I don’t even know anymore
by Thom Yee
I get a little defensive when it comes to Man of Steel. The 2013 Extended Universe movie designed to kickstart DC’s burgeoning cinematic line has its share of problems, but when people tell me that Pa Kent would never tell his son that he shouldn’t have saved his classmates or that Superman would never kill or when they say the movie’s too dark, I can’t help but feel that they missed a lot of what was going on. In Man of Steel, we had a Superman who didn’t simply spring forth as the fully formed superhero we’re all familiar (and, most of us, board) with, but instead was a man torn between two worlds, having only recently discovered the secrets of an origin that left him isolated for his entire life just before being attacked by the last remnants of his own people. Man of Steel wasn’t dark, it was real, exactly as hateful, cruel, dismissive, uncaring, and dangerous as people can be in a real life where answers aren’t easy. When Pa Kent tells Clark “maybe” when Clark asks him if he should’ve just let his classmates die when his school bus fell into the river rather than risk exposure, he’s not saying “you should’ve let them die,” he’s telling him that he doesn’t know, that it’s not a question that can be definitively answered with wisdom or experience, this is brand new for all of them — for Clark, for Pa, and for the world — and nothing Clark does with his powers can be taken lightly. [SPOILER] When Superman kills Zod, he does so not only to save people in imminent danger, but to save all of us from a relentless force, the closest thing he has left to a brother or father, that would otherwise destroy us all. [/SPOILER] And, if we’re reading between the lines, this is where he learns not to kill, this is where he learns that he has to be better, this is the origin of a Superman whose moral code isn’t simply platitudes spouted when things are easy but is something being forged under the harshest of circumstances. I dare you to do better.
Now, I don’t expect you to just agree with all of that, and like I said, the movie does have problems (I think it has pacing issues, particularly towards the end, and some major characters could’ve been fleshed out better), but the way I’ve seen people write the movie off entirely as a joyless exercise with no redeeming value, to see the type of backlash against the movie I’ve seen has sometimes felt less like a criticism and more like a vendetta. Reckless hate are words far from being too harsh a description of some people’s’ feelings toward the movie and the more serious tone the DC Extended Universe seems to be headed in. For me, Man of Steel is a hopeful, sensitive, genuine movie, and though it’s more than fine for you or anyone else or the majority of people to disagree with that, it’s not okay to try to impose your feelings on the movie over others or to try to take people’s enjoyment away. Just because it wasn’t for you doesn’t mean it can’t be for anyone.
But when it comes to Batman v Superman? I wish I could make the same argument.
What’s it about?
In the aftermath of the Kryptonian battle in Metropolis, much of the city was destroyed and Superman (Henry Cavill) has become a figure worshipped by some as a god-like protector and feared by others as a powerful alien with his own agenda. Having witnessed firsthand the devastation of the battle and its cost in human lives, Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck), who has waged a decades-long war on crime as the Batman, begins mounting his own offensive against the otherworldly threat that Superman represents even as Senator June Finch (Holly Hunter) seeks to hold him responsible for his actions at a congressional hearing and Alexander Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg), the young head of Lexcorp, forms his own plans for the Man of Steel and the Kryptonian technology left behind from the attack. Also, Wonder Woman shows up. Also, Flash, Aquaman, and Cyborg. Also, maybe Darkseid.
On a very basic level, Batman vs. Superman (or most any hero vs. hero story) doesn’t begin life as the answer to the question “What would make a good story?” nearly as much as it answers “What do we,” as a primarily aggressive species, “want to see?” Since the dawn of time, the discovery of fire and the invention of the wheel, man has pondered the nature of his own existence, the world around him, and whether or not he would win in a fight against the other man. It has always been mankind’s innate prerogative to seek out new life, to explore strange new worlds, and then combatively ask the people of those worlds “‘Sup?” As enamored, enthralled, and inspired as I can be by superhero stories, I have to admit there are few things (in fiction) that excite me more than seeing two iconic heroes fight, and when it comes to Batman fighting Superman, the question isn’t just who would win, but which of these two prototypical forces, these titans of graphic literature, will stand supreme? Also, one of them has powers and the other doesn’t, so WTF? But that’s the point. Since when do our heroes gain fame for facing down entirely surmountable odds? Since when do our best stories ask how our hero can possibly prevail against an utterly defeatable foe? That’s why it’s so intriguing.
For many, Superman is among the first heroes encountered and revered in childhood, but he’s also the hero many quickly grow bored of for the character’s perceived lack of depth, and that’s where the Batman, a much more grounded, perhaps more easily understood, and just more cool-looking hero can take hold. It’s in that headspace of posing the question of “Who would win in a fight?” that Superman can even become adversarial, a force of self reduction, reminding us of the lack of power we often feel in the face of authority, and the natural extension of that may even lead to wondering why the world would ever need the Batman (us) when the Superman (them) exists, up there above us all. At its most optimistic, Batman v Superman flips the question, asking not what Superman can do, but what we can do, what makes us capable and powerful, what does each one of us bring, what powers do we have? But it’s definitely still about superheroes hitting each other.
As for the DC Extended Universe that this movie takes place in, it’s a world I’m utterly fascinated with. It’s a world where Superman is the first superhuman of his kind, but also a world that may have already been influenced by a Kryptonian presence well before Superman made his presence known. From Man of Steel, we know that Superman’s Kryptonian ship had been on Earth for almost 20,000 years, and it’s implied that much if not all of the superhuman activity that has only recently begun to gain notice may have evolved from the first Kryptonian explorers on that vessel. That means Aquaman might be a Kryptonian descendent, that means that the Flash’s powers might not simply be the result of an accident, and there may even be a genetic link between Wonder Woman and Superman. On the more human side, it’s also a world where Batman has suffered the consequences of his dangerous, vigilante lifestyle in a career that’s spanned decades before Superman ever showed up, a world in which his greatest ally and confidante, Robin, appears to have been killed years earlier. He’s become a grizzled, skeptical antihero who has trouble believing in anything anymore. It’s a dystopian take on the DC mythos, one built on some of the publisher’s greatest but darkest stories, and it makes sense that this world is a grim place, one that I can appreciate and even sometimes prefer to the lighter, brighter Marvel Cinematic Universe we’ve known for the last eight years.
Is it any good?
I could tip toe around it or consider it from some very extreme perspectives in trying to avoid the truth, but for everything I like about this world, for all of the praise I’ll so readily lavish on Man of Steel, I don’t think there’s any way I can objectively say that Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is a good movie.
To be clear, there are a lot of strong elements and many great moments in Batman v Superman, even enough to make you enjoy the movie if you’re of a very particular, very nerdy bent. There are strong themes at the foundation of the movie, of false idols, power and corruption, and the right of those with power to act unilaterally, and it’s an open question as to whether or not the simplistic figure that Superman represents can even still exist in a world growing ever more fearful and comp-Lex (see what I did there?). Like Man of Steel, Batman v Superman is still a movie very much concerned with the real-life consequences of superhumanity and the far-reaching implications of this kind of power.
Of course the question most people have when it comes to Batman v Superman is why are Batman and Superman fighting, and to me the only answer to that question is another question: You’ve never seen two people on the same side fight? Different managers in the same company protecting their department? Different branches of law enforcement arguing over jurisdiction? Mom and Dad? It may be rare that these confrontations come to blows, but being on the same side is far from a guarantee that two different people will get along. Arguably most of us are basically on the same side all the time, the side that wants to see the world be fair and goodness rewarded, but we all fight with each other all the time. All the time! ESPECIALLY YOU! Personally, I can quite easily buy into Batman’s motivation to stop Superman at any cost, particularly from the perspective that there has never been an all-powerful being like Superman before. When you see Bruce Wayne running toward the Zod-Superman fight as in the above trailer, running to save anyone he can, and realizing the terrifying danger that now exists, it’s not hard to see why this Batman might have a problem.
Ben Affleck’s Batman, unlike the rest of the heroes in the DCEU, is a seasoned veteran and even somewhat of a burnout, more battle-scarred, war-torn, and paranoid than the one we’ve seen in any previous onscreen portrayals. The first time we see him in costume, he’s lurking in the corners, almost invisible, like the monster he’s supposed to represent to the criminal fraternity (which I guess is now an exclusionary term), and he’s also the first onscreen Batman that can really hang with other superheroes. He’s not strong like Superman (or even Aquaman), he’s not fast like the Flash, he’s not tough like Wonder Woman, but, for a variety of reasons, he’s also not a liability in a fight with a huge Kryptonian-Luthor monster. Particularly with Batman, there are shots straight out of Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight that evoke a sense of equal standing with these god-like figures, and it’s all just really cool, especially when he becomes his own unstoppable force, mercilessly taking down an entire warehouse full of armed bad guys.
Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) obviously doesn’t get the spotlight in this movie but she makes the most of the time given to her. Her appearances are sporadic, but when she finally makes her presence known, she stands fearless and self-assured as at least an equal to our other heroes, perhaps even greater when you see that she’s just as powerful as Superman, just as badass as Batman, and has lifetimes more experience than either. She operates with a clear physicality, completely up for the challenge that awaits our three heroes in the movie’s final battle, and if these movies can rightfully be called joyless, Wonder Woman is our first sight of a strong, confident, joyful counterpoint.
I can even appreciate Jesse Eisenberg’s Alexander Luthor, one of the youngest, strangest, and most panicky interpretations of the character, and one of the most polarizing figures in the movie, because I see his anxious, excitable jittering as a symptom of a mind whose genius is barely able to contain itself. There are also a bunch of lose-your-mind moments big and small all throughout the movie, with parademons and Apokoliptian iconography (and yes, that’s spelled correctly), and my particular favourite when a certain scarlet speedster shows up in a scene almost straight out of Crisis on Infinite Earths, and these are the type of moments that make you want to shout and scream and cheer and proclaim that the nerds have finally really, really won. But these parts almost all rely on a specific understanding of what’s going on, a familiarity with these properties and their history, and what’s worse, it’s all window dressing at this point, all sound and fury, signifying you’ll have to see the next movies to make sense of it all. I like these scenes, but I would never expect the general movie-going audience to follow along.
Honestly, all of the things that I may love as a comicbook fan, all of the things you may hate because they’re not what you would expect (or are just plain annoying), these are all just choices made by the movie’s creators, and I and you can get over any of them because none of them alone are enough to bring the whole thing down. No, the single worst thing about Batman v Superman is that it runs around like whatever animal you care to imagine whose spinal neural network keeps operating even after removal of the head. It is truly a strange movie in terms of the order of events, the pace of the action, and how its scenes are put together. Instead of spacing the action out over the course of the movie, almost all of the major set pieces happen one after another at the end. Instead of having one or two strong scenes on a particular subject, there are three, four, or more, bludgeoning you over the head with their themes to the point you just don’t want to hear it any more, and because they’re placed so poorly, it feels like there’s no thread to connect everything that’s happening together. It’s just bad storytelling.
The same motivations that I could get behind going into the movie soon became overwhelmed by everything going on, and by the time we get to the main event, the whole fight felt watered down rather than amplified. What eventually brings the two together (because I don’t think it’s a spoiler to reveal that neither Batman nor Superman end up killing each other in the fight) is clearly meant to be a powerful realization that the two aren’t so different, that despite all of Superman’s powers, he’s still a man, but it’s done in such a hamfisted, unconvincing way that the very specific point of mutual understanding becomes laughable and one of the biggest jokes of the movie. I won’t reveal what that point is here, but… it’s dumb, dumber than it had to be and very inelegant.
For as well as Batman, Wonder Woman, and the rest of the dawning Justice League make out in this movie, this version of Superman becomes a passenger in what is essentially his sequel (in addition to too many other things). I forgave his weaknesses and flaws in Man of Steel because he was brand new to a superhero game that itself was brand new to this world, but here, he’s still too doubtful of himself and his place in the world for the character to stand on his own as the icon he’s supposed to be. For a story of this scale, where the story concludes, and where it’s trying to go with everything it sets up, we still don’t know enough about this man of steel for him to inspire a generation of new heroes. The character really would have benefitted from another movie’s worth of development before participating in such a big event if for no other reason than we still don’t care about him enough.
This movie doesn’t strike me as pointless, but I would struggle to think of what the point was other than setting up the rest of the DCEU roadmap and the Justice League we’ve been waiting for ever since Marvel made the impossible a reality in forming their own onscreen Avengers. In a lot of ways, it feels like a pre-2008 movie, from a time before Marvel showed us how to make these movies cool and something we could care about. As a fan, I’ve never been one to complain or really even consciously notice world-building as odd or foreign to the central story, but in Batman v Superman, it’s so indelicately handled that it was distracting even for me.
So should I see it?
Batman v Superman was always going to be a spectacle movie, but spectacle doesn’t and shouldn’t dictate a lack of essential meaning. There are great, spectacular moments and heady themes in this movie (though more of the former than the latter), and there’s enough of both to recommend seeing it because movies, but it’s not a story that holds together all that well. It suffers from questionable execution, polarizing choices, an over-reliance on tired premises, and bizarre storytelling choices. In fact, I still can’t quite piece together how Luthor’s plans and the sequence of events that followed his machinations actually led to the fight he was trying to manufacture, and I don’t think I’ll be able to without going to see the movie again, something I’m not sure I want to do anytime soon. If you want to call the movie a success, then it’s a success in giving us a great new Batman and Wonder Woman, and a bunch of great fan service, but it’s a movie that fails its main character, Superman. As Max Landis (who’s very much on the record as hating these movies) put it in his recent Superman: American Alien mini-series, the impossibly singular thing we all want from Superman is really quite simple: we want to believe there’s someone out there who doesn’t suck. This Superman isn’t there yet, and that’s not okay in a movie that asks so much of him.
There are exactly enough good things about this movie for it to generate the kind of love it’s gained from hardcore fans, and for me to give it a more favourable score than it deserves. It’s just too bad that it fails to tell a story. Perhaps the worst thing about Batman v Superman is that it’s a failure mostly of editing. In some movies, the production, the premise, or the very ideas themselves won’t allow for a good product, they’re just poorly conceived, but in BvS, it finds a way to be bad despite having everything it needs to be good. It just lacks focus, its execution isn’t there, but it could be, it wants to be, and you can feel the sincerity of the creators in wanting to make a good movie. They just lacked the light to show them the way.
Thom’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice final score
On the Edge
- Jeffrey Dean Morgan + Lauren Cohan = Thomas Wayne + Martha Wayne = Negan + Maggie from The Walking Dead! Let’s see if they’re so loving towards each other after this weekend.
- I see you there, Callan Mulvey, starring in DCEU and MCU movies. And you too, Tao Okamoto, also being in The Wolverine and all.
- That candy scene!
- Parademon dreamin’!
- Chris Pine!
- Mother Box?
- “People hate what they don’t understand.” Like math.
- Looks like they still love their Windows phones in the DC Extended Universe.
- So Phase 1 = mix Kryptonian DNA and Luthor blood, Phase 2 = ?, Phase 3 = Doomsday? That’s so not science.