Spoiler-filled analysis from the point of view of one who reads comics, not who reviews movies.
This article originally ran on medium.com and was reposted here with the permission of Thaddeus Howze
For the record. I hate writing reviews. Why? Because criticism is easy. Any idiot can sit in a theater and have an opinion. Any art critic can, with the weight of their degree in art literacy, define why a thing fails to deliver whatever THEY think it should deliver to an “audience.” As a writer who struggles to find that proper beat to put a story to while I am writing it, I am always reminded movies are a special breed of writing.
Movies are a collaboration. They are a story written by at least one person, massaged by two or three other people, edited by another person before being turned into a script which gets changed daily. As the shots are reviewed and then taken from different angles, all that work is gathered together and digitally enhanced, cinematic effects added, CGI constructs placed and then this beast is edited down to fit a designated time pattern.
This is one of the most important parts of a movie’s creation: No matter what vision a director might have, arbitrary decisions made as to what stays in and what goes out are often made by executives whose reasons for doing what they do are completely their own but presumably were meant to make the film more “profitable,” based on some movie-making algorithm only they understand.
While we may blame the director, we have no idea of what forces may play upon him while he works. Directors are the weathermen, the executives who run the company are the weather…certainly at times, tempestuous and unpredictable. Ask Joss Whedon why he isn’t making any more Avengers movies…
Often, what you see in a final cut of a movie is what’s left, after the magic smoke has escaped out the back.
After the ideas of the writers were parsed away, after the script strips away more life, after the limitations of shooting, the integration of CGI and the final edit do their work, what might have been envisioned is now a melange of scenes apparently stuck together without the connective tissue decorating the cutting room floor; (figuratively speaking since movies are entirely digital these days…)
What’s left is a highly processed monstrosity, which maybe has enough flavor for you to see what was meant to be a four-course meal and instead is now a bento box, barely palatable, filled with food you don’t recognize and aren’t sure you want to eat.
Movies are a group event requiring the efforts of hundreds or even thousands of people. Movies are like computers; most of us have no idea what goes into them, how they work, or what kinds of science was required to make them function.
We only know when they don’t work, it pisses us off.
Hence, reviews don’t impress me. Because it is easy to say what you don’t like, don’t think worked, and how this effort should cause everyone to lose their jobs and never work again, without understanding that a thousand people poured two or three years of their lives into this thing you casually dismiss with nothing but a word.
I stand by that wisdom taught to me when I was six: “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.”
I liked this movie. A lot. It could easily walk away with a 6.5 to 7/10 for me. Yes, there are issues, but EVERY movie has them. It was hardly the worst thing ever made in the superhero movie-making business. See: Daredevil (2003)
This is a movie, in its way, designed to be a love letter to comic fans everywhere. Alas, without the proper knowledge of the lore, the movie will be a complete miss for everyone else. As I see it, there will only be two camps, people who will love it or people who will hate it. I hope critics promoting their hatred doesn’t stop people from going to see it and judging for themselves.
For those of you who have the lore, the understanding of the totality of the DC Universe, there will be something here for you. For those of you without said lore and without the understanding, NOTHING in this movie will make any sense to you, no matter how many art degrees you possess.
Sorry. If I had known, I would have warned you. Fans, and you know who you are, you will be okay. Hopefully DC will have learned from this experience and will try a bit harder to make their movies understandable for everyone.
Here there be spoilers — read no further if you haven’t seen the movie and hate to be spoiled.
I need to start this Not-a-Review with the words of my autistic 12 year old who wears his love of Superman and Batman on his sleeve: “After all of that, all we ended up with is a dead Superman?” He was profoundly disturbed. He couldn’t understand why Superman and Batman were fighting. But he didn’t like it.
It was hard to argue with his analysis. And if you were a non-comic person, you likely came away with the very same thought. I saw the movie with my son who loves superheroes but has none of the lore and my wife who is an above average study in comics by proxy and also found it enjoyable.
But I could see the movie’s subtle charms, its hidden or maybe even lost potential, cut away, perhaps only to appear in the Blue-ray version, thus while many will spit in my eye and say I am a fool, I think this movie was worthy. It had faults, but most movies do. I prefer my movies to err on the side of reaching too far than to not reach far enough.
Batman v Superman wanted too much.
It wanted to be all things to all people not realizing most people who are watching superheroes films as they are currently being created, are not ready for this kind of film.
People expected this movie to follow the Marvel formula:
* Pick a simple idea, dress it up well, make it funny, keep it focused on movement and like three card monty, keep the viewers guessing until the end.
* Don’t make them work too hard because you want to keep the frustration low. Give them a happy ending with a cute video bon mot tacked on at the end of the movie. This is the Low Hanging Fruit Protocol of Superhero movie development.
* And the damn thing works. It works because it is simple. It explains nothing, you just follow the brightly colored heroes until the movie ends. You don’t try to figure out why Stark is funny, why Thor is loud, why Hawkeye carries a USB virus on an arrowhead and can place it right the first time. (How many times does it take YOU to plug in a USB drive?) You just accept that they do.
Batman v Superman is not that film. It was ambitious. Too ambitious. It wanted, more than anything else to redeem, what is considered the first failure of this director, Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel, by putting the events of the movie in context with the perspective of Humans on the ground. It tried to reach into the psychology of helplessness felt by people when an event too great for them to understand suddenly changes their world forever.
There was nothing wrong with this idea. This is an attempt of the writers of the DC Universe to bring our current worldview, our fears, our politics, our resistance to change, into the comics. Should we be doing that is a different question, but you cannot fault them for considering it. In fact, superheroes do this exact thing decade after decade if you pay attention to them long enough.
While I am not a fan of Superman or Batman killing people, there is a precedent for both characters doing so in the past and while we are not privy to the ultimate nature of this DC Universe (I’ll explain later) it is not outside of the context of possibility for both characters, no matter how much the Comic’s Code Authority sanitized them for generations.
This movie wanted to exploit our fear of a wider, unknown universe. In this case, the Kryptonian spaceships raining death from the skies, all over the planet. Our technology was helpless to stop them. At our current stage of development, we were simply unable to protect ourselves. Imagine the fear the social unrest this must have caused worldwide: 9/11 times 1,000!
One day we’re the masters of the Universe, creating technologies, messing with science, engaging in worldwide commerce, the next day, we are nothing more than ants running from some super-powered threat destroying our anthill with a wave of their hands and the flash of their eyes.
But they look just like us.
This is a real fear, something I fully expect the Human race to discover if and when extraterrestrials make their appearance. Humanity is undone, our greatness forgotten in the light of a more powerful, nearly godlike being’s presence.
Batman v Superman tries to explain a complicated Batman, a grizzled veteran who has experienced great losses, at least one dead Robin, presumably at the hands of the Joker, and a history of at least twenty years of being Batman, becoming slightly unhinged in the process. His psychological disturbance playing out and being manipulated several times in the movie. Each tweaking of his mind acting as part premonition, part psychological manipulation.
For those keeping score, the savior scene when he is lifted up by the bats and the demonic scene as his parents graves leak black blood and a demonic creature leaps forth. These were not dreams. These were manipulations to convince Bruce Wayne’s tortured mind only he could save humanity from the threat of demonic encroachment. What was missing was context.
This Bruce Wayne is not Batman as we know him. He is no pacifist. No bleeding heart unwilling to take a life. This Batman is cruel, branding his enemies, in effect judging them and marking them for death in prison. This Batman shoots guns, takes a beating, sucks it up and asks for seconds. His fighting style employs terrorizing his enemies into submission, spooking crook and police alike.
This Batman is inspired by the Arkham Batman video games. His fighting is fast, brutal and in several cases, deadly. I can see one confrontation with this Batman, should you survive, to be all a criminal needs to consider a life on the straight and narrow.
Ben Affleck was almost unrecognizable in his role as Batman, having taken it to heart, beefing up, and working to make himself a presence on the screen. I could have done without the origin retelling but I forgave it when they used it later in the movie.
There are two other parts of the movie where Bruce is experiencing what I believe to be either telepathic communication or some other form of mental manipulation. The Flashpoint hint is sheer genius and completely out of left field leaving the audience to ask: WTF was that?
- By showing what appears to be a Flashpoint call out, the possibility is planted that this timeline, the one we are viewing is, in fact, NOT DC’s main timeline. Which DC Multiverse world is this one? Is it one of many?
- In fact, comic readers know DC has/had at least 52 timelines where they have their stories taking place. We are not privy to which one these movies take up or how they relate to the DC television multiverse which has at least three separate worlds: The Flash/Arrowverse, deemed Earth-One, Jay Garrick’s Earth-Two, and Supergirl’s Earth which has not be designated but is presumably NOT the same Earth as the Arrowverse.
- In most of the DC Universes we knew prior to this one, Superman and Batman have been, more often than not, good friends; the World’s Finest, in point of fact.
- Superman is highly respected and has the friendship of the Justice League. He is the first hero to show up and inspire others, not the last to arrive and reveal his powers…
- Are what we are seeing the remnants of some reshuffling of the DC Universe? Was the Flash warning Bruce of an impending disaster or was this universe the result of that disaster? The implications of that one scene would be lost on someone who didn’t know what Flashpoint was…
The second Bat-Dream is of an impending Apokalips (not a mis-spelling) and the Superman-logo wearing troopers.
- I recognized it for what it was but if you weren’t a comic reader you had no idea what you were seeing.
- Once the scene is in full swing, the parademons were a wonderful touch. I suspect Desaad or some other entity to be responsible for these transmissions/manipulations but whatever their source (Metron, perhaps) they show a future Earth under the complete rule of Darkseid…
- Again, completely disjointed, apparently removed from the current story arc. Or is it?
- What if it was part of the manipulation hinted at by Luthor at the very end. Luthor implies the dinner bell has been rung and HE is coming. What if Luthor hadn’t been alone in his planning? Was it indeed possible, Luthor was not the only mastermind here, but an agent of a greater, wiser and far more insidious power.
This certainly wouldn’t be the first time we have seen this idea. An Elseworlds series showing Superman from Earth 1198 is raised by Darkseid instead of the Kents. It has even been played out again recently in the New 52 stories of Earth 2, where Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman were killed in a world wide invasion by Darkseid. Superman (Kal-El) is later resurrected and plays for the other team. These scenes are not accidental. They are trying to set up a larger story in the future of the DC Extended Universe.
Batman v Superman wants you to believe the annoying character of Lex Luthor was somehow able to manipulate Bruce Wayne, his employees, his company, not only once but at least three times to create a stage where:
- Batman would live in fear of Superman, playing on his fears created with the psychological assist of an unknown enemy (likely the technologically-sophisticated mental torture of Darkseid’s favorite chew toy, Desaad.)
- This would have, in theory helped to further destabilize Bruce Wayne’s mental state, noticed only by Alfred, who makes his notice of this clear with his speech about the cruelty of fearful men, escalating that fear tipping Wayne’s already unhinged psyche to murderous levels.
- Ultimately manipulating him into threatening a being who should be able to crush him like a bug.
- While “losing” the only substance which could make it possible for Batman to defeat Superman in a fight. Arranging the information so that Batman could find it, hunt it down, attempt to take it and leave it conveniently accessible to him. (Are you telling me Luthor not only doesn’t jam outbound communications from his secret lairs he doesn’t even have a cell phone jammer for his minions? These were breadcrumbs for Batman to “find” and secure the Kryptonite to destroy the alien menace of Superman…)
This implied Luthor was exercising an intellect simply unparalleled and unclouded by anything other than his desire to be rid of one or both of his enemies. In an ideal world, he would be rid of Superman and could kill Batman at his leisure. Without the timely intervention of Lois Lane, he would have had his wish. Assuming this was his plan in the first place and not Darkseid’s.
Batman v Superman reveals a wondrous Wonder Woman who is apparently VERY long lived, (allowing her to have a history spanning ALL of the 20th century, which was a nice touch). While I could not place any of the other faces with her in the 1918 photo, I had the impression I had seen them or their analogs somewhere. I am certain someone will name them soon. I suspect one of them is Steve Trevor…
Wonder Women is no wilting flower either. She is bold, fearless and maybe just a little too into fighting for her own good. I had the impression she hadn’t fought anything or anyone who could give her a run for her money in quite some time. Perhaps the underworld hadn’t lost any monsters since the turn of the century. Despite my dislike of Godot for the role, she managed to make me believe she COULD be Wonder Woman.
The movie falls down around the idea that Lex Luthor (whom most of us have over the decades been conditioned to believe was composed, urbane and a sophisticated intellect) could be played by an actor most of us don’t associate with such a role. I admit to being distracted by his awful clothing, his annoying anecdotes, and that simply awful goddamn hair. All of this just kept taking me out of the role. Is it the actor’s fault? Maybe.
Maybe the script didn’t do its job to present Luthor as both insane and brilliant in a way I could believe. When I look for insane and brilliant I think of Sir Anthony Hopkins, Hannibal Lector. The composure of the character belied the monster within. Jesse Eisenberg just didn’t bring that gravitas I was hoping for.
In addition, the idiosyncratic behavior displayed by this Luthor rubbed most fans the wrong way so much so, we hate to admit his plotting and scheming to get Batman to kill Superman included Batman stealing the very Kryptonite, Luthor managed to “secure” in the first place. Luthor’s manipulations were just a bit TOO subtle and thus most people don’t immediately understand almost every event we saw was likely manipulated by him.
Kudos to the capitol building scene. This was simply a brilliant coup; a dark, goddamn devastating scene where the pieces come together and the world’s most powerful individual must simply stand there without any idea of what to do. The monstrousness of the act reveals Luthor’s nature as a petty, spoiled, psychologically unbalanced but brilliant mind. He toys with everyone in that scene distracting them with the weighty question of “Who Watches the Watchmen?”
You can’t unhinge Superman physically. You unhinge him mentally. Luthor’s play was excellent. Superman can’t show himself without having to explain himself. He is temporarily undone, forced into hiding giving Luthor time to complete his plan. The conversation with his dead father? A lift from the comics as well. (I have to find the screenshot but trust me, it was a shout out to that conversation. Was it necessary? Maybe, maybe not. I suspect it was to provide a reminder that every action has consequences, even when we think we are doing something good.)
I had mixed feelings about Lois Lane. Luthor manipulates her but how could he have depended on her gaining access to the bullet fragment? How could he know? Was his operative so good he would know to shoot her book to leave the “evidence?”
The photographer with her turns out to be CIA (I thought he was Jimmy Olsen) and was surprised to see him shot dead in the scene. Raised a bunch of questions for me:
- Jimmy Olsen was CIA?
- Does that mean the CIA technically knew Clark Kent was Superman? Or at least suspected it?
- Why wasn’t Lois more aware of Jimmy (assuming this was Jimmy’s apparent cover?) Why didn’t she investigate THAT while she was at it?
- Did she tell Clark what happened to Jimmy or who he worked for? Surely it should have come up in conversation?
Lois always felt a step behind the curve and that annoyed me more as the movie progressed. I also didn’t like the handling of the terrorist who had the gun to Lois’ head. It seemed extreme, like something Injustice Superman might have done. What happened to finesse? Heat vision? Supercold breath? I mean Superman flew him through two brick walls. Surely he couldn’t have survived? Overkill much?
Maybe this is the problem I had with the entire movie. It seemed as if it were trying to be Injustice (an Elseworld type story where the Justice League goes rogue and conquers the world under the rule of Superman) but just kept coming up short.
The best supporting role goes to Alfred, whose biting commentary, many skills and awesome effectiveness overall, made him a part of the Batman mythos in a way rarely seen in the comics. Definitely an upgrade to the character.
The fight between Batman and Superman was well scripted and it pretty much showed both Batman’s ingenuity and Superman’s superiority, physically speaking:
- It also highlighted Superman’s lack of creativity for problem solving since he rarely has to do more than show up for problems to BE solved.
- Overall, with a shitload of planning and preparation, Batman could take a Superman who wasn’t trying to kill him.
- A Superman who wanted to kill him would have turned him and his nice Bat-armor into a puddle of molten metal.
For me, the weakest part of the movie was the Doomsday reveal. Doomsday was pathetic in his appearance, as if they ran out of Playdoh and CGI artists who gave a damn. We handwave away the Kryptonian ship being left in the center of Metropolis…:
- What were they thinking?
- Who leaves an alien artifact of incredible power and potential scientific knowledge right in the middle of the city where it fell out of the sky?
- How about explaining that for the viewing public. It would have taken just a throwaway line: “The Kryptonian spaceship was insert description here (too large, too massive, too fragile) to move and was thus left in the center of the city as the lesser threat…”
We somehow accept and handwave away Luthor gaining access to it and figuring out how to utilize the technology:
The Kryptonians had a 100,000 years of space travel, with the resources of thousands of worlds, and a database chock-full of technologically advanced capabilities which could destroy any civilization lacking any ethical or moral compass:
- Were the Kryptonians stupid enough to believe fingerprint biometric capabilities were all you needed to access their technology?
- Why didn’t the government workers think of doing exactly what Luthor did?
- And how does adding Luthor’s blood make Zod’s body an abomination?
- Why didn’t Luthor resurrect Zod since it appears the Kryptonian ship had the ability to resurrect dead tissue? Hint, hint…
- Was all of the resurrection technology being shown to us to hint at the fact Superman may only be “mostly dead?”
Anyway, Doomsday was a cut-rate Abomination (see Hulk movie) or cave troll, (Lord of the Rings). His singular claim to fame is killing Superman. The very least they could do is make him look impressive, which they failed to do. The fight between the three of them was pretty much what I expected, ending with the only outcome that made any sense. I was glad to see Superman try and take the fight out of the city almost immediately, showing he had learned his lesson where fighting people as powerful as he was is concerned. Surviving the nuke was a nice touch (and a call out to the Dark Knight Returns) without the drawing energy out of the plants handwave…
Given all of my other minor issues with the movie, I still would give it a 7 out of 10, maintaining the overall tone of the previous movie while trying to inject a bit of hope of something greater in the future.
We have Darkseid to look forward to, we have Flashpoint hinted at, and the formation of the early members of a Justice League as well as a potential Wonder Woman stand alone movie. All in all, I say, despite the critics who might lack the information necessary to follow all of the stories shoe-horned into this movie and thus may not be able to follow the movie successfully, the movie did its best to reach the fans who knew the materials.
That effort was a double-edged sword. While sending out mad-love to the fans, the movie alienated the normal, non-superhero fans who have little to no knowledge of the heroes or their respective mythos. This ability to draw in the common viewer is why Marvel has proven to be more successful. Marvel takes a single thread and plays it out so even if you barely know who anyone is, you can feel somewhat connected, though they did better in Avengers than they did in Age of Ultron.
I feel like DC can still pull success out of this movie and the DC Entertainment Universe is off to a rich, kinda crazed start. I can forgive this mess with the understanding DC is working from fear of being outstripped by Marvel.
DC Entertainment my advice to you is simple:
- Run your race. Stop looking at Marvel. Their path is not yours.
- Simplify your stories, get new writers and directors who love your history. Use your history to tell stories. Find the stories people loved and give them new life on the big screen.
- You’re acting as if you don’t have anything to share with a movie audience. It’s simply not true. Young Justice is still the best rendition of the DC Universe ever created. The Animated Adventures of Superman, Batman and the Justice League and Justice League Unlimited were the best superhero stories to consistently appear on television for a decade.
To quote the writer/editor/creator Joseph P. Illidge: “Stop being afraid of your history. You are the realm of imagination. Act like it.”