Movie can crack a gag about how rote Batman’s angst has become, with Ralph-Fiennes-as-Alfred running through all the live action films.
The script to Batman vs. Superman is interesting in its lack of specificity, leaving a lot unsaid and heavily relying on the audience to interpret what they are seeing without any real frame of reference. This is an ambitious approach that is not always successful. It is interesting to wonder what non-comic book fans made of Bruce’s nightmare vision of a Darkseid-ravaged Earth or his visitation from a time-travelling Flash. Even with the additional context of comics like Final Crisis and Crisis on Infinite Earths, those are bizarre sequences to just dump in the middle of a film.
However, this ambiguous “fill in the blanks” approach works reasonably well with Bruce Wayne because everybody has a rough grasp of how the character works. Batman is as ubiquitous as Sherlock Holmes, allowing for revisionist and postmodern and deconstructionist takes like Sherlock or Elementary. Even if Alfred does not spell out all of Batman’s failures and disappointments, any viewer with a passing knowledge of pop culture can intuit several into the story. It helps to have Christopher Nolan’s interpretation of the character so fresh in the audience’s mind.
The decision to have an older version of Batman is an inspired choice, and not just because it allows the production team to cast somebody like Ben Affleck in the role. Although Batman vs. Superman does offer yet another version of the Wayne family murders, it skips past the mechanics of the origin and allows the viewers to bring their own interpretation of Batman to film. It doesn’t matter that Alfred never offers an exposition dump about the defeats and humiliations that Bruce has endured, because the audience can do that for him.
For some audience members, it will be the loss of Harvey Dent. It does not matter whether than loss is filtered through The Long Halloween, Two-Face, Parts I and II or The Dark Knight. For some audience members, it will be the heartbreaking separation of Bruce Wayne and Selina Kyle, channelled through something like Batman Returns. For comic book fans in particular, it might be the death of Robin from A Death in the Family. For more postmodern viewers, Bruce might even be mourning the fading into history of the innocence of Batman ’66.
This is perhaps the most engaging aspect of Batman vs. Superman. For a film designed to launch a shared universe, it is decidedly ambiguous on the specifics and the mechanics. Eschewing the sort of world-building continuity that the audience has come to expect from Marvel Studios films, Batman vs. Superman engages with its characters as archetypes. This does not work very well for Superman, because it seems like nobody has any idea what to do with the character. But it works a lot better for Batman.
“How many good guys are left?” Bruce demands of Alfred at one point during the film. “How many stayed that way?” The audience can reach their own conclusion as to what specifically that line is supposed to mean. Does it refer to dead allies, like Robin? Does it refer to corrupted figures, like Harvey Dent? There are any number of ways to read that challenge, and most of them rely on information that is not explicitly provided in the film itself. However, Batman is a character who is so iconic that viewers can fill in the blanks without spelling it out.
However, the key to the characterisation of Bruce Wayne of Batman vs. Superman lies is pulling a twist on that line. As much as the line is a reference to the existing Batman mythos, it also serves to illuminate the movie’s approach to the character himself. The implication is that Bruce might no longer be “a good guy.” He could have been once, but – with all the darkness in the world – he found it impossible to “stay that way.” Bruce didn’t just fall, he became fallen. It is heavy-handed, but it fits the archetypal mythmaking tone of the film.
Much is made early in the film of his branding of criminals. Although the film suggests Batman has been working in the shadows for twenty years, he has only recently began branding criminals with a Bat-logo. This is presented as an escalation in Bruce’s violence. He brands a child molester and sex trafficker, with news reporters suggesting the brand is “essentially a death sentence” when those suspects are sent to prison. Superman receives taunting polaroids referring to Bruce as “judge, jury and executioner.”
Much attention has been paid to Bruce’s somewhat… lax “no kills” policy in Batman vs. Superman. Batman’s “no kills” policy is considered a line-in-the-sand for some fans, and justifiably so. It does not matter that there are obvious exceptions in the canon where Batman does kill, because the popular interpretation of a character is seldom tied to fidelity to the source material. That rule has typically been relaxed in big-screen adaptations of the character, to the point that Batman straps a bomb on a guy and grins in Batman Returns.
Even outside of that extreme example, live action cinematic Batman has historically been indifferent to the loss of human life. Consider Bruce’s final reflection to Ra’s Al Ghul in Batman Begins, or look at the Batmobile smash through those trucks in The Dark Knight. Even if the ironic symmetry of Talia’s arc in The Dark Knight Rise plays as a criticism of Bruce’s decision to let her father die, even the Christopher Nolan films have been relaxed about potential casualties from Batman’s actions.
There are lots of potential reasons for this. Perhaps the most pragmatic is simply an adaptation convention. While DC long ago made a decision that their child-friendly comic book characters should not kill, action films have been a lot more relaxed about lives lost in pursuit of a thrilling set piece. Nobody bats an eyelid when Rambo or Robocop or Bryan Mills tear through anonymous goons. Why should they mind when Batman does the same? As long as the character doesn’t turn into Jigsaw, it seems like audiences might accept this.
However, the version of Batman presented in Batman vs. Superman goes well beyond even the brutality of even the Tim Burton iteration of the character. Although he does not kill the people he brands, he does effectively sentence them to die. During the character’s first real setpiece, he tears through the docks in an armoured tank. He rips the roof off a truck, causes several cars to explode, and even rams one into a tanker truck in a sequence that most likely led to the death of at least one innocent life. It is absurd and grotesque.
But there is a sense that it is meant to be. In his first appearances, Batman is presented as monstrous. The survivors he rescues from a sex trafficking ring describe him as a “demon.” Bruce has nightmares about a horrifying creature bursting from the family mausoleum, foreshadowed with blood leaking from the seal tomb. Wayne Manor lies in ruins, its grounds overgrown and untended in sharp contrast to the Batcave. Even during that chase sequence at the docks, the Batmobile itself is presented as a predator springing forth from the darkness, its headlamps as two piercing eyes.
That chase sequence marks the first interaction between Batman and Superman. As such, it is important to know how exactly that plays out. Chasing his prey, Batman swings around the corner and finds himself facing Superman. The Batmobile collides with Superman and comes to a screeching halt. In short, Superman stops Batman. This is a strong thematic point to which the movie returns repeatedly. The movie might be framed as Batman vs. Superman, but it is very much a film about Superman pulling Batman back from the edge.
One of the recurring ideas of Batman vs. Superman is the relationship between man and ideal. In some ways, Terrio and Goyer frame the story as a religious parable. Most obviously with Lex Luthor’s dialogue. Again, the influence of the Christopher Nolan films hangs over Batman vs. Superman. Nolan’s films may not have pioneered the trend of having characters literally express themes and subtext as dialogue, but it certainly popularised it. One need only look at the influence of Nolan’s approach to dialogue on films like Skyfall and Spectre.
Nolan does not get enough credit for his characterisation and dialogue, because that sort theme-as-dialogue can be very difficult to write well. Certainly, Batman vs. Superman struggles with its dialogue. None of the characters seem to have conversations, instead offering exposition that is rooted in theme and character more than plot. Lex Luthor gets a lot of this, most awkwardly seguing from explaining the etymology of the word “philanthropist” to retelling the myth of Prometheus because… themes!
At another point, Luthor reflects on a painting of angels and demons hanging in his father’s study. He suggests turning it upside down. “Devils don’t come from hell beneath us,” he reflects. “They come from the sky.” When his initial plan to murder Superman fails, Lex rants, “If man won’t kill God, the devil will do it!” You’d almost swear there was a religious theme to all of this. Batman vs. Superman does not so much hit upon its themes as take a sledgehammer to them. There are points at which the heavy-handedness is almost suffocating.
And, yet, there are points at which it works surprisingly well. The one advantage that DC characters have had over their younger and hipper counterparts at Marvel is the sense that they are archetypal. They are big mythic ideas. Superman is the very essence of “superhero”, the purest distillation of the world. There is a reason that the Golden Age Flash wore a helmet evoking Hermes. There are points at which Synder (along with Terrio and Goyer) seem to be earnestly attempting to build a modern mythology using these building blocks.
So Batman vs. Superman becomes a meditation on gods and men, on faith and hope, on ideals and virtues. Batman vs. Superman hits on big broad themes that are certainly broader than anything in contemporary Marvel Studios films, and arguably even more ambitious than Nolan’s Batman trilogy. Its eyes are certainly a lot bigger than its belly, and it struggles in the execution, but it genuinely feels like Batman vs. Superman is trying to say something profound about the human condition even beyond any resonance with contemporary politics.
Of course, there are those references as well. It is hard not to hear a little bit of Donald Trump in Bruce Wayne’s criticism of the liberal media writing “puff piece editorials” about an alien he is convinced will bring nothing but destruction, who will strike mightily and preemptively “if there is even a one percent chance” of another attack. (Although Bruce Wayne would probably insist that he loves Kryptonians.) More than that, the fixation upon the public’s uncertainty about Superman’s alien heritage speaks to resurgent nativism in contemporary politics.
Terrio and Goyer also play with the idea of Superman as a metaphor for the power exercised by the United States itself, one that leads to unintended consequences and global mistrust. (Superman is pointedly criticised for acting “unilaterally” in response to international crises.) The destruction of Metropolis at the end of Man of Steel is played as an allegory for 9/11, while the memorial monument is constructed to evoke the Vietnam memorial. The debate over the morality of Superman’s action (or inaction) in Africa has obvious historical precedent.
However, while these political themes are woven through the film, Batman vs. Superman is surprisingly to engage with the idea of Superman as a god. There is no way around it. Batman vs. Superman commits itself to the idea of building a modern mythology, reflecting the tendency to talk about the “pantheon” of DC comics superheroes. However while films like Superman Returns have consciously played with god-like imagery in relation to Superman, it is refreshing to see Batman vs. Superman commit so unambiguously and committedly.
(There is something very appealing in this epic approach to the source material. The Marvel movies have repeatedly and consciously been wary of playing with concepts that large. Thor and Thor: The Dark World awkwardly insisted that their actual literal honest-to-goodness god was really just a sufficiently advanced alien, allowing the series to avoid any of the more challenging implications of the character. There is something cheeky and charming in Terrio and Goyer transforming their sufficiently advanced alien into an actual literal honest-to-goodness god.)
Bruce Wayne’s arc in Batman vs. Superman is very much the arc of a man who has lost his faith. He is a man who has witnessed the cruelty of the world around him, seen it corrupt good men and reward vice. In such a world, how is it possible to believe in a beneficent God? More than that, how is possible to believe in the concept of good at all? Bruce’s crisis in faith is reflected in the arc of Lex Luthor, angry at a God who never protected him as a child, who never intervened during his father’s abuses. (Appropriately enough, these religious issues are tied up in daddy issues.)
“If God is all-powerful, he cannot be all-good,” Luther asserts at one point. “If God is all-good, he cannot be all-powerful.” It is a fairly solid motivation for Lex Luthor, even if the script doesn’t necessarily earn the reveal. Nevetheless, it suggests a strong thematic arc that very consciously bends towards Superman. Superman is presented as a god who can be both “all-powerful” and “all-good” at the same time. To get our Voltaire-by-way-of-Grant-Morrison on, “If Superman did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him.“
Superman serves as a beacon to guide Batman back towards heroism. This is one of the core ideas of Batman vs. Superman, the recurring notion that Superman redeems Batman. This finds expression in a number of ways. Most obviously, the climax hinges on Batman saving a life instead of actively taking one. While he terrified the survivors of the trafficking ring, he shares a good-natured joke with Martha Kent. At the very end, he consciously declines to brand the latest criminal. No more death sentences.
At least, that is how it works in theory. In practice, it seems like Snyder’s direction is at odds with Terrio and Goyer’s script. While Batman makes a conscious decision to “save Martha”, Snyder can’t resist indulging in a little ultra violence. The sequence is markedly less violent than the chase at the docks and less horrific than his attack on the slavers, but it is still incredibly brutal. Bruce blows up a truck full of people; stabs a guy in the heart; throws a guy so he seems to break his neck; sets off a grenade; and blows up a guy by shooting the fuel canister of flamethrower.
The obvious joke here is that this is a healthier and more adjusted Batman by the standards of a Zack Snyder film. There is a sense that Snyder’s interest in dynamic action sequences gets the better of him, which ultimately has the effect of dulling the big thematic point of Bruce choosing to save Martha over killing Superman. Even allowing for the fact that some of those deaths were more “suicide by Batman” than “Holy Bat body count!”, there is not a clear enough contrast between what Bruce Wayne was becoming and the man Superman saved.
Then again, it is hard to place all of the blame on Zack Snyder’s sensibilities. Chris Terrio and David S. Goyer do a whole host of interesting and ambitious things with the script, but there is a sense that the plot isn’t held together by anything other than goodwill. There is perhaps a cheap shot in there about Snyder’s stylistic sensibilities; perhaps the real reason the director uses so much slow motion is that he doesn’t want the plot to fall apart under pressure. He’s easing the script home, so to speak. This whole movie is surprisingly delicate.
The plot mechanics of Batman vs. Superman are questionable at best. The plot is held together (to the extent that it is) more by theme than by anything resembling internal cohesion. Early in the film, Superman is framed for a bunch of murders at a compound in “Niaromi, Africa.” (Yes, really.) However, nobody involved in blaming Superman seems to wonder why a guy with heat vision (and whose eyes are seemingly constantly ominiously glowing red) would kill a bunch of strangers with machine guns.
Things become particularly awkward at the climax. When the time arrives for the title bout, Batman vs. Superman engineers an incredibly contrived confrontation that relies on the two central characters being unable to offer a one-line summary of the situation to each other. Superman tries to explain what is happening, but he gets about two minutes of “you don’t understand…” and “if you’d just listen…” before the situation escalates past the point of no return. The fight relies on both characters being idiots, essentially.
(Similarly, the resolution of the fight relies on an awkward contrivance that proves very easy to mock. To be fair, the idea underpinning that contrivance is not a bad idea. Batman coming to see Superman as a person rather than simply an “other” is an essential character beat, but the script hits upon the single most ridiculous manner possible. Superman’s Starbucks card might as well fall out of his wallet while Batman is swinging him around like an overgrown nunchuck. It is a great example of the script’s inelegance.)
The film’s third act is particularly spotty. If Lex Luthor is counting Batman to kill Superman, why does he decide to press ahead with creating an unstoppable monstrosity? While Batman needs to retrieve a vital plot object left in the Gotham docklands, why does he decide to lead an unstoppable killing machine back from an abandoned island into a major urban hub? When it is suggested that a kryptonite weapon might be used to take down the monster at the end of the film, why doesn’t Superman give it to either Wonder Woman or (less usefully) Batman?
The answer to all of these questions effectively amounts to “because the story needs it to be that way”, but it speaks to the rather loose nature of the plotting. There are a whole host of other questions: what kind of beat does Clark work that he reports on crime, football and social galas? how does a major journalist like Clark Kent fail to recognise the billionaire playboy of the city “across the bay”? A lot of these are fairly nitpicky questions, the kind that would be excusable if the film paid attention its the larger elements.
However, the film also struggles with some of its bigger ideas. Tying back to Snyder’s lack of interest in the people around Superman, the world of Batman vs. Superman feels strangely under-developed. It is repeatedly mentioned that Superman is a divisive issue, but the film never really shows that. Perry White makes reference to the end of Metropolis’ love affair with the Man of Steel, but neither Man of Steel nor Batman vs. Superman paints a world particularly welcoming to this extraterrestrial immigrant.
It seems like mankind only really has time for Superman when they directly need his help. Superman rescues flood survivors who paint a giant white “S” on their roof, and they reach out to him. Superman saves a woman from a burning building in Mexico, and the crowd reaches out to touch him in silent awe. However, the vast majority of the public seems to be united in hatred of Superman. Given the tone of the film, and the general portrayal of public sentiment, one wonders how the monument to Superman in Metropolis was even built.
Again, this reinforces the simple fact that Christopher Nolan is much stronger at world-building than Zack Snyder. Nolan did a much better job of demonstrating how Batman had affected – and divided – Gotham in the first twenty minutes of The Dark Knight than Snyder does over the entire runtime of Batman vs. Superman. There is a sense that this lack of specificity is part of the point, rendering these characters and their stories almost mythic in nature. However, there is a recurring sense that Batman and Superman are moving through a world half-formed.
At the same time, it is interesting how Batman vs. Superman chooses to engage with the now-obligatory “shared universe.” There was a time when it was enough for Superman and Batman to anchor their own individual franchises. These days, it seems like every other company has a shared universe; from the Universal Monsters to the Transformers series. Warner Brothers have arrived relatively late to the party, with Marvel Studios kicking off the trend with Iron Man back in 2008.
Marvel Studios built their universe outwards, starting with smaller individual films building towards The Avengers and leading into their more tightly interconnected multi-platform projects at the moment. In a desire to make up for lost time, it appears that Warner Brothers are frontloading the cultivation of their own shared DC universe. Man of Steel was technically the first film in that shared universe, following the spectacular misfire of Green Lantern. However, Batman vs. Superman was released with a full slate of follow-up projects already on the cards.
Some of this world-building is decidedly clunky, such as when the third act effectively halts for two minutes while Wonder Woman checks out what amounts to teaser trailers for The Flash, Aquaman and Cyborg. This is all standard stuff, recalling the inelegant crossover hooks of Iron Man 2. However, the film adopts a more abstract approach its larger crossover with the looming two-part Justice League movie. Batman vs. Superman revels in the density of its central mythology.
Chris Terrio and David S. Goyer incorporate a stunning amount of material drawn from a wide range of diverse sources. Midway through the film, Batman is haunted by an apocalyptic nightmare filled with abstract imagery. On a purely superficial level, the dream sequence works as an excuse for some action after a number of dialogue-driven scenes. However, it also serves an excuse to make a whole host of references to stories and imagery tied to these characters. In a way, it all ties back to Terrio and Goyer’s fascination with comic books as a modern mythology.
The Flash appears in a reference to his role the 1986 epic Crisis on Infinite Earths, the story that effectively rebooted DC’s sprawling continuity for the first time. Batman’s vision of a nightmarish Earth is taken from Grant Morrison’s ambitious 2008 follow-up, Final Crisis. The vision of Superman as a would-be dictator references the hugely popular 2013 video game Injustice: Gods Amongst Us. The implication that Superman is a corrupted servant of Darkseid comes from Legacy, Parts I and II, the 1996 finalé of Superman: The Animated Series.
Those are some surprisingly diverse inspirations, and there is a sense that Terro and Goyer are consciously drawing from a smorgasbord of references and allusions more than one or two choice sources. Quite pointedly, those sources and references come from a variety of media, suggesting that depictions of Batman and Superman in films and videogames are just valid as comic book interpretations. As with the ambiguity around the nature of Bruce Wayne’s past failures, it seems like Batman vs. Superman is trying to cast as wide a net as possible.
Of course, Batman vs. Superman adopts a similar approach in its appropriation of other pop cultural touchstones. Perhaps acknowledging the mash-up culture that made a movie like “Batman vs. Superman” all but inevitable, Terro and Goyer pepper their screenplay with nods and references to a variety of inspirations even outside of the comic book framework. Lex Luther drops quotes from A Streetcar Named Desire and Lolita into conversation. A tough Russian bad guy reveals an unexpected fondness for Cole Porter during an attempted incineration.
Perhaps this is what popular culture has come to in 2016, a collection of recognisable lines and familiar iconography thrown into a blender like human and Kryptonian DNA to create what the script itself describes as “an abomination.” References and in-jokes, characters and crossovers, perpetually churning. As is Snyder’s style, there is a faint trace of irony in all this quoting and appropriation. Indeed, Luthor is himself presented as something of an appropriation. Jesse Eisenberg ups the camp, but he is very much The Social Network‘s Mark Zuckerberg rendered as supervillain.
When Batman wakes up in a post-apocalyptic wasteland populated by rebels and soldiers wearing Superman armbands, has he born witness to Alejandro González Iñárritu’s “cultural genocide?” If Darkseid’s decision to carve his gigantic omega brand into a dead Earth is to be taken at face value, is it to suggest that characters and concepts (and intellectual properties) like Batman and Superman will outlast everything? Maybe; maybe not. Looking at the armoured cars traveling through the desert, it seems just as likely that everyone involved the production really liked Fury Road.
As with a lot of Batman vs. Superman, there is something so gleefully odd about all this that it is hard to hate it. Batman vs. Superman is the very definition of a populist accessible blockbuster. Wonder Woman is just about the only major character in the film who has not appeared in at least three blockbuster films by this point, and even she held down an iconic live action television show. Everybody knows Batman. Everybody knows Superman. This should not be difficult or confusing or abstract in the slightest.
And yet Batman vs. Superman revels in its esoteric elements. It is packed with lots of little details that are designed to actively confuse viewers without a firm grounding in the source material. Fans might think it is obvious that Bruce Wayne keeps a Robin costume in the Batcave, but the costume on display in Batman vs. Superman very consciously does not resemble any live-action Robin costume to date. Fans might instantly recognise the monsters in Batman’s dream as Parademons from Jack Kirby’s Fourth World Saga, but regular viewers have no frame of reference.
These are not clever Easter eggs buried in the background for avid fans to pick out when the movie is eventually released on blu ray – in an R-rated ultimate cut, of course – but instead placed front and centre. There is something delightfully bizarre about a film based around playing Batman against Superman that pauses in the middle for five minutes for an apocalyptic what-if featuring killer grasshoppers and a Superman death cult followed by an ominous warning from the future given by a character to whom we have not even been introduced.
It is weird and crazy, in a way that draws attention to itself even in the middle of a film that is already packed full of weird and crazy elements. There is something ambitious in trying to throw a mass audience in at the deep-end of comic book craziness, taking two of the most recognisable branded superheroes in the world and then throwing something incredibly esoteric in on top of them. (Honest to goodness question overheard during the Flash’s cameo, “Is that… is that Robin?!”)
In the end, that is probably the biggest virtue of Batman vs. Superman. It is not a safe film. Frank Miller was obvious a very clear influence on the film, for both better and worse. Snyder and his writers not only appropriated a rich selection of imagery from The Dark Knight Returns, but they also inherited the divisive craziness of Miller’s All-Star Batman and Robin. Watching Batman vs. Superman, it does not feel like a film that was made by committee statistically designed to alienate the fewest audience members.
The film was undoubtedly focus-grouped, but nobody watching the film could honestly believe that serious amendments or revisions were made to the finished product based on that feedback. When Snyder talks about having the complete and unquestioning support of the studio in making the movie that he wanted to make, it is not too hard to believe. This is very much the model that Warner Brothers have applied in their relationships with partners like Christopher Nolan, the Wachowski Sisters, George Miller and Ben Affleck.
Sometimes that model works. Sometimes it doesn’t. However, it does make for an interesting and ambitious experience. Batman vs. Superman doesn’t work, for any number of reasons. Zack Snyder is still an awkward fit for Superman, and the film’s direction seems to be at odds with its writing. The film’s plotting is loose, to say the least, which is unforgivable in a film this long. The third act is a messy quagmire of CGI explosions and unearned dramatic payoffs. Batman vs. Superman is not a good film.
However, it is an interesting and ambitious film. It is a film that genuinely tries to say something meaningful and insightful, and which does feel like it has a number of intriguing things to say about its subject even if it struggles to properly articulate them. This is a film that uses Superman to talk about what it is to believe in God, to have hope, to hold to an ideal. It does not always talk about those things clearly or profoundly, but it talks about them in a way that is a rarity for a blockbuster on this scale.
Like Cloud Atlas, there are ways in which Batman vs. Superman simply does not work as a narrative film, but there are also ways in which it looks absolutely nothing like you might expect a two-hundred-and-fifty million dollar blockbuster to look. With its lack of exposition, its emphasis on prickly themes like religious belief, and its willingness to engage on an abstract or thematic level more than on that of plot, there is an argument to be made that Batman vs. Superman fits the mould of an “indie” arthouse film, albeit with an unimaginably vast budget.
Batman vs. Superman is a film that has not had all (or even any) of its rough edges sanded down. The results is something messy and jagged and ugly, but something that is bizarrely unique for a film released at that level. Batman vs. Superman never quite coheres, but it is never less that intriguing.