What Went Wrong With ‘Batman v Superman’? (MAJOR SPOILERS)

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The Bat Signal has been lit. The Kryptonian has descended from the heavens. The epic battle that has been the subject of much speculation and anticipation is here and it has landed with a resounding thud. Zack Snyder’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice has just dropped a nuclear bomb of awful on fandom, leaving a massive crater and radioactive fallout in its wake. The reviews have been savage, and once it finds its way to the public it won’t get any better. Sure, there will be those that defend this bloated, misguided movie. And that’s perfectly fine. Not everybody is going to agree on a movie, especially a Zack Snyder superhero movie.

But the future of the DC Extended Universe hangs in the balance of this very movie. It’ll do big business in its first week to nobody’s surprise, but I doubt that this film will have much in the way of repeat business. So what went wrong with Zack Snyder’s epic and what does it hold for the future of DC Comics on the silver screen?

MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD! TREAD LIGHTLY, DEAR READER!

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The Shadow of Frank Miller

Frank Miller is one of the most influential voices in the history of comic books. His work has shaped how characters like Batman and Daredevil are presented in various aspects of pop culture. But Miller’s glory days are long behind him. His most profound and influential work is over 30 years old, and has consistently been the inspiration for Batman in the movies ever since Tim Burton brought the character back to the big screen in 1989. As has been argued elsewhere before, it’s long overdue for Batman to escape the shadow of Frank Miller and The Dark Knight Returns.

Superman and Batman do battle in Miller’s 1986 comic epic, and Zack Snyder is quite liberal in appropriating the imagery from the graphic novel without simply retelling the story. Batman’s armored costume is pulled straight from Miller’s battle of the superheroes. Yet Snyder only tries to use the imagery, completely leaving the political aspects of Miller’s confrontation to the sidelines. However, it would be a fool’s errand to replicate the political context of The Dark Knight Returns, with Superman as an agent for the Reagan White House and Batman a much more libertarian-minded vigilante. It was a product of its time, a story inseparable from the ‘80s.

Not attempting to revive the politics of the ‘80s for a 2016 superhero film might be the best decision that Zack Snyder made in Batman v Superman. Snyder, like practically everyone else to ever film the Dark Knight, bases his entire understanding of the character upon Miller’s interpretations, leaving aside countless other takes on the character for the sake of simplicity and familiarity. Moving forward, Batman and Frank Miller need a trial separation. We’ve seen this version of Batman too many times before, and with each successive round the character becomes staler and staler. The Dark Knight Returns and Frank Miller will always be a part of Batman lore, but the character is way overdue for a new model to build upon.

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Blecch Luthor

Most of the controversy Batman v Superman generated when it was in its infancy was the casting of Ben Affleck as Bruce Wayne/Batman. It was a silly overreaction and Affleck is just fine in the movie. What didn’t generate the controversy was the casting of Jesse Eisenberg as the nefarious Lex Luthor. In the books, Luthor is a genius, one who sees himself as the savior of humanity against the threat of an alien agitator in blue and red. In BvS, Luthor is an entitled brat, an orphan who inherited his tech company and fortune. He gives rambling speeches and has the mannerisms of a coke fiend, but his end game is entirely elusive.

What motivates this incarnation of Lex Luthor? Your guess is as good as mine, because nothing the character does makes even the slightest amount of sense. He supplies mercenaries with experimental weapons because…reasons. He creates the creature Doomsday because…reasons. He kidnaps Martha Kent in order to prod Superman into killing Batman because…reasons. More often than not, superhero films are dependent on a strong villain, one that has clear motivations and represents a dark reflection of the hero.

There’s nothing behind this Lex Luthor. Hard as he tries, Jesse Eisenberg just can’t do anything with the material. It’s as if Snyder said to Eisenberg, “Remember Frank Gorshin from the ’66 Batman show? Yeah, he was way too subtle. You need to go over the top, brah!” And Eisenberg just plays Luthor like he did Mark Zuckerberg, just louder and with a sinister laugh. It is as miscalculated a performance as you’d encounter in a blockbuster of this magnitude. Everything about the character – the casting, the performance, and the writing – are a grave miscalculation. Even if Eisenberg is to eventually reprise his role as Lex Luthor, it’s hard not to imagine that the character will go through significant alterations.

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Think About the Future

The concept of a standalone superhero film is dead. Nowadays, all superhero films have to be a part of a larger shared universe. Of course, this is all Marvel’s fault. They started this madcap rush to connectivity with their Marvel Cinematic Universe. Even though I like many Marvel movies, they falter when their focus is placed upon the future installments instead of just telling the story at hand. Batman v Superman has these problems in spades, though it’s much more inept than the egregiously out of place moments in Marvel movies like Ant-Man and Age of Ultron. Being the originator, Marvel has had an eight-year head start in putting all of its dots together, a luxury Zack Snyder and Warner Bros. simply don’t have. So they rush to catch up to the leader but only succeed in emulating the worst aspects of the shared universe.

Much has been made about the members of the Justice League that would be appearing in BvS. Snyder is attached to direct Justice League: Part 1, which is due to open late next year. But none of the new characters introduced land. Gal Gadot’s first appearance as Wonder Woman, who will definitely be getting her own solo film next year, features the Israeli actress doing the most with material devoid of substance. There’s very little one could tell you about the character based upon her brief appearance in BvS. The character was just crammed into a story that didn’t require, or give any reason to justify, her presence, but got lucky enough in casting that it doesn’t seem too egregious.

However, that same goodwill can’t be extended to the other characters that have been teased in promotional materials for BvS as well as Justice League. After a brief email exchange with Bruce Wayne, we get to witness Wonder Woman opening a series of video files on her laptop. The files have icons that give away who each character is supposed to be, so there’s even little surprise with these pointless cameos. Even if Justice League is able to overcome BvS and move into production soon (a box office disaster could destroy any plans), the series will always carry the stain that the first appearance of Aquaman, the Flash, and Cyborg will have occurred through Wonder Woman watching videos on her laptop. By any standards, these teases are astoundingly ineffective in creating anticipation for future installments.

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We Can’t Be Heroes

Before Zack Snyder took the reins of Superman, the character actually stood for something. Superman was, as Jor-El said in Man of Steel, “an ideal to strive for.” But Man of Steel was never able to follow through on that statement, and Batman v Superman continues to disregard the hope and optimism historically associated with the character. Conversely, Batman has never had that same streak of idealism as Superman. He’s a character that’s driven by his pain, channeling his inner darkness for the greater good. In BvS, there’s no difference between the two. They’re both dark. They’re both brooding. They’re both selfish. They both kill bad guys.

In the film, Superman flies off to rescue Lois Lane from an African warlord. After pulverizing the warlord through a brick wall, he flies off into the sunset as villagers are slain by the forces of the warlord. Superman’s so-called heroism is entirely self-serving, always choosing to rescue Lois Lane over any other endangered civilians. This is a character devoid of empathy for anyone not immediately connected to him (i.e. Lois Lane and Martha Kent), and is never faced with making a decision about what’s actually right. When a suicide bomber attacks a Senate hearing, Superman stands still amid the burning wreckage, never looking for anyone wounded and in need of aid. It’s dispiriting to see this character reduced to a petty ball of spiteful and violent rage.

Batman may not have the ability to level entire cities like Superman, so his reign of terror takes on a much more personal level. After pummeling his enemies, Batman scars them by branding the bat-logo in their flesh, which we’re later told is a death sentence in prison. He’s a judge, jury, and executioner, a vigilante obsessed with a perversion of justice. At the film’s conclusion, he threatens Lex Luthor with a red-hot Batarang. He might as well declare, “I can kill, but I won’t.” It gets even worse, though, as we see Batman use firearms to shoot multiple bad guys, not to mention the gruesome stabbing he inflicts on a few other villainous henchmen.

For all the film’s ruminations on the nature of power, BvS is simply a fascist screed. The only righteous power is raw, brute force in the viewpoint of this film. Batman and Superman employ violence as the only means to resolve conflict, and killing your enemies is the only absolute way to reach a resolution. There’s nothing to separate these two characters. Hilariously, they both have mothers named Martha, which becomes a crucial plot point in uniting the feuding heroes. These two characters may be super, but they’re definitely not heroes.

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Doomsday and the “Death” of Superman

1992 featured a comics event that brought about the unthinkable – the death of Superman. The iconic hero would be killed in battle with the unstoppable killing machine Doomsday. Of course, the story was just a stunt to boost comic sales, but it worked as a gimmick because Superman had been around as a character long enough that his final sacrifice would have some meaning for the generations that grew up with the character. Doomsday appears in BvS as a nonsensical creation of Lex Luthor. At first, it seems that Doomsday’s inclusion is just to give BvS a big bad to unite our heroes. However, it doesn’t take long to realize that Zack Snyder is, in fact, going there. In a film solely comprised of bad decisions, this one is the worst.

Not only is Doomsday a complete nothing of a nemesis, with a wide variety of ill-defined superpowers, the sacrifice of Superman is simply included as a cheap form of emotional manipulation, one that can’t work because BvS is mainly about setting up Justice League, of which Superman is an integral part. Snyder and company can’t even commit to the death of Superman, teasing his eventual revival at the film’s conclusion despite wasting nearly 20 minutes on a somber postmortem that isn’t fooling anyone.

The ending of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is an insult directed at the audience. What reason is given for anyone to care about his death? We’ve never seen him be a truly selfless hero. We know that he’ll return for the sequels. In the pages of the comics the only thing that Superman hadn’t done in over 50 years of existence was die, and even then it wasn’t going to be permanent. Before the press screening the other night, there was a video introduction asking that this big reveal be kept a secret until the film was released. But the reveal isn’t surprising, it’s expected. Worst of all, it’s entirely meaningless. Perhaps the only silver lining to this pointless conclusion to BvS is that Superman will return in Justice League rockin’ a bitchin mullet. Aside from that, it’s all dire in Zack Snyder’s DC Universe. And unless major changes are made, it’ll only get worse.

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